I arrived at Saguaro Lake Ranch early Sunday morning for a Liberty Wildlife kayak expedition. The ranch’s rustic cabins, tidy horse corral, green meadow and plentiful shade trees rest peacefully on a big bend of the Salt River. The Bulldog Mountains make a stunning backdrop. Twelve of us and our guide Derek clambered onto kayaks, took up our paddles and ventured ‘round the bend.
Only a trickle of water flows in the Lower Salt except when summer crops like cotton are growing in the parched valley below. Then the sluices are opened at the dams that pen the Salt into a series of lakes and clear water flows again in the riverbed. The released water is destined for irrigation canals miles downstream.
Valley residents throng to the temporary river playground to picnic and swim, to fish and paddle. Unfortunately many of these people bring a lot of stuff that they don’t take home. The further we kayaked downstream, the more garbage bobbed in the current and clogged the reeds.
In a terrific documentary called Go Ganges a couple of young men kayak from the headwaters to the outlet of the Ganges River in India. High in the mountains the river is pure and wild, but by the time the kayakers paddle past low-lying cities it has been worked to the bone. Factory toxins are dumped in the river and people wash, get blessings and bury their dead in the life-giving source of water which finally limps to the sea choked in garbage.
On our more modest adventure, we too paddled through pristine landscape at the outset, past the lofty Bulldog Mountains whose cliffs were studded with saguaros, prickly pears and agaves. As we floated under the brow of the precipice some crazy guy base jumped from the top. For a heartbeat it looked like he would crash into the rocks. But his chute erupted with a crack like a gunshot billowing blue and orange silk. The jumper landed on the other side of the river within seconds.
On the kayaks everything gets wet, so I didn’t bring my watch, camera or cell phone and felt unattached to time and distance. Derek pointed out the juncture where the Verde River joins the Salt. One of Arizona’s last rivers that flows year around, the Verde surges into the placid Salt, a roiling rush of blue black water edged with green trees and musical with bird song.
Along the way we saw kettles of turkey vultures, a zone tailed hawk, black vultures, a gorgeous Harris’s hawk, a couple of peregrine falcons roosting on cliffs, cormorants, red-winged black birds and great blue herons. We also saw several herds of sleek wild horses. Some horses stood chest deep in the river and dipped their heads completely under to graze on submerged grasses.
Different reaches of the river have different moods and aspects. In the crystal clear upper half it felt heavenly to dunk hands and feet, to get splashed. Farther downriver where the tubers party and picnic sites line the banks, trash is ugly on the landscape. Near the lower dam, the river gets sluggish and murky. Soon it will seep into cement lined irrigation canals, and be put to work growing crops.