I don’t think about water or rivers when I think about Arizona. “But there isn’t any water in Arizona” has sputtered out of my mouth on more than one occasion. As a lifelong river lover who feels most a home while being swallowed within a swollen river, surrounded by gorge walls that seep, ooze, and spurt water between and through dripping mosses, ferns, and other plants, thinking of Arizona makes me feel parched and anxious about the availability of that precious life-blood of our planet that we call water. While driving across the dry, arid Central Highlands of Arizona to paddle the Verde River, my darkest thoughts took over; I began to doubt there would be any water at the put in. After arriving in the dark, sitting on the tailgate, stargazing, the magic sound of running water filled my ears. I slept through the night, dreaming of slipping into the sonorous current and disappearing around a river bend into the folds of the desert.
Paddling the Verde was enchanting. My favorite paddling weather: overcast sky and cool temps, with intermittent showers making patterns on the water and filling the canyon with sound. We noticed Red-tailed hawks soaring, a Bald Eagle, an array of waterfowl and countless small migratory birds singing among the reeds while Great Blue Herons accompanied us downstream each day. While floating through pools otters took notice of our presence and raised their curious heads tall out of the water before disappearing below the surface. On a whim, we hiked to a knoll overlooking the canyon to find hundreds of potsherds and other artifacts left by the Sinagua culture, a group of Ancestral Puebloans who lived along the river valley. We found excitement when the guide book told us “trees” would be in the river and made quick decisions to select an appropriate chute to rocket our canoe through the vegetation, coming into the pool below laughing and and covered with leaves and cattail seeds. Paddling into the gloaming we grew quiet and seemed to become a part of the river, now effortlessly gliding along, perfectly content despite cold feet and growling bellies. At camp we are warmed by a driftwood fire that also serves to cook dinner. The light finally faded completely away and stretched out on the gravel bar, listening to the rain on the shelter, I was at home. One reason why I love rivers, I’m never surprised when my expectations are dashed and a casual river trip turns into a snapshot of subliminal days moving downstream. Desert rivers like the Verde pack an especially strong punch, challenging my narrow paradigm of rivers as places abundant with water while shaping a new understanding that includes juxtaposition of dry landscape protecting a ribbon of sacred water and harboring equal abundance of life and adventure.