By Robert Samuelsen

Starting in the high mountain peaks in New Mexico’s Black Range wilderness, the Gila River travels 654 miles from the continental divide westward as the mother river to two thirds of the natural drainage of Arizona.  Its 58,200 square mile watershed includes the San Francisco, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Verde, Agua Fria, Salt, and Hassayampa rivers before joining the mightier Colorado River near Yuma.  Dammed, diverted, and drilled, the Gila’s water feeds cattle, farms, and golf courses without regard to habitat, aquafers, or aesthetics.  The upper reaches are barbed by wire, the middle sections overrun by tamarisk, and the lower river is best traversed by dune buggy, not boat.  In fact, the lower 247 miles of the Gila is nothing but dust except for a few sections of recycled effluent from nearby sewage treatment plants.  What was once the international border between the U.S. and Mexico is now nothing more than a dry, overgrown ditch. 

Early trappers used the river for transport. Later, passenger boats went from Phoenix to Yuma.  In 1928, the Hayden Dam was built in the northwestern section of the Gila Valley to constrain Gila floodwaters and bring riches to the Apache.  In reality, it is used to feed irrigators in Casa Grande.  Much like ancestral Puebloan civilizations of yesteryear, irrigation rewaters the once abandoned fields of central Arizona and feeds the populations of the southwest.  Separated by 1,000 years, two civilizations flourished because of its diverted waters.

Today, the Hayden Dam’s 25-mile long San Carlos reservoir stores the winter waters for the summer seeds.  The water managers respond to the irrigators by releasing flood-stage water in the summer and filling the riverbed for 65 miles between the tall San Carlos retaining dam and the low diversion dam in Florence.  This summer’s flow seemed too tempting for me to ignore.  Paddling an abandon river seemed like the right thing to do.  A short 10-mile float into Winkelman was my precursor plan for a larger and longer expedition through Rock House Canyon and the Federally designated Needle’s Eye wilderness.

My well-conceived plan was overly optimistic.  Just like abandoned mines, abandoned rivers are dangerous, too. The decades of abuse have left the river mostly unnavigable despite its wet attraction.  Fast water, overgrown sweepers, and underwater strainers forced me to abandon ship midway through my journey and hike out to the road for rescue.  My scrapes and scratches were obvious, but my invisible bruised reputation suffered most!  If capsizing, nearly drowning, bushwhacking, rock climbing, and heat exhaustion wasn’t enough, I returned two days later with machete in hand to try to recover some of my gear.  Hacking a path through the impenetrable tamarisk was my version of cathartic revenge!

In 2019, American Rivers declared the Gila to be “America’s most endangered river.”  I’d argue that the lower Gila has already gone the way of the dodo bird.  For paddling recreation, my near miss with extinction is ample evidence of the Gila’s anger.  Just like a mad bull, the river bucks, swats, and attacks until its riders are dispatched.  My only hope for the half dead river is to corral its anger with bucks, swats, and attacks against its exploiters and return it to the natural asset it once was.  That would be justice.

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