Floating downstream in the desert

Rafting is a team effort. Row together and then stop as directed. Each raft had an experienced guide to calm the nervous Nellies.

Rafting is a team effort. Row together and then stop as directed. Each raft had an experienced guide to calm the nervous Nellies.

The thermometer said 91. But who cares? A breeze ruffled the Salt River that flows past the Red Mountain and I dipped my hand in the cold water that used to be snow.

Sun, sky and peaceful waters made our rafting trip a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Sun, sky and peaceful waters made our rafting trip a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

What a lovely way to end my visit to the Phoenix area. A ribbon of green, nourished by the river, cuts through the Sonoran Desert. Taking refuge in this oasis are wild horses, bald eagles and beavers. I saw the first two and the carefully-constructed lodge of the third as we floated along. By float I mean float, though occasionally we dipped our paddles into the river to get off a sand bar or avoid a rock or low hanging branch. When I signed up for this tour, frankly I was a little worried. I like a little thrill but I’ve never been on a raft and was concerned about the possibility of white water, some Class III rapids to get the heart racing.

The descendants of domestic horses who escaped their paddocks live at the river's edge.

The descendants of domestic horses who escaped their paddocks live at the river’s edge.

Was I wrong! Instead, we donned PFDs, climbed into big blue rafts, took our seats on the soft rounded rim of the boats  and headed out into the mostly calm water. We rushed downstream only at the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers where the current picks up speed for a few minutes. Our guide, a seasoned outdoorsman who splits his time between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, told stories about the landscape around us: about the Native Americans whose reservation fronts one side of the river and the Tonto National Forest on the other. He pointed out the eagle, as well as herons and egrets, and guided our raft by the beaver’s lodge. The inhabitants were probably inside sleeping, he said. Sometimes if felt like we were alone among the wildlife. But every few minutes we would pass families playing or floating in the river, a few kayakers or a couple of campers.

The ever-present Red Mountain is sacred to the Native American people who live in its shadow.

The ever-present Red Mountain is sacred to the Native American people who live in its shadow.

So much color! Above us was a brilliant blue sky. The Red Mountain is well named. The trees and plants on the nearby river banks were an electric, yellow green. Our trip lasted about two hours. If the current had been faster — and sometimes it is — it might have ended more quickly. Because of dams upriver, the flow of the river is carefully managed. (The Salt River is part of the Southwest’s water supply.) The river never runs dry but if water levels are high upriver, more water is sent downstream, kind of like a faucet, our guide explained. It felt like they’d created it all for us. A watery playground, set in the middle of a hot desert. It ended too soon.

© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman

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