Tuesday, March 26, 2013

AZ - Verde River

Words by Greg
Photos by Greg and Trina

The two of us paddled through the calm pool. Sunshine glowed in the bare branches of the brushy trees and on the scrum of dry reeds that crowded into an overhanging wall ahead of us. A small dog stood alert on the front of each small raft, scanning the vegetation for motion, testing the air for scent. We paddled forward then paused.

"Oh, great!" Trina sputtered in frustration. "The river just ends!" Then she added, "Again."

She was kidding. But is wasn't the first time this little desert river had "ended" right in front of us. It seemed to be a trend. Some fun splashy rapids. Some tree-lined chutes. Shallow rock gardens. Then a calm pool surrounded by brush and reeds with no visible channel leading out. Except…

"Is that it?" Around a corner of reeds and tucked under the low hanging branches of a tree, a thin sheet of water poured over a gravel bar and into a narrow chute. Beyond, it seemed to curve onward with only a few more branches reaching partway across the flow. We looked around and saw that much of the river's water was sieving off into the reeds. And that, yes, this was the widest channel remaining. "This looks like it!"

Trina commanded "Come back" and Sprocket tucked in tight in front of her and planted his four furry feet on the spray deck close to her chest, his head over one arm, tail over the other. She paddled forward, out of the calm pool, over the gravel bar and into the chute, swatting branches away and trying to maneuver as the water pulled her onward. I pulled Zeek in close and followed.


The rivers at home in Colorado were locked in February ice. So we'd come to Arizona looking for warmth and ice-free water. We'd found both. We planned for six days of paddling the Verde River, hoping to average about 6 miles per day. Seemed like the kind of lazy trip that we prefer. Seemed like we'd have time to hike side canyons. To read books in the sunshine. To lollygag at the small details of rocks, roots, and early spring flowers. But the Verde is a rugged little river. We spent the first couple days learning that we would have little time for hiking and lounging. Most of our daylight hours would be spent loading up and moving down the river.

Rapids. Rapids slowed us down. The rapids were rated Class II (splashy) and Class III (tougher). "Advanced" paddlers could probably paddle everything we did without ever scouting. But we scouted. The roar of a rapid ahead required we stop and walk the shore, plan our lines and know to avoid any danger spots. We needed to be sure that none of the waves were big enough to swallow our little boats. And rapids weren't the only challenges. There were sections where the little river was spread so thinly over a rocky bar that there wasn't really a deep enough channel to float without lots of butt dragging or a little boat dragging. We also scouted spots where it looked like low tree branches over the flow might sweep us out of our boats. Or where branches underwater might "strain" the current, creating perhaps the biggest danger: a person or a boat or a small dog being pinned underwater by the force of the flow.

Dogs. We wouldn't really have it any other way. We love having the dogs along and the dogs love the adventure. But floating with dogs slowed us down. The whitewater Class system of rating a rapid's difficulty needs to be adjusted when paddling packrafts with dogs. I propose +1. I seem to be capable of the maneuvering required to paddle through the rocks and waves of a Class III rapid. But add a squirming and enthusiastic dog to the deck who blocks my view, interferes with my paddling, and who is in danger of getting tossed off into the cold water… This changes things. Maybe turning an easy Class II into a Class III. And a Class III into a Class IV, a class that's near or just beyond the edge of my capabilities.

Thus, with the tougher rapids, we took turns. We walked the dogs down the bank as we scouted. Then one of us would sit with the dogs (and a camera) while the other would walk back up to run the rapid. This worked fine but took extra time.

For the easier rapids -- we started calling them "Dog Tossers" -- Trina had things worked out very nicely. When she was approaching a rapid she'd say "Come back!" and Sprocket would leave his usual spot on the front of her boat and tuck in close to her chest, crosswise on the spray deck. She could then see over him, her arms at either end of him, and she had room to paddle in front of him. Plus she was able to keep him balanced and catch him without dropping her paddle if things got bumpy.

After trying to achieve the same thing with Zeek, he and I finally reached an agreeable arrangement. Not easily. He's rather more stubborn than Sprocket and I may not be as persuasive at Trina. Besides, it's possible that in his mind it was My Fault that he kept falling off the boat. In my opinion it had more to do with his tendency to want to dangle himself off the very tippiest point at the front of the boat no matter how rough the water.

Our arrangement was courtesy of his life jacket which had a suitcase-like handle on the back, allowing him to be picked up like a briefcase. As we approached a rapid I'd say "Come back!" He would then ignore me or look over his shoulder at me like, "Yeah, right." Then I'd simply grab his handle, pull him back to my chest and clench the handle in my teeth to keep him there, struggling, while I paddled through the rough spot.

We had another technique we used a few times. We'd come around a corner and see waves just ahead, bigger than appropriate for dogs on deck. Enough current to make stopping awkward, so we just bumped the shore and let the dogs off. As we paddled the bouncy waves, the dogs would run the along bank and keep pace with us until we got to the calmer water beyond. In theory, this worked well. For Sprocket, the red AMH, it DID work well. His separation anxiety ensured that he'd be right alongside us and would meet us below, jump onboard and give us kisses. For Zeek, the JRT, this was less effective. He saw being turned loose as an excellent opportunity to begin hunting for mice or rabbits or javelina or…

Late one afternoon we set them loose to run a set of waves. When we pulled out below beside a cliffy little cut bank, Zeek was nowhere to be seen. I clambered up the dirt-and-boulder bank to find him. Brush and cactus, but no Zeek. I charged forward, catching the crotch of my drysuit on the hooked barbs of a cat's claw bush and tearing small holes in the suit. Damn. Ahead of me in the dirt of a dry channel was a trail of DVD-sized cat tracks. Mountain lion. "Zeek!" The cat tracks looked as fresh to me as the little dog tracks beside them. Damn! As I was preparing to become fully panicked, I heard a shuffling in the brush and out came Zeek, nose to the ground, happily dashing along the tracks. I scooped up the giddy little furball and we headed for Trina and boats. He does love to chase cats. But, er…

I know that if a mountain lion got the jump on him, he'd be gone in about one bite. But I also wonder what would happen if a mountain lion, minding its own business, was suddenly charged by a ferocious ball of white fur. Would it be "swat, bite" or would the lion freak out, run, and climb the nearest tree?

There were a few other dramatic moments along the way. Once, the end of a tree-lined chute was closed off by thick branches and Zeek and I plowed into them. The boat caught and then flipped. Zeek dumped off and I was upside down underwater. I swam out and we washed past the branches, and somehow I managed to end up with a dog and a paddle in one hand, dragging the boat to shore with the other.

And in the middle of one rapid I bumped a humped rock with the front of the boat and Zeek stepped off onto it. I couldn't reach him as I spun past, surprised and focused on the waves and maneuvering I had to do. At the bottom of the rapid I turned and looked back. Zeek was standing on his rock in the middle of the river looking rather lonely and sad that we were leaving him behind. He's not generally inclined to swim, so waiting or calling him wasn't going to work. Luckily there was a shallow reedy channel coming down on one side of the river. I dragged my boat back upstream until I was above him, then floated past and snatched him off the rock.

Thrills and chills were only part of the trip. There were plenty of calm stretches where we were happy to paddle lazily along enjoying the scenery. The water truly was an amazing "verde". Cliffs of various colors and textures rose alongside. The water was cold, but the days were sunny and warm. Somehow we had a gentle tailwind each day. Nights were spent under moonlight and stars, with frost most mornings. A few trees were beginning to leaf out. Small flowers were blooming in hidden places. And the further we went, the more saguaro cactus there was, standing tall and gesturing from the surrounding desert.

I saw a river otter pop out of the water to check us out, then duck down and disappear. Trina floated around a corner and spied a bobcat drinking, then watched it sprint away when it saw her. Small birds were busy making preparations for spring. Eagles and hawks soared overhead and we watched a pair of peregrine falcons (we think) defend their cliff nest site from marauding crows. Pairs of ducks and groups of mergansers. Plus lots of tracks in the sand and mud near the shore. Deer and javelina, mostly, but also beaver, otter, coyote, fox, raccoons and more mountain lion paw prints.

We saw very little sign of other humans. A circumstance which, in a world as busy as this one, is a rarity. And one that we tend to find quite pleasant. It gave us a chance to step away from the pressing concerns presented by other people. To focus on the pressing concerns of flowing water. Of willow scent on a warm breeze. Of impressions in sand. Of the keen of a passing hawk. Of ephemeral green meadows. Of the warmth of morning sunshine on chilled fingers. Of the motion of a day beneath a wide sky. Of swirling stars and of the changing of the moon. Of cliff and rock and mud and stone and wood. It was a chance to slide, wide-eyed, through a wild and rugged landscape on a ribbon of shining water. A chance to pass through and onward, leaving the place just as wild behind us. And a chance to have the memory of that wildness linger in our minds as we headed back into the busy world.

For the rest, then, I'll step aside and let the photos do the talking.


  1. Wow, looks like a great trip

  2. Great shots in there... love the night time camp with glowing saguaros.

    I like the +1 dog rafting rating system, too.

    Looks "wild and scenic" indeed!