The Creek

November 16-17, 2013

The creek has been on my list for many years because of reports of a dramatic but difficult-to-reach hot springs. Then, one day when Dennis and I were picking up supplies at a grocery store in South Tucson, a young man recognized us from this website. We began sharing stories of some of our favorite hikes, and at the top of his list was a remote stream in eastern Arizona where his family ranched in the early 1900s. Later he sent us a kmz file with coordinates for points of interest including family history, Indian burial grounds, turquoise mines and bat caves. Thoroughly enchanted, we tried to backpack into the area in mid-September, and narrowly missed getting caught on the wrong side of the river in one of the biggest floods on record.

We returned to the area two months later, and this time luck was on our side. Not realizing that it was hunting season, we arranged to meet at an official campground on the Gila River, and spent a hellish night listening to a generator whose racket was nearly drowned out by a giant boom box. Around 11:30, Dennis hauled himself out of the back of the TacoMa, pulled on his clothes and marched over to ask them to turn down the music, which they agreed to do. But a few minutes later they cranked it back up again. So, we called the police. And to our utter amazement, they arrived within minutes, and with two squad cars! Hats off to the local gendarme!

After a short night and a chilly start, we headed out, but had to stop several times to photograph bighorn sheep right next to the road! It was nearly 10:00 when we reached the creek, and what a change from our last visit. At that time, the creek was running five feet above normal and choked with an oily black torrent of brush and debris. On the morning we set off upstream, it was about six inches deep and crystal clear.

We chose a point above the dam to begin our hike, and stashed our vehicles in the shade of a giant cottonwood where the faintest memory of a 4WD road crosses the creek. To our surprise, the rough road continued in some form for the entire length of our trek, wandering back and forth across the stream at least 16 times before the any recent tire tracks faded away about five miles upstream.

We were all struck the canyon's resemblance to our beloved Aravaipa Canyon. Like Aravaipa, this canyon holds a permanent stream lined with giant cottonwoods and Arizona sycamores and passes through a landscape nearly devoid of vegetation or any other features but endless stony brown mesas. However this canyon is significantly wider and longer, requires no permits, and a road runs through it.

It was one of those five-star Arizona afternoons, when the sun is so warm you hide in the shade of your broad-brimmed hat, while the stream's delicious iciness laps at the hem of your hiking skirt, and the sky overhead is the seamless lapis blue that can only be found in the Southwestern desert.

We passed the rusted skeletons of two gauging stations, left high and dry by a river that frequently changes its mind.

We stopped for lunch across from a gleaming, soaring wall of volcanic tuff and eagerly studied our friend's notes, which Dennis had transferred to the iPad. Yes, we hike with an iPad (don't ask). Sure enough, at the mouth of a dramatic slot canyon, I spotted flashes of brilliant blue along the stream bank. We wandered far enough up the side canyon to collect several pounds of the mysterious blue stone (could it really be what it seemed?) and to determine that the side canyon definitely warrants further exploration on a future trip.

As we wandered upstream, the canyon narrowed, the water flowed deeper and more quickly, and each streamside campsite was more appealing than the one that preceded it, many of the furnished with deep green plunge pools and generous cottonwood and sycamore canopies glowing dully with the final remnants of autumn foliage.

Sunset arrives very early in the canyon, especially this time of year. By 3:00, the canyon was already exhaling the chill air of the evening, and we began scouting for a good camping spot, finally settling on an open area on a rounded point we nicknamed, "Sandy Beach". Dennis and I pitched the Jack-O-Lantern while Jerry and Dave each set up for their individual versions of open air "cowboy camping".

In one of his most elaborate low-power ham radio setups ever, Dennis waded bare-legged across the stream, scrambled up a talus slope and stretched 40 meters of antenna wire from one side of the canyon to the other. His payoff was a thrilling night of contacts as far away as British Columbia and South Dakota using a five-watt transmitter that weighs less than four pounds including the transceiver, battery and antenna.

It was a very long but peaceful night beside the stream. We awoke to relatively mild temperatures in the 40s, but were surprised to find all our gear and the beach itself soaked with dew. In vain we waited for the sun to make its way to our side of the canyon. It was nearly 10:00 when we finally packed up our gear and parted ways. Dave and Jerry would continue one more day upstream, while Dennis and headed downstream in search of the warmth of the sun and the trail back to Tucson.