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Kayaker eyes another Gila ride
In the desert of Arizona, the sight of a briskly running river surrounded by verdant vegetation and abundant wildlife is usually too farfetched even for a desert mirage.
The exception is the special years where heavy winter rains swell the reservoirs of mighty dams, forcing their keepers to release the excess water and let the tamed rivers below run free.
During these fleeting periods, most people within sight of the Gila River regard its radical transformation with little more than a passing glance from their speeding cars as they pass over one of its bridges.
But Dean Weingarten, a meteorologist at Yuma Proving Ground, isn’t like most people.
Back in 2005, the average person saw a mildly interesting riverine vista of passing interest, but Weingarten saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore a 90-mile length of a river that had never before been sailed in modern memory.
Weingarten took the challenge and beat the river, and these days, after the desert Southwest has once again been saturated by heavy winter rains, the meteorologist finds time in his busy day to check the daily flows of the controlled Gila, hopefully waiting for an upcoming chance to repeat the strenuous feat.
When it comes to boating, Weingarten is no amateur. He has been an avid river enthusiast since his childhood in northern Wisconsin, where he spent ample time on the Namekagon River, not for recreation but as a way of life. By the time he was a teenager, Weingarten had learned the now-lost art of river trapping and had braved rapids countless times.
“I grew up in a canoe,” Weingarten said.
His passion for the sport continued into his adult life, prompting him to canoe in such exotic locales as the Chagres river in Panama. His ardor increased when he discovered the increased portability and maneuverability of the kayak, and ever since, Weingarten has spent many happy hours exploring the natural world floating inches above the water.
“I have an enthusiasm for personal watercraft because you’re so intimately in touch with the environment, separated only by a thin skin of plastic or aluminum,” Weingarten explained. “The famous boat designer Phil Bolger said, ‘The best boats are either small enough to carry home or big enough to live on.’ Something seems very right about that. Boats you have to trailer are a hassle.”
As he measured YPG’s inundation by rain in the winter of 2004-05, Weingarten anticipated that the accumulation of rainfall would soon force the Painted Rock Dam’s custodian, the Army Corps of Engineers, to release enough water from the reservoir to make the Gila River navigable.
He began to check the daily flows of the river, and in early March 2005 saw that the daily flows measured downstream of the dam were four to five times that of the Colorado River at Yuma, a dramatic departure from its typical status as a dry bed pocked with pools of fetid standing water. Recognizing the rare chance opportunity to sail the Gila, Weingarten resolved to make the journey. Though his extensive research found no one who had traversed the entire leg of the river from the dam to its confluence with the Colorado River in Yuma, Weingarten was undaunted.
“I wanted to do it because it was there and no one else had done it. It was a way to explore wilderness with relatively little effort.”
In addition to his robust physical fitness and decades of experience on the water, Weingarten brought a scientist’s rationality and historian’s reverence to his conquest of the lower Gila.
He knew of the World War II-era German prisoners of war who escaped their confinement in Phoenix’s Papago Park intending to use a concrete canoe they had fashioned to sail down the Gila to freedom in Mexico. Their daring plan was frustrated when they found the feckless river to be dry as a bone.
In contrast, the nine-foot kayak Weingarten intended to use on the Gila displaced less than four inches of water when fully laden, making it an ideal craft for potentially shallow waters. Despite his rational planning and modern technology, Weingarten was well aware that his trip down this river would be much riskier than anything he had attempted before.
“You essentially have a new river every time it runs. You don’t know if it will be confined to the exact same channels. There will be new obstacles each time, too.”
Of particular concern to Weingarten was the salt cedar, the hardy and rapid-growing invasive shrub that favors waterways and typically grows to be 12-15 feet high in dense thickets. The last major flood along the lower leg of the Gila had been in 1993, and 12 years was ample time for veritable forests of salt cedars to proliferate in the riverbed.
There were other dangers, but Weingarten couldn’t get the notion out of his mind. He would have to act fast before the river disappeared into the desert sands.
Limited by his work schedule and the meager amount of space his kayak had for supplies, Weingarten modified his plans to sail from Pocodinero Crossing, just below the dam, to County 51E, a journey of about 70 miles that he estimated he could complete in 15 hours across two days.
When he arrived at the castoff spot, a caretaker Weingarten happened to meet said his friend had tried to make the same trip during the last flood, when the water flows had been 12 times as great as they were now, and had been unable to cope with a massive thicket of salt cedars that had grown in the river bed.
Weingarten knew he would be alone to face this and a number of other potential dangers. What if the kayak capsized and he was forced to walk out of the desert? Even a shallow river could be dangerous — he could get stuck in quicksand, scores of miles from the nearest person who could help.
Yet he was undeterred. Stowed in the tiny craft were the few implements and comforts that could save him from disaster: a good sleeping bag, an inflatable air mattress, a fleece jacket, a tarp, a .38-caliber pistol, three gallons of water and a few meals ready to eat (MRE).
He had intended to take his global positioning system (GPS) for navigation, but its sudden malfunction before he left Yuma forced him to revert to a map and compass.
It was nearly 10 a.m. when Weingarten pushed off the shore at Pocodinero Crossing. The weather was nice enough for Weingarten to stow the parka he had brought and paddle through the gently rippling ribbon of brown water dressed in a silk shirt and waterproof pants, as well as a flotation vest and rubber boots.
Though his primitive campsite had cell phone reception, there was little else in the way of comfort and modernity. Weingarten’s shelter for the evening was his kayak braced upright against a menacing thicket of dead salt cedars with a tarp thrown over the top and staked down with branches.
With his clothing wet from the rain, he built a fire using dead branches for fuel, and attempted to dry the items, only to have one of his gloves partially singed by the flames. He ate a MRE and went to sleep to the distant sound of coyote calls, only to be woken in the night by a fierce cloudburst that nearly blew his shelter over.
He rose before dawn and by afternoon, Weingarten had reached a portion of the river that was channelized and surrounded by immense agricultural fields. Though the first portion of this leg of the river was less rigorous than those he had been through, the most dangerous stretch of the journey passes through it.
As the current’s velocity accelerated, he found himself facing an impossible-to-avoid grove of thorny mesquite trees spanning the entire width of the channel. Bracing himself, he fought through the obstacle to emerge with only a minor cut on his right leg.
Exhilarated, but tired, Weingarten beached his kayak, its hull scratched and muddy. He had traveled more than 70 miles alone on the ghost river and took several self-portraits in triumph.
“Just seeing the wildlife was worth it. I did not expect to see hundreds of ducks, egrets and herons. And the leatherback turtles were a total surprise.”
Buoyed by his historic trip and not satisfied with traveling only most of the way, the following weekend Weingarten returned to the spot he left off at and resumed the journey. The river was still quite full, and his enthusiasm was rewarded by a calmer, less obstructed stretch of river, good weather and the presence of an even wider variety of waterfowl.
He languidly paddled beneath the low-profile bridge that thousands of YPG employees motor across every day, as well as the abandoned McPhaul Bridge, which was the longest bridge in Arizona when it opened in 1929. He also passed beneath the revived Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge in Yuma and landed his craft near the present-day location of the Pivot Point Conference Center, which hadn’t been built yet.
Weingarten felt rewarded by his arduous journey, but plans to do things differently if the river is ever again navigable.
“If there is a next time, I’ll take a partner and a canoe. It wouldn’t have taken much to have things turn out badly.”
Weingarten isn’t willing to accept that his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boat down the Gila can’t have a sequel. And so he waits, faithfully checking the river flow rates, hoping this year nature will once again force the Army Corps of Engineers to briefly resurrect the wild Gila.