The morning is still quiet when we push
off into the current shortly before 8:30
a.m. The only other humans around are a
few fishermen wading hip-deep in the
Salt River just upstream of Blue Point
The bridge itself is not yet vibrating
with the steady thrum of passing pickup
trucks pulling boat trailers and
converted school buses packed with
boisterous tubers. Buzzards picking
among the litter pay us no attention at
My own voice breaks the silence. First,
a gasp when my bottom hits the chilly
water. Then, a plaintive question as the
cold shocks my body:
“Whose idea was this anyway?”
Already floating away downstream, my
son, Scott, snorts derisively in the way
13-year-olds have of laughing at their
parents. He knows whose idea this was.
“Yours,” he says. “You always say that!”
Another ritual completed, we are
officially launched on another summer
tubing trip down the Salt River. Within
a few minutes, we will pass beneath the
bridge, say hello to the swallows
building nests on its supports, and
float silently away from civilization.
This is the first trip of the summer, a
late-May morning when the sun is warm
enough to comfort us but not punishing.
The crowds of summer partiers haven’t
come out yet. Except for a few kayakers,
we are alone on the waters. The kayakers
are determined to master the river. We
are here to move with its whims.
Seeing the first heron makes it worth
the getting up early and stuffing
unwieldy inner tubes into the SUV; worth
hurrying to get to the river before
other tubers with their boomboxes and
beer. Worth even that shock to the
system when you plop into an
over-inflated inner tube and the water
feels so much colder than it really is.
For the next few hours, it’ll be just us
and the heron, and any other wildlife we
might spot along the banks of the river.
Heron are fascinating birds. As we float
by, I study one standing perfectly still
in about six inches of water. Hunting, I
I try to match the heron’s stillness but
do poorly. After a minute, I twitch and
fidget while the bird remains perfectly
When the heron does move, it lumbers
into the sky. A bird with a wingspan of
almost six feet takes time to get
airborne, time for its amazing wings to
unfold to and move enough air to take
The heron stretches its neck to full
length, streamlining its body to pick up
speed as it skims across the water.
Before landing on the opposite bank of
the river, it curls its neck into an “S”
and lowers its stick-figure legs.
Sometimes the heron flies in silence.
Other times, it caws – a harsh,
nerve-tingling sound heard in every
jungle movie when unseen dangers menace
With its massive wingspan, long neck,
and pointed beak, the heron looks almost
prehistoric. When it takes flight and
caws, it reminds me of a pterodactyl.
When one flies directly overhead, we
always shout, “Pterodactyl attack!”
I’m no ornithologist, but here is a list
of some of the flying things we often
see while tubing the Salt River in the
early morning: Heron; egrets; lots of
swallows, whose curved wings give them
the look of aerial racers; huge black
scavengers that I assume are buzzards;
red-winged blackbirds; dragonflies that
hitchhike on my knees; hawks circling
high overhead; and bald eagles.
We often spot a bald eagle sitting high
on a cliff overlooking the river. It
literally seems above it all as we pass
by, pointing and whispering to make sure
everyone sees it. If the eagle thinks of
us at all, it probably just dismisses us
as too big to be prey.
The biggest, scariest birds of prey
above the Salt River, however, are
military helicopters. The flat black
ones built in nearby Mesa. I’ve watched
them dodging in and out of the nearby
rock formations, sometimes hovering
almost invisibly behind a spire as if
waiting for an unwary adversary to pass
It’s thrilling when one of those
military helicopters swoops low over the
water and you’re floating along in an
inner tube that suddenly seems
The occasional rapids are another kind
of thrill. Nothing scary, but exciting
enough when you are roused from your
reverie and go rushing past rocks that
will bruise your bottom if you don’t
have the good sense to raise it as high
as you can out of the water.
“Bottoms up,” I call out as we enter the
rapids. It’s another ritual. The boys
know what they’re doing out here. Scott,
at age 13, and Doug, who is 17 already,
are old pros at tubing the Salt.
Besides, they don’t draw nearly as much
water as their overweight father so
their bottoms are safe.
Downstream of the cliff where “our”
eagle perches is another cliff,
seemingly made of mud. Hundreds of
swallows have built cocoon-like nests
into those cliffs and each morning the
acrobatic little birds are out there
patching them. It must be a precarious
existence, clinging to the unstable
cliff. I marvel at the tenacity of those
birds and also the cactus that take root
in the mud and cling to the sheer walls.
I haven’t mentioned fish, but they are
there, breaking water all around us
during their morning feed. The fish you
expect, but not necessarily wild horses.
Once, a few years back, a pack of wild
horse swam across the river a few yards
in front of us. There is something about
seeing a horse’s neck and head sticking
out the water, knowing how much more of
the animal is churning away beneath the
I’ve seen fox and rabbits along the
banks but, oddly enough, never a coyote.
Too clever to be seen, I suspect.
Somewhere on a quiet stretch of water,
my old tubing buddy, John Schroeder, a
retired newspaperman from Scottsdale,
lights a cigar and leans back in his
tube, eyes to the sky as the cigar smoke
curls away above him.
“I wonder what the poor people are doing
today?” he says.
It’s another ritual. One that makes
sense only when you’re sitting in a
patched inner tube that cost you $15,
your butt hanging in the dark water, a
torn bed sheet draped across the tube to
keep the rubber from irritating your
skin, and a pterodactyl has just flapped
over your head with a shriek that makes
you feel you are in some jungle movie
with Humphrey Bogart.