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A Quieter Kind of Wildlife on the Salt River

By: Doug Snover

Aug 26, 2006

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 Bridge.

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 all.

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 assume.

I try to match the heron’s stillness but do poorly. After a minute, I twitch and fidget while the bird remains perfectly motionless.

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 flight.

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 intrepid explorers.

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 by.

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 ridiculously flimsy.

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 surface.

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.


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