Gila Wilderness, NM
October 31, 2016
From where we camped in the Gila Wilderness the only trail to follow the Gila River is to walk straight upstream. I learned from walking the river that it’s snaking bends and turns curl back on themselves almost every quarter mile. Once I was in the river there wasn’t necessarily an easy way out. The edges are defined by steep canyon walls, thick networks of Riparian ecosystems, and a few sandy beaches. Willows, sycamores, and tall grasses provide homes for snakes, birds, javelina, and many more animals.
By walking the Gila, I allowed the river to lead me along its wild path. The fantastically meandering route is one that only a few rivers left in the United States still experience. The Gila River is the last major free flowing rivers in New Mexico. The river’s headwaters inspired the Mogollon cultures to claim the Gila corridors as a home and build the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Years later the environmentalist Aldo Leopold named the Gila Wilderness the first federally designated primitive area in the US in order to protect the Gila headwaters.
On my way back to camp, walking downstream, I release a printed net into the streamflow, a creative method to observing the water flow. I let the Gila carry the print down the river and I followed behind. Solo journeys like this may be what inspired Aldo Leopold to save the Gila. For me they provide space for my mind to mimic the movement of the streamflow.
The water was flowing quite low, at 100 cfs. Enough for me not to have to run behind the printed net. The water was going somewhere. I could feel it pound against the back of my legs, sometimes asking me to lose my balance and just float the rest of the way. I couldn’t help but wander where the river is going? The forward force of the water is certainly directional and feels as if it is on an assignment to some destination.
Looking into the Gila I see that the print picks up quite a bit of debris and sediment as it whirls along the currents. This soup of water and sediment is on a Southwesterly course down 9,000 feet of elevation and 649 miles through Arizona to its mouth at the Colorado River. Historically the Gila would join the Colorado River north of Yuma and flow a couple hundred miles to the delta and onwards to the Sea of Cortez.
If I were to allow this net to carry on it’s course, the Gila would take it through one of the largest watersheds in the American Southwest. The journey would be less than fluid. Half-way through Arizona the Gila runs dry in order to fill the diversions surrounding Phoenix. After getting recharged by the Salt River, below Phoenix, the Gila runs a couple more miles before coming to a trickle again and never even reaching its own mouth at the Colorado River.
Currently, the freedom of the Upper Gila is in debate due to a pot of money that may fund a Gila diversion project to provide irrigation water to Silver City, NM residents. The water catchment would capture an average of 14,000 square-feet of water yearly. Many state residents are in opposition to the plan and propose larger conservation and preservation efforts to supply water demands. The diversion project would damage the river ecology, weaken the economic benefit of the Gila Wilderness, and remove twice the amount of water already taken from the Gila.
What would it be like to be a river that no longer reaches it’s mouth? To be traveling somewhere for miles and miles, along a route passed down in the water’s memory for ages, only to end up somewhere unexpected, foreign, or nowhere at all. The Gila River’s journey was becoming unforeseen, much like the one I set out on that day. There is an important difference, though, between choosing to embark on an unpredictable journey and being forced to take an unintended course.