Hook, line and sinker

In New Mexico's Gila River, we fished our waters dry. After that, what was left for us?


Renee Despres
January 7, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

An anthropologist once asked a Hopi why so many of his people's songs were about rain. The Hopi replied that it was because water is so scarce; is that why so many of your songs are about love?

"The river is a strong brown god," wrote T.S. Eliot. It's hard to think of the Gila River as any sort of god during early summer, when it is little more than a creek by the Midwestern standards that I grew up with. In places, it barely reaches to my ankles when I wade across. But here in the valley, the river determines the rhythm of life.

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"The river's up 4 feet," comes the call at 5 a.m. "Time to move the cars to higher ground." The next night, neighbors pile into my house -- otherwise known as higher ground. The adults eat enchiladas and play team Scrabble as children fall asleep and dogs romp; soon the floor is covered with sleeping bodies. We spend an hour over coffee the next morning, listening to the river's roar, before they leave hesitantly, finally ready to confront the damage the river has wrought on their homes and lives.

I moved to the Gila Hot Springs Valley five years ago, almost by accident. An exotic job in Indonesia had fallen through, and I needed to leave southern Indiana. Suburban Detroit, where I had spent my childhood, seemed an unappealing mass of concrete. So I loaded my truck with my belongings -- four boxes of books, a laptop computer, one box of clothes and six pairs of running shoes -- and set off to see the world. Four months later, I landed in southern New Mexico and discovered a small holding of private land in the heart of the Gila Wilderness, known to its 40 inhabitants as "The Valley."

At night, I soak in the hot springs where Geronimo's mother bathed him when he was a babe. Endangered Gila trout swim a half mile south in Little Creek. A few miles north, the west and middle forks of the Gila River meet; a mile south, the east fork adds its waters. The main Gila flows forcefully from there toward southern Arizona, shaping the land and history of southwest New Mexico with its flow.

In 1824, a party of American trappers, the first whites to travel the length of the river, followed it to Baja California. It's trekkable in June, when the water is low, but during the late-summer and fall floods or spring runoff, the water rushes by higher than your waist, with a force that could easily drown you.

I'm still not sure if I met him because I live on the river, or if I live on the river because I was supposed to meet him. I do know that the river pulled him here, so he could stand midstream in dark brown waders, his tan fedora just barely aslant, fly-rod in hand.

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He was so tall and thin that the fish probably thought he was a tree. He spent hours in the river, concentrating on the tiniest movement, the flicker of light that belied a fish. I could never see the movement. "It's a Zen thing," he'd explain as he played with the trout struggling at the end of the line. "You don't really see it. You sense it."

It was an odd peacefulness, coming from a man who had to do everything else at top speed. The day I met him, in a small cafe on his side of the mountain, even his words were too fast, as he proved himself a "real" writer. He didn't need to produce the credentials. The cafe owner had already introduced him.

"This here's Pat. He's the best storyteller in town," she said, a rare tribute from an old ranch woman. He passed me later on the highway and disappeared quickly into the distance, his ancient gray Toyota truck almost shaking apart over the bumps. My speedometer read 80, and I barely caught a glimpse of his face in the passing lane.

But that was one of the things that pulled me to him: his determination to get things done, and quickly. So he could go fish, of course. I learned this a week or two later, when he came to take me away on an impromptu camping trip. We spent 10 days driving from lake to lake, stream to stream, river to river. In between waters we drove, talked, camped, cooked and made thoughtless love.

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We drove west to the White Mountains of Arizona, north to Lee's Ferry, circled through Colorado and then turned south to the San Juan River. The three miles of the San Juan north of Navajo Dam offer some of the best fly-fishing in the United States.

The water in the San Juan was fast and cold, and the river bottom slippery silt. He walked sure-footed through the rushing water; I stumbled and slipped after him, wearing a pair of his dirt-brown waders that reached to my chest. I watched him fish. He concentrated so hard that I think he pulled the fish toward him with some psychic power. The trout, a big rainbow, swam toward the hook, mesmerized by the tiny fly that floated on the water's surface. Then a snag, a quick jerk of the line, and the trout was hooked. Beautiful, terrified, it made run after run, rippling the water's surface.

Gently, he played the fish out until it fell exhausted into his hands. He cradled it, careful not to touch it too much, so as not to harm its protective coating. He admired the long rainbow on its crest, purple and red and blue. Tired, still gasping and fighting for breath, the trout lay still in its terror.

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A quick photo or two, him posed beside the glistening prize, then he took the hook out of its bleeding mouth, and with a last gentle touch, set it off into the water. He picked up his fly-rod again and started his dance with the next fish.

He was the ultimate catch-and-release man.

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"I thought he'd kidnapped and killed you." My mother's voice on the phone was irritated, though tinged with relief. I returned home to a set of panicked messages from Mom, girlfriends and an ex-boyfriend. I don't know why my 10-day absence triggered such fear; I regularly disappear for two weeks or more, heading out into the woods with my backpack.

Annoyed at the hubbub, I exploded.

"For Chrissake, can't I even go away for a few days?"

He and I spent that summer searching out water. Small creeks, big rivers, lakes, ponds -- it didn't matter, as long as some kind of fish swam in them. Of course, trout were the best. Brown trout and graylings in the White Mountains. Rainbows on the San Juan. Sunfish in a neighboring rancher's pond. We spent one day wandering along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. No trout were to be hooked so he fished for carp, handling them as gently as his beloved trout. I sat on the shore, next to Kody, his black lab, watching. He photographed every fish he pulled out of the water, admiring its glistening wetness before he carefully returned it to the water's safety.

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Once, he realized that he hadn't flattened the barb on his hook, and it had torn the trout's mouth gruesomely. He killed the fish and ate it for supper that night, silently.

It was a dry summer, the seventh year of drought in New Mexico, and that meant fish and other wild things were dying. The water disappeared where the forks of the Gila came together, leaving nothing but a dry riverbed. The irrigation ditch ran low. The old-timers shook their heads and said they'd never seen it so dry. Fires, set off by lightening strikes, burned out of control.

The Forest Service rescued the lookout by helicopter from Mogollon Baldy, the second highest peak in the wilderness, when the flames were within a mile of the summit. Cattle starved on the open ranges. Environmentalists cursed ranchers and ranchers cursed environmentalists. Deer, elk, bear, mountain lion: All descended from the high country, seeking what water they could find in the slow-running river.

The damage from cattle was evident that summer. He taught me how cattle harm rivers. Cattle tend to congregate near water. They wallow in it, stomp on the river's banks and eat native grasses and young tree shoots -- these would otherwise have grown up to protect the river from overrunning its banks during a flood.

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During hot, dry months, the soil is exposed to erosion by the wind and baking by the sun. Soil temperatures in the arid southwest get too high for new seeds to germinate. The dry soil soaks up moisture from the river, and the river grows warm and runs low. The concentration of salts, already high in desert rivers, grows even higher, and fields irrigated with the water are left with a hard, salty surface crust. That summer, the Gila earned its name, in reality a corruption of the Spanish word "X'la," meaning "salty river."

We sat in the Hillsboro bar and talked with a local rancher about his losses. He and his wife ran his father-in-law's ranch. But his father-in-law wanted to sell the ranch where his wife had grown up -- where they had courted and started their family -- to an environmentalist leader who proposed to subdivide the land into 25-acre plots where wealthy folks would build expensive houses. No money had yet changed hands, but the environmentalist had already begun bulldozing roads into the hillsides. "Them roads are gonna wash away soon's the rains come," said the rancher, his voice thick with his fifth beer.

I learned that cattle ranching runs deep in the blood of the men and women who live here. My own blood felt thin, uncertain of its course.

The rancher, too, could see the river was dying, the land baking like a ceramic pot under the unrelenting sun as native grasses disappeared.

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He and I backpacked into Animas Creek, where he had fished as a teenager. The water was a mere trickle, but some small trout survived in deeper holes that should have been rushing waterfalls. He caught and released them sadly. "They're dying," he said.

I followed him, splashing through the water, as he jumped nimbly from rock to rock, his stride twice the length of mine. We stopped for lunch at one of the deeper pools. I peeled off my clothes and dove in, feeling my lungs tighten at the cold water. He photographed me naked as I emerged, my wet skin glistening in the sun.

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Late summer and then fall arrived. The rains came, finally, relentlessly. It rained so hard that the arroyos were filled within hours, and water came crashing down the mountainsides. The Gila overflowed its banks, uprooting trees and wiping out anything in its path. Neighbors slept at my house again. I stood next to the rising water, listening to the last groans of an old trailer as it was swept away.

Maybe, I thought, the rain would cool his anger. Anger at the little girl who, it had been proven for the benefit of the child support enforcement agency, carried half of his DNA. He had a few pictures of her, photos that her mother had sent. He carried one in his wallet. The child smiled in all the pictures, the smile growing more vacant as the body grew older, finally confined to a wheelchair. Her mother called once. They were making a trip to Albuquerque -- did he want to see his daughter? I think the mother was still in love with him. I think he hung up on her. The wave of anger that flowed off him was so strong, it virtually knocked me over. I sat on his stone steps, fighting to catch my breath.

The weather grew cold, and I stayed home with Kody and Lexie, the black lab bitch he had given me, while he went to hunt big game. He guided rifle hunters, but hunted only with a bow himself. He practiced archery year-round, spending an hour each day sharpening his skills. He loved the animals he killed, he explained, and he didn't want them to suffer needlessly because of a badly aimed arrow. Lying in bed at night, after we made love, he stroked the long off-white fur of the caribou that hung over his bed. I wondered if he could love anything without hurting it.

Winter arrived. In between duck-hunting trips to the Rio Grande with Kody and Lexie, we stayed home and he talked about water. It was nothing a Midwesterner could know. He taught me about trout, the sign that the water is truly and deeply alive. Trout are fragile creatures that can live only in the most pristine of places, in cold pure waters. They are easily harmed by chemicals or other impurities in water, and can survive only in a narrow temperature range. There are few trout left in the Gila River. Although the Forest Service restocks it annually with rainbows, few remain after each bait fisherman catches his limit during Memorial Day weekend. And it's just as well, because no trout could survive the lukewarm temperatures of the Gila in late June.

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Fly-fishing, I began to understand, is a quest for a holy grail, a quest for the most perfect, pristine, untouched place, in which the most perfect of fishes can live. The fly-fisherman must release his catch, because he will never hook the perfect trout.

He taught me that rivers, too, can die. When the river's energy flows in the wrong direction, it cannot survive. "The sea refuses no river," sings Pete Townsend. But the river must first reach the sea. And the Gila doesn't give the sea a chance to refuse it -- it dies in southern Arizona, sucked up by flushing toilets and swimming pools in Phoenix and Tucson, drained by cotton and other water-thirsty crops.

The Gila is diverted by dams built in the 1930s and '40s. A decade after the Coolidge Dam was completed in 1930, the Gila stopped flowing southwest of the so-called Copper Basin of Arizona. Today, one half of the river's course is nothing but a dry stream bed, except at flood time, when the river proves too powerful for any dam.

Close to the end, the river flows strong and brown, passing first through a deeply cut canyon, high walls of red rock on either side. During spring runoff, kayakers and rafters portage around the tricky part, unless they're very, very skilled. We walked along the bank in sandals, the cool water washing our feet. The dogs played in the river, swimming furiously after the sticks he threw out, coming back triumphant, each hanging on to one end of the same stick.

It seemed as if it would go on forever. He didn't have his fly-rod with him that day. There was no point, he said -- no trout could live that far down the river, and besides, we were almost to the end. Soon after that, it dried up, leaving first a rocky, wet river bed, then nothing but dry rocks and shimmering heat. It was the first time we had faced each other without the water to hold us together. And suddenly there was nothing there.

I walked the river with Lexie, from my home in the valley to the southern edge of the wilderness. She played in every river crossing, pretending to fish for carp. I camped by a big rock, where I sat all night and listened to the water flow backwards. An eddy, it's called. Eddies are safe places when you're rafting on whitewater, places where the water pauses momentarily on its downriver journey to circle upstream. They are places to rest and regroup before you tackle the next set of falls, the next swift current that pulls you around the bend, the one you can't see beyond. No matter how many times you run the river, you never know exactly what you'll encounter.

I spent a long time at my eddy, deciding which way to go next. I could only come up with one place: away. I left the Gila and sought out water in faraway places: California, Utah, Australia, Nepal.

I ran a 100-mile trail through the Sierra Nevada and crossed the waist-high American River in the middle of the night, the black river flowing into the surrounding dark. I spent two weeks wandering around southern Utah's high country, carrying little more than a wool blanket and an army poncho.

It rained each night, and I sat propped against a tall pine, watching the drops fall. By day, I stood under a waterfall so forceful it knocked my breath away. Off the northeastern coast of Australia, I kayaked and snorkeled around remote islands, the saltwater crusting on my skin. A humpback whale and her calf nearly capsized me. I climbed a glacier-encircled peak in the high Himalayas, then rafted the powerful and deep Trisuli River southeast of Kathmandu.

The river flowed through my dreams at night. High in the Himalayas, I dreamt that I rode a tall Ponderosa through the river as it flooded. I was carried by my house, and my neighbors gathered on the shore to wave at me. He stood alone on the river's bank. I glimpsed his face as I was carried by, and cried. I didn't know that sadness could be that big.

I was camped in Colorado, snow falling on my tent, when I read the words an elderly Apache man had spoken to anthropologist Keith Basso:

"Even if we go far away from here to some big city, places around here keep stalking us. If you live wrong, you will hear the names and see the places in your mind. They keep on stalking you, even if you go across oceans. The names of all places are good. They make you remember how to live right, so you want to replace yourself again."

It was time to go home.

The release was sudden. When I came back to the Gila, there was water everywhere. Beavers had built a new dam where Lexie and I could swim. My neighbors had started a riparian repair program, planting branches of native willows and encouraging grasses to grow. It rained for three full days and nights, and the phone rang at 5 a.m. Neighbors piled into my house, and we sat awake through the night, listening to the river swell.


Renee Despres

Renee Despres has written for World Book Health and Medical Annual, Mademoiselle and The Houston Chronicle. She lives in New Mexico.

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