We are paddling inflatable kayaks down Arizona’s Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, taking in the lush stands of cottonwoods and willows bordering both sides of the shallow water. It’s hard to believe that we are in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and only 45 minutes east of downtown Scottsdale.
“The trees are often referred to as the cottonwood-willow gallery forest,” explains REI Co-Op guide John Colby, who narrates as we float lazily westward.
The Phoenix metro area and its 4.6 million residents seem even more distant when I spot multiple clusters of wild horses standing in the gentle current, grazing on river grasses. Red-rock cliffs tower in the background, creating a real-life painting.
I’d first heard of the wild horses just the day before and didn’t expect to actually see any on our two-hour paddle, but here they are. These beautiful animals of many colors don’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by humans cruising by in rubber boats. The horses continue grazing without even raising heads as we slide by.
I struggle to get my cellphone out of my water-tight bag while Colby, a veteran river rafter who has taken visitors down the Salt River for 40 years, patiently waits as I take my shots.
“There are about 300 horses in all,” he says, his continual narration making it obvious that the desert’s human and natural history is part of his DNA. The story of these animals and why they remain protected on federal land is a complicated one that includes politics, optics, jurisdiction and coalitions. But the bottom line, says Colby, is that these horses are “an icon of the American West,” and therefore worthy of preservation.
Close encounters occur most frequently from about October to May because of river management policies,” he adds.
We had put our inflatable kayaks into the water just a few minutes earlier at the confluence of the Salt and Verde rivers. This REI adventure is ideal for the novice kayaker (me) and one that can be adopted to the realities of the current COVID-19 pandemic. REI guides maintain social distancing, masking and sanitizing throughout activities, including transport to and from the river.
With all the restrictions that have come with this pandemic, people are clamoring now for outdoor activities, said REI Co-Op guide Steve Sproviero, a veteran outdoorsman and New Jersey transplant who led us on an early-morning hike the day before. We explored the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, more than 30,000 acres set aside by the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and the City of Scottsdale to keep this piece of “lush” Sonoran Desert pristine.
Sproviero shared his encyclopedia of desert information as we followed the Marcus Landslide Trail (4.2 miles round-trip). Every turn brought vast views of the valley below and fascinating rock formations created by wind, water and motion. Some of the huge boulders appeared to be barely balancing and looked as if they’d come tumbling down any second, which apparently they did a few million years ago. (Hence the name of the trail.)
Even though it was only 9 a.m., the sun was intense and the air still, and we were feeling it.
“People come out here and they think they are in shape,” Sproviero said. “Then they wonder why they’re feeling so tired, but they don’t realize that we’re at 2,600 feet.”
Despite wearing sunscreen and a hat with a sizable brim, I left with a facial sunburn that lasted several days. It’s was a lesson in the power of this desert and its dual personality. It is at once a fascinating beauty and a dangerous place.
Fortunately, it’s also vast and an ideal place to spend time until life returns to something resembling normal.