You Can’t Plan a Pandemic – Gila River Packraft – Day 0


It was time for a river adventure. Our friends in Tuscon, Slow Ride and Shake n Bake (two thru hikers I met in 2008 when I was giving trail magic on the PCT near Elk Lake – and who have since become my trail angels numerous times) suggested a Gila River paddle about a year ago, and we’ve been looking forward to it ever since. Add in a global pandemic, the first coronavirus cases found in our communities, paired with a plea for people to isolate themselves, and we knew disappearing into the wilderness for a week was probably the smartest thing we could do. (We started our trip March 12)…

Slow Ride (SR) and Shake n Bake (SB) invited a few friends of theirs on the trip, all teachers in Tucson. Mike, a music teacher, was in a packraft and relatively new to paddling rivers. JJ had been on a few rivers, including our beloved Umpqua River, and was in an IK (inflatable kayak) and had just escaped his science classroom and was ready for a break. Mika, a middle school teacher (and former peace corps volunteer who had stationed in West Africa like me) who was also in an IK and was ready for some down time.

We were all guessing at what kind of world we would encounter after our float…the United States had just started to isolate and quarantine, the lines at Target were still civilized, but we all knew that the thin veneer of human decency can be punctured by panic and fear….both emotions increasing in the collective consciousness by the minute.

To the river!!

Kirk and I had spent two days driving down from Oregon through numerous torrential downpours, and knew the water levels in our wilderness float were bound to go up. Desert rivers don’t always run, so the influx of water would give us a nice push down the river.

The Gila was the first designated Wilderness area in the United States, and is one of the largest. It is truly amazing terrain, and the Continental Divide runs right through it. SR, SB and I had all hiked the CDT and had many memories of fording the Gila River on our treks. They had also hiked the Grand Enchantment Trail, which traverses the area. We were eager to get back and track some of our steps, but from moving water this time. 

There have been numerous efforts to dam this free-flowing river. The pressures of too many people living in the desert with too little water was increasing each year, but so far the dams have been held off. This place is the perfect opportunity for humankind to put a pause on our greed and need to control everything, and just let it be for the animals, plants, for the possibility of a huge tract of rich wilderness that can be left without our imprint. There are actually very few like this…. almost none.

The Gila is also being considered for Wild and Scenic River Designation, which seems an obvious moniker. I will be supporting that designation however I can, although there is a lot of local resistance to this. Read more here, and get involved if you can!

So we made it to Tucson on a Friday. Met for dinner and drinks and nervously joked about the pandemic all around us, and decided to stop all the conjecturing, and try to be in the moment. 

The next day we drove to Silver City New Mexico…on the way admiring the yellow super bloom that had carpeted the desert around the highway…a benefit from all the recent rain.

Kirk and I made a quick stop in Silver City to see Erika, a good friend, and one of my trail crew members from a summer in Durango Colorado 13 years ago. I seem to make it to Silver City every few years, so we’ve been able to stay in touch….the kind of touch that’s easier when you see each other in person every so often.

We met her beau, Cjell, the maker of Moné Bikes, and we got to see him work in his shop…an old van turned into a bike-making-palace.

After lunch and a quick walk around town we headed up the notoriously windy and steep road that takes you into the heart of the Gila Wilderness. On the CDT I encountered this section and stopped at the Gila Hot Springs, got a resupply box at Doc Cambells, and took in the history of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

We all rendezvoused at the Grapevine Campground for our launch in the morning. 

To the river!

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