You'll have no problem spotting me among a group of kayakers preparing to launch. Everyone will be making last-minute preparations — filling dry bags, adjusting personal-flotation devices and so forth. There are eager smiles and happy chatter. Then there's a shifty guy, sidling away from the group, eyes darting from side to side as if plotting a sudden screaming escape.
I am a hard-core landlubber. I like being near water, but it seems utterly unnatural to be on the stuff. So kayaking is not high on my list of recreational activities. It took serious prodding from the folks at the Verde River Institute to entice me to join them on an educational outing.
What finally sealed the deal was when Executive Director Doug Von Gausig said, "You can stand up almost anywhere in the river."
Excellent! I can barely swim, but I'm superb at standing up. Other than a few rough patches as a toddler, and again during college, I have become an unqualified success at standing up. I'm practically the Michael Phelps of standing.
The Verde is one of Arizona's last free-flowing rivers, carving a riparian oasis out of arid uplands. The extremely rare Fremont cottonwood/Goodding's willow forest that lines the banks provides a home for more than 200 species of birds and large populations of river otters, beavers, muskrats and plenty of other wildlife.
The section of Verde River through Clarkdale has only recently been opened to kayakers. Much of the land on either side is still owned by Freeport-McMoRan, but the mining company has leased it back to Clarkdale for $10 per year. A park has been built near the remains of the old power plant for boating put-in. It's known as Lower Tapco (short for "the Arizona Power Company"). The put-in spot was going to be a bit farther upstream but resident bald eagles, Clark and Dale, have taken to nesting there.
This sweet stretch of river starts in the shadow of rocky cliffs. A couple of cows grazing on the grassy banks are there to wish us bon voyage. I set out with my small group after triple-checking the straps on my personal-flotation device. But the current is gentle and I have no trouble navigating, so I start to relax.
Almost immediately we're paddling beneath ancient cliff dwellings from the Sinagua culture. The trip is slightly more than 3 miles and will end at the base of Tuzigoot National Monument, a large pueblo village dating back 1,000 years.
The ride includes a nice blend of scenery and history. At one point, red-rock hills are replaced by an ominous black mesa. This is the slag heap, the remainder of copper mining in Jerome.
About 20 million tons of slag rise like a giant humpbacked parking lot above the willows. It is estimated that about a half-ounce of gold exists in each ton. So, 10 million ounces of gold lie locked away as Clarkdale Metals tries to create the technology to extract the wealth and ultimately remove the slag.
This section of the Verde flows at boatable levels all year, with long languid pools and splashy little rapids. There is one short portage across a small diversion dam, which provides a chance to dry off briefly and munch a few snacks. This is a great trip for beginners, and I manage just fine. I even bandy about nautical terms like scurvy, keelhaul and Sharknado so no one knows I'm a newbie.
The more experienced kayakers also seem to be having a gas. Conversation and laughter bounce across the water like a well-skipped stone. Folks spray each other with water cannons. They stop to study dragonflies and damselflies (more than 30 species can be found along the river) and I listen to the poetry of their names — Western pondhawk, flame skimmer, gray sanddragon, canyon rubyspot and fiery-eyed dancer.
I suddenly begin to understand the difference between desert rats and river rats.
In the desert, water is the giver of life. It provides hope and bounty, and river rats embrace that optimistic spirit. Desert rats harbor a quiet cynicism because our true love is always trying to scratch, stab, sting or scorch us. On the river, you watch for playful otters and comical beavers. In the desert, you keep an eye peeled for rattlesnakes and Gila monsters. On the river, if you veer off course, you brush some cattails. In the desert, one wrong step and you're pulling cactus spines from your calf with tweezers.
Still, the heart wants what the heart wants. I'll be a desert rat forever. But I feel like I understand this breed of river rat better now. Maybe I won't wait so long before I join them again.
Clarkdale: Arizona's Hipster Mayberry
Anyone looking to kayak the Verde River should visit outfitter Verde Adventures in downtown Clarkdale. It offers tours and sells boating supplies and outdoor gear. It also runs a shuttle between among river access points. The cafe sells burritos, sandwiches, drinks and snacks to help you fuel up before your trip.
Verde Adventures is not the only recent addition to this tiny burg. Clarkdale was founded as a planned community in 1912 CQ as a planned community during the mining heyday of nearby Jerome.CQ The town of brick homes and tidy lawns is populated by lots of artistic types and seems to be experiencing a small resurgence.
One of the coolest museums I've seen in ages is now open in the old Clarkdale High School. The Copper Art Museum shows what people do with the ore pulled from the mines. It has 5,000 objects dating to the 16th century. Each room has a different theme, from art and architecture to drinkware and to religious artifacts.
The military-art display really got me. Lining the walls are hundreds of what appear to be intricately designed metal vases. It took me a minute to realize that these were artillery shell casings. This was a collection of trench art made by soldiers of World War I. The expended shells they used as their raw material is are brass, an alloy of copper and zinc.
I'm standing in this quiet room trying to imagine soldiers hunkered down in muddy trenches in between battles, shaping the metal into thoughtful designs. The Copper Art Museum proved to be a moving and powerful place.
Across the street is the Clarkdale Caboose Gift Shop, which opened March 1. The work of 50 local and regional artists are is crowded into the little railroad car, along with souvenirs, gifts and homemade baked goods.
Clarkdale also has joined the Verde Valley's booming wine scene. Four Eight WineworksCQ is a cooperative that features the labors of four winemakers. In the airy, spacious tasting room, guests can sample a wider range of options than in a single-label winery. Bonus: There's beer on tap and a cozy patio on Main Street.
Now that's how we seasoned river rats like to end an epic voyage.