Other Choices, Other Flumes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, August 1998

Other Choices, Other Flumes

Can't make it to Temagami? Here are five great waterways closer to home.
By Jonathan Hanson

The Gila River, Arizona
Nothing heightens the glories of a river quite so much as drought. Which is why the 630-mile Gila has so much allure: Just beyond the thick, shady cottonwoods lining its shores rises the southern Arizona desert — rolling, baked hills pocked with twisted saguaro and cholla cacti. Bighorn sheep browse this prickly foliage, while coyotes howl mournfully and bones slowly bleach in the sun. Meanwhile, you're splashing and whooping beneath the only shade for miles. For the swiftest water — and sharpest contrast to the surrounding land — run the Gila in late spring, when snowmelt pushes the flow rate to about 500 cubic feet per second. Fall can be the river's finest moment, however. The temperature has dropped (into the nineties) and the cottonwoods have turned to gold. The most convenient put-in is at the Old Safford Bridge on the Black Hills Backcountry Byway, just off U.S. 191, about 155 miles from Tucson. Before setting out, it's advisable to check on current river conditions; water levels in the desert can change suddenly. Call the Wilderness Ranger Patrol (505-536-9461) for an up-to-the-minute report.

Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana
The sauvage isn't just wilderness — it's wilderness primeval. Cypress trees from the last millennium weep curtains of black moss while six-foot alligators laze midstream, watching blue herons billow up from the shallows. All is not totally antediluvian, however — there's that unmistakable scent of jambalaya wafting in on the breeze. In fact, though those with olfactory-nerve damage would never know it, the entire 24,000-acre Bayou Sauvage is contained within the city limits of New Orleans, only 20 minutes from Bourbon Street. (Take U.S. 90 east to U.S. 510, which takes you to the refuge's main entrance.) Within the refuge, the marked waterway routes range from the gentle (one is only a mile and a half long) to the daunting, though all should be navigable by novices. Pick up a map at the ranger station near the entrance. Canoes are available at Earl's Canoe Rentals in nearby Crown Point ($25 per day; 504-689-3271).

Brule River, Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin
Think canada, only without the strange brew diction. Like the rivers of the great Far North, the Brule's shores are densely lined with oak, cedar, and balsam. Moose inhabit these woods, as do badgers, mallards, and bald eagles. The only local fauna you're unlikely to glimpse in profusion are other paddlers. The Nicolet is remarkably uncrowded, given its one-day's-drive proximity to both Minneapolis and Chicago. Begin your trip near Canover, which is about five miles from the put-in off Wisconsin 70. For the fullest immersion in this deep-woods backwater, continue on 50 miles to a take-out at the Wisconsin 2 bridge, a two- or three-day journey through unbroken conifer woods. You can camp anywhere along here. But resist the urge to break into "O Canada" at reveille. For more information, call the Nicolet National Forest ranger station at 800-688-7471. Canoes are available at Hawk's Nest Eagle River Canoe Outfitters in Canover (715-479-7944; $26 per day, including shuttle service).

Buffalo River, Arkansas
The perfect journey for the easily miffed, this trip begins near Yellville. From there, you head 17 miles south to a put-in at the town of Buffalo Point, after which your temper should be gently soothed by the lush Ozarks topography: rolling hills; high limestone bluffs; leafy stands of blackjack oak. Canoeing experience is advisable. At several points the Buffalo's waters boil past midstream boulders. But most of the stretch below Buffalo Point is smooth. Look for a gravel bar about 10 miles downriver for a scenic tent-setting spot. (Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere along the river.) Next day, continue the 25 miles to a take-out at Buffalo City just southwest of Mountain Home, where you'll find Nettie's Cafe, purveyor of a damn good strawberry pie. To reach the Buffalo, take U.S. 40 north from Little Rock to Arkansas 27, which leads to Buffalo Point. For more information, call Bennett's Canoes in Yellville (800-489-6431), which rents canoes for $27 per day.

Snake River Birds of Prey Area, Idaho
Where evels fly. Yes, Knievel himself once launched himself across this section of the Snake, presumably threading among a crowd of bemused eagles, falcons, and hawks. More raptors in fact nest along this 80-mile stretch of deep sandstone gorge than anywhere else in North America, perching on its rocky ledges and soaring above its high, sandstone walls. On any given summer morning, you can see hundreds of them circling in the updrafts, twisting and dwindling, until suddenly one swoops down like a missile to swipe a fish from the Snake. It's an exhilarating sight, made all the more mesmerizing by the laziness with which you dangle your feet and float along the placid water. The most convenient put-in is at Swan Falls Dam, about 20 miles from the town of Murphy. An easy 18-mile paddle is to Walter's Ferry Bridge. Idaho River Sports in Murphy (208-336-4844) can arrange free shuttle service to and from the river; it also rents canoes for $30 per day.

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