Going with the Flow
By Donna Clayton Lawder
Building on the undeniable success of last year's inaugural Gila River Festival, the event is built to overflow its banks this year, May 12-14, involving three different locations and bracing for an even larger crowd.
Allyson Siwik, director of the Gila Conservation Coalition (GCC), one of the partnering organizations that produce the festival, acknowledges that last year's enthusiastic participation by local business and individual sponsors and the audience the event drew caught the organizers by happy surprise.
"Activities were really well attended," Siwik says. So much so that the organizers decided to "pull in the headwaters area this year," she says, adding cultural and experiential workshops in the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Some events will take place in downtown Silver City, as well as at the Nature Conservancy's Gila River Farm in Cliff. Add in the educational hikes leaving from Mogollon Box Campground and horseback rides to Jordan Hot Springs, and the event has become a somewhat sprawling organic phenomenon, much like the river itself, touching many areas of the area through which it flows.
Courtesy of a "generous sponsorship" from the Silver City Food Co-Op, Corre Caminos Transit will provide free shuttle service from the Visitor's Center in Silver City and Cliff High School to various festival sites, Siwik says. "So people can leave their cars at home," saving money on gas, being environmentally friendly by using less gas, and preventing vehicular overcrowding at the sites all in one swoop.
Citing marketing advisors who say it is "energizing" to give people a lot of different things to do when they visit, Siwik says she thinks holding the event when other things are going on in the area will benefit not only her own festival, but the other events as well. Silver City MainStreet Project's Celebration of Spring will take place on Saturday, May 13, with events in downtown Silver City all day long. (See this issue's events section.) The MainStreet Project is also co-sponsoring a Street Dance with Root Skankadelic in the parking lot of Morning Star on Bullard Street. That day is also the kickoff for the spring Friends of the Library book sale on Market Street. And the first annual Hot Springs Festival in the Gila will be held May 12-14, in conjunction with the Gila River Festival.
More than 200 volunteers of one stripe or another—artists, experts and the roll-up-the-sleeves variety—come together to make the Gila River Festival happen. Local businesses and organizations have been generous, Siwik says. Lodger's Tax money for this year's event has made it possible to produce a "snazzy brochure." The festival even earned a feature and a cover mention in the latest New Mexico Magazine.
The slogan of the Gila Conservation Coalition is "Saving New Mexico's Last Wild River," and the group seeks to build awareness and educate the public about the value of the Gila River. A generous menu of family activities—including an educational program with live reptiles, a session exploring beaver ecology at the beaver dam, a water-quality testing demonstration and hands-on exhibition including catching macro-invertebrates in the river—is designed to capture the imagination of, and perhaps cultivate, the next generation of conservationists.
"The river is just so precious, the last free-flowing river in New Mexico," Siwik says. "It is not only beautiful, but of such great value to us, and yet some people right here in this area don't know anything about it. We want everyone to know about this amazing river and to have an experience of it. That's the value of this event."
Artists, authors, a director and numerous outdoor experts will add color and lend their expertise to the mix of the Gila River Festival, Siwik says. Joe Saenz, of Red Paint Powwow fame, will talk about Apache culture and the environment. Kevin Dahl, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, will discuss authentic Southwest gardening. The US Forest Service's David Warnack will provide leadership on the weekend's hikes, and Chris Turnbow, an archaeologist with the Museum of New Mexico, will give demonstrations of how the ancient atlatl was used to throw a spear.
With the festival's growth have come many fresh offerings. New hikes have been added to this year's schedule, as well as stewardship activities, such as trail clearing and a hot springs dig, for participants who would like to get their hands really dirty and do something good for outdoor recreational facilities.
Whether up in the Gila Cliff Dwellings, out at Gila Farm or right in downtown Silver City, the festival is a decidedly outdoor event. Organizers remind participants to bring water, sunscreen, hat and sturdy shoes, and to leave their pets at home.
On Friday, the festival kicks off with physical, cultural, educational and entertainment opportunities. For those looking to get "out there" and experience the Gila up close and personal, here's your first chance. The Middle Box Hike takes participants on a four-mile excursion, starting at the confluence of Mogollon Creek and the Gila River. Moderate physical conditioning and backcountry experience are recommended, and USFS ranger David Warnack will lead the group. Less-strenuous field trips, to the Meaders Stage Coach Site or a tour of Phelps Dodge UBAR Ranch Bennett Restoration and Research Project, also will educate and invigorate.
Friday will also feature an evening kick-off presentation at WNMU's Global Resource Center auditorium. Chip Ward, author of Hope's Horizon, will give the keynote address, discussing the people and projects he encountered while writing his book on current science and conservation of both human and natural communities. Ward's address will be followed by "Along the Banks: Reader's Theater Performance," directed by Nanda Currant, an artist-illustrator-educator who helped with the "visioning" of the festival in its inception.
"It is a wonderful event to both enjoy the talent from near and far, and feel the community spirit in the varied presenters this year," says Currant. "It also brings together people in a non-political event to share their involvement and interest in the Gila River not just today but throughout history. We have people from various parts of the community represented including the ranching community, Apache and Hispanic culture, along with science, art and family events, working together to make it an alive and rich event."
Currant is the founder of the Theater of Restoration, which "inspires young people to find their voice" through performance and to find their role in earth stewardship. She says she is delighted at the variety of local performers who will play a part in the kickoff presentation. "Virus Theater members and MeadowHawk students have joined into this year's performance. The script is from both local writing as well as from other cultures. I feel pleased that so many people have stepped forward to join into this year's performance."
On Saturday, the action largely moves to The Nature Conservancy's Gila River Farm and Lichty Center. The center is an educational facility for the Conservancy, which also owns and operates Bear Mountain Lodge.
Music will be offered throughout the day by a slate of local musicians including Andrew Dahl-Bredine & Friends (Latin guitar/vocals), Patrice Mutchnick (songs for kids), Bruce McKinney (singer/songwriter), the Desert Larks (an early-music ensemble), Greg Renfro and Wally Lawder (singer/songwriters) and Melanie Zipin (singer/songwriter) performing with Jeff Le Blanc.
Along with the musical backdrop, festival participants can choose from a variety of educational natural and historical experiences. For the birding crowd there are two excursions, leaving from the Cliff High parking lot, and a bird-banding demonstration by ornithologists Mike and Carol Fugagli.
Ancient arts more your thing? Don Peters, a retired stone tool artist, will demonstrate how Native Americans fashioned tools from stone, and Chris Turnbow will demonstrate how the atlatl enabled ancient hunters to throw their spears amazingly far, a "boost" that increased hunting success, benefiting survival. Participants will get to try their hand at using the atlatl. Both ancient tools presentations are to be held at the Gila River Farm/Lichty Center site.
Dutch Salmon, local author of the popular book Gila Descending, and Rich Olsen, Black Range RC&D coordinator, will take a group into the field, leading a four-mile family-oriented hike to the USGS Gila Gauging Station. Participants are invited to "get their feet wet, see some birds, catch some fish and learn about the watershed health of the Gila River." Another Saturday field trip, more a casual walk than a hike, will be led by soil scientist Frank Kirschner and hydrologist Rebecca Summer, who will focus on the flood plain and terrace soils of the Gila River Farm.
Tours of the Woodrow Archaeological site, a multi-room prehistoric Mogollon ruin dating from the 11th century, and of the Fort West site, a US military fort from the 1850s, will be guided by specialists.
Meanwhile, back at the Lichty Center, there will be a presentation of the area's culture in prehistoric times, a slide show of ancient rock art of the Mogollon people, a talk on authentic Southwest gardening and ecology, and research presentations. Jack Loeffler, aural historian, radio producer and writer, will give a presentation on ecosystems and watersheds, including his thoughts on the human role in those environments. Loeffler recently toured, giving talks on his travels with his long-time friend and well-known environmentalist, the late author Edward Abbey.
On Saturday evening, hike-weary participants and others can enjoy some downtown doings in Silver City. Leyba & Ingalls Arts will host an opening reception for the Gila River Festival Invitational Art Show. Trading in hiking boots for dancing shoes, those who want to boogie can partake of the street dance with Root Skankadelic in the Morning Star parking lot.
On Sunday, the outdoor experience continues with a birding trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, including travel along river trails and access to the new Heart Bar Ranch Preserve and a promised special birding experience. The $15 fee for this trip includes a box lunch. The trip is led by local Audubon group birding experts Larry Malone and David Beatty.
Ranger Dave Warnack will come back for more, leading another ambitious hike, this time to Sapillo Creek. The 10-mile hike descends almost 2,000 feet to the confluence of Sapillo Creek and the Gila River. Hikers will meet at the junction of Hwy. 15 and Forest Road 282. Good hiking health condition is recommended.
"Oh, yeah, that's the heart-breaker," Siwik says with a smile. "It's a gorgeous hike, but the trip back is the uphill part."
More cultural and natural history offerings will take place up at the Cliff Dwellings, including a Gila Headwaters Geology Program, a tour of the West Fork Ruin Archaeological Site and regular guided tours of the Cliff Dwellings themselves.
A 12-mile roundtrip horse ride to Jordan Hot Springs is an all-day excursion to a wild hot spring site. Participants must dress appropriately for riding, be able to handle the long ride and bring their own lunches and enough water to last them through the day. Fee for the event is $60 per person.
Also on Sunday, participants get the chance to have fun and make a difference by taking part in the stewardship activities added to this year's schedule. Sunday morning, interested parties can get to know the Gila River by clearing brush and setting up rock cairns to mark river crossings. Tools and training are provided, and participants must dress appropriately and bring their own lunch and water.
In the afternoon, outdoor do-gooders can help out a genuine hot spring soaking pool, by digging out a little mud and encouraging the river water to mix with spring water. BYOShovel and swimsuit. The event closes with a well-deserved soak.
And back in Silver City, the Gila River Festival officially closes with another presentation at WNMU's Global Resource Center. Brad Lancaster will present "Turning Water Scarcity into Water Abundance: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into your Life and Landscape." Lancaster will tell the story of a dryland farmer who turned a wasteland into an oasis in the driest region of Zimbabwe by harvesting rain. He will illustrate the eight guiding principles of integrated water harvesting and how it can be used in areas with scarce water.
"Being here in this part of New Mexico, our water is so precious," Siwik says. "I am sure so many people will want to hear what Brad Lancaster has to say, and will take away valuable information from this talk."
Even more, she says, she hopes participants will take away "appreciation and wonder" for the river. Looking off in her mind's eye, she says, "You can just imagine the explorers when they came upon it. Amidst all the brown around them, it would've been a ribbon of color, the ribbon of life. Nothing less."
Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.