Canoeing Phoenix Through the Flood

Photo by Kevin Dooley
Photo by Kevin Dooley

When Phoenix and other tender urban spots in the Southwest got hammered with rain last week, I had to ask people to stop sending me pictures. They just made me want to get out there and get that gritty brown soup in my teeth.

Every time I hear of big storms dumping in the desert, I get itchy. I want to be there smelling the fetid rush of water-loaded debris, mist streaking into the air as rainwater funnels down canyons, arroyos, even city streets.

Bits and pieces of my childhood were spent in Phoenix, where every summer I was treated to at least one good deluge. It wouldn’t last long, an inch or two of rain in one or two hours out of a heat-driven thunderstorm, streets turned to rivers, and by the end of the day all was clear. The wildest one I remember was the day after my dad died of a heart attack in his mid-50s. He lived in North Phoenix and his house was a scene of widescale weeping as massive anvil-headed storms gathered over the city. It was July and I was standing in his back yard getting drenched, letting the grief of this loss pour through me in a brutal rainstorm.

It was the kind of powerful rain that feels like you’re being snapped by pennies. The ditch that used to run behind my dad’s house, the one that flowed out of the desert when I was a kid and now flowed out of a concrete spillway from new subdivisions, it started to run full and wild with trash and viscous brown water. He and I used to watch these floods and we’d say we’re going to run them one day.

Today, the day after his passing, was my day.

I grabbed his cheap aluminum lake canoe, the one we used to paddle placidly across Phoenix’s reservoir. It always felt like it was going to tip over. Or maybe that was just him swilling whiskey in the stern, gesturing at the sky, telling me about the sun and moon.

I threw the canoe into the water and jumped in with one stubby wooden paddle. The water picked us up quick, sending me and the canoe through low, choppy waves. There was a metal bar ahead, used to halt traffic from driving up the spillway. I ducked under the bar and out onto a neighborhood street, where this flood ran sidewalk to sidewalk, lapping up on the occasional lawn. I wedged in my knees and hooked a stroke around a parked car and then a plastic trash dumpster toppled and belched rubbish into the flow.

Rain was coming down hard, streaking my face, but people were coming to their doorsteps to see me. Some waved. Some cheered. I cheered back, like I was some sort of hero in my own personal parade. Which I wasn’t. I was just a stupid man in a canoe.

After a mile or so, I came to the entrance to the city’s storm drain network, a cinderblock hole designed to take floodwater off the streets. On the other side, there wouldn’t be anybody clapping for me, no random lawn where I could say the journey’s done and drag out my canoe, make a call home. I could have gotten out there. I should have. But the water was going, and I went with it.

I tucked all the way back and swiftly passed through the cinderblock gateway, which opened onto a convergence of spillways from other streets. Behind solid house-fences was another world, the city’s hydraulic infrastructure, its secret, short-lived rivers converging into a mess of concrete pilings and mashed up shopping carts. I jumped out of the canoe for half a second to hoist it over a concrete waterfall, scraping out the bottom and throwing it downstream in time to land back in paddling position.

This canoe was meant for bayous and a tiny outboard, not a class III rapid through concrete abutments. Waves gunky with mud and oil crashed over the bow. Gashes were cut in the hull beneath my knees, aluminum curled from grinding on concrete, and now my pants were cut up, knees bleeding, but I couldn’t stop bracing or I’d capsize.

This was stupid, I mean heart-pounding get me the hell out of here stupid.

This also is what my relationship with my dad looked like, at least in part: Fast, passionate, and out of control. He and I took each other out once. I don’t know who said what, but he called me a bitch, I broke a glass, he took swing, there was blood spattering and I don’t know whose it was. His wife screaming. Or maybe it was his girlfriend, jumping between us to pry us apart. We were like that sometimes, and I couldn’t think of a better way of seeing him off than this, bloody, in a storm.

Paddling around waterfalls of incoming debris, I was now in a canal far too big for me. No life vest, little wooden paddle, and only the clothes I wore on the airplane that brought me here. By now, standing waves in the center were bucking up to six feet and I was paddling like mad to get around them, taking on water, trying not to broadside, and there was nothing but chaos. No eddies, no sand bars, no shoreline, and above me 30 feet of angled, exposed canal walls flying past too fast to grab.

Gliding under one bridge along Greenway Parkway, it was dark and all I could hear was an echoing roar so damn loud it was busting my head, like I was being swallowed by an enormous brown bear. Out the other side and into the light, rain was letting up.

The next bridge came into view. It was a hundred yards ahead and jammed up with debris. There was maybe three inches of breathing room beneath it. I spun the bow upstream, thinking maybe I could slow down, but this water would not be fought. I looked over my shoulder at the bridge. A lot of material was trying to get through, colorful plastics, aluminum cans, milk jugs, and battlefield of shopping carts hidden below, turning the water in a wild, foamy maw. I had seven seconds to decide what to do. There was no way under the bridge. There was no way around it. There was no way out.

So, I jumped.

The canoe capsized instantly, and the water took me. My mouth filled with the taste of dog urine and motor oil. No life vest, just this paddle I gripped tight. I felt the concrete bottom of the canal against me, and swells and boils shoving me around, a river searching for a way to express itself, too constrained to give into eddies or meanders. A tendon snapped in my foot. Trying to grab anything, a fingernail tore to its root.

I managed to use the paddle against the chain link and rock enclosure to slow myself enough to grab hold and hang on. Clearing the surface, I caught a breath, the flood surging against me. The canoe was rolling downstream, and I caught sight of it as the bow went skyward and the entire thing vanished under the bridge.

I climbed out. The paddle never once left my grip. Walking soaked to an intersection, I waited for the white okay-to-cross light to come on. At the nearest pay phone, I made a collect call home and asked for a ride, and some towels.

The fire department found the twisted canoe miles downstream and traced it to my dad’s phone number. When I drove down to pick it up that night, they had questions for me. I told them about his heart attack, how he was found face-down on the kitchen floor, how he and I used to spar, how we were epic together. The firemen gathered around me. They weren’t worried about the canoe ride I’d taken. They worried about my heart, knowing how people like me just go in a flash. They hemmed in close around me, touching me shoulders, telling me to take care of this one brief life that I have. I loaded the twisted, wrecked canoe and drove it home.



Four issues, free shipping, evergreen content…