Tonto Creek Adventures

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One of Arizona's most fabled streams of water is near the center of the state, and is called Tonto Creek. It begins with springs hidden under the Mogollon Rim and flows through forests, canyons, and basins as it cuts across the land made famous by novelist Zane Grey. Its waters finally become captive to the nation's first major reclamation project, Roosevelt Lake, mingling there with the Salt River. Together they go on to water the golf courses and lawns of the Phoenix metropolitan area. However, Tonto Creek's gift to the Salt River Valley comes only after gracing countless anglers, hunters, cattle ranchers, and refugees from the desert heat. If one were to hike its length, the trek would lead through pristine forests, a wilderness that earns the name "Hell's Gate," settler villages, and open valleys that are home to a growing population. Each mile along the way whispers a story of prehistoric settlement, Apache wars, pioneer family life, and the romance, murder, drama, and suspense that accompany them.

For much of the year the Tonto flows in a meditative manner, coaxing people of all ages to wade in its open stretches, play on its slide rocks, or cast fishhooks into its ripples. When spring melts the snow on surrounding mountains the Tonto vents its rage, rising over its banks and thrusting stones, trees, mud, even an occasional building, like battering rams to slash new courses.

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Tonto Creek is considerably below full strength thanks to an ongoing drought, but former town historian Stan Brown relives its glory years in a brand-new 16-part series.

The river has taken to itself countless tales of human endeavor that run the gamut of human emotion. In our imaginations we will hike the 75-mile course from Tonto Creek's origin, under what Zane Grey called "The Tonto Rim," to its culmination at the junction with the mighty Salt River in Tonto Basin.

Chapter One: Hatchery at the headwaters

I stood one day in a broad canyon cut by water flowing from under the Mogollon Rim, and stared at my hands holding two halves of a broken mono.

They fascinated me, because the two pieces of this ancient grinding tool fit together perfectly, as if broken only moments before. Yet each half was distinctive.

One was covered with gray-green lichen and the other was bare. Amazingly, I had retrieved the two parts from opposite sides of an ancient campsite. Between the two stone halves was a twenty-five foot interval where potsherds and chips of flint and quartz lay scattered about. The two parts of the well-worn mono became one in my hand.

My imagination leaped back across the centuries to these people who had camped here each season in order to grind the corn grown in their creek-side plantings and acorns gathered from the surrounding oak trees.

Ten thousand years ago bands of Clovis people hunted in these central Arizona mountains, evidenced by several finds of Clovis points. Over the millennia other groups also passed this way -- Mogollon, Anasazi, Salado, and Hohokam. More recently the hunters were Tonto Apache.

Each wave of transient hunter-gatherers experienced the spectacular escarpment that divides Arizona's high plateau from the lower Sonoran desert. "The Rim," as it is called locally, runs southeasterly for about 200 miles, and nurtures the forests and meadows that are a hunter's paradise.

Streams have eroded canyons into the Rim-like fingers digging into the rock. Each of these living streams became homesteads for pioneers of European stock who fled to the West after America's Civil War.

In the 20th century, the author Zane Grey traveled to this Rim and hired a hunting guide named Anderson Lee "Babe" Haught. Haught had established a homestead along the Tonto Creek and developed a trail from the head of the canyon to the top of The Rim. It was the shortest route for ranchers along upper Tonto Creek to pack their supplies in from the railhead at Winslow.

Babe Haught first led the famous author on that rough ascent in the autumn of 1918. Zane Grey, in his book "Tales of Lonely Trails," wrote, "At last we surmounted the rim, from which I saw a scene that defied words. It was different from any I had seen before. Black timber as far as the eye could see! Then I saw a vast bowl of forested ridges, and dark lines I knew to be canyons. For wild rugged beauty I had not seen its equal." [1]

By the 1930s supervisors for the Tonto National Forest recognized the value of the Tonto Creek headwaters as an excellent location for a fish hatchery. The cold spring water was ideal for raising trout, which need a water temperature of 46 to 63 degrees. Most Arizona streams are too warm to foster natural breeding. A hatchery also avoids predators.

In 1935, the government enlisted the WPA to build the fish hatchery between two great protrusions extending from the Rim. One is Myrtle Point, named for the deceased daughter of Elwood and Sarah Pyle who ranched in the area, and the other is named Promontory Butte. One only has to see this giant peninsula to know how it got its name.

Trout raised at the hatchery were stocked in the surrounding streams. In the early years the brood fish were kept there and milked for eggs and sperm every winter. In later years fertile eggs were bought and production was increased. At first scrap meat was brought from Flagstaff, ground up and fed to the fish. When they became two or three inches long they were transferred to concrete tanks outside the hatchery building. After the fish achieved a size for planting in the mountain streams, it was a yeoman's task to pull them out with an 80-foot seine. Today a hydraulic pump sucks them up and segregates them by size.

The hatching and raising of the small fry is done in an old rock building that has survived a number of forest fires and floods. Over the years the origin of Tonto Creek seemed like a dangerous location. In 1961 a fire on nearby Robert's Mesa destroyed 2,500 acres of forest and threatened the hatchery. In 1969 fire took out the trees and vegetation around the hatchery and up the face of the Rim. That winter heavy snows piled up to eight feet, and the spring run off brought severe erosion. Then on Labor Day weekend, 1970, relentless rains caused a devastating flood. Debris piled up to form a dam high in the Tonto Creek canyon. When that dam broke it caused a thirty foot wall of water to roar down upon the hatchery, carrying boulders the size of trucks and one hundred year old trees that had been snapped like matchsticks. Three of the five fishponds were washed away. The government set about rebuilding the establishment because its location was too choice to abandon. The old ponds were replaced by raceways, resulting in a 50% increase in production. As the demand for sport fish continued to grow the hatchery was renovated once again, from 1986 to 1989, and included a visitor center with a self-guided museum.

In June 1990 the hatchery was again almost destroyed by fire. The Dude Fire raged past it, nicking some of the buildings and becoming the state's most destructive forest fire to that date. In the Bonita Creek area, just west of Tonto Creek, six fire fighters died in the inferno.

Assistants for the hatchery manager were not easy to find in the early days because of its isolated location. Payson resident Elaine Drorbaugh told how she and Walt, her husband of less than a year, arrived for that job at the Tonto fish Hatchery. It was after dark on New Year's Day, 1948, and was snowing. She describes their arrival, "My husband stared at the little shack we had arrived at and told me it hadn't really looked that bad in the daylight. When we opened the door and took one step into the kitchen, what I saw caused me to take two steps back. The tiny room was painted pumpkin orange, with holly green, open cupboards. The drain board and counter were covered with linoleum that looked like it hadn't been cleaned for a long time. The sink was a camp trailer reject. The one faucet was running to keep the water from freezing, and there were dirty dishes in the sink."

The oven door had to be braced shut with a block of wood. A small drop leaf table and two chairs completed the furniture in her kitchen. The adjoining bedroom had once been a chicken house, moved from nearby Indian Gardens. The bedroom did have a bed, a side table, a battery operated radio, a wood stove, and a couple of chairs. Behind the kitchen was a room holding a bathtub, but no running water. The outhouse was twenty-five feet from the house. The hatchery had a walk-in freezer, which also served the manager's family as a refrigerator. In winter, milk was kept in a snow bank, in a 5-gallon can. Each morning they would chip frozen milk out of the can to be thawed on the wood stove.

Elaine and Walt went to work with white paint, made curtains for the windows and installed new linoleum. "It wasn't so bad after that," she reported. They lived in their "chicken house" for sixteen months. Guests had to bring their own tents and camping gear, and guests there were. "Our yard was crowded every weekend, weather permitting." Walt and Elaine enjoyed the wild life, watching deer come to Tonto Creek Spring, listening to squirrels drop pine cones on the metal roof, learning how to deal with a bear "that wanted the same wild grapes I had my eye on." She made flower beds, learned to cook on a wood stove, wash clothes with a wash board, and iron with irons heated on the wood stove. But like so many young couples in their first assignment, Walt and Elaine learned to be a team. They worked together and enjoyed the simple things of life in this glorious wilderness setting. "With no TV and the radio used only for news and weather, we did a lot of talking together and really got to know each other." They actually were sorry when Walt was transferred to other locations.

Throughout the early years of the Tonto Fish Hatchery its managers and workers consisted primarily of local families. Al Fuller, of the pioneer family that settled the community of Pine, managed the project in the 1960s. It was extremely hard work, feeding the fragile young trout daily, plowing through the seasonal mud and snow to reach the ponds. The loneliness was tempered by the presence of several assistants, and together they related to local residents as good neighbors.

Our family's relationship with the Tonto fish Hatchery began in 1963. We had established a vacation cabin several canyons west of Tonto Creek, on the upper East Verde River. Each week the truck from the Tonto hatchery would arrive and pull onto our bridge over the stream, right in front of our house. They would dump several hundred trout into the pool we had dammed up just below the bridge, and immediately three generations of neighbors would swoop down for an hour of fishing. It was no problem to catch our limit, and children had the time of their lives. Years later young parents would bring their own children back to the spot where they recounted those exciting moments from their childhood. However, by then things had long since changed. The old generation of hatchery personnel had left the scene and new, well-trained professionals had taken over. There was no more bending the rules, and stocking ponds on private property was out of the question. We had to hike up into the forest if we were going to take advantage of the weekly replenishment of trout.

There was one moment I hesitate to relate, but all the principal participants are long gone. Uncle Frank lived across the stream from us and had won the hearts of the "good-old-boy" rangers by serving coffee and donuts every week when they came to stock. As he advanced in age he wanted to preserve the privilege of catching his limit right in front of his house. Then one day, for some reason we never understood, Uncle Frank ran down the lane after the hatchery truck, fell and broke his hip. For many weeks he was not able to take advantage of the weekly bonanza, but the tender rangers blessed him in an unspeakable way. They pulled ten sizable trout from the tank, cleaned them on the spot as they parked on our bridge, and delivered the fresh fish to Uncle Frank in his house. They assumed we would be tight lipped about such a deed, and we were.

Today the modern Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery is open to the public, and a good place to begin one's exploration of this fabled Arizona riparian stream.

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