Bear Canyon Lake gleams in the sunlight that slants through breaks in the afternoon pileup of thunderheads, deep, narrow, dramatic — and completely artificial.
Trout undulate in its depths — perhaps even a few survivors of the Arctic graylings stocked in there years ago. Osprey hunt the shallows for unwary fish, elk and deer nibble the grass and brush at dusk, wildlife gathers all around the steep, quiet shoreline — all drawn to this incongruous, essentially man-made habitat.
Bear Canyon remains one of the most scenic, but less visited, lakes in the chain of Rim Country impoundments that draw millions of visitors annually — mostly from sweltering Phoenix.
Rim Country residents often skip the heavily used and easily accessible Woods Canyon and Willow Springs lakes and head for Bear Canyon, which is protected from the heavy fishing pressure and weekend crowds by the longer drive and the steep trail.
But the artificially created lake shares key characteristics with all of those other lakes atop the Rim, mostly created by the state to lure fishermen, campers, hikers and boaters.
Remarkably enough, Arizona had only one natural lake when the first Europeans arrived — thanks to the same topography that has created such dramatic vistas, varied habitats and unique wildlife.
The landscape channels the runoff from the entire state into a few major river systems. Most of the western and northwestern portion of the state drains into the Colorado River, where dams now provide reservoirs that sustain 17 million people in seven states.
The runoff from most of the eastern portion of the state also ends up in the Colorado River, but only after passing through the Salt and Gila rivers, which merge near Phoenix before flowing on toward Yuma.
But some of the most violent and remarkable geology in the state created the backwards drainage of Rim Country, where most of the streams atop the Rim flow to the north toward the often-dry Little Colorado River, instead of south to the Salt River.
Blame the Mogollon Rim — it forms a nearly unbroken chain of 2,000-foot-tall cliffs. This remarkable break in the earth’s crust forms the leading edge of the vast Colorado Plateau, a region of uplifted rock topped by the Rocky Mountains.
Along much of the Rim, the southernmost lip represents a high point, with the land sloping away from the lip of the Rim to the north.
Farther west, geologists believe that a smaller ancestor of the Colorado River once flowed into a vast, inland sea, trapped between the lip of that uplift and the snow-hoarding heights of the Rocky Mountain. But erosion on the front slope of that uplift eventually ate backward and captured the ancestral Colorado within the past 5 million years, triggering one of the most dramatic periods of erosion in the planet’s history — which we now refer to modestly enough as the Grand Canyon.
That new, merged river system caught the runoff from the tilted, uplifted plateau for hundreds of miles to the east, leaving the wall of the Mogollon Rim virtually unbroken from the Verde Valley to the White Mountains.
As a result, most of the streams atop the Rim run north toward oblivion in the high desert fastness of the Petrified Forest.
Some streams fed by springs in the fractured, faulted sedimentary layers of the Rim itself emerged from the face of the wall, including the three major streams that flow through Rim Country.
Fossil Creek and the East Verde both end up in the Verde River. Tonto Creek ends up in the Salt River, with Rim Country’s own little version of the watershed defining Continental Divide running right through water-conscious Star Valley. But most of the streams atop the Rim run through deep canyons to the north, where they feed into the meandering, marshy, flood-prone Little Colorado River.
The settlers, mining companies and the state built small dams on many of those streams, creating the chain of Rim Lakes. However, most of the canyons cut by the streams were so deep and narrow that settlers couldn’t use the water for farming in the mountains.
The Mormon settlers who tried to tame the Little Colorado River once it emerged from the mountains eventually gave up, tormented by floods that washed out their irrigation works and droughts that withered their crops.
That left the Rim Country lakes mostly for the campers and fishermen.
Fortunately, that provided the foundation for the region’s most important economic activity — tourism. The lakes of Rim Country have now become a scenic summer playground located just 100 miles from the fifth largest city in the country.
For most visitors, a visit to a spot like Bear Canyon Lake represents an escape to pristine wilderness.
In fact, the construction of the dams that created the lake and the introduction of alien species like crawfish, trout, bass, catfish, perch and a host of other plants and animals have created a new and sometimes unpredictable habitat — heavily stocked with trout and heavily visited by humans.