Rafting the Rio Arizona in a VW Van and Other Wally Heath Memories

Paul Dayton

Wally Heath
Wally Heath

Wally Heath was my first great mentor in college. My mother was a buddy of Chuck Lowe when I went off to college in the summer of 1959 to start a series of remedial classes I needed. Wally was one of Lowe’s graduate students and whether Lowe sent him to look for me or my mother sent him, he found me in the library late one night in summer school, introduced himself and took me under his wing. He was always there offering wisdom and support when I was threatened with expulsion for resisting ROTC, marching on the local SAC Air Force base and being very active in the civil rights demonstrations of the era. Later Wally and I connected when I went to graduate school in Seattle and he was in Bellingham. We interacted often. He offered to help me over the Canadian border if I needed that option if I were drafted and he offered to find me some work when it appeared I would graduate without a job. It was one of the most important relationships of my life. And, of course, I met Dr. Lowe as well my freshman year when he ate me a new asshole for introducing myself to him at the urinal. That was not the proper protocol for an 18 year old to meet a professor.

But the most important mentoring Wally did was taking me on all sorts of field trips all over southern Arizona from Quitobaquito to all the little springs along the Mexican border, to Arivaipa, to the Gila River, countless ranch pozos across southern Arizona all the way to the Slaughter Ranch near Douglas searching for and CTMaxing his Poeciliopsis topminnows. I often used my mask and snorkel to find and collect the fish and he would heat them up until the poor buggers hit a lethal stress threshold (“CTM” or critical thermal maximum) with me writing down the numbers. He also hooked me up with Bob Bezy, a Lowe student, and eventually Wally rescued Annette Halpern from the French Department. Bob and Annette became my closest undergraduate friends, friendships lasting until the present. Between Wally and Bob dragging me all over chasing either his fish or Bob’s or Jerry Gates lizards I think I learned more desert ecology than many professional desert ecologists. He introduced me to famous names like Robert Rush Miller and all the other ecologists that came through the place. I don’t think that there has been a week in my life since I graduated in 1963 that I do not think of any number of life lessons and memories from those days with Wally and Bob.

I am torn between two really vivid memories to recount: one was a wildcat kitten turned lion one night in the lab, but the better one is the collecting trip to a small Mexican rancho that had a well that supposedly had his topminnows Indeed, as I recall, it might be that Robert Rush Miller himself had collected it there. Wally really wanted to collect and CTM that species. He explained that the Rio Arizona had connected to a bunch of Mexican streams in the ice ages and the genetic diversification was extremely important (in my mind CTM was as close as they could come to some of these measures of genetic difference). They really were doing cutting edge research at the time and the thermal effects on survival were really interesting, especially at Quitobaquito. But it was very important to find and test every variant of the genus in the region.

Wally had rough topo map and the Robert Rush Miller paper to help him find the collection site (a small ranch along the Rio Arizona), and he invited Bob Bezy and me to join him and his very young son Harry to have a fun filled quick day trip into northern Sonora in one of the original VW vans.. It was August 1962. It had been raining and there was concern about getting there, but it was just so very important. Wally had little Harry bouncing along in the back of the new VW van he was so proud of. He himself was crippled because he had just had an awful operation stripping one of the veins the length of one of his inner legs. He was not supposed to be out of bed, but this trip was just too important. He had a cane and was in a lot of pain but off we went with the makings of a dinner in case we had to spend the night.

We went through the border at Nogales then west on a little dirt road just at the edge of town, maybe a mile or two from Calle Canal, my landmark. He had a bunch of maps we consulted often looking for the road that was to intersect the Rio Arizona. The ranch with the topminnows was just a couple miles down the Rio from the road we searched for. Eventually we found a road that crossed a stream sort of where the Rio Arizona was supposed to be on his crude map. We crossed the stream that was flowing pretty well but there was no ranch road so we went to the end of the dirt road and I asked a cowboy where we might find the Rio Arizona. Our stream was it, and we went back and parked beside the road and almost gave up since there was no road. He was in pain and Harry and I were hungry and Bezy anxious to get there to collect some stuff himself.

If nothing else Wally had a stubborn streak, and he saw truck tracks going off the berm beside the bridge, and he imagined that it looked like it looked like a good gravel road bed in the water and he figured that was the road to the ranch was down the middle of the Rio. I figured somebody had driven off to get some gravel and Mexicans nor anybody else considered fast flowing streams to be a road. I was right, but he just gunned that feeble VW over the berm and we bounced hard a few times and landed right side up in the middle of the Río floating downstream. It had been deeper than we thought, and happily it turned out that newish VW vans float. There was not much Wally could do except keep the engine running since the exhaust was under water and if the engine stopped it would suck up water and blow up, so he kept it going and every once in a while a wheel would hit bottom. Wally managed to keep the raft heading in the right direction while all the time we searched in vain for the ranch road that we thought was there.

Eventually we floated around a corner in the river and there was a white ranch house roughly where it was supposed to be, and happily they really did have a road that forded the Río that was shallow enough for Wally to get a good run at it. We bounced up the berm and came to a dripping stop in front of the house. By now it was late and getting dark and the only guy there was a foreman who came running out and stood looking at us with his mouth open. I gather it was unusual for VW vans to float in for dinner. Wally spoke no Spanish and my Spanish was not adequate for anything civilized, but Bezy had explained the protocol for collecting herps in Mexico when asked why, to reply it was for “medicine” and I tried that tactic. He looked very dubious, but it sort of worked and he agreed we could stay the night. Eventually the foreman explained that the road came from the other direction, but it was washed out by the storm, and the dueňo was going to get a Cat and repair it in a week or so.

We had expected to be home that night and had no camping gear, but Wally broke out a couple cans of something that the Foreman heated up and gave us some tortillas that we ate by the light of his lantern. Wally kept asking the foreman about his fish and he looked at the Rio and did not think that there were good fish in there, but Wally and I finally got him to consider his large natural well behind the house and he said we could go look in it. Wally was so excited that we had to go get the fish by flashlight even though he could hardly walk, and I was really tired. The cowboy wanted to know what we wanted the fish for and Bob and I kept up the Medicino work with a wise look and it worked. We got CTMs that night and Wally joined Harry sleeping on an old mat the guy had. Then it got interesting as the cowboy wanted me to join him in his nice bed. I finally told him I was married so I got to sleep on the cement in my wet cloths close to Wally and Harry. Bezy spend the night collecting until his Coleman lantern went out and he had to struggle back in the pitch black with a small toad.

In the morning I was pretty worried about being stuck there. Bob and I could have walked back up the stream and probably eventually got a ride out, but Wally really could barely walk and little Harry needed to be carried, so it seemed pretty grim to me. But not to Wally and Bob who were totally comfortable with the situation, nothing ventured, nothing gained they argued, and we bid the cowboy adios and gunned that little thing out their main road. It was torn up some, but passable and I figured we were going to be ok until Wally gunned the powerless VW up over a little hill with the clutch burning as he climbed over all the rocks and bumps. Eventually we found that the road was washed out, really washed out. The flood had gone down the middle of the road leaving a very deep rut with sides far too steep for the van to stay upright. But after making the van a boat, this was nothing to Wally who instructed Bob and me to talk beside the van with our legs braced against the other side of the rut as Wally went down the right side with the van tipping badly to the left. We slowly inched along the left side holding the Van from turning over. It was balanced just enough so Bob and I were able to keep the right tires touching! The rest of the road was sort of normal and his leg was really hurting so I drove. Finally we crossed the border where Wally phoned home to check in and got a very serious talking to about how to treat Harry. Wally and Bob clearly considered this sort of thing normal and they never mentioned it as being risky or anything or even really different. They persuaded me at the time that such trips really are normal for field biologists and we had many many trips, none of which I would now consider normal.

Wally and the Bobcat. Wally needed to support his young family while working his way through the latter part of his graduate school career. I am not sure how this solution was finessed, but I think at the time (1961-2) we were a Zoology and there was a Biology Department that may have been created for Wally to offer an undergraduate class for non-majors. He was a wonderful teacher and had terrific lab sections that Annette Halpern and I, both second or third year undergraduates, helped TA. Wally believed in hands on learning and brought all sorts of wonderful plants and animals into the labs and helped Annette and me learn the material well enough to teach it. One of the animals he sometimes brought into the lab was a Bobcat kitten he had acquired someplace. It was a cute big kitten much loved in the lab as it romped around free for the kids to love. At night Wally would take the pet home to play with his infants.

One late night he and I were cleaning up after an evening lab and he asked me to collect his pet to take home to the family. It was a normal routine of running down the playful kitten, scooping it up and tucking it happily into the little transfer box. I had the cat in my arms when suddenly it absolutely exploded, twisting in my arms and ripping my face and arms and I grabbed its front legs as well as I could to hold the biting mouth from my face and its hind legs were ripping my stomach and Wally came running over and after we fell down trying to get some leverage, he managed to get the hind legs, and we lay there holding the 4 sets of suddenly deadly claws apart with me holding its head as far from me as I could. There was blood all over and the cat and I were sort of slippery with it as Wally and I eyed the little carrying box that had been knocked to the floor some distance away. We managed to wiggle ourselves and the struggling cat close enough to the box so that he hooked it with a foot and dragged it so it was braced against a chair, but we could not figure out how to open the sliding door in the box. There was discussion about simply yelling for help hoping somebody was in the hall and they could get a cop to shoot the damned cat, at least that was what I sort of hoped for! But it was clear that this would result in more trouble than it was worth and maybe we would turn it loose in the lab and come back and shoot it ourselves, but neither of us had a gun.

I am not quite sure how Wally got the door open, he may have used his foot or dropped a set of hind claws and used a hand, but eventually the sliding door was opened and I jammed the front end of the beast into the box and he slammed the door down with me pulling my bloody hands out and the cat pulling its hind end in so as to turn around and escape. I remember worrying about infection but also trying to explain my wounds to the campus medical staff so I went home to clean up and Wally took his box out to the desert and held it out the window of the moving van and dumped his beloved pet into the desert someplace.

I imagine that this story has a lesson, but I am not interested in any lessons at my age, just enjoying the memories. It gives a sense of the fun that people can have when there are no risk management Nazis to deal with.