Adventure at Saguaro Lake Ranch

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Southwest Art Gallery Tucson | Saguaro Lake Ranch 1

By Diana Madaras

I packed a few long-sleeved sun-resistant shirts, jeans, and a wide-brimmed hat, and my husband Miro and I headed for Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch about 13 miles northeast of Mesa, AZ. John, the ranch manager, had invited us to stay for a few days to take reference photos for future paintings of the ranch.

Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch was originally a series of barracks built to house the men who constructed the dam on the Salt River in 1928. When the dam was completed and the government was about to knock down the barracks, a businessman pleaded to purchase the property. He refurbished the barracks and added rooms, founding the guest ranch. The dam created Saguaro Lake, which controls the flow of the Salt River as it meanders along the southern boundary of the ranch.       

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Barracks were converted to cabins                                       Ranch acreage along the Salt River

We arrived mid-afternoon. Our old-fashioned key opened room #7 where an Indian print blanket was draped over a king bed. A wooden, hand-painted desk and a dresser sat under curtained windows, and a little sink with towels adorned the far wall. The shower, tub, and toilet were in a separate room in the back near the closet. After we unpacked, we sat in the rockers on the covered porch just outside our screen door and enjoyed a glass of wine.

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Room #7                                                                             Inside the lodge

The sun lowered in the Western sky and the Bulldog Cliffs turned fiery. Dramatic patches of warm, red light danced across the mountains as cool, dark shadows settled deep into the crevices between them. Miro and I walked to opposite sides of the property to take photos.

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                       Bulldog Cliffs at the ranch                                         Miro gets wet to take the perfect photo               

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I was so enthralled with capturing the light on the cliffs that I did not pay attention to where I was walking. At the end of the wide dirt drive in front of the last cabin, I stopped to raise the camera to my eye when I glimpsed a large brown mound by my shoe. Some part of my being realized it was a snake. It was right next to my foot! I jumped three feet sideways as he rattled at me. The snake rose up and lashed out. By the grace of God, he did not bite me, though he could have. He was so close!

I have lived in Arizona for 42 years and have seen a dozen or so rattlesnakes, but I have never had a close encounter. My heart pounded, and a ton of adrenalin shot through me. When I was a safe distance away and caught my breath, I called out to Miro who came running. Now that I was safe, I wanted to look at this creature that had nearly scared me to death, and then I wanted to photograph him. Instead of a ruined trip—driving to the hospital with fang marks in my ankle—we photographed the snake as he slithered off into the desert.

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My heart stopped pounding about an hour later. We ate a sack lunch since we didn’t want to drive 20 minutes to a restaurant for dinner. The ranch kitchen was open for breakfast every morning, but they also serve lunch and dinner during the height of their season in March.  We drank more wine (I needed it) and enjoyed the dark, peaceful night. Animal dreams haunted me until dawn.

The next day we were up at 6 am to capture the drama of the long morning shadows. The scenes were so varied—cliffs that rose straight up from the water; grassy pastures adjacent to the horse corral; ancient multi-armed saguaros, hearty and plump from the plentiful water supply.   

Breakfast at 8 am included eggs, crispy bacon, potatoes, and banana French toast with warm maple syrup. We then headed out for our morning adventure. We walked over to the kayaks on a flat patch of grass next to the river where John gave us 15 minutes of excellent instruction. He held up a map of the river and explained when to stay left and where to fork right. “If you miss the fork to the right, you’ll go down the hard rapids, and it won’t be pretty. Just watch for the orange ball on the telephone wires. That’s your signal.” We were all determined to watch for that orange ball!

Then a quick test. Anyone who could paddle across the strong current to the quiet lagoon on the other side of the river was good to go. We crossed easily, as did another couple from Nebraska who had joined us. John stood on the bank and reminded us to keep the nose of the boat straight forward when going through fast water. “If the boat should flip, hang onto the paddle and keep your legs stretched out in front of you with toes up. Lift up your butt if you scrape the rocks.” Moments later we were out of ear shot.

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Kayaking through the tranquil, beautiful scenery

Light on the calm patches of water sparkled like glitter. Gratefully, the sun would be at our backs for the next two and half hours. Miro pointed to an otter playing on his back in a small cove, and when we rounded the bend, there stood six wild horses wading along the bank! They were part of a herd of 300 that roamed the canyons of the Salt River. Due to the drought, food had been scarce, and for the first time since 2006, the Salt River Wild Horse Management team had to drop hay bales to help keep the horses alive. I could see their ribs protruding from thin flanks.

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Wild horses along the Salt River

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  Bighorn sheep                                                                 Birds galore

We then spotted bighorn sheep peering down at us from the cliffs, and a coyote darted from the river into the bush. Huge birds swooped in and out of canyon crevices. The slow parts of the river, lazy and serene, moved us gently downstream as we took in the quiet. When the rush of swifter water broke the silence, we prepared to tackle the small rapids again.

All four of us spotted the orange ball and the important right-hand fork of the river, but a mother and son just ahead of us were not paying attention. The mom suddenly realized the fork was upon her and she called to her son who was just about to be carried into more treacherous water. He paddled hard upstream and was finally able to right his course, but mom wasn’t paying attention and her boat veered sideways and struck a rock. Out she flew. When the water flattened out downstream, she was able to wrestle the kayak to shore, but the contents had spilled everywhere. We passed her, picked up the floating items we could find, and then paddled back to help her. No harm done.

After two and half hours of kayaking, we spied John at the boat ramp signaling the end of the trip. He guided us to a clean landing and helped us out of the kayaks. We walked around for a few minutes to regain our “land legs,” then helped load the kayaks onto a trailer. As we headed back to the ranch in John’s van, we chattered excitedly about all that we had seen.

After lunch, we boarded the sightseeing ship Desert Belle on Saguaro Lake—a gentler adventure for sure. We settled into comfortable chairs on the upper deck and took photos from both sides of the boat. We saw bighorn sheep that had ventured down to the banks to drink, plus huge hawks and vultures crisscrossing the sky. The captain relayed the history and geography of the lake, and a speed boat raced alongside us with a surfer riding the wake behind the craft.

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In the late afternoon, Miro headed out for another photo shoot. Hours later he would return all abuzz about the herd of wild horses that allowed him to mingle among them. He shot hundreds of photos. Between our two cameras, we now had close to a thousand pictures to cull, ultimately choosing the ones I would paint.

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John, his wife Sean A’Lee, and Laura, the other full-time staff person at the ranch, picked up Thai food in town and invited us to dine with them. We brought wine and cheese to the table, and during dinner we enjoyed learning about the history of the ranch. John had worked here for more than 20 years and had been a full-time resident manager for nine years now. We thoroughly enjoyed the company and food, sharing stories late into the night.

After a hearty ranch breakfast the next morning, we had one more scene to capture. John told us if we waited under the trees near the pool, we’d see a vermillion flycatcher—one of my favorite birds. After a 10-minute wait, we spied him. Miro saw him carrying objects in his beak and followed the bird to his nest. Miro jumped with excitement when he saw the bird was feeding his young! He took hundreds of photos hoping one would be good.

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 Vermillion flycatcher                                                                Feeding the kids

We loved our two-day adventure at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch and look forward to returning for more. I know there are dozens of painting possibilities in the photos, and I am excited to get back to the easel.

If you go:

Please check availability of activities. The stable horses leave mid-April for cooler pastures, and kayaking occurs during the months when the dam releases water into the river. The incredible beauty and quaint cabins are there all year long. 😊

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