Illustration by Martin Simpson.
Illustration by Martin Simpson.

The Incident at Burro Creek

An Arizona kayaker recounts a close call with an armed landowner

I was drifting; gazing at a cliffside spring, listening to the soothing sound of a riffle. CRACK! The calm was shattered by the sharp deafening peal of nearby gunfire. Pat, one of my three companions kayaking upstream, gave a holler that almost had a celebratory tone to it--woohooo--but clearly it was a communication to whomever might be shooting--"we’re on the water, please hold your fire."

Gunshots are not necessarily an alarming sound in Arizona. If one spends much time outside of city limits, they will eventually hear the deep resonant boom of a hunting rifle, the pop of a handgun, even the tat-tat-tat of an automatic weapon. It’s part of the auditory landscape. And while this fact should probably be cause for cultural alarm, it does not bother me so much. I’ve spent most of my life in the Arizona countryside, I’m used to the sound of gunfire.

I even contribute to the disquietude once a year, while sighting in my hunting rifle before elk season. I don’t really enjoy the process--the explosion beside my ear, the searing smell of burnt powder, the violent kick of the weapon that bruises my shoulder and bloodies the bridge of my nose as I look intently through the scope. But when the hunt comes, I am prepared to kill.

Something about this gunfire told me it wasn’t a hunter’s shot, and before Pat’s voice stopped echoing across the cliffs, a thought popped into my head, "maybe it's The Guy." He was someone we’d been warned about by the campground host at the put-in, an angry landowner who did not like paddlers, or anyone else who might wander near his property. “Don’t stop on river right before the canyon,” was the advice. We didn’t plan to.

A strange voice came from the right shoreline just before a second shot shrieked through the dry desert air. The river was silenced. The trickling spring went mute. Everything began to slow down into a surreal warped space. I began to paddle.

Without ever looking directly at the gravel bar 50 yards to my right, I was aware of a man there, standing, with a silver gun glinting in the sunshine. Pat started shouting a forceful plea, “Hey! Hey!” The third shot felt closer, although I had no idea where the bullets were actually going. Still with no inclination to look toward shore, I felt a keen presence from this blurry specter to my right, as if it were some fantastical animated being, half-man, half-silver gun.

My inner dialogue began to process, finally, what was unfolding, and the surreal reality struck me in an instant--there is a man shooting at me. In that moment of recognition, I came to an acceptance of my fate, and everything made sense. If he wants to shoot me, I thought, there is nothing I can do about it. This is his choice. He was there to shoot. I was there to paddle.

Then something occurred to me: Flip over. The decision was half instinct, half calculation. Clearly a bullet would have a harder time of finding me under the water, but I had another thought that was foremost--maybe he’ll think that he hit me. And if he thinks that he hit me, maybe he’ll be snapped out of his gun-slinging fantasy, into some feeling of remorse. I wobbled my head toward the sky, feigning a confused delirium reminiscent of the character Drew in the movie Deliverance, and then teetered over into the calm world beneath the water.

In the movie, viewers are never sure if Drew is actually hit by a bullet or overwhelmed by some other mysterious force as he plops out of his canoe and into the water. In my own developing scene, I wasn’t sure either. I didn’t know if my actions were intentional, or if I was just a player in a role. In any case, that role now had me upside down in a slow-moving pool, air-supply ticking away while a red-faced gunslinger waited for my re-emergence.

Strangely, the several seconds I spent under water seemed to pass without many thoughts running through my head. It was calm and quiet under there, sending me into a sort of forced meditation, a break from the sensory overload of the surface world. When my oxygen supply began to wane, I rolled upright to hear the voice of my assailant clearly for the first time. “This one’s not gonna miss,” he predicted.

He was almost right. The bullet caused a dramatic vertical splash about four feet from my stern. With that, the unknown flush-faced gunslinger got what he was likely seeking--my panicked flee from the force at his disposal. My last view of him, again only from the corner of my eye, had him slowly walking upstream as I paddled downstream. He was either out of bullets, or tired of me as a target.

I stroked with my best racing form as the current gathered and flushed past the end of the pool. Down a long straight-away of small waves I pushed hard, glancing at shore to note the topography, judging how long it might take The Guy to get on his ATV and meet me at the head of the canyon with his long rifle. The water was my escape, but it was also a wickedly exposed place to be. I needed cover.

In two minutes I was catching an eddy behind a bedroom-sized boulder at the start of the canyon. I got out of my boat and made myself drink water and eat a snack, because I thought this could be my last chance to do so for a while. I expected my flee to re-commence at any moment. Nothing happened. The desert was quiet and I was happily alone. What now? Scan the horizon. Peek around the boulder. Binoculars! Where are my binoculars? I grabbed my camera and crept up the hillside, shuffling from the inadequate cover of creosote bush to saguaro.

The peninsula of land where the ambush occurred was a half-mile away. With full zoom, I took a photo of the area, then in review mode zoomed in to find some clues. The images offered nothing, but the simple act of photography calmed me. I composed a flowering bush against brown rippling water, adjusting the aperture to capture the best light. The absurdity of my artistic moment in the midst of crisis occurred to me, and I spoke aloud, “Dude, you’re taking pictures.” That gave me a nervous chuckle.

At that moment, still waiting for my friends to arrive, I viewed the shooter as nothing more than a river hazard to be managed, no different than a rapid to be portaged or a territorial grizzly bear to be avoided. Once the threat was passed, I reasoned, my partners would come on downstream, and we would continue to camp for the night.

Twenty minutes passed, and nobody came paddling around the bend. I considered hiking back toward the scene to check on my friends, but there was a visceral restraint that kept me from going any closer to that place, or that Guy. I ran through scenarios: 1) They are all killed. This seemed unlikely because I hadn’t heard any more shots; 2) They attacked The Guy, Pat's army ranger training coming back in a fury flood that got ugly; 3) They escaped, retreating to the campground or fleeing into the desert. Given any of those scenarios, they probably wouldn’t be floating past anytime soon.

There was a side canyon a few miles downstream. I'd taken out there with John, and camped there with Pat. This was the next obvious rendezvous. But The Guy surely knew of this place too, it was the next road access. I wanted to reunite with my team, but I also felt a need to remain hidden. I decided that I would approach the side canyon stealthily, at dusk. This put some time on my hands.

Photography became my purpose. I paddled down to a secluded beach and took photos of my kayak at water’s edge. I continued to a nook among river cliffs, tied my boat to a submerged willow, and climbed onto slabs above where I captured golden reflected light on the water. I even set the self-timer and made a self-portrait, a last image of myself, if it came to that.

On the river, self portrait after the incident.

Delicately crawling back into my kayak, I shoved off, stopping again at a shallow cave on river left. From the security of the overhang, I studied my tattered black and white map, a copy that I made at the library 20 years ago when I first came to this canyon. That was long before The Guy was a part of the landscape.

One straightaway and two bends would have me at the side canyon. Arriving there at dusk was still my plan, but I was starting to lose patience. I folded the map, methodically sealed it in my drybag, and prepared to launch. I heard a sound.

Illustration by Martin Simpson.

It was rockfall. From atop a 300-foot cliff directly across the river, a couch-sized hunk of black basalt came hurtling off the lip. It silently rotated through the air, tumbling in space end for end. For the second time that day, time stood still. I watched in amazement as the projectile crashed onto a talus slope, a shower of smaller rocks behind it ricocheting in a cloud of dust. I was certain that The Guy was responsible.

He must be up there, announcing his presence before firing the fatal bullet. I knew I was a small target, three feet of torso sticking out of a plastic kayak. And if I were moving, I’d be smaller yet. So I pushed away from shore and started to paddle. Again, we were reduced to players in roles. He was shooting. I was paddling.

After a hundred yards of erratic zigzag paddling, my rational brain began to assert itself over my flight response. I laughed at myself and at the craziness of the situation, allowing myself a surge of confidence because I was in my element, in a kayak within a canyon. This was my turf. I had the advantage now. I spoke aloud to reinforce my rational thoughts over the surreal circumstances that surrounded me: "The Guy didn’t trundle that rock. The terrain is way too gnarly. I’m not running from a Navy SEAL here, just some pathetic old man."

Still, The Guy would be able to drive a jeep down the side canyon I was headed for, so I pulled over well upstream and across the river, hiking high to steal a view of the mouth of Kaiser Spring Canyon. It was eerily quiet. I returned to my boat and paddled closer, catching an eddy mid-rapid so I could tuck the kayak behind some large boulders. Scampering through the rocks, I peered over each one attentively.

At the mouth of the canyon was a big beach. Here, I walked into the open for the first time that day, again crossing that line between careful self-preservation and fatalistic acceptance. I was looking for tracks, either of The Guy, or of my companions. I found none. The sun was going down, and my whole under-the-cover-of-dusk plan seemed silly now that it actually was almost dusk. I needed daylight as much as anyone, and reuniting with my bros wasn’t going to be any easier in the dark. Jogging up the side canyon, I felt empowered. If The Guy couldn’t hit me from 50 yards on the open river, he sure wasn't going to hit me while I could move quickly on foot, with the whole desert as an escape.

When the sandy wash intersected a jeep trail, I made a note with pebbles on the ground, aligning the little stones into crude letters that read, "Goin to T.O. TW." Continuing to the takeout seemed like the best plan. We had a truck there.

As I prepared to run the half-mile back to the river, I saw a plume of smoke billow out from behind some cottonwood trees 200 yards away. I ducked low at first, still in stealth mode, but then my rational brain told me to go investigate. There could be help there.

Illustration by Martin Simpson.

It was an elderly couple from Canada, camping in the Arizona desert with their four-wheel-drive. I explained my situation. Their reaction was subtle, like they neither understood the shuttle logistics, the geography of the area, or even the fact that I’d been shot at. But they let me borrow a phone.

I had both John and Pat’s numbers memorized; they're two of my best friends. I called Pat's phone first, and got his voicemail, so I left a message that went something like, "This is Tyler. I’m okay. I’m calling on a borrowed phone. I will proceed to takeout. I should be there by mid-morning tomorrow." John’s phone was next.  I left another voice message, thanked the Canadians, and left them to their now somewhat unsettled evening.

I ran back to my boat. It was getting dark. I paddled a Class III rapid and kept going, paddling fast felt good, fulfilling my flight need at the closing of a crazy day.

A helicopter flew by upstream. I thought it might be looking for me, or the shooter who might have fled into the desert. Maybe we were still engaged in our dueling dance? Rational and irrational brain continued their struggle, and I labored to decipher which was which. It was a low-flying helicopter, but it wasn’t flying directly down the river. I told myself to stop the paranoia, it was just a passing chopper. When it flew over again minutes later, I reasoned that it was, after all, a search helicopter. But I didn't want to be found now. I was in control, in the backcountry, seemingly far from The Guy. It flew on, and I drifted quietly through the fading light.

I pulled over three times before settling on a campsite. The first one was too exposed. The next one had footprints on the beach--peculiar, and too accessible. It was full nighttime when I found a spot beneath sheltering boulders beside a small beach. I got a cooking fire started and cracked a beer. Carrying half our trip's supply, there were six in my boat. I drank all of them.

Illustration by Martin Simpson.

Weird dreams of unruly horses and barbed-wire prison compounds; I woke with a start in the night to ward off a stampeding herd before realizing the boulders behind camp were just that, and not threatening stallions.

Morning was calm, serenaded with birdsong, massaged by a warming sun, perfect like backcountry mornings are. The river had dropped a few inches and I thought about Eric, the fourth member of our party. He'd never paddled Burro Creek before and now it was dropping out. Maybe next year, Eric, or the year after that. In Arizona you never know. I'd have stayed there in camp and lingered, gone for a walk and reveled in the idyllic freshness of the Sonoran Desert in early spring, but my friends were waiting, wondering, maybe even held hostage in a gimp hole. I packed up and paddled.

There were two rapids left, the “big” rapids of Burro Creek, both class IV drops where the creek meets lenses of granite. My wife, Lisa, coined them decades ago when we came here to paddle on a hunch, following a squiggly line through topographic contours. “Quasar,” she titled the last one, because she always thought a rapid should be called Quasar. I began to tear up, unexpectedly thinking about her then.

At low water, both rapids were easier than I remembered. Onward into an opening landscape I stroked, craggy desert mountains revealing themselves in the distance ahead. The takeout was coming soon. Although it didn’t seem likely, The Guy could be there, waiting with his silver gun. My wariness returned but not so much that I was going to walk through the cover of desert scrub instead of paddling. I stroked in the middle of the shallow open river feeling vulnerable, and when I saw two figures in orange far downstream, my instinct was to hide.

Rationality won over instinct. I approached the two orange-vested men. They knew who I was, which felt strange. I wanted to be back on the water, alone, but I knew I had to supplant my need for flight with some new goal. I focused on reuniting with my friends. They were safe, said the friendly search and rescue fellows.

We would see each other, share stories, return home just in time to see the Falcons blow a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. Imbued with some new prescience, I saw it coming. Nothing shocked me anymore.

Eric, John, and Pat had no less trying of an experience. Ordered to shore as I fled downriver, they pleaded with The Guy to let them continue, unsure if I'd been hit by one of his bullets or not. He only waved his gun, tossed his cigarette butt into the water, and replied, "You done yet?" They had to look into his face, feel the uncertainty of a brandished loaded weapon pointed at them, accept their failure at the hands of a madman.

With no option to continue downriver, they could only retreat, forced to drag their kayaks back up to the campground where they called the sheriff. By midnight, a team of deputies had surrounded his home and apprehended him: the mysterious landowner, the red-faced gunslinger, the madman, the old man, The Guy. For weeks after, he was in a Mohave County jail cell on multiple counts; felony count of unlawful imprisonment, kidnapping, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and endangerment.

Now, exactly one year later, it seems that The Guy may live out the remainder of his life in prison. The trial of Danny Eugene Button, age 68, is about to commence. Our incident generated a few tales of other campers' strange encounters with Button, albeit much less belligerent. I still have no clear sense of his background, and can only make assumptions about a misguided Wild West identity that motivated him to pull the trigger. Yet now I will finally have to look into this man's face and confront the event that I just want to file away as another close call.

I feel guilt for Button's fate. I was the one who forced his hand. Isn't there any other way to simply disarm him and protect others without sending him to prison on the taxpayer's bill? These are tough questions.

I can only take solace in the fact that there was little I could have done differently. Perhaps I could've taken the campground host's warning to heart and not gone paddling that day at all. But I would never do that. I'm a paddler. That's what I do.

-- Tyler Williams is a longtime C&K contributor and the author of Paddling Arizona. His recent work includes ‘Secret History of the Green,’ ‘Doug Tompkins, Life and Legacy,’ and the four-part ‘Legends of Rafting‘ series.