By Susan Elliott

Try to paddle in Arizona and not meet Dannie Keil. It isn't possible. It seems that no river event, water release, or monsoon flow event goes untouched by this local paddling guru. She has all kinds of upper levels of American Canoe Association Instructor certification from whitewater to canoe disciplines as well a role in local search and rescue. Her infectious passion for paddling local Arizona rivers has likely gotten many, many more people hooked on rivers. The fever began early for Keil. She recalls a formative first run at age 10 with her father near the family cabin in southwestern Montana.
"In one of the rapids,” she recalls, “I launched on top of a boulder and somehow found a way to pin myself on top of it. As I sat there waiting for my dad to scramble up to help me, I remember feeling a wave of excitement, not fear, rush over me.

"I sat there looking around at the rapid and the moves I could’ve done to avoid my spot and watching the water flow over the rocks,” Keil says. “Ever since then I’ve been hooked on paddling rivers, searching out those technical rapids and breathtaking views they take me to."

Today Keil speaks up for her rivers so that these essential paddling opportunities are preserved in a state where water is scarce. On Wild and Scenic Fossil Creek, she helps maintain access for paddlers. "With the new permit system, and management plans still being formatted, it’s been an interesting time for paddlers,” she says, noting how paddling was always included with a more-generic “water play” category, which threatened to have banned on several plan proposals. At a recent public meeting, Keil was excited “to educate the USFS Rangers and Planners about paddling and the impacts it created,” finally breaking though and getting paddling categorized separately as a form of navigation. “This was a huge win!” Keil exclaimed, not only for the categorization alone, but also a huge win to highlight just “how much the local paddling community does to help preserve Fossil Creek."

Photo by Danielle Keil

What is different about a Wild and Scenic River compared to most other rivers you've floated and fished?
With Wild and Scenic Rivers, there’s just something that holds your attention and captivates you in such a profound way, almost always leaving folks with that 'whoa' feeling. Outstanding Remarkable Values (ORMs) are what those 'whoa’ factors are actually called, and can be quantified to the public to help aid in the protection of that area. Paddling Wild & Scenic rivers allows you to immerse yourself and experience first-hand the impacts it has on the surrounding areas, whether it’s with the diverse fish and wildlife, scenic views, or cultural and historical values.

If you could protect another river as Wild and Scenic, which would it be and why?
I very much wish for the Nolichucky to be next in line for a W&S designation. Whenever I’m on the East Coast the Noli is a must-run river. The first time I paddled it with friends, I had no idea what it was called or where we were driving to, but as soon as we put on the river, I fell in love. The rapids were a perfect balance of fun and technique, while still allowing us to take in the scenery.

Portrait by Adam Elliott – @amelliottimages. Whitewater dog selfie by Danielle Keil – @danniekeil.

What is your favorite designated or proposed Wild and Scenic River?
We have two W&S rivers in Arizona: a prominent section of the Verde River, and Fossil Creek, both of which are phenomenal to paddle and be in. Fossil Creek has a huge piece of my heart, and will always be my favorite. It’s rare to paddle a Southwestern river that’s crystal clear, rather than the typical chocolate-brown water. With its base flow of 43 CFS you feel as if you’re at a water park sliding down small drops and chutes in between tight and rocky turns, and with the ever-changing travertine geology, each run is different enough to keep you engaged while on the water. It’s also a much-needed oasis that transforms the harsh desert into a lush green forest making it one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the Southwest, even though you feel like you’ve been transported to Central Mexico.

MORE FROM C&K
— Read PART I in Voices for Wild and Scenic on Minnesota guide and river advocate Duncan Storlie, and PART II on guide and river activist Curtis England, instrumental in the petition to protect the Southeast’s Nolichucky River Gorge.

— See more on the 50-year anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and more from Susan Elliott: ‘The Party That Saved the Gauley

— Check out Susan and Adam Elliott’s new ‘Paddling America’ guidebook, inspiring exploration of 200 protected U.S. rivers.