It bears a sharp resemblance to a beached carp, although that lumbering fish doesn't officially exist in the 265 rippling acres of Patagonia Lake.
With a little toe-nudging, however, my lethargic find turns out to be a yellowing, water-logged oven mitt. Oven mitts aren't listed as a game species here, either. But such garbage does seem to profligate in this picturesque but sometimes abused haunt.
Enter the Southern Arizona Paddlers Club. Some 30 members of this venerable kayaking clique are about to hit the water, in celebration of their 10th annual "For the Sake of the Lake" cleanup effort. Over that decade, the loose-knit bunch has hauled their kids, dogs, ice chests and abundant goodwill to this erstwhile sparkling oasis in the Patagonia Mountains south of Tucson. It is a fine deed, with weighty results: The kayakers have plucked truckloads of trash from these environs, one boatload at a time.
Today, they're about to lug in a bit more. The early October crowd is made up mostly of middle-agers who are lumbering into their gleaming vessels, some made of fiberglass, others of wood. Their steady work helps keeps this outpost tidy and supplements the lake's small staff and tight coffers, in a year when the Arizona State Parks department has seen its budget slashed from $26 million to $19.3 million.
As kayakers bag the trash, it will be handed off to a roaming pontoon. In turn, that floating repository will be manned by Colt Alford, Patagonia Lake's park ranger. Alford says the boost from these folks is enormous. "We usually get a dump-truck load. ... I've calculated that in 10 years' time, they've pulled out two tons of trash. They've found some interesting stuff out there, too."
It was artist and floating bon vivant Royce Davenport who began this twin-paddle juggernaut after developing a fondness for the lake. He figured he could mesh his affection with a hankering for good deeds.
To Davenport, it's a fluid thing. "I came here from the Midwest in 1974, and I liked Tucson a lot," he tells me. "The only thing missing was water. So I started coming down here, and I thought it was pretty neat."
But there were growing problems with Southern Arizona's lakes, such as mercury buildups that made the fish inedible. That got Davenport thinking about the state of his own little Shangri La. "It was telling me that, man, we need to do what we can to make this place nice. And it was trashy. I got sick of seeing that trash—Bud Light cans and Styrofoam worm cups all over the place."
About that time, Davenport stumbled across the Paddlers. He started doing regular kayak trips with them, and before long, he broached the notion of these cleanup details. It didn't take long to assemble a dozen like-minded folks.
He says this is a natural fit for kayakers, who impulsively clean up wherever they go: "You're cruising along, and you see crap; you just gather it onboard."
There's also a spunky camaraderie among these older Paddlers. "Sure, we're always eager to get young folks in," Davenport says. "But today, we'll give an award for the most senior member. We've got two folks here that I know are in their 70s. They have their own boats, and they go just as much as any of us. Personally, those are the kind of people I want to hang out with.
"These folks don't need a Holiday Inn. They just pack up their boats and camp along the shore, and have one adventure after another."
Among today's intrepid Argonauts are Jack and Wendy Kriendler, who recently returned from paddling around the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Jack says he came by this club through the buzzing kayakers' grapevine. "Paddlers are that way. They're passionate about it. You see someone with a rack on their vehicle, and you go, 'Oh.'"
He also says that kayaking takes the edge off of daily life. "It's meditative. It's rhythmic. It's very peaceful and can be very challenging."
"And the thing about kayaking is that you can do it for a long time," Wendy says. "It's bilateral. It isn't like canoeing."
Jack Kriendler looks around at the chummy, mostly graying crowd with a grin. "It is an older group," he says, "but people mostly go do it because they love it."
According to experts, that connection is key for the long-term success of efforts such as this lake cleanup. "The bottom line is that volunteerism is an emotional bonding," says Vilma Pallette, a Silicon Valley-based consultant who managed volunteer services for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. "The camaraderie builds on itself. If you haven't tapped into that, the longevity will disappear."
Beer probably helps, too, and more than one has been cracked as noon nears. Two hours have gone by, and the paddlers are slowly collecting on shore. Among them is Matts Myhrman, who is best known as a pioneer of modern straw-bale home-building. But lately, Myhrman has focused his energy on the shimmering new kayak he's now tugging into the soft sand. Recently finished from a Pygmy kit, the 14-foot marine plywood craft is sleek and elegant.
Myhrman, who at age 71 will win honors today as the club's oldest member, calls it a "wonderful boat." He's also a big fan of this little lake. "From a selfish standpoint, I love it down there," he says. "It's the closest real lake to Tucson. I owe it (to myself) to help take care of that—to keep it pleasant."
As Myhrman walks over to a table loaded with food, Davenport is gathering this year's more exotic catches on the beach. They include a car battery, a soggy cowhide, and a rather macabre doll, with plants draped across her head and one missing eye.
There have been even more unlikely finds. "One year, they even pulled a picnic table up out of there," he says.
Then he looks over to where one of the kayakers is dragging along a car wheel, complete with the tire. That raises a chuckle. "Wonder where the rest of the car is," he says.