The warm spring sun and the lapping motion of the water gradually lull you into a meditative state as the Dolly Steamboat chugs up a narrow channel in turquoise green Canyon Lake. Lichen-covered cliff walls rise straight up from the banks. A heron swoops low to the surface. The cliffs flatten out farther up the channel, and you snap out of your reverie when the boat startles some bighorn sheep, interrupting their midday trek to the watering hole. And you realize that this desert lake is a gift, a luxury for man and beast alike, particularly in this time of ongoing drought.
Canyon Lake is one of four sizable lakes along the Salt River east of metro Phoenix that provide water ― and watery recreation ― for desert denizens. During the warm spring months, the reservoirs become magnets for boaters, swimmers, and picnickers.
The lakes weren't originally created with recreation in mind. In 1911 the Bureau of Reclamation built the vast Theodore Roosevelt Dam in a steep canyon between the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains near the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek, forming 22-mile-long Roosevelt Lake. The dam's purpose was to control the water supply for agriculture near Phoenix, as were three more downstream dams constructed during the next 20 years. Those dams formed Apache, Canyon, and Saguaro Lakes, creating a lake district vast and diverse enough to support both the urban area's subsequent growth and recreation ranging from solitary kayaking and bass fishing to full-throttle powerboating.
And yes, there's plenty of water in the lakes, despite the drought. The Salt River Project, which controls the lake levels, keeps the lower lakes ― Saguaro, Canyon, and Apache ― at full capacity year-round. Roosevelt's water levels do fluctuate: This spring, the reservoir is at about 35 percent capacity. But even at that level, it's still bigger than the three other lakes combined and is deep enough for boating.