Salt River, March 1998.
Level 1300cfs on put-in day, 1500cfs on takeout. Pretty good level, a bit bony on the first day, but plenty of water after that. Black Rock and Corkscrew are two genuine IV's, quite intimidating. The rest of the rapids were just fun.
Left Denver early Sat morning, drove for hours and hours through snow and fierce headwinds, arrived at the put-in 10pm Sat night. A deep canyon in the middle of the Apache Indian reservation, surprisingly busy road through it. From the put-in, the switchbacks of the road were clearly visible, lit up by headlights, a zigzag of light up a dark mountain.
Woke up, all the muddy puddles around us were frozen solid. Decided to pack a heavyweight jacket as well as all the fleece. Tim was up early, rambled around looking at Island rapid as well as an un-named class II immediately below the put-in. No sign of our raft support (with the permits).
Breakfasted leisurely as the sun rose and ice turned to mud. Went up to the store to ask for a phone - no phone. The nice lady behind the counter said we could go 15 miles up the road to the DOT trailer park, and wake up her husband the policeman, to use his cell phone. We did this, husband policeman was still in bed watching pro wrestling, but daughter Amber let me in. While I was still dealing with the beeps and whistles of the ether, Tim came to say Ted had arrived. Helped Amber with one of the math problems in her homework, and went back down to the putin.
Tim and I ran shuttle while the rafts rigged. 40 miles into Globe, on the way someone had driven headon into the canyon wall. Old brown Buick in ruins, two helicopters evacuating casualties. Nice to know the helicopters are there if we need them (a tad of nervousness about the class IV's ahead). Globe a small town, 10 miles long and 2 blocks wide, so it took some time to drive through. Near the takeout, hillsides covered in saguero cactus and spring flowers.
Eventually putin at 2pm, bumped through the first rapid of the season without event. Ted and Rob on one raft, veteran rafter Art on another, Tim and I in canoes, Mad River Outrage for Tim and Dagger Caper for me. Canyon walls rise as we paddle around the bend from the road, last pavement for 51 miles, yippee! Bump and Grind a II, horizon line followed by a steep bony drop of about 6 ft. That was a class II ? yikes.
Maytag III long narrow turbulent chute, on the right of an island.
Grumman III needs to be run far right, we blundered down the left channel into a boulder sieve. Again the horizon line, I saw Art drop down, stick for a minute or so, then disappear. Didn't like the looks of this, so pulled over and got out - 8ft rocky drop with no clear line. Tim joined me, Ted was an optimist and ran it anyway. Raft pinned halfway down the drop, with water flooding over the upstream tube. Set up a line to the raft but couldn't move it. Another trip arrived, about 10 kayakers and 6 rafts. I was pleasantly surprised to find their entire trip stopped, without questions, to help us.
First problem was to get a line across the right-hand channel so we could get a better angle for the pull. The distance was over 50 ft, so only the long ropes could reach. Several attempts before the throw succeeded, then I clipped the carabiner to the wrong throwbag. Distinct oops. Eventually got a static line pulled across, and four or five people at the raft. Then we applied the Armstrong/20 Boy Scout method, grunting and heaving mightily to peel the raft off.
Kayakers squirted off downriver, while we regrouped. Overboard, another class III, just downstream, but I don't remember it. About 3 miles of class twosy water to a campsite above Exhibition III, opposite a big commercial outfitters' camp, set up for the spring season of day trips. We'd stopped well after dusk, my toes didn't warm up until I'd been in the sleeping bag for half an hour.
Rob wasn't very experienced in packing drybags, and his bag had been in the direct line of the water pouring over the raft, so his sleeping bag was wet. He stayed up late drying it over the fire: but Ted assured us the next morning that if the volume of snoring was anything to judge by, it didn't affect his sleep much. Tim produced individually bagged vegetarian lasagna for dinner.
I got my introduction to careful wilderness dishwashing, with one bucket for washing, another with a chlorine solution for rinsing.
I'd always relied on a single wash and the detergent.
Exhibition the next morning an affair of pourover-dodging. More class III's I don't remember, Mescal Falls and Rock Garden. Mostly these were horizon lines, ferry back and forth above the drop to scout. Also watch the probe raft for suspicious movements, like vanishing, or excessive straining at the oars.. Another notable feature of this run is that many of the unnamed rapids are as challenging as the named ones, surprise holes at the bottom of a funnel of water leading into them; or horizon lines, run on trust - if it isn't named, it can't be that bad, right ? Hah !
Rat Trap III a good big drop into quarrelling holes. Tim and I scouted, agreed on a line: got well slapped around by the holes, but survived. White Rock III easily boat-scouted for once, started a descent into a granite-lined canyon with slow boily eddies. Previously the canyon had been the tall redrock walls like Co/Utah canyons: this looked more like the S. Platte granite. But a shallow canyon, granite not more than 20-30 ft high. The vegetation changed here, from scrubby juniper to saguero cactus. These are amazing growths, some up to 40ft high, all looking like escapees from a cartoon or spaghetti western. Later we found some dead ones, inside there is a structure of wooden spines, so the plant is actually quite solid, not the expected fleshy succulent.
Granite III at a narrowing of the canyon, with boulder splitting the channel, fun. Camped at a small beach above a class II that was quite noisy. Art made spaghetti for dinner, I'd expected he'd cook the pasta separately from the meat sauce, so Tim could eat just
pasta: but he'd frozen the whole lot up together, so there was just a kind of meat/spaghetti stew. Luckily Tim had some leftover lasagna. The kayaker's trip came past later, Ted did PR, handing out cold beers by way of thanks for the help. The stove quit on us, we theorized there must be sand trapped in the lines and blocking the jets. I stripped it down using my trusty Swiss Army knife, blew down all the visible orifices (on the stove that is), and got it working again.
Next morning while waiting for the sun to hit the campsite, we all hiked up through the multitudinous cactus to the mesa above.
Everything that grows here has spikes or thorns or a bad attitude. I got a hedgehog cactus stuck to my fleece. These look quite fuzzy, almost cute. Made the mistake of trying to pull it off - those fuzzy little spines were instantly quarter of an inch into my flesh, and working their way deeper. Decided against pulling it off with the other hand, instead crushed it beneath a boot and ripped my fingers free. The desert is a good place to be careful.. didn't see any rattlesnakes or Gila monsters, though they are reputed to be around.
Long paddle through Gleason Flats, idling along beneath yet another day's cloudless blue sky. Around the last corner of flat water, the hills rise above steep black rocks. Eye of the Needle IV-, not much scouting to be done 'I think I'll go in between those two rocks', 'me too'. Two pillars of dark rock about 8 ft apart, class III approach, then a snarly hole in between the pillars. Bounce and splash, down the implacable canyon to Black Rock. The scout is from a cliff high above, if the hole looks big from there you know it's going to be a lot worse below. We contemplated the river-wide exploding hole below a 4-5ft drop, with the exit guarded by the house-sized eponymous Black Rock. Art ran it cleanly, Ted snagged an oar in the approach rapid (class III) and fought his way back.
There was a possible line for a lefty paddler, tight against the right bank, but for us rightys, it would be a good way to flip into the hole. Otherwise could ski-jump a 5ft pourover, then stall out into a roiling eddy between the rock and the hole. Not very attractive either. Last option was a narrow line next to the pourover which might allow punching through the hole, given enough speed. Ran the approach rapid and eddied out. Tim went first, vanished, then a dull 'boom'. Hum. Hopped out the boat, ran up a rock, and saw him swim out with boat to the raft. Then noticed a sneak route to the L of the house rock, contemplated it for some time while Tim got himself together in the recovery pool. Well, not a sneak so much as a drag route. Looked better and better.. the problem with going last through is it's so damn lonely above the rapid with no company, and thoughts of mortality, 'morturis te salutant'. Dropped into the hole with plenty of speed but rather sideways, leaned, braced, went briefly underwater; emerged sliding slowly into Black Rock, with just enough time to avoid it.
Lunched at Hess Canyon, the kayakers had sent on a cataraft to secure the campsite there. Tim and I hiked a mile or so up the canyon, pretty clear stream burbling down. One of the rafters wanted to know how we'd enjoyed Black Rock, we dissembled. He assured us the next day was all like that. Camped early that day, half a mile above Yankee Joe Canyon. Next day, discovered there was a fine campsite right at the mouth of the canyon, bah. Where we were there wasn't any hiking to be done, so we bathed briefly in the icy muddy waters. Then sat quietly in the sun. Back in South Africa this activity is known as 'ballasbak', which I refuse to translate. Helen's chicken stew got complimented at dinner, I tried to take credit but Ted knew better than that.
Next day, more cloudless blue and warm sun. Today included the Maze, 'complex long class IV boulder garden' according to the guidebooks, Quartzite Falls, used to be V before some dingbat raft guide dynamited the second drop, and Corkscrew, 'long turbulent class IV' leading directly into a class III big hole called Sleeper. Tim wore his drysuit, I'd already been wearing mine for 3 days, so I just added another layer of fleece underneath. Lower Corral III led into another deep black canyon, Pinball III a long negotiation of pourovers, but not too bad. Then the Maze, again the scout required scrambling up onto a cliff. Steaming gently in our drysuits, we figured out a line to the last visible eddy. Ran left of the first boulder, then cut across to extreme right to tweeze through a slot between the bank and a rock with a comfortable big pillow of water piled up on it. Bounced off the bank a few times, then eddied out. Move across next drop R to L, cut just below a hole to reach the last visible eddy, turn to check downstream.. and that was it. Too easy. Must have been a rafter that rated it IV.
More canyon, deeper and deeper, in the approach to Quartzite; leaving no doubt that something significant was coming up. 'Danger Falls 1/4 mile' warning message painted on a huge tilted slab of rock. The falls used to be a killer, one bad reversal leading into another unrunnable one. Kayakers being kayakers, two tried to run it anyway and died. The usual portage took a couple of hours, terminating in a 10ft drop into the pool below. But now the second reversal has been dynamited away (illegally) so all that remains is a tight class III drop. A thick white vein of quartz runs across the canyon from rim to rim, producing the ridges of the falls. Slow water leads into the drop, followed by holes that smack the boat left, right, then eject you straight towards a little pyramid rock that takes some quick action to miss. Tim ran it fine, then the bottom of his boat appeared in the viewfinder as I tried to get a picture. A quick roll, and on. Cross a wide lazy whirlpool to get to a gravel bar above Corkscrew, which bar gives the only opportunity to scout. The rapid is long and turbulent as promised.
All the water screams down a rocky chute left to right across the canyon, and slams into the wall, creating a massive rolling wave breaking back into the chute. We picked a line on the extreme right, using a little eddy to set up a ferry angle across the chute. This didn't quite work for either of us, both ended up bracing off the wave while lots of water filled up the boat. But we made it to the eddy above Sleeper with enough control to stop and bale.
Sleeper didn't look like much, should be able to sneak down on the left and miss the worst.. got some significant air on the waves leading into the hole, rapidly followed by significant water as we failed to miss Sleeper. Plenty of speed, though, so crashing through wasn't a problem.
Easy paddling on down, for rather a long time, as the easy got harder and the wind freshened. Lucky old wind, I was not getting any fresher. By this time I was 'burping' the drysuit through the wrist gaskets rather than the neck, since the air coming out of that hermetically sealed steambath was heavily scented with eau de polypro, not to mention assorted festering bacteria. All the rafters had had bacon, eggs and cheese for breakfast: us canoeists, lightly nourished on oatmeal and tea, needed to stop for lunch while the rafters went on. Hauled the Caper downstream for a weary while against the wind, before getting to camp, a wide sandy beach with good green campsites up among the thorn trees. Beef stew for dinner, Tim had a potful of leftover chicken stew from the last night. Balmy night air - didn't need anything more than fleece over polypro. Too hot to sleep well, in fact.
Last day, 10 miles of easy class II. Too easy, not enough good surfing waves. A last narrow cleft opened to show the bridge. On the right, a small clear stream over black sand, looked like black water. Loaded up Ted's truck with 2 rafts, 2 canoes, heaps of junk, and 5 paddlers. Then drive like crazy, only 16 hours back to Denver.
Tim and I pushed on to Alberquerque that night, rolling in at midnight quite exhausted. Even the fleapit motels wanted $40 for a double room, so we sneaked into one of them with Tim huddled on the floor of the van, to get a single room. I went to check in, found myself in the middle of a Tom Waits song 'well, the nightclerk, he's got a club foot / he's heard every hard luck story / at least 100 times or more'. Civilization, and welcome to it. Checked in with trepidation, Tim slept in the room, I slept in the van where the linen had only my own dirt on it. Breakfasted in a rest area on the way to Santa Fe, a pickup truck followed us off the highway just to ask where we'd been paddling. He was going to run the Verde river in a couple of weeks. A nice old retired gent asked us, 'are you boys going, or have you bin ?' Unfortunately we'd been. Tim at least had a Middle Fork of the Salmon trip to look forward to.
Salt River, March 1998.