By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/23/2020
Posted: 5/9/2010
Topics/Keywords: #Arizona #Travel #UpperSaltRiver #WhitewaterRafting #WildernessAware Page Views: 2022
How I completed my 2-day Salt River rafting trip.

I awoke on my own about 5:30 or 6 o'clock. I had only awakened once during the night, and gazed at the stars through the netting at the top of my tent—I hadn't bothered to put on the fly, since I knew it wouldn't rain—until I fell back to sleep. But now I got up, made use of the marble bathroom at the downstream end of camp, and staggered to the hors devours table where Boatman Liz and Glenn had already prepared a pot of hot river coffee (which some call "mud").

I couldn't find any sugar or other sweetener and asked Liz about it. She seemed embarrassed and admitted that, somehow, it had been left behind. Suddenly she brightened. "But we have this!" she announced, holding up a bottle of honey.

"That'll do," I agreed, and put the bottle on the table for the others.

Breakfast was tortilla shells, huevos rancheros (though I had mine without most of the ranchero stuff), orange juice, as well as cereal and yogurt, stuff I wasn't about to eat before working my muscles on the river.

Glenn may have been concerned about my arm, because he offered to let me ride in the Pig (baggage boat). Or it might have been because I had explained to him that I originally signed up for an oar frame trip so I could take pictures, which I'm more into than actual paddling. It's not just laziness, either; I love to row an oar frame myself, when the boatman will let me. I once rowed a whole day in Grand Canyon thanks to a boatman who may have been breaking the rules but really wanted a nap.

Partial map of Salt River rapids.

But I told Glenn that I would ride out the morning with Boatman Liz, since I knew a lot of rapids were coming up and I felt like she'd need my contribution to run them easily. But, I said, I'd like to ride with him after that; and he agreed to pick me up after the last of a string of Class IV's that would be coming up starting less than a mile from our starting out.

The morning's weather was perfect, with no wind, a clear sky, and moderate temperatures. We got into the raft, and I specifically asked Boatman Liz to let me sit on the left side of the boat, as I felt I'd worked my right arm as much as would be prudent the day before. She agreed, and moved a couple of others around as well.

As we moved out of the White Rock Canyon area, the rock began to take on more interesting colors.

Salt River Canyon

It was no more than minutes before we approached our first rapid of the day, Lower Corral. This is a Class III rapid, meaning you get wet but it's not very dangerous. I am comfortable navigating Class IIIs when rowing an oar frame. But that a rapid is a Class III doesn't mean you can't fall out; one of our passengers had swallowed river the day before in Mescal, also a Class III. (We pulled her back in; no harm done.)

As trip leader, Glenn always led the way in the Pig. Here's a shot of him poised to run Lower Corral on the calm flat-water that usually seems to precede a rapid.

Glenn in the Pig about to tackle Lower Corral.

Lower Corral was immediately followed by Pinball ("We are the ball," Boatman Liz solemnly pointed out) and The Maze, all of them Class IIIs.

We then drifted through fairly quiet water as Boatman Liz prepared us for Quartzite Falls, a Class IV. As much as it was "hot action" now (a phrase Liz used pretty much constantly), it was completely unrunnable prior to 1994.

Lining Quartzite Falls, sometime before it was blasted in 1994 to make it runnable.

"Some rogue river guides didn't like the fact that we had to portage or line rafts to get through," she explained. "The largest block of quartzite in the United States blocked the way. So in the fall of 1994 they removed the obstacle by dynamiting it. That was a crime and a tragedy. However, we can now run it. So we do."

You can read the full story from the Phoenix New Times newspaper. It's very clear from reading it that the article's author thought Ken Stoner, the "mastermind" behind the blast, was a villain. And, indeed, he got a couple of years in prison (I was unable to locate an account of the actual sentencing). It's clear his actions and those of his accomplices was an environmental crime, in that it altered a natural setting; exposed native downstream fish to pressures from non-native sport fish that had been introduced upstream, and certainly was a poor example to follow, as we certainly can't have people just randomly dynamiting any obstacles in their way.

Yet…no one ever sent the people who introduced non-native sport fish into the river to a grand jury. No one imprisons highway departments for the far more serious environmental impacts of even a minor paved road. And there had been a number of deaths in Quartzite Falls, including two from a private rafting expedition just a couple of months before the blasting changed all that.

So it is with deeply ambivalent feelings that now, over 15 years later, Quartzite Falls is regularly run safely, thanks to the admittedly illegal actions of Stoner and his friends. (And, as a fan of names, I love the fact that a man named "Stoner" went to jail for blowing up what was basically a giant stone.)

At the mouth of Quartzite.

But it was the next rapid, Corkscrew, also a Class IV, that did me in.

Your blogger, photo by Justin Mapula

I had been so pleased with the way the muscle I pulled in Hawaii a couple weeks ago was healing. I had been able to keep up with the others paddling. (Yes, they were mostly women; but they were strong, athletic women and quite powerful paddlers.)

Boatman Liz explained the reason Corkscrew was rated Class IV: "It begins with a violent, 8 or 9 foot drop, then twists the raft around like a, well, corkscrew."

Liz' description turned out to be accurate. And when the raft twisted after the drop, inertia pulled me almost out of the boat. Only my right foot, firmly planted in the foot cone on the floor, kept me from falling out completely. But the raft was continuing to spin, creating too much centripetal force for me to overcome before being hammered against a rock.

That's when Student Liz, who was positioned behind me, came to the rescue, by simply reaching out to my extended right hand and yanking me back into the boat, where I wound up on the floor, ducking everyone else's paddles until we were safely out of the rapid.

"Are you all right?" Boatman Liz asked the moment things had quieted down.

"Oh, yeah!" I assured her. "Thanks, Liz, for pulling me back in."

"You did exactly right," Boatman Liz praised Student Liz, and we returned to a slow paddle rhythm, just enough to overcome the headwind that had started up.

Except, I wasn't all right. I could feel that the muscle in my right arm had torn again. I could barely move it, and to say my paddling from then on was half-hearted would be an understatement.

It seemed like a miracle when Glenn pulled the Pig up alongside and invited me to join him, as we'd discussed, so I could concentrate more on taking pictures.

As in Hawaii, as long as I let my arm rest it didn't really hurt. So I rested it, reserving its use for clicking the shutter release on my camera, while Glenn, bless him, did all the rowing.

Glen rowing the Pig, with Boatman Liz in the guest raft behind.

Once we passed the seam of quartzite that created Quartzite Falls, we entered a segment of Salt River Canyon called Black Rock Canyon, after the predominance of black basalt, compared to the white granite that we'd previously been paddling through.

Black Rock Canyon

The kids in the "guest boat" had asked that, since I was going to be riding in the other boat, I take a couple of pictures of them.

Team Liz after I switched boats.

Here's the mapping of where everyone sat:

Left Right
Angel Tabbatha
Anika Angel
Lauren Justin
Boatman Liz

The rest of the river was fairly quiet, though the scenic wonders continued to be revealed. So I was really in the right place. The wind continued to get stronger and stronger; the guests had to paddle pretty much continually; Glenn had to keep rowing, as the current wasn't strong enough to fight the wind trying to blow us back upstream. This wind, Boatman Liz had explained, was hot air from Phoenix, which rises. I had thought it rose straight up; it turns out it actually hugs the ground but rises into higher elevations, which means it wends its way through the myriad canyons that crenellate this part of the world.

Glenn and your blogger in the Pig. Photo by Justin Mapula.

After a bit, Glenn asked if I were ready for lunch, as if my answer would determine whether we would stop. But, of course, he already had our stop planned: Chalk Creek, an open area that lay hidden behind a riverbank laden with sycamores and tamarisks. Since I was at the bow of the Pig, I hopped off to assist in mooring the raft—and promptly slipped in the mud. Got up, and slipped again. But eventually I found my footing and Glenn and I got the boat secured.

While Boatman Liz put lunch together, Glenn led the rest of us on a short hike to Chalk Creek Fall. There were wildflowers everywhere, most of which I can't name but had to photograph anyway.

I love wet side canyons. They are always filled with so much green (especially this year, after an exceptionally rainy winter), but set off by solid walls, making me feel as if I am in a garden.

Chalk Creek Canyon, Arizona

At the end of the trail was a lovely, delicate little waterfall that Glenn said ran all year long, even though this time of year the creek it produced went underground just a hundred yards or so from it. Well, you know there was no way I would not wade into the pool beneath it, and even drink a little from it.

Chalk Creek Falls, Arizona.

After lunch of cold cuts, chips, and cookies, we again set out to cross the flat expanse of river between us and our take-out, where we were expected between 4:00 and 4:30. I must admit I dozed some, being awakened every now and then by Glenn pointing out some item of interest or other. And, of course, I continued to snap pictures of most everything around me.

Salt River Canyon, Arizona.

We finally came within a mile or so of our takeout, and a rock formation called "The Early Gates".

The Early Gates or the Whirly Gates?

The "Early Gates" are so-named because they come shortly before the "Pearly Gates". However, there is almost always a mighty gust of wind just as boats try to pass that makes actually getting through the Early Gates a challenge. Without a mighty effort, a raft is just as likely to be spun around and sent back upstream as to get through. Thus, Boatman Liz has proposed that this spot be renamed the "Whirly Gates".

Almost exactly on time, we passed beneath a bridge—our first sign of civilization in two days—and took out at the ramp below. In between helping Boatman Liz, her boyfriend and fellow guide Tony, and Glenn pack up the boats for transport back to the Wilderness Aware compound, we managed to get a photo taken of our little expedition.

It took a good hour to pack the gear, and an hour and a half to return to the compound, where we each transferred the items from our dry bags back into our cars and changed into clean, dry clothes. After exchanges of email addresses, and hugs goodbye all around, we left for our respective homes.

I did pause at one of the lookouts partway up Salt River Canyon to catch the sun setting below the river. I've taken and posted a number of these shots before, so to be different I ran this one through a "watercolor" filter, to make a fitting conclusion to a picture-perfect rafting trip.

Sunset over Salt River Canyon, Arizona, faux watercolor by Paul S. Cilwa