Sonoran desert in bloom.
—Ty and Barb Belknap
Everybody says that planning a river trip is a logistical nightmare. That’s why I let Barb take care of it. Judging by the volume of e-mail and her time on the phone, everybody is right. It’s a miracle that we managed to publish the May Signpost and leave for Arizona’s Salt River Canyon on the following day.
My job was easy: load up the rafting and camping gear, fill the grocery list, and find the dog sitter.
The river ranger told me that it was okay to bring the dog along, but that so far this spring two dogs had drowned, one was bitten by a gila monster, and all the campsites were filled with rattlesnakes. Dogs are innocent victims, while most people know roughly what they’re getting into.
Rafting flotilla on the Salt River in Arizona.
The Salt River is one of the Southwest’s foremost white-water destinations. This was our first time there, since the early boating season used to conflict with our kid’s schooling. (Now he’s old enough to drive himself to school.) Barb won a trip in this year’s lottery for late April when the seasonal runoff has usually dwindled to the point that navigation is almost impossible.
This year the river level dropped as usual throughout the month, but heavy rains doubled the flow rate, so the trip was on. We just had to drive five hours, drop the equipment and oarsmen at the put-in while the others shuttled the cars to the take-out. As soon as the shuttle drivers returned to our six loaded rafts and two kayaks, we were off on another fine adventure.
It’s such a busy little river that there is little time for the oarsman to watch the scenery. Immediately after pushing off, constant vigilance is required to avoid white-water obstacles.
We were lucky enough to be led by our friend Denis Stratford, who has rafted the Salt several times. He knew, for instance, that in order to avoid shallow spillways, we should almost always take the first drop whenever the river split. Within twenty minutes of our put-in, we encountered a rapid called Bump And Grind, named for what happens here when water is low. Rafters often have to get out and push or even set up a block-and-tackle system to get unstuck, only to encounter the same problem in Maytag Rapid, below the spillway.
About fifteen miles downstream we entered the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, and saguaro cactus began to appear. A closer look revealed a lush desert of incredible plant variety. A hike up any side canyon took us through a botanical garden with flowing streams and colorful butterflies—a xeriscaper’s dream. No human hand could have improved upon the splendor of moss rocks and desert trees, shrubs, cacti—barrel, prickly pear, cholla, bayonet, red-tipped ocatilla—and dozens of other spiny desert plants. The fantastically shaped canyon walls glittered with quartz. We didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but the bird-watching was spectacular, adding even more color to the luminous earth tones.
Getting to these places involves an element of danger and a flow of adrenaline, which is, of course, the main attraction for many river runners. I personally don’t even like adrenaline, but rowing that river was a lot of fun.
Well-named and famous rapids appeared around most every bend. For some, you just follow directions and “read and run.” Others should be scouted in order to make a plan. The first such rapid is called Eye Of The Needle—two boulders define the entrance to a precipitous drop so narrow that oars need to be shipped aboard or they will be broken. The oars are needed immediately after the drop to avoid the cliff wall below. This is a Class III rapid.
Rafter scouts Black Rock rapid
Following the Eye comes a succession of Class IV rapids: Black Rock, Pinball, Quartzite Falls, and Corkscrew. Failure to negotiate these rapids properly could result in flipping in a “hole” (dangerous hydraulic feature) or being pinned against an obstacle. At the relatively high level, the river was moving fast and the rapids appeared spectacular, but they were not technically difficult to row. It was just a matter of teeing up the raft and completing a number of well-timed oar strokes. A fully loaded inflatable moves with the grace of a dancing hippopotamus, doing pirouettes around boulders and bouncing off walls. Only in Pinball did all six rafts bounce through on a different accidental course, all with the same happy result.
The most famous of all the rapids is Quartzite Falls. It was an unrunnable Class V until about fifteen years ago, when it was dynamited and demoted to a Class IV by a river outfitter who is now an exconvict (reviled by some and revered by others). The dynamite must have removed just the upper edge of the falls, but it was enough to allow rafters to avoid the chore of lining their boats and carrying gear around the falls. Oars again had to be shipped in the narrow passage above the falls; then it was “just hang on tight and hope that the boulder at the bottom will be merciful.” Denis assured us that getting through at all constitutes a successful run.
Everyone was successful, even the two kayakers in the group who added this obstacle to their carnival ride. Every night they came ashore, exhausted and blissful, after surfing, combat rolling, and attempting enders.
The highlights of the last two days of the trip were the enjoyment of two more oasis campgrounds. Cherry Creek flowed crystal clear into the Salt. Rafters from several different groups flocked to a chest-deep pool to skinny-dip in the relatively warm water.
Further on was Coon Creek, which flowed through a veritable jungle into a sycamore grove. Hopping from rock to rock to hike upstream, I ventured off alone and took a snooze beside the creek in the dappled light beneath a cottonwood tree while the ancient saguaro stood guard on canyon walls above and mourning doves cooed in a gentle breeze. Who could ask for more? The rock-hopping could have gone on indefinitely, but I headed back downstream to cold beer, barbecue, and my river-planning guru/wife.
The next day we rowed the last eight of a total fifty-eight miles and took out at a bridge just above Roosevelt Lake. Six hours home was tough, but at least the gear was loaded for a couple of day trips down the Taos Box. Our rafting season is off to its best start in years.