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Salt River Camp\

Our minimalist camp on the Salt River. Photo credit: Ty Belknap

Salt river

Ty Belknap—”Next time, I’ll bring two spare oars”

A spicy Salt river trip

—Ty Belknap

Boating season on the Salt River is early and brief because the free-flowing river level is determined entirely by nature. It’s some of the best whitewater rafting in the country, and I almost missed it again this year. We were invited on a trip leaving March 23, but that is Signpost time. I wish people would keep that in mind when they apply for permit lotteries, but my friends’ permit came at the perfect time of warm weather and rising water levels, even if they had to go without me. (As it turned out, they didn’t go anyway because it wasn’t quite perfect enough.)

I watched for an early April trip cancellation online as the river level climbed to an ideal 1,400 cubic feet per minute, then started to drop. When an April 5 put-in came available, I entered the “mini-lottery” for my son Evan and myself. By the time Evan won the lottery on April 2, the river was approaching a level that is generally considered “unrunable.” It was too short a notice, and besides there were taxes to file and a car to fix so, on April 3, I decided to cancel.

Evan said, “I’ll go alone then.” He would have too, with the wisdom of youth—in an inner tube if necessary. So, finding that thought kept me awake at night even more than the prospect of figuring taxes, I bought the food, loaded a small raft and a solo inflatable kayak, and then met him and his friend at the put-in late on April 4 near the confluence of the White River and Black River in the White Mountains of eastern Gila County, Arizona.

The White and Black rivers, and other tributaries of the upper Salt River, drain the region between the Mogollon Rim in the north and the Natanes Mountains and Natanes Plateau to the east and south. Together the two rivers drain an area of about 1,900 square miles. From the confluence, the Salt River flows southwest through the Salt River Canyon Wilderness. The river becomes the boundary between Tonto National Forest and the Fort Apache Reservation for several miles, after which the National Forest and wilderness occupy both sides of the river. Over the course of 52 miles, the canyon transitions from mountains to Sonoran Desert. It then flows into Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir and ultimately becomes a dried-up riverbed in Phoenix.

Fees are required by both the Forest Service and the Apache but nobody asked to see our papers, and faster than ever before, we found ourselves floating there in an eddy, ready to disappear around the corners.

After a brief argument about beer supplies versus loading the raft light enough to drag over the rocks, we set off behind a large commercial group who knew how to negotiate the shallows. It soon became obvious that the only trick was to follow the water wherever it drops first and fast through the many rock gardens. Still, we had to get out and drag the raft a few times. If a rafter misses the channel, he ends up atop a massive rocky pour over that is problematic from above, but beautiful to see from downstream.

It was like that all day, along with a few Class III rapids with names like Overboard and Maytag and we marveled at the salty water dripping over sparkling stalactites beneath overhanging cliffs at the Salt Banks. We camped on a broad, sandy beach, grilled a steak over a campfire, and ate it caveman-style, celebrating the freedom and simplicity of a river trip without all the usual paraphernalia and puttering old fogies—except for me, of course.

The next morning, still groggy from libations, I broke an oar in some paltry unnamed rapid around the first bend. Evan woke up as he capsized the pack-cat in an angry-looking hole in the river. At this point we started following a group of graybeards about my age who were on a day-trip in large, unloaded rafts. We passed them when their leader rapped on a particularly gnarly set of boulders, just before Evan was ejected once again in Rat Trap Rapid, paddling his upside-down boat to safety.

The graybeards caught up with us two hours later while we were having lunch and exploring some fantastic rock formations at a clear creek. They said it took five pulleys and two hundred feet of rope to get off the rocks. We were glad to hear that somebody had pulleys.

The canyon walls narrowed at mile 21 as we entered a stretch of the river with some of the more notorious rapids. The riverbed is spectacularly cut through granitic and volcanic rock with saguaro cactus peering down from the top of cliffs. Evan had to ship the oars onboard to fit through the narrow slot at Eye Of The Needle to avoid breaking another oar. We were already using our only spare. A large, experienced group showed us where to pull over for the scout of Black Rock Rapid, a Class IV, which is much more intimidating at low water, especially when its big drops and hydraulics are viewed from above. It was easy enough to run, though, and we finished a busy day without incident, as the canyon opened up, and the river slowed down.

We rose at first light on the third day in order to catch the group with the pulleys before reaching the biggest rapids on the river, which were waiting a few miles downstream where the canyon again narrowed and dropped precipitously.

At low water, it is impossible to negotiate Class IV Pinball and the Maze without bouncing off truck-size boulders and cliffs. We didn’t win any points for style, but it was a hoot.

Soon it was time for the grand finale—Class V Quartzite Falls—the same potentially lethal Quartzite Falls dynamited by river guide Taz Stoner back in ‘94 to make them easier to run. It’s still not that easy, though, and best to scout ahead to find the “only low-water entrance” through the six-foot drop via a chute on river right. Unfortunately, due to poor map reading, we tried to scout from river left, not realizing that we were already in the middle of the rapid. I rapped the raft on a boulder at the bottom of the “unrunable” side, but we managed to pull it through, without pulleys, in just a few scary minutes. It probably would have been scarier if we knew where we were.

Now thinking we were approaching, rather than exiting, Quartzite, we scouted Corkscrew Rapid, thinking we had to run it on the right, which worked out pretty well anyway. Evan flipped the pack-cat, again, for good measure in the hydraulic below the rocks, but his self-rescue skills were so good by this time, he was back upright before the end of the rapid. We made it.

It was time for lunch and a little celebratory boogie-boarding before heading downstream through the dark narrows of canyon beautiful beyond your reporter’s limited ability to describe.

We spent two more days camped next to creeks that flowed through lush riparian zones and hiked up to desert spires and massive views.

I was back home shortly after dark on April 10, in plenty of time to tend to all those “Rim World” issues; somehow they no longer felt all that pressing.

From pig roasts to Butch Cassidy to Territorial Spies

—Kate Nelson

Outlaws, Rough Riders, classic restaurants and a possible spy will come to life at the 2012 New Mexico Statehood History Conference, May 3 to 5, in Santa Fe. Presented by the Historical Society of New Mexico and the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, this Centennial version of the Society’s annual conference includes a special treat: a daylong free symposium, open to the public, plus free admission to the History Museum on May 3.

The conference, May 4 and 5 at the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Center, is held in collaboration with the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance, which is having its annual conference at La Posada that weekend. Details, including special hotel rates and how to register for all or part of the Statehood History Conference, are at the Historical Society’s web site:

“Whether you’re interested in the Centennial or New Mexico history in general, we’re gathering writers and historians you’ll enjoy meeting and whose research is sure to enlighten you,” said Mike Stevenson, president of the Historical Society. “Holding this year’s event in the capital city, where lawmakers worked so hard to move the Territory toward statehood, means we’ll be surrounded by history indoors at the sessions and outdoors strolling the streets of Santa Fe.”

The symposium’s keynote address, "New Mexico Statehood, an Earlier Perception," will be given by Dr. Robert W. Larson, author of the authoritative and classic New Mexico's Quest for Statehood, 1846-1912. Other speakers include Dr. David Van Holtby, "New Mexico's Rough Road to Statehood," Robert Torrez, "Law and Order and the Quest for New Mexico Statehood," and Henrietta Martinez Christmas, "New Mexico's Icons."  Dr. Richard Melzer will introduce and moderate the symposium. (Seating in the museum’s auditorium is limited; first-come first-served.)

The statehood theme continues May 4 and 5 at the Society’s conference, with topics ranging from traditional foods in Native American communities, land-grant studies, Western characters like Kit Carson and Wyatt Earp, and controversial New Mexico politicos such as Thomas Benton Catron, Bronson Cutting, and New Mexico’s first Territorial Governor (and possible U.S. spy) James S. Calhoun. The conference’s twenty four sessions and nearly seventy presentations include:

  • “Juan Dominguez de Mendoza: Soldier and Frontiersman of Seventeenth-Century New Mexico,” by historians Marc Simmons and José Antonio Esquibel
  • “The Changing Character of New Mexico Statehood as Reflected by the Santa Fe Fiesta Celebration,” by Andrew Lovato, assistant professor of speech communications at Santa Fe Community College.
  • “Butch Cassidy in New Mexico: His Winning Ways, Dancing Feet, and Postmortem Return,” by free-lance writer Nancy Coggeshall.
  • “U.S. Army Nurses at Fort Bayard,” by Cecilia Jensen Bell, a researcher with the Fort Bayard Historical Preservation Society.
  • “La Matanza: Conserving Identity through Food in Los Lunas,” by Daniel Valverde, an anthropology student at New Mexico State University.

The New Mexico History Museum is at 113 Lincoln Avenue, in Santa Fe, NM. It is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

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