3/27/2008 – Kate Stepan, Associate Editor.
While Jeff, Robert, JB and the rest of the C&K crew were on the scene in Santa Cruz last weekend, I was out doing some surfing of a different, more unintentional kind on the Salt River in the Arizona desert.
Read Jeff’s Blog on the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival
First, a little about the Salt. This wilderness classic drains the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and has no shortage of desert vistas, otherworldly rock formations, exotic flowers and towering saguaro cacti. Not to mention 60 miles of mostly mellow, riffling whitewater with one Class IV stretch thrown in for excitement. The trick is catching it in a good snow year and having the foresight to apply for a permit during said bountiful winter.
I got the email from Glen Goodrich, a West Virginia connection who’s somewhat of a multi-day guru, two weeks before the trip—he had a few spaces left on his five-day permit March 14-18. Glen guides on the Salt and otherwise has his private trip logistics as choreographed as a Richard Simmons workout routine, so I didn’t hesitate to beg my way on to the trip. For the next week, between editing and deadlines, I watched as the gauge inched up to medium, then optimal, levels: 1,400, 1,600, 1,800 cfs.
After putting our latest issue to bed, I whipped my rented economy Chevy across the desert through the night and arrived at the put-in in typical boating fashion: at 7 a.m., just as the sun began peeking over the canyon walls. Soon the beach was littered with our fleet, which included two Shredders, a 14-foot paddle raft, two kayaks, an open canoe, and three gear-laden oar rigs. I decided then and there, in classic C&K, serve-all-subculture style, that I’d have to try my hand at piloting each craft before the trip was done.
We awoke each day to frost-covered gear, and endured one afternoon hailstorm that turned into a night and morning of rain. Water temps dipped below 50 degrees.
We rigged boats and put on around noon, floating seven easy miles to an outpost where four rafting companies, including Wilderness Aware where Glen works, stage their day trips on the Salt. Camp 1 was pretty cush—with a dish line and cook tent already in place for the commercial guests and guides who live there for the spring Salt season. Little did we know that our other digs, though decidedly more exposed, would be almost as comfortable replete with Glen’s full kitchen, preplanned menu, and bevy of camp chairs for relaxing after dinner.
Our crew included several current and former West Virginia guides, including a few I’d worked with or at least, we figured, crossed paths with on the river or around Fayetteville where I spent a few seasons pushing rubber and shooting raft trip videos from my kayak. Bob the open canoeist from North Carolina, JP from Montana, and Sam and Millie, a couple from Phoenix in their 60s, rounded out the 15-person group.
Floating in the desert in March is more of a survival affair than spring break party. We awoke each day to frost-covered gear, and endured one afternoon hailstorm that turned into a night and morning of rain. Water temps dipped below 50 degrees, at least according to Andy’s watch, which had a built-in thermometer. Even in the sunshine—of which we also had plenty—I needed pogies to protect my chapped hands. The cold and daily windstorms didn’t stop us from layering up in all the clothes we brought—”emergency” fleeces included—to spin boating yarns around the campfire or engage in a few highly competitive rounds of bocci ball in the sand (we knew Bob meant business when he broke out the tape measure).
Day 4—the rain morning—brought our biggest whitewater stretch. After meandering through a granite micro-gorge, the river pours into a slightly bigger canyon and is funneled into two rapids known as Quartzite and Corkscrew. And by meandering I mean shooting downstream like Wile E. Coyote out of a cannon—at the moment I was trying to improve my rowing skills, and was at the oars through a section Glen called “The Maze.” Spinning off rocks and running holes that would easily swallow my kayak provided all the adrenaline I needed to warm up from the chilly, rain soaked morning.
But the real trouble began back in my little boat. We arrived at the top of Quartzite, a jumble of jagged rock that once formed a Class V rapid that was reportedly blasted by raft guides sick of portaging the drop with their commercial crews. I must have thought I was still in the gear boat when I misjudged the size of a monster hole near the bottom of the rapid, and decided to run the meat down the center instead of the smoothed out left chute everyone else took. I got stopped by a rogue seam and did not quite have the power to stomp through the maw like I’d planned. Penciled in is a more apt description, just before the hole ride of my life. Reports from the peanut gallery grew throughout the day to seven rounds in the Maytag, but suffice it to say everyone was worried when, once I finally did pull my skirt, my boat popped out way before I did.
But, as with most things in boating, all was well that ended well, and the lesson I learned is never to second guess Glen on the river. Especially when it comes to bringing the ingredients for Irish Car Bombs for our St. Patty’s day camp that evening.