We each lie in our separate tents, quietly fretting about the fast-rising river not 50 feet away. The steady drone of raindrops and the deep-throated clatter of boulders rumbling along the riverbed don't make us rest any easier. Four of us are bivouacked along the flooding Upper Salt River in the southern Arizona desert, our stomachs in knots over the recent turn of events. Hailing from central Colorado, northern California, and Wisconsin, we left our wintry homes in mid-February to partake in a five-day, 52-mile, Class II-IV whitewater inflatable canoe trip on the flowing oasis in the warm Sonoran Desert sun. Instead, only one day and 13 miles into our planned journey, we are now stranded by a rampaging gusher that is quickly rising, and getting more frightening, by the hour.
Two days ago, huddled around a computer at the Tonto National Forest Service office in Globe, Arizona, we consulted with the rangers about river levels and weather forecasts. We knew we were about to embark on one of the Southwest's finest wilderness runs in the middle of an El Nio year. We knew that a record-breaking wet cycle was making headlines for devastation in southern California and unleashing an unheard of amount of rainfall in central Arizona. However, after rising to an outrageous 35,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) two weeks ago, the river had settled down to 2,000 cfs by the time we arrived. By our estimation, with no further rain, it would drop to about 1,500 cfs—an even better level for us Salt River first-timers.
There was, though, this one worrisome snag: Although the sky was mostly blue at the moment, potential thunderstorms were still in the forecast for the next several days. And heavy snow was being predicted for the White Mountains, the Salt's headwaters some 150 miles east of Phoenix.
The Salt is no newbie's paradise. It's a relatively serious endeavor for experienced paddlers, but one well worth the aspiration. It races through the Sonoran desert ecosystem, a place full of amazing cactus life, including the majestic saguaro and dozens of other varieties. It squeezes through sheer canyons of polished granite and basalt, creating lively, or, depending upon the water level, dangerous rapids. Ironically, many seasons there isn't enough water to float a boat down the river, so the run is a rare treat to many.
The rangers were sympathetic to our predicament. They gave us the blow-by-blow account of their raft trip two weeks earlier on the nearby Verde River. Following 48 hours of non-stop, monsoonal rain, the normally low-volume stream shot up from a few hundred cfs to a furious 65,900 cfs, rising over 20 vertical feet overnight. For three days the rangers holed up on a gradually shrinking campsite, watching debris rush past: big, uprooted trees, a dead and bloated cow, a bloodied kayaker and his scared-witless partner. Finally, a bold Forest Service crew in 4WD pickup trucks managed to slip-and-slide down a nearby mining road in tire-deep mud to rescue them.
Still, the rangers said, we'd "probably be okay," if we put on the river the next day. The building storms looked as if they would track around the Salt watershed rather than pummel through it. "But in the end," the rangers counseled, "it's your call."
“I finally gather the courage to peek outside my tent. I don’t like what I see.”
The next morning, it took a few hours to rig and load our three inflatable canoes—two solos and a tandem. By the time we were done, all the angst and second-guessing was behind us, mainly because our shuttle driver had already left with our vehicle. There was no practical way to back out.
Once on the water, we were certain we had made the right decision. The thousand-foot-deep canyon was as rugged and grand as any we had ever paddled through. In between numerous Class II rapids and a series of eight long and steep Class III drops, we cruised past small, obscure cliff dwellings, narrow side canyons brimming with rarely witnessed waterfalls, and a unique geological formation of orange-stained deposits called the Salt Banks that has spiritual meaning for the Apaches. This was desert river running at its best, an ideal early season river trip to work out the kinks from a long winter of non-paddling. And, what's more, at this time of year we shared the backcountry with no one.
It was about four o'clock, with the canyon floor already in shade, when we pulled over to make camp on a sandy bench about 15 feet above river level. But even at this height, our high-and-dry site still showed evidence of the recent flood—an irregular flotsam line extended several feet above the sand terrace. No matter. We liked what we saw. Surrounding our camp was a forest of saguaro, mesquite, palo verde, catclaw, and agave.
"What a great day!" gushed Larry Laba, our California companion and owner of SOAR Inflatables, maker of the boats we were using.
"And what a magnificent site," added Bob Donner, a retired college teacher and experienced canoe tripper from central Wisconsin. Donner, an inveterate hiker, was already getting ready to climb a knoll and go exploring.
"Yeah, well before you girls get all gushy and touchy-feely, have a look to the west," said my paddling partner T.K., who goes only by his initials. "I hope like hell I'm wrong, but I think we're about to get pounded." T.K. and I have shared adventures from Mongolia to Bolivia, and now it seemed we were in for another epic.
Soon the sky opened wide, unleashing sheets of rain, jagged streaks of lighting and booming thunder. We scurried under the tarp, huddling in the center. No one said a word, but we all knew what the others were thinking: We had rolled the dice, hoping the storms would miss us. And we had lost the bet.
AT DAYBREAK, I finally gather the courage to peek outside my tent. I don't like what I see. Under depressingly low, gray clouds, I spot Laba at the shoreline with a glum look on his whiskered face. Catching my eye, he gives me a dour thumbs-up, which I interpret not as a good sign, but rather that the river has risen big time.
After placing another stick at the water's edge to mark the latest level (the previous ones had washed away), he strides up to my tent to deliver his report. "Ain't good," he says, snuggling up his parka against the chilly breeze and incessant drizzle. I'm guessing it came up about six to eight feet overnight. Remember how flat this stretch of river was yesterday? Well, now the current is rippin' and there's a huge hole and exploding waves across from camp. Might as well sleep in; we're not going anywhere today."
After a hot breakfast we gather under the tarp to discuss our options. The normally green-hued river is running bright reddish brown, pulsating and surging through the canyon. We might be able to make it safely through Rat Trap Rapid, and maybe the next, but what then? A mile or so downriver is Granite Canyon, a three-mile-long gap with polished boulders and swirling currents. And after that, upon entering the even more remote Salt River Canyon Wilderness Area, we'd be facing the toughest rapids on our route: Eye of the Needle, Black Rock, The Maze, Quartzite Falls, Corkscrew—all rated Class IV at moderate levels. We can only guess their difficulty now.
Our planned takeout at the Arizona 288 bridge now seems 1,000 miles away instead of just 40. We're back in the realm of angst, but this time there's no debate, no decision to make. We sit tight.