Trip Report: Salt

For More Flavor, Just Add Salt

Submitted by Tom Riggs

Just go far right or far left at Rat Trap.  That is the rock that Dave Audet wrapped on in 2017”  How hard could it be with this experienced group?  After all we were a well seasoned group of rafters including Blair St Denis, Frank Mayer, Tom Riggs, each veterans of previous Salt River wars, and the group included formidable boating mates, Doug and Nancy Smith, and Eric Carlson, and Aitana Rothfeld, plus we also had the Herculean men Kyle Riggs, and Steve Herring.  And then there was Paul. 

This adventure started out by Larry Williams from The Bay Area picking up an April 22 launch date.  Being the popular guy that he is (everyone is popular when they have a permit) he joined a March 31 launch party on the same river.  Having just returned he asked if I minded receiving the permit from him.  Yes, this river permit is transferrable if you get dispensation from Don Sullivan the Tonto Forest River Manager.  We did the gyrations and made it happen and assembled the crew transporting 5 boats in one rig and one in another that met its demise upon the return trip. Plus a car and a couple of flyers into Phoenix. 

The rain of the Northwest and the forecasts of 80 plus degrees and clear weather for Globe AZ had us all ready to get outa Dodge and head to summer.  Yeeehaww! 

When you travel to the Salt you get to see the West as it took us three nights lodging plus a camping night at the launch to get there.  The first night was in Burns where we woke up to a layer of snow on our rig but the sun came out as we headed to the crowded highways of Central Nevada where the burros and wild horses outnumbered the cars.  We stopped at Tonopah Brewing for the next night and, oh yeah, lodged at The Jim Butler Hotel.  To Wickenburg the next night where we chowed down at Cowboy Cookin’ and met up with Frank and Blair the next am.   

Kyle flew into Phoenix at noon so we had time to kill in Wickenbrg, the Team Roping Capital of the West.  We could have used more roping practice but not with lariats and little doggies, it turned out.  A stop in Claypool Walmart and Taco Bell for southwest dining before the last leg to the launch / camp area on the White Mountain Apache Indian land.   

Eric agreed to drive through Show Low to pick up the Apache Permits which included $25/person /day for the river plus $25/person for camping at the launch.  Their website is down so the permits need to be bought in person when the store is open.  They are also available in Carrizzo at the Sinclair Station which closes at 8 pm.   

There are two launch sites at the camp area, one for outfitters which allows them to drive to the river’s edge and one for private boaters which requires all gear be carried to the river since a monster boulder has been placed at the trail 100 feet from the river.  Since no one trailered boats it wasn’t that big of a deal.  We merely had to share the beach with the two other private parties that were launching that morning.  We had arranged shuttle with Salt River Rafting at $160/vehicle and they have a couple of sea containers that act as their offices which are located uphill from the put in about 1/8 mile.  By 9:30 we were off. 

Because the river is muddy and contains a high mineral content it is more dense than the gin clear waters of the Northwest and tends to be more pushy.  Of course had we drank more beer the night before our crafts would have been more manueverable.  Blame the captains for that oversight, but don’t blame Admiral Nelson, Sailor Jerry, or Lady Bligh. 

The Salt river contains 32 named rapids in 53 miles of pool and drop and as with any river the difficulty is relative to the flow;  we were at a moderate flow of 2300-2050 cfs at  the Chrysotile gage.  Given our trip length of 4 ½ days we chose a leasurely pace and targeted a camp 12 miles downstream which had options of landing at doors number one, two, three, our four between the tamarisks.  A beaver showed up and removed some of the tammys that were in the way of making better boat securement.  Go Beavs! 

Since we all were lacking vitamin D we decided to expose some skin but when the airplane circled overhead we donned our shirts since they thought we had our signal mirrors out given the bright halo emanating from our camp.  Across from our camp were several granaries which are off limits to visitation but could be seen well with Frank’s binoculars.  The star show came out that night as it did every night and all was well. 

“Just read and run Rat Trap and don’t get wrapped”.  How hard could it be?  Doug and Nancy lead the charge out of camp that morning but in a mile and a half we came around a corner and there they were wrapped on Rat Trap.  Apparently going right of the rock at this flow requires more than just casual attention as Doug and Nancy got to play trampoline on their 15’ round boat.  The rest of us eddied out and were gathering throw bags, camel backs, pin kits, voodoo dolls, and rabbits feet to help with the extrication of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Well Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt got nothin’ on our beloved Doug and Nancy.  Patient Steve Herring said it looks like they are getting it to budge and Doug got out on the rock and power lifted with a little better purchase, inching it off gradually, but not fast enough before we gathered incriminating evidence.  The taunting would commence but not before the cheers when they finally came loose. 

Being the next boat in line I chose to go further right – wrong!  A geologic event happened under my boat at that very instance pushing a rock up just under the surface that stopped me dead in the water.  Frank to the rescue with his 16 ft barge knocking the 14’ SOTAR back on course.  No good deed goes unpunished and he bounced onto, you guessed it, Doug and Nancy’s parking spot.  Since Frank’s boat came equipped with the self parking option the 16 ft raft determined it could not fit and the river gods released him after minor calisthenics by Blair and him. 

Relieved to have escaped Rat Trap relatively unscathed, the boats kept their spacing but the twisting canyon and increased current speed kept visual contact intermittent.  Since we all figured The Smiths had secured the Flamigo for the evening we let our guard down.  Granite rapid had thrown Blair and Frank a curve ball and both of them got dumped into the drink.  No one knew this until later.   

Kyle and I were struggling to get an eddy to catch sight of the boat behind us when it came around the corner catching the best river lines it may ever see.  A beautiful upside down Avon.  Paul Morin should be proud to own such a craft; usually owners like to show off their boats by being in them, but Paul floats to the beat of a different drummer.  Listening for the girlie screams, we heard none so figured he had swallowed some water or was sipping on a beer as he explored the depths of the Salt River Canyon. After a quick vote we agreed to blow the safety whistle to alert Frank and Blair downstream and to claim first rights to any floating beer.  Still no Paul or other boats in sight. 

Next to Paul’s raft was a loose oar but prudence dictated we rescue the coolers which were still secured as part of his raft.  Instead of racing out into the current we had Moses come to the Mountain and timed our propulsion to intercept the Avon as it approached.  Kyle grabbed the handline and we had little success moving the barge into the small eddies we spied.  As we neared Granite Rapid it was evident that we could not hold the Avon and control both boats through the drop so we ghost boated it to the lip then followed it through.  I gave a salute to the loose oar which went to Davy Jones Locker in the rapid.  It’s OK; it has Paul’s name and phone number on it so Hikers can retrieve it in the fall when the river falls to 50 cfs.  

Below Granite, Kyle re-grabbed the gray belly up boat and we eventually pulled it into a small deep eddy where a willow bush provided a handhold for him while I tied off my boat.  Where were the other boats?  Soon Doug and Nancy floated around the corner and gave news that Paul was unwilling to pay their rescue fee of 20 beers so Eric and Aitana, being less experienced in business negotiations chased him down and pulled him in for what we presume was a promised session involving rubber suits, mayonnaise, and creamed corn. Creamed corn seems weird. 

Doug tossed me a line to secure to the stern of the Avon so he could keep it from floating out of position while Paul scrambled from Eric’s boat to join me on his inverted craft.  We removed the spare oar and the remaining tethered oar from one side then pulled out his virgin flip lines, knotted them for gripping and in a one, a two, a three, plopped the boat back upright.  Arizona water is much warmer than its Oregon counterpart this time of year. 

The flip occurred in a map reading section of the river where the current stopped Eric and Aitana’s boat against a headwall and Paul could not slow down to avoid the collision that caused his boat to ride up on top of the Tributary raft and overturn.  Doug and Nancy tried to capture Paul but the river currents made their paths divergent.  Eventually Eric got free of the wall and was able to chase Paul down.   

About the time we were righting Paul’s boat, Steve Herring climbs over the headland and suggests we regroup around the corner at a more friendly beach.  When we pulled in there Blair and Frank were doing their hair which I thought odd since this wasn’t a formal rafting day.  That’s when we heard that Blair decided he and Frank needed to show solidarity with the Smiths and Morin so he crashed into a rock in Granite Rapid dumping himself and Frank into the river.  Yeeehaw! 

We checked our people for bumps, bruises and cuts only to find that scurvy had set in so a dram of rum was prescribed for all at the next camp.  Since scurvy is actually abated by lime Doctor Nancy did her pharmacological magic in camp with some citrus and refined cactus juice.  It went well with Paul’s assessment of his well being - “shaken, not stirred”. 

Regrouped, Paul chose for a more leisurely afternoon, and jumped into my boat while Kyle drove the newly Christened submarine S.S. Morin. 

As lead boat you get to point positive, usually after you have chosen the wrong route for yourself and we did our duty pointing river left while committed to the tunnel of trees on the right side of the island near mile 19. No harm no foul.  We threaded Eye of the Needle, and some scouted Black Rock rapid for its river right run. 

Hackberry Spring Wash made for a medium sized camp and a side hike up the canyon for some and a nap spot for others.  Kyle and Eric found a large dark rattlesnake, but left him off the menu since someone thought we were having chicken that night and did not want to duplicate flavors. 

Day three and the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the major rapids of the trip were on the docket.  It was decided to read and run Corral, Pinball, and The Maze, then pull over for a left hand scout of Quartzite Falls.  Quartzite had been a mandatory portage until the 1990s when an off season river guide decided to dynamite the rocks to eliminate the all- day -gear- and- boat- schlepping around the falls.  He spilled the beans, was arrested, fled to Australia, was extradited, then went to prison for skipping out.  Glenn Woolridge of Rogue River fame did similar dynamiting feats which made navigation easier and he was applauded.  Different times mean different rules. 

The scout landing for Quartzite shows it to be on the left at the end of a gravel bar.  There was no way to fit 6 boats into that brush laden area so it was to be a boat scout.  The bank on river left was cliff like, rocky, crumbly, and full of prickly things.  It’s hard to imagine scrambling along that treacherous route without more insanity than river runners possess.  Larry Williams had done the river a month prior and said don’t scout it; just run along the left wall then get back right to set up for Corkscrew.  Kyle was at the helm and he said the right entry looked good but at the last minute I reminded him of Larry’s left run.  The current is deceiving there and try as he might the river was taking him right.  In the center is a ram’s horn rock to avoid.  Kyle and subsequent boats all ran right with the precision of the evacuation of the British at Dunkirk.  Still alive to fight another day. Boats hopscotched each other setting safety through the next two rapids 

Cherry creek camp is the best on the river, with a nice stream, complete with sucker fish in a pool, to set up camp chairs in the shade and enjoy cool beverages with feet submerged in the 65F water.  Aitana, Eric, Nancy, Doug, and Steve decided to climb the butte just north of Cherry creek and were rewarded with views of the river and the Cherry Creek Ranch.  Don’t touch the Gila Monster just take photos.  Yes we saw one and then another. How appropriate for this saguaro laden countryside.  Again we had a fire with wood brought from home, but there seemed to be lots of wood along the river.  Paul’s screened bottom fire pan does a good job of minimizing the ashes but it was determined that a missed landing on a fire jump would end its life.   

Another group passed our camp with envious eyes and set up just downstream on the opposite bank amongst the sparse tamarisks.  As we pulled out at 8:30 the next day, it was evident that not all of their crew had finished packing their boats, but one guy had and jumped on the oars when he spied us coming around the bend and sped downstream.  We exchanged pleasantries with the beached boaters and they said their rabbit boater was heading to the boat ramp that day.  The 8 ½ mile float to our next desired camp took about two hours and 4 beers (maybe more) but when we approached Coon Creek the rabbit boater was parked in one of the slots.   

Our armada pulled in and walked up to the camp area only to find a PFD on the ground, but no evidence of the couple unpacking their gear, and no evidence of them.  Maybe they were hiking or hiding from us.  With our group I understand the latter, but the rubber suits and creamed corn were already spoken for.  Anyway the fellow emerged and when queried if he was staying the night at this camp he answered elusively.  When pressed again, he said his group would like to camp there and he was “sort of holding it for them”.  I told him we would invite his group to join our camp and we would make room for their kitchen etc.  He got the message that we did not honor the code of rabbit boaters and we saw him texting on his Inreach, presumably to his tardy compatriots about the failed defense of Fort Coon Creek.  About an hour later I tried to wave the vanquished late team into our camp but they averted their eyes and pressed on.  They should have joined us.  We could have swapped liquor and women. 

One of the women in our group, Aitana, was damaged that afternoon, decreasing her trade value, as Steve Herring lead Kyle, Eric, Aitana, and me up  Coon Creek.  She walked into a low hanging tammy that clocked her in the eyebrow and bloodied her nose.  As we were rinsing her off in the stream we looked around and fortunately Eric had packed the elixir from Ma Anand Sheila: “Bag o Wine Shree Rajneesh”.  Eric meted out one sip for the patient, two sips for Steve (hike leader) one sip for Kyle, one sip for me.  Repeat until patient makes it back to camp or medicine runs out. 

Paul, set out appetizers, and made elk chili and of course Blair and Frank had the bar set up. Doug and Nancy started out the evening’s entertainment around the fire, and the rest joined in with songs, poems, and outright lies.  The sycamore canopy at this camp obscured some of the desert sky but in the distance we could hear the snoring that would drive away mountain lions and javelinas and lull us into a tentative sleep. 

The last day, everyone’s load is lighter and rigging goes much quicker.  Steve’s boat would be heavier since he was carrying the Riverbank toilet.  The float out of the Salt river Canyon was through several braided channels that may have left lesser men and women dragging their craft over shallows. As we approached the willowed take out ramp past Highway 288 bridge we saw one cat who had missed the take-out rowing back upstream to find a slot between the reeds.  We made our way to the ramp and everyone was cognizant of others space.  It took us about 1 ½ hours to downrig the 6 boats and put 5 in my truck and trailer and one in Frank’s pickup.  Eric agreed to take Steve and Kyle to the airport in Phoenix while the rest of us planned a longer drive home. 

Sometimes the river is class VI, but this time it was the highway out of Claypool AZ that was unrunnable.  Frank had grabbed a sip out of his rootbeer and veered off the road into a phone pole.  His airbags deployed, the beaver board in the bed smashed the rear window, and the vehicle was totaled.  He and Blair were rattled but at last report OK.  The phone pole was sheared off and they rented an Enterprise pick up truck for their drive back to Saratoga, CA. 

The Salt- Catch it if you can.