Winter Escape: Packrafting the Salt River
It was slightly strange looking back in the gear filled car. Instead of skis and normal gear of the season were rolled packrafts, paddles, drysuits, food, and all the other camping gear required to spend four days on a wilderness river.
While heading south from Colorado to ride a section of the Arizona Trail, we stopped at a rest area in the bottom of a 2,000ft deep canyon. Looking down on the river responsible for the canyon’s formation, we both remarked how beautiful and different this area was and that we should return to explore the river some day. Now, a year later, in the midst of Colorado’s largest winter storm in years, we were back in the car heading south towards Arizona. Rain and mountain snow from this same storm system had bolstered flows on the Salt River, which also aligned with six days free of work.
Making it’s way from mountain to desert, the Salt River, via a series of dams and reservoirs, provides water for Phoenix and it’s sprawl. Prior to becoming ensnared by the first of these reservoirs, roughly 90 miles of river run wild, free to environmental whims. The upper 40 miles are within Apache Tribal lands and are off limits. However, below the rest stop that gave us that first view of the Salt lay 50 miles of cactus-lined river open to exploration.
Shoving off the frozen mud beach, we gave a group doing the eight mile day run a parting wave. They’d be the last people we’d see or hear before taking out four days later. Perfect. 100 yards later, rusty and stiff in our boats, we entered our first whitewater of 2017. The 18 miles we covered were defined by narrow passages within boulder lined micro-gorges, our first icy swims, drifting by abstract salt banks, and the sudden appearance of Saguaro cactus.
Keri swears each Saguaro has a unique personality and I’d have to agree. Some taunt, some cheer, some laugh and play, some hold themselves regally, some yield to age and decay. I enjoy them all.
Day two offered up a few of the river’s larger and more technical rapids. One we portaged, not yet feeling confident, and had our first experience with quick-muck. Stepping inches away from my own footprint, Keri’s foot and lower leg instantly disappeared. The consistency of wet concrete, powerfully rank, and the color of tar we dug and pulled and dug and pulled until the muck relented. We were mindful to walk on solid surfaces from then on. We camped on a sandy bench in the canyon’s heart that night enjoying warmth from a small fire and the soothing silence only found deep in wild places. Looking at our map in fire light, we realized we had read and run the second largest rapid of that day without mishap. Stress gave way to building confidence. Despite this, we were both shaky with adrenaline and giggling when boiling whitewater gave way to calm pools and a realization that we were upright after the Salt’s final larger rapids that following day.
Beyond any named rapids, the Salt was anything but flat and mindless. Countless riffles sped us through tamarisk flanked hallways. We gambled on which route around or even through an island would be fastest or cleanest and raced each other. Keri won her bet with frustrating frequency. We pulled into a creek mouth, hidden in the brush, that final afternoon. We found ourselves in a sort of enchanting oasis of large twisted trunks, crunching leaves underfoot, and a clear creek. If it were not for a battalion of cactus standing guard no more than a rock throw away we could have been beside an eastern stream.
Passing under Highway 288, our takeout loomed. Relief and disappointment shared my shoulders. With my aging, I’ve become more acutely aware of the risks these pursuits in removed places impart on myself and those I love. I do not wish to feel the pain of loss, nor do I desire others to know this pain on my behalf. Relief springs from knowing the greatest chance of mishap in a place with no assistance has passed. Disappointment stems from the knowledge that opportunity for mishap sharpens focus and brings more depth to experiences we pursue in wild places. Few grins are bigger than that following a chance for mishap, few things strengthen relationships more than these shared experiences. With the takeout approaching, this is also gone.