WHITEWATER LIES ahead. The uncertainty of what dangers and adventure hide behind the bending canyon walls excites my imagination.
In a small way, it must be something like what John Wesley Powell felt before he rafted through the Grand Canyon. Neither the one-armed Powell, nor anyone else, had the slightest notion of what was ahead. For all they knew, the river might plummet off a lethal 100-foot waterfall. They set off anyway in their wooden boats.
Not all of them returned alive.
Today, I'm on a three-day trip down the Salt River with the rafting company Far Flung Adventures. We will be rafting the Upper Salt, a section of serious whitewater. This is not to be confused with the Lower Salt, where flotillas of tubing drunks wallow.
As the van descends the 1,000-foot walls of the Salt River Gorge, I find some consolation in knowing no 100-foot precipice waits for us on the river. I'm even reasonably confident we'll all live to tell the tale of the trip. But then, you never know. Plenty of people have drowned on the Salt.
For that reason, our professional river guides give us a safety talk on the ride down.
"Try to stay in the raft," says Far Flung Adventures guide Bill Mobley, 43. "If you do get thrown from the raft, roll onto your back and keep your feet downriver."
That way, Mobley explains, if you crash into a rock you'll go feet first. Another advantage is that when Mobley, or our other guide, Tammy Besmehn, 32, tosses a line bag at the hapless rafter, they can pull him backward toward the raft. By going backward, the back of the head and upper back push through the water and form a pocket of air around the face.
If you get pulled face first, Mobley says, you're going to submarine to the bottom and mingle with the fish.
We stop at the trading post at the bottom of the gorge and buy our permits. The Salt River Canyon lies within the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and the Apaches charge a $20 fee to use their river.
We start down the dirt road that follows the Salt toward Cibecue Canyon, our put-in location. The single-lane dirt track hugs the edge of a cliff several hundred feet high. Down below the Salt River roils along. That I'm even wearing my seatbelt strikes me as humorous. If we went over the edge it wouldn't matter if I had armor plating, much less a seatbelt.
Almost in answer to my gruesome thoughts, I hear a pop and the van lurches. A tire's blown.
Our driver, Hilary Hauserman, 27, keeps the full-size van and its accompanying trailer full of rafts steady and on a straight line. Even more importantly, she keeps it on the road.
After fighting with a human-eating monster jack sporting a handle that has a disturbing tendency to jerk up and attack its operator, we get the tire changed after about an hour of struggle.
Undaunted, we press on to the launch area.
We pull up onto the sandy beach and load the inflatable boats as quickly as possible. This adventure will be an oar trip rather than a paddle trip.
On an oar trip, the river guide sits in the middle of the boat and commands the boat by using two giant wooden oars. On a paddle trip, everyone on the boat has a paddle and works together to steer and drive the boat.
Far Flung Adventures runs both kinds. If you want to relax, take pictures and focus on the scenery, oar trips are better. If you want to become an integral part of the boat's locomotion, a paddle trip might be the ticket.
Of course, among the rapids, people on oar boats are not reclining with martinis in hand. On the rougher water everyone must stay focused on what the raft is doing and what the guide wants you to do. If the raft encounters a large wave or careens into a rock, the passengers have to high-side. This entails moving your body weight to whichever side of the boat starts to rise up. Theoretically this prevents the boat from flipping, although the success rate depends on the speed with which the crew reacts to the guide's orders.
Loaded and eager, we set sail.
In a few moments, we hit the first rapids. My heart stops and my mind goes numb, not from the size of the rapids, which are pretty small, but from the chill of the water. If I didn't have reason enough before, I have plenty of motivation to stay in the raft now.
What Charles Trumbull Hayden was thinking I can only imagine. In 1873 he devised a scheme to log trees up in the Sierra Ancha Mountains in Apache country and raft them down the Salt River. According to the story published at the time in Prescott's Arizona Miner, the attempt succeeded only in water logging Hayden's men, who lost of most their gear. But what a wild trip that would be, riding a log through class VI rapids.
Today the rapids are at most class IV, a wild ride, but not generally lethal. Class V is the most difficult rapid commercially run. Beyond that, you're taking your life into your own hands.
Today we practice our techniques on smaller rapids.
Tomorrow we encounter all of the big rapids on the river. To be continued....
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