By Kevin Franklin
HIGH SIDE! HIGH side!" river guide Tammy Besmehn howls at me.
I throw all my weight toward the side of the raft, which is rapidly wrapping itself around a boulder cresting through the Salt River like some irritated dark leviathan. The roar of the waves breaking around the angry stone drowns anything else Besmehn says to me.
Just moments before, we had been smoothly gliding through the rapids known as The Maze. While a number of boulders dotted the river's surface, Besmehn expertly dodged them as she commanded our inflatable raft. As we approached the last obstacle, Besmehn kept a close eye on the rock with water raging over it.
We angled to the right of it, but just as we seemed poised on passing, an eddy in the current caught us and sucked us sideways into the canyon wall. The raft rammed the wall and then ricocheted across the raging river.
The swift current caught us and hurled the raft into the boulder. Now the force of the river is pushing the raft up onto the rock. As the boulder-side of the raft rises, the upstream-side of the raft is dipping and threatening to sink beneath the current. If that happens we'll most certainly flip.
I press myself to the wall of the raft's rising side like a beached whale. The other passenger, Beth Schmidgall, jumps to my side and Besmehn, her oars now useless, has cast her weight to my side of the boat as well.
Any shore-side spectator would think we were conducting a round of aquatic "Twister" piling atop each other like this. But with the roiling water cascading over the rock just inches from my face, all I think about is keeping the raft down and forcing it to slide around the rock.
After what feels like minutes, but must be only seconds, the raft surges and shudders around the rock.
Besmehn leaps back to her oars and regains command of our tiny vessel.
"Whooo-weee!" she hollers.
You can say that again.
The Salt River feels icy cold and yet another set of rapids lies just ahead of us. To have flipped here might have spelled trouble for our little band.
Fortunately, Bill Mobley, the guide commanding the other raft in our convoy of two, has kept his boat hovering below the falls waiting for our safe emergence--or to conduct a rescue.
This is the second day in a three-day trip down the Salt conducted by the rafting company Far Flung Adventures "Nobody knows the power of a river," says Besmehn. "It can do some crazy things. Any river like the Salt that can change from 300 cubic feet per second (a moderate stream) to 100,000 c.f.s. (a massive raging torrent) is going to have some surprises."
Besmehn should know, she's been running rapids professionally for nine years, including a year on the 300,000 c.f.s. Zambezi River separating Zambia and Zimbabwe in Africa. Rafting the massive Zambezi was like rafting an ocean, Besmehn says.
Along with the rapids came crocodiles, she says.
"None of our clients got ate," she points out with a tinge of pride.
No crocs await us on the Salt, but the most challenging sets of rapids lurk just ahead--Quartzite Falls.
Quartzite Falls no longer carries the deadly connotations it once did. Over the course of several visits during the off-season of the 1993-94 winter, some delinquent engineers and self-serving river guides blew up a large section of the falls.
Some of the eight men involved in the case were sentenced this month. The harshest sentence so far has been a $15,000 fine and banishment from the country's National Forests for Michael W. Meehl, 38. Meehl may also have to fork over some of the $75,000 in restitution the court ordered the men pay to Tonto National Forest.
The suspected ringleader, Ken Stoner, 34, is a fugitive and is believed to be hiding in another country, possibly Chile.
The men claim they demolished the falls for safety reasons. Many of the other guides on the river believe it was a matter of convenience. Desert Voyagers Rafting Tours, the company that employed Stoner, runs two-day trips on the Salt. Since no one could safely run the class VI Quartzite Falls, portaging was required.
Carrying the boats overland, or ferrying them downriver, took time and annoyed Stoner and his ilk. So they took it upon themselves to destroy part of a National Wilderness Area.
"By pushing so hard to run two-day trips," says Beshmen, "(Desert Voyagers) guides felt pressure to go through quickly.
"We just have different reasons to be out boating," says Beshmen, who prefers longer trips that allow the guides and guests to get to know each other and the river.
After the bombing, Quartzite was demoted to class IV and is now runable, though it's not to be taken lightly.
After climbing a hill and surveying the rapids we launch into them. The rapids consist of one four-foot drop with several boat-eating boulders and eddies below.
We ease into the falls and the boat pounds through without a hitch. I will live to tell this tale.
We pull in for lunch and plan our afternoon and final day, which includes a beautiful desert campsite, views of bald eagles and more, if less hazardous, rapids.
I could get used to this.
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