Monday, March 05, 2007

Salt River Canyon

The Salt River Canyon at Quartzite.

The rivers of the desert southwest have long interested me. Having hiked throughout the southwest growing up, I always found the dry washes leading into tight slot canyons the most magical of places in a complex and varied landscape. Those slot canyons have so far eluded us as boating trips, but when the chance came to mount a quick trip to the Salt, there was little choice but pack and go.

Nick Borelli and Shaun Riedinger were along on this trip, and as usual, a multiday trip with this crew was truly a vacation -- no BS, everything just comes together effortlessly and that makes all the difference on these kinds of trips.

We obtained a cancellation for early March, hoping the spike to 1000 cfs in February hinted at good early flows for the season. It didn't quite work out that way, and we launched with flows in the mid 300s -- minimum flow. Weather outlook was for warmer temps each day, and clear cold nights with a full moon by the second night.

After a 6am departure from Seattle, we were in the rental car and on our way to meet shuttle by 11 from Phoenix. We were on the water by 3 or so, tired but thrilled to be setting off on the first multiday personal first descent of the year -- always a great feeling.

The canyon from the road. Maytag Chute along the right bank.

We were beat from the long day and pulled over to camp on the left above Bump and Grind. We had a nice beach, lots of firewood, and a great wall to enjoy in the setting sun, and, later, by moonlight.

Moonrise over camp one.

This was a shakedown trip for us, as we were trying a whole new kitchen setup. I had the new firepan from Partner Steel -- a custom lightweight IK jobby, and Nick had a new grill setup that was rock solid and packed super small. This, coupled with the 18oz dry rub steaks in the new watershed cooler ... well, let us just say things were a thorough success.

The canyon by moonlight.

We were up late the next morning, hesitant to face the cold. After a leisurely breakfast around the fire, we set off to see what the Salt had to offer. Bump and Grind aptly named, but had a clean line. Maytag Chute was a great wave train. The Salt flows through a lovely inner gorge with 20 foot walls as it flows towards Cibeque Creek, and we were excited to see such scenery where the maps had suggested more open terrain. The canyon at Cibeque Creek was lovely, towering walls on the right, and a tempting side canyon at the creek itself.

Looking back up at the tail end of Exhibition and toward the Cibeque Creek confluence.

Exhibition had a tricky little entry, and we stopped below the rapid for lunch and enjoyed the views back upstream to the Cibeque canyon. We found the first saguaros in the canyon at Mescal Falls, a straightforward II+ at this low flow. The rest of the float down to camp across from Walnut Creek was uneventful. This may have been the best camp of the trip, with nice bedrock for cooking and a subtle pitter-patter from the falls across the river really added to the ambience.

Shaun in the top half of Mescal Falls.

View from camp across from Walnut Creek.

We were up the next morning in search of the cliff dwelling shortly downstream. We had a long day ahead, making up for our short first day, so we weren't able to hike, but we were surprised to be able to see the ruin from the river, it's crumbling walls testament to the long history of the region.

About here, we found ourselves buffeted by strong downstream winds, which continued unabated for the better part of the next two days. Very strange to have downstream winds in a desert canyon in the afternoon -- but we were glad to have the help. Rat Trap featured a ledge along a bedrock outcropping on the left. A strange folding hydraulic with a thin line on the right was the best option here.

Gradually the steep orange walls gave way to a more open canyon with rolling hills. A lovely light grey inner gorge was soon exposed, with sculpted and fluted walls and some fun technical rapids. We eddied out at the mouth of Canyon Creek for a brief walk up the side canyon.

Then came the Gleason Flats section, where we had to drag boats several times. A quick lunch stop and we were through, lining up to boat scout Eye of the Needle which was a straightforward chute at this flow. One more drop, Black Rock awaited us before camp, and we decided we'd scout this one, as Nick remembered it was supposed to get worse at low water. We pulled in on the right and hiked past the innocuous leadin to find a 6-foot vertical ledge with an undercut wall left, a backed up boulder pile and hole center, and a ridiculous folding reactionary on the right. A quick portage was made on the dewatered left channel. We continued through wonderful canyon terrain down to a camp just above Hess Canyon, where we had a nice bit of shelter from the wind, which was very welcome.

Sunday was our big mileage day -- we were running all the way down to Coon Creek to facilitate our takeout schedule. We quickly reached the Maze, which was boat scoutable III, but one can see how long the pushy runout would be at high water. At this flow, two distinct drops led into a long calm pool nested in a nice inner gorge.

Scouting at The Maze.

Nick and Shaun in the upper and lower sections of The Maze.

We floated down towards Quartzite and found the section of canyon above the drop quite excellent. A huge wall rises out of the water in the right, smooth and varicolored, this rock face was the most impressive canyon wall we'd yet seen on the run. We knew Quartzite was coming quickly, and while the maps had led us accurately thus far, no map was needed to recognize Quartzite. Visible from well upstream, a magnificent wall of rock si thrust into the sky with a narrow V carved by the river -- an amazing sight. We scouted left, then I ran down to the mouth of the creek on the left and climbed up the wall to get an angle for Nick and Shaun running the drop.

Nick runs Quartzite.

After a lovely pool isolated between two of the biggest rapids on the run, we were scouting Corkscrew, which at this flow was a fun left-to-right entrance into a big hole and reactionary coming off the right wall. Everyone had clean lines through what was the biggest clean drop of the run at this flow.

Scouting Corkscrew.

Shaun rides the reactionary.

We stopped for lunch at Cherry Creek, expecting to leave the canyon scenery behind as we entered Horseshoe Bend and Redmond Flats. While the land opened up through these sections, we found camp at Coon Creek to still afford great vistas and a nice side canyon setting.

Our final morning found us up and on the water around 8:30. We were surprised to find plenty of water, continued downstream winds, and an excellent final canyon that continued right to within sight of the road. Only a few miles above the takeout, we came across a few Javelina foraging along the right bank, a wonderful end to a great trip.

We were well ahead of schedule, so we hit happy hour in Tempe before heading to the airport. We touched down in Seattle at 11:00 and were in bed by midnight. Maybe I'll finish unpacking by the end of the weekend ...