On the one hand, high water is every boater's dream.
It signifies a river that is alive with energy, flowing
waters pulsing with power. On the other, high water is
all about moments of terror. It means crazy, big waves
and hydraulics swallowing kayaks and rafts. One defining
mark of high water is floating debris, and having to dodge
dead livestock and entire trees is not unheard of.
I once enjoyed this
mixed blessing while paddling through extremely high water on
Arizona's Salt River. Looking back, I'm tempted to say that my
journey leaned more toward dream than terror. But that wouldn't be
Upper Salt is one of the last major rivers (along with
the Animas for the time being) in the Lower 48 that is
not afflicted with dams and reservoirs. This fact combined
with its drainage of a vast area, makes the river prone
to erratic flows. A tenuous relationship between snowpack
and weather in Arizona's arid White Mountains makes finding
any water difficult on this relatively small river. But
water can also get too high on the Salt, as higher flows
almost always make for more mass, faster and pushier currents
and trashier rapids.
The Salt was running at
a lazy 1,250 cfs on that day long enough ago that any kayak under 9
feet was considered a radical play boat. I held the permit, a brand
new Dagger RPM (That's "Radical Play Machine" for those who don't
already know) and was leader to a rag-tag bunch of kayakers and
rafters who had never been down the river. I also counted myself
among the blissful ignorant, having visited the Salt only in the
pages of guidebooks.
On the eve of our
launch, we eyed the river and toasted our good fortune a mellow but
solid flow that would be perfect for our many ships loaded with
many fools. Then just as we lifted our Tecates to our lips, it
started to rain. The rain turned to snow and back to rain the next
morning, and we launched in ankle deep slop.
The canyon immediately
took our minds off of chills and rainfall, and we happily passed
through its smooth undulations of scrub brush, saguaros and prickly
pear, occasionally interrupted by sandstone bluffs.
Over the next two days,
we traversed a series of gorges, one bone white and polished,
another stark black with rugged outcroppings. We passed through
thousands of feet of sandstone tilted upright by titanic forces.
Our eyes would feast on cliff dwellings and the dripping
stalactites of the salt banks. And herons, eagles and buzzards
danced in the skies.
But there was also much
more to the story. As the miles slipped away, the river experienced
a profound transformation. The rain and snow were catching up, and
the water itself changed, rising to a roaring boil. It was getting
pushier, faster and more threatening, and soon, the rapids came in
quick succession; drops, holes and standing waves waited around
every corner. They all seemed significant, and the big drops played
havoc with my then radical play machine.
Over the course of four
days and 52 miles, I found myself blasting through walls of water.
Holes the size of large pickups crashed overhead, and current piled
straight into cliff faces. Eddy lines were in constant motion,
undulating across the river, meeting and then flipping even the
longest kayaks without notice. It didn't take a flow gauge to know
that high water was upon us. The almost placid Salt we embarked on
had become fanatical.
A quick scout at
Quartzite Falls (the once legendary rapid that was partially
dynamited to ease passage) revealed a river-wide hole that looked
like an easy punch. However, our look was deceiving from above.
Paddling into its gape, I dropped what felt like 15 feet down the
tongue only to crash through a recirculating wall of
Blasting out of the
other end, I blurred through two more rapids as water crashed all
around me. I was "paddling for Jesus," to coin an old friend's
saying, and stroked right into the meat of a pushy hydraulic with
the auspicious name of Sleeper. The pile of water grabbed my
plastic cigar by the tail end and flipped me backwards into the
maw. After what seemed like minutes, I washed out, rolled up and
eddied out next to a high cliff face. I was beyond gripped, but
also in the flow. And as the Salt rumbled past and under me, a
rhythmic, high-pitched, almost musical song filled my ears. It's
the only time I've experienced such a sensation. I can only guess
it was some variety of tortured ecstasy.
A day later, our rag-tag
bunch looked even more ragged as we took off of the river. As we
packed it in, a couple guys in clean T-shirts drove up in a raft
company van and enthusiastically asked, "Did you guys just get off
We grunted and nodded in
"You guys are stoked.
You hit the bubble. The river topped out at 14,000 cfs
The closest I've come to
the bubble this year was running a 10-inch-deep bath complete with
suds for my almost 2-year-old Skyler. In some respects, I find that
But I've also been
watching the waters of the Animas grow every morning as I make my
bike commute down the River Trail. I've admired the change in hue
as the silt load increases and listened as the placid river music
becomes a dull roar. Seeing the energy and power and craziness grow
always brings a grin to my face.
High water is one of the
defining marks for our still undammed and undiverted river. This
high water and its wild mix of dream and terror still speaks loudly
to me. It is one of nature's highest forces at work, dwarfing earth
movers, pump stations and pipelines. I personally hope high water
will continue to speak loudly on the Animas long after Skyler and I
move beyond the bathtub and back toward the boat.