High water

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 entirely true.

The 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 water.

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 the river?"

We grunted and nodded in reply.

"You guys are stoked. You hit the bubble. The river topped out at 14,000 cfs yesterday!"

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 fact comforting.

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.

Will Sands




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