The Long Drive: Upper Salt

The Long Drive as it was called, began at 5am.

Actually it began before that, when the cancellation day came I logged in, and to my dismay there were no dates available for pickup. Not to be deterred, I continued to check throughout the day and suddenly, around 1PM, the dates became available. Lots of them, more than a dozen to choose from. I picked a date in April, typically after the peak of the runoff when the hopes of running a full oar rig are slim. We began to wait, hoping that the snow and rains would continue to prolong the season until our launch.

The snows continued to come, and we were looking at a prime opportunity to experience Arizona’s other “Grand Canyon”. Thus we now get back to The Long Drive.

Most surprising part of this drive is Show Low Arizona which is a beautiful town in an alpine forest. Emerging from the desert southwest the place feels like an oasis in an otherwise desolate landscape.

We stop at the Sinclair station, grab our Apache permits and head to the river, dining on some brisket we pulled off the smoker earlier that day and left in a cooler for the drive.

The water was perfect, flowing just over 3,000 when we set the boats up for launch the next morning. No ranger in site, no check in to think about, and we pushed off just after 9am.

By 10:50PM we had our first flip. The small cat became victim to a large hole in Grumman rapid with the passenger going for a swim downriver and the oarsman staying with the boat. After a 30 minute delay we righted the craft, retrieved the passenger and continued on our path. Humbled by the power of the river, or so we thought.

At 2:30PM we approached Mescal Falls. 30 seconds later I had run the most exciting rapid of my life, running through the hole and just barely smashing through the wave at the bottom. We paused for a second and thought we were going end over as we stared up at a wave that felt 13 feet tall in that moment. We emerged triumphant and just in time to see a second boat in our group become flipped boat number two, on day one.

Spirits had never been higher as we rolled into camp 12 miles in to enjoy the view of some ancestral Puebloan ruins across the river. Oh and the Saguaro forest we were floating through.

As morning came, discussions were underway amongst the crew to ensure rigging was secure so as to avoid any calamity on day two. Despite additional preparedness, we had our third, and thankfully our final flip of the trip. While at this point you might assume this was pure carnage, I’m happy to report that this group was a quick study, and we improved as time went on. Even the inner gorge below wouldn’t slow us down in the days to come.

The Inner Gorge

The home of the infamous Quartzite Falls, Corkscrew and Maze rapids this section has the canyon walls constrict the flow of water, increasing the velocity as well as the size of the rapids. Coupled with the fact there are limited camping options through this section it is often run in one day and can lead to some uneasy sleeping the night before (particularly if you’re already on flip #3 of your trip).

We stopped to scout The Maze and reassess our lives. Despite losing our port side propulsion momentarily, I would self rate the recovery as an “A”.

Followed by a fairly uneventful excursion through Quartzite and Corkscrew.

Camping became scarce, but the sun was not. Fortunately we had perfected the Cucumber Gimlet for river travel. The secret is English Cucumber and citric acid. The pickles were for something else.

We finished the trip by doing the long drive, part deux and driving through a blizzard as we crossed the Colorado state line. Stark comparison to the 85 degrees we had left near Phoenix 14 hours earlier. Was it worth it? Yeah, the Salt is absolutely worth it.

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