Salt River Rafting: A Blast Of A Splash

Fledgling rafter finds, it’s not the fear, it’s the ride

Photo by Michele Nelson. |

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I hate roller coasters.

In fact I can’t stand anything that suddenly loses altitude: A plane in an air pocket, a car in a dip — anything that makes my stomach float above my heart. Yet here I stood in my first wet suit, clutching my yellow paddle, on the shores of the Salt River awaiting a combination of roller coaster-jet in a down draft-car in a dip all at once.

In other words, I was going white water rafting.

Most people associate the Salt River with tubing — a slow, sun-blasted, beer-cooler float in an inner tube down a sanguine Salt River as it slouches toward Phoenix.

But last weekend I found myself in the bottom of the Salt River Canyon about to climb into a raft and rush through a succession of Class 2 and 3 and 4 rapids.

Why?

The ride.

On a good year, the season lasts from March to May. But with last week’s sharp rise in temperatures quickly melting the snow pack, the rafting season could end by early April.

The rafters’ ride depends on the flow of the river, measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). Today it ran at 1,300 cfs, up from a leisurely 350 cfs the weekend before.

Others on the boat with me included the Frantz family, father Michael, mother Betty and teenage daughter Casey; freelance writer Teresa Bitler and our guide Glenn Goodrich.

The coolest thing about relying on an outfitter to raft the Salt River, especially for a beginner like me — all you have to do is show up. The outfitters provide booties, wet suit, splash jacket — everything except a bathing suit.

I learned that the hard way. Repeat after me: cotton holds water forever!

Goodrich works for Wilderness Aware; one of four river rafting outfitters with permits from the White Mountain Apache Tribe to run the Salt from the Highway 77 Bridge to a point right before the Tonto Forest Wilderness. Most of the other raft companies also have two, three or five-day trips down the 55-mile river into Roosevelt Lake. The day trip, however, only covers 10 miles.

When I decided to do this trip, the short time really appealed to me. I could handle just a few hours — I could get off any time!

Our guide, Goodrich, has been taking people down rivers for 36 years. Spry and wiry with a shock of gray hair, a boyish bucktoothed grin and a twinkle in his eyes, he literally hopped with excitement as he gave us pointers before getting in the water.

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Wilderness Aware guide Glenn Goodrich (above) guided an intrepid band of river runners down the Salt River.

I wondered to myself, either this guy can’t wait to go or he’s on meth.

As he talked, I decided it had to be meth.

I surreptitiously studied my boat mates to see if they felt my own mixture of terror and excitement. But once Goodrich started rattling off a list of worst-case scenarios, my improvised bravado quickly evaporated.

“Now, remember, if you fall out of the raft, putting your feet on the river bottom could result in your feet getting stuck,” he said, “and what do you think happens when your feet get stuck and the current pushes on your back? Yep, you got it, you go in face first — not a pretty picture.”

I squirmed, but everyone else took the information in stride.

“People!” I thought, “You’re about to trust your life to this guy! Aren’t you concerned that he looks a little amped up?”

But they all looked cool, especially Betty and Michael who had rafted the Salt 20 years ago as graduate students at ASU. Now Betty looked like she would be more comfortable chairing a PTA meeting and Michael acted like a CPA who followed every rule. He made sure their teenage daughter, Casey, repeated every rule Goodrich gave us.

However, when I shot them a terrified look, they grinned and said, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be fun!”

The two further surprised me when Betty eagerly volunteered Casey to sit in the bow of the boat with her taking on the role of blocking the waves from reaching the rest of us.

Little did I know, the waves breaking over the bow in the more intense rapids would soon cover us all, so it really didn’t matter where anyone sat. We were all going to get wet.

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I quickly volunteered to sit in the back, thinking I was safe.

“So, if there are no more questions, let’s head into the water!” Goodrich fairly skipped to the rafts. I wondered if I would make it with a river guide on meth and a PTA mom sitting in the lead.

Goodrich graduated college with a degree in computer engineering, but to his parents’ dismay caught the river bug after a fateful rafting trip in West Virginia. He has since rafted 387 river routes all over the world and lives out of a camper.

“What do you call a rafting guide without a girlfriend?” he quipped ... “Homeless!”

Fortunately for Goodrich, he’s been seeing a “lovely lady from Indiana” for the last six years. She gets his mail. “She’s wonderful because she accepts that this is my passion,” he said.

He loves the Salt. “I once put in one night with a group of fellow rafters when the river flowed at 3,000 cfs. When we woke up in the morning, it had swollen to 9,000 cfs. I was glad it was just us river guides on that trip,” Goodrich said. “But it’s the scenery that makes this my third favorite river to raft” — right after the Grand Canyon and the West Virginia river that was his first love.

The Salt River drains 13,700 square miles and runs for 200 miles before it merges with the Gila River in the Valley. Its reservoirs sustain Phoenix and its headwaters and tributary streams like Cibecue Creek, Tonto Creek, the Black River and the White River are sacred to the Apache.

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The Salt mimics the Grand Canyon, having cut a deep canyon that exposes all three types of rock, sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic, Goodrich told us. He kept up a stream of chatter. He knew every curve of the 10-mile route and took pains to prepare the newbies for the next thrill.

“We’re going to experience rapids from Class 2 to 4, but we’ll build up to the Class 4,” said Goodrich.

The first set of rapids proved a Class 2 warm up called Kiss ’n’ Tell for the likely bump into the rocky wall at the end. We could see it from the launch site.

My heart got stuck in my throat as we started into my first-ever rapids. Would I survive the ride?

“All paddle forward,” ordered Goodrich.

We paddled furiously.

It was over in about two strokes and a couple of splashes. “Waaa Hooo!” we yelled as we jostled through the short rapids.

“Paddles up for Kiss ’n’ Tell!” our guide hollered. We all grinned and I finally started to believe I could trust this unlikely group of raft mates.

The morning took us through a succession of Class 2 and Class 3 rapids, including tailings, with a view of the asbestos mine tailing high above, Bump and Grind, Maytag, Sycamore, Mother Rock and Grumman, named after a canoe that flipped not too long ago. We all gulped before heading into Overboard, and laughed at the story of Lotion Bay, where a guide’s girlfriend opened a bottle of suntan lotion that exploded all over everyone.

At lunch, we sat on shore and gobbled fresh fajitas as we watched Boy Scouts work on their river rafting merit badge by flipping their raft — then righting it in the deep water.

After lunch and a quick hike to settle our stomachs, we hit the Class 3 Exhibition rapids.

“Most people say this is their favorite set of rapids,” said Goodrich.

We whooped it up the whole way through, this time pleading for the biggest waves. Goodrich happily complied.

“I wish those didn’t have to end!” said Michael, he had long quit fretting about rules.

“They’re good practice for our Class 4 rapids called Mescal,” said Goodrich.

Casey gave him a quick glance. She and Betty had taken the brunt of each rapid. The two now had water cascading off their hair and noses. Casey looked like a miserable wet dog.

“Don’t worry,” said Goodrich to the teenager, “I have a plan.”

By that point, we had all learned to trust our guide, who always gave us an exciting ride without making us feel out of control.

Take our ride through Raft Ripper. As Goodrich explained his plan for getting through, we saw a raft stuck in an eddy on the edge of getting stuck on a rock. We sped past.

“I hope they’re OK,” said Betty.

“I’m sure he’ll figure it out,” said Goodrich.

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The environment changed as we floated on down the river, the first saguaro came into view. “We’ve gone from a pinion-juniper forest and now are hitting saguaro. They can only survive where it doesn’t freeze,” said Goodrich.

Finally, we reached the calm water above Mescal. This was it!

“Now guys, I want to prepare you for what I’d like to do,” said Goodrich, explaining Plan A, with the caveat that Plan A could turn into Plan B inside the rapids. He said he would give us one last thrill in a huge roiling wave, but we would have to immediately paddle out to avoid getting caught against a wall.

My nerves cramped. Betty and Casey focused, Teresa hoped she wouldn’t fall out, while Michael comforted his family.

“OK. All forward!” barked Goodrich.

We paddled vigorously.

“LEFT BACK!” yelled Goodrich. On the left, we paddled — on the right, they back-paddled, pivoting the raft like a well-oiled machine.

“All forward!”

We hit the massive wave, which broke over the bow. The raft buckled, throwing Teresa into the middle and nearly catapulting me into the river. I pictured all the hungry rocks and branches waiting to catch my feet. I would drown in disgrace and prove to myself I was wrong about the ride.

Then the raft unbuckled and I found my seat.

A moment later, we floated in the calm water. “You made it! A Class 4 rapid!” said Goodrich. “Paddles up for Mescal!”

“Yeah!” we yelped.

Little did we know, but the scariest part of the day awaited us — the trip back to our cars in an old school bus on the thread of a dirt road along a cliff edge, the only Class 5 of the day.

“This has been a great experience compared to 20 years ago,” said Betty. “The safety and quality of equipment has improved a lot — especially the bus ride. Overall it was a great experience.”

My stomach and I couldn’t have agreed more. I had survived and even thrived on the ride!

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