This Plan B world asserted itself once again on our March getaway to the desert southwest.
To begin, on our departure morning, March 15, 6 am, we crept out of town on icy roads, made it about 5 miles, and confronted a sign on I-15 south informing us that the highway was closed to the Idaho border. In the few miles before the next exit, we explored alternate routes to get around the closure, all of which seemed ridiculous and riddled with their own fraught possibilities. Turn around, creep back home, spend the day shoveling snow and biding time.
Reboot on the 16th, with better results, arriving at friend’s in St. George, Utah in time for a stroll and dinner. The day delay allowed us to drive the 2-lane across northern Arizona to Lee’s Ferry, (closed the day before due to snow) on the way to Prescott, sighting a couple of condors along the way. All good.
The overarching reason for our journey south was the possibility of floating the Salt River in southern Arizona. It’s a tough permit to get, and even if you score one, the likelihood of having enough water to float is iffy. Our friend, Lee, got the permit, and this year, with all the ‘atmospheric river’ activity going on, looked promising.
Indeed, as we closed in on Prescott, the signs of whopping moisture, snow-capped peaks, and recent flooding were everywhere. Flagstaff was blanketed in snow, Oak Creek canyon was full of flood debris, the Verde River, normally a creek with a couple hundred cfs flowing through it, had boomed to 50,000 cfs in recent days. The Salt got up to 12,000 cfs, and our upper limit for tolerating whitewater anxiety was 5,000.
For the next few days, enjoying Lee and Truly’s good company, going for mountain bike rides and hikes, we kept checking river gauges. There was hope. The Verde dropped back down, the Salt kept moderating. As our launch date approached, it looked promising. Only, another pulse of wet weather was looming on the close horizon, predicted to arrive right around our launch day. The river ranger predicted another spike, possibly even higher than the last one, during our float. “It could go to 20,000,” he said.
We huddled, we pondered, we alternately accused each other of being wimps and cowered at the prospect to raging water and long, scary swims in the event of capsizes. In the end we went to Plan B, picking the Gila River in New Mexico. It has also been on our trip radar for decades. It, too, is a flow often too low to run. And the wet weather was tending to miss that watershed. Longer drive, new shuttle arrangements, different maps, some changes in gear.
We drove out of Prescott in a pounding rain storm. Flagstaff was predicted to get 6 inches of snow, followed by rain, followed by another 10 inches of snow. Another big glut of water looked inevitable. Phoenix, Tucson, and finally Silver City, NM in time for an early dinner in a brew pub. Then a tortuously winding road up and over the continental divide, and steeply down into the valley of the Gila.
We camped at a closed campground near the Grapevine launch site and put in the following morning, along with a slug of other boaters (many of whom had made the same Plan B choice we had – we called ourselves “Salt River Refugees”). After a tour of the Gila cliff dwellings and a recon with the shuttle service, we launched around mid-day on roughly 600 cfs of muddy river sluicing through the intensely beautiful Gila Wilderness.
For the next six days we were held in the spell of that valley and the surrounding landscape – volcanic layers in cliffs and peaks and ridges, stunning sycamore trees shining white in the sun, tributary valleys with ancient graneries and petroglyphs, occasional hot springs, signs of recent flooding. The paddling was engaging. The river is a heads up series of challenges. Every bend is a potential minefield of downed trees or braiding channels. Paddling requires constant vigilance and quick choices. At the same time, it isn’t terrifying or pushy. For hours at a time we paddled along in a challenging, fun rhythm through the winding miles, entertained by the topography, sighting new birds, dealing with obstacles, threading the needle through rock gardens or deadfall.
We had enough time to award ourselves with half-days and a layover day with opportunities for hiking, rock hounding, and letting the landscape sink in. It was cold enough that we had thick ice on the water bucket every morning, and headed to the warmth of sleeping bags before 9 at night. The group chemistry geled. The river entertained. The country seduced. All the way to the end the river challenged and engaged us – walking shallow rapids, hitting narrow slots through deadfall, missing walls on sharp bends.
On Day 6, the warmest day of the journey, we coasted up to Mogollon Creek and the line up of our shuttled vehicles. A Plan B worthy of Plan A status. No one regretted choosing the Gila.
Two days later, back in Prescott, we looked back on the wisdom of our choice. As it turned out, the Salt had indeed peaked at almost 17,000 cfs during our window. That would have been daunting indeed. And the Verde, it had zoomed up to nearly 100,000 cfs, an unprecedented flood level that had us all envisioning the fear and loathing of being caught in such an onslaught of river charging through a broad floodplain without high ground. I’d say that the Gila was just right.
Back in Butte now, regrouping, drying out, shoveling. Winter still has us in its grip here. The snow in our front yard is several feet deep, ski areas are buried, the snowpack is upwards of 100% everywhere, and we aren’t changing out snow tires any time soon. Paddling season in Montana is looking good, but it isn’t happening for a while.