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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Zach's First Raft Trip

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/19/2021
Occurred: 5/3/2009
Topics/Keywords: #Arizona #UpperSaltRiver #WhitewaterRafting Page Views: 476
In which I introduce my grandson to the joys of whitewater rafting.

My grandson, Zachary, has been hearing me tell river tales all his life. That's because what happens on the river, seldom stays on the river—it's too interesting not to share! Consequently, Zach has asked to go rafting since he could talk. But you can't take babies on a raft unless you are trying to escape the sinking of a luxury liner. So we had to put it off. Until…today!

As it happens, this was the same river I ran just a few days ago with my friend Frank. While we were there I learned that today would be the very last run of the season. That's because the Upper Salt is a snowmelt river; and here in Arizona it doesn't take that long for the snow to melt. While the Upper Salt doesn't dry out completely, it gets too shallow for rafting. Last Monday, the flow was about 7500 cfs; today it was down to 6300 cfs.

So it was now or never.

Michael has also wanted a real whitewater rafting experience, so I included him when making our reservations. He and I had rafted the Gila River some years ago, but it's only a class I or II river (on a scale where class VI is considered unrunnable) so it didn't really count. In fact, to liven things up, the guides called it "fightwater" and gave us all water rifles to shoot at each other. During one of these boat-to-boat skirmishes, our guide leaped, Superman-like, from our boat to the other, inadvertently kicking me in the jaw on his way, which resulted in my bleeding rather profusely for awhile. So, though I've never been hurt doing real whitewater rafting, technically I've been injured in flat water on a class II river. Which is, basically, embarrassing.

As before, I decided we would camp at the put-in. I imagined that, as before, it would be deserted and we would have the place to ourselves. I was wrong, of course. We had left the house late, and by the time we got to the campground there were two sizable parties already there, taking up the two fire pits and the two picnic tables. We had to shoehorn our tent between them.

Which was another issue. We had planned to use our large tent, the one we took to Grand Canyon. However, when Michael and I attempted to erect it, we discovered that an essential part, the "octopus" to which all the poles are connected, was missing. Fortunately we had my "regular" tent with us, so we used that instead.

I wanted to use the big tent because I didn't think our new king-sized air mattress would fit in the "regular" tent; and the queen-sized mattress had a leak, as I discovered last Monday here with Frank. However, it turned out that the king-size mattress does fit—perfectly—eliminating the gap-in-the-middle problem that had plagued me last week at Verde Hot Spring.

The next problem was that I had managed to leave behind the "elbow" that connects the propane skillet to the propane. We had planned on hot dogs for dinner so I didn't need the skillet then; but this was going to present a problem at breakfast, when I intended to make scrambled eggs, a dish not easily prepared on an open fire without a pan.

But when we asked the next-door campers' permission to use their fire pit, which they weren't using, they invited us to dinner. They were a private rafting trip consisting of seven people and had over-provisioned themselves; so there was "lots" of barbecue chicken to spare. Zach still got to toast his campfire hot dogs, but Michael and I enjoyed the chicken.

The private rafters included a young man named Josh. Josh was "special". He was 16, but seemed emotionally to be more at Zach's level, or even a year or two behind. That was okay; he had a video game he played with Zach so Zach liked him. Nothing gets past Zach, though. He came up to me and said quietly, "I think Josh has some mental problems."

"He didn't ask you to do anything you don't want to do, did he?"

"No, but he just seems to act more like [my six-year-old friend at home] than a teenager."

"Some people don't mature at the usual speed," I explained. "And some freeze at some point, and don't become mature at all. But that doesn't mean he's a bad person."

"Oh, no, he's cool!" Zach assured me. "I just don't think he really has a black belt in ninja, or works for the CIA, or can build a car from spare parts in less than an hour."

"I think you're probably right," I agreed. So the two kept each other entertained until bedtime.

The campers on our other side, a family of five, were supposed to go rafting the next day just like us (though with a different company). But, unlike us, it apparently never occurred to them that adequate sleep might enhance their river experience. At 12:30 am I had to get out of the tent and ask them to turn down their truck stereo. They finally turned off their propane lantern at 1 am, but continued to talk and run back and forth behind our tent most of the night.

Eventually morning came. Zach, who had slept through our neighbors' shenanigans, was the first to rise and the first thing I saw when I opened the tent door.

Zachary outside the tent in the morning.

He had already gotten a good look at the river we would be rafting in a couple of hours.

Zachary scopes out the river.

We got lucky, in a sense, regarding breakfast. While looking for the missing tent octopus, I had discovered a bag of snacks left over from our Santa Catalina trip. It contained breakfast bars, Fig Newtons, graham crackers, and honey buns—a bit more sugar-laden than I would have preferred, but enough to keep us from starving until lunch.

Now that the light was good, I snapped a photo of our camp before taking it down.


Once the car was packed, I drove the hundred yards up the hill to the guide shack, where we were supposed to gather for the day's adventure. The day couldn't have been more beautiful; it was cool without being cold and bright without being glaring.

A perfect day for rafting!

Since Frank's and my experience with our guide, Brad Kingman, was so good, when I made reservations for Michael, Zachary and me, I had requested Brad again. This trip would be much busier than Frank's and mine: Instead of a total of four passengers, this time there were 24. We would need a total of three boats. But Michael, Zach and I were in Brad's.

After everyone was signed in, and outfitted with paddles and life jackets and helmets, we walked back to the put-in where our rafts awaited us.

Zachary heads for his first rafting trip!

Because Zach was considerably shorter than the rest of us, Brad assigned him to the front of the raft where he would bow-ride for the morning. He promised to give Zach a chance to paddle, if he wanted to, in the afternoon. For his part, Zach seemed perfectly content to ride up front!

Zach on the bow.

The passengers on our raft behind Zachary were Dwayne and his son Russ in front; then David and his best friend, Mike; Michael and me; and David's 70-year-old father in back next to Brad.

Did we get wet? Yes, we did.

Under current conditions, the Upper Salt boasts Class II/III rapids. When we approached the more serious ones, Brad had Zach leave the bow for a more secure seat between Dwayne and Ross; otherwise he kept him up front.

Zach appreciating the scenery. Michael.

Some people go on rafting trips just for the thrill of running a rapid. Others go for the scenery and the outdoors and the rapids are incidental. I'm one of those and, I suspect, so is Zachary. Certainly he enjoyed the splashing but he has always, from at least as early as 5 months old, clearly enjoyed scenery. And there's plenty of it to see on the Upper Salt: massive rock walls of limestone and lava; rock fins a hundred feet thick around which 3½ miles of river wind; rock beds over which water from a side stream rushes as it joins the larger river.

Mike and Michael in front of a huge rock wall.

At one point we reached a flat-topped rock that almost, but not quite, reaches the surface of the water, and is surrounded by deeper water. Brad had Zach step out of the raft onto the rock, then directed us a few feet away for the resulting photo op: Zach apparently standing on the water.

Zach walking on water as Michael watches from the safe, dry raft. Paul, still rafting after all these years.

After traveling some five miles downstream, we stopped for lunch. Wilderness Aware, the company hosting us, always has the same lunch on this river, which probably earns the guides some kind of hazard pay. It consists of chicken and steak fajitas, garnished with the usual fajita stuff: vegetables, black beans, cheese, salsa, and so on. It's a good lunch but…every day, if you're a guide? I'm not sure I could take it. Seriously, twice in six days was a bit much.

I didn't notice it, but Michael reported to me later that a family of passengers on one of the other rafts had been glaring at us all through lunch. He thought they might be horrified over the gay couple with the kid. I'm more likely to think they'd found out I had eaten this same lunch just six days earlier.

Zach takes a turn paddling.

We couldn't make the hike to the waterfall, as Frank and I had done last Monday, because in those few intervening days the it had dried up completely. Brad added that hikes on this trip were pretty much limited to smaller groups, since it takes much longer to escort 24 people to and from the waterfall than it had four—especially considering the climbing over rocks and fording streams the hike entails.

I offered to sit on the bow so Zachary could have a turn paddling. He gave it a good shot, but got tired fairly quickly. I didn't blame him; a short guy like him has to lean 'way out to get his paddle into the water and take enough of a bite to do any good. Zach can paddle a kayak like nobody's business but the raft was still a bit high off the water for him. I'm sure he'll do fine in a couple more years.

Brad Kingman, our river guide.

When I took a picture of Brad, the guide, he announced, "I'm famous!" Then he added, "Seriously, I am famous on a lot of people's walls. Once my girlfriend was visiting her brother's friend, and saw my picture on his wall, which blew her mind. 'How do you know Brad?' she asked. Turned out he'd been on a river trip with me. Small world and all that."

Our bus from the take-out.

All too soon we arrived at the take-out. Because of the number of passengers, they sent out the old school bus to carry us over the 10½ mile road, Apache Highway 1 (not sure if they were kidding on that, but we were in the White Mountain Apache reservation) back to the put-in.

We changed into dry clothes; tipped our guides; and left them frantically packing for their next day's trip back to Colorado where they would be running rivers and guiding expeditions next week.

Our trip back up the side of Salt River Canyon now was of special interest because we could look down into the river and know that we'd been there. There was the put-in; there was Kiss-and-Tell rapid; there was Exhibition.

Salt River Canyon

Just before he fell asleep during the ride home, Zachary thanked me for the fourth time for taking him rafting…and then asked when we could raft in Colorado.

Not soon enough!