Big Salt, Big Adventure

By Warren Maddox

At first glimpse of the chocolate powerhouse, I knew we were in for an epic river run. I hadn’t seen water this powerful in person since running the Lions Head section of the Matanuska River in Alaska. The difference was that I had taken that current in a huge raft; I’d be taking on this challenge in a Sea Eagle Explorer 380x. Seeing others at the Big Eddy put-in quickly dispelled any apprehensions, and I began suiting up.

Watch as we head down the Upper Salt River.

The Upper Salt River — a true Arizona classic, and one I had run before at low flows. At lower flows the river manifests as a technical bump-and-grind with crystal clear water. Surrounded by a beautiful landscape of towering canyon walls in a unique Sonoran riparian ecosystem, Cottonwoods and the mighty Saguaro guide you down the river in the heart of White Mountain Apache country. At lower flows the major danger is drowning from foot entrapment on one of the many boulders or ledges throughout the river requiring prior knowledge and experience with “defensive swimming”.

Originally, I ran this river in the Sea Eagle 330 with great success. Looking forward to what the river would become with a little more power. The Salt River was running at ~3750 CFS. (CFS or Cubic Feet per Second is the rate of the flow, in streams and rivers. 1 “CFS” is equal to 7.48 gallon of water per second). At this level the dangers change from foot entrapment by boulders and ledges to flipping and flushing down river unable to retrieve equipment or worse, drowning unable to swim to shore because of the powerful torrent. Self-Rescue becomes difficult at these levels and should only be attempted by competent teams of at least two but preferably three Class III to IV boaters or better in separate white-water crafts. Bailing early is made difficult by the remote and steep Salt River Canyon. So I knew we had to be careful on this trip and take every prudent precaution.

The plan was to kayak from Big Eddy off of Highway 60 to Cibicue takeout. This is the same stretch we had done before, approximately 4 miles and about 10 marked rapids ranging from Class II-IV Leading through the first drop (Kiss and Tell) and our first taste of the power and just how different this river trip would be. I charged through to the eddy on river right. It was a huge, pushy tongue above 3k. When paddling out of the eddy (eddies are sections of water that flow upstream when an obstruction blocks the main flow of water) the eddy line where the downstream current meets the upstream current caught one of my inflated tubes and tried to flip me out. Ready for the pull, I quickly counter-balanced the high side of the boat and rode it out. I was using an older model Sea Eagle Explorer 380x that I had used on many previous river trips. It was incredibly forgiving when boating off axis. My paddling partner using the Sea Eagle 300x which, being lighter, shorter and more nimble, had no problem making a clean line down the middle.

Boating off axis out of the eddy through Kiss and Tell

Next, we faced a true test of what the Big Salt would have in store for the rest of our paddling trip. We crashed through “haystacks”, a series of waves found on a rapid often referred to as a wave train. Haystacks tend to occur after a drop or on high volume or flooded rivers. Charging full speed, the river was big, splashy, fun and fast! That was the tale of Tailings and Bump and Grind. Where once we were carving around boulders and shooting lines, those boulders were replaced by holes and waves to punch. Holes are features on a river where the surface water is actually moving upstream creating a hydraulic. A big enough hole can flip a boater and keep them recirculating within the hydraulic. After a short break from the action, we met at a fork in the river. Trying to remember what we did last time, we discussed and then headed to the right, entering MayTag. The river split and narrowed then chewed us up in holes and wave trains and spit us out the other side! The Sea Eagle Explorer 380x took everything the river could throw at it, charging through in high-flying wheelie fashion! The whooping was in full force, and we knew we were in for an epic ride! The SeaEagle 300x handled everything just as well but I was glad to have a bigger boat in the bigger water.

We opted to pull out above Grummins and sit on a large, fallen cottonwood, arguing over whether or not we were seeing elk hoof prints or those of the bovine variety. We hung out for a bit and talked safety when we spied another raft coming up from behind. Not wanting to miss this chance, we quickly hopped back in our Sea Eagles to chat about the upcoming rapids, attempting to leach some information. Fellow paddlers graciously told us their lines and offered to let us follow. We swallowed our pride and did just that — no room for egos on the Big Salt!

A massive hole in the middle line of Grummins

Following river right we threaded small trees, avoiding massive holes river left and in the middle, while launching off haystacks until we made our way around the bend, continuing to stay hard right to avoid becoming a tribute to the Mother Rock. You know it when you see it!  What followed was a short break and quick discussion about the next rapid, Eaglesnest/ Overboard, this proving to be the most intricate and beta-intensive rapid. Right and through the willows, we punched holes, back ferry (a maneuver where you turn to paddle upstream) to river left, just skirting the hole at the bottom of the rapid. After a short conversation about the rest of the river, we parted ways and were once again left to our own devices. The rapids ahead were, in comparison to what we had already done, much simpler — that is until Exhibition

My paddling partner in his Sea Eagle Explorer 300x enjoying the calm before the storm

We heard the thunderous power of this rapid far before we saw it. I stood in my Sea Eagle Explorer 380 in hopes to scout out a line with the least mayhem. I didn’t see one. I only saw a huge diagonal wave that I knew I wanted to miss if I could. I picked a line and began charging ahead. The drums of war beat in my ears. The paddle and boat were now just an extension of my body as I smashed through holes and plunged through waves. I saw the wall of water. The massive wave I knew I wanted to avoid. I no longer had time to maneuver away and would have to hit the wave straight on. I took one final stroke, launching myself off of the massive beast and saw nothing but blue sky. My Sea Eagle had learned to fly! In that moment, it all occurred in slow motion. Like a car wreck. I knew I was going into the water and that I was about to flip, but lo-and-behold I came crashing down still in my boat! Hitting that next paddle stroke in auto-pilot, I turned to watch my paddling buddy make his way through the Exhibition. I let out one battle cry and then another. Those incredibly testing and triumphant moments are the ones you know you’re truly alive!

Learning to fly the Sea Eagle 380

I Laughed out loud at nothing, throwing my hands up in exclamation at the canyon walls. I was “right here, right now”, running a river through your nat’ geo. There’s no place I’d rather be.

One of the more mellow read and run rapids

We splashed our way through the last rapids, joyfully floating over wave trains backwards with child-like grins from ear-to-ear. After 2 hours, we had our first site of the shuttle parked beside Cibecue rapid. I found a nice eddy and took out halfway through the rapid to run to my friends, whooping and giving out high fives and sharing in the stoke.

“WE MADE IT!” I exclaimed.

After an epic, exhausting run, the small mining town of Globe and a huge Roberto’s burrito couldn’t come soon enough.

Staring down the wall of water in Exhibition

Warren Maddox is a long time white water enthusiast and has been using different Sea Eagle models for many years.

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