Paddling Woods Canyon—an Arizona stout

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I snapped a picture as Scott disappeared around the corner. And then I heard the sound: plastic on rock. I looked up at Pete. He had that athletic ready-to-move stance, and he was looking expectantly over the edge, toward the hole. Time to go check out the action.

Although we had shared leads all trip, Scott was the primary probe. Just upstream, he had run both Supai gorges while Pete Traylor and I watched from the cliffs above. Scott was feeling it. Naturally, he was first to charge this hole, a relatively simple looking affair but closed-in between sensual smooth red rock shelves.

When I got to the edge, Scott was side-surfing, getting thrashed violently. An eddy fed the river left side of the hole, an uphill boil blocked the right. There was no escape in a boat. After several seconds he was out of his boat, and I jumped into a bedrock hollow to brace for a rope throw. He surfaced in the froth and I threw, landing the bag short of his head by about two feet. Fortunately, I felt him grab the rope on the next cycle, and figured I’d be pulling him into the calm water at my feet any second. The rope tensioned. I pulled. No progress. He surfaced again. I pulled. Nothing, again. Seeing my stalemate tug-of-war, Pete asked if I needed help and I shouted, “YES!” Just then Scott went in for another round and I felt his body weight go deep. “Ah hah,” I thought, “now I’ve got him.” Like landing a big fish, I gave a strong pull and up came Scott, sputtering into the eddy. Pete took off running downstream after the boat, the paddle, and, was that a sprayskirt floating past? In twenty-two years of kayaking, I’d never seen a sprayskirt become disengaged from a body during a hole ride. You learn something new every run I guess, at least on Woods Canyon.
It had been fifteen years since Eric Brown and I first paddled into Woods. Jim McComb had it on his radar then, and he threatened to come up from the Valley to run it if nobody else did first. That was all the motivation Eric needed. Nine months after his traumatic rescue attempt of the late Dugald Bremner, Eric was ready to get back in his kayak. We said a blessing to Dugald, and pushed into the canyon. It was a somewhat surreal trip. The only things I remember are what my notes say, because after making great efforts to photograph the entire canyon, I reached the take-out to find no film loaded in my camera. Film! Remember that? I guess it was time to go back to Woods.
I was a little surprised to find how popular the run had become. Unlike other seldom seen class V Arizona rivers that I describe in Paddling Arizona, Woods has been paddled several times over the years. Maybe it’s the creek’s obvious put-in, directly beneath Interstate 17. Maybe the name—Woods—just has a ring about it. Maybe it is truly a top-notch adventure with quality whitewater, and word is getting around. Turns out, all three are true.
The first mile is a not-so-steep warm-up featuring kind grass hummocks instead of rocks. Even the first tea-cup basalt falls, featuring a worrisome rooster-tail that had caused me to portage in the past, turned out to be soft as a feather bed. There was mank too, some of which Scott Dent chunked through, but the slides and falls and S-turns of the first few miles are what remain in your brain, and put a smile on your face.
Open skies and clean rapids are traded swiftly at mile three, exchanged for a big falls and foreboding gorge. After carefully rope-lowering our boats through the snow, I stood and shook my head in amazement at the monster drop that Harlan Taney and Roy Lippman ran on the second descent. They dubbed the next quarter-mile below the falls “Adrenaline Hangover.” It drops 500-feet-per-mile. Pete and I scouted our lines on dry land through here, while Scott picked through the section, running occasional drops while we paused our portage progress to watch, and be ready with a rope.
The afternoon was a blur of narrow sandstone gorges, usually with just enough rocks and eddies to carefully negotiate our way through. The one exception was a spot Eric Brown and I called “Mandatory Penalty,” because the only passage was a blind chute that brought one’s elbow into contact with the cliff wall. From the top, it was just as I remembered, and after watching Scott vanish below the horizon, and then re-emerge far below, Pete and I gulped and took our turns. Fortunately, my elbow was spared this time.
The first campsite for hours appeared amid growing darkness. It came just in time to spare us any night paddling, or a horrible rocky bivouac. It didn’t, however, come quite soon enough to allow a good visual of the winter bare poison ivy that grew throughout. My forearms are still scarred.
The water was lower by morning, and after getting through the Supai gorges, and Scott’s swim, we bounced out on a meager 200 cfs. My attitude was adjusted for true low water brutality, so whenever a rapid came with a clean line, it was like a bonus. So despite the many rock-bashing gravel bars, I enjoyed the paddle out; the red rocks, the sycamore trees, the exotic feel of central Arizona paddling. I’m not sure if I’ll get to paddle the entirety of Woods Canyon again. It is a physically demanding endeavor, and I’m in my forties. But now I remember the place, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

First Kayak Descent of Arizona’s Trout Creek

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Trout Creek 201320130127_2029 copy

The sun peeked below storm clouds, illuminating the desert in golden light. A rainbow arched over a projecting volcanic peak. It was all very auspicious, driving toward the long awaited first descent of Trout Creek. John Govi was at the wheel. Pat Phillips, twelve weeks out of shoulder surgery, rode in the shuttler’s seat. Lisa and I sat in back scrutinizing—me on the map, Lisa on the GPS.

The road was getting rougher and dusk was creeping upon us when a crashing sound indicated colorful kayaks bouncing past the passenger windows. Hardly an unusual occurrence, on a road like this, but when we stepped outside to investigate, it was discovered that our tie-down was adequate. It was the racks themselves that had jumped ship.

Theories abounded. Shims were improvised. Boats were re-loaded. Darkness arrived. The road worsened. We were halfway up a gooey slick hill when the load failed a second time. We fixed it, again, and added more lines, and cracked open beers. Spirits were improving by the time we pulled into a drizzling camp. And then Lisa announced that she couldn’t find her gear bag. Doubts about the mission began to enter my psyche.
Trout Creek 201320130127_2039 copy
Ask any Arizona outdoorsman to find Trout Creek on a map, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Despite being one of the top ten largest drainage basins in the state, nobody knows of this place. Its canyon hides among overlayed peaks of the lonely Aquarius Mountains. Its water dives into the sand before reaching the Big Sandy River along Highway 93. There is no gage for it on the Internet. Its upper reaches lie behind locked gates, a vestige of Spanish land grants negotiated during the acquisition of the American Southwest from Mexico. Trout Creek drains the heart of Arizona’s forgotten quarter.

My interest in the place spawned after noticing a lens of granite boulders along Interstate 40. If there were a creek to run through that same lens of boulders, I surmised, there might be some interesting scenery, perhaps a nice swimming hole, maybe even a dramatic gorge. The map confirmed that if such a creek existed, it was Trout Creek. My first attempts at reaching the clandestine waterway ended in frustrating drives down long dusty roads ending at locked gates. Deeming vehicle access futile, I shared my fascination with one of Arizona’s most accomplished adventurers, Glenn Rink. Glenn pioneered climbing routes in Monument Valley and elsewhere, is an elite among Grand Canyon explorers, and has traveled more of Arizona’s backcountry than most men from this era, or any other. He of course knew of Trout Creek, from the map at least, and promptly suggested a through hike down the length of the drainage. With Mathieu Brown and Ally Martinez, Glenn and I started walking down a barely discernible dry creekbed in the junipers. Four days later, we had covered fifty-some miles down the length of Trout Creek.

Always keen on kayaking potential, I watched closely during our trek, noting that the first three days along Trout Creek were pleasant hiking but too brushy for paddling, with little in the way of rapids. In its last 15 mile canyon, however, Trout Creek enters granite. Smooth boulders, pool-drop gradient, minimal brush, a scenic canyon, this was bound to be a quality kayak run. Now all I had to do was find a road into the head of the gorge, and wait for water. It was eight years before I found both.
Trout Creek 201320130127_2050 copy
The mystery of the missing gear was solved as we nursed a moist campfire. Hadn’t she pulled it out to find a shim at the first rack failure? Our minds were at ease for the moment, but Lisa’s helmet and drysuit were still sitting roadside, way back there, over the muddy pass and down the rocky hill and past the tricky fork. We weren’t driving back tonight.

I snuggled beneath a rain pattered tent while whispers of discussion came from Govi and Lisa over pre-dawn coffee. He was coming down with a cold. Lisa was helmet-less. Trout Creek was dropping. “I’ve made my decision,” Govi reported at dawn. “Lisa is going to take my helmet and go paddling, and I’m going to drive back with Pat. It’s like mountaineering,” said the seasoned ice and rock climber, “as long as someone gets to the summit, or down the river, it’s a success.”

Another 45 minutes of four-wheel-driving brought us to the creek. It was split into two channels, gurgling brown between willows. The water was at that dreaded “tweener level,” somewhere between obviously too low and just right. Regardless, the decision on this day was easy. After a long dicey shuttle drive and years of planning, I wasn’t about to turn away.

At the first small rapid, Lisa and I pivoted around subsurface rocks before finding a clean chute leading into a deep pool. Looking at one another with resigned expressions, our minds fixed on an identical thought, “This water level feels a lot like Corsica.” We visited the Kayak Session Corsica Festival a few years ago, discovering that kayaking can be fun even on flows under 100 cubic feet per second, if the riverbed is clean enough. Trout Creek felt more like 200 cfs, so we counted our blessings.
Trout Creek 201320130127_2076 copy
The first significant rapid brought a portage, but only because we weren’t yet in attack mode. A half-hour later our rhythm was established as we made quick scouts and decisive runs through the steepest part of the river, a quarter-mile stairstep that drops over 200-feet per mile. It was a relief to know the crux was behind us, but there was no time to relax. Sixteen miles on 200 cfs is a long day any way you slice it, and the short days of winter have no sympathy for the kayaker’s dilemma. We stopped for a snack and a map check two-hours into the run: Five miles down, eleven to go.

Although the first six miles of Trout Creek held the highest gradient, steep rapids continued throughout the run. Every half-mile of mellow time saving water was inevitably punctuated with a horizon line. Fortunately, the low water allowed daring probes into mid-rapid eddies, from which we could usually boat-scout the remaining rapid below. Sometimes the leader would have to quickly jump out for a better view, signalling the line to paddler number two. This time saving technique can have its hazards, of course.

At a Z-shaped rapid I hopped out midway and motioned for Lisa to catch an eddy near me. She came down and we discussed the rapid together, me from my perch, her from her boat. “Looks good. Boof left,” we agreed. “The approach might be tricky. I’m gonna start from the left,” I added. But Lisa was already on the right. “I’m going to go from here,” she proclaimed. “I’ll watch,” I said. Lacking enough space to fix her angle, the boat nose climbed a semi-dry boulder at the lip, and the current instantly grabbed the stern, sending her over the falls in a backward end to end flip. There was no terrible sound of plastic on rock, but I began my pursuit of the situation nonetheless. My chase was cut short by the welcome smile of my companion, smirking an all-okay signal from the safety of an eddy below. “It’s deep,” she shouted.

More water would make rapids like this one softer, wider, better. The 200 cfs of our run was fine for a first descent, but 400 cfs would likely be optimal. The hardest rapids would probably get extra stout as levels approach 1,000 cfs, but the majority of the run could handle those higher flows. There are no narrow committing gorges on Trout Creek, so portaging is not a problem. Still, several steep bluffs forced us to pay attention when scouting and/or portaging, as one side of the river was often more favorable to foot travel than another.

The most complex portage came at the midway point, mile eight. Here, a gateway of granite looms over the creek, forcing it over falls up to 15 feet in height. Just below, the river sieves into multiple channels, some of which appeared potentially runnable with higher water. We spent little time scouting, and commenced on a portage-paddle-portage-paddle-portage route that crossed from river left to river right amid the chaos. This was the longest of our five portages on the run. Two of those came early to save time, and one was a tree. Only two portages were due to difficult rapids. There is strong potential that Trout Creek can be paddled without any portages, a remarkable claim on a sixteen mile run of class IV and V whitewater.

At mile nine, I was reminded of something Johnnie Kern once said to me about the relentless Middle Kings. “At three fourths through the run, that’s where people start to melt down a little.” Lisa and I were ready for the paddle-out. We had our fill of whitewater. The afternoon was waning. But Trout Creek was not done with us. Several big rapids stacked into that ninth mile, a section that was only 90 feet per mile according to my map. It felt steeper.

For the next few miles, finally, it was cruise time. Yet even through this easy section, class IV rapids appeared at least once a mile. Just below one of these bouldery drops, Lisa stated, “I wonder if my boat has a hole in it?” Sure enough, the eleven-year-old Prijon had taken one shot too many, suffering a crack on an edge beneath the seat. With just a few miles left, we discarded the idea of a field patch, and simply stopped to dump water every half-mile.
Trout Creek 201320130127_2078 copy
The boat leak didn’t prevent Lisa from running any rapids. Some of the best drops of the day came in mile 14, where a short gorge produces a quarter-mile of high gradient. Whitewater was a blur to us now, approached on auto pilot while looking ahead to each bend in the canyon that we hoped was the last. With forty minutes of daylight left, a broken dam forced us into a shallow channel that dribbled into sandy flats. I was scanning for depth when my eye caught two figures and a truck ahead. “Yeeeaaahhhh!” Govi and Phillips, after only having been shown a bend in the river on a large scale map, were precisely at the take-out. The team was reunited, and the last major un-run Arizona river—to my mind at least, and for this generation—was no longer a mystery.

Arizona Paddling Season 2013 Commences

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A subtropical airmass brought snow levels to over 8,000 feet, and dumped two inches of rain on much of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim during the last weekend of January, 2013. Paddlers hit the weekend water with a fury to match the intensity of the storm, logging high water runs, first descents, rising-water surf sessions, and post-storm posse assaults.

Our team of John Govi, Lisa Gelczis, Jonothan Olsen, and myself put plastic to water on Oak Creek during Saturday morning. Leaves and sticks swirled in the dark water as we watched it go from 200 cfs to 300 cfs while we drove shuttle. By the time drysuits were zipped and ready, it was 400 cfs and rife with wayward firewood. We launched on 500 cfs in between the occasional passing tree branch, and took out prematurely an hour later on 1,000 cfs, after dodging one too many logs, Blackadar iceberg style, as we dropped down the tongues of rapids. When the lines you scout become choked with wood before you can get back to your boat and launch, it’s time to take out.

By Sunday much of the debris had cleared but the water remained high. There were daring descents of upper Oak Creek, a notoriously busy section of whitewater when high, and one close call at Grasshopper Falls, where three paddlers were simultaneously thrashed in the monster hole. Lives were spared, all equipment was not. There are two paddles and one boat still unaccounted for. If anyone has a find, please email funhogpress.
The Verde peaked at over 12,000 cfs, drawing river runners for several consecutive days. Fossil Creek saw runs on higher than normal flows. Tonto Creek was a popular destination by midweek, when it had finally dropped to playful levels. Reports are surfacing that Maricopa County Sheriff Deputies were blocking access to Sycamore Creek in the Mazatzal Mountains. If you are unjustly stopped from accessing a river, please contact American Whitewater, and join if you are not a member already.

Although much of the Arizona snowpack was lost with the warm storm, several inches of fresh snow came on the heels of the high water, and many locations over 7,500 feet still have above average snowpacks. The hydrology is primed, and with just a couple more good storms Arizona could be a land of rivers for the coming months.


Aravaipa Canyoneering

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The clouds were starting to look bruised, with a hint of pink on their edges, when we took off our harnesses in preparation for the final half-mile walk out of the canyon. The imposing cliffs of Hells Half Acre Gorge were behind us, and the riparian jungle of Aravaipa Creek was visible below. We’d be there soon.

With ropes securely stashed away, we strode along a bedrock sidewalk streaked with rivulets of water. Rounding a corner, the horizon ahead suddenly fell away, sending the trickling stream catapulting into the abyss. Perhaps we had taken off our harnesses a bit prematurely.

Jer crawled down to waterfall’s edge, peering over the lip in search of a downclimb. Pat looked for anchors above the drop. I walked the rim of the unexpected lower canyon trying to ascertain the big picture. There was no dodging it, this was going to require a rappel, and it looked to be about as long as our doubled 200-foot rope.

With daylight fading, we slung a massive boulder, threaded the rope, and one by one, abseiled over the edge with twenty feet of rope to spare. Committed now, we scrambled downstream to find another drop, much shorter, but pinched in canyon narrows above a pool. With careful footwork, we all made it across with dry feet, and coiled the rope as darkness truly started to wash over the gorge. I was getting psyched to set up the next rap via headlamp when the sound of running water snapped me out of reverie. It was the creek. We were out.

Ninety minutes of walking in the dark brought cold ones at the car. Days are short in winter. Our previous day was dedicated entirely to reconaissance after passing two unlocked gates. I was confident enough to spout something about feeling confident when my brother Jerry wisely tempered my enthusiasm with, “You just never know when trouble is around the corner.” We rounded a corner, and there sat a cowboy; hat, vest, spurs, horse, cow dogs, the whole bit. “And there’s trouble,” Jer quipped.

He wasn’t really trouble at all, just a nice ranch manager who informed us that we would not be driving down that road any farther. The Nature Conservancy has plans for that area, and they don’t include vehicles, we learned. We chatted for some time before retreating to the ranger’s office and re-tooling for plan B. Fortunately, Hells Half Acre Canyon is attainable in a single day from the Aravaipa western trailhead. Most of the other side canyons entering Aravaipa, however, will require backcountry base camps from which to make canyoneering attempts. There are certainly more gorges there. I hope to be back—with a new plan, and more daylight.


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