Salmon River Rafting

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Rigging boats at Corn Creek Ramp - Salmon River

Local wisdom says the Main Salmon “washes out” at high water, leaving the rocks sufficiently buried to create a smooth linear flow. Having recently run the river at high water during my 2009 source to sea journey, I repeatedly affirmed this “washed out” assessment as the Cascade Adventures team and I approached the put-in with 56,800 cubic feet per second registering on the gauge. “Nothing to worry about except two rapids—Whiplash and Chittam,” was my cry. But memory fails. Now, just days after getting off the raucous river, my more enlightened assessment might sound something like, “There is nothing to worry about but Whiplash, and Chittam…and Killum, and Dried Meat, and the Little Five Mile – Split Rock corridor, and the eddy lines below Polly Bemis’, and how ‘bout that new rapid at Black Creek and….” It might be big and wide, but at high water, the Salmon still packs some punch.

Of course part of my re-assessment is due to the fact that I was rowing a raft this time around, rather than paddling my more maneuverable plastic kayak. Having the responsibility to look after a cadre of inflatable kayaks adds a new perspective too. The ducky paddlers did great, with only a handful of swims over the course of the high water week. Still, the small boats were rolled up and stashed away for the biggest water days, when we had challenge enough just keeping all four rafts in line.

Of course there were some people on the river that willingly sought the biggest of the big water, and we bumped into the all-stars at Barth Hot Springs. This was the Liquid Logic trip, on the water with Canyons Incorporated. Kayak designers Shane Benedict and Woody Callaway were taking a break from their North Carolina headquarters to test their wares on the giant fluffy waves of Idaho’s big water. I hadn’t seen Woody since completing Whitewater Classics, and seasons had passed since connecting with other friends who were on the Canyons trip as well. Like mountain men meeting at the annual rendezvous, river guides share the best of times when together, before continuing our personal journeys, never knowing where or when we might meet again.

The big Salmon River

Canyoneering in the Alps

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I was a bit uneasy clipping into a rope with no belay device, but it had worked for the two guys in front of me, so I took one last look at the bolted anchor, sent a trusting glance to Ian, the guide, and let him lower me off the edge.

This was my first taste of canyoneering, or “canyoning” as they succinctly say, in Europe. Of course I’d have been lowering myself, much to my satisfaction, if it weren’t a guided trip, but surrendering to the established program was a part of the exercise. I wanted to see how they do it in the Alps, birthplace of nearly every alpine sport, including this one. Thanks to my friend Riaan at Outdoor Interlaken, I got a first hand glimpse.

The gorge was granite, not too different than some of the southern Arizona gorges I describe in Canyoneering Arizona. Being in the Alps, however, the Grimsel Gorge was a whole different flavor. One of our first mandatory jumps came at a greasy smooth 15-footer. While I downclimbed to make an awkward 8-foot leap, the rest of the gang scrambled up to a stone and concrete jumping platform above for a 25-footer! I think they got their money’s worth on this one.

At the next drop, a fixed line protected a slippery traverse, and iron bars aided the downclimb. I was starting to get the idea. In a land of James Bond sky trams and paragliding landing zones in the middle of downtown, there’s no reason one shouldn’t expect to see the canyons fully developed for adventure recreation too, and this one was.

At the crux, a 15-foot waterfall was pinched in lovely sheer walled narrows. Back home, it would’ve been a webbing anchor through a pinch point, and a slimy short rappel into a swim. As I sized up the scene, however, it was apparent that an Alp style descent was in store. “Hold on here, and let go when I shout,” were my instructions. And I was off, zinging down a cable zip line over the middle of a pool before letting go, and dropping like a stone into the depths. It was hardly the measured progress amidst wilderness isolation that I find in the canyons of the American Southwest, but I have to admit, it was one hell of a lot of fun.

Corsica Kayak Session Festival 2011

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As I blissfully paddled past the portage eddy, a chorus of warning shouts called after me in several languages; German, French, English. I didn’t understand many of the words, but I got the point—eddy out dude! The unrunnable falls were just ahead, and I was apparently headed for certain doom. I pulled ashore quickly and climbed onto smooth grey granite, much to the relief of my impromptu international safety committee. Kayaking, it seems, is an international language, and nowhere was the camaraderie more apparent than at Kayak Session magazine’s Corsica Festival, 2011.

 Creek-boat laden vehicles rolled in over the weekend, turning the quiet Ernella Campground into a bustling menagerie of paddlers’ camps that sprawled across grassy fields beside the crystal clear Tavignano River. According to my unofficial survey, kayakers checked in from the U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, and the U.S.A. Evenings were noticeably quiet early in the week as paddlers returned slightly battered from low water descents. Still, boaters have been flocking to classics like the Fium Orbu and Travo, where bedrock slides provide good fun even at 80 cfs! And the sunny Corsican landscape—filled with vineyards and quaint villages beneath snowy peaks—was a joy to experience in any case, low water or not.

Several of whitewater’s keystones made a point to stop by the mountain isle. Horst Fursatel of the hf brand attended, global paddler Arnd Schaeftlein and his Teva van were camped out accommodating paddling missions all week, and the human Corsica guidebook Raphael Thiebaut patiently answered everyone’s questions as to where the highest water might flow. Snowboard champion-turned-kayak pro Ron Fischer came in straight from Chile, and Frenchman Stephane Pion paddled each day before showing the latest paddling films each night.

Full-time paddlers and weekend warriors alike enjoyed the scene, low water or not. Perfect water levels are only a bonus to this perfect Corsican setting.

Canyon kayaking beneath Arizona’s steppes

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“Rock! Rock! Rock!” Mike yelled as a three-hundred-pound sandstone block crashed down the cliff below us. Lisa was down there, somewhere. I joined his warning chorus, but remained too occupied dangling a tethered kayak off the edge to recognize the situation immediately. By the time I made sense of what had just happened, it was all over. The last of the rockslide echoed from the bottom of the canyon, and Lisa shouted a welcome “I’m okay.” It wasn’t your typical put-in for a class III day run.

Yet very little is typical when kayaking near Winslow, Arizona. The landscape is Kansas-flat wind-swept steppe. Distant mesas of the Hopi lands break the monotony somewhat, but not exactly in a verdant water world kind of way. When Jackson Browne wrote about a guy standing on the corner here, he definitely didn’t have a whitewater boat on his shoulder.

Pothole en route to put-in

But oh what the desert hides! Hidden beneath this high desert are narrow gorges, and for a brief time each spring, the slots carry snowmelt from the Mogollon Plateau. The runoff snakes between the walls, creating mazes of incongruous, tumbling whitewater. Accessing the water can be a tricky task, ensconsed between vertical cliffs as it is, hence the rockfall and dangling boats.

Once below the put-in cliff, we walked a quarter-mile to the water, where I once spooked a family of drinking javelina. Trapped, the wild desert pigs made a dash past with only feet to spare in the confined canyon. Today it was we humans who were nearly trapped, thanks to a giant pothole in the canyon that had formed with the last flash flood. With another round of rope-lowered boats and an unprotected 5.4 traverse, we were finally ready to go boating!

Winslow paddling

Although I provided overview descriptions, neither of the Winslow area creeks made it into my Paddling Arizona book as complete entries. The access is just too funky. No matter how you slice it, finding the river is just part of the adventure when exploring the whitewater Mecca of Winslow, Arizona.

They call it God's Pocket
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