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Monthly Archives: March 2013

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I first met Jim McComb standing ankle-deep in mud. It was February 20th, 1993, a record high water day for Arizona rivers, and McComb, trailed by three others, was marching through the slop to get a look at the high water. We stood on the rim of the Agua Fria River gorge, transfixed by a brown frothing 15,000 cubic feet per second of floodwater. I wanted no part of the angry river. Some of the others feigned interest. Jim steered the democratic debate back to sanity, and we drove to the lower river, where the high water still provided plenty of action.

Our relationship followed a predictable pattern over the next twenty years, lying dormant for months, even years, before springing back to life with the sudden bursts of Arizona’s capricious river seasons. We convened for the remote Blue a few years back, each of us driving for several hours to camp in the rain and paddle a scratchy fence-riddled stream that neither of us had done before. The Blue held more flatwater than Jim normally preferred, but it ran through purely wild country—we saw eagles and bears—and we both loved floating through Arizona’s wild country.

As we arranged logistics for the trip, Jim queried, in his abrupt way, “How many have you got?” “Just me,” I replied. “All right I guess it’s just the two of us,” he snorted with some disgust, incredulous that nobody else found it so keenly appealing as we did, to drive through the night and camp in the rain. Normally, Jim arrived at put-ins with an entourage, not so much because he was the guy who knew the shuttle roads and pinpointed the water levels, which of course he was, but because he was genuinely excited to turn others onto something that infinitely fired his own wonderment. We stopped at an end-of-the-road ranch along the Blue where a McComb family acquaintance resided. Dr. McComb, the esteemed physician, had to introduce himself from behind his trademark blue kayak helmet with a kicker’s single bar facemask. The rancher asked if this kayaking stuff was fun. Jim responded in a rare hushed voice, heightening his reply. “More fun than you can imagine.” I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy is even more passionate about paddling than I am!” Jim was hardly one-dimensional, however. On the Blue, he spoke of his family and his medical practice and snowboarding trips to Telluride. He was thrilled to learn that I had started hunting elk, and promptly offered his best tips.

Still, McComb was a kayaking devotee. After Arizona’s brief spring season, he regularly traveled to California, Colorado, and Idaho to milk the remainder of the paddling year. His intense interest combined with his thorough knowledge of Arizona’s backcountry made him a force of whitewater exploration. Whenever I discussed a potential new run with McComb, there was never any explanation required. He always had it investigated ahead of me.

His crowning achievement in Arizona’s paddling history was the first descent of Tonto Creek’s Hellsgate Canyon. Jim and his chief partner for many years, Rob Reiterman, completed that puzzle in 1997, picking their way through a myriad of committing hard-rock gorges to finish the 26-mile run in three and a half days. Those few days only hint at the effort required to explore the classic reach, however. Before paddling Hellsgate, McComb led five scouting trips into Tonto’s gorges, once hobbling out on a broken ankle, duct-taped together in pure McComb style.

At age 64, Jim was no longer probing class V firsts, but he was still charging. He used to say that our bodies go through different physical stages in life: rubber, cardboard, and china. Jim certainly saw china on the horizon. Limping on a cane from sciatic pain several years ago, he graciously attended a slide show of mine. I can recall him grumbling that night, “It’s a hell of a way to live, ain’t it?” Jim needed to live at full-throttle. He recovered from that injury, and was back in his element, in his kayak, when he took his last stroke. McComb never stopped kayaking. For his last day of this life, Jim was on the East Verde River, precisely in the heart of central Arizona wilderness, deep in wild country, perfectly at home.

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We were prepared, in theory at least, for a six-mile walk to the put-in, dragging our 80-pound gear laden kayaks every step of the way. Thank goodness not all plans come to fruition.

When it came time to turn off Route 99—windswept, potholed, arrow-straight, vacant, twilight-zone wilderness trap to unwary rental-car drivers; the perfect road—there was hardly a patch of snow in sight. Maybe we wouldn’t be hiking to the river after all. Following just one crux draw that required four-low to crawl across snow drifts, we found mostly clear roads to the rim of the canyon. Next question—is there water in the creek? Peering over the rim, our pensive gaze fell on a robust mountain stream, coursing at the bottom of a pine-clad limestone canyon.
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We camped by the bridge, startling awake at the unmistakable cries of a nearby cat. It snarled and whined from just beyond the reach of our headlamps. A mother lion, angry that we were blocking her route to the creek? Or a bobcat finishing its kill? We’ll never know, but either way it wasn’t the most sedative of sounds for slumber. “What’s our plan?” queried Lisa. “No plan,” I reassured. Minutes later the snarl sounds stopped, and I went back to sleep.
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Following a deliberate pack-up, jamming five days of food and shelter into our boats, we floated away from shore on 400 cfs of cold snowmelt. The creek slid through avenues of willow and settled into open pools beneath bluffs of Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone, two layers that would accompany us for the next 80-miles. Oaks grew in arching clusters on flat river benches. Ponderosa pines cast an orange hue against a dark backdrop of Douglas fir. Two bull elk stared as I drifted past, finally deciding to trot ahead and cross the river. A cloud of dust hung in their wake, heavy with their odor. After lunch, three more elk moved up a ridge, and late in the day an old cow elk lay in the riverside sun, staring, too tired or uncaring to get up and run away.
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Morning brought cloudy skies, and much lingering around pots of coffee. After launching, finally, we made only a few canyon bends before Lisa spotted some wood wedged high in a limestone crack. A thirty minute scramble brought us to the airy ledge, where two juniper beams were placed, spanning a gap in the wall. An ancient game-hanging station? We continued downstream, our curiosity unsatisfied.
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The confluence of East Clear Creek was a familiar spot. I’d stopped here before, to glance upstream at Willow Creek, and wonder what was there. Now I knew. Our humble stream was now doubled, about 1,000 cfs. Pines were replaced with juniper and mahogany scrub. The canyon deepened.
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Looking up past limestone towers, Pat shouted from the rear, “there is a wall.” We pitched camp at the next point and started for the rim, where a neat stack of limestone blocks stood. A climb was required to reach the ruins, which stood isolated on an island pillar within the gorge. A defensive structure, no doubt, where 1,000-pound blocks of sharp gray rock had been lifted onto their edges to form low walls, and become tumbling trundle bombs if necessary.

Day three was an odyssey of sheer cliffs, etched petroglyphs, and adobe structures. We scampered to a two-story dwelling, where outside sunlight filed a narrow chamber cave littered with arrowheads. At the rear, Lisa crawled deeper into the cleft, certain that there was an escape route. Darkness turned her back, and we squinted outside, standing over metate bowls ground into bedrock two hundred feet above the creek.
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Whitewater gradually built as we wound north, with class III rapids that were complicated by full living trees growing out of the riverbed. At a large sieve rapid, Lisa saw a line, and steered beneath a tunnel of rock as Pat and I watched anxiously with throwropes in hand.

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She cleaned it. By our last day, we eddy-hopped with glee through drops that were familiar, plowing through the final unportageable rapid secure with our knowledge from past runs. It was my third full descent of East Clear Creek, my first of Willow, and hopefully not my last of either.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.