Apr 11, 2020

Gila River Day 5

If the sky could have opened up and dumped as much rain as possible on the Gila last night, it did. The torrential downpour and high winds had us all in our tents checking for leaks and worrying that we didn’t pull the boats up high enough on the beach. Flooding! Would we wash away? Would our boats be gone in the morning? If you had looked carefully at the bench where we set up camp, you could see that sometimes the water gets high enough to flood the whole flat we were on. Would that be tonight?

Kirks’ story of getting caught in a historical flood was seared into our brains as we listened to the rain dump and dump and dump.

Then, it stopped.

Suddenly there was no more rain, no more wind…just an erie silence in the middle of the night. Ok sleep, now I guess is the time.

The night was quiet, the early morning was quiet, and just about the time I thought about getting up it started to rain again. Really?!?!

I got out of the tent to have a look around, someone had gotten up in the night and pulled the boats up higher. I checked the stick, and to my surprise saw the water had only risen about an inch. Note: a great way to gauge water levels is to push a stick into the ground at the point where the water meets the shore. Later you can use the stick as a reference point to see if the water has gone up or down in level since your arrival.

No way all that rain fell and the water only rose an inch! One possibility was snow…we had heard that this weather in the higher elevations might be falling as snow. Regardless of the reason, we hadn’t floated away, we hadn’t lost the boats. We were still here, and it was still raining.
In fact, it was raining hard again.

I returned to the tent and made coffee from inside, trying not to burn the vestibule of the tent as I fired up the stove just outside the door. I got a new weather report from the InReach to find out what I could already see: rain. BUT the chances dropped by about 10am, lower by noon, and by 2pm there was a sun icon. YES!

But now it was pouring.

Kirk and I started to pack up what we could inside the tent, and then we put on all of our boating gear: dry pants and top, and started putzing around outside the tent. I sat under a tree in full gear, watching and waiting. No one else had emerged.

Finally about 10am I could see some blue sucker holes opening up in the clouds above. Blue sky never looked so good! Slowly some folks started to leave their shelters, and more and more blue appeared overhead. WOOOhooo!

We all shared stories of our panic at floating away during the night.

When enough of the sky had cleared, folks started packing up.

We launch for the final day of paddling just shy of noon; we had definitely made the right call to wait out the rain, for the sun came back, and with it warmth and spring.

The trees were practically blossoming before our eyes, the fragrance hung in the air.

We had a fun little rapid that some folks decided to run, others portaged.

By day 5 we were all paddling much more in sync. In fact, we looked like a line of ducklings following Kirk down the river.

The nine miles passed fairly quickly, and we enjoyed the freshly washed canyon walls.

By mid afternoon the river corridor had flattened out, and we could see that we were leaving the mountains behind.

A river gauge marked our progress, two more miles to where our cars should have been parked at the take out.

Then, the cars.

By this point it was warm and sunny, it was a beautiful day.

We opened beers, toasted to a fabulous river trip, packed up the cars, and went to find out what had happened to the world.

Gila River Day 4

To go or not to go? That was the question.

The morning’s weather report again mentioned temps in the 40s, and 70% chance of rain in the afternoon and evening. Tomorrow, however, was looking drier.

When I emerged from the tent I saw Slow Ride was up and about. I went over to our morning fire and made coffee. Other folks started to trickle out of their warm dry places, but it was clear we were on a slower mode than yesterday (remember that 10:30am start??).

We started talking exit strategy. If we packed up and paddled, we would be paddling in cold wet conditions…again some folks were already cold and wet, so this option could be extremely uncomfortable, but we’d get to the cars today (we had about 9 miles left to paddle), and then be dry! Who cares if we are hypothermic if we can get to dry! So that was option 1.

Option 2 involved packing up and paddling 2 more river miles, and setting up camp again…because there were some amazing hot springs a 3-5 mile hike up a side creek from the Gila River. That sounded attractive cause who doesn’t like soaking in a hot springs when it’s pouring rain? BUT breaking down camp and setting up camp again would be a MAJOR drag. And the hike was rumored to be long and frustrating.

Option 3: stay where we were and have a layover day; continue down the river and to the cars tomorrow. Hmmmmm…

We went round and round with our choices, everyone not committing and hoping someone else would make the decision.

Where did we have to be? There was a pandemic outside. The minute we turned our phones on again we would be faced with a changed world. Did we really want to rush that? But cold and wet…but dry cars…but…

Soon it was apparent that we had waffled long enough that we’d be lucky to pack up and get on the river by noon when the rain was supposed to start. I guess we made our decision by not making a decision.

Alright! Layover day!

Turns out we all brought books, games, podcasts, snacks, music…items we haven’t really been able to enjoy all that much since we have been spending so much time on the river. We had all packed for a layover day, and just didn’t know it 🙂

Slow Ride got out his maps (he had some beautiful topo maps made especially for the trip), and we geeked out over the contour lines…figuring now we had time to do some exploring.

So many places to go! So many places to see!

We decided to take a hike up to the high point behind camp. Kirk and I found creative ways to turn dry bags into fanny packs/backpacks, and we took off with Slow Ride and Mike.

Most of the way up the climb we saw that JJ and Mika had beat us to it, and were hooting and hollering from the rocky outcropping above us.

We made our way up to the top of the world, and looked out over the vastness.

The Gila is an incredible huge tract of wilderness. I had been reading in Slow Ride’s book, Gila Libre, about the previous native tribes, trappers, mountain men, and outlaws that had made this river drainage their home for hundreds and thousands of years. We were not the first, and would not be the last. But for all those people who have walked the banks of the river, very little trace is left. This area was trapped heavily for beaver and other large game when things like fur hats were all the fashion, but I was heartened to see a ton of beaver activity all along the shores we had paddled the last few days. Some things can recover.

Photo by Slow Ride (he has long arms…perfect for a group selfie!)

The first few drops of rain fell on us as we enjoyed the views, and that was our cue to start hiking back to camp.

By the time we made it down, it was time to dive into the tents. I picked up the Gila book and proceeded to finish it that afternoon. We napped, we snacked. Kirk and I played rounds of UNO. We napped and snacked again. The rain was not letting up, but finally we decided to go on a little walk just for something to do. We had waterproof gear anyway!

We walked upstream looking for cool rocks on the flood planes. We walked down stream, finding some overhangs where we could take shelter from the constant rain. The others emerged from their tents for the same reasons here and there, but we all returned to escape the pouring water.

About dinner time the rain seemed to let up a little. Woooohooo! We all left the tents, and were actually able to get a big fire going despite all the wet wood. We had just enough time to make and eat dinner before the deluge started again. Kirk was able to tell us his story of getting stuck on the John Day River last April in the second highest recorded flood in history. He spent four days in place waiting for the full sized trees that had filled the water-way to clear (the river had gone from 10,000 cfs when he launched, to 39,000 cfs). Unbeknownst to him, he was the only one on the river, and search parties had been sent out looking for him….just in case he was in trouble. Well, the story ended well. He was safe, he had to almost rescue the rescuers, and now has quite a story to tell.
In retrospect, maybe telling the story before a massive rainstorm that sounded like a freight train driving through camp wasn’t a great idea. Flash floods on a desert river and all…

Gila River Day 3

Now that I’m home, I am learning more and more about the Gila River and efforts to protect it as a Wild and Scenic River. Read more here

Now, back to the river!

Day 3:

We didn’t make the miles yesterday that we wanted. We had over 40 miles to go on the trip, and there was the added wildcard of rain and potentially snow in the forecast soon. Our options were to paddle fast and get out before the weather, or slow down and keep on despite the weather. Because some of our crew didn’t have dry suits and were already somewhat cold and wet during the day, we had to consider the dangers of paddling all day in wet clothes and 40 degree temps. So far we had had blissful sun during the day which not only helped moral, but helped keep everyone warm.

So today’s goal would be to get an early start (earlier than noonish), and move down the river. We were on the water by 10:30 (success!!) and doing a bit more paddling all around.

The water levels have continued to drop, and with it the speed of the moving water. But we were making awesome time, and after the first hour in our boats, had already gone 5 miles.

We continued on, and if it was possible for the river canyon to get even more beautiful, it did. We were paddling past more dramatic rock walls, and since we were dropping in elevation every day, the signs of spring seems to intensify over the miles. We also spied caves in the canyon, caves that might have housed people for thousands of years.

We are, as JJ calls it, epicing.

We had lunch on a rocky beach. Oh yeah! It was St. Patrick’s day! As a Patrick I felt it was my duty to pass around some whisky during the break, and we all practiced safe flasking by pouring it into our mouths from a safe distance.

We kept on moving down the river that afternoon, had one tree we needed to limbo (duck down to avoid smashing our face into it) but everyone made it through unscathed.

Mike’s turn at the limbo tree

By the time it started to cloud up, we found a nice big flat to make camp. The rain and cold were due to start the next day. I was carrying an InReach beacon, which offers a way to get a weather report. We checked it and saw the rain was due to start late morning tomorrow. So we did the only logical thing and decided to decide our next move in the morning.

There was a fire to make, and some chillaxing to be done.

Gila Day 2

Group photos by Slow Ride

We woke after a nice warm night and waited around until the sun hit our camp to really start moving. A morning fire helped with the motivation, along with multiple cups of coffee.The paddling was really smooth yesterday, and we would find the opposite today!

For all of our effort, we didn’t seem to be moving efficiently down the river. We had a few swims, but all people and gear were recovered, and even though a few folks were shaken up from the cold immersion, we all rallied and kept going.The water at this level kept us busy, and the previous flooding had left tons of strainers in the water. Granted, most of these strainers didn’t span the width of the river, so we were able to paddle by them, however, they could be a real problem if you floated into them wrong.

We saw one other group on the river today, a group of three, each in their own cataraft. Those were ambitious boats because we encountered tons of low-hanging branches that surely resulted in tree branch slaps in the face as those boats sit much higher in the water.

At the end of the day, we rounded a corner to find them portaging a river-wide tree blocking the way, and so we did the same.

We hadn’t made the mileage we had wanted, but our safety and enjoyment were more important, so we pulled up at Sapillo Creek to make camp. This is where (I think) I came down on the CDT five years ago and started walking upstream. I guess we just did a paddle alternate to the hiking route!

We spread out and put on dry clothes. The water in the creek was much cleaner than the Gila, so that would be a good option for filtering, but then we discovered a little waterfall that had even cleaner water. Score!

Then it was time for happy hour on the beach. I passed out cans of Greyhound, a mixed cocktail drink made by a brewery in Bend. We sat on boats and watched the sun go down before retiring to the fire and our dehydrated/freeze-dried meals.

Another warm night, exciting!