I’m 10 hours into day one of the first descent of Snafu Gorge, Arizona…..and I’m considering drinking my piss. The thought of doing this actually sounds better than my alternative, drinking from a muddy tire rut. But I don’t, I opt for the tire rut. I dropped to all fours and sipped the sweet mud water from the old groove. This is Arizona expedition boating: never a dull moment.
Let’s rewind a bit to the day before, Friday, Nov 30, 2007. It’s raining like crazy and it’s not stopping. I’m calling everyone in Arizona – all eight of the Class V boaters. Nobody is game for what I have in mind, except fellow teammate Mike Fisher, of Cave Creek. We had many epic paddling trips together this year in Arizona, and now it was time to complete one of the last significant descents in the state.
There were a couple of problems though. Naturally, it being Arizona, the access to the drainage was next to impossible. Second, it’s on “the rez.” So we rally the biggest trucks we can find and get after it. Arriving around 2 a.m. on Saturday, we park Mike’s truck three miles from our take-out because an arroyo is flashing and washing away our road minute by minute. We hesitantly leave his truck behind on high ground and drive the other rig to the put-in, traversing a long, muddy road to the top of the gorge. By three, we try to sleep but the sound of the raging river and the rain is too loud.
Suddenly, I jump up because the sound of the river has increased ten-fold! Looking out the window of the Suburban, I see we are caught in the middle of a massive flash flood. The water is up to the front of the truck and I feel everything go into slow motion as I shove my snoozing buddy Mike out of the driver’s seat and jam the key into the ignition, slamming it into reverse and pile driving the tuck onto higher ground.
Bullet numero uno dodged. Needless to say, we feel extremely lucky. Karma was on our side.
By morning, the river had dropped from huge to just right. We put on with high hopes and paddle downstream through the desert scenery. Five miles later, we find what we’re looking for: the gorge. It consists of a 10-footer, a 30-foot slide, a 12-footer and then a double drop which fell an easy 80 feet. I was a happy boater that morning. I jumped in my boat, while Mike fired up the HD camera for the record. Dropping off the first slide and quickly plummeting over the next 12-footer was pure desert nirvana. The slide is one of the few in Arizona and we’re stoked beyond belief that it’s runnable. We lap it twice, throwing freewheels on the second trip. It was sick. But the happiness wouldn’t last long: for the huge double drop was next.
I had seen the double drop at extremely low water and wondered what it would look like at a runnable flow. What I thought was going to be clean now looked more like Class V+ + +. After a good half hour of rappelling and scouting, Mike deemed it runnable. I gave him the ok sign and he confirmed that he was going to giver’. I set safety and broke out the camera on the far rim.
Mike hops in his boat and paddles around the corner out of view. All of a sudden, he’s on the river left edge of the 30-footer, falling to the river right into the ledge, flipping upside down mid-way, and back looping on impact, jamming into the pocket on the river right.
He disappears and I’m in full rescue mode. Throwing the rope blindly down into the seam, I feel a wrist-breaking tug and then screams for help. Pulling with all my might, I stumble back as the rope goes slack. My heart dropps and I wind the rope for another attempt. Then I hear screams from downstream of the “Death Exit/35-footer onto Rocks”. Mike is floating, waving with one arm.
I run down the canyon edge and arrive to him laying on a rock. He’s conscious, but I don’t want to help him up until I find out where he’s hurt. Amazingly, he moans, “I’m fine, I just accepted the fact that I was going to die when I let go over the Death Exit”.
His guardian angels were there with him as he swam away with only bruising and a broken nose. But that’s where the epic started. His boat, paddle and booties are gone and we’re 13 miles and 1000 vertical feet from our car. What do you do? Well, we proceeded to cut his pant legs off and wrap his feet in the neoprene for the long hike out. I break a stick in half and Mike uses it as a walking cane.
Mike’s “Pimp Limp” is slowing down progress, but we are making time. After huffing and puffing to the top of the gorge (five miles later)we are both spent. I’d been lugging my boat and gear out and Mike’s feet had transformed into hamburger meat. By the Grace of God, we made it to the muddy road by nightfall. The rain picks back up along with the 20-40 mph wind. We are freezing, dehydrated and hadn’t had anything to eat all day. I pick up a little Prickly Pear cactus and jab at it with my paddle. This exposes some of the cactus’ fruit and I gobble a couple of sour bites. This, along with some mud water from the tire track, pretty much saved our asses that night.
We arrive at the car 13 miles later and rejoice. Immediately, we book out of there and head for the nearest town and rent a hotel room for a major recovery mission. We gorge on three large pizzas, lock the keys in the car and lock ourselves out of the hotel room and wondered if this adventure is for real. To top it off, when we make it back it Mike’s take out truck the window is smashed in and the truck has been looted like department store in an L.A. riot. Someone had taken a rock and a basketball size boulder and smashed his fenders, windows and bumper, stealing his phone as well. You can imagine the cussing that followed. Mike had lost his boat, a camera, paddle, watershed bags, sleeping bag, bivy sack and had just been robbed and vandalized. But his spirits were amazingly high. Hey, he was still alive.
So I should probably wrap this epic up but there was still water, a novelty in our state. We hadn’t seen rains like this since 1993! And I was still keen on getting it done! So we rallied, ending the weekend on a good note with a beautiful 35-foot park-and-huck at nearby Ellison Creek. The skies cleared and the sun set, casting some beautiful light on the waterfall. I lap it five times, taking in every stroke like it was my last. When we get off the water it’s back to reality, school, work and a long winter of zero water in the Grand Canyon State. Snafu as usual.
For video, check the upcoming film: The Risen’ Sun: A Huckin’ Huge Film
Also see Cody Howard’s Web site, Huckinhuge.com
Editor’s note: Unfortunately, the SLR camera was lost during the making of this epic. Howard was able to salvage a few video stills.