A full week with the Mother in Law in town was going to allow for a little spring break trip for daddy. The stars were aligning, the forecast was for heavy rain just north of Lake Havasu, and a pickup truck full of cowboys were all loaded to drive south. Thing was the gauge hadn’t moved much, the radar image was breaking up and well, we couldn’t risk our spring break on a gauge 50 miles downstream that was flattening out.
We called it. It hurt. Deep down it hurt. When you’ve got the horses all saddled up, your guns packed and you’ve got to cancel the whole thing, there is just going to be some pain. There’s always that, what if? And also that, will there be another hunt?
But then a week later it starts to happen again. The radar fills in and the cycle starts to build. The gear comes out, but you’re more guarded with it. You pull each piece out slowly to inspect it, clean it and fold it calmly into your bag. You’re ready. You have faith. You can’t hide your optimism but still, this is Arizona.
Rallying a crew for the mid-week three day mission, to the semiannually referred to skunk fest, which can be Arizona, is a little tricky. Some Wyoming boys were in before, and being the semi-employed slackers that we are allowed for some finagling and a second attempt at spring break.
Barring a major detour around a fallen power line across the entire highway near Colorado Springs, we made good time through the night and ended up in Payson ahead of schedule. Our plan was to attempt the coveted Christopher Creek/Hellsgate of the Tonto combo, which to my knowledge has never been completed. Cody had to work one day in the middle of our trip but agreed to help us set shuttle and was in to huck huge with us on Christopher before we embarked into the wilderness. We also found out we got lucky and Cody had corralled a beautiful young lady into being our shuttle bunny, putting all of the pieces in place for an epic 3-day mission… with no shuttle work on our part. Brilliant!
The snow was deep on the pass between Winslow and Pine, and we were greeted by puddles and sprinkling rain in Payson. All signs were pointing towards a healthy flow on Christopher and a probable high side of good… or high side of high for Hellsgate. We dropped our rig in Gisela and went up to the Christopher put-in. As soon as we got out of the car the snow started to fall. Wet snow and kind of in little bursts, so no big deal.
No big deal except in the flurry of snow and gear I decided against bringing my camera – uh hello, re – tard, this is a creek that rarely can be run so bring your camera! Luckily Austin and Cody brought theirs, but for my folly the photo Gods did not allow one shot of me in the canyon to turn out. Eh, whatever but it is just an amazing place and so worthy of photographic documentation. We geared up and made our way down to the box canyon. Just as I remembered it and with a tad more flow. Perfecto. I got excited and jumped in to get it going first. The weather seemed to be clearing and the anxious butterflies over dropping in to the gorge turned into a nice steady flow of adrenaline.
At the first drop, Tyler’s Lttle Bird, a bit too much boof led to a minor bonk into the left wall, a swerving little swing out into a ferry and a sweet six footer into a pool. Ahhh, looking up from a beautiful pool at the top of a bedrock paradise. Boof boof, boof boof and another good boof and we were at Roy’s Smiles to Trials.
From Roys it is pure goodness and was even more fun then I remembered it being with a little extra padding. We paraded through the Tripple Dipple, walked the White Russian and styled the “uh, I’m just gonna go find an ATM, tight as Bunny Double Drop. ” Yes, that’s the new name I just made up but it works right?
Then we started to get into the meat and the sensation of extreme nervousness returned. I could see it on Randy’s face too. We were all a little scared as we made the good moves above Donnie’s. Launching off of Donnies is pure goodness. Especially with a nice soft landing zone. And then you are faced with the Big Lebowski or the Dude. “Look, let me explain something to you. I’m not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That or His Dudeness… Duder… or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
Cody had an interesting story about a mutual friend who is an extremely talented paddler getting his ass handed to him in the under-cut pocket at the base of the Big L at approximately the same flow. He also mentioned that the boat wasn’t retrieved until the next day as they had to lower into the gorge from forty feet up to remove it from the cave just downstream of the drop. Something like that happening seemed about 50/50 and would put a major damper on our Hellsgate attempt so everybody opted for the Dude line, a.k.a. the chicken shoot, a.k.a the Wyoming Otter Slide. There was enough water to not really scrape to it and the landing was aerated enough from the main falls that is was still a nice piece of vertical to add to the equation… but we’re pussies. Mark one in the old man spring break category.
The room below the Big L is what you come to Christopher Creek for. Totally locked in above the beautiful twenty footer known as the Little Lebowski, you are truly in a zen garden of kayaking. You run the Lil’ L hugging the right wall to late blind boof and life is sweet, life is sweet. Another little fifteen footer leads into the sketchiest part of the gorge where you’re locked in above a portage on the left. A fine move into a small swirling eddy allows for a scramble into the junkiest part of the run.
And then it started to blizzard. For a minute there the sun came out, I thought the girls in bikinis were going to be waiting for us at one of the cobblestone beaches after the gorge, and the next thing I know were portaging some heinously tight drops over the slipperiest polished ice caked rock I’ve ever had the pleasure of portaging on.
Trying to negotiate the portages was downright treacherous and the water was rising as the snow picked up. As we neared the end of the box canyon, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. Blowing wet snow made it nearly impossible to see and we ended up having to portage the last drop mainly due to visibility issues.
It continued to blizzard on the paddle out to Bear Flat, although with the addition of the water from the Tonto Headwaters, the run-out became a fun class III sluice with good waves and a class IV gorge thrown in. By the time we got to the take-out though we were all pretty frozen and the prospect of trying to negotiate the gorges in the upper part of Hellsgate, with the already slippery rock, covered in ice, combined with the sleeping in the snow prospect, had everybody running for the car heater and begging Cody for a warm bed in Phoenix for the night. Chalk up another one in the old man category.
It hurt because the upper part of the run from all accounts would have been fantastic. My frozen toes were saying otherwise. We also had to consider the very real possibility that our high side of good was going to bump into the high road of the portage trail, as the gauge was nearing 2,000 when we put on. We later found out the gauge spiked to over 2,500 and we felt confident that our night in Phoenix was the right call. In Phoenix we all had to change into shorts and flip flops, and our shuttle bunny made the deal even sweeter by letting us crash on her cush carpeted floor, so we wouldn’t have to stay at Cody’s parents house. There may have even been something in it for Cody, not sure but THANKS Brandi! You are a top notch shuttle bunnie, not to mention a kick ass motor biker from what I’ve heard. The return to Christopher was worth the drive in itself. We checked the gauges before bed, not knowing where the next days session would be, but everything seemed to running so we knew we were in for another treat. Sick Bird or Old Man Spring Break? You decide. Read Part II HERE.