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River Right! July 2019
Brad Birdsell  

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where most of the “rivers” that I knew of as a young child were really arroyos that only flow after rain storms or snow melt. As a teenager I started exploring this incredible state and fell in love with the diversity, and especially the riparian areas that offered oases for the generally arid offerings for the adventure minded. One oasis in particular caught my interest due to its remoteness for long stretches, the Verde River.

My buddies and I would spend as much time as we could hiking along the Verde and fishing for bass and catfish. At night around the campfire, the subject of paddling canoes down the river was invariably the topic of conversation. We continued to enjoy the adventures of accessing the remote sections, and dreaming of running the river throughout high school and beyond, but never did paddle the Verde together.

College, careers and families eventually consumed our lives. I moved out of my beloved state 48 for a few years, but eventually found my way back and fell in love all over again, spending weekends and vacation time exploring with my wife and two daughters. Still, my explorations were all on foot or on mountain bike. My dreams of paddling the Verde faded away.

In the mid-nineties, I started a new job. On my first day, my new boss asked, “by the way, what do you do for fun?” I responded with, “I am an outdoorsman, I hike, bike, backpack, hunt, fish, anything as long as it is outside.” “Well you gotta go talk to Mike, he started a year ago, and that kinda stuff is all that he talks about.”

I did exactly that, went over to talk to Mike about the outdoors. We swapped stories for a bit and then he mentioned paddling. It turned out that he was not only a paddler, but he and a crew had plans to paddle the Verde that spring. “Need any crew”, I asked. “Got any experience?” his response. “Well, no, but my brother has a canoe that he paddles on the lakes and the lower Salt river once in a while, he could teach me.”

I kept after Mike to try to gain a spot on the trip. He spent a lot of time trying to explain that this was not a “rookie” paddling adventure. He explained that while the Verde was only rated as a class III river, it is extremely remote, and that it is not the size of the rapids that are dangerous on the Verde, it is what is “in” the rapids that is dangerous. What he meant by, “in” the rapids was mainly strainers and sweepers, but also includes full size trees and boulders depending on when and where the channel changed last.

illustration courtesy of Greg Hansen

All of Mike’s warnings only fueled the fire. I even managed to get my brother Larry fired up about the possibility of paddling with me. Eventually he agreed to take Larry and myself on one of the lower sections to determine if we had any paddling ability, but more importantly to determine if we would follow the, “rules of the river”, and the trip leader orders.

Mike paddled with his twin brother Mitch, and they were the, “lead” boat, and Mike was the trip leader. Mike and his brother Mitch were very regimented and thorough and taught Larry and I a great deal on our lower section runs. It was not easy, but eventually we gained their trust and we were invited as the 4th boat in the flotilla!

Mike and Mitch continued to teach us about provisioning, paddling loaded boats, rescue techniques, rescue rigging, etc. We even did a lower section run in fully loaded boats and did some rescue maneuvers prior to the trip. The four day trip turned out to be more than I had ever imagined in my dreams. I was completely hooked on wilderness river paddling in open boats.

I spread this paddling love affair quickly through my family and other friends. We continued to paddle the “Wild and Scenic” designated section during the spring runoff for 15 years straight. This section of the Verde is unobstructed upriver, so whatever snow melt and/or rain happens in the drainages above dictates just how much “wild” you get to go along with your “scenery.”

We also continued to paddle our favorite vessels on these adventures, open canoes. The open canoes offered enough cargo space for a bit of luxury on our multiple day trips, and provided a lot of excitement out of generally small rapids.

The one drawback of open boats was their propensity to get pinned on obstructions if the crew mis-read the rapid, or failed to maneuver appropriately. A canoe full of water and gear has the momentum of a freight train and is extremely dangerous for anyone in the water with the boat, especially if they are in front of it, between the freight train and any obstacles.

Larry and I were trained well by our river brothers Mike & Mitch, and, we practiced everything that we were taught on all of our trips. Trip leads were defined and river rules were explained and followed on every trip. We had pinned boats to deal with on occasion, but no pinned people. Tense moments for sure in the middle of a wilderness area, but using Z-drags, we were always able to get the boats free.

A Z-drag consists of static lines and pulleys that create a block and tackle type of mechanical advantage. It usually required a bit of duct tape to make sure the boats continued to float after being folded in half, but we always carried enough of that miraculous stuff to patch the titanic!

Over the years, our crew had become extremely confident with each other and communications flowed easily from the lead boat on back to the sweep boat. We used paddle gestures to point out channels, warn of sweepers & strainers and when scouting was required. On occasion, someone would invite a greenhorn which always caused some ripples in our flow, but normally smoothed out at some point during the trip.

I was the trip leader for our 2003 run, and everything was coming together nicely. The dates were picked, gear and boats were all in order and we had a slow, controlled snow melt that was flushing a very consistent 500 cfs down the Verde. The crew was excited because at these flows the river would have enough push to make the rapids exciting and challenging in our gear laden open boats.

The plan for this trip was a 4 day paddle from Childs, Arizona all the way down to, and across the Horseshoe Lake reservoir.

At the last minute, a buddy, Eric, who had paddled with us once before as a bowman on a day trip, asked if he could join the trip. Eric had already borrowed a boat and had identified another buddy, Duane, who wanted to go. Duane was an experienced outdoorsman, but had never paddled a canoe in moving water. As the trip leader, it was my call to bring this greenhorn team with us or not. As I said, we had taken greenhorns down the river in the past without incident other than fishing them out of the river for the first few rapids, so off we go.

We get an early start on the shuttle drive to the put in. The sun is just peaking over the Mogollon Rim on a crisp March morning in the desert as the convoy of overloaded vehicles pulls into Camp Verde and we make the traditional last chance stop for ice and other provisions. Over the clamor of gear shuffling and ice chest lids slamming I hear Duane, “Eric, where is the ice chest?” “Um, didn’t you load it?” “What about the dry food?” “That is not here either!” So much for the early start.

We check all of the vehicles gear, but the greenhorns’ provisions are nowhere to be found. After an hour lost for re-provisioning, we point the convoy down the 26 miles of washboard dirt road to the put in.

The first day boat outfitting is always chaos and this day was no different. A mountain of dry bags, paddles, ice chests, rescue gear, fishing gear, etc lay strewn across the beach like a dumped out box of puzzle pieces, and ten paddlers are running around trying place the pieces to create a beautiful picture… a perfectly loaded boat. We ended up with four beautiful pictures and one Picasso, the rookie boat.

We drag the boats down to the water, and check the loads to ensure the boats are not listing or too bow heavy and then use the painter lines to tie them to trees on the bank of the river.

(Wikipedia: A painter is a rope that is attached to the bow of a dinghy, or other small boat, and used for tying up or towing. Canoes being used in moving water or whitewater are rigged with a painter at both the bow and stern. In addition to the functions mentioned above, a canoe's painters can be used for lining the boat down difficult sections, self-rescue, and boat recovery.)

I start to coordinate the take out schedule with one of the shuttle drivers, Mike, my river mentor, and the guy who loaned the boat to the rookies. Over his shoulder I see a boat doing pirouettes out in the pool where we tied off. Hey, isn’t that your boat out there? Mike and I jump in my boat and go rescue his boat. When we get to it, the painter is neatly tucked under the bungie on the bow plate. So we paddle in to talk to the rookies. “Why didn’t you tie off the boat?” We are fully expecting, “oops, forgot”, but the answer comes back as, “The other boats were tied, I figured our boat would just stay put via the Cheerio effect.” “Cheerio effect? What the hell are you talking about?” Eric says, “You know, when you are eating a bowl of Cheerios and the last twenty or thirty cheerios always clump together on the surface of the milk.” All that I can muster is, “Man, this is going to be a long trip”.

OK, time for the talk. I grab a paddle, get everyone’s attention and start the rules of the river speech; Keep the boat in front of you and behind you in sight at all times. If I get out to scout, we all get out to scout. One blast on whistle to get attention, three blasts for help. When I gesture the paddle, the blade points to the good channel, etc, etc. The only problem is the rookies are messing around and not paying attention so I have keep repeating myself over and over. At one point I get, “seriously, this is the Verde, not the Colorado!”

Now I am pissed off. “Damn right it’s not the Colorado. The Colorado does not have sweepers and strainers or new channels every time you run it. If you do not respect this river it will kill you. It may not have giant rapids, but it is not the size of the rapid that will kill you, it is the size of the obstacles in the rapids that will kill you.”

We finally load up and point the boats down river. My daughter Emily is my bowman on this trip, she is 18 years old at this point and has become a very strong, technical bowman. I am grinning from ear to ear and let out a deep joyous sigh, “Ahhhhhhhhh, back on the river kiddo!”

The first several rapids are fairly straight forward, but take forever due to fishing the rookies and gear out of the river, draining their boat, providing lessons on tying gear in, paddle strokes, communication, and oh yeah, “DON’T LET GO OF YOUR PADDLE WHEN YOU FALL OUT”. By the end of the first day, the rookies are beat, but they are starting to paddle well together and appear to be gaining some respect for the river.

The boat pack goes well the next morning and we get back on the river with no issues. We have a wonderful day paddling, catching small mouth bass and watching the beautiful Sonoran desert landscape slip slowly by. The trip continues on in this manner, in fact, there are none of the normal sacrifices to the river Gods. No lost fishing rods, no gear failures, nothing.

All too soon, it is the morning of our last day on the river. We camp at a big wide sandy beach formed by the outflow of Tangle creek. It is a leisurely pack on the morning of our last river day, nobody is in a hurry to get back to civilization, the first sign of which is just down river at Sheep Bridge.

Sheep Bridge is the driving destination at the end of a long dirt road. There are almost always people there camping, fishing and bathing in the hot springs on the side of the river. There are only a handful of small rapids remaining before we hit the flat water of Horseshoe Lake. So, when the first three boats are ready to paddle, I tell them that Em and I will wait for the rookies, you three go ahead.

The rapid that is created by the outflow of Tangle Creek is not big, but the current flows over a gravel bar and then piles up against the opposite shore. Em and I size it up from the boat and decide to run the whole thing on river left which requires us to cross an eddy line, but avoids a lot of work trying to keep the boat from being pushed into the left bank.

Our line works and we float right by strainers along the shore. We are in the pool below Tangle Creek rapid and watch the rookies paddle into the rapid on river right. Not the best line, but no worries, they can make the turn when they drop off of the gravel bar. Then, BOOM, they center punch a pillow rock in the gravel bar channel and instantly they are both in the water.

Em and I spin our boat and head for the eddy on river right. By the time we reach the shore, the rookie boat is pinned on the strainer trees. We can see Eric, but not Duane. I grab the throw rope and hit the beach on a dead run, yelling over my shoulder to Em, “secure the boat and blow that whistle.” When I get close enough, I can see Eric is holding on to the stern and I can now see Duane pinned to the boat. The boat is perpendicular to the current with the load facing upriver, so the entire force of the river is pinning the boat to the trees and Duane to the boat.

I wade into the slack water in the eddy and manage to get within a few feet of Eric. I yell over the din of the rapid, “What’s the situation?” Eric yells back, “I have ahold of his life jacket, but the current is slowly pulling him under the boat.” Duane, with his head just barely above water hears the discussion and yells, “I think I can just let go and float out the other side.” “No! Eric, do not let go of him!”, I scream at the top of my lungs. I am coming over.”

Eric reaches his other hand out and I manage to get to his spot in the slack water on the downriver side of the stern. I quickly explain to Duane that if he lets go he will be pinned to the trees underwater. Then, I reach out and grab the other shoulder strap on Duane’s life jacket. “Ok Eric, on the count of three we pull, one, two, three”, I scream. Duane moves maybe an inch. We do this again and again and again. After what seems like a hundred iterations of this procedure, he finally slips off of the stern and around to slack water with Eric and I. We spend couple of minutes in the slack water to catch our breath and not a word is spoken. A short shuffle through the eddy with arms locked and we are on the beach. The rest of the crew are just paddling back up the long pool below Tangle Creek rapid.

The boat remains pinned and there is work to do, so the entire team now turns their attention to the pinned boat. With almost no verbal communications, the team works together, finding a suitable anchor tree, setting up the Z-drag lines and pulleys and tying off to the boat. Even with the mechanical advantage of the Z-drag, it takes 6 of us to haul the now horseshoe shaped boat off of the tree that it is pinned against. It is not until the boat is free, on the shore, and beaten back into the shape of a canoe that the adrenaline wears off. The release of the adrenaline from our bodies feels like lead weights and we are immediately exhausted. We spent quite some time on the edge of that gravel bar pondering the fragility of life and the irony of paddling through a remote wilderness with much bigger and more dangerous rapids only to have a near disaster on the edge of civilization.

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