Gila River Expedition

I hate the “start with a definition” cliche, but sometimes, as hard as you might try, you just can’t help yourself.

ex·pe·di·tion (/ˌekspəˈdiSH(ə)n/)

1) a journey or voyage undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, scientific research, or war.

2) promptness or speed in doing something.

Two weeks ago myself and two other paddlers, whom I’d call friends today, but near strangers at the beginning of this trip, set off on an expedition of sorts.

I met Jamie and Marie at the Rio Rancho pool sessions - a winter opportunity to practice in the water without freezing your butt off. We eventually made plans to run the Verde River Runoff race in March. This year’s incredibly high flows in Arizona ended up forcing the race organizers to cancel for 2019 as the course had become fully clogged with wood.

In an effort to do something that weekend anyway, we began searching for plans B, C and D. Ultimately we decided to take a crack at running the Gila River Wilderness as spring runoff was just beginning in southern New Mexico and the Gila has been on my bucket list for a few years now.

Most folks opt to run the Gila Wilderness in 4 or 5 days. It’s 40 miles, Class II to III- whitewater and incredibly beautiful. The river itself snakes through its canyon in tight turns creating blind corners and perfect opportunities for wood, trees, and other items washed down by floods to get stuck and create potentially deadly hazards. By taking your time on this river, packing food and supplies for most of a week in either small rafts or inflatable kayaks, you can paddle slow, pick great campsites, enjoy breathtaking views, soak in hot springs and go on some amazing side hikes.

We did it in 2 days.

The Gila River usually runs very low (or not at all) during the year, but spring floods from snowmelt and rain events can put out some serious power. We think this canoe may have been here a while, but we definitely know it’s a bit on the broke side…

Our original plans for AZ meant that we only had Friday as a travel day (race Saturday, paddle Sunday AM then head home). Now we still have Friday as a travel day, but instead of a 10 mile race and a near-the-road creek run, we were pushing for some serious daily miles in a very remote part of the state.

Day 0

Our trip began with a bit of a late start getting out of town on Friday, but soon enough we were headed through the Black Range mountains - still covered in snow. It’s definitely normal for mountains in southwest New Mexico to have snowy winters, but it is unusual for the snow to hold on this long.

The Black Range mountains as seen from Emory Pass. This area still hasn’t recovered from a fire several years ago.

We camped at Gila Hot Springs Campground a few miles south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We decided a good soak in the hot springs the evening before the trip would be a worthwhile investment. Since our boats were all packed up already we also decided to sleep in the car that night with a few blankets I brought rather than digging out our sleeping bags.

Day 1

In the morning we woke up, ate some breakfast, put on our dry suits, sent a message to my fiancee to let her know we were getting on the water, and set out directly from the campground. The regular put-in for this stretch of river is a couple of miles down river at Grapevine Campground, but since we were already at the water’s edge and had permission to leave our car for a few days we decided to save some time by paddling two extra miles vs loading up, driving, unloading, then launching.

With none of us having ever paddled this river, and knowing that we would be a dozen, or more, miles away from the nearest road for quite some time, we began our day boating conservatively. We kept to the inside of corners, we cut across the current to avoid small-ish wave trains and holes. If we couldn’t see around a corner from our boats we landed and scouted from shore.

We were treated with gorgeous views of the canyon, hawks soaring overhead, and ducks guiding us down the river. While the Gila wasn’t running at the incredibly dangerous flood levels it had been just three days prior, it was still bumping along quick at 800CFS. As the river snaked through the canyon, we had to be constantly checking the next corner, leaving us little time to explore, or even stare in amazement.

Now, in our decision to leave our gear in our boats overnight, that included our GoPros and extra batteries. I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise the next day when our cameras kept dying after only a few minutes of operation. My Sony A6300 was in a small dry bag in the front of my boat, under my leg, however with the rapid succession of turns it quickly became apparent that our need for speed has trumped not only soaking in river-side hot springs and side hiking canyons, but also spending more time taking photos. The few photos I was able to snag were all during breaks.

The first day of paddling was relatively uneventful. We paddled, scouted, paddled, scouted, paddled, and had one portage - not because of a river-wide strainer, but because of a nasty hard left turn in the river with the current pounding into the canyon wall and a stack of rocks that looked like they’d do a real good job of holding a boat in a less-than-ideal position. Since we were playing it cool with heavy boats and lots of miles to go we opted to walk that corner. Then it was lunch, more paddling and scouting, and around 6:00PM we spotted a small area bathed in the last rays of sun in the canyon that we called home for the night. 24 miles down, 18 to go.

Day 2

The next morning we awoke to frozen dry suits and booties and no alarm clock. The alarm we set either didn’t go off or we were so tired that we all slept through it. Either way we woke up an hour behind schedule. That was not helped by the aforementioned frozen equipment.

We started down river much like the day previous, but it was obvious from the start that I was feeling a little fatigued (can’t imagine why…). a few hours into the second day we came upon a pretty typical scene. The river split around an island situated at the top of a bend. I eddied out river right, Marie and Jamie took river left. Marie and I scouted our respective sides. My side was a straight shot through a slightly narrower channel with some waves that basically cut the corner. From my viewpoint it looked like there was a giant rock blocking the majority of the left channel. Marie reported back that her route looked good as well. Since I saw that large rock I lobbied for my channel and “won.” What was my prize?! Well it certainly wasn’t a new car.

Instead I managed to find a nice big rock that was hidden by one of the last waves in the wave train. I hit it just right to pop my boat up and sideways. Normally this would just result in a simple flip with the boat spinning off the rock. Instead, as my boat spun clockwise, the bow of my kayak managed to catch on a tree hanging over the bank, pinning me sideways in the river, half under water.

Having never experienced a pin first hand, I did what I tell myself anyone would do in that situation - I pulled my skirt and got the F out of there. The swim wasn’t so bad, I avoided the large rock at the very bottom, which by this point I could see was not blocking the left channel much at all (stupid perspective) and caught an eddy just below the turn. As I was swimming I saw Marie grab my paddle and huck it river right and Jamie had hold of my boat headed river left.

When I caught up with the rest of the group I learned the grim news - my paddle made it to shore, but then decided it needed to go on it’s own Gila River Expedition and slid down back down into the water never to be seen again.

After my swim we decided that would be a good enough spot for lunch. After all, we only had 10 or 11 more miles to go at that point, so we could still easily make our 2pm scheduled pick up time at the take out.

I put together the breakdown paddle that was stowed in the back of my boat, ate some pepperoni and cheese, and after a few minutes we were back on the water. An hour or so later, we stopped to scout another blind corner. As Jamie and I checked for wood, Marie disappeared up a small inlet of water just upstream of us. When we heard her shouting our names we looked back to see - to a complete surprise for all of us - a 70’ waterfall cascading into a small side canyon! We took a few pictures and then convinced Marie that since she was already there with her boat, she should run the bottom 4’ drop.

What we later found to be called Shelley Canyon, thus Shelley Canyon Falls. Here you can see the three drops, the bottom one is the one Marie ran in the previous photo.

Earlier in the day we played a little bit of leap-frog with a family in inflatable kayaks. They were from the area and seemed to know the river pretty well, so at one point, just after Turkey Creek joins the Gila River, we actually followed them around some of the bends. This ultimately proved to be a bad idea. At one point they caught an eddy above a turn and told us there was a narrow line on the right side of the river, but plenty of room for their larger boats (so plenty for us). What it actually was, was an incredibly tight S-Turn between two giant branches coming from either side of the bank. I led the line and made the turn with little issue. Jamie followed next and hit the first branch, causing him to flip. His roll didn’t work and he swam. Marie and I were able to recover his paddle and his boat with a bit of effort.

We were close to being fully exhausted by this point, and we knew it. Our maneuvers weren’t as crisp and our paddling was getting lazy. But we were almost done! Only a handful of miles left!

We found two river-wide strainers - trees that had fallen across the entire stream - the second day. The first was an easy portage with plenty of notice and time to get out of the water. The second had almost no eddy service above and was not visible until it was almost too late. I was leading at this point and when I saw the tree I signaled Marie and Jamie who were able to catch an eddy and get out - I held on to a bush on the side of the river until they could help hold my boat while I got out.

Paddling continued as the day moved on, but we had significantly slowed down. We knew earlier that we weren’t going to make our scheduled 2pm arrival. I am incredibly glad that I picked up a Garmin InReach satellite communicator/GPS device the week before. I was able to send a message to my fiancee, get updates on our progress, and ask her to call our shuttle driver to let him know we would be several hours late.

One of the rare moments anyone had enough time to take out a camera. Not sure why I’m the centerpiece though!

As the day went on and 5pm had come and gone, we stopped to scout another corner about 2 miles from the takeout. The corner was clear except a downed tree and root ball in the middle. Easy enough, just cross to the right side of the river and go around it. Something we had done dozens and dozens of times already. We sucked down a few Clif Energy Gels and water and got back in our boats.

Remember how I said we were all really exhausted? Well apparently I was exhausted enough that my brain didn’t process the need to ferry across the current line upstream. Instead I peeled out of the eddy into the current and in doing so managed to drop my upstream edge just enough to start to roll me. I was able to brace myself back upright after a few attempts, but at that point I was in the current and seconds away from slamming the root ball of the tree. I took two paddle strokes and then braced toward the tree for the inevitable impact. My boat slid effortlessly across the main part of the root ball and directly into the arm-sized roots sticking out the side. I planted my paddle in the water in front of me, tucked my head and pulled as hard as I could, somehow managing to squeeze through this nasty-ass strainer. I took a breath of relief and turned my boat to watch the others behind me.

Jamie followed behind me and was not quite as lucky. His upstream edge also dropped, but he was not able to brace back up before being flipped above the strainer. As he swam out of his boat, his boat became momentarily stuck, followed by Jamie (later he told me his skirt had actually snagged on part of the branches).

Marie (following Jamie and was able to get around the obstacle without incident) immediately went into action mode, snapping into the eddy immediately downstream of the root ball. As I saw Jamie’s boat in the roots I grabbed the next eddy about 100 feet downstream. Once I caught the eddy I turned back upstream and saw Jamie swimming free! But I also saw Marie’s boat upside down with Marie swimming free too!

Well, shit.

So, without further adieu, here is Michael’s 5 step plan on what to do when shit hits the fan:

Step 1 - People. Both swimmers are safe and making their way to shore. Cool.

Step 2 - Gear - especially paddles. As Jamie is yelling that he is okay and Marie is helping corral his boat, I see Jamie’s paddle float by. I snag his paddle, move back to shore and huck it as far as I can up the bank, making sure it stays put. Next I see Marie’s boat float by. Now begins the chase. With the boats loaded with gear and filled with water they weight probably close to 400 pounds. It takes me about a quarter of a mile to get her boat to finally stop on a gravel bar.

Step 3 - Reunite. I make sure mine and Marie’s boats aren’t going anywhere, grab my throw bag and paddle, and start walking along the banks to get back to the others. After a nice 20 minute jaunt through the woods, Marie and I make it back to our boats where Jamie had paddled down to wait for us.

Step 4 - Problem Solve. Marie’s paddle never surfaced. It might still be in the second strainer that toppled her (tunnel vision can be a serious problem when adrenaline is high), or it might be on its merry way downstream along with mine. Either way we don’t have a second breakdown paddle or hand paddles with us. Option 1 - tow Marie in her boat behind me and have Jamie scout far enough ahead that I can catch an eddy with both of us if needed. Option 2 - Marie hand paddles the rest of the way.

Step 5 - Luck the f*ck out. As we were debating options 1 and 2 from the previous step, a lone boater in an inflatable Kayak comes down stream and stops at the gravel bar with us - thinking there is some danger up ahead. We tell him what happened and ask if he has a spare paddle - no dice. However, he tells us “If you’re taking out at Box Canyon Campground,” (we were) “It’s only a half-mile from here.”

Needless to say, we were shocked. Turns out the campground was farther upstream than what I had put into my GPS!

So with renewed vigor we went for Option 2 and had Marie hand paddle around the next bend (I had already scouted). Well, in true Gila River fashion there was yet another split and bend in the river just after that. Since we’d have to get out of our boats to scout anyway, we were all exhausted, and with Marie potentially not able to make important maneuvers, we decided to drag our boats the remaining .3 miles to the take out.

Of course this took longer than expected and put a downer on the end of our trip, except…

The last thing we had to do was cross Mogollon Creek to get to the truck waiting for us. Normally Mogollon Creek is barely a trickle of water, but not this day! Instead it was a fast moving, chest-deep riffle! So we once again got into our kayaks and ferried across the creek. Waiting for us was our shuttle driver, Craig, and Dean - the wonderful individual in the IK who gave us the great news that we were so close to the end! As we came across Mogollon Creek Craig and Dean were laughing about how neither had ever seen a boat in the creek before. So, whether it’s official or not, we went ahead and claimed the First Descent of Mogollon Creek (even if it was just 100 feet) to help salvage the end of our trip.

The time was 7:42pm - only 5 hours and 42 minutes later than we expected!

After a nearly 4 hour shuttle run, we ended up staying the night at Craig’s house in Silver City before heading back to Albuquerque Monday morning.

Man it felt good to sleep on a bed again! Thanks Craig (he’s the one in the back who doesn’t have to grit through the pain to smile)!

So, What are my take-away’s here?

1) The Gila River is Awesome!!! Seriously, it’s a fantastic place and worth the trip

2) Take 4-5 days to do this run! You’ll need that extra time to take in all the beauty of the area and not run yourself ragged just to make it to the end.

3) Spare equipment is essential. We brought one extra paddle for a group of three. Consider the skill of your group and the risk of the trip when considering what kind of backup gear to take.

4) Eat early and often. We brought enough food, but did not eat enough, often enough, the second day to keep our energy levels up. We should have downed those energy gels earlier and had more of them.

5) Communication is key. Being able to get real-time status reports on distance covered and communicate with our shuttle driver while completely out of cell service ended up being crucial on this trip.

6) Listen to your party members. As a de-facto leader on this trip I spent a lot of time out front and had to make lots of snap decisions. Had I heeded Marie’s advice early on the second day I probably wouldn’t be paddle shopping now.

7) Always take the time to familiarize yourself with your put in and take out points, landmarks, and double check your locations when entering them in a GPS device.

8) Keep your batteries/electronics warm!

Overall this was an amazing trip and I’m so glad that we did it. While this trip had more things go wrong with it than any of my previous trips we had a great crew of boaters that was able to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to walk away. Even after losing paddles, getting stuffed into strainers, and having to walk-of-shame our boats to the end, we’re all pumped to take another trip down the Gila River - but maybe next time over a few more days.

I managed to capture a few minutes of the first day of our trip on my GoPro before all of the batteries died. Here’s a few clips from the trip: