Canyon Tales
Juggin’ in Sally Mae
by Chris Avery

Sally May Creek
April 23, 2005

This is the usual, long, boring, overwrought, inaccurate, unreliable work of reality–based fiction, or vice versa: My Zion buddy Fred K. was driving his R.V. from Alabamay (henceforth we will use the local pronunciation of ‘Salome’ for place names with vowels on the end) all the way to Lake Roosevelt for the ACA convocation and wondered if we could meet up and do a canyon or two. Just the prod I needed to leave the lawn unmowed and roof unfixed for another week, and it never rains in Tucson in late April anyway. Why not bring the two kids along? They’ve been there before, and they’re happy to do it again. Tanner is 12, and there’re only so many more years when he’ll even pretend to listen to me. Summer’s 9, just old enough to take through Sally May creek when it’s running—I think. Did I mention that I thought it would be a good idea to bring the two kids along?

So I show up to the campground on Friday night, near midnight, to find that Fred is still somewhere on the other side of Roosevelt lake, looking for a car. Pitch the tent for the kids, find that pair of sunglasses that had gone missing in Montana last summer nestled in the side pocket; Fred returns—mild epic— and goes to bed. Kids fall asleep. Yahoos in site 112 decide to have a heavy metal fest at 1:00 AM, and they’re pissed off when I ask them to turn off the stereo. At this point, I understand why some folks, namely me, should never be issued concealed weapons permits, whatever the implications of the Second Amendment may be toward a well–regulated militia. I refrain from the urge to drain the oil out of the metal kids’ parents’ diesel pickup (what, you think they could afford it themselves?), which is parked temptingly close to the road, and try to get some sleep.

After unsnarling the mound of gear from the truck, we have backpacks, rope, throw bags, harnesses, wetsuits, camera, lunch, life vests for the children, one–man inflatable raft. One of the things I like about Fred is that he has this almost preternatural calm in the midst of the frenzy. He’s raised his kids once already. Tanner wants to jump off the waterfall. Summer wants to rappel. I’ll jump. We only need one ATC, right? Summer has forgotten her shoes. There are tears. Looks like the latest pair of clean ‘school shoes’ will be going through the Jug. We finally break camp at 10 AM and drive through the A Cross ford on Tonto Creek (memo to ADOT: It’s either the A+ Road or the A Cross Road, not the A+Cross Road). Little sketchy. Does a soccer–mom Suburban good to get slammed into 4WD, and I always wanted to rip off those running boards anyway. There’s a ‘Road Closed’ sign on the other side of the creek.

“Uh, Fred, did you see a ‘road closed’ sign on the way in?”


Ok. We arrive at put–in just as the 9:00 AM ACA group shows up. They mention something about not seeing Chris and Greg, the Euro canyoneers. We four take off for the creek; on the way down, I can see the 9:00 AM group is a few minutes behind us. We take a shortcut at the site of the old cowboy pumping station and suit up at the creek; just as we finish suiting up, the 9:00 AM group comes swimming by. They’ve picked up Chris and Greg, and they provide some welcome assistance with Tanner and Summe, and a not–so–welcome example of showing a 12–year old in a borrowed wetsuit how to slide into a hydraulic. About 10 minutes later, I realize that they are all guys (you know, it’s hard to tell with all that gear on).

So I ask them, “Hey, where’s Suzanne?’

Funny look.

I proceed to describe her, telling them, “She was at the road with you?’

Another funny look. “Nope, this is all of us.”

Embarrassed at my usual inability to put faces with names—although I can usually figure out somone’s gender—I let it drop. They move ahead and out of sight.

I guess I should probably mention conditions: Sunny, warm, about 85°. The previous day, the Parker Creek gauge was at .10 cfs, and Tonto Creek was about 72. These indicators should lead you to something close to the perfect water level for non–epic trip through Sally Mae, provided you have at least a shorty wetsuit. All of the pools were full, clear, clean, and cool. Water was just the right level to splash around; not quite enough to sweep your helpless child into a cauldron but enough current to let them enjoy a taste of what it’s like in a hydraulic. Now for a geomorphological digression:

Sally Mae is cut through the 2 billion year old (take a few hundred million) Ruin granite, at the base of the Proterozoic Apache Group. This is old, tough rock. Didn’t expect it to change much. Tom W had reported that one of the waterfalls had gone missing, which I laughed off as a quirk—hey, it was missing only because you all had done it at 1,500 cfs, or something, based on the video clip I had seen. So I’m warning Tanner not to get in front of me because, when you go around this corner, just above the Leaning Tower, you hit the waterfall. Yes, no waterfall. The old waterfall was formed by chockstones on creek right; at high water you could avoid it by downclimbing the large boulder and chockstones on creek left. Either way, we had always been careful with it. Now, it’s a simple walk–down, you can even walk right down the middle of the boulder and hop into the pool. Not so surprised about the chockstones’ disappearance, but that boulder’s had a few feet planed off of it in the last 10 years. Even the mighty Ruin Granite succumbs to erosion. Further down, there used to be a nice belly–shaped pour over; and it’s no longer there either. I have before–and–after negatives to illustrate. Point being, if conditions change quickly in granite, you can expect them to change even more rapidly in Navajo sandstone.

Back to the story: We passed under the Leaning Tower and on to the Shark Tooth pool where the canyon narrows up and the water turns around a 100–foot hallway. This is Tanner’s favorite spot. On the way out of the pool, he hands me his shoe. “Shoelace came out.” Most folks would worry about how they are going to walk out of the canyon without a shoe. Not Tanner; he sits the shoe on the rock and proceeds to climb up the sides of the pool and slide down them into the water. Climb up the side of the pool and jump off into the water, over and over again. One sock, one shoe. I find a piece of string in my keg for a shoelace. His new nickname: Otter. Maybe a wetsuit, helmet, and life jacket are not a good idea after all. We eat lunch slowly figuring that the group ahead of us would clear out of the rappel. Tanner trying to traverse around the pool without splashing down. Fred looking on bemused.

About halfway between the Shark Tooth and the rappel there is a ten–foot slide where the belly pool used to be. A few years ago, when the stream was no more than a trickle, Tanner’s friend, Clay, had gone too far, lost his footing there, gone barrelling over the edge, and landed on the rocks. One of those lessons: another place to be careful with the kids. Just above the pour–off, the 9:00 AM group catches up to us. All is revealed. Chris and Greg were not with the 9:00 AM group after all. They were in front of them, and, yes, there are women in the group. We say “Hello” to Suzanne, and meet Paul and a few others. They have one member of their party shivering in a long john wetsuit; so far, I’ve been okay in a tank–top shorty (and I’m built to expel body heat), and Summer’s been warm in her shorty. Just another ‘Your mileage may vary’ warning about wetsuit use. Right in front of my impressionable son’s two good eyes, they proceed to slide and splash down into the Claypool. I downclimb my usual route on the right side and start hauling packs and kids over the edge.

“Dad, I want to do the slide.”


“But they did it.”

“No. That’s where Clay landed on his butt.”

“Dad, all six of them went down, and no one got hurt.”

Hard to explain sample size and variable conditions—and the fact that I know there are rocks under there—to a 12–year old. Around the corner is the waterfall and rappel station.

There’s a back–up at the rappel. Didn’t expect that one. Thought we’d be comfortably last in line. Tanner starts on his otter routine. Summer sits in the water. I tell her to get out of the water or she’s going to get cold. Going to be a long wait. Summer starts to shiver, and I start into full–on father protective mode and start to make a series of could–have–been–worse mistakes. Here’s what I did incorrectly:

First, I asked the 9:00 AM party if they would set the ropes and then let us use them. They looked sympathetically at Summer and agreed. Should have climbed back upcanyon less than 100 yards to the sun, warmed Summer up, and let them go first. Then I could have rigged it the way I’d planned and taken the time to talk it over with Fred and the kids. It’s funny how, once you’ve lost some elevation in a canyon, you can be so reluctant to gain it back again, even when it’s just a simple scramble.

Second, because they were waiting, I started to hurry. So I started managing hardware: Fred scrambled over the traverse to the rappel station and disappeared. I chucked the raft, then the packs, and finally our rope bag, over the edge, through the waterfall, and into the pool where Fred retrieved them. Where are the slings. Oops, can’t find them (they are still in the truck). I cheated up a cowstail from Tanner’s kayaking lifejacket to use to protect the traverse for Summer. Sequenced the kids over to the edge where who I’m pretty sure was Mike was waiting, got my pack on a Munter, and got ready to lower it to Fred. Oops, did I tie that right? Those Munters always look funny upside–down.

I didn’t manage the software. I look up to see Summer shaking and crying on the traverse; who I think is Jaime is comforting her. In a few minutes, she’s gone from courageous to frightened, and I haven’t noticed. Too busy playing ‘Canyoneer’ on TV to take a few minutes to bolster her confidence and tell her what’s going to happen. The rope used to protect the traverse is jumping up and down as Tanner is moving around. And I don’t have a sling to clip in at the station, and Summer is scared. By this time, Tanner and Summer have heard the water pounding in their ears for about 10 minutes—new sound. Not nearly so loud when there’s no current. Tanner decides not to jump. Summer does not want to rappel, she wants to be lowered. Now I need two belay devices, and I only have one, not sure I want Tanner to rappel on a Munter, especially if I’m tying it. I send Tanner down on rappel with instruction to tie the harness and ATC on the end of the rope when he’s done, pull it up, use the harness as a sling and start to belay Summer, who’s shaking and crying. Wait a minute, this is set up as a single strand anchor to the water level. Will I have enough rope or will she just dangle down at the bottom? I untie the anchor and lower Summer over the edge on Mike and Jaime’s rope (good thing it’s smooth granite). Mike comes over and reties the rope. I jump. On the way down, I notice that the water has a silvery, mirror finish on top of the waves.

How long did it take? Too long. Fred says, “I thought something was going on up there.”

Where’d I goof up? In addition to the above, I later realized that I had left my backup figure eight sitting in my pack, instead of clipping it to Tanner’s harness, and I hadn’t kept a sling tied to my harness. I know, I know. I still have lessons to learn. Summer jumped on the raft and we all swam the long, black, gorgeous, bottomless pool, as perfect as anything ever excavated by God. We got to the sun and Summer warmed herself on the hot olivine rocks and was soon smiling and laughing. As quickly as it came, the moment passed.

I set the camera up downstream and started exposing film. The 9:00 AM group swam through and out, and I thanked them, but not nearly enough, for letting us play through. If anyone reading this knows how to contact Suzanne T., Paul C., Mike and Jaime C., and Chris, please let me know. I’d like to thank them again for their patience and understanding.

When we got to the end of the canyon, the late sun was shining under dark clouds—smell of rain. Tanner let the current push him 200 feet downstream through the boulders, then he’d turn around and crawl upstream, never letting more than his head out of the water. Took a long time to coax him out of the water—shoe untied again.

On the way out, Summer counted the anthills (45?) and Tanner spotted a Gila monster; the beads on its back were coral. Seven hours truck–to–truck. They slept through the thunder and lightning, all the way home, even when we stopped in Globay, Arizonay for KFC. Weatherman says it only rains once every 20 years in April in the desert, but you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Chris Avery
April 26, 2005

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© 2005 Chris Avery