I’m sitting here in front of my computer trying to come up with something to write about. I haven’t really written anything in a while and I need to put something out there – for my own sake. I know there might be about three people that will ever read this (hi Mom) but the fact that it is “out there” means that the potential for this information to reach a lot of people exists. Being a canyoneering and adventure sport instructor and guide has made me painfully aware of the responsibility of writing information that can place pressure on a particular resource or put people in a situation where they might get themselves in over their head. I’m being cryptic – let me explain.
A several years ago I travelled to Salome Creek to run The Jug. It was – and still is – a beautiful canyon. I love the serenity of this place and the nature of the canyon is friendly and inviting. When I first started going, you would be hard pressed if you even saw someone drive by the approach trail – let alone in the canyon itself. I have been there six times this year and only once have I been where I didn’t come upon another group of people in this canyon. The popularity of this place has grown due to the extensive amount of information available about it on the web. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people are getting off the sofa and out into nature to see what it has to offer. My issue is with those that don’t respect where they are going and don’t have the skills needed to be there as well as those that take for granted the influence of what they write.
Already I am seeing signs of damage from the increased human presence in The Jug. Empty bottles, plastic bags and wrappers are beginning to clutter the canyon. Soon the monsoons will be here and they will flush the canyon of all this debris and wash it right into Roosevelt lake which has enough problems already. As the popularity of this canyon has grown, so have the “guides” that like to take people through it (for a “modest” profit of course). There are only two permits issued per season for The Jug and they are held, this year, by 360 Adventures and The Center Focus. I know of at least three other guide services and one other school that is operating here illegally. None of these guide services nor the school have permits or insurance and two of the guide services have only basic canyoneering training with no provisions or training for rescue or first aid treatment. You see, when you apply for a permit, you have to show proof of insurance and medical training before a permit is issued to you. This is the Forestry Service’s way of trying to regulate who operates professionally on state land and who doesn’t. Unfortunately the Forestry Service is stretched very thin right now as far as resources to unless they are caught in the act, many illegal guide companies will continue to operate until there is an incident that results in either criminal prosecution or a lawsuit – or both. It is then too late for their client to realize that their guide was not properly trained nor was he financially protected with proper insurance in the event of an accident. At this point, both the injured client and the guide are financially ruined.
Still using The Jug as an example, there is also a frightening lack of respect for this canyon. The watershed is huge and extends all the way up to the mogollon rim. A storm that occurs miles upstream will cause this canyon to flash flood quickly. Even with proper training, this is a very bad situation with a poor chance of survival. Water levels in this canyon can rise over thirty feet during a storm and the narrow part of this canyon would pound an unsuspecting canyoneer to a pulp. Yet very few posts write about the watershed and the serious risks people face when they travel this canyon on days where there is a possibility of rain.
Many of the posts and write-ups about the Jug make it sound like a trip to Disneyland. They read like this is a lovely walk with some swims – no skill needed. I have assisted several groups of people through this canyon. People that had no idea what to expect and found themselves overwhelmed when they reached the waterfall and weren’t quite sure about the jump and didn’t really know how to rappel – all because they red something or talked to someone that down played the risks for reasons unknown to me. Not one of these groups seemed to be the arrogant “damn the consequences” types. They were regular people that were trying to get away and see something special. They read a post where someone made it sound much easier than it was and then found themselves in a difficult situation due to lack of proper equipment and/ or training. People are funny about this anyway. If you were to show someone (especially a guy, let’s be realistic) five posts about the Jug and only one of them said this canyon was a cake walk and the others realistically laid out the risks, many people would only focus on the post where the risks were minimized in order to justify their desire to go. It is an unfortunate but very real aspect of human nature. If you are an experienced canyoneer, then yes – this canyon is a breeze. If you are not, then there are some challenges for you.
My point is, I guess, that there is a huge amount of responsibility in what I write. I don’t know who, if anyone, will read this. I am very conflicted as to what information to share as well as my role in promoting it. Part of me is happy to instruct those who are interested in the sport of canyoneering. This part of me knows that those I train will be supplied by me with a set of skills that they can grow and adapt to provide a lifetime of safe canyoneering adventures. Another part of me feels guilt about promoting a sport that relies on resources that are actually fairly rare here in Arizona. With only a few places to go, the pressure felt by the canyons will rise proportionally to the number of canyoneers. Zion National Park in Utah has had these kinds of concerns for years and they still have not come up with suitable resolution. As of right now, it is illegal to operate ANY canyoneering business in Zion as they will issue no permits for this sport. It may be only a matter of time before this sport is banned there altogether as improperly trained people are getting themselves killed in the canyons there in increasing numbers.
I guess this is what you might call a “crisis of conscience”. For now I will write some gear reviews and trip reports for known canyons and maybe the random thought or two. I cannot really write about techniques as this would be a conflict of interest with my employer. I don’t really want to share information about new canyons as I like the solitude I find when I go there. Maybe I’ll write a trip report with no real location information. I can talk about the trip and give references and hints and see if you are willing to do the work to find it yourself. For now these canyons will be my “private stock”, shared with only my friends and coworkers until the day comes that I can resolve my inner conflict. I am thinking I may leave this business altogether in a coupe of years. Spend more time exploring and less time teaching and guiding.
I’m sorry if this has been preachy. Like I said, I don’t really write any of this with the idea it will be read by anyone but me. This is just a good way to organize my thoughts, kind of like an angry letter I once wrote to an ex-girlfriend and then never mailed. Writing it was release enough. Besides, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be writing about something that will be read by a lot of people. I guess this is good practice.
Salome Jug is a canyon in Arizona located approximately 35 miles south of Payson and 100 miles or so northeast of Mesa. It’s a technical canyon with only 1 rappel but a lot of sketchy downclimbs. My friend Jim and I decided to run this canyon on Monday the 6th of April.
Although the temperature would climb to around 85 degrees, we planned to hit the trailhead at around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. The approach/exit trail to Salome is about two miles long and is downhill on the way in. Since the exit trail from the canyon comes out and reconnects with the approach trail, this makes the majority of the approach trail also the exit trail. The altitude gain is not especially aggressive and the switchbacks are relatively gentle so the climb out is not unbearable, but I prefer to do it near or after dark so I can avoid hiking uphill in the sunlight. Being in the desert, the trail is fully exposed to the sun and is rocky so care must be taken to prevent dehydration as well as rolling an ankle on the approach/exit trail.
The day looked great as we pulled up to the trailhead. We were right on schedule and looking forward to a great day of fun in the water. Our only detour was a quick stop for a cheap outdoor camera (disposable) and we made up our time easily on the 100 mile drive from Gilbert where we live. After a brief moment to gear up and apply some sunblock, we were off on our march. The mood was fantastic and jokes (usually bad ones) were plenty as we began our trip to the canyon. We were all hoping for good water levels as this canyon is at its best when the water flows. It is almost always wet and you will be in the water the whole way through – with the exception of some boulder hopping. Low water means stagnation and lots of slime so timing with this canyon is important. Spring time is safest because the water levels are a bit more predictable but you will need a wetsuit if you run it before May. There is a place on the dirt road that leads to the canyon where the water crosses over it. You can usually tell the condition of the canyon by how much water is over the road. If it is flowing over the road at a trickle, it will be clear but low. The ideal is about four inches of water flowing over the road. This usually means the water will be clear and flowing down the slides with good volume through the falls. Water on either side of the road with no flow means stagnant slimy water.
Needless to say we were sweating heavily by the time we reached the entry of the canyon. After a run in with an angry prickly pear (it won), I hit the water. The conditions were great. The water was warm and just a touch lower than optimal, but the canyon had been cleared of the slime and debris that tends to accumulate there over the course of the long hot summers. After a few minutes of cooling off, we began our trip through Salome Canyon.
The canyon starts out wide and shallow. It is all pink granite flecked with copper that is decorated sporadically with large slate gray boulders as well as sedimentary boulders washed down from somewhere upstream. This is still my favorite canyon from the shear beauty of it. Anyone who has seen the pictures of the slot canyons of the southwest with their beautifully carved sandstone walls can appreciate the spectacular sight of very similar shaped smooth granite. The granite of this canyon was uncovered by the waters long ago and over the course of thousands and thousands of years, sculpted into what we see today. Completely the opposite of the jagged granite of the San Gabriels, this whole canyon has been carved by water and the debris it has carried.
As we traveled deeper into the canyon, the walls began to become gradually closer and the canyon deeper. This seemed to cause the water to carve out many interconnected mini “chambers” where eddies must have formed. Although the walls never really come closer than about eight feet from one another, they are high enough to really make you feel small. We stopped for food just upstream of where a large column of granite has broken away from the wall and formed a doorway beneath it that you must cross under to continue. Although not much of a squeeze as the height of the opening is around fourteen feet, it is still a cool feature of the canyon that will be remembered and talked about on the trail back.
The holes of water start to get deeper around half way through. There is a lot of scrambling to find the best way through some pretty tricky areas. Patience and assistance are the key for safe passage. The granite can be slick so don’t underestimate it. There are two really good slides in this canyon if the water is flowing. They are not especially tall or long but they are a lot of fun as they dump into small pools of water. One of them was only partially wet and needed us to bail water into it. As the holes get deeper, the swims become longer. I usually place a couple of empty water bottles in my pack to help with floatation. This turns a swim into a leisurely cruise and allows more time to admire the canyon. Following this advice, we took our time and were relaxed as well as comfortable during our swims.
We reached the rappel down the water fall at around 6:30 after taking our time through the canyon. There are two bolted locations here where anchors can be built. The first is to canyon right at a height of about eight feet just over a ledge. There are three anchors here including two expansion bolt style and one glue-in eye bolt style. Don’t use these without inspecting them carefully. These anchors are often beat flat after a good storm from the debris carried down by the flood waters. Be prepared to shuffle across the ledge to the more exposed anchors further out. The first anchor station allows you to descend the waterfall itself which is the narrowest part of the canyon and can be a bit of a squeeze. If water levels are up, the the force of the water can easily push your feet out from under you and put you in a jam so avoid this rappel during times of good flow. The other location requires you to climb a ledge out about fifteen feet where there are more expansion bolt style anchors that offer the opportunity to rappel straight down through a brief free hang before landing on a shallow – and narrow – ledge in the water below the falls.
We took the time to replace the webbing at the first anchor as we didn’t know how long it had been there and proceeded to line up for the rappel. We wasted no time as it was beginning to get dark and we wanted to be on the exit trail before the sun fully set – for no other reason than our headlamps would attract hundreds of flying bugs.
After the rappel we began the longest of the swims which begins in the legendary Jug. This is the feature the canyon is named for. The water has carved out a large chamber from the bottom up forming a granite “Jug” with a relatively narrow exit. This is truly something worth seeing and I would be proud to take anyone interested at any time to go through it. After exiting the Jug, the swim continues to a rocky shoal where you will climb out of the water just long enough for your pack to drain before scrambling over more boulders to re-enter the water for the final swim to dry land and the exit trail.
The hike out was a nice one. The air was hot but the wet clothes kept us cool until we reached the car. The sun had just set when we left the water and the half moon was high during our exit. The road home was long and the excited chatter slowly gave way to tired satisfied silence. After returning home I quietly gave thanks to whatever powers that be for a great day with a great friend in a truly epic setting. Days like these aren’t as common as they should be. I guess that makes the time that much sweeter. I wouldn’t trade a day like this for anything.