Tubing The Salt River in Arizona

Crashing while tubing in the Salt River…a true recent event

Take Me to The River…drop me in the water…

“The water is flowing fast and high today!” yelled our bus driver as a word of caution to all of her riders packed on board the old school bus converted as a shuttle, bouncing and rattling it’s way down the all too familiar road to drop everyone off for a day of tubing on the Salt River.

“Stay to the RIGHT side unless you want to lose all of your belongings today…” she continued with only half in attendance listening. Too excited to party and have a good time, plenty of folks chatted over her solid advice. “…you are going to want to stay to the right side…” “SO WE DONT DROWN!!?” Yelled out a college aged female with a group of friends as they laughed and continued joking. I felt that twinge in my stomach. Good luck girls, I thought to myself, I hope you are good swimmers.

” Stay to the RIGHT…” my brain recorded those valuable words “Stay to the RIGHT!”

I have had my share of trips down this not so lazy river. Listening to and actually paying attention to the suggestions of those who work around it daily is smart. Laughing off the power of a river is not.

It is a complete Captain Obvious statement to say Arizona gets HOT in the Summer. Triple digit heat is why Phoenix is called the Valley of the Sun. Our Basketball Team is named the Suns. Outdoor water activity is a fantastic way to combine cooling off and exploring the natural world around you. But water can also be deadly. Time and again we learn about drownings and how to prevent such tragedies. It does not take much water to drown.

The more we, as a society, entertain ourselves with online, virtual, controlled experiences, the further we distance ourselves to the real dangers in the real world. Amusement parks and resorts have to ensure your safety to stay open. Period. Too many people get hurt and its over. Shut it down. Headlines screaming lawsuits pending, insurance rates go up forcing those parks still in business to control and buffer their rides even further. Safety first or make no money! Online games and virtual reality again are allowing the user to experience a very safe, almost real environment, sanitized from all the things that would actually end you, not just the game. The blur of reality versus entertainment is upon us with serious consequences. The shrug of the shoulders and the “meh” attitude prevails as another trendsetter falls off a cliff for a selfie.

Plopping our oversized tubes in the water, we were off to spend the day relaxing and tanning. Being a twosome, we tried to gain some distance between us and the louder, larger party groups. My husband and I both truly enjoy seeing and hearing the wildlife along on the river and don’t bring music with us. You never know what wild animal you might see at the rivers edge drinking or cooling off. The birds sing and the water flows. Its a beautiful place. Its un groomed and wild. Branches grow into the river that force you to navigate your tube or risk impalement or a good scratching.

The Bus driver was absolutely right. The water flow was faster than we normally float on and the river seemed full. Noticeable enough that inside I was slightly alarmed by it. My husband assured me it’s fine and we settled in for our 4 hour float adventure.

Rocks on the bottom of a river can cause all kinds of issues as you float. Where the water flows are lower, the rocks hit your butt requiring you to lift up to continue moving forward. In some areas of the river, large rocks create divides and ripples in the current asking you which direction you want to take. These decisions can and do make a difference on the overall quality and safety of your ride. Knowing my mantra for the day was “stay to the right”, that is exactly what I intended to do.

Almost 20 years ago now, when we moved from the beach in Southern California to Arizona, some people I had just met were taking a kayak trip down this very Salt River, just launching from a higher spot up. Told it was a blast and asked if I wanted to go, I jumped at the chance even though I had never kayaked in my life. Looking athletic and being in reasonable shape does not make up for a complete lack of training, experience or talent yet that is what I went with. Add a healthy dose of ignorance for good measure. Complete with helmets, life jackets, other large rafts and groups that would travel along with guides. Something about class 2/3 rapids was discussed but I had no idea what that meant, I told myself it couldn’t be that bad of a trip as I surveyed the groups climbing into the rafts. Not everyone I saw was fit as a fiddle nor did they seem to have anymore knowledge than I did. Ignorance mixed with arrogance put on a helmet and vest, grabbed her paddle and wobbled into the water. It took mere minutes before I had a good wake up call about how seriously I had misjudged what I had signed up for.

With the first drop in and turn I slammed sideways into the sheer rock wall. By the lunch break my hands were reddish purple from the death grip I had on my paddle the last few terrifying hours. I watched as a Dad with a young girl who appeared to maybe have special needs, request to get out of their two man Kayak and go to a large group raft. I should have done the exact same thing. I should have raised both hands in surrender and rode the rapids with a guide and a group. Again, my ego, newer friends, not wanting to be “that person”, all those things played into me making a very bad decision for the second half of my afternoon. I stayed in a single kayak heading for class 2/3 rapids…whatever those are.

Fear. Blood chilling, bone deep fear overwhelmed me as our group pulled over to the side of the very fast moving river, to hike up above and watch the large rafts take the rapids so we could chart our course! The sound of the raging water, the screams of terror and excitement as the larger rafts “tacoed” in sections, bending and flopping along as they sped down and around and out of view. My body went numb.

As our guide asked if anyone felt they couldn’t do this my hand shot in the air ready to take the first bus outta there. But that was not an option. No, there was no other way out. The guide had simply wanted to know which less experienced kayakers needed extra help, not that a never ever been in a kayak before idiot was now staring at him terrified. There was no answer for me. I had to figure it out. He stayed at the top of the falls as long as he could with me and another kayaker until you simply run out of rom and the water takes you. Over his shoulder he turns and yells “follow my line…” and he was gone! The rocks slowed my forward progression literally requiring me to scoot myself and kayak almost hopping it to my doom. I looked to the sky and said my prayer and my apologies to my family for having put myself in such an awful predicament.

As I scooted forward, my kayak starting turning. I’m not sure who said it earlier in the day but I distinctly heard “a kayak is a kayak, let it flow but NOT sideways!” Turning sideways in a kayak on a flowing river is a sure way to give yourself a tumble. I wound up learning that the hard way earlier on this trip, flipping myself over and having a hell of a time getting back in. Now, staring at serious rapids was not the time to try it again. I felt the back end of my kayak swing around and I simply closed my eyes and took the initial fall facing backwards, convinced I was heading into my death.

I have no rational explanation as to why or how I survived. The river spit me out at the bottom bruised and bleeding and in shock. My group and guide cheered with relief I had made it! I vowed never to sit in a kayak again.

To everyone I talk to or share my kayak horror story with their answer is always the same, tubing is different. It shows up as the “safer” option on peoples minds as a fun outdoor river activity. Everyone goes tubing. Still, it took me years before I was even willing to go near the river again let alone in it.

I am married to an individual who loves to be outside and athletic. His entire life has been spent doing physical activities. Sports, basketball, golf, tennis, biking and hiking, his smile gets bigger the more he sweats. Flip huge tires? Sure! Hike to the top of the Superstition Mountain just because? Sure! With a Marine Corps mindset of simply throwing me over his shoulder if I go down, he sees me as his favorite action buddy. I remind him often I only play the part on tv.

So there we are, floating rather fast on a river I most likely should not be in. My partner in crime smiling and lightly teasing me about only going to the left the entire way, trying to build my confidence back up. We had not made it to the curve the bus driver warned us about yet and I’m not even sure we knew exactly where it was besides “before the bridge.” There are no exits or areas to pull over until you reach the bridge. Often it is directly under the bridge where your tubing adventure starts if you are only going tubing for a few hours. But this day we had started at the first point of entry that is not always an option due to the water flow.

Having been on the river for probably almost an hour at this point (I’m now guessing) we see an area that looks like it could be trouble. The right side is shallow and rocky. The left side is full and the water flow is fast and taking you straight at a curve and thick branches. Navigating that type of situation practically laying in a tube became serious in an instant. Obvious to both of us, we needed to paddle our arms legs whatever to move us over enough to make the curve. Standing up on the rivers edge at the water impact spot is a man watching the river as if he’s already seen enough mayhem and is concerned. I see him only for seconds before I see a large sharp branch sticking straight out at the curve, directly in my line of fire. I’m going to be impaled by this thick branch directly into my face or neck if I don’t do something immediately. Though our tubes are tied together loosely for our cooler to hang between us, its my tube that is being sent into the strong current and forced towards the trees at high speed like I’m at the end of a whip. I instinctively grab for the branch coming at my eye level and the water flips my tube into the current forcing it , pinning it in place. I’m terrified. Its happening so fast. The water is pummeling me. The rocks are beating my legs, Screaming in absolute terror I lunge myself at my husbands tube. His strength, both mental and physical plus instincts pull me forward, dragging me along the rocks and river until we reach a point I can breathe. My worst nightmare come true.

One would assume I got out of the water at the first chance I had. I did only to re adjust myself, realize I had lost my shirt and now only had a bathing suit top, and got right back in for the remainder of the float. Why? Shock. My adrenaline was so high, my husbands cheering me on that I had made it and it was ok, all of the same things that kept me in the kayak kept me in the tube. It wasn’t until later that night when the reality started to set in but not fully. The next morning I made a video talking about the exact things I write about here. I can see I’m in shock but I’m not fully aware of it just yet.

Because of my post, friends comment that someone had just drowned at the very spot we launched from. I am also hit with stories of much the same experience I had. By the end of the month there had been 3 drownings. No numbers on the people like me who no official record ever happened. Just a near miss. It took a news report about faster response times to near drownings before I fully understood why my mind, body and system was having so much trouble with what had occurred. Had it not been for my husband, I would have drowned out there. This is not for dramatic effect. It is a true statement. I had no life vest, did not have the strength to fight off a river, and was pulled to safety by a man who loves me intensely. It took him awhile to admit seeing that level of fear in my eyes was not something he wanted to repeat ever again.

Do I think tubing is dangerous? Yes. Should the general public get to go tubing? I still say yes. But with a better understanding that its not controlled or even safe. Most outdoor activities come with risk. Adventure. Whatever word you put on things like sky diving or mountain climbing. Where I think we as a society fall short is we have allowed so much virtual reality to slip in, the perception of what is “safe” and the idea of someone immediately coming to your aid is skewed.

The month of June 2021 would turn out to be filled with life changing events for me. This one, in the river, believe it or not, was second only to the rattlesnake I encountered at 4 am only a week later. That’s another story for another time.