It was the middle of February in Arizona, and I had just finished a mellow lap on the lower gorge of Tonto Creek when a voicemail came through on the phone. It was a posse of Colorado and Wyoming paddlers who were looking to link Christopher Creek into the Hell’s Gate section of Tonto Creek. This would be a three-day mission through a truly wild and desolate portion of Arizona. I couldn’t respond fast enough… “YES!”
Being in the same clothes for three long days of kayaking and camping makes it that more imperative to have the right gear. The mountains of Arizona can be downright frigid in the winter, and as we were going on a multi day adventure it was key to have my ioMerino base layers on. The Altitude boxer briefs have become my absolute go to for any adventure and on this trip, I paired them with a long sleeve ioMerino top to insulate me under my dry suit.
(To see more of our base layers and long sleeve tops, click here.)
It was approaching midday as we hiked off the highway into the Arizona wilderness. A brief half-mile hike in brought us above the very pronounced Christopher Creek slot canyon where we put in. Once on the water the crew moved well; we were scouting most of the large drops and following verbal beta for the in-betweens. The crew quickly formed a jovial rapport, with everyone smiling and joking together as we completed an almost “to do” descent of Christopher Creek. After the last of the hard rapids, downed trees, river cane, and willows became abundant, obstructing our downstream view and causing us to ricochet through our last few miles. It was a pin fest down to Bear Flats, and by the time we bounced our way into Bear Flats it was well past dusk.
Thanks to a friend, there was a truck at Bear Flats and we took full advantage of it. Group consensus was to use the truck to get the other vehicle off the side of the highway, and to acquire plentiful and cheap cold beer and pizza. The getting-to-know-you’s continued into the evening, with everyone laughing and recounting how many times they had been pinned on the way out of Christopher Creek.
We headed into the Hell’s Gate section of Tonto Creek, twenty-six miles that we planned on traveling over two long days. The walls quickly grew to towering heights, and we found ourselves in classic Arizona scenery. The water level was still a bit low for my taste, and we again found ourselves bashing through willows and bouncing our way through marginal rapids, just to be greeted with yet another classic Class 5 rapid. Our pace was strong and we were crushing miles, but I could see the group tiring as we neared 12 hours in our boats. It was late on day two when we finally reached the confluence with Spring Creek and set up our camp. Everyone was a bit beaten up from the low water and a second-long day on the river. I fell asleep early and woke up excited to see what day three had in store.
We were making our way through one of the more beautiful locations that I have ever paddled. The white-water was plentiful, and made for yet another long, strenuous day of scouting and probing countless Class 4 mank piles inter-spaced with plentiful and quintessential Class 5 slot canyon rapids.
We were then met with our last challenge: shallow, braided flows through a willow jungle. We slowly trudged our way through to the very sketchy “town” of Gisela. Gisela reminded me of a Breaking Bad set: dilapidated trailers and police rolling through and joking with us about how they were looking to arrest a few of the locals.
This run should be on your radar… but understand this is not a “give me”; appropriate flows are rare, and it’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. That being said, the Hell’s Gate Wilderness is spectacular and linking Christopher Creek into it is a legitimate multi-day adventure.
For the extended blog or more stories from Chris Baer, head to his website: whereisbaer.com