THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
Oh my daughter.''
From ``Marina" by T.S. Eliot.
Out in the Arizona wildlands, beyond the end of the Apache Trail, on the far northeastern side of Roosevelt Lake, is the remote Salome Wilderness. It is rugged mountainous country, a land of rock and cactus where the summer temperatures soar into triple digits and all man's ingenuity is needed just to survive. Water is king here and the winter storms create ribbons of life that manage to survive through the baking heat of the summer sun. Over one large area in the Sierra Ancha mountains, the rain funnels down into a stream known as Salome Creek. On its way southwest toward Roosevelt Lake, the creek has had to cut its way round the base of the great rock monolith called Dutchwomen Butte. In doing so, it has carved deeply into the pink and white sandstone to create a fantastic, mile-long ravine known as the Salome Jug. This narrow, vertical-walled jewel of a canyon makes for one of the most marvellous canyoneering experiences anywhere in the world. The descent requires almost continuous wading and swimming through ravine-filling pools, interrupted by numerous waterfalls and cascades. It is not a place for the faint-of-heart.
I had read about the Salome Jug in a number of hiking guides and had been intrigued by the lyrical descriptions of this special place. In at least one instance, the author of the guide was reluctant to describe the location of the Jug because of fears it would be over-used. To me this simply added to the fascination. Then, one winter, I was visiting my younger daughter, Kathy, and her family in Scottsdale, Arizona. I had been reading Tyler Williams excellent guidebook entitled "Canyoneering Arizona" and left it on the living room table when I opted for an early night. Later that evening, unbeknownst to me, Kathy picked up the book and started to flip through it. Coincidentally her attention was drawn to the description of the canyoneering descent of the Salome Jug and, the following day she asked me rather tentatively whether it might be possible for her to explore that place.
That moment was, for me, one of great exhileration. In the preceding decade I had many times idly hoped that I might be able to enjoy one of my more spectacular adventures in the company of one of my three beloved children. Though both athletic and adventurous, the two older children, my daughters Dana and Kathy, had their own families, their own successful careers and scarcely a moment to spare. My son Patrick might well have grown to love the wilderness and did, indeed, accompany me on a tearfully-remembered climb of Mount San Antonio. But he had been tragically killed in an automobile accident at the age of 23 leaving me to forever think of what might have been.
These emotions coursed through me as Kathy and I made plans to explore the Salome Jug during the coming May when river conditions would be optimal. In the winter, the descent of the canyon is impossible because of the high water flow rate. On the other hand the river tends to dry up as the summer progresses and the pools accummulate a surface scum of green slime. Thus the best time is May or June when the flow is moderate, the water is clear and not too cold, and the air is warm enough to allow one to dry out and warm up in the sun. A few weeks before the weekend we had settled on, I bought Kathy a proper pair of trail running shoes as well as wicking clothing. Though she had never done anything like this, I knew that she was nimble and a strong swimmer. Though she had never rappelled, she seemed confident that she could learn it on the spot.
From the intersection of State Highways 87 and 188 about 60m northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, we drove southeast on SR 188 for 19.4m through the hamlet of Punkin Center to mile post 255. We turned left onto the dirt-surfaced A+ Cross Road and followed it as it dropped down into a wide river valley. After a mile, the road crossed the stream at a broad ford where the water was only about six inches deep and, after a short stretch of asphalt, we turned left to follow a dirt road again signposted A+ Cross Road. This wound in and out of various drainages as it climbed episodically along the southern slopes of Victoria Peak. Soon the imposing mass of Dutchwoman Butte came into view ahead of us to the east. Coming to the last ridge between us and the Butte, we easily located the A+ Cross trailhead and parking area on the left side of the road some 10.1m from SR188.
From the trailhead (elevation 3200ft), the trail headed east, winding in and out of three large gullies and bringing us closer to the shadow of Dutchwomen Butte. Though sparsely vegetated, the land is populated with cacti including giant saguaro, prickly pear, ocotillo and many smaller varieties. Now, in May, many of them were in bloom and added to the delight of our morning start. After the fourth headland about 1.8m from the trailhead, the trail started a switchbacking descent down a shallow draw at the bottom of which we could discern the sharp edges of the ravine known as the Salome Jug. As we reached the flatter ground above the rim of the ravine, the old jeep trail turned north and began travelling upstream, paralleling the gorge. Soon it passed through a barbed wire fence and gate and, just beyond, we came to a flat rock shelf with marvellous views of the creek. Looking upstream we could see a series of waterfalls and pools as the stream began its drop into the slot canyon. But, we could also look straight down into a ravine-filling pool directly beneath us, the start of the Jug. We reached this point (elevation 2840ft) about 2.4m and just under 1hr after starting out.
Salome Creek above the Jug Kathy in the upper Jug
The next task was to descend to the river at this upper end of the Jug. This we managed by going a short distance upstream and then climbing down through the broken cliff to a large rock overlooking one of a series of deep pools seperated by waterfalls. It was clear that we had to descend into this pool and immediately begin swimming. This was the first moment of truth, the first test of her agility and resolve for entering white water like this is not for the faint hearted. But she nimbly climbed down the steep crack, descended into the water and began swimming confidently. And the first part of my trepidation evaporated. The initial set of cascades were awkward and slippery but we soon became accustomed to swimming, wading and downclimbing.
As we progressed downstream, the ravine walls grew in height and the gorge narrowed to about 20ft. The polished granite walls that rose vertically on all sides had been sculpted into spectacular shapes by eons of rushing water. It truly was a wondrous place. Some distance into the gorge, we encountered an awkward 10ft drop where the stream splits on two sides of a huge, canyon-blocking boulder. I rigged a small rappel here rather than attempting the slippery downclimb. Kathy managed to descend the 10ft without too much difficulty. There followed a succession of pools and swims before we stopped for lunch on a warm boulder beside the only tree we encountered in the gorge. Here the sun penetrated and we were able to rest and warm ourselves.
Nearing the end of the Jug, where the walls of the gorge reach their maximum height, we came to the major obstacle that I was anticipating with considerable trepidation. Here the stream drops alarmingly through a narrow slot to a large pool that stretches away down the gorge. Because there are few features of recognizable dimension, it is hard to judge the magnitude of this drop. Though only about 30ft, it looked much larger and quite intimidating when viewed from above. I could tell that Kathy saw this as an obstacle of significantly greater magnitude than what we had conquered earlier. But her face showed no fear. I wondered how on earth I was going to help her to descend such a difficult obstacle when she had never rappelled before. And here she would also have to make an awkward swimming disconnect. And there would be no-one at the bottom to help her since I would have to remain above her so that I could reach her should she have trouble during the rappel descent. I knew I had over-reached myself. But there was no going back now.
So I took a deep breath and studied the situation. A ledge about 6ft up the rockface on the right clearly allowed one to traverse over beyond the falls to a point where there were anchor bolts in the rock high above the pool in the cavern below. But the traverse of the ledge looked awkward and nervy since the rock face was somewhat sloped and even seemed a little slippery. Fortunately, another bolt had been installed in the rock at the start of the ledge and a length of webbing had been stretched across between this bolt and the rappel anchor to provide the security of a handrail for the traverse over to the rappel anchor. Using this I made my way over to the anchor point to size up the options. Once there I recognized that the drop was only about 30ft and that the deep pool directly underneath would provide a safe landing if anything went wrong during the rappel. The alternative would have been to jump into the pool. But being uncertain of the depth I felt this would not be a sensible option. Therefore I set up a double-strand rappel and braced myself to help Kathy tackle the descent.
Bottom of the rappel Big pool beyond the rappel
First she attached a carabiner to the handrail and slowly and carefully made her way along the ledge to the rappel anchor. I was relieved to see that she did this carefully and without any panic. So far so good. Now we were both standing awkwardly on this tiny platform at the top of the rappel. With very little room to manoever, I hooked her in to the rope and gave her repeated instructions about how to rappel down and about how to disconnect once she was in the water. I tried at the same time to work out what I would have to do in the event of several possible misadventures. Already what she had done was remarkable; now came the crux.
And so she started down. Fortunately the rappel anchor was just above us and therefore the entry was straightforward. She soon got the feel for descent. I hung out over the edge watching her intently for any sign of trouble as she lowered herself 10ft and then 20ft. At that point the rockface was undercut and she found herself hanging in a free rappel, her feet no longer in contact with the rock. That would have been enough to freak out any beginner. But she kept going, down into the churn at the base of the falls some 30ft below me. Now came the biggest challenge, to disconnect herself in this turbulent white water and swim free from the rope. I was ready to jump at the first sign of trouble. And, at first, she did have trouble swinging crazily on the rope, buffeted by the turbulent water. But then suddenly she was free and swimming briskly over to a broad rock shelf in a recess on the other side of the ravine. She clambered out of the water, smiled up at me and I grinned and clapped and whooped. It was a truly magnificent performance, far beyond anything I could ever have done as a rookie. In that moment, my pride in my brave daughter overwhelmed me and the relief brought tears to my eyes.
But now it was my turn. Even I struggled with the swimming disconnect in the churning water before joining Kathy on the sunlit shelf below the falls. As people often do in such circumstances, we chatted excitedly about the obstacle we had overcome in this special place while the sun warmed us.
After resting on the shelf in the recess, we surveyed the next hurdle. Ahead of us lay a deep pool that wound back and forth between vertical walls with no end in sight. Another act of courage would be needed to set off swimming through this pool with no visible destination and no staging points on either side; just smooth, vertical sandstone walls. But Kathy was ready and set off with those long, powerful swimming strokes that I remembered from her days as a competitive swimmer. I followed her as best I could and, about 50yds, downstream and just around the corner we came to a gravel beach and recovered solid ground. But that was not the end. Just a short distance down the canyon, there was another long pool to swim, and then another. And another, but here the cliffs on both sides opened up, the pool ended and we suddenly realized that we had emerged from the Jug into a broad gentle valley. It was nearly four hours since our morning start and our magnificent adventure was coming to a close.
Thus emerging abruptly from the Jug, we left the stream and followed a use-trail up the steep slope in a shallow recess on the right. This trail transitioned onto a bluff and brought us back to the old jeep trail we had used on the way down. Thus we began our trudge back up the hill in the hot afternoon sun. All Kathy's reserves of energy and adrenalin had been exhausted by now and so she had a hard time covering the 2.2m back to the trailhead. I felt for her, remembering some of the struggles I had experienced long ago when I started hiking. Now, I simply zoned out and free-wheeled, allowing the miles to slip effortlessly by.
Most of all I remained incredibly impressed by my beautiful daughter's bravery and strength. How could I ever ask for more in any individual than she showed me that day in the Salome Jug? And yet I hope I did not demand any of it. I hope that she did it for herself for the same reasons that I so often seek to find the limits of my own frailty. I am immensely proud to be Kathy's father.
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Last updated 1/30/02.
Christopher E. Brennen