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Arizona on the Map - Christopher Creek

By: Kyle McCutchen and Evan J. Stafford
Photographer: Evan J. Stafford

Evan diggin' in for a left boof stroke - photo: TG

Kyle's Account: I'm the last to wake up…again. It's drizzling out, and I have cottonmouth from the smoky upstairs Show Low bar the night before. With the remnants of a nagging chest cold, I've been coughing for a good part of the night and hacking up some shit that is so deep in my throat it sounds like I'm going to puke every time I do it. Sometimes I just wait for the reflex.

Evan's Account: I'm wide awake and anxious to paddle - something - anything. I've slept well despite a few waking moments of Kyle loudly dry heaving mucous chunks. My eyes would open and I would wonder if he was o.k. through a few cycles of the death cough and then my eyes would close again as I sank back into my pillow. Now Kyle's phone is ringing with some annoying ring-tone and it's finally jostling him out of bed. It's Tyler Williams and he's giving us a heads up that Oak Creek is running. We can see the puddles and Todd declares, "When there's puddles out, you'd better get on it."

Last drop bluebird skies day two

We get some breakfast and as usual I'm perusing the gazetteer at the table. We go back and forth between runs that we've heard of and runs that sound like first descents, but we have no internet and we have no idea if there is water flowing anywhere. We toss around the idea of Cibecue Creek. We've heard it has a runnable 30 footer, but we're fresh off the added adrenaline of Apache prison lingering over our heads and dealing with that again just doesn't sound appealing.

Todd keeps looking west out the window saying that it looks like the Smokies from Asheville. I'm sort of intrigued with the Mogollon Rim and Christopher Creek looks like it's the closest thing we've heard anything about. Todd continues to note over eggs, bacon and blueberry pancakes, that it just looks socked in to the west of us. The Streamside Trails book that we bought to use for put-in/take-out directions is calling the Christopher Creek hike simply, "Box Canyon." I also find a picture at the front of the "Payson East" hiking section showing a picture of the canyon with the caption, "hiker surveys rugged terrain of Christopher Creek along Box Canyon."

Kyle with a blurry boof on a sic triple dipple

KM: As we drive west on Highway 260 I keep my expectations low. Although it is raining I think that it is way too cold for anything good to come up. I have my doubts about even being able to kayak, and seriously contemplate turning the car around and heading to New Mexico for a quick Upper Taos Box trip and an early departure home. But Evan and Todd are hopeful, especially Todd. He keeps pointing in the Streamside Hikes of Arizona guidebook to the words "box canyon." I'm beyond skeptical. After all, this is Arizona.

The hopes about this box canyon aren't entirely reliant on our hiking book. A phone call to Tyler two days earlier (one of many) tipped us off that there "may be" a 300 foot per mile section on Christopher Creek, just above it's confluence with the Upper Tonto. But, like everything else, he said, it probably wouldn't be running and that we should just go to Oak Creek, a three or four hour drive that none of us are too thrilled on making, after driving past it just days earlier while the water was too low.

ES: We're driving and it's raining, not the proverbial cats and dogs, but precipitating none the less. We see little streams cascading onto the road and some creek beds that had been noticeably dry three days earlier are now springing to life. When we get to the creek it's muddy, but it's not exactly flooding.

Successfully extracting some wood from the entrance to the box canyon - photo: TG

KM: At the Christopher Creek campground Evan and I slowly play with our new "Craw" kayak backpacks. Todd is already geared up and hiking down to the creek as I finally change into my splash pants. We hike down to the river and take a quick walk downstream to see what's in store. It turns out to be shallow, boney, and stupid class III. "Screw it, we have nothing better to do today," I think. "At least the sun is starting to come out."

Kyle in the entrance drop

ES: I'm all for putting on right then and there, but we all agree to do a short hike and see what we're getting into. Todd claims that just putting on would be the Lars Holbek thing to do and I realize that I've always liked his style. We're already geared up… what, are we not going to go kayaking.

The hiking book mentions that it's about .6 miles to the box canyon from the campground. We hike well over .6 miles and all we've got to show for it is a short, sandstone mini-gorge with gradient that does not appear to be anywhere near 300 feet per mile. We put on anyway and proceed to feel ridiculous, even embarrassed, as we scrape passed some fisherman using the old scoot your ass using your arms technique.

---------------------------------

KM: "What if I told you that this was going to get run today?" Todd asks.

I tense slightly, and don't respond.

"That raised your blood pressure, didn't it?"

"Yeah," I reply, although as I scout the bottom of the falls for the first time I really don't have any major objection… except that the entrance sucks.

"I could tell," says Todd, as he hurries back down to the lip to scout.

Lost in the surreal-ness of this place I make my way behind Todd towards the lip of the drop. I probably should have been pinching myself. What started out as a scrap-dog paddle-in, came to an abrupt halt as I scrambled for an eddy above the first horizon line, of which would be many. The inconspicuous three foot entrance, into a second eight foot ledge was fun, but I really didn't begin to take the creek seriously until two or three more 8 to 10 foot boofs came along. Then things began to get… interesting.

---------------------------------

Kyle on an early boof

ES: We are now deep in the shit, a beautifully smooth and towering basalt gorge, and portaging was not looking like an option. I have just been routed through three fantastic boof moves in a row and now it is my turn to scout. I get out, take one look and my eyes begin to widen. I give the signal to Kyle and Todd that they may want to have a look for themselves.

KM: The drop is fairly big, probably 15 feet landing onto a submerged rock shelf, and it looks rather shallow. The left curler will make for a solid setup to boof it though, as long as you can keep your speed through the entrance and time a solid right stroke. And you want to boof it because half way down is a sharp looking boulder sending spray in every direction.

ES: Todd and I are contemplating the line and I think - this is what we came here for! This gorge may end around the corner, I don't know, but what I do know is that I'm a runnin' this bad boy 'cause we came here to get into the shit. Kyle decides quickly to step up and show us how it's done.

KM: "Smack!" My nose doesn't bury, and I float away unscathed. I paddle back up into the boil and check the landing for depth, which ends up being about a foot and a half. We later find out that it was here where the first descent crew of Tyler Williams and Roy Lippman ended their winter 05' attempt when Roy pitoned into the hidden ledge and severely broke his leg. The ensuing epic resulted in Tyler helping Roy through a brutal hike out of the gorge and into the hospital for 5 hours of surgery. Tyler had to hike their boats out the next day after being unable to find any other paddlers to complete the rest of the run with him. Although we don't realize it, we are now entering uncharted territory.

Evan getting a wee bit sideways - photo: TG

ES: This would be a bad place to hike out of with a broken ankle, so I step up next, determined to get my bow up. I get a good stroke, but launch off just a wee bit sideways. I porpoise in about 1.8 feet, but the depth of the pool only happens to be about 1.6 feet, giving my boat a minor nose job. I barely even notice as I glance off the shelf and my ankles are fine (of course I DO notice my new extra rocker being provided by my slightly upturned right bow). I look up to Todd giving him the signal to boof.

KM: The action is far from over. We round the next bend and come to a beautiful triple drop, with an auto boof at the top that would make any paddler giggle.

ES: I probe the triple drop and as I charge off the first auto rocket launch I hear the crew giving up some props. OOOOOOHH! The rest of the team follows in similar fashion and we are really starting to feel the magic, grinning from ear to ear and feeling invincible.

Todd Gillman in the beautious triple drop

KM: Then comes a narrow, pin balling slot, followed by another tight and steep double drop.

ES: Kyle is being routed through the boat wide slot drop. I use the photo-op as an excuse to get out and scout and, although Kyle makes it through, it looks kind of dicey. It's funny because from above it looks really basic and straight forward, but upon closer inspection I'm noticing a fair deal of gradient and an overhang/undercut. I delicately enter the drop last and promptly smack my paddle into both walls, ripping my pogie off one hand and causing a goofy roll in the bottom hole. I roll up and retrieve my floating pogie to some small-town jeering.

Kyle riding out the "White Russian"

Kyle is being routed once again, this time through a tight fast double drop. He powers off the lip but doesn't quite get his paddle tucked away in time. His paddle gives a quick flex between the gorge walls and gets flicked ten feet in the air. Kyle skips into the wall above the second drop and grabs a hand hold. The paddle squirts up next to him, bobs underneath his boat and reappears in the pool below, all the while Todd and I are pointing and shouting at him "there it is!" He pulls himself along the wall using both hands to boof through the bottom hole and then grabs his paddle as nonchalantly as he can. Sick sum mum a'…

Kyle's hands losing contact with his strong as nails Woody paddle

Todd and I both heed the probe beta and hold onto our paddles. Thanks Cutch.

Double drop...gradient looks different from below

KM: From here I eddy hop halfway down another drop before scouting the lip of what Todd is signaling to be a perfectly clean 20 footer. This place is unbelievable.

ES: I get out because once again I am being signaled to break out the camera. I go high on the cliff to get a wide angle of one of the most perfect launching pads to have ever been sculpted by rock and water. I miss the shot of Kyle because my battery is beginning to give way, but I manage to sneak in a shot of Todd. From my high perch I can see that the gradient is about to pick up in a big way as the river drops deeper into the gorge. I stroke the launch pad and arrive on a rock beach at the brink of an intimidating horizon line.

Noticing that the gradient is about to step up a notch

KM: Back at the lip Todd is changing his line on what appears to be the crux drop and the heart of the gorge.

"I think we should run this from the top," he says, explaining that the seal launch into the main part of the 30 footer just looks funky.

I object slightly, but he has a point. "Go for it," I say.

He begins to walk back towards his boat when he comes back to me saying, "Hey man, if I get knocked out I'm going to need you to jump down there and sav…"

"GO!" I shout.

Back in his boat Todd makes one practice line towards the first lip and backs off to set up for his main attempt. He takes about five strokes in the top pool, placing his last as a strong right boof stroke. He brings his paddle in parallel to his boat as he falls eight feet onto the rock shelf. He bounces once or twice and disappears over the lip in a matter of moments. Silence…. then the profane sounds of celebration.

Todd stepping up and probing the Big Lebowski -- if you look closely you can see the perfect 20 footer in the background

ES: I'm watching all this from another falcon perch that I've scrambled up onto to. I force my camera to life one more time and miraculously grab the last shot of the day - Todd about to plunge over the second half of, what I'm going to refer to hereafter as, The Big Lebowski. I get pretty damn excited as I scramble back down to the rock beach, answering Cutch's emphatic finger point. You.

I've been looking at this drop for so long from my falcon perch that I just go straight to my boat, slip into the cockpit, hit one last eddy, circle, and charge off the lip. I go deep and resurface like a breeching submarine to Todd pumping his fist. Deep in the belly of this gorge I find myself in one of the most amazing rooms I have ever been in. The walls rise out of view and I feel an amazing calm. Todd tries to hold me in place so I can attempt one last photo of Kyle with a rainbow in the falls and a low, low angle making the drop look large, and man what a shot it would have been… but the battery won't budge and the current is swirling and making it all in all difficult to take a shot.

Todd gets out on a precarious rock to scout what he is signaling to be another beauty - a spiraling twenty footer (The Little Lebowski). He gives me some basic direction and at this point my day can't really get any better.

KM: Evan disappears over the lip of another mandatory and decidedly bigger horizon line. Todd gives me the signal, but my wrist is killing me after slamming it into the wall on the Big Lebowski, so my boof is non-existent. I plug into the base of the falls and immediately back ender. While upside down I push myself off of the wall and drag my paddle into the current underneath me to pull me out of the hole. I finally roll and look up at Todd. He shrugs.

ES: Below the 20 footer I'm still seeing gorge and serious gradient, and I am for the first time beginning to wonder how long the sun is going to last for us here. It is already below the gorge walls, even in the distance to the east. You see, our day began as all good epic descents do, with no idea of where we were going boating, no shuttle, no idea of where the take-out was, and a no worries 1pm start. And now we were really deep in the shit with only one way out. Down.

We run through the next section of hearty gorge, sending Kyle to probe one and then portaging it at Kyle's direction into a more open feeling section of the gorge. All we can see is gorge and horizons, but we now have a better view of the sun going down. And that is precisely what it is intending to do. We all get out to scout the next section and start to realize that the drop below us is not going to go. We then notice a tributary coming in from the north - i.e. the direction of the highway.

KM: Two portages later and with a falling sun we hike out of the gorge, leaving one final drop behind, and a class III-IV paddle out on the Upper Tonto to be completed the next day.

Putting in for day two

ES: We leave our boats and begin what we believe is going to be a serious walk about. We crest the first ridge and see a dirt road leading off towards the highway. Score. We hitchhike back to the campground and head to Payson to celebrate and spin the yarn over some authentic Mexican and strong margaritas. Later that night we intend to find the take-out campground, except Todd slipped and managed to punt a gnarly cactus during the hike out and he is currently having a hell of a time trying to remove its steely needle. Instead we spend some time at the urgent care center and get a hotel to rest our bones.

Kyle lining it up for the last drop

The next morning we locate Bear Flat, the take-out campground, and Kyle drops us off at the dirt road we used to hike out. Then through some skilled human relations work, he leaves the truck at Bear Flat and secures a ride to meet us at the put-in, leaving us with a legitimate shuttle for the first time on the trip. We hike back in, finish out one last chunky rapid and find ourselves exiting the gorge. Soon we meet up with Tonto Creek and promptly paddle to the campground to start a fire, kick back and celebrate a new classic, AZ style.

Todd using the old palm boof technique on the exit drop

KM: Back at camp we spend our last night in Arizona around the fire. In the 12 years that I've been paddling I think this may be one of the greatest creeks I have ever run. The scenery, big drops, and pool drop character, through a creek bed that was seemingly created for kayaks, bring out a netherworld kind of feel. Anxious to get back in there we check the level the next day, but the creek has dropped substantially and we decide that the level we had was a minimum flow. We all agree that we'll be back the next time a big, wet storm rolls through Arizona.

Directions: Take Highway 260 east from Payson twenty minutes to the put-in, Christopher Creek campground. If it's winter you may have to walk from the locked gate down to the river (not very far). To get to the take-out head east on 260 about fifteen minutes from Payson, go south (right) onto Bear Flat Rd (FS 405) for five miles to Bear Flat Campground.

Flow: 120cfs - 250cfs (maybe higher but be careful). You will be literally knuckle dragging for approximately the first two miles. Tyler and Roy had about 150cfs, we think we had about 120cfs. For an approximate gauge you can use the Upper Tonto CLICK HERE (you'll probably have ~2/5 of the Tonto's flow). The day we were in there the gauge spiked to 350cfs. If you have a long drive ahead plan on a minimum of 450cfs at the Tonto gauge.

Gradient: Tyler said 300 ft. per mile. We think it's more like 450 ft. per mile.

Length: ~6-7 miles including Tonto Creek (4 miles on Christopher)

Style: Clean, switching between tight and large (sometimes both), pool drop. We made two portages near the bottom of the gorge due to the width of certain slots. Different water levels may require more or less portages but prudence is recommended at high flows because of the virtual inability to portage numerous drops without exiting the gorge entirely.