Memorial Day Weekend couldn't arrive quick enough. A friend had been planning a three day non-technical canoyneering adventure down the Tonto Creek to the tiny community of Gisela, AZ. Years ago access to the exit had been cutoff due to neglect of the land by partiers. After a bit of research and scouting a exit route was proposed and the plans for the trip were set in motion. Beginning from the Hellsgate Trailhead (see this trip if you are unaware of the area) we would navigate down to the confluence of Haigler Creek and the Tonto Creek, following the watercourse to Gisela, AZ 17 miles down stream. Once arriving there we would have to navigate the unclear waters of private property and get to our car drop. Night hiking, non-techincal canyoneering, potential to be shot by three toothed Gisela ranchers? Sounds like fun to me!
Arriving to the trailhead late Friday evening we made final gear checks and began the leisurely hike towards the confluence. The Hellsgate Trail is easy to follow and is not a difficult trail, so we planned to cover solid miles by torch. A few miles into the hike we saw a strange white square ahead of us. As we tried to figure out why the moon was deformed, a voice spoke out, confusing us all. It turns out a guy had decided to day hike into the confluence, but had underestimated the hike out and ran dry a few miles from the trailhead. Adding to this guys adventure was that he had neglected to bring a torch. As for the strange white square? It was his laptop that he had improvised into a light. We stopped and provided water and food to him and made sure we was capable of exiting on his own. He reassured us that after the water and food he would be fine. After all, along with his laptop he made sure to bring along seven batteries, ensuring that he would be able to reach to end under light of the laptop. As far as we know he made it out alive, but it does build a strong case for being prepared.
After our brief encounter we pushed on till 10PM till we found a semi flat camping spot and quickly bedded down. It wasn't until the morning that we found out we were basically camped in the middle of a giant cowpie minefield, hence the lovely smell.
Saturday morning we made the rest of the hike into the confluence and began mentally preparing for cold water. By the time we ended up having to take our first full swim the day had warmed up and it made the going slightly easier. Below the confluence the Tonto Creek forms a serious of pools from ankle deep to full swims. Endless pools greeted us which were relieving after walking in the warm sun between pools. Walking on river rock is slow going and difficult. On one of many falls I took, I went down rather hard and managed to clock my shin and knee with enough force that is probably should have broke something. Fortunately the fall ended up just cutting my knee and causing immediate swelling. As the day continued and the terrain became more challenging, the knee swelled up and was rather painful to rock hop on. Lunch provided relieve with the assistance of Ibuprofen.
The beauty of the Tonto Creek continues to improve the farther South you travel. The narrows become higher and the pools longer. Saturday we managed to swim through parts of the area that are rarely seen, better yet traveled. After a solid ten hour day of moving we managed to located an acceptable camping spot on one of the few beaches along the route. Early dinner, sore muscles and a knee that resembled a softball contributed to an early evening. The temperature had not quite dropped when we went to bed, and the sleeping bag I brought was rated much lower then needed. Unfortunately the mosquitoes were out in full force as I bedded down, forcing me to wear a bug net on my face and cover my exposed skin under the incredibly warm 20 degree bag. At one point I decided to put on my wet socks in an attempt to cool my body down as I lay waiting for the mosquitoes to leave. As I stared at the night sky beginning to appear I couldn't help but wonder why I decided to do this trip, rather then enjoy a relaxing weekend car camping in Alpine with another group of friends. Of course it wouldn't be a good trip if there wasn't a few moments of questioning your own motives for volunteering to do these trips.
After a solid push Saturday on our hike through the Tonto, we came to the realization that we could potentially make the push out a day early. With the motivation of showers, beds and a meal that didn't come from a bag; we packed camp and began day three. Besides our best attempts to avoid having to swim early in the cool weather, the Tonto forced us in a hundred feet from camp. Who needs coffee when you can submerge your nether regions in cold water first thing in the morning? Under tender feet and sore muscles we pushed hard through the narrows, swimmers, and waterfalls; only taking breaks to empty our shoes and occasionally look up. The beauty of the route far surpassed the previous day and the upper portion from previous trips. The narrows through this section were incredible with a variety of rock and impressive water features. The narrows formed large pools of water that involved swims lasting up to ten minutes. As we neared the end of the longest swim, we were hit with the smell of cowpies. Approaching the shore, we could see the area was frequented by cattle and they had lovingly deposited some shit on the shore. This of course had found its way into the water course, which was had to brush out of the way as we swam to shore. Lovely.
In the early afternoon we approached a particular set of narrows that encompassed two multi-tier waterfalls. The first was avoided by climbing around it. The second set wasn't as easy. It involved sending the climber from the group down a chute to spot the rest of us as we made the down climb through the waterfall. As is typical the route appeared more difficult then it was. Once down and into the pool we were able to enjoy the beauty of the waterfall. A few hours later we made the final push through a set of narrows and washed up on the river rock completing our final swim, or so we thought.
Because the area had seen lots of us from hikers in the past and more currently cattle; there was a defined trail we were able to pickup along the shore. Sighs of relieve were made as we cruised along the trail. As is typical when things are going well, the trail abruptly ended. We then found ourselves on the wrong side of the creek for our exit. We dropped back down to the Tonto and were unpleasantly met with a pool that smelt of cowpies and decomposition. With a lack of energy to search for a better option, we stepped into the murky water hoping for the best. With each step our feet sank into the presumed mud releasing more odor. Although the crossing was only 10-12 feet across the pool managed to be deep enough for half submersion. Once on the other side we were met with a new dilemma. As previously mentioned the area was closed a few years back due to abuse of the land and conflict between the ranchers and users of the wilderness. This fueled aggressive private property feuds with the hikers that travel the route, nearly ensuring that no one attempts this hike for fear of encountering the locals. To the best of our knowledge we managed to skirt around the private property and remain on Federal land and roads. Once clear of the private property we were abel to relax and begin hike to the car drop. Along our route we ran into a rancher whom was friendly. Rightfully so, he asked probing questions about where we ere headed and coming from. A sure tell sign of the ongoing land use battle going on in the area. After some casual chit chat he stated that he 'Wouldn't hike this country for nutin' and that 'It was the roughest country anywhere'. With bleeding legs, sore muscles, tenderized feet, and bruises; we couldn't agree more.
If you would like to see the complete photoset from this trip follow the link to Flikr. If you are interested in doing this hike, don't. Because of the ongoing private property issues and tension between land users I would recommend extensive research before considering attempting this trip.