RIDE THE HIGH GILA

Written from notes taken by

Elwin R. Roach

This is Saturday, the 23rd day of March, in the year of our Lord 1900 and 68... and if we should survive, it will only be by a miracle from God.

It all started yesterday when we, Bobby Roach, Freddy Roach, and myself, Elwin Roach left by raft at the West Fork in the Gila River of the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. Our plans were to complete a forty-five mile voyage through the Gila Wilderness National Park. We had two, one-man,  rubber rafts that could hold two people. These were for the three of us, Bobby Reach, Freddy Roach, and myself, Elwin Roach. Freddy had the supplies in his raft while Bobby and I were in the other without much gear.

All was fine except for being exhausted, wet, and five holes ripped in the supply raft, and this was after traveling the first half hour on our three and half day trip. Getting such a late start,  we went ashore and camped for the night while making repairs. We slept warm but the ground was very hard and uncomfortable. We had sleeping bags but were without air mattresses, one of the several necessities we were lacking.

After the first day we had learned a lot but not nearly enough; for those relentless rapids that bury themselves at the base of boulders and cliffs, as well as the shallow waters that kept tearing our rafts apart. Without warning we found ourselves being swept head long into a barbed wire fence that would have done catastrophic damage to us and the rafts if we had not succeeded in getting to the river bank just prior to impact. Soon after this we had to stop and carry everything over land because of a large oak tree that had fallen across a narrow place in the river. Shortly afterwards we hit swift rapids and submerged rooks that tore boles in the bottoms of our rafts as well as the air tanks. This forced us to land in order to make more repairs and to catch our breath. Afterwards, everything went fine for about fifteen minutes. This is when the raft that Bobby and I were in capsized after encountering a sharp curve and rapids that emptied into the ugly face of a perpendicular cliff. We lost the potatoes and canned goods and ruined the camera and all of the exposed film. Fortunately, we had filled one rolled and had it in a dry place. There wasn't any danger to us here because the current immediately carried us out into mid-stream and we had a good hold on to the sides of the overturned raft.

After drying out and continuing on, the bottom of Freddy’s supply raft hit sharp rocks that ripped it from end to end. Everything, except for our sleeping gear, a loaf of muddy river-water soaked bread and six eggs fell through and was lost, including all the beer and drinking water. With no eating or cooking utensils we are forced to boil the eggs in a beer can and dried the bread on a log next to the campfire. We still having about three days to go, and with no food or fishing gear remaining, we had no alternative but to go hungry for the remainder of the trip. Not a pleasant thought.

- Sunday the 24th -

We were awakened at 6:00 A.M. by what was music to our ears, wild turkeys on each side of us, and our hopes were aroused with the thoughts of having turkey for breakfast. With three guns blazing, not one feather was lost. The turkeys won. Unless something changed, we would continue being hungry. Two more flocks were seen today but still no luck in securing food.

After traveling for about an hour both rafts were capsized when we encountered high and very swift moving rapids that ran headlong into a mammoth sized bolder with an estimated ten to fifteen feet of high pressured, under-towing water around the base. This force of water pushed Bobby into the churning abyss. Our lives were instantly placed into the unmerciful charges of the river. The torrents were playing with us as if we were water logged tooth picks in grandma’s wash machine. We lost all sense of direction under the churning vortex. We were unable to touch bottom, but what was worse, neither could we surface. For myself I was sure that I was going to drown; for all human efforts failed to bring me to the fresh, life-giving air. And with my strength gone, totally expended, and I could not save myself, my thoughts flashed to Margit and the kids, Jerry (7), Steven (5), and Michelle (4); because I knew that they would never see me again, and the most horrible feeling came over me, as I wondered how they would make it without me.

At that instant, and to my euphoric surprise, the same torrents that were determined one moment to take my life, reverted and lifted me to the surface as suddenly as they had taken me under. The very thing that was to be my executioner was change by the power of God and became made my savior...for the moment.

As I surfaced there was my big brother, Bobby a few feet away! He stood waste deep in the river at the edge of that churning death trap with a firm hold on to the raft with his out stretched arm for me grab his hand. I was barely able to do so, and he pulled me out of death’s grip and to safety. By the way, as I was near death, at noon that day, Margit was in our bedroom, and my picture fell off the wall at the same time, and the glass in the frame broke.)

Bobby had experienced the same thing, saying that he thought he would surely drown for he did not believe he could hold his breath any longer but surfaced before that point came. He also said that such fear struck him when he looked around for me, and I was nowhere to be found. I was still under that churning mass of muddy water, and he knew I must be dead; since he knew he could not hold on for even a second more, and I was still down there. But what elation flooded his soul, when my little, half-drowned head popped to the surface. His brother was lost but now he was found. He knew what it was to lose a brother, and then he knew what it was for him to be raise from the dead. Praise God!

Freddy was behind us, and he hit the same foreboding rapids and beckoning grave; but he was fortunate enough to grab the aide of his raft when it capsized. Outside of another miracle of God, this most likely saved his life because both of his feet were tangled inside the raft where we had wrapped a tarp around it after the be bottom had been torn out, and he would have been dragged upside down and under the raft long enough to drown.

After this we realized that we had made a grave mistake, and almost literally, in underestimating the Gila River during the first part of March when it is at its flood stage from the melting snows. We could have at least gone the extra expense and bought life jackets or other flotation equipment. Without them, we were like soaked rats at the mercy of the unforgiving river.

We are cold and wet but thankful that we were still alive. We lost numerous items in this episode which hurt our voyage a little more. It looks like we would have learned to secure things a bit better before this time; but we had not really believed that the river would continually get worse instead of better.

We finally made it eighteen miles down river to Sapillo Creek that ran with clear water, and to our surprise and good fortune, there was an old cabin with bunks that was stocked with more than enough canned goods and flour, I guess it is used as a line shack for the rancher that has cattle in thee area. There was a note saying that anybody that came by was welcome to the shack and its goods. A shack to some maybe but to us it looked to us more like a penthouse. Even though we would had full stomachs and a roof over our heads for a night, we were still not able to sleep well and relaxed because of the recurring thoughts of that harrowing day, and the place having been infested by Black Widow spiders. We killed three or four before going to sleep but we knew there could more that we missed.

- Monday the 25th  -

The sailing looked much smoother from what we could see of the river at this point. With no undue mishaps, we hoped it would be the last day of Riding the High Gila. According to the map, we were almost halfway to our destination.

Since we lost all of our drinking water, we were thankful to have found some water purifying tablets in the cabin. We were hoping that they would work well on this muddy river water we must drink because we can't afford to get sick on this trip. Prior to this, we strained the water with a handkerchief and boiled it. We did the same the rest of the trip, but with the tablets, we felt it would be an added help.

We left the cabin at 9:00 A.M. with hopes of completing this survival trip. Five minutes later the supply raft capsized in rough water and got away with all of the gear that we had left, including our sleeping bags. We found it about a half mile down river where it had hung on some rocks. The river was fairly calm at this place so Freddy was able to swim across the deep part to where it was before it was swept away by the currents.

Later that day, we came to the same type of rapids and cliffs where we almost drowned the day before. Bobby and I were able to land; but Freddy was swept over to begin another perilous venture. But fortunately he was able to jump into shallow water with the tow line before hitting the worst of the rapids. Even so, the current was so swift that he was dragged down stream until hitting a tree. He didn't loose the raft this time but suffered rope burns and cuts on his hands, but nothing so serious that it would slow us down much.

We had to land again to carry everything over rough ground because of the suicidal rapids in Hells Canyon. We can certainly see where it got its name. After carrying all of this wet gear over land for three hundred yards, we are sure hoping that this will be the last time for such workouts.

We stayed fairly dry that day, we were only soaked from waist down for seven and a half hours. Except for Freddy having to swim for the supply raft we stayed dry from the waist up. But it was impossible to keep dry otherwise; because of the holes that were ripped in the bottoms of the rafts. The only thing that kept Freddy's feet from falling completely through the bottom of his was the tarp that we wrapped around it earlier.

Needless to say, we did not make it out that day as we had hoped. We had to spend another night on the ground and were low on groceries again. Since, we had not planned on an extra day, did not take enough canned food from the line shack; but this should not have been surprising; for this we not the first thing we had encountered that we had not planned on.

Another thing that slowed us down was that we had to camp around 4:00 p.m. each day in order to dry our sleeping bags.

- Tuesday the 26th -

We got up before dawn and had left over potatoes mixed with creamed corn. We admitted that we had tasted better breakfasts, but it did fill our stomachs.

We departed camp at 8:00 a.m. with high hopes of staying dry and making good time. But to our dismay, Freddy jumped into his raft, got over balanced and fell head first into the cold river water. He said that he was cooled off pretty fast but had felt much better before he had taken his early morning dip. This was the first laughable matter we had; even so, Bobby and I laughed more about it than Freddy did, and he refused to let us build a fire in order for him to warm up and dry his clothes, so off we went.

After remaining so long in the snow-melted water with our legs folded under, it was very hard to walk on dry, level ground due to the pain in our legs and feet. What is worse is when we had to jump into the knee-deep swift currents to stop the rafts before hitting treacherous rocks and rapids that are hidden behind blind curves and bends in the river. This prevented us from taking evasive action.

We finally made It about forty-some miles down river to Turkey Creek and were we ever happy because with this we knew that the worst part was behind. From here on the terrain change from rough mountains to more of a gentle Slope.

We had on can of peas for lunch, which was actually the only lunch we'd had since 1eaving West Fork.

The best part of this trip was at 1:30 that afternoon. Forty-five miles and three and a half days after embarking, we reached our destination where our wives, Margit, Shirley, and Deloris had left a car for us.. If this trip is ever to he tried again (which it wasn’t), it will only be after careful planning and when the river is down, like, when everyone else does. It is at its peak during the month of March. We will also use rafts that are made for river running. The ones we had were not to he used in rocky surfaced areas but were for lakes and swimming pools only. We learned this after the first day out, when we read the instructions that came with rafts. By that time it was a little late, and we couldn’t hike out due to the extremely rugged mountain terrain. Therefore, once committed, we had no choice but to battle the odds that continually appeared to be against us.

May we suggest to all amateur river-runners, such as we were, go prepared and always expecting the unexpected. And above all, place your lives in the hands of God; because the river will have no mercy upon you.

Click on some of the pictures to enlarge:


Some of the original notes from which the story was written:

I wish my brother Bobby and first cousin Freddy were still with us to remember this with me.  ~Elwin Roach

Edited by Elwin 6/18/2015 from April 10, 1968 - Alamogordo Daily News article
(no pictures were in original article, and most of those taken by us were lost due to water damage.)

Click here for original article

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