Huck and Bruce on the river

Huckleberry Finn, it is well known, was a very riparian kind of guy. And Huck is reported to have said something to his occasional pal, Tom Sawyer, along the lines of, “Life on the river is just better.”

A friend told me of a river named the Salt, in central Arizona. I had heard of it, barely remembering that it was somehow involved with the water supply of Phoenix. Which is a lot like saying the Amazon is somehow involved with parrots. That is, it doesn’t really say much about the river itself, its personality, its essence, or the way it rolls. My friend was an avid rider of the Salt, saying it’s one of the great rivers of the American West, and that not many know about it, and that it’s a beautiful thing, to ride a river that flows through a desert landscape of giant saguaros.

A real river rushing through a world of saguaros? I was instantly intrigued.

This year, Arizona got rocked by El Nino (good to hear somebody did). The Salt’s snowpack was 250 percent of normal. That number meant two things: (1) a deluxe rafting season, and (2) time to hit the road.

My first day on the Salt was eye-openingly excellent, sunny and warm, moving swiftly on this beautiful stream, diving into lots of highly entertaining rapids, surrounded by a canyon of superb scenery. But no saguaros. Giant prickly pears, yes. Flame-tipped ocotillos, yes. Loads of yuccas, yes. All blooming out of their little vegetative minds in the aftermath of El Nino’s abundance. But none of the Big Suckers.

We spent that night in the camp of the river guides, where I was reminded that to eat at the table of a river rat is to eat well and hardily. In his Dutch oven, Captain Tony made some kind of kickass ultra dip with a cream cheese base. This heavenly goop would have sufficed for dinner, but it was just the beginning of a foodslide that would include tacos, beer, and key lime pie. Little wonder we all caved by 10.

On day two, a mile after we started, my payoff arrived. On a huge, steep hillside, a place that gets pounded mercilessly with the fierce Arizona sun, there they were. A dense forest of the great cactus, the royalty of the kingdom, ruling this slope as awesome multi-armed centurions. Saguaros. Thousands! And surrounding these stoic, thorny faceless sentinels, enyellowing every foot of ground between the mighty ones, from riverside to the top of the rocky ridge 2,000 feet above, were thousands and thousands of large wildflowers called brittle bush, each of these plants ablaze with a full tilt display of dozens of bright lemon blossoms.

At that point, I was fortunate enough to realize the full meaning of the word “bedazzled.” It was not the last time such an experience would occur on that memorable Sunday afternoon on the Salt.