Andrew and I made the drive to the Salt River last fourth of July weekend. We had heard about the tubing and drove almost three hours to arrive in the national park (beautiful mountains speckled with cacti –but not much green otherwise as is the case in most of AZ). Let me describe this experience to you in present tense: Almost hidden in the basin there is this little river, and at the end of the road there's this tubing place. It's like the Disneyland of tubing. There's a huge parking lot promptly filling as good ol' American youth spill out of their pick ups in bikinis and swim trunks. Of course, everyone has their cooler of Bud Light. So at the end of the parking lot is a big ass warehouse where everyone is renting their tubes and being loaded onto school buses. Yes, school busses –there’s that many people. There are also Coke promo girls trying to hand out bottles of Coke Zero (I mean how many kinds of Coke do we need, anyway?) and there's a snack bar and a radio station booth. It's like beach MTV but for the beachless and poor. I mean, this is how exciting a little bit of water is in Arizona. So they load us onto this bus and we get dropped off on the side of the road and waddle down to the river. The water is cold, but not ice cold - just really refreshing cold. After twenty minutes of screwing with a bungee cord and the cooler trying to tie it to the inner tube we finally push off. The cooler won't stay upright and fills with water but it somehow stays afloat anyway. So there we are, floating in foot deep water with dozens of other people. I have a hat and sunglasses on. I spray myself with my spray bottle to cool the parts of me that aren't in the water. "This is totally ridiculous" Andrew states as he floats past me in shorts, water shoes, a tee shirt, hat and glasses with a cooler strapped to his tube. "Let's sing a tubing song!" I suggest. He practically growls at me.
The sun is beating on us hard but is feels good to me. The banks are lush and green and there are a few wispy white clouds in the sky. I’m enjoying the view when I hear girly screams and rushing water. We’re heading towards rapids. Andrew and I have no idea what to expect. As we come closer we see people in their tubes picking up speed and being tossed and bobbed across a stretch of the river. Andrew is not a good swimmer. We feel our selves pick up speed and Andrew hangs onto my ankles. We both lift our rears out of the water because there are big rocks ahead. As we get bobbed about we laugh and simultaneously have an “Oh shit!” look on our faces. It’s over in a second, but it was thrilling not because it was really that violent but because it was fast enough and deep enough to be just out of our control.
The three hour float is peppered with drunk hellos from tubers floating by, bumping into people, getting caught on the bank or in a whirlpool, rescuing each other, and staring into the shallow water to spot fish. At lunch we “pull over” and decide to have a bite on the shore. As we’re eating slightly waterlogged Pringles a park ranger pulls up and asks us if we’ve seen somebody with a fishing pole. We haven’t seen anyone else on the bank. Then the ranger proceeds to tell us that someone has drowned and they are “fishing” for the body. “Yup, they usually go down right here,” he says nonchalantly, hops back in his truck and drives away. “Did he just say what I think he said?” I ask. Andrew nods. I can’t decide if this is just another thrill prop in the Disneyland of tubing or the real thing. How can all these people be so happy floating down the river of death? We continue to float too, and it turns out to be a real “recreational hazard”, this drowning thing, as a fan boat passes us searching for the body. As the helicopter zips low overhead again and again people wave and flash the pilot. I look on feeling a little bit grim knowing he might be distracted by breasts in the search for a floating corpse.
I can’t lie, the inner tubing at Salt River is fun, and maybe it’s the danger that really makes it. I do however highly suggest that you prepare before going. There are plenty of good tips at the company’s website. And don’t underestimate the importance of sun block. Andrew’s feet were so badly burned that he could hardly walk for three days.