Most boaters had to portage around the dangerous class-six rapid in Arizona's Salt River Canyon Wilderness, and two were killed last year trying to run it. But a powerful blast sometime this winter smoothed it out.
"I could take my mother-in-law in her walker through it now," says veteran river runner Brent Phelps. During his first run of the season on April 4, Phelps found a 30-foot section of the falls destroyed. He also found shredded duct tape and powder burns on recently broken rock, and a piece of underwater fuse.
"It took somebody with some knowledge of explosives," says Phelps. "Quartzite is hard rock and (this much damage) would take one hell of a charge."
Tonto National Forest officials had reports by early March that the falls were altered, but thought it might be just natural shifting of the river. An investigation began two days after Phelps' report. Agency spokesman Stu Herkenhoff declined to speculate about suspects, but said "somebody may be wanting to open it up so they don't have to portage."
The portage took up to three hours and sometimes caused a dangerous bottleneck. To ease the crowding, the Forest Service was considering a reservation system. Gail Peters of American Rivers says the motive could have been anything from doing away with the portage and reservations to a misplaced concern about safety. Herkenhoff couldn't say yet how serious a crime this was, but thinks, "if it isn't a felony, it ought to be."
American Rivers hopes to collect at least $1,000 as a reward to help find the vandals. For donations or information, contact Peters at 602/264-1823.
* Ernie Atencio