Monday, July 10, 2017

By any definition.

Midsummer heat has arrived on the Colorado Plateau.  A bit more than needed down in the desert, just about right up in the hills.  Give that heat a few weeks to build momentum and you eventually arrive at monsoons.  

Not quite there, now, but each afternoon the cumulonimbus get bigger and the thrumbles start earlier.  Any day now they'll let loose.  A typical summer will see them last several weeks before the cycle breaks and the wheels come off.

You can plan around them to a point.  If you hope to recreate at or above timberline, and you value your corporeal self in it's current (upright, breathing) state, you do everything in your power to get up early and get down before they've started.

As we often do, we spent the past weekend 'getting high' as early as we could, savoring it for as long as we could, then beating feet below treeline and even to the valley floor to safely savor life down there.  Only to repeat the whole thing the next morning.

The scenery down low is nothing to sneeze at.  Given that we spend so much of our time in the valleys and deserts, we simply ache for the rarity and immensity of the thin air above the trees.

I'll take a stab and guess, based on 47 years of experience with all sorts of humanity, that Jeny feels this ache more acutely than most.

Thus as the week winds down I endeavor to get us within striking distance, to a place that we can camp safely and contentedly, with nearby access to trails that aren't too steep, or crowded, or distant.  A very delicate balance, that.

If I've done my job well there will also be a navigable, engaging stream running through a nearby valley.  This gets harder and harder as the season advances -- the water just runs out.

Last weekend all of these things came together, coalesced to form experiences and memories that by any definition can only be thought of as good.  In our lexicon you might even say perfect.

May it ever be so.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Open mind summit.

It is a somewhat reliable maxim that any whitewater paddler believes his/her craft of choice to be 'the best'.  Years ago, deep in the 26/27.5/29" wheelsize wars, someone, possibly a Canadian, coined the phrase "Pick one -- and be a dick about it".  From my experience that 'tude seems to be the one imparted to most kayakers once their training wheels are removed.

So it was with mild surprise that I found myself joining a non-inflatable crew on the trek into Dark Canyon in Colorado's West Elk mountains when the flows finally came right last week.  Jeff and I were acquainted as skiers 25 years ago in nearby Crested Butte, and have been trying to jointly put paddle to water, and specifically on these creeks, for the past 3 years.  We've had a string of near misses in achieving that reunion, including being on the same river -- but a day apart -- in Idaho this spring.

At the trailhead I met Matt and Josh, and upon seeing Matt's canoe realized that this was not your 'typical' bunch of arrogant kayakers: The presence of an open boat and the willingness to hike several miles meant their minds were far too open to be lumped in with that bunch.  Each eyed my tiny pack with some suspicion, but as we wove our way deep into the mountains, serenaded by soft breezes and the ethereal echoes of hermit thrush, it was easy to let that detail fade into the depths of lupine and bluebell.

The boys walked fast then took civilized breaks, closely spaced such that at my tottering pace I was never far behind when the union whistle blew.

The woods were a riot of greenery, downright jungle-like in the meadows and on the fringes and then solemn, serene, cathedralesque within the groves.

Below, catching our breath at the cusp of the big drop into Ruby Anthracite Creek.

Once at the water we broke long enough to rinse sweat and grime from bodies, inhale our preferred sustenance, then dress and rig for the creek.  Before shoving off Jeff took the time to ensure that we were all on the same page with on-river communications.  It's easy to skip this step, assuming that we all 'speak' the same hand-signal language, but we've all been around this block at least long enough to know that there are intricacies and dialects that form within different cliques.  When the roar of a rapid removes voice contact from the equation, and a horizon line prevents you from knowing what comes next, being able to communicate simply and clearly is a Very Good Thing.  

Getting into the water was a relief on many levels -- mostly from the blazing (even at this elevation) heat, but also because the about-to-run-out runoff was deliciously warm on exposed skin.  Blue skies and clear water added to the this is as good as it gets feel, in my mind.

In the end there was little drama to the day.  4 individuals moved safely, efficiently, and joyfully down a small creek through a stunning canyon, each savoring the aspects that most appealed to his particular sensibilities.  See for yourself:

We had 760cfs on this gauge.  That's about as low as I'd want to hike in for anymore, although if you're at all uncertain about whether you're ready for this run, 600 is probably smarter -- slower and bonier, with lots of partially submerged rocks to hang up on and get slowed down by.

Jeff mentioned that a local friend had run it a few days earlier at 1500, and called it 'solid class V' at that level.  I've run it at 1000 and although the paddling wasn't over my head, things were happening so fast that I had trouble spotting eddies in time to hit them -- bad news on a woody creek like this.

Thus, IMO, the sweet spot is 800-900 for us non-class-V types.

Be aware that it's difficult to catch it on the way up, as Kebler Pass is usually not yet plowed and the approach would be loooooooong on foot.  Although I suppose you could use a snowmachine to get to the trailhead.  Failing that you're left to catch the flows on the way back down, and they pass through this ideal range quickly -- usually in 3 or 4 days.

We did have some unfortunately placed wood.  No real drama for a heads-up paddler to get out and around them, but one near-riverwide tree did block what is arguably the best boof on the river.

Thanks to Jeff, Matt, and Josh for opening their minds enough to include me, and in so doing giving me the opportunity to see that there is more to the kayaking crowd than intolerance, brown claws, stouts, and booty beers.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


There's this river, up in Idaho, called the Salmon.

It's an enormous river draining a corrugated country.  Every big river starts from dozens of smaller creeks being fed by trickles and rivulets.  We put in way up high, in the mountains, on an inches deep creek where winter had not yet released it's grip on the land.  Our float lasted 4 days, dropped thousands of feet and hundreds of miles, and deposited us on the fringe of the desert.

I won't lie: I spent the better part of our first day tense beyond description, stressed by the enormous volume of water rushing down the tiny watercourse that is Marsh Creek.  Eddies were few, wood was everywhere, and scouting was more less out of the question -- both due to the lack of eddies and the constantly engaging whitewater.  It'd take a week to cover the first 15 miles if you wanted to scout everything.

We didn't have a week: 4 days was what we were able to carve out of our everyday lives to make this work.  Covering over 50 miles per day meant that change happened fast -- from brown and white to brown and green, then just green, then colors started to seep in bit by bit.  Emerging spring, happening not over the span of a few weeks but more like half a day.  When you could lift your attention from the whitewater for a moment you'd find yourself yet deeper immersed in that transition.

Moving that fast is anathema to some.  No doubt we'll slow to smell the asters more when we're retired, but we don't yet have that luxury.  And going beat not going by a landslide.  We took the time to slow down and breathe at camp, around the fire, while wandering aimlessly up side drainages every evening.

There was but one swim on the trip.  It was on the Middle Fork, at Velvet Falls.  It was stupid, it happened purely because I hadn't yet shed the anxiety from Marsh Creek, and there's not much more to say about it.  The only upshot is that while collecting myself in an eddy just downstream, I gave myself an ultimatum: Get your shit together and calm the eff down, or wait for a plane and fly backhaul out of Indian Creek a few hours hence.

Fortunately it didn't come to that -- by Indian I'd found my groove and would keep it the rest of the trip.

I'd only seen the Middle Fork once before, at October low water, and just sorta scratched my head in wonder: Why do people flock here?  Who thinks this is the best multi-day river trip in the country?  The burned-out scenery is just so-so, the roads, and bridges, and airstrips, and ranches, and trucks and tractors and ATV's and air traffic make it the exact opposite of a wilderness experience in my mind.  And at low water the whitewater was just way too limited to be the real draw.

I figured that those whom crow so ceaselessly about this river either don't get out much, or come during high water.  So after that trip I vowed I'd give it one more shot, with a lot more water, before drawing a firm conclusion.  Thus did I join this trip.

And yep, the massive added volume of water juiced the rapids way up and made the river feel full value.  But there's a curious aside to that: In 4 days out we saw but one other group, all in one boat.  One.  Which made me wonder even more about the people that rave about this trip.  Where the hell were they?

Where the Middle Fork flowed into the Main the volume of water more than tripled, and we suddenly found ourselves riding the back of a freight train.  I've run the Grand Canyon a handful of times and it is my benchmark for "big water".  The Main Salmon was flowing more than double what I've seen on the Grand, and this was during a cool spell with clouds and light snow -- not much melt making it into the river.  Still, even at this "low" spring flow, the rapids, seams, and boils were an order of magnitude larger than anything on the Grand Canyon, and that freight train delivered us to our takeout in one long 92 mile day.

Thanks to Gerard, Jesse, Jeff, and Drew -- a fantastic crew befitting such a great trip.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Urban paddling.

Perhaps few would think of Vail, Colorado as an urban environment.  After a winter and spring spent paddling increasingly remote canyons and gorges throughout the western US, I can hardly think of it as anything but, especially from the seat of a boat.  Once you slip into Gore Creek you're walled in by the interstate on one side, a bike path on the other, with bridges, retaining walls, power lines, hotels, coffee shops, and trophy homes dominating the view above water line.  Plus some scary pipes that had to be limboed, a low railroad bridge, and a lifetime supply of blast rock right there in the channel.

It was a sort of neat novelty to be so distracted by everything outside the river corridor, to the point that you had to repeatedly remind yourself to pay attention to what was coming.

Jesse had a freak wreck a few months back that landed him in surgery and then in a wrist cast.  Now that the cast is off and we can all agree that paddling isn't an 'impact sport', he felt the need to test the waters and this urban float gave us plenty of III and a tiny bit of IV excitement while remaining accessible enough that if his wrist started to hurt he could step out of the river at any given moment.

And yet -- oddly -- as crowded as the off-river was, the only people we saw on the river were launching into our takeout eddy.

Gore Creek was running 475 and the Upper Eagle was at 1500.  Great low/medium flow on both -- approachable yet still engaging.

Thanks for checking in.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Middle Vallecito reprise + Animas/Grenadier Traverse and Upper Vallecito update..

Knowing what we did after out first tentative exploration of Middle Vallecito Creek, there was zero uncertainty about the fact that we'd be back to explore more.  What I wouldn't have guessed is that we'd return so soon: Scarcely two weeks had elapsed before we found ourselves hiking back in.

Jeff couldn't join us on this go round, but Thor and I were accompanied by the uber-solid crew of Todd Tumolo, Nate Shoutis, and Doom.  Great company for the hike, the overnight, and especially on the river.

Accommodating 5 wildly varying schedules prevented us from getting higher up than last time, while slightly lower water levels, coupled with proper safety set at each drop, allowed us to run much more.  Where on the inaugural mission we guessed that we had ~700 cfs, this time it was likely closer to 550, and that decrease in flow made a tremendous difference.  At 700 the boogie was fast and pushy, at 550 it was fun, playful.  Where at 700 the bedrock constrictions seemed consequential and unlikely, this time they felt doable.

Gearing up just below the former site of 3rd bridge.

Todd and Thor probing the woodpile drop, AKA Hammerhandle.

Thor levitating through some fluffy bits.

Doom and Nate achieving the same.

Todd and Thor probing the sequence below second bridge.

And Todd finishing it out with a boof.

Below: Todd, salivating.  Jeff ran this gorge in 2015 despite the obvious limbo log.  His ~450cfs allowed it to be narrowly ducked, where at our ~550cfs it was clearly a no-go.  We referred to this rapid as Todd's Torment due to the length of time he spent attempting to dissolve the log with his eyes.  The entrance rapid leading to where Todd stands below is complex and juicy -- arguably the crux section of the run -- and once you turn the corner at the log there is but a brief breather then a few more drops.  If the log were out of play I don't think anything here is harder than IV+, but it is long and committing and tough to set safety for.  We hope to remove the log this fall and then hope even harder that nothing of note comes in and replaces it next winter or spring.

Todd absolutely greasing the bedrock drop at first bridge.  With a wink and a nudge and potentially some foul air present, we referred to this one as Inadvertent Shart.

Todd and Doom running safety as Thor drops in.

Nate, killing it too.

Below here I found it difficult to think about anything but NOT bumbling into the main gorge at what would be suicidal high flows.  The next few shots are of Nate and Todd picking apart a chunky sequence just above the traditional put-in.

And from just a little ways below this rapid you start looking for a way out of the river to begin the hike out.

Our first trip opened our eyes to the place.  This second trip allowed us to appreciate the quality.  

What remains is to tie it all together: To that end Jeff and Dan floated the Animas below Silverton this morning in hopes of hiking through Chicago Basin and into the headwaters of Vallecito on Sunday, and from there probing the uppermost bits.

I'll update this space when Jeff shares his media and thoughts from that venture.

Update: Jeff and Dan hiked over from the Animas and ran the Upper Vallecito.  Jeff's words and video:

The section from Sunlight to 3rd bridge is probably the least interesting (still awesome!!), but above Sunlight there are some amazing sections as well as some terrorizing sections. At current flows (~350 CFS), many sections feel bony but the higher boulder gardens are runnable safely in buttboats. Traversing to the high Upper Vallecito put-ins from the Animas section below Silverton into the Grenadier range feels like a very natural and doable route this time of year.

Dan and John were able to run everything from Sunlight through classic Vallecito gorge warmups except the Roell Creek boulder garden crux, including the limbo gorge.

Silverton to Vallecito packraft self-support

-Paddle: Silverton to Elk Park
-Hike: Elk Park to Vestal Basin/Balsam Lake/Leviathan Lake-Creek
-Paddle: Vallecito Creek from Rock Creek to Class V Gorge

2.5+ days with Dan, John joined at Sunlight Creek

* * * * *

Thanks for checking in.