Monday, January 14, 2008

Big water on the Smith River, CA

Over the weekend of January 12th and 13th, we had another marvelous SOU Whitewater Club event. Will and Leland came up from Ashland, Tanner, Johnny and I came down from Corvallis, and we met up in the Smith River drainage. The Smith lies is the far northwestern corner of California near Crescent City and Jedidiah Smith State Park. It is the longest free-flowing river system the the state and has beautiful pristine water, even when it gets high.

On Saturday, we left early and ran the North Fork, a 14-mile wilderness run with a 2-hour shuttle drive in. We had fantastic flows on this run and everything went extremely well. We were joined for the day by Todd Merrill, a fellow kayaker from Grant's Pass. The North Fork was running almost 14 feet on the pipe gauge in Gasquet, making it extremely continuous with tons of big holes, crashing waves, and amazing surf. We scouted a couple of the drops and had an altogether beautiful day on the river.

That night we stayed in Gasquet at a friend's house (you rock, Tom!) and woke up early for another run the next day. Sunday Todd came back out and brought his girlfriend Sasha to paddle in the raft. We scouted the roadside run on the Middle Fork and made ambitious plans to combine three separate runs for a total of 14 miles. The gauge at the the river's mouth was reading around 13,000 cfs, so we had plenty of water to make things exciting!

We started things off with the Patrick's Creek run, a six-mile stretch of class II-III with one class IV rapid near the beginning called Cal-Trans. At our higher flows, there were several more class IV rapids we ran without scouting and the run got very continuous!
Will and the raft crew running Cal-Trans rapid

It was super fun and we avoided any carnage. If you wander down here at high flows, be extremely cautious: there are lots of willows growing in the river channel that create strainers. Don't be afraid to scout.
Will punching a hole

As a heads up, the biggest rapids occur just below the first bridge, just above the third bridge, and right after the highway gets cantilevered out over the river for the second time.

The Patrick's Creek run ends at the confluence with the North Fork at Gasquet, where the Gasquet/Mary Adams run begins. These six miles are pretty slow overall with the only flatwater on the whole stretch. Still, a couple rapids kept us all entertained. The calmer nature made for a good rest before we dropped into Oregon Hole Gorge.

The gorge is the final flush of the Middle Fork before it joins the South Fork and meanders its way to the ocean. The canyon gets sheer and narrow and gradient steepens dramatically. We had scouted the run from the highway earlier that day and determined that it was runnable, but looking at it from 200 feet above the river doesn't really do justice to the size of features in there. At this point, our flow was probably between 6000 and 7500 cfs. The run is generally rated class IV, but one guidebook calls it class V above two grand...

The entry rapids to the gorge are normally insignificant, but transformed into long monstrous wave trains with our stout flows. The gorge itself is very short and only contains a half mile of serious whitewater, but four class IV rapids are jammed into that stretch after the aforementioned entrance waves. We pulled over to scout the first rapid and discovered that the first three rapids were virtually indistinguishable from one another. It was now just a single 300-yard long class V cataract with big lateral waves exploding off each bank. the best line involved avoiding a few laterals, punching others, and using the rest to surf you from side to side.

I led the charge and lost track of which lateral I was in halfway through the rapid and got slammed by an unexpected feature. I went over and swirled around for a bit, rolling up just in time to recognize a big feature off the right wall. I avoided it and caught an eddy before the last two holes of the rapid. I looked upstream and, to my horror, saw Todd's boat bobbing along with him swimming 20 yards away. Thinking "people first, gear second," I watched his kayak bob past me knowing we may never see it again. Todd was able to make it to shore himself and I plucked his paddle out of the current. Soaked and exhausted, Todd crawled out of the water on to the bank. Will came down with the raft after a clean run and eddied out just below us.

We were really lucky here, as Todd's boat went about 50 feet further downstream and got stuck in a little pocket against the wall, right below where Will's raft was. With a little rope work and the help of the raft crew, I got a line on Todd's boat and extracted it. No gear was lost in the rescue and once Todd was recuperated, we continued to downstream to face the final drop.

Oregon Hole rapid is the namesake of the gorge and creates a very intimidating horizon line. The scout provides an even more intimidating view. The rapid starts with a river-wide six-foot ledge with massive holes. From there most of the water pushes left into a retentive hole backed up by a rock. Todd was the least excited to see this drop after his swim and none of us saw any particularly inviting lines. After a little pondering, I decided to gamble with a narrow seam that split the two worst holes in the ledge, but would likely flush and position me well to avoid the big hole at the bottom. Once in my boat again, I was reminded of the sharpness of the drop. I couldn't see any features on the ledge, so I went upstream, peeled out, and lined up off the right bank where I guessed the seam to be.

As I gathered downstream momentum and committed to the drop, I picked out a tiny breaking wave that was my marker. One draw stroke later, I was looking down at the deep seam and hauling ass into it. I pulled a delayed boof stroke and dug deep on landing. I came flying out of the ledge barely getting my head wet and traveling toward the lower hole. I turned quickly and paddled hard to make it through the rapid unscathed. Todd followed suit with a great line.

Will loaded up his crew and had a different route. He punched the softest part of the ledge on the far left, then pulled hard back right to avoid carnage at the bottom.
Everyone stepped up for this last rapid and we congratulated each other in the eddy below before paddling the last half-mile to the take out. Another great weekend on the river!

Enjoy the video:

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River

25 days
300 miles
a couple thousand feet of elevation drop
1.6 billion years of preserved rock record.
The Grand Canyon. Most boaters regard this as the ultimate rafting trip in the world. I've been hearing about the canyon for over ten years now from friends, family, and co-workers. Most of what I hear about is the whitewater. There are plenty of stories about different hikes, side canyons, overlooks, campsites, caverns, wildlife, and geology, but mostly the rapids. Just before I left, someone gave me the best advice yet: This is not a whitewater trip. Sure, the rapids are huge and powerful and exhilarating, but there just aren't that many of them. It's really about being one of the only places in the country where you can float the river in one of the most spectacular places in the world for such a long period of time. For us, it was just that.

First off, here's a quick run-down of the crew:
Keith and D Bond and their two children: Eric (15) and Laura (17). Keith was the permit holder and the kind gentleman who invited all us strangers to join him. Dee was a blast to be around and had great positive energy. The kids skipped 10 days of school for the trip and had homework to catch up on. Laura will be a guide in Idaho soon, I just know it.

Randy, a.k.a. The Crippler, is a retired Marine vet who's sole purpose seemed to get us young men f***ed up every night, day and morning. He did well.

Keith A. had run the canyon once before and flipped four times. We all learned that second part on day 3.

Ryan and Danielle have been married about a year and are super fun! We'll see more of these two on the river for sure. Both are avid photographers.

Dan and Sherri have never been rafting before and bought a 16' cataraft for this trip. Dan (Danielle's father) was learning how to row, or at least how to run big holes sideways.

Scott just got married to the owner of Galice Resort a month ago, then bought a brand new raft and took off to Arizona for the month with us. He likes things that are red and likes to talk (smack).

Alan is a solo traveler of about 50 paddling an old-school kayak with an old-school helmet and PFD. But don't be misled, he's a bad-ass.

Andrew and Kyle are students in Moscow, ID. Andrew guides on the Main Salmon and Middle Fork. Kyle guides on the Kern and is learning to kayak.

Will is one of my best friends and roommate of two years. He's my connection to the trip and probably the best oarsman I know.

And then me, a worthless piece of kayak scum who just gets in the way.

The people were great, weather was fabulous (60's in the sun), hiking conditions were ideal, we had a white (day after) Christmas and were never short of beer or liquor (or Kettle Chips, but I rationed those big time). I was bracing myself for a fair helping of misery and it never came. On top of everything else, the whitewater turned out to be pretty damn fun, especially after I dropped my expectations.

In the early to mid 1900's, the recreational value of the canyon was not fully appreciated. Explorers of the time were more interested in fully utilizing natural resources instead of just enjoying their splendor. But the Grand Canyon doesn't have much to offer in that respect. The rocks have very little economic value and the cost of extraction far outweighs the potential revenue. Damming the river appeared to be the only way to get anything out of it, particularly since it's about the only major water source in the Southwest, where everyone seems to want to live. Fortunately, environmentalists of the day were able to save the Grand Canyon from damnation. It has come to the attention of everyone that the beauty of the Grand Canyon is not in how we can change it, but in how it can change us.

Everyone has been asking me about the trip. I don't know how to describe it. Spending 25 days on a river trip is a pretty surreal experience. After about day four, I hit a whole new level of "river time:" I forgot the day of the week, the day of the month, and even the day of the trip most of the time. I quit looking forward to any of the sites and was simply pleasantly surprised when I'd wake up to learn that we were running Crystal that day, exploring the Matkatamiba Narrows, or having a lay-over at Bass Camp near Shinomu Creek. I quickly fell behind in my river journal and forgot what we did on what days, but a few highlights still stand out for me. So, in no particular order:

Clear Creek was a fun hike, wading up through a sinuous slot canyon cut through the Vishnu Schist to a lush waterfall.

Poor old Keith A. with his heavy boat got tossed out and nearly flipped in House Rock. Fortunately we got video footage of it from two angles. Oh, and he was OK. That's good too.

The Chicken and dumplings meal was delicious. We had a great cook crew and I got too drunk to remember anything after I finished eating.

Tapeats Creek is definitely not runnable with the flows we saw. More water might make it doable, but there would be no eddies.

Smitty and I had pretty good elf impressions when we excitedly returned to our chasm.

I went big in Horn and plugged through the folding wave train down the right side. It was outrageously huge and I went from underwater to airborne several times.

Below Redwall Cavern, we strapped three rafts together and slowly barged our way to camp with music playing, cocktails circling, and the best of company.

Scotty spent an hour around the campfire asking everyone to describe Hance and was trying to plan out his run even before he saw the damn rapid. Then the next day, he was so focused on the big one downstream that he flipped in an innocent little class 2.

Our enormous 9-person, 160-square foot tent held up well and was kind of a pain in the ass to set up, but great living space once we had it.

Something unknown compelled me to surf the hole at Crystal. I dropped into the world-famous boat muncher and had about two seconds of an amazing surf followed by a severe beatdown.

The canyon is really big.

The wall behind camp at Grapevine offered great bouldering. It would be fun to come back down here with the intention of doing some rock climbing.

Alan is the shit. He is one of the most impressive people I've ever met. He lives simply but well, stays fit, works hard, packs light, helps everyone, demands nothing, has wisdom few will ever match, and all with the utmost humility. He's my hero.

Somewhere in the roaring twenties I found a couple of caves at river level that went way back. I kayaked back into one and got far enough from the river that I needed a headlamp. There was a nice little private beach at the back and the cave kept going.

For the first time ever, I saw preserved dune stratification in the Coconino Sandstone. On the hike up North Canyon, I gleefully traipsed about on the dune slip faces as little critters had done 300 million years ago.
Cacti are neat and make it feel warmer than it is.

I almost drowned when we encountered an major unexpected rapid on the motor out. We narrowly avoided a disastrous wrap only to run a huge lateral sideways with all the rafts strapped together.

After hours of hiking, scrambling, creek crossing and route finding, I spent Christmas Day with Alan squeezing leftover enchiladas out of a ziplock deep in a cave at the headwaters of Tapeats Creek.

Saddle may have been my favorite hike, where we had a mile on the trail and then a quick technical scramble in the slot canyon to reach a gorgeous waterfall

I picked up a star guide before the trip and managed to learn 15 new stars, clusters, and constellations along with a little bit of the mythology behind them.

Smitty learned to shred on this trip. He swam every rapid on the first couple days and then rafted for a while, but got back in for the gems and was nailing tough combat rolls in Emerald, Bedrock, Serpentine, and Upset, then he aced Deubendorf and fired up Lava Falls with a big grin.

Speaking of Lava, I got a pretty good workout there. I ran it once, got stuffed and Smitty swam. I finally towed him into an eddy halfway through lower Lava. Then we both shouldered our boats and hiked a quarter mile back upstream through a jungle of reeds to run it again. Smitty rowed a raft for round two and I got another spanking.

Here are a few more pictures I might as well share:

I'll be coming back for sure!

Christmas, epic as ever!

Verelle and I gave each other the gift of snowboarding this Christmas. However, that entailed what turned out to be an epic adventure.

I got off work on Christmas eve at 4:30pm. Verelle had loaded up the car with gear, kettle chips, and the ever important gas while I was at work. We left right from the store. We were headed to Bend, Or. which is normaly a three hour drive from Ashland. That night it was not. By the time we were in the little town of Prospect, an hour out of Ashland, we were driving on icy and snowy roads. The road conditions did not improve. All the way over the Diamond Lake pass, past Crater Lake, and even on Hwy 97 we were cruising along on ice and snow covered roads. Add all of that to being in the dark equalled us driving for four and a half hours to get to Bend.

The drive was worth it! We checked into the Old Saint Francis McMennemins Hotel around 10pm, and went directly to the restaurant because we were starving. Verelle had salmon and I had a burger. The food at McMennamin's is always good, but this time we were more impressed witht the service and the fact that McMennamins is the fourth largest wine producer in the state of Oregon. After stuffing ourselves and indulging in a bottle of wine we found our way to the Turkish Soaking tube. With its dark steamy atmosphere and its warm water Verelle and I found ourselves soaking for quite a while. It was a perfect Christmas eve and precurser to a day of snowboarding.

We didn't wake up or get going perticularly early on Christmas, because, well, it was Christmas. We were up at on Mount Bachelor by 10am. It had been 9 years since I had ridden Bachelor and Verelle had never, so needless to say we were excited to do some exploring. The first thing I have to say is that their runs are really long. We are not used to having to stop half way down the hill to rest, but we did. There was so much terrain to ride and so much untouched powder easily accessed on the sides of the runs. We managed to get lost almost every run and not be sure exactly how we ended up where we did, but man we had a blast, and by 2pm we were ready to call it a day.

The next leg of our trip took us to McMinnville. We made it quickly out of Bend, but by the time we were in the town of Sisters the roads had gone to crap again and it was snowing heavily. From Sisters all the way to Salem we averaged 25 miles per hour. It made the drive over six hours long. It was brutal. Luckily, it was only dark for the last two hours. At last we made it to McMinnville and to Verelle's mom's house for holiday celebration. Unfortunatly, we were not done driving yet. After being with Verelle's family for a couple of hours we made last portion of our driving for Christmas day to my brother and sister-in-law's place. Once there, it wasn't long till we were sound asleep.

While in Portland, we had a chance to visit the Henry's 12th Street Tavern. It is located in the trendy little section of Portland known as the Pearl District and is certainly worth the stop if you are in the area. The place is huge, complete with the full restaurant, large bar, and even an entire billiards room. There is also a beautiful deck that would be a great for socializing on summer evenings. But what struck us most was the beer list. Henry's has 100 beers and hard ciders on tap! AMAZING!

After hanging out in the Portland area for a couple of days, and doing a lot more driving we made the return drive home south. Finally we made it home to Ashland signalling the finish to an epic Christmas!