Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Family Trip to Arthur's Pass National Park

Hitchhiking at middle age in a foreign country has its rewards. Like any other rewarding activity, it certainly poses risks, but we count on the risk of murder by a serial killer, or simple robbery, as somewhat low.

The rewards are that we meet people and learn about locals as well as other travelers. And we save money and aren’t stuck with public transit routes. Peggy’s winning smile certainly counters my fearsome, bearded visage, and we rarely wait for more than half a dozen vehicles to pass before we’ve caught a ride.

It took two rides and most of the afternoon to get back to Christchurch’s Church Corner. The Thistle Guesthouse was full, so we checked into a “Holiday Caravan Park”. New Zealand has these great accommodations within most of its cities offering a range of housing from camping on soft grass to private en suite rooms with bathrooms and kitchenettes. And usually right on a bus line.

The places are clean and feel safe and this time of year are pretty full with both locals and travelers. NZ is full of travelers. In fact during our two or three weeks in NZ, we have met more people from elsewhere than we have met native Kiwis.

After most longish wilderness trips, coming back to civilization represents a significant positive part of the experience. After seeing nobody but your partner, it’s great to see and talk to others again. After walking and rafting at most 5 mph or so, it’s great to rip across the landscape at 100 km/hr. After eating one-pot, boil-only meals, it’s great to have a lamb souvlaki and a couple oranges. And it’s great to not have to carry your whole world everywhere you go, too.

We were excited to be back to town, back to familiar Church Corner, to eat and relax. We’d have a day to clean-up before Jazz arrived from Portland.

Jazz came in on a misty morning. It was hardly summer yet, even though it was the day before summer solstice.

Peggy found her while I waited outside in the car. Jazz jumped in, bubbly and happy to see us despite more than 20 hours travel. We had ideas of what we’d do with her, but weren’t sure what she’d want.

We went downtown in the rain to find maps of where to go next.

“What do you want to do Jazz?”

“I want to exercise and hang out with my parents.”

This was like music to my ears. I took it as the go-ahead to plan some more packraft trips.

We had only a week and a half or so before Peggy and I headed for Australia. The curse of the island coastline and mountain crests meant that driving here was a slow, time consuming prospect. Driving south to Fjordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, where good trails and rivers abound, was out.

Instead we’d head west to Arthur’s Pass National Park and the West Coast, then north to Kahurangi National Park.

“Dad wants to raft. What I thought we could do is walk in with him, then walk while he rafts. The walking’s really good here and there’s nothing that can get you: no bears, snakes, or spiders,” Peggy explained.

“That sounds good. I don’t want to raft either.” Jazz replied.

“On our last trip, Dad carried all the stuff in the raft while I just hiked with a day pack.”

“Yea, it’s pretty fun. Mom gets her exercise and I get my rafting.”

Part of the purpose of this sabbatical is to find packrafting trips that beginners and intermediates might enjoy. The 100 mile trip from Arthur’s Pass to Erewhon Station that Peggy and I had just completed was just such a trip: the waters were good for intermediates and the hiking and pass climbs were good for intermediate off-trail hikers. But it was a week-long trip, a significant expenditure in time and effort to complete.

What I wanted next was a day or weekend trip suitable for beginners. Something like a popular packrafting trip in Alaska’s Denali National Park that makes a semicircle from the Park Road, up the Savage River and down the Sanctuary.

On the day after Solstice in sunny, warm weather, we drove our rental car west, sightseeing on the way, to Andrews Creek Shelter in the Waimakariri Valley.

There’re something like 1400 huts in NZ and untold miles of tracks (Kiwi for hiking trail). The huts range from things like the smelly, little tent-sized biv we used in the Lawrence Valley to 20+ person dormitories complete with gas cookers and cleaning people. As for the tracks, they, too, range from cleared paths with boardwalks on the bogs and bridges over the streams, to faint animal trails with the odd triangular marker and hellish river crossings.

Both the huts and the tracks are pretty much indispensable on the West Coast, where the westerly winds bring moisture to the mountain slopes, nourishing thick bush and legions of sandflies.

The sandflies are native gnats, like blackflies or white-sox, born of larvae in the rivers and streams. They don’t buzz round your head so much as round any exposed flesh, biting and bleeding you. Unlike Alaskan mosquitoes you can outwalk blackflies at about one mile per hour (it takes 3 mph to outrun mosquitoes). Bug dope works well, and unlike mosquitoes they don’t touch-and-go a bug-doped body part. But their bites swell and itch terribly. I’d put them on the short list for “world’s worst backcountry bugs.” They pretty much make those huts a necessity.

Patagonia and NZ backcountry have much in common, but while NZ lacks Chile’s bi-polar wind, Chile thankfully lacks bad bugs.

We set up the tent outside the Spartanly furnished Andrew Hut, and took refuge from the bugs, sweltering in the afternoon heat of the first day of summer, both literally and climatically.

“I wish we had some cards,” said Jazz.

As a family we’d camped on four continents, and usually we’d had cards or five dice for Yahtzie. Jazz plays well at cards and when the three of us play the gaming is often surprisingly non-transitive. In pairs, Jazz beats me quite regularly, while I beat Peggy, and Peggy beats Jazz. Sort of like rock-papers-scissors, I guess, when we all three play.

But instead we suffered the heat and counted the bugs, so numerous they sounded like rain drops hitting the tent.

After dinner we went to bed before it was fully dark. Outside the tent I heard something rustle, stealing from us, I reckoned.

In my dream state I visualized a raccoon, then upon waking, I thought “possum”, but when Peggy unzipped the tent door we saw it was a Kea! A parrot was thieving our plastic tooth-brush and toiletries box, dragging it away like a temple monkey might steal your lunch or a Yosemite bear might drag away your pack into the woods.

Peggy dashed out of the tent chasing the bird, a box half as big as itself in its oversized beak, her yelling and shooshing the cheeky bird until she’d recovered the box.

In the morning we packed for a long day, fifteen miles I estimated (wrongly), on a trail that the Park map called “one of the easier tramps in the park” (A tramp seems to be trek where you camp in huts). They suggested the loop as a two-day trip: the first day passing over 2,500 foot Casey Saddle to the Casey Hut and the second day paralleling the Poulter River (“easy flats for 4-5 hours”), then returning to Andrew Shelter via 3,500 foot Binser Saddle (three and a half hours).

Jazz had not really been on her feet since last summer when she was running and walking in Anchorage with Peggy. This fall at Lewis and Clark she had been busy getting all As and a B, as well as socializing with her college friends -- not much walking except between classes, dorms, and the cafeteria.

The fact that the day turned out to be 20 miles, not 15, combined with tight shoes and little previous foot time – well, my bad.

Instead of six miles and three hours to Casey Hut that it looked like to me, it felt more like eight or ten miles and took us five hours. The trail was not flat as I’d interpreted from the rather poorly detailed 1: 80,000 scale map (which did warn its users: “tramps in the park require users to carry 1:50,000 topographic map”), but rather rolling and wiggly.

Jazz to her credit (she's the natural athlete in the family, after all) made good time and we all chatted on as we passed through mountain beech, open gravel bar flats, a board-walked bog, a bit of rain forest, and an open woodland before descending to the Poulter River valley.

At one point the trail made its way through a wet marshy area where Didymo, an exotic and invasive green algae, seemed to choke the otherwise clear running stream. We made sure to hop over and not collect any blobs of the aquatic weed on our shoes or trekking poles.

When we got to Casey Hut, a couple who’d camped next to us at Andrew Shelter was there, having mountain biked up the Poulter Valley.

“Yea, it’s 20 ks in, and really rocky,” said the woman in an Aussie accent.

“That's after 15 ks on the road from Andrew Shelter,” added the man in a Mediterranean accent.

They looked beat, slathering insect repellent to fight the sandflies, sweaty and sticky in dust from the day's heat.

I looked at Peggy. “I don’t want to go back the way we came, do you, Jazz?” Peggy’d read my look.

We’d already come what must’ve been ten miles and twelve more – even if essentially flat -- sounded tough.

Jazz’ feet weren’t blistered yet. She said, “Let’s just walk down the river to the road. We don’t have any headlamps.”

Unfortunately, we’d not thought to leave the car key at the car and instead wondered who’d get there first. None of us wanted to walk the nine miles back on the road.

I hustled down the trail to blow up my packraft. Jazz caught up.

“Dad. The mountain bikers said that they’d come back and get you. They’ll get down before any of us and I’m afraid we’ll run out of light hiking back over the other pass. I just want to walk down to the road.” Jazz has always been a sensible thinker.

“OK. I’ll take the car key and hurry down the river. I’ll meet you at the road. Do you have enough food?”

We said good-bye and I left the trail and walked to the river.

I blew up my boat, dressed in rain gear, and shoved off.

The boating was good, easy, and the water extraordinarily blue to look at and clear to look through. I made good time running some easy splashy sections and ducking beneath an electric fence along the Park boundary.

Meanwhile, Peggy and Jazz were slogging out the miles, first on a good trail through forest, but then on a hard-packed double-track that started to pound Jazz feet.

Peggy’s fitness from our trips in Patagonia and the week before in the Alps had conditioned her, so eventually she carried Jazz’ pack, too. As I would hear later, they lost the trail a time or two and Peggy got shocked crossing the electric fence!

Elsewhere, lazy cattle stopped and waited, worrying the girls, but of course the animals always ran. Jazz used her keen powers of observation to route-find and spot the rabbits. They traded the map back and forth as they made their way.

I made it down the river by 6 PM, having put in at 4 PM. I quickly caught a ride from a young sheep station worker heading home for the holidays. Henry had a pickup full of pig hunting dogs, a .22 up front for hares and rabbits, and a .12 gauge in back for what the dogs found.

He drifted around the gravel corners and accelerated down the straight-aways, clearly in a hurry to get home for the holidays. I’d felt less apprehensive running the Class II rapids on the Poulter than I did with this teen at the wheel.

I guess hitchhiking does have its risks, and this was the most common: bad driving.

Close to the Andrew Shelter we passed the mountain bikers who would now would not need to come get me.

We shared stories briefly about their ride and my boat. They were surprised I got back before they did. I hopped in our rental Toyota wagon, then sped back to the Poulter to get my girls.

Arriving around 8 PM, I drove down the double track as far as I dared, then glassed upstream for hikers. I could see upstream a good couple miles. Seeing no one and fearing the worst – i.e blisters, tears, and maybe a lost trail - I loaded my pack with headlamps, food, and a jacket and hustled to find them.

Five minutes later I saw Peggy about a mile away and Jazz just a short distance behind.

Within 20 minutes we were together, Jazz limping and Peggy shaking her head.

“We trashed her feet. She hasn’t done anything like this in months. Twenty miles on your first hike is too many.”

I felt the sting of a parent who’s subjected his daughter to too much – at least I wasn’t there to directly do it, otherwise I’d have it added to the life list the family kept of other poor judgements of mine involving Jazz.

“I thought about just sitting up at the car and reading my book,” I teased, handing the girls a can of Sour Cream Pringles.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” Peggy said. “You need to be a good Dad.”

“Yea, Dad,” Jazz teased, “one who doesn’t hurt his daughter’s feet.”

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