Sunday, October 4, 2009

Flipping Bird

Bird Creek had a reputation: unrunnable falls, death wood. But as with so many creeks and rivers with reps, only a run can display the reality.

In Bird's case the reality surpassed expectation. Sure there're the "Mushroom", "Entrance", and Bird Falls that look bad for packrafters, but between Mushroom and Bird Falls' "Entrance" drop is the lower canyon. The run that Tim Johnson's called "Inner Sanctum" and Embick "The Labyrinth" was not a death-defying series of drops, but something Disneyland might offer if America didn't have a tort law-problem.

Thai Verzone led me down it a year ago at a midflow-level and we sniffed an instant packraft classic.

Now, what makes an instant packraft classic? For me, it's water that's best suited for a packraft -- of course, walking or biking is involved; it's small; maybe congested with rock walls or boulders; low flow; pool-drop and steep, but with no more than a couple (vertical) boat lengths in any single drop. It's something that gives a potent snort of pasty adrenaline -- no, not just a snort, but deep, repetitive inhalations -- with the option of running the good stuff again, immediately.

Not just the "if you flip on a drop, you can get out and run that drop again" option, but the get-out-and-walk-back and run the whole canyon, again and again and again. In fact this activity of "doing laps" needs some sort of verb-gerund.

The word "flipping" might work. It is what we do in packrafts when we fall out of our boats -- we flip. And if we flip, generally we want to give it another go and do it without a flip.

So, "We flipped the run" could mean to run something again in quick succession, like the entrepeneurs of the early 2000's "flipped" houses. To really stretch the analogy, "fix and flip" is to re-run in search of a clean run after a swim. Just plane old "flipping" is multiple clean runs.

I invite any of you reading this to come up with a word. Maybe kayakers have a word for it, but they probably don't carry their 40 pound loads repatedly to make a five or ten minute run. Maybe "yo-yoing"? Do backcountry skiers have a word for this sort of activity?

For the sake of the post, let's go with flipping and get back to why Bird's labyrinthian Inner Sanctum became an instant classic yesterday.

Flipping a run is approximately ten times easier with a packraft that weighs four pounds than with a hardshell that weighs forty. In addition, shallow, steep water runs may have a higher danger:difficulty ratio in a kayak than in a packraft. Upside down in a shallow creeks still sitting in a kayak might ruin not just your day but maybe your pretty/handsome face. It also looks like a kayak might be more boat than you need on a low water run, but I don't know. I have only watched kayaks and been in one in whitewater twice.

But for a packraft, technical little creeks with low flow make it easy to pause and pivot, drop your lines and slide your tongues. Plus an upturned boat more likely results in a bone-bruising swim than a bone-breaking one (knock on wood). Sure, swimmers still have to be wary of foot-entrapments, undercuts, wood snags, and sieves and all the rest of moving water's hazards -- and yesterday we cut a boat bottom, broke a paddle, and even got hung on some wood (downstream of the fun stuff in the salmon-slime butt-wiggle to the takeout), but a pinned packraft looks to be easier to deal with than a pinned hardshell, especially since it's harder to get pinned in a packraft in the first place.

Let me reiterate: all moving water is potentially dangerous! A packraft's forgiveness offers no substitute for safety training or experience reading water, but it does offer the whitewater enthusiast a craft suitable for places and activities where a hardshell might just be a pain on the back-side. Anyway, just my two cents for why I'm still packrafting every chance I get.

Yesterday, JT Lindholm and Tony Pirelli who have flipped Ship Creek and Echo Bend as often as anyone, came along, as well as some hot hardshellers: Tim Johnson and Paul Schauer in packrafts (with Tim in an NRS open boat -- watch for his Jolly Green Giant in the video) and Elizabeth Embick in a vintage helmet and a hardshell with her friend John. Luc Mehl and his winter Wilderness Classic Ski race partner John Pekar came, too, in their matching blue and orange Alpackas and Luc's new drysuit (he's trying to lower the cost per unit swim, apparently).

With all those boats there seemed to be more people than eddies at times. Thank goodness for "Bird Bath" below the "Bird-Brain" entrance drop, and the pool between Center Falls and the "Whirly Bird" slot where we could all collect.

It was a party and the packrafters "flipped the Bird" four times. I got a couple good flips and a couple fix and flips.

Tomorrow, I'm going back for just pure flipping. It's too good to pass up in the beautiful fall colors, snow dusting the peaks.


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