Thursday, December 16, 2010
Thursday, December 2, 2010
In a few weeks we Dials will be roaming to Borneo. That's all of us -- Peggy, Jazz, Cody Rome, and me -- heading to Sabah for a couple of weeks watching wildlife, eating tropical fruit (durian!), and sweating in the equatorial heat and humidity.
We first went as a family in Dec-Jan 1995-96, when the kids were six and eight. We went to Kalimantan to visit Gunung Palung National Park (often featured in National Geographic Magazine with photos by Tim Laman). What an influential adventure that was. We flew to Singapore, then Kuching in Sarawak, then Pontianak in Indonesia. There we rode a small boat for five hours across the Kapuas River delta, biggest in Borneo. The boat dropped us in Teluk Melano, a malarial town with a never-ending stream of timber floating past. Old-growth, primary forest cut for plywood to hold concrete forms in China, Japan, and the US then thrown away.
From there we rode motor cycles on single track through cut-over jungle to a village and hired two guys in a small dugout to paddle us upstream for 12 hours to a research station rotting beneath giant dipterocarp trees. The animals and the plants and the purity of the place was remarkable. We drank from a stream flowing off Gunung Palung, the steep, wild mountain behind camp, as it flowed right past the camp. Twice daily we'd bathe in its cool refreshing waters and the kids delightedd in wading, snorkling and catching "toe-nibblers" and "needle-nose" fish that looked like they were right out of a freshwater aquarium. We watched gibbons and orangutans, caught giant millipedes and big green lizards. We saw ants as big as your finger and deer the size of your boot.
I've been back to Borneo many times since then, including a two month stint at Danum Valley with Roman doing a research project on canopy structure, microclimate and arthropods. Most recently, Peggy and I included Sabah and Sarawak on our round the world trip in 2008-2009. The really neat spires, the jags of limestone rearing out of the jungle, are in Mulu National Park, Sarawak. There are other sights from Tawau Hills Park, Kinabatangan River, and Danum Valley. The big spiky fruit is the stinky but oh-so-tasty durian....always a highlight of any visit.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
It's a fellow named Kevin Casey, a world-traveling, self-described "remote riverman" who recently replaced his inflatable kayak with a an Alpacka Raft. His first packraft trip was to Australia's far NW Kimberly for a solo jaunt that made my own solo trip look a tad tame. He recently posted on the Alpacka Rafters site that Gabon would make a good packrafting destination for the savvy wilderness traveller.
His Kimberly journey was in May, the early, cool start to the dry season, which contrasts mightily to March when Peggy and I were there and it was deadly humid and hot. Think East Coast August humidity and Phoenix, AZ August temperatures. By May, it's dry and cool, and super nice. Main problem is getting back to civilization once you reach the mangrove and crock-infested coastline. NOLS runs canoe trips down the Drysdale River in the Wet, but I think when I go back, I'm going in May. March almost killed me.
Peggy and I drove out from Darwin (3+ days drive) to see the Bungle Bungles but the park was closed so she camped at the road while I rafted down the Ord River to walk into the park. It was a strange and wonderful experience. The water was as warm as a hot springs and the air like an oven. I paddled past a pack of wild dingos resting on the bank then splashing off through the shallows; flocks of a thousand gallahs, pink colored cockatoos sqawking; and what looked like ten thousand fruit bats fussing and fighting in the tea trees with a dozen freshwater crocodiles waiting below to feed on the hapless weak ones that fell into the water. I paddled though this melee of bats and crocs then camped downstream, spooked.
As night fell, a half hour of bats (see the video below) passed overhead in the beautiful sunset. I slept restlessly for fear of crocks climbing up on the bank to get me, bivied on an air mattress under a cotton sheet. Alive in the morning, I watched the thousands of bats return.
On my hike there I walked on a jeep road, rutted and eroded, when I came to a nine foot snake, clearly an elapid, and judging by its size and aggression, a king brown snake. I stopped and it headed toward me. I threw a rock at it to get it to retreat but instead it checked out the rock then headed for me more directly, more quickly. This alarmed me so I retreated up the road and watched as it disappeared down a gully.
The next day I hiked into the Bungles, walking up the Piccaninny Gorge. It was hot, oh so hot, and I found another snake, and water monitor lizards, and a few birds and fish. I was all alone here as the park was closed for the wet season.
To save batteries I walked in the dark, fearful of snakes. To save fluids I rigged my sheet for shade during the day and tried to sleep. It took two pushes to walk the 30 miles out in my crocks. The second night was trippy, as in a bad psychedelic experience. First there was the late afternoon heat. My watch thermometer read 113 degrees under the umbrella carried as a parasol. Then there were the bush fires burning, burned out, or smoldering everywhere as I entered the wooded hills.
I crossed a creek and heard two feral bulls, the ones that are wild and never get rounded up, bellowing -- no roaring at each other, just as the tropical sun dropped, and one bull came toward me and I hurried off into the scrub to get trees between me and the beast, like you would with a pushy moose. That freaked me out, with all the poky bushes and grasses and the snakes lurking, I knew, and me barefoot in my crocks, 'cause the bulls came for me as I was trying to put my socks but no time, had to run. And that was just the beginning.
Then it got black and the hills were burning in bush fires, creepy, and silent and no wind, no night sounds, under a billion stars, all weird, except Orion in a funny place and that weird Southern Cross. Later the sideways moon rose and I could hear digeridoo music: Honest! Way out, like 20 miles from the nearest road and that road an empty thing in the Aussie Outback. I couldn't make it out to Peggy in the dark that night and I was tired from no sleep (too hot in the day fro walking or sleeping for that matter), so I camped in the dirt and woke in the morning with a centipede and a scorpion under my sheet with me.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Thanks for making me look bad Alastair!
Saturday, November 13, 2010
And this is more modern still: "Urbaneering" in Baltimore
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
"We've heard a lot of kayakers describe the differences of being in packraft for the first time, but never get the opposite perspective.
"I took a Jackson Villain creekboat down Sixmile II and III (8.8 ft) with Matt and Toby Sunday (followed by a ski run in Turnagain, which was sweet!). My first time in a 'real' boat. It was a lot of fun, fun to be going through the rapids and nervous as hell.
"The take home message is that the little crap that we worry about in packrafts was not a concern, while some of the more subtle features, like eddy lines, require way more technique. I never had very good control of my line, but the boat pushed through everything (except staircase!). I expected everything to be harder in the kayak, but it really wasn't.
"I loved not having to deal with inflating the boat and my 5 seat/back-rests.
-Luc 'Join the Darkside'"
Friday, October 29, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Thigh strap are not one of "40 add-ons" to a packraft that just make the boat heavier. They are a single addition that we in AK have seen on dozens of boats that give people control and confidence in whitewater from Class III to Class V, as well as leverage for paddling the flat and windy.
People are not getting entrapped -- yet. If a single chambered boat with extra velcro (added to keep a boat dry) were to go flat in the wrong place at the wrong time, then it does seem like being trapped in thigh straps will be bad. Indeed, besides practicing your Eskimo roll in a thigh strap equipped boat, think about letting all the air out while you are in the boat in the pool to see how you'll get out! Simply having a single chambered boat go flat under you, even without thigh straps, is a dangerous entrapment situation and one reason I find the Feathercraft Baylee so attractive. Unfortunately the Baylee is not as maneuverable or boofable as an Alpacka.
It would be nice if Alpacka made two chambered boats as durable and long and lean as the Witchcraft, and if Feathercraft made nimble boats with spraydecks that stayed up. Until then, we'll all be modifying our own boats and paddling them like this:
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
That canyon has become quite the packrafting scene -- there are about six or seven You Tube videos on just Bird (OK, well two are mine) and for good reason.
On Friday I tried out the BayLee 1 by FeatherCraft on Bird. It comes thigh strap ready and with two chambers feels oh-so-safe compared to a single chamber should you cut your boat and go flat midstream with thigh straps tight and four inches of velcro holding your skirt shut....anybody who wants to downsize from an inflatable kayak (IK) to a packraft will absolutely love this 9 lb (w/straps) boat. It paddles more like an IK than an Alpacka and has two chambers and solid fabric. Rafters will appreciate its conventional valves. The seat is well forward and the spray deck surprisingly dry for version 1.0, seem like. Pulls up high on the chest and actually stays there. It's like Feathecraft has been reading the Alpacka Forum and blogs like this and listening....but for me, I still prefer the nimble cut of an Alpacka Raft even if the Alpacka needs some further mods to make it suitable for Class IV.
So when Timmy J, Luc, Tony Pirelli and I went to paddle Upper Willow, I took my trusty Super Llama.
That was the best day of boating this year, with uncountable big drops and filler that felt like Little Su's main events. I emailed Brad, "If Magic Mile is Little Su on steroids, then Upper Willow is Ship Creek on crack." It was an icy day with frost on the walk-in and verglas on the boulders, but my hands stayed warm under the influence of "A", that natural high substance we all crave.
The Triple Drop portage on the right was an adventure. We had to get into our boats from a cliffside and I got surfed in a mini-hole, fell out and almost got pulled into a sieve there until I pushed my boat into a channel and held-on head first down a narrow slot to keep from touring Elvis' Graceland North.
In 2009 Thai Verzone said of Montana Creek, "Last year, we'd never have dreamed of doing this." This year I never dreamed that I'd finish the legendary Upper Willow two weeks after Magic Mile and grinning ear to ear with Luc, who said, "I didn't think it could get better than Magic Mile -- I can't wait until next week to do this again."
Luc, Tony, and I bought Tim dinner and a tank of gas in thanks for taking us down -- we ran everything but Aqualung and Triple Drop and landed it all with big fat smiles on our faces.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Heading out shortly to paddle a BayLee 1 -- report to come.
Meanwhile there's been a bunch of packrafting going on with people all over the place:
Packrafters checking out a landslide on Caribou Creek, a landslide that dammed up the creek and shortened 30 foot "Skyscraper Falls" to Townhouse size. We didn't run the falls -- this time:
Next there's the Red Boat Brigade on Six Mile's three canyons, a personal favorite video of mine:
The East Fork of Chulitna from the fun-loving Fairbanks tribe of packrafters:
And finally, Forrest McCarthy posted his greatest hits vid for 2010 about the time we were just getting started up here in AK:
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
In the 1980s when I was a climber I hung around Andrew Embick's house in Valdez where hard men told stories about the first descents and epic kayak runs of the day: Canyon Creek, Kings Magic Mile, and Caribou Creek's Falls, among others.
Then, I was a wilderness racer and mountain traveler whose biggest whitewater experiences were limited to the likes of Class II and III on the Chitistone, Nenana, and John Rivers in an open Sherpa Raft. I never thought that I'd have the skills to paddle a kayak, much less a packraft, down the test-pieces of that golden-age era.
My, have the times changed.
This weekend several groups ran Six Mile's three canyons, Echo Bend, and Canyon Creek in packrafts -- albeit at low water -- and had a good time on those classics.
Canyon Creek is the surprise for me. When Six Mile is below 400 cfs on the USGS gauge Canyon Creek is like the new Ship Creek: lots of improbable drops (dozens), lots of fun. There is a waterfall portage, a waterfall that Embick wrote as three-tiered and "80 feet". But don't look for an 80 foot falls to portage - - it's more like 30 feet in three drops. Best to go down Canyon with someone who knows the drops and the portage as Canyon Creek is a bit more serious -- especially with its sharp rocks and mining debris -- than Six Mile. And at higher water -- when Six Mile is over 9 feet, Canyon gets back to its gnarly 1980s reputation for we butt-boaters.
Here's Timmy J running the Third and Fourth "Box Cars", a train of a half-dozen closely spaced ledge drop-rapids below Canyon Creek's only published rapid name, "Saddle Slide" ......
But the really big news is Kings Magic Mile.
Maybe it's another Embick exaggeration -- he called it 400 feet/mile -- but no matter. It is DARN STEEP and sustained! Imagine all the steepest drops in Little Su stacked back to back with Little Su's filler cut out. That's still not as steep as Magic Mile. Or maybe think of a microcosmic version of the West Coast New Zealand runs like Arahura and Hokitika. It's a steep boulder run and -- while no place for novices -- there are likely a dozen people in Anchorage with the skills to run it in packrafts at the 150-200 cfs we ran it yesterday. Make no mistake: it's the most serious, most demanding and difficult creek that we have packrafted in Alaska.
Thankfully we had Tim Johnson along to advise us with his experience and calm, reassuring, safety-minded nature.
Last year Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, I and others ran lower Kings and talked about the Mile. This past June a crack-team tried it at high water -- no, we looked at it -- at high water with Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and Nathan Shoutis.
But this Fall, Thai was gone, Paul was busy and Nathan, well, not sure where that nomad is currently wandering, so Luc and I convinced Tim and Brad that it was time. That the endless Indian Summer was as good a time as any to hit Magic Mile at low water. Except the Indian Summer ended this weekend and we hit the Mile in snow.
Surpassing New Zealand's West Coast, Disappointment Creek, and Maryland's Upper Yough, this was the highlight of my packrafting experiences so far, as it is a legendary run in Alaska. I missed a brace in the last rapid and got chundered, but everything else was a most satisfying challenge that I will be buzzed about all week, maybe all winter.
Luc even pulled off a combat roll in the upper third and re-ran the "Underground Railroad" in the lower third, yielding a run of every rapid. Of course, as you'll see in the video Timmy J is a master of water strokes, no matter the craft, and ran the Mile with a load in his boat and a long paddle duct taped together. And in flip-flops (I jokes about that).
We drove into the first mud-hole, started hiking at 10 AM, reached the put-in three hours later and were on the water by 1:30. It took until after 4 PM to pass the mile. We met Jule Harle at her warming fire below the Mile and she climbed into a loaner Llama (!) to run Lower Kings with us to below "Gotta Giver 'Er". We were out by 6 PM and back to the truck by 7 PM.
The sun finally came out and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes filled the autumn sky above the Matanuska. It had been a wonderful day.
And the version on Vimeo if YouTube has no music:
Thursday, September 23, 2010
But for intermediates Echo Bend offers a super Class III adventure worth multiple runs and with Polar Bear Peak at the end and Yukla as a backdrop at the beginning, it's as much fun to look around as it is to move nimbly between the rocks shooting slots at will.
Anyway, Toby and I got to talking and he told me that Goo Vogt had the Bailee by Feathercraft, a heavy but study packraft that Goo already put thigh straps in -- Goo's an inflatable boater going back decades -- and that Toby has posted a review of it and a comparison with his mid-oughts vintage Yak:
Check this out
But don't call Goo. I already have and he's out hunting caribou, so I have dibs on demoing the boat next week.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
As part of Hendrik's gear pass-around I got a chance to test the "lightest [canister stove] in the world", the Monatauk Gnat. I went rafting and moose hunting and carried the 1.6 oz Ti and Al cutie around but never used it in the field.
Now, I have been fortunate enough to share shelter and stove with Skurka and seen his catfood can in action. That's gotta be the lightest stove out there, for sure, but I like the convenience of a canister stove for shorter trips and don't really like messing with liquids.
The beauty of these micro canister stoves like Pocket Rocket, Soto OD-1R MicroRegulator and the like is that they fit in my "Thing" worn inside my rain jacket or drysuit while wilderness boating. The Thing I use as an internal "pack" (but I load the front mostly) to hold fire starter food and extra camera, as well as map. So these micro stoves are for starting wet wood on fire in the rain when we are cold, wet, and miserable in fall weather on a glacial river in Alaska: dumbstruck cold with hands that won't work and teeth chattering.
Liquid fuel stoves are too finicky and bulky for this application.
Currently the stove I have been carrying is the Soto (2.6 oz). I like its igniter which saves the weight of a lighter, but it has pot supports that are attached using little screws which I have had fall out! This made the stove incapable of holding a cook pot. The standard stove I have as a canister stove for family-trips is the JetBoil. Heavy though it is, it's super convenient and stable and better in the wind.
My test was these three stoves mentioned above using the system I'd have: i.e Jet boil w/100g fuel (each test used a 100 g can) and its integral pot; the other micros stoves with the Backpackinglight.com Ti cook pot (about 1L).
I usually have no wind screen and if I cook usually it's inside my pyramid-style, floorless shelter: the tests were in 10 C weather, cool, calm morning on my front porch, no wind screens or other surrounding breaks.
Here are the results:
As you can see the Jet Boil was slowest and the Gnat and the Soto very close in heating rate at about 10 C/minute. The jet Boil has other nice features (stability, integrity, neoprene sleeve and cap for drinking) but the micro stoves are what I am really comparing -- the Jet Boil is just an outgroup. My dataloggers should have been set at a closer interval than 1 minute, but alas that's all I had time for. There are no replicates either and all the usual oh-wells and qualifiers that go along with gear tests like this.
I'm going to buy the little Gnat as it's cute and Ti and has no parts to fall off or fail and it's an ounce lighter. I usually have a lighter too, anyway, and I am a sucker for stoves.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Ed Plumb of Fairbanks has posted a neat Alaska Range video:
and Forrest posted several from the WInd Rivers, this being my favorite, I think:
and then there's Mike Curiak's gonzo "ne school" trail riding:
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Yea? Well, adrenaline is a substance and I'd call this "hormone abuse".
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
and another about Chuck during the Wilderness Classic Nabesna to McCarthy in 1988 and 1989:
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Yesterday Gordy Vernon and I drove up to Talkeetna after eating lunch at Senior Taco in Wasilla (super good, authentic Mex) just to do the lower canyon on Montana Cr. The NOAA Guage was reading about 465 cfs at UTC midnight (=4 PM AK time) and the USGS read 451 cfs; both gave about 5.4 feet. This was a juicier, cushier flow but not pushy. I'd say it was pretty close to ideal.
Gordy drops "Big Sky Country":
The crux for me, besides making the far left side of "Big Sky Country" is the mini boulder garden about three drops later, below both "Big Sky" and "Chockstone" and signaled by a big central boulder that you go left around then hard right then left again. There was a wee bit of wood, but nothing to get hung up about.
Montana's lower canyon a bit like a backwards Ship Creek lower canyon in that the hardest drop is the "Big Sky" falls right off the bat. There were a total of five drops in the short run and for me it's worth the drive. If we'd got an earlier start we would've walked up the extra mile or so for the upper canyon that has another five or so good drops. Unlike Ship Creek a swim here might have consequences with all the big boulders (foot entrapment, stuffed under an undercut). The run I like to do is shorter than Ship but longer than the lower canyon on Bird Creek -- harder to flip than Bird but more satisfying in a way and doesn't need the flip, I guess.
"Chockstone" often has wood but this time it was in a safe place:
Anyway, this info might be useful to some....Mark Oathout ran the creek in his IK, too, at a juicy flow last month.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Anyway, here's pretty much the best video I have from the trips I did with Skurka and the National Geographic crew.
Hope it offers an honest flavor of that grand trip of his.
Vimeo version for Euros:
He's a soon-to-be dad, an avid walker of urban routes, a former editor of Mtn Bike Magazine for Rodale Press back in the day when I wrote hellbiking pieces about wild rides with Carl Tobin and Jon Underwood across Alaska's wilderness, and an awesomely quick witted but slow walking guy, born in New York, transplanted to LA.
He's written a wonderful book on bananas and one on his father, a world class birder who was among to see the most of 10,000 species of birds in the world or so. Anyway I don't think I've laughed so long and hard as I did during the four day walk to Anaktuvuk from the Haul Road.
Here's the vid:
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
An awesome Grizzly Bear trail that went on for at least a mile and a half:
And a gang of kids swarm us in Anaktuvuk Pass.
Monday, August 30, 2010
The route is best done during August (3-6 weeks), when bugs are sparse, days are long, and colors intensifying, with food drops at Anaktuvuk Pass (Post Office), Circle/Kutuk Lakes (bear barrels) and Pingo Lake (bear barrels). Bring a sat phone.
Anaktuvuk, Arrigetch, Ambler are three touchstones of the central Brooks Range from east to west, and as a packrafting trip in the Brooks Range it's hard to beat these 400 miles. The route passes through the best mountain sections, including the Doonerak region, Arrigetch Peaks and front range of Igikpak. It floats North Fork of Koyukuk to Ernie Creek, John River to Wolverine Creek, Pingaluk to Alatna, the Noatak to Lake Matcherak, and all of the Ambler River. It follows game trails and excellent creek and river bars and avoids more tussocks and brush than you'd believe.
Drive up the Dalton Highway to a little turn-off to the west, just before the pipeline road leaves the Dietrich valley bottom and just downstream of Nutirwik Creek. It's about sixty miles north of Coldfoot (you could fly to Coldfoot from Fairbanks on Arctic Air for $250). Hike up Koyuktuvuk, Trembley, Blarney Creeks and over Kinnorutin Pass to descend Amawk Creek and paddle N. Fork Koyukuk (PR 3 -- PR 4 at high water). Climb Doonerak via a scramble up its south ridge, if you like heights and broad views.
From the junction of North Fork Koyukuk and Ernie Creek there is a bit of tussocks to the Valley of the Precipices. Unbelievably, this should be one of only two tussock stretches, if you read your landscapes well en route to Ambler. Bar-hop on mature willow bars or follow well-drained tundra ridges and noses to Graylime and Anaktuvuk Creek. If you are travelling light (i.e. have a food cache in Anaktuvuk mailed to the PO there) these creeks are mostly paddleable, except for some braids on the lower Anaktuvuk, where you can pick up an ATV trail and follow to Anaktuvuk Pass, a friendly village IMO. Peggy and I took a week to Anaktuvuk in one boat in 1986; I walked from Anatuvuk to the road in a day and a half in 2006. Plan for four-five days, three days if you have Wilderness Classic experience.
The mystery spot, so named because it seems as if the water is flowing the wrong direction. Several travelers through here have commented on this optical illusion. The views are good, but the rocks to come are bad, if short -- the last ones, really.