Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Grand Australian Canyon, The Franklin

Ten years ago I scared the bejeezus out of myself on the Franklin River.

Last week Bill Hatcher, Cody Roman and I ran it with flows varying from low water to high water and found it fantastic, truly one of the world's great packrafting adventures. It is longer and more pristine than anything else in the southern hemisphere south of the 40th parallel, including rivers in New Zealand and Patagonia. It runs through a 3.5 million acre World Heritage Area that stretches 2/3 of the way across western Tasmania. There is great variety and enough challenge to keep it interesting, but not so much as to guarantee an epic.

Essentially a pool-drop river with frequent rapids and stunning, sinuous reaches, the Franklin starts in the mountains of sharp, bare ridges and ends in lowlands pockmarked with limestone caves. Throughout grows thick temperate rainforest often cut with canyons and gorges. We took 5 days to go around 100 km and saw nobody else until the end when we caught a yacht to take us six hours to the nearest road.

The 100 km run in west central Tasmania has a long list of epics in its half century history. That history carries on today with its reputation for wildly-varying water levels, big rapids, and gnarly portages often set deep in sheer-walled canyons. Even the names -- “Nasty Notch”, “Irenabyss”, “Great Ravine”, “The Churn”, “Cauldron”, and “Pig’s Trough” -- suggest something sinister.

Like temperate rainforests around the world, there is not much bird or animal life in these thick, somber, and soggy woods. Not much to support the original Aborigines, even less for the escaped convicts of the 19th century who fled the forced work camps of Sarah Island, only to find themselves in an even more inhumane prison of brush, canyons, and starvation.

Named for Sir John Franklin, who traversed its wilderness with his wife Lady Jane while he was governor of Tasmania, five years before his disappearance in the Canadian high Arctic, the Franklin River was also the birthing ground of the powerful Green Party. Spearheaded by Senator Bob Brown, who pioneered the use of over-sized packrafts down the Franklin in the mid 70s and 80s with his partner Paul Smith – who said that their “duckies” made the life and death trips of the early Franklin pioneers into “exhilarating sport” – the battle for the Franklin wilderness showed how motivated Australia’s environmentalists could be. Today, over thirty years later, Bob Brown and the Green Party remain a potent force in Australian politics, although the current environmental battles fight over old growth eucalyptus forests in Tasmania and the 300+ foot giants growing there that are clear-felled for pulp.

In contrast to Brown and Smith's “rubber ducky”, the micro-duckies of today, Alpacka Rafts, are more nimble and easier to portage and seem to be the perfect craft for the river. It is possible to run the 100s of Class II and III rapids of the Franklin in a packraft carrying a week’s worth of food, while portaging the Class V drops and waiting out the swollen river during high water events in the numerous and spotless camps set high above the river. We felt that the easy waters might make a kayak a bit of overkill and the log portages might make big rafts a bit of work. Packrafts offered their usual forgiving fun in whitewater and light weight during portages. Carrying along the slim, informative guidebook by Griffith and Baxter, “The Ever Varying Flood”, offered us well-illustrated maps and descriptions.

We rode a bus from Hobart for about AU $55 each to the short Donaghy’s Lookout Trail. There we hiked down to the confluence of the Franklin and Collingwood, as the water level was too low the first day to start at the usual Collingwood Bridge. From the junction we paddled about 15 km in the afternoon to Descension Gorge. It rained all night and the next day, bringing the water level up and sending dozens of waterfalls into the river. The second day was flatter paddling than I’d remembered from 10 years ago when I scrawled on my map, “best packrafting in the world”, but we made good time to Camp Arcade.

The third day the river had risen over 1.5 meters at the large pool below our camp and when the river was constricted over drops and rapids we could really feel its push and the hydraulics’ suction.

We portaged the big rapids in the Great Ravine in sunshine, although I did try one of the Coruscades, losing my paddle in the aftermath. Sharp-eyed Bill spotted the paddle in an eddy and spared me from trying to paddle the big water with my Sawyer paddle, our spare.

Stymied by the high water at the put-in for Thunderush’s low portage I saw the nearest thing to panic in Bill’s normally cool and collected demeanor. Rome and I were willing to make a go of the four-foot drop piling into a wall and a hole, but Bill thought he saw the high portage on the other side.

A landslide and taken out a part of the high portage route and the Tasmanian Parks had done the rest, spending millions on helicopters and labor to remove the high portage track of bolted walkway out and carting it away. But the old cut through the forest remained and we scrambled up.

We scouted the high portage route's remnant of cut bolts and fixed ropes, using our own throwbags as handlines, then bivied below an overhang at the top of Thunderrush. Thankfully it didn’t rain and the water came down. The next morning we carried our camping gear over the portage and made a short rappel back to the water’s edge. High adventure!

The portages and rapids challenged us. Roman, still recovering from a lower back injury in the Grand Canyon three years ago, was surprised and encouraged to find that he could manage all the paddling and climbing and descending as well as he did. This trip may well be a turning point for him.

“I think packrafting is good for my back,” he said along the Thunderush High Portage, which was music to my ears.

Since middle school he and I have paddled packrafts together. As it breaks a father’s heart to see his son injured and unable to enjoy activities they have long shared, it’s wonderful to know that we will continue mixing water and land in wilderness.

We portaged the Cauldron on its long track and Ole Three Tiers but ran everything else down to the terrifying Pig’s Trough, portaging that, and paddling on to our camp at Newland Cascades, the nicest camp along the river. There, a series of shallow caves beneath a high overhang offers up a dry enclave, free of leeches and wet brush. There is a commanding view of the 400 meter long Newland Cascades and a waterfall across the river.

We dried out our gear and enjoyed young Roman’s amazing Jet Boil cookery: Indomie Mee Goreng instant ramen noodles with whole milk powder and peanut butter – tasty as something from your local Thai restaurant, truthfully.

Bill shot photos and Roman nursed a cold the next day as the rain waters upstream swelled the river by over a meter and a half. At 2 PM we finally shoved off and rode the flood downstream into the lowlands, past limestone walls and caves and waterfalls pouring from holes in the rock.

We ate our usual lunch of sardines and Cadbury chocolate in Rafter's Basin and a dinner of tasty cheese and milk biscuits above Double Falls, while rafted together in mid-river.

Twisted old Huon pine and young new recruits lined the banks where the river flooded past the bushes. It wasn’t raining, so we stayed warm. Double Falls was swollen to a single falls and Roman made a go at it but was flipped by a boil. We had a bit of a scare with an undercut wall at its lower end, where Cody Rome found he had to time his exit with the water’s surge.

Big Falls was a terrifyingly huge tongue disappearing into a maw of a hole. It took us 20 minutes to bushwhack around its left side.

With such high water we discovered that we could quite likely make it the 40 km out to Sir John Falls, where a yacht waited with another raft group of 3 rafts, 2 kayaks, and 11 people to make the 6 hour, AU $170/pax trip out to Strahan and the road.

We made it by 9:45 PM with just enough light to quell our trepidation of paddling the mighty Gordon in falling darkness.

The next day cruising down the lower Gordon and Macquarie Harbour we swapped stories with the rafters and swapped turns climbing to the crows-nest on the 65 foot ship. Thankfully the winds and waters were calm and we could enjoy the food served on board.

In Strahan Bill and Rome caught a ride with the rafters back to Hobart while I tried my luck thumbing a ride from the gas station. For a tankful of gas, I managed a ride with an Aussie and his American girlfriend, meeting Roman, Bill, and legendary climbers John Middendorf (of A5 fame) and Paul Pritchard at the New Sydney Hotel in downtown Hobart in time for a beer and a burger.

What a trip. Just what we'd been looking for: whitewater, and scenery, and an ideal application of the packraft. Better than my first down the Franklin, by far. Still, I look forward to my next Franklin packrafting adventure, as it's truly one of the great river trips of the world.

Franklin River Packrafting from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

More photos from Bill at his website (click "Franklin River Packrafting" under the "New Work" tab) and his blog.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tasmanian Steep Creek

Borneo boating was a bust.

It was too expensive and bureaucraticly challenging to get to Sabah's Maliau Basin with boats, so Roman and I hung out in Tawau for a week, nursing our dollars until leaving for Tasmania, Australia.

Tasmania is the closet thing to a New Zealand watered wildland, with native Australian animals, plants and birds. It's wild and thick, with few trails and a pretty little Hobart nestled in hills over tidewater, like Seattle in the sixties or Portland in the seventies. Parrots and lorikeets swoop through well-watered eucalypts, while strange marsupials you've never heard of come out at at twilight: quolls (marsupial "cats") and pademelons (foot high kangaroos) chief among them.

Cody Roman and I had come to meet Bill Hatcher to run the Franklin (which I ran in 2002 and feature in my book, Packrafting!). But first we had to warm up. So we ran the Picton in an afternoon and then a couple days later set shuttle for the remote and steep Anne River (400 feet/mile for about a kilometer or so).

The Anne is situated in the remote Southwest National Park and starts high in Australian Alpine country, near Mt. Anne and the Arthur Mountains, a stunning, once-glacial landscape of weird plants and craggy peaks. There in a campground we saw a raccoon-sized Spotted Quoll and its potential prey the wee Tasmanian Pademelon.

We hiked in a scenic trail for about 30 minutes to the put-in on a metal bridge and proceeded to boat-bushwhack a kilometer in 2 hours to where the creek steepens up and clears out into wild drops spilling through boulder gardens of sharp rock. Good thing the weather was good or we would have been in trouble. It's hard to exaggerate the Tasmanian brush -- worst in the world I reckon: makes Appalachian laurels, California manzanita, Alaskan and BC alder, Chilean quila, and whatever it is they call their scrub in NZ a look like stuff for pre-school kids who are too young to know what alcohol is, while the stuff down here is Tassie is for hard-core alcoholics on crack.

Anyway, retreat upstream or down except in boats was not an option. It took us ten hours to go ten kilometers down the wicked steep drops. Can't say it was the best boating I ever did -- can't say I'd so it again. Too much more water would be suicide for us. Any less would be a hike through world class stumble f*cking brush.

The lower Anne, its last four kilometers or so was dreadful and the Huon at 0.75 m on the Judbury Gauge was a tedious 25 km paddle through stunning eucalypt forests with 5 great drops in its gorge. We got out with our last scraps of food in the dark after 36 hgours of intensity and non-stop ending I haven't seen since the last Wilderness Classic I'd entered.

So, I think we're ready for the Franklin -- once our arms recover from yesterday's 12 hours of paddling.

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