Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Yakutat to Glacier Bay: Lost Coast South

Last summer a bunch of us got an email from MC saying he had a packraft and wanted to match it with his fat bike. Wasting no time, I pitched the route I'd bought a 907 for: Yakutat to Glacier Bay, the Lost Coast South, a route Dick Griffith did in the 90s and told me was the "best trip in Alaska."

Well, I have heard that about a lot of routes, and claimed that for a handful of my own, too, so while I considered it, I never attempted it. Mostly because I was unsure of what ocean water packrafting would be like. I hated lake paddling in the old stubby boats (pre-2011), I knew, and so thought that the ocean was just like a freekin huge lake. Nope.

What Hig and Erin pioneered was packrafting biggish crossings. Dick had used an airplane to hop over Lituya Bay and had flown in to the start, down by Icy Point. After the peripatetic couple gushed about it on blog, book and lecture, I wanted to do it even more, going so far as to scheme and join Skurka on his trip, but instead settled for the Wrangells with him in May 2010.

As for what part of the Lost Coast appealed most, going south was better than re-creating the Eric/Dylan bike route north, as the north route (now something of a backcountry bikenraft "trade route: with this pair and this Italian soloist repeating it) looked challenging but not that appealing nor wild. Heck, there are logging roads and lodges and lots of non-wilderness between Yakutat and Cordova, dissuading me from that route.

Plus by going south Eric (gear maven) and Dylan would want to go, too, as their trip sounded punishing and I was sure they'd like to "complete" the Lost Coast.

The southern Lost Coast looked burlier, wilder, prettier, more mountainous -- my kind of route. And if risk-averse Andy could do it solo, then certainly we could do it with bikes.

"World Class bear trails" had been noted by all, too.

With beta from Skurka and Hig providing comments like "A bike?" and "La Perouse? Yea, just walked on by!" and even both of them saying their route over to Brady Glacier/Taylor Bay from the outer coast was "bad", I felt prepared.

Looking at the map and Google Earth, it was clear that the route fell into roughly three pieces that reflected the fraction of pedaling that would be available.

The first piece to just south of Dry Bay and north of the creek to the Grand Plateau Glacier looked like a long beach ride, punctuated with some boat crossings.

The second piece looked like about half pedaling, half pushing/carrying past glaciers and rocky points, ending down a bit south of Icy Point.

The third piece looked like pushing and paddling and Eric and I had different ideas about how to get over to Taylor Bay and MC and I different ideas about how to get to Icy Straight.

Earlier, I posted some stats about the route and Eric posted pics and MC a nearly viral video.

In general, the first half is dry.

For some dumb reason, neither of our first camps had drinking water.

The riding nears boring, but has some super cool driftwood and dune sections, and you'll want more than one gear. I had two and liked them both. The views of St Elias to the north and Fairweather to the south are great as long as the weather is nice. If the weather were bad, I am thinking you'd have headwinds and rain.

Dry Bay would be a great destination, if you wanted a short, less committing trip. Even as an out and back.

We got off the plane, packed our bikes, ate dinner and road to the beach, then pedaled to the Situk and camped. We boated across Situk River in the morning and made it to a couple hours shy of the Alsek. We crossed the Alsek as the tide came in and it was easy. We had coffee on the south bank. My point is the down an back could be, like, a three day trip.

The good beach continues down to the big boulders just before the northern outlet of the Grand Plateau Lake. Bear trails take you to the put-in at the lake where we found a note from Gordy and Thai. A funny note, about how silly we were to be riding bikes. It was on a Lindt chocolate wrapper. It was a delight.

We paddled the entire length of the lake -- first half in the twilight looking for a beach to camp on and finding one that was scary when a mini-tsunami followed a five minute calving event. Doom slept on his boat that night.

The next day we paddled through amazing icebergs to the far end of the lake and then stumbled through bad Class IV brush with devils club, raspberry, nettles, and a giant curious bear that about got Doom pooping his pants when he bumped into it in the thick forest and it huffed at him.

Great beach riding starting on sand, increasing to gravel, then on to cobbles, and finally boulders leads to the spectacular Cape Fairweather. Here we alternated between shoving bikes down bear tubes on the wooded bluffs or stumbling and lifting loaded bikes over big boulders on the "beach".

Beyond we had great riding with remarkably constant beach backed by uniform forest. See Eric's clip here. We pedaled onward at the amazing 6-7 mph (we had a tailwind -- generally we get 4-5 mph and sometimes only 3 mph in soft sand) and camped at pretty Eagle Creek, a few miles north of Lituya Bay.

Thankfully the notorious Lituya was easy and calm but I was nervous in my wee Scout and steep but short swells as we poked out into the bay. Near the far shore a wicked fast current whipped us out toward the mouth and I ferried like I was in a river to get out before going too far. More pushing on stubby bear trails past a fantastic sea lion haul out led to more riding. But again, the pushing was very bad before the good riding, very BAD (not like the photo below).

Unlike the mountain hellbike trips of the nineties, this beach riding offers a less frequent split of riding vs pushing/carrying. Here on the Coast it's like, OK, two hours riding followed by two hours stumble-f*cking. Hellbiking was more like 5 minutes riding, 2 minutes pushing, 3 minutes riding, 7 minutes pushing. I exaggerate, but both seem to be about 50% non-riding to 50% riding but in different scales of time. On the coast it can be an entire day of riding, followed by an entire day of boating, followed by an entire day of pushing. This was new for me.

As we headed south the coast became rockier, not with boulders so much as with bedrock, rideable, challenging bedrock. There were some tough creek crossings, pinned between whitewater and surf, through rounded, polished boulders slick with green algae. Check the video below for some of that nasty action. Watching me with my bike over my head terrified the others. But watching them man-handle their frame-bag loaded bikes -- at one point Parsons just dropped his bike and watched it float nearly out to sea -- convinced me that over the head was far more stable.

We camped in view of La Perouse, an enormous surging glacier that had poked its brown head out into the Pacific, not fully, but enough to block the easy walk that Hig and Skurka had encountered. In fact, just a week earlier Thai and Gordy snuck by scrambling on boulders of ice, but we found the ice calving into surf, even at low tide.

Still, I pushed us into a dangerous situation, below calving ice and calf deep in surf that surged past ice blocks and boulders. When we turned a corner after an open area of easy walking, only to see massive cliffs shoved into surf, it was clearly time to retreat and sort out other options.

At one point on the way back a massive chunk of ice collapsed with in thirty feet of Doom, a terrifying moment that got us all running.

Dylan and I liked the idea of going over the glacier as opposed to Eric's idea of a surf launch. My boat was just too tiny to hop in easily with its fat bike cargo and narrow little slit through a mylar spray deck.

"I won't go first," was my cowardly response, "but I will go third." That way I'd see how likely I was to swim getting out past the breakers.

Following Eric's bold lead, we surf-launched our bikes. It was cool and felt clever, sneaky almost, like we were getting away with something risky as -- a mile or more from shore -- we paddled a few miles of the Pacific Ocean past a huge glacier.

Thankfully it was sunny and calm and warm and Doom took my front wheel and the only carnage was MC surf crashing and swimming at the landing. A six foot wave toppled him. The rest of us surfed in sweetly.

South we rode, sometimes pushed, crossing Little Bastard (my name) and Big Bastard Creeks (by raft -- also my name), two slimy, steep, cold streams draining Finger Glacier.

My favorite riding and where I found my two gears, one brake, and rack allowed me to ride more than the others, despite their massively higher skill level, was the bedrock spires and cobble beaches north of Icy Point. With no weight on my bars and a front brake and lower gear -- gosh it was sweet!

Written on my map these words capture some of the exuberance:
Best riding of the trip! Always challenging, always unexpected. Doom and I out front, swapping leads, grassy trails past rocky spires, weaving and dropping into chutes, all unexpected, unpredictable, unlikely, improbable and rideable! Awesome.
By the time we made our solstice camp past Icy Point our routine of twelve hour days followed by twelve hour camps set next to running fresh water was set. We got wood and set up 'mids and I heated water up in a big one gallon pot, but these are modern days and everyone ate food out of their own private plastic bag filled with water from their own private cook pot. At least we shared the fire and sometimes the tent, although I usually slept outside by the fire where the bugs were not bad. In the morning our group showed some unity when we all had coffee from the gallon pot. Yum.

Always the ballsy boater, Eric had us put in directly to Kaiknau Creek and float its splashy current into Palma Bay where he and Mike promptly paddled as far out to sea as they seemed to dare. Must have been an optical illusion for while I paddled straight for a point, Mike and Eric seemed to paddle further out to sea, presumably paddling for the same point.

Always the adventuring thrill seeker, Doom called up a whale that blew its spout on him in the deep bay. Startling as the bear!

We'd hoped to get out at Astrolabe Point for a break after La Palma, but the little lagoon was slimy with kelp and stinky with a dead harbor seal. Only Eric and Dylan climbed out. I peed and bobbed in my boat and we moved on, finding a cove on Sugarloaf's east side with driftwood, hot coffee, and a beach.

Paddling the calm inlets and bays was a treat and we were often visited by hummingbirds as we made our way toward Graves Bay. Near Libby island, Eric found a leak in his raft's valve (c. 2003 model, I think) and he patched it before shoving off again.

Our camp at Graves Harbor was even more idyllic than the last, made more interesting by a bear visit in the morning.

Eric had planned out a route that linked lakes and ponds, but these were mostly dry, muddy, rocky and brushy and it took us six hours to go three miles. See the map for a better way that requires a quick climb then a long paddle.

The brush was so bad that we blew up for a pond less than 100 yards long and THAT saved us time. On the far side of that pond we picked up a meadow, leading to a bear trail and another short lake paddle that took us to the newly grown brush beside the Brady Glacier.

Amazingly, isostatic rebound has changed the face of the water bodies marked on the USGS maps made in the 1950s. The islands shown on the eastern side of Taylor Bay are now peninsulas.

We made another dry camp and nobody but stubborn ole' MC wanted to bushwhack even a mile to Dundas Bay. So we democratically dragged our boats across mudflats and paddled Fern Harbor, then paddled out into North Indian Pass and Icy Straight.

These were idyllic waters for our boats, despite all the terrible stories and dire warnings Eric and Mike had heard from non-packrafters. Once again I recalled risk-averse Andy and Hig pointing out that Icy Straight is fast and safe and easy.

Like those saltwater explorers, we, too, made good time, pulling out for water to drink at the west side of Dundas and then paddling whitecaps over to the east side. We waited for the incoming tide (so much quicker!) at another creek opposite Lemesurier Island, hunkered in a short camp till morning, again waiting to ride the incoming tide, then cruising as fast as 5 mph without paddling as we took the tide into Glacier Bay and Gustavus, with whales all around.

An altercation with an uptight, quizzical park cop killed our buzz. Dylan got a $200 ticket for peeing into the water (we split it five ways) and threatened us with our un-permited trip.

Afterwords we pedaled into town feeling triumphant but let down by the Park Service again. What's wrong with them?

Gustavus seemed neat. We had pizza and beer then got on the 5:45 PM flight back to Anchorage, our buzz back and glowing.

"Best Trip In Alaska"?

For us it was during those ten days in June when it never rained and we saw the wildest coastline America has to offer.

All by fatbike and packraft, my favorite tools for exploration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Packrafting is real boating

Ok. if you have a packraft, then please send this video to your friends

It's Luc Mehl's take on our SE trip and while it cuts out the bloops (for those see Timmy J's take on the same trip:

What it shows is the beauty of packrafts on steep creeks. That the two (packrafts+steep creeks) can be one. That a hardshell is not the only way, that packrafting big gradient is not just a stunt -- like Paul Schauer points out -- but a possibility, a probability in the remote waters left un-run.

For me, I need to learn what the packrafts can do locally before taking them remotely. Like a climber or a skier at the local crags or slopes before they hit an expedition. For Luc and Tim they are adventure, discovering the unknown and pushing the improbable.

I'd be lying if I said that Tim always knows how the packraft will perform. In fact, if Tim knew, he'd not be paddling one.

So anyway, let's get Luc's video to 2500 hits by the end of the week. Tim looks so good boofing and bracing. It's art in slo-mo and quilted Alpackas.

If you have an account on Mountain Buzz or Boater Talk, then post it.

If you subscribe to Playak then send it to Playak. If you have friends who boat, send it to them.

It doesn't matter if you'll only run Class II with a bike, a dog, or a lunch bag on your bow. This legitimizes packrafting as a whitewater-worthy craft.

The vids are too beautiful, too informative not to go big.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What is packrafting anyway? The Horsepasture River

Sven, of Packrafting in Europe, a former German hardsheller turned packrafter + Alpacka dealer, has been asking if the new boats on whitewater are really packrafting at all?

Good question. A 2011/2012 Llama is long, like a mini-IK, and a 2012 boat has an aluminum rim on the deck for attaching a spray-skirt kayak-style. Add in a way to brace your legs for Eskimo rolling, a teflon skid plate for shallow water and seal launches, move your seat forward, put in a beefy backrest, then add a foam pad for boofing and -- WOW -- is that still a packraft? That's my question.

But Sven's asking if it's still packrafting if you're parking and hucking, like Luc, Timmy and I did in the Southeast.

Packrafting is, in essence, -- all the way back to the Halkett boat, or even before, to a time when people carried skins to be stretched over sticks -- simply carrying a portable boat. Classical packrafting in the modern sense is walking across Alaska or biking through Utah -- or taking a train in Europe -- with a raft wrapped tightly and stowed until it's needed.

Packrafting could be considered mixing travel with a small inflatable, perhaps the smallest inflatable for the job. In that sense, even carrying an IK on a horse for Teton Wilderness runs might then be considered packrafting. But why make it an inflatable? Not all rafts are inflatables. So then any boat transportation plus boating equals packrafting, right? But this last argument is a bit of reducto ad absurdum.

The nub is this: if you're going to go run the Green Narrows, why not, as Obadiah Jenkins and his ilk persistently pester, "Get a kayak?"and by that they mean a hardshell kayak.

I asked Tim Johnson about his answer, and he says, "You really can't answer that."

This from a guy who has been paddling a kayak for 15 years or more and is now pushing the limits in a packraft. The limits of whitewater, that is.

There are the others, the Hig&Erins, the Skurkas, the guy who "walked the Amazon", Ed Stafford. They're also pushing the limits. Are they packrafting? Extreme packrafting, 'cause they carry their boats such extreme distances?

Forrest McCrthy says that packrafting should be, "Half boating, half walking." Well, is that half in distance or time? And back to "bike'n'rafting" -- is that packrafting? Or the day trip with a roadside put-in and car shuttle -- is that packrafting?

My personal journey has taken me from packraft as a simple boat made to be portable (no seat, no skirt) as a tool for river crossings, to instrument as landscape art, to flow machine (no pun intended, with flow in the sense of high skill/high challenge reward per Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). The boats I use have simply evolved to better suit my needs, to perform better in the 80% zone, the 80% of the time activity. Bring what you need for 80% of your activity.

For instance, 80% the time of our Anaikchak crossing last summer from Pt Heiden to the Chigniks was walking. My Super Scout was fine, although no dry suit was a bummer. Perhaps a super scout + dry suit weight would be about the same as a skirted Llama in rain gear. What I need is a light drysuit I can also walk brush in for a classical packrafting trip.

Even in the early days, when first discovering that floating a river in crossing is fun; to floating rivers in between long walks and discovering that the splashy white stuff is fun; to now, seeking out steep stuff; there is a natural progression for some personality types to gravitate (again no pun intended) to steeper gradient.

So now I am very much attracted to whitewater. And because we just don't know yet what's possible, I like whitewater in a packraft: another form of extreme packrafting that doesn't require I leave home for a year.

My purist goal is to walk in and run technical whitewater. But to get good at whitewater, I need to run roadside, maybe even pools to work on my rolls. That activity of blowing-up and putting-in to sport-boat roadside may not be so much pure packrafting, as Sven asks, as it is preparing myself to packraft remotely. But look. I used an adverb to describe packrafting. It doesn't have to be remote to be packrafting.

Yes, roadside runs at kayak water levels in a packraft satisfy. Sven may be too young to remember, but when telemark skiing first appeared on the scene (like portable boats, it'd been around a long time, but was just reaching a rapid point in evolution -- as packrafting is now) people actually went lift skiing to improve their abilities. Was lift skiing in telemark gear, telemarking? Today that question is silly, but then it was real, and, in fact, telemarking gear evolved into essentially downhill gear, much as the packraft of 2012 has morphed into a mini IK.

But sure, it's still a packraft and we are still packrafting and while a kayak would certainly make me a better whitewater paddler in a packraft (look at Timmy J and Paul Schauer), I am after all a late middle-aged guy who is happy in his boat and would rather not be pried out and levered into another. That's why it's the 20 something kayakers and not the 40 something kayakers who call packrafts, "Badass". They still have enough life in them to switch to another craft.

So if me or someone else does the 150 mile Wilderness Classic by blending a half dozen Class IV+ runs in a 10 pound boat (with foam, thigh straps and spray skirt) with 75 miles of walking are we packrafting?

Yes, you betcha, in a very modern sense.

And the seven hour car-to-car trip down the Horspasture River in western North Carolina was good training for it. We walked 30 minutes down, put in and scouted and blopped, dropped, blubbered, and slurped our way over a dozen or so ledges. Then climbed off the river at dusk and bushwacked upward 700 feet to catch a trail and a road back to the car.

This was a low water run, quite safe, although we did portage a handful of sieves. It required scouting and boofing and skills. It was a solid Class IV run, I'd say. It could be done without thigh straps or spray decks, but would be even sloppier than our sloppy boats.

It may be the best application for packrafts in the SE, although having only run 10 rivers and creeks down there, I am really not experienced enough to say. The fact that Luc and I carried our boats in packs for a walk-in and walk-out that were each over a mile long (Tim used his thigh straps to pack his boat), and that we wore our empty packs under our drysuits makes it packrafting, even by Sven's strict definition I'd hope, although we were paddling stuff as difficult as most of the road side runs we did, too.

So what is packrafting? I'd say it's anything you do with a packraft, including rolling it up, packing it away, and flying in a jet to a whitewater destination to make roadside runs.

Have fun!

Friday, January 13, 2012

SE USA Packrafting: Green Narrows

It's now clear why so many great boaters come from the SE: The Green River Narrows.

"The Green" is a steep, dam-release creek that apparently runs 300 days a year. It's about 30 minutes from the hip outdoor progressive town of NC, Asheville -- think Hood River but with a southern drawl and a banjo.

It was a bit of a drive from Elijay GA, Tim's adolescent home, to Bryson City where we met J.E.B. Hall, friend of Trip Kinney and an aweome boater in his own right. Jeb is like a fourth or fifth generation western NC native, who works as a fishing guide in AK during the summer and a rep for Pyranna Kayaks most of the rest of the year. A wonderful physical complement to Trip, his Southern accent would come out on the river.

We started on the Upper Green at 100%, the local measure of relative flow on the Green.

Apparently the Upper Green has two "Class III" rapids, the first a 15 foot slide that somehow I flipped midway down, barking my knuckles and pulling a short rib in a determined effort to roll at its base and regain some measure of dignity.

I could see the disappointment, nah, concern on Jeb's face. I felt like putting the clown nose I carried in my pfd pocket as a badge of shame. We were like a quarter of the way down the beginner run and I had already blown it in the name of packrafts, performing as all too many 'round the world expect.

But in this case it was the boater (me) and not the boat (sweet 2011 Alpacka Llama).

Fortunately, Luc and Timmy would show this downstream where it counted.

About the same time we put on, a solo, short-boat canoeist put in, but seemed to take out just below the same rapids we found another pair of canoeists scouting.

"This is typical of the Green's ledges. Just run down the middle and stay in the flow," called Jeb as he dropped down the second "III", something that felt very IV-ish to me.

Soon enough I was looking over the first drop of the Narrows, "Bride of Frankenstein" and while it looked straightforward enough, performance anxiety choked me up. Still, it was no problem and actually did feel class III, if rated Class IV.

Below it was Frankenstein and Tim took one look at the pile of f*cksticks jamming the sieve between two boulders and decided to walk. Luc ran the drop just above the sieves and made it past easily, but the fact that it was a dirty little set of drops that looked unappealing in the way that it didn't look challenging (looked like Class III) or rewarding, just dangerous, underscored the typical whitewater rating scale where somehow difficulty and danger are merged. Frankenstein is rated a V.

Downstream the river choked up with rocks jumbled in gradient and Jeb gave some instructions that basically sounded like "follow me".

By now we'd been passed by a couple of sets of kayakers. They were friendly and exuded little attitude/arrogance seen elsewhere. This could have been because we were with a local hardman/guide. Or it could be that the SE boaters in particular, and Eastern boaters in general, are more tolerant of a variety of craft. On this run we'd see short canoes and hand paddlers, and knew that inflatables had been down before, even hand-paddled through Gorilla, the biggest rapid on the run.

I got some of my groove back in Pincushion's rock garden and the drops below, down to the memorably named "Boof or Consequences." Here again I got out and walked, not because it looked dangerous, but because it looked tricky: a narrow steep slot to a sharp turn next to a rock wall. But Luke styled it. Tim and I began to wonder if Luc wasn't planing to try and run everything.

The next drop was one of the V+ rapids, "Go left or Die", I mistakenly though I heard it called. It's actually Go Left and Die. Needless to say I followed a woman down the sneak slot 'n' slide to the right (the Squeeze), also rated a Class IV but simple fun and more like a novel Class III in my opinion. But heh, what do I know?

"Yea, that is easy," said Tim, "a packraft just blubbers down." Indeed, there are many rapids that would be hard, even dangerous in a kayak that re just plain fun and safe(ish) in a packraft.

Luc paddled into the Go Left rapid without a good look at it, but with the usual expert beta offered up by Jeb, who was now getting cold, due to waiting around for us to look at and video stuff and his thin layer of clothes.

"Yea, I do it in 40, 45 minutes," he'd told me on the phone. Today it'd be 4 hours.

So we were waiting in the pool below the Class V+ rapid, one of the Green's "Big 3" as Luc slid down the entrance log, plunged off the eight (?) foot drop and pretty much got munched immediately in its river right hole and with me thinking the rapid is called "Go Left or Die", fearing the bad thing.

But Luc fought his way out and survived, got back in his boat and after scouting the next Class V rapid -- Zwick's (sounded like Swix, as in wax, when Jeb named it) -- ran Zwick's and the Class IV Reverse 7 footer above it cleanly, eddying out above the next Class V (again, it's an easy drop that just happened to kill someone and pin somebody else) called Chief.

Timmy also ran these clean but I boofed directly into the pocket at the base of the second drop in Zwick;s and got held for an uncomfortably long time and lost my boat, which washed down a couple rapids, to finally park itself in the Garage cave at the top of Gorilla.

It was there, below Zwick's, that I got to paddle the 2011 hull design with the 2012 cockpit (no spray skirt -- that was on Timmy) when I roped Timmy's boat back to cross to the portage trail. That stock cockpit was so easy to get into and out of compared to my heavily velcroed special production boat. And I had been noticing all week that their boats were just as dry if not drier than mine.

We all portaged Chief, Pencil Sharpener, the Notch, Gorilla's main event called the Flume, and then the two rapids below. Pencil Sharpener, the Notch, and the Flume together make up the Class V+ Gorilla, which looked doable to me in a packraft.

Personally I didn't find either Go Left and Die appealing, nor Sunshine, the other V+, safe-looking, but carnage videos, Trip's stories, and the raw beauty of Gorilla drew me, and if I'd had a third day, yes, I would have given it a try. And after ten days of paddling down there, I think with the right boof I could land it, although the Speed Trap wave/hole below would likely stop me and flip me.

Anyway, we put in just above the last two slides between Gorilla and made those (Power Slide and Rapid Transit, two IVs). I took a beefy left hand run following Jeb on the Rapid Transit and felt my mojo return.

"Just run it blind and follow me," he'd said and we did and it was super wild and exhilarating.

Next was the third V+, Sunshine with its lead-in Groove Tube, another rapid with a disconcerting swim below it, so we portaged and put in below Sunshine and its deadly center rock. I got tripped up by a little side hole/wave, and then was dissuaded from going to Linville by Jeb's description of Linville Gorge as hard as the Green but with much less friendly mid-stream boulders. That and my lousy day on the Green so far.

Below Sunshine the river lets up and is just fun Class IV and III slots, plops, and drops all perfect for packrafts until the long III leading into Toilet Bowl's IV hole where I flipped but made a very satisfying combat roll and preventing an uncontrolled entrance into the Class V Hammerfactor.

Luc ran Hammerfactor clean. Tim had to brace and came closer to swimming than at any other time I'd seen him on this trip. And I tried to roll in the pool below Hammerfactor but couldn't get it and swam.

The rest of the run was fun but uneventful, and I felt like I didn't really "do" the Green Narrows. Tim had done better than I, of course, although we both walked the same rapids, and Luc had run a couple we walked and tried Go Left, but he'd lost his momentum after I swam Zwick's. Except for Toliet Bowl/Hammerfactor he never recovered it, really, that day.

So the next day Gordy showed up and lead us to eat breakfast at a hip breakfast joint in Asheville ("Pretty Girl?") and run shuttle.

We put in for just the Narrows and got a bunch of "those boats are badass" from the 20-somethings and snickers and sneers from the older guys who couldn't wait "to see those boats in some holes".

This time everything went so much better. I had no performance anxiety. We paddled at our own pace and got good video and had fun. Until Zwick's.

At Zwick's I tried to boof right and did but got tripped up on landing (too sideways without enough brace). There was a crew of kayakers hovering all around us and I missed one too many rolls and pulled out too late, getting swept into the lethal Chief right before everybody's helpless eyes with their hands full of paddles, throw ropes and in Gordy's case a long stick (he'd hiked down to watch) and me upside down in my boat deaf to their cries to bail.

You see I thought I had time to roll and did if I'd nailed the first, or even the second. But I bailed after the third and shouldn't have been surprised when surfacing to find myself getting washed into the first drop of Chief.

The night before I had spent twenty minutes reading stories and watching video and looking at pictures of low water Chief, and as I headed toward the second drop I turned headfirst to fend off its pin rock and went over the drop and struck my chest on it. That was better than going feet first and getting my legs stuck, I reckoned.

A hot kayaker, rightfully miffed that I hadn't got out sooner, bumped my boat down to me and I swam to shore with boat and paddle. One more drop and I would have slid through the Notch to be swallowed and punched by the Gorilla.

Feeling good to be alive, I filmed Luc as he waited for a gang of hardshellers to sail off of Gorilla's Flume. They eddied out and chatted him up before he pulled out to run the series of slides below. It was neat as they hollered and hooted as he made the boofs and drops.

From there down we had a great run to the take-out and while I got flipped again at Hammerfactor, I managed to combat roll out of it, so it was OK.

Yep, we packrafted the Green and I'd do it again, maybe even give Gorilla a try. Tim almost ran it but preferred Sunshine's straightforward boof (although he didn't try that either). It just looks doable to me.

Yes, we'll have to go back, maybe with boats outfitted with the whitewater package that Timmy J is designing for Alpacka. Not sure when....

That night we spent some time on the town with Gordy and Adam Griffith, a local scientist and kayaker we met on the Chattooga. We soakied up the gaming, music, and food scene in Asheville. The food at a Caribbean style place called Salsa was really tasty. Gordy got a huge lav pot of boiling pork fit for Fred Flintstone. Later that night we heard the band in the video below live. Good times.

The next day didn't rain enough so we headed back to Georgia paddling a bit of the middle Cullasaja River on the way.

Luc posted some photos and words at things to luc at and there are a handful of videos that Tim, Luc, and I have put together.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chattooga River, Section IV: A Southeastern Classic

Remember Deliverance, the movie? Not the nasty bits, but the river scenery and the rapids? That's Section IV of the Chattooga River along the GA-SC border.

It thawed a bit and warmed up ten degrees, but there was still ice hanging from the bluffs and Tim forgot his drysuit. We lucked out though as there were boaters at the put in who offered to shuttle us back. And Tim found himself a spray top in town. Plus it was sunny much of the run.

Oh, what a run it is.

For you Alaskans, think Six Mile but all stretched out, and then five drops in a row with nice, calm pools in between. If Tellico was a Southeastern version of Ship Creek, then the "Corkscrew" was a double-sized Staircase; the "Crack in the Rock" an inside-out Suckhole; "Jawbone" a Merry Go Round without the hateful entrance, and "Socker Mom" (Sock 'em Dog) a fantastic double Jaws sized boof.

Luc said it was harder than Six Mile and Tim pointed out that it has worse consequences with sieves and potholes and entrapment. Over its 40 year boating history there have been many deaths.

The river flows through what feels like Piedmont as there are no mountains in view. Soon after leaving the bridge, the river left, northwest facing South Carolina side has icicles and rhododendron and fat pine. The river right southeast facing Georgia side had dry open woods, no rhodos and more oaks. It was striking: Appalachians at water line left and hot sunny south right side. It's a broad river, too except where it necks down to powerful chutes and chundering holes.

We all paddled the 2011 style Llama, Luc and Tim in the new spray decks which seem to be staying dry. None of us swam. I made a combat roll, dropping off a slide and trying to follow Adam with a quick turn in a lateral hole. He was amazed to see that packrafts roll. I swear that for me the foot pad makes all the difference.

The kayakers, Adam from Asheville, smiling Kate and her dad Mike, Kevin the ten year NOC instructor, and Dallas the itinerant boater who saw us on Tellico day before yesterday, were super fun to cross paths with. They caught us on the Five Falls, there at the end then chatted with us during the 2 mile lake paddle (kind of a buzz kill).

Luc shot amazing photos and video, but you're going to have to wait for it.

Until then, make do with my quick take on this super fun southern river.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Soft Shells on the Tellico Ledges

January 1 Tim took me out to the local creek of his youth: the Cartecay River here in Northern Georgia.

He paddled Sheri Tingey's latest creation, the "Orca" and I paddled my ten pound packraft. The Orca, like the 2012 Alpackas, has a cowling that holds -- wait for it -- a kayak style spray skirt! While the stock Llamas and Yaks have a thin, tent pole like oval aluminum rim to hold fast the spray skirt, the Orca has one-inch tubing and padded aluminum thigh braces that are adjustable. It also has a Teflon skid plate on the bottom for sliding over rocks while reducing wear.

It was New Year's Day and a local tubing/kayak outfitter was running shuttle to a chili feed and back to the put-in. It sure didn't feel like New Year's. It was a balmy 60 degrees and sunny.

With all the foam and my seat fully inflated I sat high and tipped over immediately, but rolled up easily. Tim followed suit,

"Oh man. This thing rolls so easily. It's not even a packraft anymore." With its narrow profile and 10 inch tubes, its long stern, pointy bow and trimmer, no rocker bow, it rolled easily. For my part the addition of the foot pad at the feet for bracing made all the difference.

We paddled easily off the Class II+ ledges, surfing waves and chatting up other paddlers.

"What is that thing?"

"We call it a soft-shell kayak."

Others asked, "Who makes that?"

"Alpacka Rafts," we answered.

"Wow," one guy said, "I haven't seen them for real. Just in videos of guys up in Alaska walking in and running the snow melt."

We got down to the last "falls" and joined a pack of kayakers surfing the last wave. We surfed and rolled to cheers and hoots. Most were beginner boaters, still working on their own rolls and skills. Indeed almost 15 years ago, Tim had been one of them: a novice local.

Because the water is warm and the air was, too, I enjoyed every opportunity to roll and worked on different foam combinations for riding slides.

That night we picked Luc up in Atlanta and drove back to Tim's family home in the mountains, spent the night outfitting our boats to fit as well as possible and drove north to Tennessee and the Appalachian jewel, Ledges of the Tellico.

The warm weather had been pushed away by a cold front. With frozen ground, ice on the boats, and cold hands it felt more like Alaska in October than the South. Still the half dozen ledges were super fun and we lapped the Baby Falls looking to get it right.

The highlight was the catwalk adventure out to the lower Bald River Falls and its steep slide and Jerrod's Knee, a very Alaskan creek style boulder garden that, as Luc said, "Is like the best of all we have back home."

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