Friday, December 19, 2008

Day 5 – On which I flip the boat and get my fill of whitewater.

It all began calmly enough, quite relaxing, really, with time enough to watch a beefy Patagonian fox, coyote-sized and rufous, through binoculars in the boat. It sat on the grassy left bank of the Rio Paine, annoyed with the screeching alarm calls of nesting birds in a copse of trees not far away. Downstream a slender rufous hawk dealt with mobbing blackbirds and the waters quickened and made a tight left turn.

“Let’s get out!”

We beached the boat where the river dropped into a canyon with rounded hills tight to each side.

I left Peggy to watch the avian drama through her bins while I followed cow paths through the grassland and scouted the next three sets of rapids.

I ran them handily while Peggy walked and videoed, meeting her below, where the whole river folded into a narrow gap plunging over a four foot ledge. It looked runnable, and if I flipped there was a big pool below to catch me.

Peggy encouraged me. “Oh you can do it!”

I had a line in mind, but decide to go somewhat left and, as Peggy would recount afterword, “right in the middle of the worst of it!”

Sliding down the tongue, I backstroked once then twice in an effort to time the breaking of the wave, but it still toppled me, folding the front load over and flipping me.

Unlike the test sticks I’d tossed in while scouting, I was held under for a surprisingly long time. I guess I’d become accustomed to a quick rise with PFD and dry suit, but now with no drysuit and only the back half of my two-piece PFD, I was shocked by cold water and swirling current.

I popped out and grabbed the boat.

“Are you OK!”

I nodded, but was too busy holding the paddle and the boat to signal back with hand on head as an “OK”.

My attempt to right the boat failed. The pad on the bow and the 50 pounds in the stern stymied me. The left walls broke into a submerged ledge and I swam toward it, struggling to pull myself up its slimy surface. Once on top, I flipped the boat right side up and paddled over to Peggy, who, surprisingly was ready to hop in.

More rapids below we scouted together and I was surprised that Peggy wanted to run them with me, even after watching me swim -- and that superimposed on her stated dislike of whitewater.

So we ran them together and were nearly flipped when “bander-snatched” and swamped in a weird eddy line. But with two of us paddling we muscled free easily of the sucking river.

“Slow down!” Peggy was paddling furiously, too fast for me to keep up and we banged our blades. For the rest of the afternoon, I’d know when Peggy was nervous because her paddles would whip urgently.

We ran a half dozen more drops we scouted, carefully mapping out our line. I encouraged Peggy to pick the line and describe it to me, and she did.

We knew the Paine Cascades were coming up and so got out for every blind corner. The drops over slatey ledges were getting bigger and more frequent as the river left the mountains for foothills and plains.

Eventually we reached another set of three drops that we decided would be best if Peggy walked. Below that I looked ahead and found a Class IV drop followed shortly by a Class V double plunge that I wanted nothing to do with.

It was still early, but I wanted to dry out our gear before packing and making an early camp would give us time to explore the pampas grasslands.

We made camp and set out for a couple hours walk. The rapids grew bigger and more challenging, with several Class IV drops and then the beautiful Paine Cascades. They looked like a miniature Niagara Falls, horseshoe shaped and split by an island. On the far side was the parking area where tourists snapped photos a dn marveled at the beauty and power.

We walked back through the grassland. There were birds and a handsome skunk, running as we flushed it from a guanaco carcass. Dried by the wind and sun and picked clean by condors, fox, and the grumpy skunk, it had no smell and we inspected the weird creature’s remains.

Guanacos are the wild relatives of llamas and alpacas. We’d spotted two lone males on the hillsides above the river in the last two days. Here we could see that besides their long necks, their long legs ended in strange, padded, two-toed hooves that looked like long callouses ending in claws. Their aws had both upper and lower incisors, unlike sheep, cattle, and deer, and canines, too. While llamas are known to spit, if they had a mouth full of teeth like their wild cousin, no doubt they could bight as painfully as horses.

The pampas were in bloom and while I satisfied myself with their beautiful colors, Peggy indulged in her excellent olfactory sense by sniffing the fragrance of each new flower.

Our favorite finds were what looked to be little yellow slipper “orchids” or beefy, orange ones. Later we’d discover in plant books that these were not orchids, but instead elaborate snapdragons.

The pampas were pokey with dwarf calafate and other spiny plants and we had to pick our way slowly back to camp, finding patches of morels, skulls of fox and skunk and other bones on our way back to our camp. We glassed a cave on a high hill, vowing to visit it tomorrow on our way to the trail. Perhaps a cat cave? We wished very much to see a puma, and Peggy thought this might be a good place for one to live.

It had been another ideal day of packrafting, mixing walking and boating with excitement, adventure, challenge, as well as new plants and insights into wildlife.

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