Sunday, January 4, 2009

The West Coast

If it wasn’t for the West Coast I wouldn’t know what all the fuss was about New Zealand. Sure the people are nice, the mountains alright – but boy, there’re a lot of sheep. And it’s nice that NZ feels like America in the 60s. People take time to stop and talk. The highways are small and slow down for each little town. The towns themselves are filled with locally run businesses and the odd NZ chain, but there’s little of that god-awful homogeneity and globalization that’s spread across the US like crabgrass.

Highway 6 runs north from Westport, a two-lane highway with single lane bridges that hugs the coast like a tightly knit sweater. Mountains rise from the craggy coastline steeply, the views reminding us of windward Oahu or Maui. The Tasman Sea’s waters break against sea stacks and islands like the Pacific breaks against Oregon and Northern California. But of course you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, turning on the wind shield wipers when you meant to signal to pull over to a cobble beach for a of bit tide-pooling. The road signs warn of penguin crossings and palm trees grow on the flats. It’s that old NZ tropics and ice again, but with a distinctly maritime flavor, and you know that Twain got it right.

The neatest part of the coast for me are the wind-sculpted forests, ablaze in early summer red bottle bush blossoms of the northern rata (a close relative of Hawaii’s ohia lehua native tree), and the silly-named but fantastic “Pancake Rocks” near Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park.

The pancake rocks are made of ancient marine sediments, likely laid down 30 million years ago in the Oligocene, when New Zealand was nearly drowned. These are no short stacks, but big sea stacks, soft sea cliffs with terns nesting on their sides and a broad array of native plants, like the limp-leafed, agave-looking flax (used by ancient Maori for making clothes among other things) and Joshua-tree-esque cabbage trees. There’s a wonderful walk that winds through a short piece of rainforest and wind swept flax flats to lookouts over blow-holes and sea-arches, sea stacks and walls of pancakes.

It’s popular without being crowded, well-interpreted without being touristy.

“This place is great – you just want to go out and climb on the rocks,” commented Jazz the rock climber.

“But the rock looks really crumbly,” observed Peggy.

Elsewhere along the coast we found cobbles polished by the ocean, and boulders carved by the waves into seats fit for the Museum of Modern Art. We walked sandy beaches with black oyster catchers. Like the highways, there was no trash on these beaches, no flotsam, no jetsam, not even polished glass.

“100% pure NZ,” said the tourist brochures, and beyond the sheep and the cattle and the deer behind ten foot fences, it was true – until we reached the far north of the west coast and the homemade signs, “Stop the Drop – No 1080!” started appearing.

It seems awkward, to say the least, that a place that prides itself on organic growth, clean water and air, a place with essentially NO litter – would drop a poison (1080 or Sodium fluoroacetate) with no known antidote almost indiscriminately from the air in an effort to kill rats, deer, rabbits, and possums.

A Family Trip to Arthur's Pass National Park

Hitchhiking at middle age in a foreign country has its rewards. Like any other rewarding activity, it certainly poses risks, but we count on the risk of murder by a serial killer, or simple robbery, as somewhat low.

The rewards are that we meet people and learn about locals as well as other travelers. And we save money and aren’t stuck with public transit routes. Peggy’s winning smile certainly counters my fearsome, bearded visage, and we rarely wait for more than half a dozen vehicles to pass before we’ve caught a ride.

It took two rides and most of the afternoon to get back to Christchurch’s Church Corner. The Thistle Guesthouse was full, so we checked into a “Holiday Caravan Park”. New Zealand has these great accommodations within most of its cities offering a range of housing from camping on soft grass to private en suite rooms with bathrooms and kitchenettes. And usually right on a bus line.

The places are clean and feel safe and this time of year are pretty full with both locals and travelers. NZ is full of travelers. In fact during our two or three weeks in NZ, we have met more people from elsewhere than we have met native Kiwis.

After most longish wilderness trips, coming back to civilization represents a significant positive part of the experience. After seeing nobody but your partner, it’s great to see and talk to others again. After walking and rafting at most 5 mph or so, it’s great to rip across the landscape at 100 km/hr. After eating one-pot, boil-only meals, it’s great to have a lamb souvlaki and a couple oranges. And it’s great to not have to carry your whole world everywhere you go, too.

We were excited to be back to town, back to familiar Church Corner, to eat and relax. We’d have a day to clean-up before Jazz arrived from Portland.

Jazz came in on a misty morning. It was hardly summer yet, even though it was the day before summer solstice.

Peggy found her while I waited outside in the car. Jazz jumped in, bubbly and happy to see us despite more than 20 hours travel. We had ideas of what we’d do with her, but weren’t sure what she’d want.

We went downtown in the rain to find maps of where to go next.

“What do you want to do Jazz?”

“I want to exercise and hang out with my parents.”

This was like music to my ears. I took it as the go-ahead to plan some more packraft trips.

We had only a week and a half or so before Peggy and I headed for Australia. The curse of the island coastline and mountain crests meant that driving here was a slow, time consuming prospect. Driving south to Fjordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, where good trails and rivers abound, was out.

Instead we’d head west to Arthur’s Pass National Park and the West Coast, then north to Kahurangi National Park.

“Dad wants to raft. What I thought we could do is walk in with him, then walk while he rafts. The walking’s really good here and there’s nothing that can get you: no bears, snakes, or spiders,” Peggy explained.

“That sounds good. I don’t want to raft either.” Jazz replied.

“On our last trip, Dad carried all the stuff in the raft while I just hiked with a day pack.”

“Yea, it’s pretty fun. Mom gets her exercise and I get my rafting.”

Part of the purpose of this sabbatical is to find packrafting trips that beginners and intermediates might enjoy. The 100 mile trip from Arthur’s Pass to Erewhon Station that Peggy and I had just completed was just such a trip: the waters were good for intermediates and the hiking and pass climbs were good for intermediate off-trail hikers. But it was a week-long trip, a significant expenditure in time and effort to complete.

What I wanted next was a day or weekend trip suitable for beginners. Something like a popular packrafting trip in Alaska’s Denali National Park that makes a semicircle from the Park Road, up the Savage River and down the Sanctuary.

On the day after Solstice in sunny, warm weather, we drove our rental car west, sightseeing on the way, to Andrews Creek Shelter in the Waimakariri Valley.

There’re something like 1400 huts in NZ and untold miles of tracks (Kiwi for hiking trail). The huts range from things like the smelly, little tent-sized biv we used in the Lawrence Valley to 20+ person dormitories complete with gas cookers and cleaning people. As for the tracks, they, too, range from cleared paths with boardwalks on the bogs and bridges over the streams, to faint animal trails with the odd triangular marker and hellish river crossings.

Both the huts and the tracks are pretty much indispensable on the West Coast, where the westerly winds bring moisture to the mountain slopes, nourishing thick bush and legions of sandflies.

The sandflies are native gnats, like blackflies or white-sox, born of larvae in the rivers and streams. They don’t buzz round your head so much as round any exposed flesh, biting and bleeding you. Unlike Alaskan mosquitoes you can outwalk blackflies at about one mile per hour (it takes 3 mph to outrun mosquitoes). Bug dope works well, and unlike mosquitoes they don’t touch-and-go a bug-doped body part. But their bites swell and itch terribly. I’d put them on the short list for “world’s worst backcountry bugs.” They pretty much make those huts a necessity.

Patagonia and NZ backcountry have much in common, but while NZ lacks Chile’s bi-polar wind, Chile thankfully lacks bad bugs.

We set up the tent outside the Spartanly furnished Andrew Hut, and took refuge from the bugs, sweltering in the afternoon heat of the first day of summer, both literally and climatically.

“I wish we had some cards,” said Jazz.

As a family we’d camped on four continents, and usually we’d had cards or five dice for Yahtzie. Jazz plays well at cards and when the three of us play the gaming is often surprisingly non-transitive. In pairs, Jazz beats me quite regularly, while I beat Peggy, and Peggy beats Jazz. Sort of like rock-papers-scissors, I guess, when we all three play.

But instead we suffered the heat and counted the bugs, so numerous they sounded like rain drops hitting the tent.

After dinner we went to bed before it was fully dark. Outside the tent I heard something rustle, stealing from us, I reckoned.

In my dream state I visualized a raccoon, then upon waking, I thought “possum”, but when Peggy unzipped the tent door we saw it was a Kea! A parrot was thieving our plastic tooth-brush and toiletries box, dragging it away like a temple monkey might steal your lunch or a Yosemite bear might drag away your pack into the woods.

Peggy dashed out of the tent chasing the bird, a box half as big as itself in its oversized beak, her yelling and shooshing the cheeky bird until she’d recovered the box.

In the morning we packed for a long day, fifteen miles I estimated (wrongly), on a trail that the Park map called “one of the easier tramps in the park” (A tramp seems to be trek where you camp in huts). They suggested the loop as a two-day trip: the first day passing over 2,500 foot Casey Saddle to the Casey Hut and the second day paralleling the Poulter River (“easy flats for 4-5 hours”), then returning to Andrew Shelter via 3,500 foot Binser Saddle (three and a half hours).

Jazz had not really been on her feet since last summer when she was running and walking in Anchorage with Peggy. This fall at Lewis and Clark she had been busy getting all As and a B, as well as socializing with her college friends -- not much walking except between classes, dorms, and the cafeteria.

The fact that the day turned out to be 20 miles, not 15, combined with tight shoes and little previous foot time – well, my bad.

Instead of six miles and three hours to Casey Hut that it looked like to me, it felt more like eight or ten miles and took us five hours. The trail was not flat as I’d interpreted from the rather poorly detailed 1: 80,000 scale map (which did warn its users: “tramps in the park require users to carry 1:50,000 topographic map”), but rather rolling and wiggly.

Jazz to her credit (she's the natural athlete in the family, after all) made good time and we all chatted on as we passed through mountain beech, open gravel bar flats, a board-walked bog, a bit of rain forest, and an open woodland before descending to the Poulter River valley.

At one point the trail made its way through a wet marshy area where Didymo, an exotic and invasive green algae, seemed to choke the otherwise clear running stream. We made sure to hop over and not collect any blobs of the aquatic weed on our shoes or trekking poles.

When we got to Casey Hut, a couple who’d camped next to us at Andrew Shelter was there, having mountain biked up the Poulter Valley.

“Yea, it’s 20 ks in, and really rocky,” said the woman in an Aussie accent.

“That's after 15 ks on the road from Andrew Shelter,” added the man in a Mediterranean accent.

They looked beat, slathering insect repellent to fight the sandflies, sweaty and sticky in dust from the day's heat.

I looked at Peggy. “I don’t want to go back the way we came, do you, Jazz?” Peggy’d read my look.

We’d already come what must’ve been ten miles and twelve more – even if essentially flat -- sounded tough.

Jazz’ feet weren’t blistered yet. She said, “Let’s just walk down the river to the road. We don’t have any headlamps.”

Unfortunately, we’d not thought to leave the car key at the car and instead wondered who’d get there first. None of us wanted to walk the nine miles back on the road.

I hustled down the trail to blow up my packraft. Jazz caught up.

“Dad. The mountain bikers said that they’d come back and get you. They’ll get down before any of us and I’m afraid we’ll run out of light hiking back over the other pass. I just want to walk down to the road.” Jazz has always been a sensible thinker.

“OK. I’ll take the car key and hurry down the river. I’ll meet you at the road. Do you have enough food?”

We said good-bye and I left the trail and walked to the river.

I blew up my boat, dressed in rain gear, and shoved off.

The boating was good, easy, and the water extraordinarily blue to look at and clear to look through. I made good time running some easy splashy sections and ducking beneath an electric fence along the Park boundary.

Meanwhile, Peggy and Jazz were slogging out the miles, first on a good trail through forest, but then on a hard-packed double-track that started to pound Jazz feet.

Peggy’s fitness from our trips in Patagonia and the week before in the Alps had conditioned her, so eventually she carried Jazz’ pack, too. As I would hear later, they lost the trail a time or two and Peggy got shocked crossing the electric fence!

Elsewhere, lazy cattle stopped and waited, worrying the girls, but of course the animals always ran. Jazz used her keen powers of observation to route-find and spot the rabbits. They traded the map back and forth as they made their way.

I made it down the river by 6 PM, having put in at 4 PM. I quickly caught a ride from a young sheep station worker heading home for the holidays. Henry had a pickup full of pig hunting dogs, a .22 up front for hares and rabbits, and a .12 gauge in back for what the dogs found.

He drifted around the gravel corners and accelerated down the straight-aways, clearly in a hurry to get home for the holidays. I’d felt less apprehensive running the Class II rapids on the Poulter than I did with this teen at the wheel.

I guess hitchhiking does have its risks, and this was the most common: bad driving.

Close to the Andrew Shelter we passed the mountain bikers who would now would not need to come get me.

We shared stories briefly about their ride and my boat. They were surprised I got back before they did. I hopped in our rental Toyota wagon, then sped back to the Poulter to get my girls.

Arriving around 8 PM, I drove down the double track as far as I dared, then glassed upstream for hikers. I could see upstream a good couple miles. Seeing no one and fearing the worst – i.e blisters, tears, and maybe a lost trail - I loaded my pack with headlamps, food, and a jacket and hustled to find them.

Five minutes later I saw Peggy about a mile away and Jazz just a short distance behind.

Within 20 minutes we were together, Jazz limping and Peggy shaking her head.

“We trashed her feet. She hasn’t done anything like this in months. Twenty miles on your first hike is too many.”

I felt the sting of a parent who’s subjected his daughter to too much – at least I wasn’t there to directly do it, otherwise I’d have it added to the life list the family kept of other poor judgements of mine involving Jazz.

“I thought about just sitting up at the car and reading my book,” I teased, handing the girls a can of Sour Cream Pringles.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t,” Peggy said. “You need to be a good Dad.”

“Yea, Dad,” Jazz teased, “one who doesn’t hurt his daughter’s feet.”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Down the Lawrence and Butler to Erewhon

Samuel Butler, a 19th century novelist and aristocrat, had spent time as a young man in New Zealand. Indeed Butler Saddle had been named after him as he'd worked a sheep station in the valley of the Lawrence and Clyde Rivers.

In his most famous novel, published anonymously as Over the Range, he wrote satire on Victorian England, a ficticious place called "Erewhon", sort of like "nowhere" backwards. Our destination, the mega-sized sheep, cattle, horse, and deer farm called "Erwehon Station", was named from that novel.

Erwehon Station in many ways represents well that inter-digitation of NZ's domestic and wild. It's where the mountains meet the lowlands, where wind and weather still rule but humans work hard to profit.

Nearby Erwehon Station we would learn is a popular tourist destination, Mount Sunday, the site of the film version of Edoras, capital of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

It rained and blew all night and Peggy preferred the smelly dry of Lawrence Biv to the familiar tent in the wet.

But by morning it was sunny and blue. She dressed in shorts as we dried our gear. Mistake.

The spaniards were thick and filled all spaces between the many boulders. It took us an hour to pick our way a half km to the gravel bar.

Once there we made good time. In the sun, even the red lichen coated cobbles were fast and nor the green cushion plants foul. They were apparently full -- I mean by the hundreds, if not thousands -- of little, stink bugs, 3 mm or so long.

We saw black-fronted terns and little black ring breasted plovers – wrybills, a bird with a sideways curving bill – as we made our way down. There were daisies of all sizes, white and yellow. And eventually we left the spaniards behind and met up again with matagouri, pokey now in the dry with its stiff inch long thorns. We avoided it whenever possible.

Like the Avoca we found a station jeep trail and that meant Peggy would walk with day pack and I would packraft down the Lawrence. It was splashy and fun and very fast, sometimes shallow. I quickly pulled ahead of Peggy, but met up with her again when I portaged a short canyon between land slides and plugged with a twenty-foot stiff wire fence on the downriver side. That would pop my boat and ruin my day. Peggy helped me portage.

The river was fast enough that I took the time to set up the video camera and shoot me floating by, waiting for Peggy to catch up.

After 10 km or so, I could see that the river was channelizing and swinging hard onto the side Peggy had been walking.

It was time to take her aboard.

She didn’t much want to get on as she’d had a bad day. First putting on shorts in the spaniards; falling in the spaniards; losing the road in the gravel bars and cobble hobbling most of the day, and now, as she stepped into the boat, it scootered out from under her and she fell sideways into the water.

“I don’t want to get in. It’s going to be terrible, I know it. The day’s been going really bad, especially after yesterday when everything went well.”

“What can happen? You have on your dry suit and PFD. We’ve done this before. Come on. If it goes badly you can walk on the other side, but you can’t walk on this side.

From there the river picked up speed and soon tripled in volume. We flew downstream, backpaddling and ferrying to slow us and keep us out of the bigger waves, some over 4-5 feet tall.

Peggy did fantastic, keeping us bow downstream and backpaddling so we rode over the waves without crashing into them. Meanwhile I used a nalgene bottle to bail what inevitably spilled into the boat.

For 30 minutes we cruised like this, exciting paddling, but scary. If the boat were to deflate, we’d be pretty far out in the middle of a fast and powerful current. The whitewater, while easy, was sustained. In that half hour we made 10 km to the backyard or Erewhon Station.

We made camp in the woods of exotic radiata pine, an import from California. In the morning we walked about five miles to a creek where we bathed and Peggy found a geocache in view of Mt Sunday and its parade of tourists.

Now we knew why they were there – New Zealand has made a tourist trade of taking people to locations for the Lord of the Rings Movie and this one was closest to Christchurch.

We caught a ride easily from here.

This had been the trip I’d come for: sharing gear, using the packraft as a tool to cross wild landscapes as a couple. We’d made about 100 miles in six nights and most of seven days. We’d floated on six rivers and crossed two, high mountan passes, seen rare birds and exotic wildlife.

For me, we’d come close to recapturing the feeling of a trip made 22 years ago, when we’d used a single packraft for a three week traverse in the Brooks Range.

A good feeling to know we can still find adventure in our late 40s.

What We'd Come for: Over Butler Saddle

It rained all night, with thunder and lightening frighteningly close.

We left Evans Hut on the flooding Cattle Stream and headed up-river in the wind and rain. The Rakaia was raging after two days rain following two days sun. The sun had melted snow and glacial ice and now the rain was flushing it off.

We hoped to wade the rockin’ Rakaia, but moving upstream we found it channelized, steep and scary. Indeed, there were no eddies and a raft crossing was not possible until we’d reached the stream coming down from Butler Saddle, our route into the Lawrence Valley.

Color coding signaled the quality of gravel bar walking: green meant go, on firm and level cushion plants. Yellow meant slow, on mossy rocks, a bit hard. Red meant stop, on cobbles coated in red lichen.

I used the wind pump to inflate the raft, packed everything and ferried over meter high waves to the other side. Depositing ths load on the far bank, I walked upstream and returned for Peggy.

“It looks fun.”

It was fun, and with two of us paddling we rode over quickly and easily, between a heft Class III drop above and a two mile long crashing roller coaster below.

The rain stopped briefly and we ate lunch, rolled up the raft, and packed up. Puling off my dry suit I ripped the neck gasket then pulling off my rain jacket beneath that I ripped its shoulder seems. It would be a while before I could repair those.

The opaque, glacial side stream rushed steeply down its boulder choked bed. The flow was thick and white. We had to cross, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Finally we found a wide spot, but the round boulders and swollen current made wading possible for only half the 25 yard distance. The rest of the way was boulder hopping on wet rock in the rain.

“This is stupid! I don’t wanna do this!” she called out after I had made some long leaps in sequence.

I dropped my pack and jumped back to the crux gap, jumped that, took her pack and re-crossed. Then back to her I stood knee-deep and helped her make the moves.

“I don’t want to do any more crossings like that!” she admonished.

We moved up the clear water tributary, with her in the lead. She seemed to delight in working her way up the creek and its short drops and cascades, following animal trails when the water was too steep.

“How do these animals get over these boulders?”

We went higher and came to an avalanche cone that choked the creek bed. The creek came out of a large snow cave at its base.

“That looks bad! We might fall in a hole.”

“Nah, it’ll be firm, like ice.”

“Which side should we follow?”

“The left looks good,” she said and led off.

The snow went fast and easy. It was odd that the avalanche debris included so many rosette plants, a growth we usually think of as tropical.

“I guess that’s just New Zealand – a mix of jungle and ice. That guy Smiley said that the weather changes so fast it’s like three seasons in a day.”

Leaving the gully we followed animal trails into the brush. At first we thought they were deer trails. But then they steepened up substantially and threaded a very narrow arête between two gorges.

“What are those?”

My head was down and I was grabbing woody plants and hoisting upwards when I looked up to see what Peggy was referring to. Across the main gorge were half a dozen, shaggy brown goat like animals, low in stature and beefy in build.

“Not sure. Either chamois or thar. I think they’re thar, a Himalayan mountain goat.”

“How do you know?”

“I googled them when I was researching this route after reading some guys blog about his traverse of the South island.”

Soon we found their beds and their droppings along a thin slice of solid terrain in otherwise empty space. We were climbing steep vegetation again, but this time it was woody and had sporadic trails.

As the arête narrowed to a Thermarest width, dropping precipitously, if bushy, down either side, it looked like the trails ended. Still Peggy moved confidently behind me. The thar on the other side – more than a dozen we could now see – watched us curiously.

The trails ran out. It looked wrong but we kept to the steep ridge line, grabbing handfuls of podocarp brush to pull ourselves upward.

The rain increased.

“Let’s traverse over there!” I pointed to a grassy shelf below the final scree field leading to the pass. But this would be the worst bit – steep, wet, cliffy below, and raining hard.

Halfway into the exposed traverse, something pokey got Peggy. “Ouch, damn it! I don’t know whty let you bring me here!!” That was it. It had finally got to her.

Ahead a few yards I was into even more pokey things, “spaniards”, a weird native relative of the carrot with needle sharp leaves, like a yucca or an agave and located on cliff sides.

We got off the traverse, through the pokey grass with its army of spaniards, and onto the scree. It stopped raining and we put on another layer.

The climb up went on and on, past fabulous views and weird alpine plants, the likes of which we’d never seen before. Like the narrow strip of coastline, wild New Zealand also lies atop its mountains where no exotic plants, sheep, or cattle – just thar and chamois – live.

Around 7 PM, our normal time to make camp, we reached the summit of Butler Saddle. We wer both apprehensive to see the other side as neither wanted to camp high, trapped by darkness and verticality.

But to our happy amazement we found snowfields leading downward for over an hour. A vertical distance that had taken four hours up we descended in two.

“Can we make the hut?”

“I don’t know. It’s after nine and looks like a couple miles.”

But I had misread the map and within forty minutes Peggy spotted the miniature hut, called a “biv” and no bigger than a tent, really, nestled in the tussocks.

“Wow, I can’t believe it,” she said, “that’s twice today I saw something before you did.”

It had been a full day of big-river crossings, high passes, wild brush, canyons, cliffs, snowfields, and gorges. In one day we had more adventure than all eight days we’d spent on the Paiane Circuit in Patagonia.

And Peggy was elated. Until she smelled the biv.

Up the Rakaia Valley

The owner of 50,000 acre Mt Algidus station, an English businessman by way of Scottish scotch and Aussie wine, invited us to sleep in his fishing hut by the Titan Stream, and good thing. It rained all night. “Smiley”, who wasn’t at all, had been skeptical when we’d told him our plans upon first meeting him. He’d driven up when we were looking to cache food in his wool shed.

As he pulled up, I had quickly introduced ourselves to him, his wife, and his station manager, Malcolm. And I’d come prepared.

“Do you drink beer, Malcolm?”

“I drink anything,” he replied.

“Here, take this six pack then. I don’t like beer much,” I bribed him.

I really had wanted to leave the food at their station house. But Smiley’d have none of that. He didn’t think we’d ever cross the river, raft or not.

Smiley'd had a bad experience crossing the Wilberforce River in the station’s ute, an old Toyota 4x4 flatbed.

“Thirty-one people have died in that river,” he claimed. “There’s even a book written about Mt Algidus Station: The River Rules Your Life.”

“We’ve come all the way from Alaska to do this trip,” I blurted breathlessly, “where we do this sort of thing all the time. We just came from Patagonia and I have written a book on it.” I spit all this out an attempt to convince him, but it just spilled off Smiley, who, Peggy observed, was a bit like the actor Anthony Hopkins, like water off a duck’s back.

He eyed us suspiciously then. Now that we’d made it, he hefted the raft, and offered us a lift across the station jeep trail to the hut. We accepted and learned that he had over 3500 sheep and a thousand cattle. He said there was no money in wool and that he sold the lambs at six months, “Directly to the butcher.”

We got an early start and walked over 20 miles, all in the rain. Most of it was on station two-track, flat jeep trails used to monitor sheep, cattle and deer. The deer were kept behind tall fences, the cattle were scarce, and the sheep ubiquitous. We saw a fence full of angora goats, with their black kids, white-capped adults, and mottled jumping juveniles.

The cold, incessant rain kept us moving. We’d stop only after 2-4 hours of walking at a time, when our energy stores ran low. We shoved Cadbury chocolate, biscuits, and flavored tuna in our pie holes.

Our route followed the north bank of the Rakaia, an enormous braided river that seemed to drain most of the east-central Southern Alps. No bridges crossed it, but there was another station, Manuka Point, that filled the Rakia’s wide U-shaped valley.

Grassy flats filled the spaces between cobbles low down but as we trudged higher, the track passed through the tall matagouri scrub. This native plant has small leaves and dense branches, a result of co-evolution with the now extinct moa. Moas included a dozen or so species of herbivorous birds, one growing to nine feet tall. They went extinct one thousand years or so ago, when the Polynesians arrived and found the naïve giant, flightless birds tasty and easy to kill.

Eventually we moved higher above the matagouri into a landscape of boulders and rocks on a flat bottomed valley, where gusts of wind blew down valley. Jungle-like forest grew upwards on the steep hill sides until tree line where rock, snow, and ultimately a few glaciers took over. Waterfalls striped every mountain.

The milky white Rakia bounced between its steep bounding mountains, splitting into braids that then coalesced. We’d like to have crossed, where the walking looked easier, but the water was too fast, deep, and cold to wade, and we were too cold and wet to stop and blow up the boat. Instead we climbed into the steep thick brush and bushwacked.

“I must really love you to suffer like this for you,” she said as we climbed up the soaking wet hill. But she smiled and climbed quickly in her sky blue rain coat and new trekking poles.

Peggy led upwards in wind and rain, following a deer trail through ferns, rosette swords, divaricating shrubs, and others with 4-square leaves. It all struck us as very Hawaiian looking – yet with glaciers just above.

“This is great bushwacking,” she called out over the wind and roar of the Rakaia. “It’s not slippery, not pokey, not sharp. It’s solid and firm and gives a good grip.”

A good thing, too, as we were on a steep, vegetated cliff face directly over rapids a 100 feet below. It wasn’t so dense as to force us to clamber but thick enough that we wouldn’t rag doll down should we slip.

Nearing six thirty we needed a hut, but couldn’t see one.

“Maybe it’s washed away, or burned down. Let’s just go camp between those trees.”

As we pulled up, there we saw a stove pipe and white building side tucked in a copse of mountain beech.

“There! The hut!”

“Now you can dry your map.” Peggy was happier for me than for her as I had been searching for huts all day without knowing where they might be. The map had no protection so had been stowed in my pocket where it got soaked.

It was nice to get out of the rain.

Down the Avoca and Harper Rivers

The south side of Jordan Saddle was steep, but it did go, down a steep nose of mountain beech below a narrow arête of tussock grass that gave way to cliffs on either side.

Trails made by European red deer or chamois (a kind of European mountain goat with short horns) led across the steep scree slopes. Both are introduced animals, considered pests and hunted without bag limit or season and we saw neither. Here in the mountains we saw very little in the way of animal or bird life, save the occasional European hare.

We descended the steep tussock slopes to the arête, where we picked up an animal trail that led into the stunted mountain beech forest. Inside the open forest, a network of trails side-hilled away from the narrow ridge. Thick pendent lichen hung from the trees.

We made good time and as we descended Galilee Creek to the Avoca, making frequent use of the forest and its animal trails when the stream bed was too rocky or loose. The lower in the valley we went the more signs of humans we found. Old footprints. A rusty can and dried tea bag. Cairns. And finally an unmarked trail that led across the river bar to the Avoca.

“What’s that sweet smell. It’s everywhere.”

Peggy held up a white flower head. “It’s clover.” Another exotic organism, not native to NZ.

Huge bumble-bees patrolled the clover beds, terrorizing Peggy in her pink sun hat.

The Avoca River plunged out of its upper narrow canyon and into the wider valley below its confluence with the Galilee. It looked perfect for packrafting: low volume (maybe 300 cfs at the put-in) and relatively steep at 75 feet/mile, splashy, clear and warm.

Without much water it would not be too assertive. Being steep it would still move a boat downstream quickly. The numerous white-capped waves would demand attention in route selection and paddling skill. I’d have to maneuver the boat skillfully to keep water out but could easily read the rocks through the crystalline water. And even though I wore a dry suit, its relative warmth would make it more enjoyable than many of the glacier-fed streams so common in Alaska.

Peggy was about as unexcited to paddle as I was to get in the boat. She had already found a trail and was away from the river. I waived her over.

“Do you want to walk? I’ll take the gear and you can just hike with your poles and a day pack”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure. There’s not enough water in the river for both of us. Take your dry suit and some clothes and when the water’s deep enough we can both get in.”

But the water never did get deep enough. Not until we reached the Wilberforce the following day.

The rest of the afternoon was Brooks Range-like as we followed a clear, braided and rocky river with bare U-shaped valley sides rising above. The river’s waters ran a beautiful blue that was clear to its knee deep depth. The mountain sides rose treeless but green to gray scree summits. Blue skies with gentle white clouds capped it all. What differed from my perspective in the boat was the warmth of the water and from Peggy’s, the freedom from bears.

She walked for hours. We met at increasingly longer intervals. The first day ended with meeting for camp having made about 7 miles in two and a half hours. The second day we met for lunch where the Avoca fed the Harper doubling the latter’s size. Then several hours later we met for a portage, as the Harper River disappeared into a flood gate that took all of its water into a man-made, whitewater canal to feed Lake Coleridge and its electric generator.

Our route had dipped back into the domesticated NZ landscape.

New Zealand is not wilderness, but it can be wild and scenic. As Peggy had said earlier, it’s all been touched, “There’s sheep and cattle and names on everything. Every mountain, every stream, every cluster of peaks has a name – like this one here above Lake Coleridge – ‘Cottons Sheep Range.’”

Like the Avoca, the Harper River was perfect for beginning and intermediate boaters. It was non-stop splashy fun. Even without paddling, you’d never be out of control. There’s no wood, essentially no holes. And it moves right along. Its 11 km took Peggy an hour and forty minutes to walk and me 50 minutes to boat.

At one point below a big rounded foothill/mountain called Mt. Ida, the river swung up next to a sheer cliff of cobbles. Boulders protruded from the cliff face above, threatening to tumble, like their predecessors that formed fun PR3 obstacles in the current. A family of North American Canada geese swam downstream ahead of me, while native black-fronted terns, handsome, elegant birds, with black caps and reddish-orange legs and beaks whirred overhead. Like Alaska's Arctic terns, these birds nest on gravel bars.

We walked the dry bed of the former Harper River over to the Wilberforce River, then floated that to Mt Algidus sheep station where we'd cached four days of food. A helicopter flew over the flats of gorse upstream. We could see they were spraying herbicides.

The birds, big sky, river bars and mountains made it feel Alaskan; the warmth, color of the water, sheep, and helicopter-spraying reminded us where we were.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Packrafting New Zealand, Alaska-Style

“This place is boring. It’s all farmland! Too many sheep. It all looks the same. I like Australia better. And Alaska’s got better looking mountains.” So far, Peggy wasn’t too impressed with New Zealand.

We’d driven from Christchurch to the south end of the South Island via the coast, then back north along the edge of the Southern Alps by way of Queenstown, Lake Tekapo, and the sheep, cattle, and deer farm plains of Canterbury.

We skipped Mt. Cook as I’d been there a couple times before -- back in October 2005 as a tour guide for National Geographic Adventures and in October 2001 racing the Eco-Challenge Adventure Race with Team Earthlink.

I’d seen Mt Cook and crossed several of the mountain ranges east and south of it. Having seen NZ’s highest mountains in fine weather and foul, I had to agree with Peggy that a lot of New Zealand’s mountains looked like mediocre Alaskan ones.

But the West Coast ... now that lived up to Mark Twain’s observation: New Zealand was a place God made last, mixing the best bits of all the world in one place. Glaciers reaching almost to the sea; rocky coastlines; wind-sculpted, tropical-looking forests, small cow towns, and the most beautifully colored rivers in the world. We’d save the West Coast to share with daughter Jazz, due in from Portland on the 20th.

First we had to recover from the flu for three days in an Ashburton motel, watching TV, reading, and blogging. Then we had to make a six-night, 100 mile trip along and through the central Southern Alps.

The Southern Alps stretch the length of NZ’s South Island, crossed most famously at Arthur’s Pass, two hours west of Christchurch. My original plan was that Peggy and I’d walk and packraft from Arthur’s Pass to Mt Cook, a 10-day, maybe 150-mile trip.

After our flu and before Jazz’ arrival we were left with only nine days, days that had to include making food drops, getting there, and getting back. So we planned to make a six night, seven day trip to Lake Tekapo, if possible, and Erewhon Station, if necessary.

We left our town clothes and extra gear at Thistle Guesthouse, Church Corner, and started walking west out of town. We didn’t expect any rides in the neighborhoods but stuck out our thumbs occasionally anyway.

Surprisingly a middle aged South Australia couple, Helen and Phil, picked us up and drove us all the way to Bealey Bridge over the Waimakariri River in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Phil had met Helen when he and a friend had been hitchhiking on Kangaroo Island over 30 years ago. They’d only traveled outside of Australia twice: a long trip to Europe and this one to New Zealand.

“How do you get Peggy to walk?” Phil confided, “I can’t even get Helen out of the car.”

“She really likes to walk but hates to raft. I guess, it’s when i suggest we go rafting that she decides she’d rather go walking.”

They dropped us off at the bridge. It was raining, and now, Peggy, like Helen, wasn’t too keen on walking either.

We followed the Waimakariri river trail through mountain beech forests, very similar to the lenga forest we’d walked in Chilean Patagonia. They were mossy and green, dripping in the rain.

The trail left the forest and we left the trail. Unlike most of the trips during the last three decades before, this trip I’d let Peggy drift to the front and lead. That’s where the fun was, picking the way and making decisions about route choices, and probably why I hogged the lead.

Here she was excited to walk without bears or other threatening big animals. We’d had a couple bad bear scares in the northwest Arctic of Alaska last June, including one grizzly that insisted on coming toward us until we scared it away with a raised raft and inflated sleeping pad, making us look big. And another that found us in the brush, Peggy with her pants down peeing!

Peggy led us up Jordan Stream, a steep braided creek, clear and chill weaving from bank to bank over fist sized gray rocks.

She insisted on keeping her pants dry and rolled them up for every crossing, carefully choosing her steps to keep them dry. I just kept mine down, and typical-boy fashion, splashed across.

“When do you want to stop?”

“What time is it?”


“In about an hour?”

“OK. But the map shows that this creek’s pretty steep and rocky. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for a flat spot.”

Eventually the forest pinned the creek more closely and it bounced from bedrock corner to gravel bank. The gravel banks were steep, apparently from a mid-90s earthquake that dumped a lot of gravel in to the creek bed and that was being quickly cut by the fast moving stream.

Peggy delighted in her new trekking poles that gave her balance and confidence in the creek crossings. They were light and stiff and adjustable. She sheared one with me and we each handed ours to the other when we needed to hands to move past rock outcrops above deep pools.

“I really like being off-trail more than on-trail,” Peggy observed. “That Paine hike in Chile was scenic, but all that trail gets a little boring. It gives you too much time to think about how much your feet hurt and how heavy your pack is. “

“Yea, it’s a lot better to use your whole body,” I replied, jamming a carbon-fiber stick into the gravel for balance. “Plus, when you do get a trail it’s really nice after being off-trail.”

As it approached seven PM the creek was crowded in by canyon walls and we criss-crossed often. The boulders grew bigger and were surprisingly unstable for their size. At seven we made camp on a high gravel bar next to the forest’s edge. It was misting and fog clung to beech trees that themselves clung to steep mountain sides.

In the morning, Peggy was up first and announced that a big, dark green parrot had landed above our tent. I peered out the tent door to see a Kea, one of three parrot species in New Zealand.

Keas are a bit like ravens, in that their inquisitive and mischevious and sometimes destructive. Unlike their lowland relatives the kaka, the kea prefer mountains and don’t seem so noisy and social.

Eventually this one flew to the ground and inspected our camp, wary, but clearly waiting for a hand-out.

“I bet this guy gets fed,” Peggy suggested.

“Look, it’s got a leg band. Maybe it’s like a bad Park bear in the States, a trouble-maker that gets carted off to the wilder parts of a national park to stay out of trouble.”

As we made coffee and packed up the weather cleared and by the time we slid off the ten foot gravel embankment we’d camped on, the bright southern sun was shining.

In the southern hemisphere, this ozone hole business is real. Nearly everyday, a New Zealander dies of skin cancer. Just standing in the sun you can feel its burning heat, even when the air is cool. And there’s a certain quality to the light, a certain bright, but cool-white intensity, suggesting it’s on the short end of the spectrum, down there in the UV that is everywhere: on the beach, in the mountains, on the sidewalks.

I was thankful for my thick beard and long hair and the cool weather that kept our shirt sleeves long. Nevertheless we kept sticks of sunscreen handy, coating lips and exposed skin every hour or so.

Upwards Peggy took us, in and out of the ever-narrowing creek, over boulders and outcrops wet with water-spray, past waterfalls, and occasionally into the tussock grassland.

“There’re deer trails in here,” she announced, picking her way past the occasional pokey plant.

The creek steepened up all around as we broke free of the forest. The enclosing hillsides, too steep too walk, suggested we stay along the creek course but at some point we would have to climb out and into Jordan Saddle.

We came to an amazing waterfall that curtained off a boulder and followed a narrow deer trail between the enclosing cliffs. Above we could see that the creek curved to the southeast and we headed south, climbing a steep tussock hillside and into the long saddle.

Mountains rose all around us, some patched in snow, their bases cloaked in dark green mountain beech. Most were striped in gray scree. A cool breeze blew past us as we moved toward the south side of the pass.

Would it go? On the map it looked steep, save for a nose that looked forested between two drainages.

“I’m a little worried about the other side,” I said as we sidled up to the saddles crest. “It looks pretty steep on the map.”

Peggy pulled ahead as I shot some video behind us.

“Uh-oh! It’s not going to go!” She called out, holding her arms straight out supported by her poles, with her hips cocked, and a big smile on her face.
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