Saturday, January 3, 2009

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.

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