Monday, September 28, 2009

Big Sky Thai

Yesterday Paul Schauer took Thai and me to what’s likely the most “fun” (type 1 – fun to do and fun to think back about) packrafting creek run I did all year: South Fork of Montana Creek up off of the Talkeetna Turnoff (take a right on Yoder, cross the bridge, go straight until road turns right and walk the ATV trail for maybe an hour and a half or so to N 62.18410 W 149.81017 using NAD 27. The ATV trail just stays sort of on the south rim. Alternatively just walk to the first big muddy bog hole and drop in there for the punchy second canyon.)

The water was very low, under 350 cfs on the gauge and all the kayakers waiting for the 7AM-water-level-call bailed except for Paul – who I’d promised a packraft loan if he would lead me to the river. Paul had accompanied me and Jeff Conaway to Ingram Creek last year and had seen first hand that packrafts are real boats.

Thai and I had planned for Bird, but this looked much cooler, based on a video Paul’s dad John Schauer had made last year on a father son mission of this Class IV+ gem of a whitewater run. Paul has been kayaking whitewater since he was a teenager growing up in Fairbanks and it shows. His fluency reading water and paddling are impressive.

We put in too high and would have had less butt bouncing and bow spinning if we’d used the top of the first canyon as the put in (N 62.17998 W 149.83550). Much above the first canyon, the water was just too spread out and thin and didn’t drop enough for floating. But from this waypoint on down there were great bouldery drops and ledges.

Our run of Montana Creek offered a “Waikiki” character with low-flow Ship Creek or Ingram water-push: ideal for high-end packrafting, although 50 cfs more would’ve been even better (not so bumpy in between the canyons). A broken granite corner toward the end of the first canyon cut a pinky-sized hole in my raft. Good old duct tape from prior repairs provided patch material after drying the boat’s fabric with my cotton underwear. The tape held for all the following bigger drops, too, as it has been holding on my spray deck for the last month.

I’d say there are maybe seven great packrafting drops (“Cody’s Hole”, “Fall-out”, “Big Sky”, “Paddle Chock”, “Tumbled Dice”, “Prow Boof”, “Surf Ramp”) in a mile and a half in two shallow canyons, with the best located near the entrance to the second canyon. Watch for a coal seam on river left and a creek wide ledge and diagonal hole on the next right turn. Downstream “Big Sky” drops six or seven feet after a neat series of pre-drop moves. After the “Big Sky” plunge pool is a slot-like canyon with several steep boulder drops needing some scouting for people like me (“Paddle Chock”). After about 4 hours from the upper put-in, take out at the log that goes all the way across the creek and head up the hill about 0.1 miles to the ATV road (N 62.17871 W 149.87404)

Besides the fantastic water -- its features, level, and clarity as well as the fall colors – boating with Thai and Paul was a dream come true. Both are class V boaters in kayaks, and besides bringing a level of experience, competence and confidence that I have not yet encountered on a packraft-only descent, they both bring easy-going attitudes. Both see packrafts as wonderful tools for backcountry -- and especially wilderness -- creeking, a new frontier of boating really, that doesn’t require uncomfortable loads or huge drops for adventuresome satisfaction.

Paul said he was more nervous dropping “Big Sky” in the packraft than he was in his kayak, but that’s just because this was his first time paddling a packraft! How awesome is that?

Twenty-somethings like him probably represent the future of packrafting, so seeing Paul in a loaner boat that was too long for him wearing his creeking helmet, pads, and paddle was exciting. He already has plans…..

Looking at “Paddle Chock” drop (right around 4:40-4:50 in the video) Thai commented, “Wow, that’s something we would never have considered last year. I mean it just doesn’t look runnable in a packraft.”

“You’re right,” I replied, “kind of worries me to think about what we'll be running next year.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Successful Hunt

Roman’s back has been injured since our Grand Canyon packraft trip over a year and a half ago: two bulging lumbar disks. It hurts me as his Father to see him limp and hunch and I think we both shared a fear that we wouldn’t be able to adventure like we have his entire mobile life. But it’s improving and he’s patient.

Nevertheless, trepidation of big rapids and heavy packs squeezed into his dry suit as we suited up at the Dalton Highway, put-in for Atigun Gorge in the Brooks Range. Snow dusted the peaks and swans headed south overhead.

The Atigun Gorge has quite a reputation and the river it feeds, the Sagavanirktok, killed a packrafter this summer -- first death I’ve heard of yet in a packraft. With the river gauge reading 1000 cfs, the doom and gloom web accounts, the weather forecast calling for 30’s and rain, Roman was concerned even before we left Anchorage.

“How about the Denali Highway? Peters Creek valley?” I offered.

“They’re not as good as the Brooks Range. Let’s not chicken out,” he replied.

“He wants it to be challenging and hard core,” Peggy claimed, “and show Carolyn how hard core he is.”

So we stuck with our original plan: descend the Atigun to the Sag and the Sag to the Haul Road. Portaging when we had to, hunting we when could.

The Atigun Gorge progresses nicely. It begins with a calm water stretch where we passed a three brow tine moose, looking like he was going to wade over to us, followed by a couple miles of Class II water with a drop or two of Class III. Near the end of the Gorge is a often cited Class IV rapid, but at the water level we ran it, Roman called it Class III+. The low water and exposed rocks would challenge a canoeist and frustrate a big rafter, but delighted us packrafters.

Roman paddled my decked red boat with 25 pounds on the bow and I paddled the big long boat with maybe 50 pounds resting on the floor and 10 pounds strapped to the bow. This way he stayed dry, warm, and happy while I was able to enjoy the drops by working their driest lines.

His back seemed to hold up well and it was only on the last drop where we squeezed between a big undercut boulder and a rooster-tail stopper that he tweaked it, mostly because dropping in between the two obstacles looked like a certain pin on the rooster-tail and anyone’s central nervous system might seize up at that prospect. Pain went into his leg, but as he emptied my boat while I scouted for a campsite his back popped back into place.

Worried to see him working my swamped boat over, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this effort actually made his back feel better!

We searched for caribou and ptarmigan. We saw none of the former but Rome shot a couple of the latter. We roasted them over a willow fire beneath a rippling curtain of green and purple aurora borealis.

We stayed up late talking physics and economics and biology. It’s amazing how much he has learned after four years of college and his time in Sandy Talbot’s Molecular Ecology Lab. He’s so remarkably like Peggy in his practicality and frugality, his sensitivity to taste, smell, and touch. But so like me in his forceful discussions, intellectual confidence, and stubbornness, as well as a willingness to sit in a puddled butt-boat at near-freezing temperatures and camp inside a 14-ounce floorless pyramid shelter.

One night I stubbornly refused to accept his point that space is too empty for errant asteroids and meteors to seed other planets with life-initiating molecules, like RNA. I held fast to my ecological worldview, even universe-view, that colonization and extinction likely apply to planets as well as islands and isolated habitats.

“Dad, space is just too empty for that! I can’t believe how superstitious you are!” he fumed as we left the dying fire and headed for bed.

Other discussions he successfully convinced me. For instance, when pushed on his Libertarian views he offered “a monopoly on coercive force” as a definition of government. I reflected on this seemingly cynical phrase but ultimately accepted it as something that all governments share and that while each word sounded ugly, the goal of all people should be to establish “a coercive monopoly” that is otherwise, not just tolerable, but desirable. His free-market confidence often clashes with my socialist hopes, but I did I’d encouraged him to go into economics as a college major and he did early on, so I guess I should be more careful of what I wish for. Besides, smaller government and lower taxes are a good thing, really. We agreed that a flat tax and an end to lobbying would likely solve a lot of problems, but that neither change would likely come about.

We took it easy with lots of camp and sleep time. His back needed plenty of rest to heal after each day’s exertions. We’d seen a grizzly, lynx, and wolf pack on the drive up, the wolves including pups who nearly came to the truck when I whistled to them like dogs. We’d seen sheep and moose here but no caribou; a Gyrfalcon, a Rough-legged Hawk, a Short-eared Owl and lots of ptarmigan. And many erratics that dotted the brown and red tundra looked like caribou.

We had only one big-game and one small-game rifle, so I watched proudly as he belly-crawled after his quarry. We spent one day just hunting big-game and small but only finding a small flock of ptarmigan that he chased around and made incrementally smaller.

And then, of course, it snowed. All day, our bare hands clutched our paddles, naked to the north breeze, suffering wet flakes and icy waves that rapped our knuckles when we made bad paddling moves. The cold forced us to maneuver through otherwise banal Class II and III drops like they were Class IV and V where our lives depended on it. Rather than just crash through waves with forward paddle strokes as seen on so many You Tube videos of neophyte packrafters exhilarating in their new-found freedom, we back-paddled and zig-zagged, keeping every errant drop out of our boats. It made the paddling feel more interesting, exciting, desperate even.

We pulled out of the Sag before it reached the usual take-out as the map showed a bend in the river that was only a mile and a quarter away from the road.

“Can we just pull our rafts like sleds?”

“Sure, these little willows and birch won’t hurt the boats with all this snow.”

So, feeling ridiculous with boats in tow in eight-inch snow, we slogged through the fog and fading light to the road and caught a ride back to the truck.

We’d had no success at finding caribou. But I didn't care. This was the most successful hunt I had in years.

We vowed to make this kind of trip, just the two of us, with packrafts and guns in a wild place in autumn, the model for future trips.

I can’t wait until next year.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Brooks Range in September

After spending a year and a half -- plus a life-time -- looking, we’ve found the Brooks Range offers the best wilderness travel in the world. There’s less brush than the rest of Alaska, enough bugs and tussocks and a big-league reputation to keep the trail hikers out, great light, big wildlife, and human-scale scenery. The rivers are deep enough to float, shallow enough to wade. There’s wood enough to burn, but never too thick for travel. It’s ideal for packrafting; walking; hunting; rock, and even ice and mountain climbing and especially scrambling. There are crystals, fossils, and gold to be found, northern lights and midnight sun. Cold comes early and stays late, but that’s part of why it’s such a gorgeous challenge.

I’ve made over 20 trips there in the last thirty years, some notable, all worthwhile.

  • As a teen in 1979, climbing with Dieter Klose, Savvy Sanders and Mike Bearzi in the Arrigetch, we found better rock than weather. After that trip an attempt at a “McCandless” with a camp-invading black bear I shot and tried to preserve with snow-bank refrigeration lead to losing it, thankfully, to a wolverine, and sending me out and back to college.
  • On a ski trip across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1986 Chuck Comstock and I found our whiskey frozen, my skis broken and a taste of death during three weeks in March 1986 that never reached above zero. Three months later, Peggy and I found ourselves tent-bound during break-up on a creek that translates in Nunamiut as “place to make love many times” -- nine months later Cody Roman was born. Later that year we walked and packrafted half a dozen rivers from one end of the Gates of the Arctic National Park to the other.
  • Hunting caribou with Bob Kaufman in October suggested that caribou are spooked easier in Fall than when hunting them solo in March.
  • In 1988 Carl Tobin and I climbed several pitches of thin, brittle, airy-gray ice on Sukakpak , a route named “Claim Jumper” two weeks earlier by Keith Echelmeyer and Eric Brietenberger. Solo ascents on Doonerak and other peaks with no names and no cairns offered exhilaration and grand vistas across the clean, dry sky and low angle light that makes the Arctic so magical. In early July 1990 Carl and I pedaled mountain bikes and paddled packrafts from Kaktovik to Arctic Village when, with one hand and no smearing, I slapped ninety-four mosquitoes on my lower leg.
  • Peggy showed she was as tough a nut as anyone when we finished a Wilderness Classic there in 1993. We got to know Jon Krakauer well packrafting the Alatna and circum-abulating the Arrigetch the following year.
  • In 2003 Jay Jay Brooks, Jason Geck and I did “Arctic Circle”, a circuit that involved hiking through the Arrigetch to the Noatak, floating that to Portage Creek, hiking over to the Alatna and floating that back to our start.
  • The best known trip was, of course, the “Arctic 1000” in 2006 when Jason Geck, Ryan Jordan and I proved it possible to walk over 600 miles of wild terrain with just a single bag of food and no foraging.

I’m out of breath just recounting this sampler of Brooks Range trips but have no fear that the dozen or so of you dear readers leanred anything new about how great the Brooks Range are. It will not be me who spills the secret here on this dull little blog.

Anyway, this last week Roman and I went and packrafted the Atigun and Sagavanirktok Rivers north of Atigun Pass on the Haul Road. It was an awesome trip for the two of us, the ideal kind of Father and Son trip of the sort we have enjoyed annually since he was three.

He’s 22 now. So that's two decades wilderness camping with him and three decades of Brooks Range experience. Just can't beat a combination like that.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Originals

These four guys are the original four finishers of the ten starters in the very first Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, the 1982 running of Hope to Homer. We had a reunion at our house last week.

On the left is Dick Griffith (fourth in 1982). I wrote a chapter about him in Packrafting!, but he really deserves an entire book -- which by the way he has written. Two stories of his are the best packrafting words ever written: one on his 1952 descent of the Barrancas del Cobre and another his Sherpa Raft run of the Grand Canyon in the early 90s. He's 82 now, and as he says, "Was old when this thing [the Classic] started.". Completed his last Classic solo in 2004 when his partner fell in the Talkeetna River Canyon and dislocated his shoulder. They used their sat phone to call for help and Dick's partner flew out. Dick makes the rest of us look wimpy at fifty. He's Republican.

Next to Dick is George Ripley (third in 1982), who now lives in DC, but whose idea the Classic was. He started it then handed it off to me in 1984. He was a Homer wilderness guide who sold multi-sport trips in the 1980s, a decade before they were done elsewhere. A few years ago he met a gal on-line and then rendezvoused with her in Anchorage, where he took her from McCarty Fjord, up onto the Harding Icefield, across it and down the Sheep Creek-Fox River to Kachemak Bay in packrafts. Pretty gutsy trip, really. He just sold off his Homer land for a pretty penny and will be riding his bike around the perimeter of the USA, promoting his green, grass roots fringe concept for the American Flag at Americans for Social Justice. Clearly he's a liberal Democrat.

Dave Manzer (second in 1982) went on to set the record for Hope to Homer that was never broken in a total of six years on that course. He was a fierce competitor in the 1980s and would have set the Nabesna to McCarthy record, too, in 1989, but he flipped his Sherpa Packraft in the Chitistone and nearly drowned. He swore off the Classic then. He's an Independent.

Yours truly's on the right. His Classic itch resurfaces every few years. He's happy Obama's in office but sad that Sarah Palin's still out there spewing misinformation and hate.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Peters Creek Breakfast

Ship Creek is my favorite run in the whole world. I can see its valley from my house. My kids' flesh is constructed in part from berries and moose meat harvested from its valley. The Lower Canyon offers a quick hit of fun, safe, and challenging adrenaline.

But no more.

Ship Creek is closed and boaters are getting arrested – or at least getting court dates – for running it. This is a bummer. Maybe if Stevens were still in the Senate and Chair of the Appropriations Committee, then Ft Richardson could be persuaded to open up Ship and the rest of the Hillside that's now closed to recreation (Senator Begich are you listening?).

So I am in search of a substitute, something that doesn’t scare off our visiting packrafters, like Mo, who’d just come back from the Brooks Range Noatak and Alatna Rivers

This morning Thai picked me up at 7:30. We were at Peters Creek by 8:00, where Moe Witschard was staying with his old friend Peter (coincidentally). Yesterday Moe and I had been to Eagle River’s Campground Rapids. There his boat handling skills passed inspection. So at lunch we suggested to Thai that perhaps the middle section of Peters Creek Canyon, rated "Class IV+" in Tim Johnson’s Alaska Whitewater, could be our new Ship Creek Canyon

To get there we intended to pass up the entrance Class V and likely the last one, too, but it didn’t work out that way.

Instead, we dropped midway into the Canyon from Peter’s place and ran four or five drops including “Rodeo Drive” and “Big Dog”. Thai suggested at the low water level we ran it (Eagle River gauged at 700 cfs, so maybe 200 cfs at Peters Creek) “Big Dog” was IV+, not the Class V that Timmy J. gives it in his guidebook.


I call it solid PR 5.

Watch this video’s last ten seconds and you’ll see why.

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