Saturday, January 30, 2010

Nelson Lakes National Park

“I’m givin’ it to ya!”

Mick the Brit with a kayak school in Murch for six months and a house in Teton Valley for the other six, smiled, holding his hands together, palms up.

“The Sabine River. Up in Nelson Lakes. It looks like a beautiful kayakin’ river. Lotsa Class III, a spot or two of IV and the rest Class II. I looked at just two weeks ago with my family on a tramping trip there. It's never been done.”

Nelson Lakes National Park is a smallish park, long and thin, straddling the north end of the Southern Alps. The Buller River valley separates it from the bigger more tropical Kaharungi National Park where the mighty Karamea River flows.

But in many ways I found the Nelson Lakes to be quintessential New Zealand, with big lakes, blue, snow-melt streams, steep craggy mountains whose bases were draped in southern beech forests. It differed from Chile’s beech forests in that here the tree trunks are black from a mold feeding on the exudates of a native scale insect living in the bark. The female scale insect drips honeydew from an inch long projection. This sweet drop attracts non-native yellow-jackets; the whole forest sounds a buzz with them.

After the Mukihinui mission, Allan and Rob dropped me at the Murchison Riverside Campground where I met Erik Tomsen, a graduate student in Auckland University’s Geography Department. Erik’s from Eagle River and he just graduated fromWest Point last May. Erik stands six foot four and weighs 200 pounds and is strong and fast on his feet as all that muscle would suggest.

He’d come to NZ with his Alpacka raft but finding no one willing to paddle with him, decided to join the Auckland University Canoe Club. To get a kayak he worked at the Bliss-stick kayak factory on the North Island in their “Ambassador Program” where foreigners work for a cheap boat (NZ$500) to take back to their home country and spread the word.

By the time I’d met him he’d made nearly thirty runs since before Christmas. He was primed and ready to go, especially eager to get away from the road and use packrafts as they were designed: walk-in, float-out.

And he was intrigued by the thigh strap idea after feeling the snugness of the hardshell kayak.

I suggested we walk in and do the Sabine.

We could do it as a three day trip, driving southeast out of Murch on the Mangles Road about 10 miles to the Tutaki junction. Hiking into the Park via the Tiraumea Valley we could see if that stream was packraftable, maybe return to the car by floating out, after doing a circuit up the D’Urville and down the Sabine.

But once we’d slogged the 27 km into the D’Urville we realized that there was no way the Tirumea would be worth our return. Similarly, our plans changed when we saw the inviting Class II and III waters of the D’Urville, something of a local Kiwi classic packraft trip. We also balked at the thousand meter climb out of the D’Urville.

Our new plan was to stay at the Morgan Hut, leaving our camping gear and food there while we hiked up to the George Lyon Hut, dressing and inflating our rafts there sheltered from the sandflies.

The plan went beautifully, although by portaging what looked to be a rock tunnel about 45 minutes downstream of the Georg Lyon Hut, we missed some good Class IV water too. The D’Urville was a little scrapey in places, especially for big ole’ Erik, who sometimes seemd like a rock magnet, but a classic traveling run.

After the a three hour hike and two hour float back to our stuff at the Morgan Hut, we continued down more splashy water to Lake Rotoroa. Here we paddled a mile over to the big 32 person Sabine Hut. It was more than half full with hikers doing the popular Travers-Sabine-Speargrass Circuit. It also had a radio to a water taxi.

We made arrangements to have the water Taxi pick us up on the morning of our fourth day, even though we only brought food for three. We spent our third day hiking up the wonderfully scenic Sabine River Trail, a much tighter valley than the D’Urville with a steeper, higher volume river. It looked well spiced with Class III and even Class IV rapids. One section of big boulders and tight drops looked especially appealing.

As usual hiking u and rafting down the same river valley in New Zealand are two entirely different, but complementary experiences. Unfortunately, I had little battery remaining on my camera, so missed filming the best rapids (a 5 move series of drops including sticky holes, 4 foot boulder boofs, a narrow passage past stick-jammed sieves, and a final 3 foot log drop) and the wild portage around the final Class V-looking 500 m long gorge (also at the 500 m contour) through forests toppled by heavy snows of two Augusts ago. Back in below the gorge we paddled to the lake and the Hut.

The next day we took the water taxi out (20 minutes, $NZ 40/pax), as we had no food and didn’t fancy slogging through all the tree fall out around Rotoroa Lake.

Nelson Parks snow-capped crags, aqua-blue waters, and open beech forests seemed quintessentially Kiwi wild, with no cows, sheep, roads, or 4x4s. It feels remote and unspoiled and offers a wonderful packrafting experience of good waters, trails, and huts.

When we got back to Murchison I bought Mick a good bottle of Pinot in thanks for the gift of this first descent.

(Post Script: Apparently someone had called the water taxi operator earlier in the season about running the Sabine, but when she told them the water was high then they decided not to come. So this was a run that others had been watching.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mokihinui Mission

Forrest had lined me up with Allen O’Bannon, the New Zealand Branch Director of NOLS. He’s led the notorious Drysdale River NOLS course in Western Australia's Kimberly, where it’s so hot it cooks your brains and the crocodiles wait to eat the students on the last day. He’s taught NOLS courses in Alaska, Chile, Wyoming, and Africa. He’s worked on “The Ice” and traveled the world.

He is familiar with water as a canoeist, kayaker, and big rafter. Allen’s hearty, easy laugh recounted many a story of friends we had in common, but it took packrafting to bring us together.

We emailed back and forth about possibilities, settling on a few days around Murchison for Allen to get oriented with the new-fangled, thigh-strapped rafts and for me to get oriented to the New Zealand waters. We’d follow this with a hike in to the West Coast’s Mokihinui by way of a run down its south fork. We tossed around ideas, the most interesting one being a hike over the “Thousand Acre Plateau” by way of a trail out of the Matiri River Valley to Poor Pete’s Hut, then dropping down the Larikin Creek.

Allen made some phone calls to all kinds of characters, including a guy who’s collecting all 1000 huts on the South Island. The man-of-a-thousand-huts suggested a trail from the west over the Glasgow Range followed by a bushwack along Mountain Creek. The loop aspect had a certain appeal.

Allen also visited with Murchison kayaking legend Mick Hopkinson.

“Mick says they’re working on an old trail up to Lyell Saddle. They’ve cut all the logs to there and made it darn near wheelchair accessible most of the way. He also says that nobody’s run the South Fork. It’d be a first descent.”

Good news there.

After running the sweet little Glenroy canyon, Allen and I met Rob in Murchison, a bearded, muscle-bound, twenty-something, hunter-fisher, climber-boater, NOLS instructor, then ran the shuttle and made camp in Lyell. In the morning we packed up and fairly ran to Lyell Saddle on a trail suitable for mountain biking.

Gold miners had left their mark in the Lyell Valley with the track, a cemetery, old cart and wagon wheels , shovels, bottles, and even a moss covered shoe. The trail led to the ridge where we cruised along the tops among stunted trees covered in bryophyte mats. In places gym-sized mattresses of sphagnum moss, twenty feet and more across, billowed across the trail. Weird Dacrophyllum trees, looking like something out of a Dr. Seuse book, poked out of the bush adding to the overall weirdness.

The Mokihinui is a river with a price on its head. The power company Meridian may soon have the govt’s go-ahead dam the Mokihinui Gorge, drowning what is an exceptional big-water, pool-drop run. It’s a northwest coastal river, the next big one south of the Karamea and has both limestone and granite in its headwaters. Its central valley, above the forks, is broad and flat, the bottom of a drained earthquake lake from 1929. It’s also a so-called “Ecological Area” designation, so putting in the dam is creating a stink.

That’s why the trail has been re-cut with plans for an extension: to mollify the out-cry for drowning what’s arguably one of the better Class III/IV paddles on the West Coast.

Rob, a keen naturalist and observer pointed out New Zealand Falcons and parakeets, noisy Tuis, Bellbirds, White-eyes, Rifleman, and the startlingly tame New Zealand Robin on the trail and as we rested on our last break before descending into the South Fork.

“Doesn’t matta what why we go,” drawled Rob, a South African by birth with a Canadian dad and British mom who’s grown up in New Zealand, “’cause we got gravity workin’ for us.”

Unfortunately he was drawn by gravity to the slimiest, stick-infested, slot of a creek he could find and he darned well wanted to stick with it.

“Dear me,” muttered Allen in a few spots on slippery logs over shallow pools.

While we’d made the saddle in 5 hours, a good 18 km, the next “gravity assisted” 7 hours gave us only 3 km, this including the last 2 hours in the South Fork where it was deep enough to float the raft with our packs.

My feet were beat from the slimy rocks and water of the NZ bush-boy’s route, so the literal “pack rafting” (as distinct from “packrafting”, which is an actual form of boating, aka “butt-boating”) was welcome. Where the water was deep enough to packraft, we pulled over, set up the tents, and cooked over a small fire. The sand-flies were manageable, the forest beautiful, and a rare Blue Duck, an endangered New Zealand whitewater duck (like the Harlequin in Alaska and the Torrent Duck in Paragonia), sat just downstream. It was my first and I was excited.

They are slate gray colored, with a mallard-like body, a purplish breast, white bill, and red eye. Not as handsome as a Harlequin or as svelte as a Patagonian Torrent Duck, but still a neat bird. Rob said that he’d seen fifty on one trip!

In the morning we paddled off downstream, from about a mile or two below Slate Creek. Rob pointed out a pair of Blue Ducks .

Above Mountain Creek we paddled very shallow water through narrow slots and chutes, the kind of stuff only a packraft can manage and good fun in spots, like a 20 foot water slide.

Still, and as usual, the kayakers, Allen and Rob, looked mostly like a house pet getting a bath. They wore that forlorn look of a dog standing in the bathtub, soaked and wondering, “When is this going to be over so I can get back to what I really like to do?”

But I loved it. Lots of wiggling down narrow slots and careening off boulders. Classic PR 3 stuff. Still it was exhausting, spinning and digging and humping the boats over the shallows, pushing with the arms while still in the boat.

If I’d managed to pack lighter, it would have been better.

By the time we got below Mountain Creek the soft limestone of the “Thousand Acre Plateau” dropped down and crossed the creek bed. The water disappeared. For every tributary that entered, a similar flow seemed to drop into a limestone pit. Soft and slippery on foot, the rock abraded to the boat bottom. Still we managed a couple long slides into pools.

“These are like California slides with the water turned off,” quipped Rob.

Below the limestone beds, boulders again made up most of the creek but the water did not return until Larikin Creek. We paddled deep, still pools, each with a single enormous brown trout as long as my arm. One pool had an enormous eel, too. Below each pool we’d walk along sieved out “gravel bars” made of basketball-sized boulders. The creek had disappeared.

At Goat Creek Hut the water seeped back above the bed. Downstream we beat against the afternoon headwinds across lazy loops of the South Fork as it flowed through ghost forests, drowned in the last earthquake and now piercing the river like a devil’s maze of fence posts.

We pulled out at the Mokihinui Forks hut by 7 PM, 9 hours of paddling and wiggling and portaging past sieves, big and small, having made the first descent of the Upper South Fork of the Mokihinui (and the Upper Upper). But honestly it’s not worth repeating.

Better to just hike in the trail from the end of the Seddonville Road, the normal take-out for the Mokihinui, maybe 5-7 hours to the Mokihinui Forks Hut and then raft down the half dozen big-water Class III-IV rapids back to your car. The Mokinihui Gorge is a classic packrafting river of pool drop architecture, and beautiful glass-green waters. It’s clean and safe, and fun. I never felt apprehensive or even nervous really, except on the third big rapid.

We scouted three from shore and the rest were boat-scoutable. It’s on this river that I finally learned how to paddle the big boulder studded NZ flows by eddy hopping to boat scout your way down, a watershed moment for me, really.

It was fun to watch Rob and Allen start off sneaking every big rapid in the morning then plunging down the meaty bits by the afternoon as they discovered for themselves what the little boats were capable of.

When we got back to Murchison Mick asked us about the Upper S. Fork run.

“Not worth repeating,” we said, wrinkling our noses and shaking our heads.

“Yea,” he smiled knowingly, “you gotta kiss a lotta toads before you find a prince.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Murchison, NZ

If you have a packraft and you are coming to NZ, Murchison should be your first stop. The campground is full of Class II and III boaters and it’s simple to jump on a shuttle for one of the dozen or so runs within a thirty minute drive from the riverside campground.

It’s a four hour drive from Christchurch to Murchison and if you get an early start then there’s time to do an easy run on the Buller, like the Doctor’s Creek run. There’s stuff to play on and a pretty canyon and it’s good to loosen up after the long flight on something really easy. It’s a big river, especially after rain, but perfectly suited for a packraft. I got my first moving current roll on the Doc Creek run and Allen O’Bannon, my substitute for Forrest got his packraft roll on it, too.

We’d forgotten to put thigh straps in one of our boats and when we switched I felt awful without them, like I was going to fall out of the boat at any minute. The seat in Allen’s boat without the straps (it had the D-rings, just no straps) had been cut free and moved forward and big ole’ Allen felt cramped – until he had the thigh straps in.

Anyway, “Once you go strapped, you’ll never go back” seems to be the sentiment of those who’ve used packrafts with straps. The control and the feeling of wearing your boat is really a qualitative change in boating.

One of the NOLS instructors that Allen knew, Dale, was at the campsite and told us it had been raining for the last week. The Buller was up around 140 cumecs (cubic feet per second – multiply by 35 to get cfs) and the Matiri was running at a really fun level he said.

“It’s a good next step after Doctor’s Run,” he said after I’d said that run had been pretty boring. Dale introduced us to Alex, a kid from Montana who’d come to Murchison to learn how to Kayak and was up to come along.

The Matiri was super fun, about 1,000 cfs or so, I reckon, in its short little gorgy section. The last bit was also good, a classic NZ giant boulder garden, I guess Class III-. It took us two hours and the day was beautiful. I did some more rolls, but it always took me one try to get it. It was satisfying to be rolling in a river.

Unfortunately Allen lost track of his jacket, and while he drove back to look for it, Alex invited me to join him and a couple young women and a Mexican engineer, Luis. Later I’d learn that Louis now works in Oz where he misses his homeland's food. Go figure. Anyway, this bunch were piling in to their mini-vans to run the Granity Creek section of the Buller.

Granity has a big powerful solid Class III, maybe Class III+ at the 115 cumecs we ran it at. The drop runs between a rocky cliff and a low alluvial bench. One of the girls was a kayak instructor and she was a bit worried about me in my packraft, especially after I flipped while surfing and didn’t roll it up. When we climbed out to scout it she said I could walk around it to the left, but it looked perfectly doable, sort of like Campground Rapids multiplied by five in volume, length and wave height, but pretty straight forward and fun.

Well I missed her line immediately, right at the top, hit a small hole there, flipped and pushed out of my boat, holding on to it and my paddle while I got flushed all the way down the 100 m run.

Jumping back in my boat when the water settled down, with Lois nearby giving me back-up, I paddled to shore where we regrouped and asked if they minded that I was going back up to try it again. They said I was a good swimmer and that they’d set safety at the narrow spot.

I ran it clean and down the middle and over the tops of the six foot waves in the beautiful blue water. It was great. Unfortunately all my roll attempts failed on the Buller today.

We went back to camp and picked up Allen, who’d found his jacket with cell phone and wallet hanging on a fence post just down from our take-out on the Matiri where some passing motorist on the country road had hung it for its owner to find. New Zealand really is like the US was in the 60s.

Dale had said the lower “Matak”, short for earthquake run on the lower Matakitaki, was his favorite run here. It’s short but technical and has a big drop and high volume, several thousand cfs it looked like to me.

At the put in it looked like the Karamea had, with big boulders from the 1929 landslide. Ferrying over to a rock I caught my left pinky nail on a tie down that I’d stupidly placed along the side of my boat and ripped the whole nail right off to the base. Eddied in the middle, I thought about just ripping it off but felt that would hurt, so I asked Dee, the kayak instructor, if she had any tape. She said no, but I remembered Allen had my black paddle with duct tape and he gave that to me and I wrapped my finger.

The rest of the run was good fun and the final crux big rapid was full-on wavy and powerful. Louis got knocked over by a wave near the end of the run and couldn’t fight his way back up, so he swam. Alex pulled him to shore, Allen grabbed his paddle and I grabbed his boat. Alex then paddled over to me and we emptied Lois’ swamped kayak and Alex towed it to shore.

It’s a great scene here, with kayakers from all around the world and all pretty much intermediates or beginners, so there’s no posturing or pretention. Everyone is here to learn and have fun and the concentration of short runs is amazing and when the sun shines it’s really beautiful.

Murchison offers a wonderful introduction to New Zealand paddling for kayakers and packrafters alike. Of course these are all roadside runs, none needing more than a ten minute walk, but to get a feeling for the water and your skills is super. A wet suit and paddle jacket is all most people wear, unless it’s raining, it seems enough.

But the real boating for we packrafters lies out there on the tracks and in the bush. Allan and Rob and I are heading out for a first descent mission in the S. Fork Mokenui for three days.

Should be interesting.

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