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.”


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