Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wilderness Classic: "A Long Trek Home"

This book is destined to be an Alaskan wilderness classic in the literary sense of the phrase.

Not only was Hig and Erin’s packraft and walk journey immense, epic, and original but her story is told so much better in this book than in their on-line blog. It’s no wonder that “A Long Trek Home” is already in its second printing.

While I am not really a big reader of first person adventure narratives (so can’t speak with much authority), I would put the book in the same class as “Arctic Wild” by Lois Crisler, the 1950s story of a couple who spent a year in the Brooks Range filming caribou and raising wolves. Perhaps, and depending on how important Hig and Erin’s non-profit activism turns out to be, “Long Trek” might some day land in the same class as “Two in the Far North”, the autobiography of Margaret Murie.

“A Long Trek Home” is a chronological collection of vignettes of Hig and Erin’s 4500 mile trip that stretched over a year -- and into a pregnancy -- from Seattle to the Aleutians. Erin expends most of her text as emotional and detailed landscape and weather description at all scales, from boot-tip and arms length to as far as the eye can see. More interestingly, she does a wonderful portrayal of Hig, who is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. She captures him well, but as a reader of the book, and as a fan of Hig, I long for more of him in her narrative. In fact, I’d like more human life and description of the interesting characters they meet and interact with along the way. Finally, she describes -- rather unevenly -- a host of environmental issues that are at the heart of “Ground Truth Trekking.” With the exception of the Pebble Mine project, I found the treatments mostly superficial with few new insights, although her personal realization that guided trophy hunting on the Alaska Peninsula is actually a good way to value the land, in contrast to the logging on the other side of the Gulf of Alaska in Southeast AK and BC, is refreshing.

But the book really shines in its details of camp and travel life as a husband and wife crossing wild landscapes. Erin’s book offers up the best modern descriptions I have read of couples-style wilderness travel, something Peggy and I have done a bit of in Alaska and elsewhere. In 1986 we walked and packrafted for a month across the Gates of the Arctic National Park in one boat. She was two months pregnant with Cody Roman. Reading Erin’s accounts of snuggling with Hig, of showdowns with curious grizz, of perpetual hunger, of staying comfortable in worn-out gear and sharing a two-person bag inside a floorless shelter, of reading the landscapes – those vignettes brought back strong memories of our own adventures.

Indeed, I got my signed copy of the unpretentious little paperback on a Wednesday afternoon and by that night I’d read the first two sections, “Summer” and “Fall”. The book is a nice size, with evocative B&W photos. Hig’s maps are superlative. I finished “Winter” and “Spring” over the following weekend in another push. Erin's writing is breezy and easy, with some interesting viewpoints and fresh phrases of an activity as old as humankind – one man and one woman together, surviving, living, even reproducing as they cross wild landscapes.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone with a packraft, a spouse, and an interest in slow-motion adventure.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

More on Mods

D-Ring Placements Thigh straps attach to the boat at D-rings at the foot and the hip. I’d like to move my foot still farther forward in a Super-Llama so that I can push my feet onto the front tube, like I do in a strapless-Yak. But the spraydeck opening for my torso in my stock, center-opening Llama will not allow this. It would be nice if Alpacka would join the revolution and help rectify this, by moving the seat and the spray deck opening maybe six inches or more. If I could move the foot end of the thigh strap, I’d move the hip end forward, too, and get it away from the topping-valve (it’s an old boat) and experiment with high vs. low placement of the hip-end. You see some times when I am upside down, one leg will slip out of the thigh strap and I cannot roll up. I also still do a bit of high-bowing when dropping and so think I need to be even more forward than I am in my Super-Llama.

Alpacka are you listening? Ideally, we need three more boats with variable placement of thigh-straps and then people to try them out, first during pool-sessions to see what rolls easiest, then in Six-Mile, Canyon and Bird Creeks to see what paddles best. These would, of course, be center-opening Llamas (to make it easier to get back in) with “inner-bladder technology” on the waist of the spraydeck (to keep water from coming in over the top of the skirt), plus mondo Velcro (to keep water from coming in through the skirt opening).

Velcro Another drawback to thigh-straps with stock spraydecks is that your knees will be up, not straight or extended, so that the spraydeck may not be wide enough to close solidly. You need to extend the width of the spraydeck with more Velcro. Sure it adds weight, but it will keep it dryer inside the boat, much drier. I think the stock Velcro comes as narrow as one, single inch on some models of spray-deck, which is being ounce-wise and pound-foolish in my opinion.

So if you plan to add Velcro to your spraydeck, be sure to EXTEND the width of the spray deck with it. This means you have to sew some backing on your Velcro.

Escape Loop I have so much Velcro on the spraydeck waist that I worried the original pull loop wouldn’t free me so I had Eric Parsons sew another loop on. This ripped off ehen I grabbed it on some NZ river when I was upside down and freaking out about being swept over the next Class IV+ rapid. So that needs some more work.

Wear and Tear The thigh-strap generated wear at the feet seems to be easily -- and literally -- patched. I got the biggest hole of the trip not at the feet, but when a small gravel pebble slipped between the tube and the bottom deck and wore a ¼ inch hole in the floor before I found it. A future mod may be to take a strip of fabric and glue it around the tube-floor contact area to prevent accumulation of wear-inducing sand/gravel there.

Another mod I’d really like to do is to urethane the bottom and the sides. However, this requires some aggressive fabric treatment and I need to get fabric to test first. It will add more weight to the boat, but for creeking, this weight will make the boat far more durable. I am willing to go to just under ten pounds with a boat. That’s the ceiling for me.

Drying Gear and Boats On the subject of ounce-wise and pound-foolish, it’s really worth it before carrying your boat after boating to dry it thoroughly. This means all your wet clothes too. NZ and Wyoming and Mexico are awesome for drying gear with their sunshine and dry air. When Forrest McCarthy’s doing multi-day trips, he plans his days to end with a boating session and start with a hike, giving him time to dry out the boat. Gordy Vernon likes to stop early enough that his boat dries so he can sleep on it. By the way, with thigh straps you can get a boat bigger than you’d normally use and so it’s long enough to sleep on. My Yak is uncomfortable but my Super-Llama is SUPER for sleeping – it even fits inside my tent.

Like most boaters, I take my throw rope and wrap it round and round with a no-knot on two trees then hang my clothes, LJ, and other wet stuff to dry. Scott Solle says to turn dry-suits inside out and dry them that way and I like that ‘cause it keeps from getting so stinky. I also remove the thigh straps and hang them from the throw rope to dry. Because my Super-Llama has Velcro seat and backrest, I pull those out and inflate them and babysit them in the sun as they dry, while I take the deflated boat and hang that as follows to drip dry first.

Drying the Boat. First I take the uninflated boat and fold it from bow to stern with the bottom floor inside the fold so the inside of the boat is facing out, to allow the water to drain. The water will pool inside where the tubes meet the floor so I pull on the tubes to make it so that the water drains freely and the seam of tube-floor is visible at the fold in the boat. Then I hang this boat that’s folded inside out from the “chicken lines” at the bow and stern so the inside water drains freely out.

Later, I inflate the boat and dry it in the sun, rotating and baby-sitting the boat so it doesn’t get over-inflated by the sun and being sure to get all the moisture out. I stand it on end and use a sponge to get the inside water that didn’t drain during the initial inside-out, folded, hang-dry described above.

All the money you spent on superlight stuff doesn’t matter if the gear is soaked with water, so take the time to dry your stuff before you travel. Your back, feet, and nose will be thankful you did.

More on Paddles A bunch of us bought Werner Powerhouse Paddles in a 4-piece. It has a really large blade area and a few times in NZ I felt – especially when backpaddling in upper Class IV – that it was almost unwieldy, that it grabbed too much water. On the other hand my old Shuna didn’t grab enough water. As for length, I have said this many times before, but if you are moved forward by thighstraps and repositioned seat, a shorter paddle (mine is 197 cm) is easier to use especially in the narrow confines of low water creeking. If you are paddling flat water and kicked back in your boat without thigh straps a long paddle (I like 215 cm) is better.

Back to Ounce-wisdom and Pound-foolishness I am curious why people carry the big fat NRS straps with the honkin buckles? These straps are made for lashing coolers to big rafts and hardshells to roof-tops, not gear to packrafts. Why not get a lightweight, ladder-buckle strap at REI? Similarly, why are people using 1 inch tubular webbing on bow and/or stern as lines for lining? That stuff is twice as thick as needed and soaks up water like a sponge and takes ages to dry out. Those ladder-buckle straps work best (if it helps convince you, these are what Hig and Erin use). And while I am ranting, I am also baffled by the idea of using carabiners to clip dry bags to the tie downs. Carabiners seem not only heavy, but don’t make the load fast (in that it still slops around and your load is better if it’s super static). More importantly if they are not locking, then they sometimes grab things they shouldn’t (like branches) and could actually grab you by a lose loop on your clothing (think drawstrings, shoelaces).

Anyway, these are some thoughts, observations, and experiences I thought I’d share while I have an audience who’s interested.

(Photos by and/or of Gavin Mulvay -- Thanks Gav!)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Pimped-out Ride is Sweet!

Before heading south to NZ last month I tricked out my main boat. My main boat is now a big, old Llama, after nearly a decade of mostly middle-sized Yak paddling.

Before you read any farther, I warn you: this post is not about a packraft for running the occasional Class IV. If that's all you are interested in is Class III, maybe the occasional Class IV, then this stuff below likely doesn't really apply. The stock Alpacka boats are pretty much all you need.

But if you've got the adenaline on! These mods are the best I've used.

Earlier descriptions provide details on my boat mods as motivated by Tim Johnson, with help from Epic Eric Parsons and Tracy Harmon at Alaska Raft and Kayak. Here I'll briefly describe how the mods performed on my trip to New Zealand and Fiji last month.

Besides me in the black-decked Llama, six other people paddled three other packrafts, each with thigh straps. One boat was my old red Yak with its side-opening, '08 deck and another was an orange-deck, center-opening yellow Llama. All three of the boats I brought had thigh-straps and seats moved forward. Five different people, including Erik Tomsen, who might have some pertinent comments (Erik?) paddled these three boats. The last boat, a blue Yak, had its seat in the stock position and thigh straps (one person -- Tim Johnson -- comments Tim?).

My personal stats using these mods from Jan 6 -- Feb 3 in Fiji (briefly) and NZ (longer) are these:

15 runs = 2 class II runs + 6 class III runs + 7 class IV runs

2 first descents (Sabine and Upper S. Fork Mokihinui)

5 roadside runs, 1 helo run, 9 walk-in runs

~70 hours on water packrafting (but not always “pack rafting” -- packrafting is a style of boating; pack rafting is carrying your pack on a raft)

~65 hours raft packing (walking-in)

6 non-motorized boat trips = 5-day hike and raft trip (Landsborough) + 4-day hike and raft trip (Nelson Lakes NP) + 3-day hike and raft trip (Mokihinui) + 2 over-night hike and raft trips (Arahura, Taipo) + 1 day-long hike and raft trip (Oparara)

7 motorized boat trips (1 river boat, 1 helicopter, 5 automobile)

8 You-Tube videos

To begin with, the bigger boat is much more stable in bigger water as well as in radical, low-volume rapids than the smaller Yak is -- but without the mods this Super-Llama has, I'd be slopping around in the boat and/or hitting my bum on rocks, and/or bander-snatching like crazy. A Llama, for me, without something to keep me in place, is stable but harder to control. Thigh straps and the moved seat make the big boat super maneuverable.

Here are the mods:

First are the thigh straps.

These pull me forward off the stock placement of the seat, so I fixed that seat problem with Epic Eric's sewing and solved some other problems.

Tim Johnson, too, gets pulled off his seat, but hasn't fixed the problem. Consequently, Tim hit his butt so hard that he walked a bunch of rapids on the Arahura, rapids that wonky ole' me RAN, not 'cause I was more skilled, but just 'cause I was un-bruised.

It's probable that putting in thigh straps is going to be a big point of inertia for most Alpacka users and a still smaller subset will actually cut their seat out and move it forward -- which is really too bad.

Fat thigh straps and a more centered seat pretty much end bandersnatching dismounts. Watch some of the NZ videos on YouTube (Arahura where Tim has thighstraps but has not moved seat and Landsborough, Taipo, Oparara, Nelson Lakes, and Mokinihui where seats are moved in all boats and all boats have thigh straps) and see how many flip over backwards. Very rare now, with sideways upsets now being more common. That's because of thighstraps.

BTW, the thigh straps in three boats I used as demos in NZ (used by five people on many different rivers and trips of hours to days) all wound up with substantial wear in the FEET AREA. Holes developed there because the hard hiking-shoe soles hit rocks and the feet wearing the shoes are forced more downward onto the floor of the boat by the thigh straps. I got more wear there at the feet in each of the three boats in a month of paddling than in the butt sections over the multi-year life of the three boats.

Second most important mod was the seat cut free and now velcroed in. Yes I glued 2-inch wide velcro to the seat and to the boat and now the seat moves and comes out. Makes it better for drying when it comes out and for repairs.

Third, I have a big, beefy back rest, also with velcro holding it in place. I reckon that my backrest is the same size and dimensions as an Explorer seat. The boat is now supremely comfy. No numb legs, super back support, and super control and stability. Sometimes when I look at it it looks as inviting as a sofa-lounge chair.

Fourth, I glued some "strap plates" onto the bottom of the boat about between my knees and strap the BEST SIZED DRY BAG (15 L) right there with a strap. Oh my, does that make the boat feel like a dreamy, fantasy rock shoe (snug and fitting with control and no pain)! With thigh straps and that drybag full of overnight gear I am set for backcountry Class IV. The boat is much more nimble than with weight on the bow. The weight is centered by the center of gravity. SWEET!

Fifth is for FIVE INCHES of VELCRO on a center opening spray deck. I get out fine (thank you) when upside down underwater with thigh straps, the mondo-velcro and the drybag. This is the second secret to a dry boat (the first is be smart about where and how you paddle in whitewater); the third secret is listed below.

Sixth is the bi-modal "fun-rail". More experienced boaters than I had commented/warned on the danger of foot entrapment on the full fun-rail. So, even though I had glued on a total of ten tie downs, I cut two off (the ones where my hands paddle) and now just use the four in front and the four in the back for 1/4 inch polypro line that doesn't go around the mid section of the boat (just the bow and stern -- four patches in both places -- check the photos). I find this really useful to grab onto so I don't get flushed away from my boat and have now, in real combat situations, towed swimmers with the rear rail. I thought I'd miss the mid-line rail, but do not miss it at all; however, having chicken line on bow and stern seems necessary to me now.

Seventh is the third secret to a really dry boat: two sleeves/pockets with velcro closures on either side of the center closing velcro at the top of the skirt. Each pocket holds a partially inflated 2 L Platypus bag, although any plastic stiffener would likely work. This is simply awesome. Oh what's that I hear? the water dam on your spray deck is dependent on the PFD you use? Yes, that's true, so...

....while not boat mods, if you are wanting to stay dry in whitewater consider a "two piece" whitewater LJ (i.e. life jacket), the kind with front and back foam but connected without side foam. Then wear it so the front foam is high and you will have an amazingly dry boat. Also, if you want to paddle white water Class IV, then get a stiff kayak paddle. People I have paddled with who have a 4-piece "packraft paddle" (like Aqua-bound) and a ONE-PIECE Werner (or other glass/carbon fiber) kayak paddle find that the "real" kayak paddle so much better that they are willing to carry in the one piece instead. Let me reiterate that: they have the choice of paddles and even for a multi-day trip of walking they bring the real paddle after using the Aqubound paddle in whitewater.

Again, if you are just paddling Class III and the occasional IV and are a basher and a smasher, stick with the Aqua-bound; if you are easy on stuff and paddling Class II/III, go with the Sawyer. But if you want to get hooked on the white stuff get a real paddle (4 piece, short one), a real whitewater helmet (not a bike or adventure racing helmet), some elbow pads, some swiftwater rescue training, then paddle with tolerant kayakers and get after it.

Be careful. The addiction is hard to kick.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Upper Hokitika: Satisfaction

Kayaker scorn for packrafts crosses international borders and communication media. You pick it up on forums like “Mountain Buzz” where comments from posters hiding behind names like “super_narnar” or “badass*boofmaster” range from “What’s wrong with a kayak?” to “They look like a sh*tty IK to me.”

But in NZ, at Murchison and Hokitika, the scorn was shocking. I’d thought Kiwis to be open-minded and progressive. And many are. Curiously, it’s often the young kayakers and the original paddling explorers -- the latter who’d traveled the world and run rivers before it was cool, those who’d read John Mackay’s “Wild Rivers” classic about building rafts using packed-in inner-tubes and wood to make first descents of NZ’s biggest rivers 40 years ago – who get it, and respected it. They might not want to paddle a packraft, perhaps, but they find them full of potential in a country where tracks parallel every backcountry river and “burn” (Scottish for creek) and the huts lighten the load making room for boats.

The worst reactions came from the hard-core, gnar-gnar paddling, thirty-somethings and the middle-age kayakers who’d been at it awhile. From them: frowns and open scorn and maybe even a tinge of disgust. I’ve come to expect what many packrafters call “kayaker attitude”, a certain blend of arrogance and disrespect that turns many of us off to kayakers, something early, telemarking “pinheads” must have felt for alpine skiers back in the day. Which is too bad, as we packrafters can learn a lot from kayakers – and indeed have. I am thinking here of Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and Tim Johnson in particular, kayakers who get in packrafts and wear grins on Class IV, sharing with the rest of us their skills and knowledge of rivers and creeks. In contrast, there are the middle-aged kayakers who get in the butt-boats wearing an expression like the family dog wears during its annual bath, a sort of “what-am-I-doing-here” and “when-can-I-get-out” look.

Having paddled over a month in thigh straps I can attest that a lot of that sad-dog look is due to the sloppy-loafer feel of a packraft compared to the tight-glove fit of a hard-shell. But when it comes to the arrogant, self-righteous, fascist group, with their know-it-all theoretical insight based on zero experience in packrafts -- well, I find it particularly satisfying to prove their confident predictions dead wrong.

The Arahura River had been a creek run for me – my choice of style. It had a hike-in and a camp-out with both of us in butt-boats. The Upper Hokitika would be a steep creek (over 260 feet/mile for a mile and a half), kayak run for Tim. It would require helicopter access (about US $100 each) as its half-dozen sheer gorges interspersed by slip-fed (slips are active landslides) boulder drops preclude any trails or even routes through the steep-sided canyon. One could hike in over mountains upstream – and one day I hope to -- but the technicality of the run makes carrying even a small overnight load in a packraft by an intermediate Class IV boater like me just too challenging. And, I admit, the novelty of a helo run in a packraft did appeal.

Unfortunately I had to put up with four arrogant kayakers while waiting for the helicopter to show up and four more at two of the portages above must-run rapids in the Hoki’s bowels. And then there was the email comment from one of Tim’s friends who said basically that the Hoki "was no place for a packraft and if you were to take one in, be sure to pack some overnight gear." So I brought along a stick of pepperoni, a wool hoody, head net, and bug dope in case I got stuck and had to hike out. Tim brought his hard-shell since he didn’t fancy hitting his tail-bone again.

“What have you guys been doin?” asked Mr. Cool. It’s the standard way to gauge a boater here on the West Coast, where some of the hardest and most dangerous rivers in the world carve steeply off the Southern Alps through sheer-walled canyons and sieved-out slip drops.

Tim told him, the Arahura.

“Oh yea, mate, the Upper Hokitika’s nothing like the Arahura,” said blonde Mr. Cool in his shades and body armor wetsuit top. His tone wrapped “what the f*ck are you clowns doing here?” around the implicit warning.

As he bundled the paddles for the flight in, he couldn’t hold back his scorn any longer and blurted, “Who’s got the split paddle!”

I didn’t bother answering him. What did it matter: he already knew it all.

Poor, sweet, modest, Class V paddling Tim. He had his hardshell. And he had the experience and skills to run this test-piece. But here he was, suffering contact scorn for being around the likes of me. Maybe it’s my sort of frowny face, big nose, nasal voice, unkempt hair. Maybe it’s wearing long pants over my 1996-vintage dry-suit and adventure racing shoes, my plastic rafter’s helmet -- in addition to my paddle and boat.

The helo arrived and the bad-boys sprinted to it.

“Wow, what’s wrong with those guys? They act like their going to a funeral.”

Quite likely they expected me to die and wanted to get as far away as fast as possible from the epic they knew was sure to happen. They wanted no part of my swims, my junk show, my carnage, my unplanned bivouac in the button-down brush above sheer, polished gorges.

By the time we landed in the little two-passenger 'copter, all six other kayaks, making up three pair-wise groups, were far downstream. Looking below at the first drop I could see them scouting, portaging, racing to keep ahead of us.

We paddled off, admiring a Blue Duck, a long thin waterfall, a shady glen.

“Let ‘em go. We’re better off doing our own thing,” said Tim.

He was right. First off we didn’t need them. Our skills and our judgment were sufficient. Second, it seemed that they were in a hurry, trying to get down as fast as possible. And from my adventure racing days I knew that the best races are your own, where nobody else’s pace matters. Besides, Tim and I weren’t racing: we were just trying to make it down with safe satisfaction.

The first drop was really a double drop. The top one tall, the lower one on a corner.

“You should pull into the eddy below the first drop and then drive sideways over the second so you don’t get caught in the pocket hole.”

I disregarded Tim’s instructions. It looked doable and fun to link them both. It looked like there was room to make the 'snicker-snack', paddle-jab-pivot, and I nearly did, but misjudging the power of the current sent me off-line by a foot and shoved me into the pocket hole, upside down.

Holding onto boat and paddle I waited to surface, but instead found myself inside blue gloom and doom, shoved beneath a boulder. Realizing my predicament I pushed backwards out of the cave and clawed for the surface, dropping my paddle in the process, but managing to clamber on top of the rock that moments before had trapped me.

Above Tim was hidden and unable to help because of a huge overhanging boulder.

“I’m OK! My paddle! Get my paddle!”

The paddle floated away, slid off the next drop, cruised toward shore, then somehow hung up at the brink of another drop.

Tim ran and retrieved it while I caught up on some recently missed oxygen.

Tim wrapped the rope around a log and tossed me down an end with a carabiner that I clipped to myself for back-up. Then he belayed while I scrambled, using the rope as a hand-line to get over the bulge.

“You were right about that corner. I got shoved under a rock. Pretty f*in scary. I’m going to walk a while.”

I boulder-hopped down to where the Funeral Party had recently scouted. I put back in, running a number of fun mid-boat to boat-length drops for an hour or so, walking past the collapsed 'Viagra Falls', a massive mess of sievy boulders.

About an hour and a half after our put-in we caught the Funeral Party portaging the entrance falls to the First Gorge, a mini one and a taste of what was to come.

Seeing my boat, two kayakers from the early group of four, whom we hadn’t yet met, smiled and laughed, perhaps appreciating how easy it was to portage the steep boulders beside crashing falls with a packraft. Taking Tim's boat across a channel, I realized that kayakers are really burly people. They paddle their boats in places they simply mustn’t swim and carry them in places where they mustn’t fall. They are true bad-asses.

But the bad-asses hurriedly seal launched into the gorge pool below and paddled away, leaving without so much as a wave hello or good-bye. Again I was reminded of teams in an adventure race, wanting to drop the clowns in back who so obviously didn’t belong.

“I’ve never really met kayakers like that before,” said Tim.

Twenty minutes later, we caught them again, portaging into the Second Gorge with its series of must-do and partially blind rapids. This section of the Upper Hokitika had recently changed making the guidebooks suggestion of a ferry to river right and portage past an enormous boulder obsolete. Now it was drop into an 'L-Bow' turn and watch for the hole at the end, paddling between overhung boulders and a sheer gorge wall.

The Funeral Crew fully ignored us here, especially Mr. Cool who was worked his still-cam for the keenest photo possible while the others studied the line from every possible angle, which summed to exactly two: very high and directly above.

The Funeral Six studied the rapid with such seriousness, ignoring me as if I was certain to die, that their mood was contagious and I was soon sick with dread. I looked up and wondered how long it would take for me to bushwack along the rim and back to the river. I wondered, too, if I threw up if I’d feel any better.

No words of encouragement, none of warning. Nothing. Like I was a ghost. Five of them treated us as if we were nothing more than soft boulders in their way.

There was one guy, a Kiwi in a white helmet who was actually nice and talked to me. "That giant boulder down there," he pointed to a green, house-sized rock siting on another rock, "was rotated 25 degrees, changing this whole section."

After the Funeral Crew had paddled through, one taking the next rapid below backwards, Tim said, “I’m glad they’re gone. Their mood’s even bringing me down!”

That was bad. Tim’s an eternally upbeat guy.

I was surprised that none had offered us any safety, that once again they hurried off to leave us. They hadn’t even given us the chance to say, “Heh, look. You don’t need to wait for us. We can take care of ourselves.”

“I dunno what’s up with these guys. They don’t seem to have any river ethics. Most kayakers aren’t like this”

“It’s me and the packraft.”

Anyway, we made it down 'L-Bow' and the next three must-do rapids satisfyingly and it was adventure boating at its best. This Second Gorge's three must-do rapids are stacked back to back, and it was a must to do them with Tim. He told me the “L-Bow” turn entrance would actually be easier in a packraft. He ran it and signaled me to follow, warning me off the sucking sieve to the left after passing the house-sized boulder that teetered overhead. Next we scouted for a way to avoid the main flow forcing us into an undercut.

I pointed out a ferry that looked packraftable and Tim ran it, hopped out of his boat on a huge, flat boulder with only inches of cuurent flowing over it, and hooked his foot in his boat's cockpit as he set safety for me.

To the right was the meat feeding the undercut beast; to the left a blind drop; in the middle a wood sieve pinned against a boulder sieve. Must-make moves in a sheer walled room of horrors.

The next blind drop went fine into a circulating pit that Tim let me circle in my boat a few times before fishing me out.

Then three big drops led into a long pool set below the narrowest section of the Second Gorge -- gorgeous!

Almost immediately after leaving the Second Gorge we found two waterfalls that both of us portaged, but Tim said they were both runnable, one upstream and one downstream of another hotel-sized rock, this one we portaged over. It was neat adventure boating here, too.

Below these came a big slidy drop leading into the Third Gorge. This third one began with some ugly sieves, then a must-do blind corner in its middle. The Third Gorge opened up to some easy rapids leading into the highlight of the Upper Hokitika, the Gates of Argonath.

All of this ran pretty much back to back. We’d put-in at 11 AM, caught the Funeral Crew around quarter to one at the First Gorge and again 20 minutes later at the Second Gorge. They were long gone by the time we got through the Second Gorge at quarter to three. We’d spent a lot of time fretting over the must-do lines, two of which made me nauseated with fear – what I call “dread”. Dread returned in the Third Canyon at its must-do blind corner which we finally paddled at 4:30 and reached the fabled Gates of Argonath five minutes later, with its vertical boulder choked narrows and waterfall framing the three foot width of this Fourth Gorge. Half an hour later we’d dropped the last Class IV in the final Fifth Gorge above the intermediate Lower Hokitika run and its Kakariki Canyon.

The intermediate run has a sheer but gentle gorge with amazing water carved sides. We coasted in its gentle current, talking.

“It’s been alright without the Funeral Crew around. I wonder what got a bee in their bonnet? Must have been the packraft.”

“Yea, and those town pants over your dry suit, plus your split paddle. What you need is to pull out a round red clown nose, put it on, and lighten them all up.”

That seems like a good idea. I’m going to get a bozo nose to keep handy in my LJ pocket, ready at a moment’s notice to diffuse the “this-guy-in-his-boat’s-a-clown” attitude I seem to encounter too often -- even here on my own blog and in the Alpacka Forum!

“I think the video you make of this run should be called ‘Proof of Concept’. You just packrafted a West Coast test-piece.”

“I don’t really feel like I ran it. I swam three times and portaged a bunch of stuff.”

“Maybe so, but you swam in Class II and made all the must-do moves. I’d say you did it.”

Yea maybe so, Tim, but I’d already decided that the video of the Upper Hoki wouldn’t be about packrafts. It’d be a tribute to Tim Johnson, a big "Thank-You" to Tim for watching out for me and paddling the classic West Coast creek, not to test himself, but to help me find my way.

We reached the Whitcombe by 6 PM and the take-out below the tourist swing bridge by 7. Under the rental car’s windshield wiper was a note: “Call if you get out before dark.”

I guess more than one kayaker had a heart after all.

Here's Tim's video version:

Monday, February 8, 2010

And on the other end of the world they're still boating!

Alastair Humphreys and Andy Ward have just recently posted their cross-Scotland winter journey, a classic packrafting adventure, a must-watch video:

Across Scotland by foot and packraft from alastair Humphreys on Vimeo.

Thanks Alastair. Super cool and by the looks of it wicked cold! Looking forward to more.....

(PS His story's pretty good, too.)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Arahura -- Proof of Concept

Helicopters are routinely used to access the steep creeks and rivers of the West Coast. I hoped to discover if the classic runs -- like the Arahura, Hokitika, and Perth -- were manageable in what I consider classic Kiwi-style butt boating: hike up to a hut; sleep; walk farther up to the put-in for the helos; float out.

The New Zealand trip has emerged as a collage of mountains and huts, rivers and tracks, people and bush. From sub-tropical tree ferns and warm, amber creeks to talus hopping songbirds and glacial blue rivers. From a 32 person dorm on a water-taxi served lake filled with people from around the world to a remote tin shack stuffed with girlie magazines and three grinning packrafters.

My skills have improved, my body has leaned, the kit and techniques for making the most of this civilized mountain-forest-river landscape have been sharpened.

All my camping gear and food fits in a 15 L dry bag strapped inside my boat, nothings on the bow.

The center-entry boat with five inches of Velcro closure and air bladders on the belly band has thigh straps and a seat moved forward of the top-off valve with a thick, six-inches of backrest. The seat and backrest Velcro in for easy removal and faster drying.

Overnights in huts provide the best night’s sleep, as the mattresses are thick and comfy. No need to carry a tent or a pad, my partners and I park at the trailhead late in the afternoon and hike-in two hours to the first hut, below which is usually a bunch of boogy water and maybe a gorge with plenty of water and Class III rapids.

In the morning after coffee, we leave the dry bag of camping gear (food eaten) and hike up 2-4 hours with lunch, boats, dry-suits, helmets, throw bags, paddles, clothes –- we then boat down with fully unloaded boats, pick up the dry bag and float out to the car-park, usually with enough daylight to dry our gear in the hot sun and afternoon breeze, two meteorological conditions that keep the flesh-hungry sandflies at bay.

It’s a really good system for seeing New Zealand by foot and packraft.

Back in the Fall, while planning for this trip, the Arahura River sat near the top of my West Coast wish-list, above the Perth, Hokatika, Whitcombe, and Styx, but below the Landsborough. The Lansborough seemed doable, but the Arahura felt unattainable -- that is, before Tim Johnson arrived.

Tim flew in on Sunday. We met at high noon in Cathedral Square, downtown Christchurch among the buskers and their spectators. It was the last day of the 10 day International Busker’s Festival, an extravaganza of gags and acrobatics, street gymnastics, juggling, and jokes. Many of the Buskers stayed at the YMCA where I was drinking cappuccinos, making videos, and writing blog entries waiting for Tim to arrive.

Monday we planned to drive over and hike in to run the Taipo. But when we got there the gauge was out of the water, so dry had it been the last couple weeks.

“Let’s go look at the Styx,” I suggested, and we drove on to Hokitika eating some fish and chips and looking at the shops in town. But the Styx looked too low, also, and the Arahura was just a 10 km gravel drive away.

“Why not?” was Tim’s response. He’d been down it six years before.

By 7 PM we were camped in the Lower Arahura Hut, a dirty old thing currently being replaced with a new one by a three-man Kiwi crew who’d flown in with all their materials.

“Who’s got the boat?” they asked.

“We both do.”

“Oh, packrafts, hay,” said the oldest one. “A couple blokes were spinning yarns about them when I was working in Alaska a few years back.”

In the morning we busted out 3 miles to the usual helicopter put-in for this West Coast classic of multiple drops, boulder gardens and infamous rock sieves. The water flowed clean and low under the swing-bridge.

Within five minutes we’d come to the first big drop, scouted and run it. The next slot Tim hit his tail bone hard -- he has not moved his seat forward and the thigh straps pull him off his seat -- and the drop after that he banged his elbow, hard. All this within 20 or 30 minutes of the put-in. It would be another hour before he was not so gun-shy as to portage a bunch of super drops that I plopped in the sunshine.

We scouted just about every foot in this upper “Third Canyon”, knowing that “Curtain Call” and “Dent Falls” lay lurking behind one of the almost continuous horizon lines set between massive boulders. At least this situation kept the camera dry and the video coming. I was determined to run everything – until the whole river went beneath a single flat boulder. And then came “Curtain Call” where the whole river slipped smoothly and seamlessly into a pool of backwash.

“Oh man, Curtain Call’s super dangerous right now.” Earlier Tim had promised we could run laps on this photogenic drop. “Look at that current coming right back over. It’s like a low-head dam right now.”

I recognized the smooth plunge from a day at Bird Creek when Brad M and Jeff C and I could not get past a similar water structure. We both portaged this.

Soon after we came to “Dent Falls” -- or what was left of it. Its boulders had collapsed leaving a massive sieve twenty feet high, with the 700 cfs running behind and between narrow slots no boat – or body even -- could fit through.

A Blue Duck flew in and landed, foraging in and out of the narrow slots of the bank-side sieves, slipping into and out of the whitewater with ease. Eventually the river’s gradient slackened and the boulders shrank enough that we could boat scout, boulder hopping from eddy to eddy, creeping down the drops one tongue at a time.

Tim’s paddling technique and confidence was amazing. It is a real gift he shows for water, and I was flattered he was here to paddle this in a packraft with me. Twice he posted safety below drops that flipped me and as soon as my head surfaced the throw line was on me. Don’t come to the Aruhara without someone so skilled.

His paddling style reveals his kayaking roots: aggressive strokes; multiple boofs over holes, drops, and rocks; long pauses above big drops circling and eyeing and picking his line; and a tendency to forget he had no stern but with the reflexes and strength to brace unfailingly. While he walked more drops than I, he never fell out of his boat.

Running the river required four boating techniques: the first was easy floating through pools or boogy water (Class II) – this was quite rare in the first six hours – sort of like easy cramponing up a firm, moderate slope.

The second technique was boat scouting by eddy-hopping through boulder gardens, a classic Kiwi style of boating, and quite emotionally draining. Apprehension of big drops or sieves with no way out, quickly followed by the adrenaline of drop-able falls works your body through the hormones sent from the mind. I was reminded of simul-climbing on alpine ice.

The third technique was liked belaying pitches: getting out and scouting a rapid, picking a line, setting safety and then making the moves and re-grouping below. Sometimes you “fall” on these and your “belayer” “catches” you with the throw line. It was good to have a helmet, elbow pads, and above all a competent partner.

Finally, there was the walk-around. We did portage every guidebook-named rapid except “Alzheimer's”, and a couple others un-named but dangerous. After six hours and five kilometers I was wupped and happy to see the river let up.

The best rapid was at the end of the “Second Gorge”, below our portage of the deadly “Billiards”, in the rapid called “Alzheimer's”. This had a an s-turn slalom between holes, followed by a big ferry left, a slot into a pool needing a quick 90-degree right turn and a drop off a six foot waterfall. Stunningly satisfying to run.

We picked up our gear at the swing-bridge near the hut , checking up on the workmen’s progress and amazed that they’d framed the hole thing in the eight hours since we’d left: two hours to walk the 5 km up and six hours to boat it back down. From the hut down it was just boogy water and a couple Class III drops that felt like little more than a roller coaster ride. And the “cesspit”

The final canyon, “Cesspit”, is an ugly name for an amazing horseshoe-shaped waterfall into a deep polished schist gorge. A twenty foot wide falls plunges into a fifty foot gorge that is narrower than it is tall, made of polished, vertically grained schist. Below the main entry drop churned more rapids in a gorge I had no interest in running.

In all honesty, I was satisfied, ready to fly home with the best packraft creeking experience I could imagine. How could it get any better?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Landsborough: Mountain and Wilderness

The Landsborough may be the wildest multiday whitewater run on the South Island, but I don’t know, there may be something wilder in Fiordland.

I do know The Landsborough’s thirty mile length is fully boxed in by glaciated mountains on three sides, including the Southern Alps' craggy divide, and a canyon on the fourth.

Last year I’d run the north West Coast’s Karamea River solo after walking into its tropical feeling headwaters with Peggy and Jazz, as a substitute.

But the Landsborough’s been what looks best for a packrafter to explore.

Every packrafter I’ve ever talked to who knew anything about NZ has wanted to do the Landsborough, remote and wild. No sheep, no cattle, no 4x4 tracks. Helos aren’t allowed above Mckerrow Creek, 20 miles up. There’s no map-marked trail as such into its wild heart -- only a single, shabby, old hut and two bivs, one a “rock biv”.

With glaciated mountains and beech forests the Landsborough Valley pulls like a magnet for an Alaskan wilderness packrafter. And after three trips and four rivers Erik Tomsen was ready.

“I like the idea of a source-to-sea trip,” he said.

“I don’t think we have enough time to set the shuttle, do the hike from the headwaters, and then run the river to the ocean before your girlfriend comes in on the thirtieth. But Gavin says its pretty easy in through Brodrick Pass, over by Mt Cook. He’s been up there before. And that way we can run the river the commercial groups do, maybe a little higher”

Thirty-year old Gavin Mulvay is the real deal. A scrappy, fit, classic Kiwi adventurer, he’s a third generation mountaineer: his grandfather was a Mt. Cook Guide, his grandmother the first to climb all NZ peaks over 10,000 feet in a single season. He’s also an innovator and a tinkerer. Before he’d started packrafting, he had created several versions of an “alpine bike”, used for riding downhill but shaved of all weight. And as I write this he’s working on making another kite for skiing in Antarctica.

Gav’s alpine bikes sport hard tails with small diameter rear wheels and larger diameter front ones. They have no seats, no derailleurs, no chains, nor cranks. He stands on the foot pegs and coasts down shingle scree ridges and twisty sheep trails. He even has a modified baby-backpack for carrying these fly-weight downhill bikes up the mountains he rides. He and a friend once climbed to the alpine divide near Mt. Cook and rode down a steep glacier’s morning crust with special bladed wheels. Watching his video and I held my breath as they swooshed past cracks and crags.

Before the alpine bikes there’d been little motor bikes he’d take on long off-road mountain journeys; a split board snowshoe/snowboard; and this past winter while he over-wintered at NZ’z Scott Base in Antarctica working as their engineer, he and an electrician friend built a series of snow-caves to occupy their time.

The first snow cave was a sleeping shelter where he tested his latest soda can alcohol stove creation. Next he and his friend carved out a “lounge” big enough to hold 25+ people. It was wired with light switches and a central, vertical pillar hollowed out for a fluorescent tube light. They hosted a party there with Americans visiting from McMurdo and the Kiwis from Scott. The last room they made featured a movie screen and projector where they showed “Happy Feet.” Featured on NZ TV when they auctioned off their caves on NZ’s version of E-Bay called Trade-me, collecting $2,000 for charity.

Gavin had answered my post on the forum, saying he’d like to try out one of the Alpacka Rafts I’d brought over. He sent pix from his own latest adventure with his girlfriend down the multi-day Clarence using “Warehouse” rafts. The Warehouse is sort of like a NZ K-Mart and the rafts are about what you’d expect at K-Mart. Knowing how fragile they’d be, he wrapped the boast in blue tarps for protection.

Like Erik, Gavin was game for the Landsborough, too, even if it was his first Alpacka trip. All the big Class IV rapids are portageable, according to the guidebook. Hearing his stories on the seven hour drive to the Haast River to set the shuttle and looking him over he seemed fit and experienced, with a good sense of humor and wit.

We left Christchurch at 5:30 PM and by 4:30 AM we’d set the shuttle at the take-out along the Haast and driven Gav’s 4x4 to the Monument Hut near Lake Ohau. The outlook was for a week of great weather.

From the Hut a series of orange marked tracks, complete with huts and swing-bridges leads across open flats, through shady beech woods, past long waterfalls, and beautiful snow capped walls and peaks to Brodrick Pass on the Alpine Divide.

We made good time and reached the Brodrick Hut early, reading hunting and adventure magazines until the sunlight faded. DOC (Department of Conservation) had left brochures and other information on birds of interest: the whitewater Blue Duck; the smallish, peregrine-like NZ Falcon; the Kea, an alpine parrot; and the intriguing Rock Wren.

The Rock Wren is a small, primitive songbird with essentially no tail. An alpine bird, it lives high in the mountains, gleaning talus for small insects. It mostly hops, rarely flies, spending much of its time bobbing like a Dipper. Apparently it spends winters beneath the snow, feeding in the sub-nivean space among bushes, grass and boulders.

Above tree-line in New Zealand’s mountains live geckos, parrots, and wrens, as well as a number of flower from families usually associated with low altitudes and latitudes.

Climbing up to the pass, we looked up to the screech of a Kea, the parrot soaring high over glaciers. On the other side of the pass I found three rock wrens and videoed their rock hopping and dipping (see below). Apparently they are very tame, like many NZ birds (most notably the NZ Bush Robin), and can be tempted closer with offers of feathers for their nests. I had no feathers and they were not interested in toilet paper.

Moir’s Guide describes the route down to the Landsborough from Brodrick Pass as it gets use but is un-marked on topo maps. We found the multiple, towering cairns where the route leaves the creek-bed and climbs to the steep, forested arĂȘte dropping into to the valley floor.

The narrow trail twists and turns on a forested ridge only a few meters wide, following orange metal plates nailed to fat, twisted beech trees. For me it was the most amazing trail I have hiked in NZ. There’s enough trail to make it good going, but not so much as to make it boring. It’s no wonder New Zealand produces some of the best navigators in adventure racing: they have a great place practice. At one point we came across an old, metal plate nailed to a tree and punched with holes: a name and the year 1941.

By late afternoon we were down to the Fraser hut, a ratty, tin shack appropriately enough filled with Aussie porn. The light and views were spectacular and the hot sun and wind kept all the sandflies (endemic NZ black-flies) away until the sun dropped and they came out for their last vicious meal before bed: thankfully they don’t bite at night. That’s the time reserved for mosquitoes.

In the morning we followed the stoat (European weasel) trapper’s track up valley. The stoats and bush-tailed possums are two nest predators of native birds that DOC targets for pest control. The possums are exotics from Australia and they poison them by dropping green-colored baits laced with “1080” from airplanes.

“The best way is to drop it in winter,” said Gav, “when they are hungry. It doesn’t take much 1080 to kill a possum. The deer hunters all spread mis-information about the poison. It doesn’t kill birds at the level found in the pellets – tea has as much of the same poison. It doesn’t make the water toxic. It doesn’t kill deer. Hunters just like to complain. If there was something more effective, Doc says, they’d use it.”

The stoats were a different matter: they couldn’t be poisoned. Every 100 yards it seems there was another two-foot long, low, box trap with what looked like a leg hold trap inside, and baited with a chicken egg. A small hole was cut in the mesh on one end, just big enough for a lithe little weasel to sneak in.

I wondered at all the expense NZ goes to control their pests. From helicopter hunting and poison baiting to building and maintaining all these box traps, to eradicating rats from entire islands.

“All these huts were built for the deer hunters after WWII when the boys were away shooting Nazis and the deer reached plague numbers. But serious deer control got started when Tim Wallis and others started using helicopters to hunt them in the seventies and eighties. He got rich doing that -- introducing helicopters as working tools in NZ. As the meat prices climbed and the deer numbers dropped, Tim saw the future coming and started live-catching the deer with Kiwis jumping from helos to wrestle them to the ground! Later they developed pilot-fired net guns. Using the deer caprtured, Tim started farming deer to satisfy the European meat and the Asian medicinal products demand, getting even richer. He went to Russia and taught them how to raise deer and one city built a statue of him.” Today, fields and fences with sheep, cattle, and deer make up a large part of the countryside.

Gavin was an endless fountain of Kiwi lore, exactly the kind of companion you want on a trip to a foreign land. He shared his food as well as his knowledge and expressed daily gratitude for the “flash” paddle and boat I lent him.

About the time the morning fog burned off we’d hiked as far as we wanted, a good four hours above the hut, inflated our rafts and hopped in. The first bend revealed a meaty Class III rapid. Gavin flipped midway down and as I floated alongside him, making sure I was there to help, I grinned and watched him successfully self-rescue, climbing back into the boat and paddling to shore.

“Good job! You passed the first test!”

“I figured when you were smiling like that I wasn’t in any real danger -- it gave me confidence!”

This was the burliest rapid of the day, but there were many more Class III and miles and miles of Class II. The fast-paced current through endless rock gardens; water the color of a precious stone; the mountain scenery; it all combined to offer up what must be one of the best days of packrafting I have ever enjoyed, especially on a big river. The experience and Gavin reminded me of Jim Baughman in 1988, when he ordered a Sherpa Packraft from Fairbanks, had it delivered to Eagle, then used it as we paddled a high water Charlie River in the Interior. Like Alaska, New Zealand really is a packraft paradise.

We spent another night at the Fraser Hut and left at 9 AM for the final 25 km paddle to the Haast River. Below the hut the river enters a canyon that frames stunning views of the mountains behind and dishes up big, juicy drops and waves.

At the water level that day we enjoyed running every drop. Even the crux “Hellfire” while challenging was not terrifying. There were three big rapids that we needed to scout and several others that we scouted anyway. Everything, even at higher water would be portageable.

All in all, the low water Landsborough by way of Broderick offers great intermediate trekking (unmapped routes) and great intermediate boating (NZ Class III/IV). It is yet another world-class New Zealand packrafting route. Upstream of where we’d put-in, there’s another canyon, just downstream of Zora Creek, called “What the f*ck am I doing here?” with what the guidebook ( says are six waterfall drops. Sounds like an expert run, as does the trek in over Karangarua Saddle (

Midway down the final canyon, I twisted my boat around and said, “You know Erik, I thought that it couldn’t get any better than the Sabine -- and then we did the Taipo. And now this. It just seems like it gets better and better.”

“Yea, that ‘s the thing about New Zealand paddling. Each river just seems better than the last.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taipo: Never a Dull Moment

As we left Murchison, Mick offered us a final tip. “Go have a look at the Taipo. It’ll be a nice one at these summer flows for your little thingies.”

We’d bailed on the Oparara due to no water and abandoned the plan of meeting the fisherman-with-packraft, Aussie Andrew Allan and his fishing buddy on the Karamea, since the water thre was racing so high that we’d be walking the Karamea Gorge both in and out (sorry Andrew!).

So the Taipo it’d be.

The Taipo is a West Coast run just west of Arthur’s Pass National Park. It has a 4x4 road-accessed lower gorge and helo-accessed upper run. It’s structured like many Kiwi rivers: the lowest bit cuts through a gorge with a highway bridge downstream. A marked and mapped trail follows the river past a series of three huts. The lowest hut makes a good camp, just a couple hours from civilization. The upper huts are good fro blowing up boats and putting on dry suits out of the sandflies. Follow the track up from the lowest hut for an hour to run Class I; two hours for Class II; three hours for Class III; four hours for Class IV – you get the picture – but we haven’t yet hiked five hours above the lowest hut.

Erik Tomsen and I left his car at 6:30 PM or so, the river gauge reading 2.4. We found the hut among thickets of pokey gorse and muddy paths and fresh cow pies. Leaving the hut at 9 AM the next morning, we wandered up an increasingly beautiful valley following a splashy aquamarine stream through mixed podocarp woods. Snow clung to craggy peaks beneath blue skies.

Where the trail climbed uphill we caught glimpses of the river crashing through big granite boulders in smooth tongues that ended in misplaced rocks. Twenty-something Erik is the strongest walker I’ve hiked with in a while and the only way I could keep up was to take off from the hut before he did and have the skimpy trail markings and faint trail slow him in confusion while I made wily time: “Old age and treachery stay ahead of youth and fitness every time,” I couldn’t help thinking.

By noon we’d made it to the Mid-Taipo Hut, below which Graham Charles had described “13 kilometers of class II-III” in New Zealand Whitewater and above that was moderate class IV for four kilometers . We walked another km to the swing bridge and put in at 2 PM for a fast and furious roller coaster ride, twisting and turning steeply between smooth granite boulders, like a NZ version of the Little Susitna River.

Lower, from the Mid-Taipo Hut downstream, the run was characterized by wide splashy runs that funneled into steep, boulder-choked drops, crashing downward into 3-4 foot tall breaking wave trains. After each of these I’d look back and see Erik’s big grin. The valley was open and the river braided around islands in the flats, but the river never slowed.

We reached our gear at 3:30 and shoved off for the last steep boulder funnel at 4 PM. From there the creek picked up water and channelized, then entered its Class III canyon, reminiscent of a fall-time Talkeetna in its constrictions, wave trains and water color.

“Heh Roman! I gotta name for this. If we were to give this run a title it’d have to be, ‘Never a Dull Moment’!”

And here I thought it couldn’t get any better than the Sabine….

Upstream of the final canyon the cow pies and gorse had detracted from the walking, making the route four stars rather than five. But the final canyon made up for that.

The Taipo is world-class packrafting.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oparara Mishap

“Walking in? Never heard of anybody walking in, but plenty of stories of people walking out!” quipped Mick when queried about the possibility of doing the Oparara, the West Coast’s northernmost class IV run, as a packraft loop.

On the map it looked superb. A “stunning new” trail leading 8 miles from the take-out to Moria Arch, the limestone gateway to the Oparara River.

The Oparara had come highly recommended but carried with it a warning: “too much or too little water in the upper bit leads to more walking than you’d bargained for.”

“This is the nicest day I’ve ever seen on the West Coast,” observed Erik as we headed up the trail with blue sky showing above the tree fern crowns.

We made good time on the new trail of granite cobbles, twisting and climbing through a valley full of mossy trees covered with climbing pandanus.

“Boy, I’d hate to have to walk through that. It looks really thick.” Unlike the new trail we walked that was suited for mountain bike racing, the woods were filled with diverticulating shrubs, vine tangles, and mossy tip-ups.

After about three hours the trail passed over the massive Moria Arch. The arch is so massive that it offers no indication, other than a disappearing river to the side, that the trail passes over the arch and the river. We scrambled down a slimy trail into a cave that opened to a massive chamber where the Oparara River slid through. Water dripped from stalactites and the cave floor was polished limestone and sand.

“Let’s put in here!” Erik was excited by the magic.

Brown water rich with tannins slipped by and clouds now filled the sky. The guidebook had promised flat water after an hour or so of “wood and rocks”. Unfortunately we never got to the flat bit. We spent more than an hour portaging and scouting in the low water.

Rocky shallows crowded with black soggy wood led to narrow crashing slots and boiling pools. We portaged almost immediately on limestone cliffs and boulders when the river slid in a half dozen sieve holes beneath sharp sticks and rocks.

We rafted through a nether world of dripping, overhung, black walls above water the color of a deep porter brew. We made maybe five drops and another two portages, the last following a swim and a paddle that was swallowed up by a sieve. While the moves were generally simple the consequences of a swim were not always safe.

The very low water exposed the ragged black heart of the Oparara, a heart jammed full of tree trunks and spiky, honeycombed boulders. In higher water all of this would be covered but it still all looked like entrapment.

We paddled a few more wonderful drops but each horizon line prompted us out of our boats for a scout. The last one showed a big drop of maybe thirty feet through a sieve of enormous granite boulders down to a sharp left turn. We’d be unable to extricate ourselves should we commit to this.

“Erik, it’s time to exit.”

“Maybe we can put back in to the calm stuff below. The guidebook said there were flat bits.”

We traversed under a limey overhang on a narrow goat trail choked with vine cane. It was slow going. We made a 100 m in half an hour.

Eventually we deflated our boats and -- pinched off by a cliff below and discouraged by the deep base sound, if not the sight, of plunging whitewater -- we climbed out. Passing paddles and pulling up on hardwood handles and limestone grips we climbed vertical jungle for about 100 feet.

I knew the trail would be somewhere “uphill” but without map or compass we’d have to follow the topographic gradient and hope that in this veg-covered karst landscape we didn’t end up confused atop a limestone spire.

The gorge walls ended and we scrambled through a kie-kie thicket, a climbing pandanus that obscured the knife-edged ridge. It was technical bushwacking in our water suits with packrafts strapped to the back of our PFDs. The twisting brittle stalks of the kie-kie supported huge grass-like blades obscuring sinkholes and pockmarks. This ridge, too, ended eventually in a flatter ridge that we followed tentatively upward for another half hour until we stumbled onto the cobble covered track.


Erik busted out of the bushes and held his hand high. “Give me five!”

I pulled off my dry suit and readied myself for the two and half hour hike back to the car.

“You know, ya gotta have a day like this every so often. A real adventure to keep you honest.”

Maybe so, maybe when your twenty-something. But I’m looking at 50 soon, and these kinda days are hard on an old guy like me.

And I don’t think I’ll be going back to the least not on this trip.

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