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:


  1. A hearty "well done" taking the PR down that river. What a blast, you must have been jazzed for days after that!
    Without a doubt way beyond what I would consider doing in a PR. All that creeking in Ak has certainly honed your skillz Roman.

  2. Brilliant, Roman! I still think I'll get another creek boat before a packraft, but I can think of a lot of runs I've dragged a 50 lb boat up that would have been great fun in a packraft! I've hiked even more creeks in the Brooks that were all "academic", as I knew I'd never get a kayak up there. You get only respect and no scorn from me. Good to read you still have some healthy "dread". When Paul was learning to paddle, I was proud that he took my suggestion to edit the "No Fear" sticker on the bow of his boat to read "KNoW Fear!".

  3. Thanks Paul and John. Super happy to hear that you appreciated the story.

    Turns out the nice kayaker is Andy England, who won the Whitewater NZ "Canoeist of the Year" Award in 2008 ( and who once carried his hardshell across the Southern Alps from the Rakaia River to descend the Whitcombe. He seems like a candidate for a packraft....

  4. Arrogant cunt with sunglasses and body armourFebruary 14, 2010 at 5:38 PM


    Just remember before you the piss out of everyone... Someones going to have to come get you if shit happens, and no matter how much better than us you are on you pack raft, shit might just happen to you oneday.

    Sweet. No hard feelings, just we know you'll be walking for 2 days to get out of the Hoki... so it's better to be cautious.

  5. The latest runs on your blog look pretty stout, no matter what you are running them in. Nice work! Reading your blog the last couple of weeks has got me thinking and planning for when I get my packraft this spring. I've already found a couple first decents that would be better to do in a packraft than a kayak (ex. 6 mile hike out vs a 30+ mile paddle out). The snow is falling, the skiing is great, and the water is accumulating.

    Sorry to hear about the arrogant kayakers. I agree with Tim, those guys aren't your typical river type. I am constantly turned off by climbers because it constantly seems like everyone is out there sizing each other up. Whenever you run into another climber on your way out to a climb every question asked is to tell if their dick is bigger or not. It feels like there is a pecking order and once you meet someone it is just butt sniffing to tell where the other falls in the pecking order. The thing that I really like about river sports is that no matter what you do, where you are, or how good you are everyone is out to have a good time and they are looking out for each other (however there are a few exceptions). Climbing, aslong as you have a good belay and protection, you can take a whipper, but gennerally be fine. However in river sports, you could swim on a class I river and have a life threatening experience that could push you away from the river for ever. Kayakers, canoers and rafters (both types) generally want to share and expand their sport with other people. In order to do so everyone is easy going, helpful, and looking out for one another, because it is a dangerous sport.

    My point of view may be slightly skewed though. Growing up paddling in Alaska as added stress to those dangers. The learning curve is much steeper up here. The rivers are colder, more remote, and the help is far and few between. Generally it is strange to run into another group on the water, and if you do you typically know them.

    Keep up the good work, I'm stoked to get out for some adventures this summer!


    PS - All the kayakers that I have talked to up here are pretty interested in at least trying out a packraft.

  6. Great account, Roman. It's refreshing to know that even you feel that fear and 'dread' at times. Man, you're doing stuff that many would never even consider possible...paddle on!

  7. BTW,

    At the Holiday Park campground in Hokitika near the dairy towers, we met some really neat, nice, and friendly kayakers, from NZ, England, and around the world. And these boaters were of all ages, so my characterization is not quite fair.

    Two of them had actually met Thai Verzone a few years ago on his packrafting and kayaking journey to the South Island. Several seemed like they'd be willing to give a thigh-strapped boat a try, especially on something like the classic walk-in, Styx River.

    Indeed, I wish we'd moved to that place earlier and I wish that I had another few days there to boat with these cool folks.

  8. Plus, the Holiday Park is the ONLY place in the WORLD that gives a "kayaker discount!" Unbelievable! I'm paddling with 2 Croatians and the English guy this week, the rain right now is pounding so hard it could blow your eyeballs out if you looked towards the sky. Scorn comes from all aspects of all sports. It seems after years of experience many folks shun anything out of the status quo, so it looks like pack rafts are slowly tip-toeing into "the norm" as many kayakers are laughing, but beginning to except their capabilties. Of course, there will always be die hards who look the other way as the pack raft boofs over the kayak stuck in the ledge hole.

    Timmy J.

  9. "as the pack raft boofs over the kayak stuck in the ledge hole"

    Love it!

    Tim, you should freshen up your blog with some NZ stories of your own -- I'm sure folks would like to hear about what you are running -- folks like me, who only get a tantalizing email about your packraftimg combat rolls in Class IV+

  10. That combat roll was DEFINTELY not planned... not in that sieved-out siphon infested roller coaster they deem a river. Of course it was the flip over backwards, head over heal moment (and the fact I was by myself) that I knew there was no option to swim... the thigh straps saved the day, but you need to help me move that damn seat forward in the next month or so!


  11. I did enjoy your accounts of your adventures in NZ, and am a bit sad to read abut the not so friendly kayakers who got you down, but that's life and I usually tend to ignore those folks, even if it is difficult at times. Are you now back in Alaska, or did you move to NZ?!

  12. Yes Hendrik, I should have ignored them, too, but we were a bit surprised at their response and so this was my response....yes, I am back in AK, although I did interview for a job with a company down there!

    But have no plans to move from Alaska, not for all the sheep in NZ.

    Tim, have you seen this yet:

    it's a new rollable packraft lacking thigh straps.

  13. Saw it, cool. Still like the control of thigh straps though:^)

    Timmy J.


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