Monday, June 21, 2010

Paul Schauer: Butt-boating hero

Like so many runs I thought maybe a bit too stiff for me and my packraft, Disappointment Ck was Bradford’s idea. That would be Bradford Washburn’s namesake, Brad Meiklejohn.

Canyon, Little Su at 800 cfs, Honolulu at spring run-off, Happy under 800 pounds for four, and Wolverine at peak flow had all been his ideas – ideas that left me swimming, all too often, with him chasing my boat.

Plus, Disappointment is one of those "Mountain Tooth Empire" runs (think Mooses and Bear Tooth), test-pieces with only sketchy info in Timmy J’s guidebook based on sand-bagger beta from Brad Gessner and Rod Hancock.

It’s no wonder I was a bit apprehensive.

We’d talked about walking in from the Railroad, which seemed great in concept and groovy in practice for girlfriend/wifey runs, like Clear Creek, but not so good for a IV+ 10 mile creek with several hours at 200 ft/mile that Tim Johnson had not run and whose description was based on a five year old first descent.

I’d run Honolulu with overnight gear and it was not-so-good.

I need an empty boat for Class IV….So, fly-in?

Why not. I’ve paid off my house, her car, our truck; got one kid through college and another ¾ of the way through. There’s some money invested and retirement. Besides, Brad and Tim got me hooked on fly-in my packraft trips with three rivers in the last nine months –- I could splurge on $117 for what looked like a good substitute for the 2010 Wilderness Classic (but really there is no substitute for that).

We just needed to fill the Alaska Bush Floatplane Service plane with somebody who could fish us out: a class V kayaker who also packrafts. Thai was busy with his sailboat in Homer; Tim didn’t want to fly without more water and his hardshell; fortunately, Paul Schauer had been trying to get into Disappointment for weeks.

I offered him my loaner Llama, the one with thigh straps and a seat sewn forward six inches. He accepted and picked me up at 7:30 AM.

By eight AM I was shopping at Fred Meyers in Eagle River for breakfast (maple bar and glazed donut), brunch (ham and cheese), lunch and dinner (three Cadbury bars and a small bag of barbeque chips) and Paul was loading gear into Brad’s Rav.

We reached Fish Lake in Talkeetna by 10 AM and discussed lake options with the pilot.

“Oh yea, I know that lake,” said Elbert, referring to the one in Tim Johnson’s book, “it’s got too many rocks. But we’ll have a look.”

I’ve been around long enough to know that when a middle-aged pilot says that "we'll have a look", we’re going to get a fly-by of where we want to land and end up somewhere we hope we have a map for.

He flew us up the Talkeetna River and soon we were flying over Disappointment’s non-stop whitewater, set deep in a remote, steep-walled canyon.

“How many groups you fly-in to Disappointment?”

“Two others. Both to Frenchy Lake, up the main fork of the creek.”

He jabbed a finger at a long lake on the map. Now I knew why it took the first descent party five hours to bushwhack to the put-in.

“The other lake up there is eight miles from the river.”

“What’s that one called?” I asked.

“No name lake.”

As we flew toward Frenchy, the voice of conservative reason came across my headphones. “No, let’s go to the other one. That looks bad.”

Cottonwoods stretched across a little stream surrounded by alders and deciduous forest. “It looks like great hiking back there. That down there looks bad.”

Elbert circled back, headed up over the tundra to No Name and put down the bird.

He pulled up to the shore, tossed us our stuff, and left, an unconcerned taxi driver.

“What time is it?”

“Eleven,” said Paul as he strapped his boat and dry bag onto his PFD and grabbed his paddle and helmet in his hands. He wore wet suit booties and a dry-suit. We’d all come equipped for a mile walk not an eight mile hike.

“We’ll be there in three hours,” said Brad.

I had my doubts. But if we hadn’t stopped to suit up when the all-day rain arrived, we may well have made it in two and a half. The hiking was great. Open, smooth, dry and flat tundra. We had to step through a couple patches of willow, a few short patches of alders and cross a creek, but the going was great and we even found an animal trail that led us to the river bar.

We blew up and loaded our boats with our meager gear. Good thing we were light because the it was scrapey. In the first hour it seemed we were doing L-sits with paddle and hand in water to get over boulder bars every 15 minutes. But soon enough we were careening down a shallow granite gorge with super fun drops and bedrock rapids. A little more water would be fine here. A lot more would be scary.

Before two hours were up we’d paddled upper Ship Creek-like shallows, the little Honolulu-style granite gorge, and mini-Little Su like steep boulder drops. And Paul had a hole in his bottom. We stopped in the rain and he patched it with duct tape.

The river dropped steeper but its low volume made the rapids not just doable but fun. But by 5 PM we came to the first waterfall, a 15 foot long, steep slide with a nice pool that looked doable but possibly a butt-boat ripper, something we didn’t want to do with thirty miles of paddling still to go. So we portaged, two of us river right, one river left.

“Look how steep it drops.”

After the waterfall several other drops were stacked back to back, but fun and doable. We paddled onward with lots of drops in the 2-4 foot range, some culminating little boulder gardens, others over bedrock.

Half an hour later we came to a six foot ledge with a circulating, undercut wall that grabbed Paul. Below that under a high overhang Brad patched his boat's bottom in the rain. Fifty yards downstream was a five foot drop that looked too nasty with a little pocket hole in its back to run so far from home. We all portaged on its left.

Generally, there were steep but open small-boulder gardens that culminated in either a corner drop through bigger boulders or a ledge drop where the entire creek folded into a narrow, violent plunge. There were plenty of eddies to boat scout down all of this and following the steep plunge-drops we enjoyed often 30 foot tall twisting gorges with moving but smooth water.

Of all the creeks I have run in Alaska and elsewhere, Disappointment satisfied most with its diversity. It offered up Ship Creek ledges, Little Su boulder piles, Montana Creek slip mazes, Honolulu granite bedrock. Many steep sections reminded me of Six Mile’s “Jaws”, with chaotic power shoved through sharp rocks. Blessedly it was low volume and technical, not high volume and bossy. It took skill and technique but not balls and bluster.

Well mostly.

The two named drops, “Sprained Ankle” and “Three Blind Mice”, both rated IV+, and both double drops with steep waterfalls into deep pools on their second drop, were juicy. We portaged the “Sprained Ankle” on the left, climbing up one gully past devils club, traversing a heath meadow, and dropping a second gully of d’club back to the creek.

Below the lower plunge pool of “Sprained Ankle” and on to “Three Blind Mice” was the best reach of the creek. I kept thinking, “Too bad there’s all that scrapey stuff to get here, but I don’t really want any more water than this.” We wondered if it was coming up from the all day rain.

This stretch was packed with slalom action and plenty of fresh, New Zealand-style slip rapids of broken, sharp-edged granite where we boulder hopped down, boat scouting to the final bedrock drops at the bottom of the dozens of drops. At one drop I got bandersnatched in a basal hole and did my first Class IV combat role between drops. For the next 30 minutes I was the studly hero. But at “Brad’s Log” I handed that title over to him.

This was a blind corner between two of the biggest boulders in the creek. We did a bank scout from both sides, but could only get so far. Brad decided to give it a go, even though the creek disappeared around a corner between the rocks. I filmed him (2:32-2:46) as he too disappeared with his left hand pressing against the big rock.

We couldn't see, but Brad was swept into and beneath a log jammed between the boulders.

“Brad says don’t go!”

I was working my way back to get my boat.

“He’s holding up his hands crossed.”

Brad had lost his paddle swimming under the log but found it.

Now I could see him holding up his paddle, running his clenched hand along it like a more familiar shaft, using the signal Paul had shown us at the put-in for “wood”. A bit like stroking a woody, in a vulgar way, but it gets the message across clearly.

Paul and I portaged on the left, scrambling down to a visibly shaken Brad who was clambering over boulders in the rain. I hopped in my boat and quickly got upturned on a corner, too freaked to roll between choked drops, I busted free of my skirt and banged my head.

I stood on a rock with my boat and paddle, throwing one and then the other toward Paul, then swam aggressively into the water, missed my eddy and asked Paul , “Give me the paddle!”

He pulled me onto a rock and said, "Oh man, look at your knuckles." My whole hand was dripping wet blood, but painless.

"That's going to hurt tomorrow."

Downstream more recent slides choked the creek into jagged falls that we portaged.

By 9 PM, almost seven hours into the paddle and ten hours since flying-in we’d reached the crux, “Three Blind Mice”. The first drop is a separate rapid, a six foot chunder followed by a curve and then the 15 foot falls.

We scouted and I charged off. It looked like a simple drop into a big pool.

“I’m gonna drive right and aim for the eddy at the base,” volunteered Paul as I slipped my knees into my straps and cinched down the velcro deck.

I heard him but wasn’t listening. It looked straight forward: ride the smooth tongue into the biggest pool on the creek. If I swam, so what. It looked totally clean.

I had forgotten what Tim Johnson had written in his book about the first decent party's experience: “the largest recirculating hydraulic that they had ever seen for a rapid of its size.” It extracted three of the four kayakers on that trip and it not only extracted me but it sent me deep into the darkness, where I thought I was going to run out of air. It sent me deep and flushed me out but kept my boat.

This was the first time ever I’d been sucked downward so deep. Usually I have hold of my boat, but this time as I was being sucked back toward the maw, I recalled "Breach Baby" on Ingram and the cave at the back and feared somehow my boat was dragging me somewhere I didn’t want to go, or would keep me where I didn’t want to be. So I let it go and was slammed deep by the plunging tongue.

It was the first time I thought, “I have to swim to the bottom or off to the side to get out.” And this thinking on just half a breath.

But I got flushed out and swam to the talus spilling into the plunge pool, signaling a concerned Paul that I was OK, took a breather to find some oxygen and shoot some vid, then worked my way back to the far side to see how to get my boat, bouncing in the hole.

Brad, perched on the lip, asked with his hands if there was a route down on my side of the bowl. It looked like there was but it would be sketchy. I nodded, “yes”.

As I waded the outlet of the pool, something yellow, driving hard across the smooth tongue caught my eye.

It was Paul dropping the falls!

He landed just behind my boat, knocking it free and coasted into the eddy, nailing the 15 foot drop cleanly! Not only was he a studly boater, but he was a hero, too.

I sure didn’t want to have to swim after my boat into that plunge pool of doom.

His move and save was the neatest thing I’d ever seen in a packraft, right up there with Tim Johnson’s first Eskimo roll and Roman’s run on the Grand Canyon from Hermit to Havasu with a mere two swims.

Yea, Paul’s drop and save was great, typifying his quiet skill and helpfulness.

Paul had been a great companion on the creek. He had level headed judgment, beautiful paddling style, and never hogged the lead. He found eddies and evaluated holes and drops and now he was rescuing my boat, towing it in behind him with his tether.

“Wow! That was awesome! Thanks sooo much, Paul, thank you man!” (John Schauer, if you are reading this, good job on a fine son.)

Then another plop of yellow came dropping off. This one like mine, folded up and flipped, but at least landed in the eddy and not the hole. Brad swam to shore with his paddle but his boat was stuck like mine had been.

This time Paul tied into my throw rope and my rope into his as I belayed him out to the hole to fetch Brad’s boat. Brad’s dry bag of gear (velcroed inside his bow as a foot platform) came free, drifted out of the hole but was recirculated back in.

Paul paddled as close as he dared and poked and prodded the upside down boat with his paddle, eventually pushing it free and paddling after it, throwing it on his bow as I pulled him in.

Paul Schauer, double hero.

“Wow, I’m getting to practice all of my swiftwater rescue skills!” he smiled.

“Yea, that’s why we brought you along, Paul! To pull us and our yard sales out of the creek!”

From here it was 45 minutes of Class II and III to the Talkeetna, running highish in rain and melt at 6000 cfs. We paddled that from 10:15 PM to 2 AM, stroking hard to keep warm in the rain and dark of solstice.

“Well Brad, that gave you what Honolulu didn’t,” referring to the all-day dose of adrenaline that we’d got. I had scraped what looked like a couple square inches of skin form my knuckles but hadn’t felt a thing and wouldn’t until a day later.

“Yea, but I can’t really think of anyone I can recommend it to.”

I can.


June 19, 2010
Brad Meiklejohn, Paul Schauer
Alaska Bush Floatplane Service (907) 733-1693, Fish Lake 4 miles from Talkeetna $350 for 750 pounds (5 seats?)

Clear creek with sharp rock from active slides (two cut boats) and polished boulders.

Everything! Slides, Six Mile Third Canyon drops, WIllow Creek Guard Rail style races, Ingram style drops, Little Su style boulder drops (rounded granite), 10-15’ waterfalls, wall rapids, NZ “slip” style boulder gardens (BIG broken angular rocks).

Long day of steep water sandwiched between 3-4 hrs of walking and 3-4 hrs Talkeetna River boating.

Very committing, very technical, LONG walk out, hard climb up. Go light….


  1. Great story! It seems that packrafting is really getting pushed to the limits with great paddlers and the modifications that have been made. Any chance you will do a detailed review of the witchcraft? I have seen your video, but I would be interested in a side by side comparing it to the mods you have made.

    -John N

  2. Wow! Super adventure, great write up, amazing map and video! Glad I sent Paul to SRT class for his birthday;) Karen got to hear Paul's first hand account on the phone. Can't wait to talk with him. Not sure I'd even tackle Disappointment in my creek boat these days, but Honolulu is high on my list. I spent my solstice on a mellow 8-hour hike, wandering up a limestone ridge with incredible views of the Wind River and Smoke Creek.

  3. Glad to hear of your adventure. When referring to Paul S, "quiet skill and helpfulness" truly describe him. What a good boating/adventure partner.
    -john cox
    palmer, AK


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