Saturday, July 24, 2010

Op-Ed Published Statewide

Forrest McCarthy asked Conrad Anker and me to write letters in support of clean energy/climate change legislation. Here's my take:

Alaska, Energy and Climate

Unique among the United States, Alaska enjoys easy access to 21st century technology, fiscal benefits of a 20th century economy, and -- until recently -- the purity of 19th century nature: clean, intact, and healthy. While wireless, satellite phone and GPS coverage spread, oil and fish supplies decrease, and the wild nature we have taken for granted is changing.

Like many Alaskans I moved to Alaska fresh out of high school, looking for adventure. That was in 1977 when oil first flowed through the Alaska Pipeline. During my teens and twenties I climbed mountains, skied glaciers and rafted rivers. As a father and husband in my thirties, I mixed adventure and responsibility hunting moose and caribou to feed my family.

With boots in the mud and hands on the brush, these year-round outdoor activities forced me to confront Alaska's natural environment head on, witnessing what long-time Alaskans see and feel across the state. Winters are warming; glaciers are retreating; seasonal river floods are shifting; lakes and wetlands are drying; permafrost is thawing; shrubs and trees are growing where they have never grown before; insect outbreaks and forest fires are stripping forests of their foliage; and villages are slipping into the sea.

These same landscapes that are changing before our eyes support a thriving outdoor recreation economy, one that generates thousands of jobs and over one billion annually in retail sales and services. Our pristine landscapes and opportunities for outdoor adventure also attract bright young professionals and entrepreneurs to move to Alaska and call it home. Yet climate change threatens Alaska's wild heritage, our quality of life, and the associated economic benefits.

While many Alaskans can't deny the changes in the wild landscapes that they fly over and hunt in, many do remain unconvinced that humans can affect the Earth's climate. These same Alaskans who won't admit a human cause for climate change still advocate that we shift toward renewable energy, away from oil and toward carbon neutral sources. These climate change skeptics appreciate Alaska's unique environment and many live far closer to the land than their urban counterparts, with more to lose in a changing climate.

If even we Alaskans, with an economy dependent on oil since its discovery in Prudhoe Bay, see the need for energy independence and carbon neutrality, then surely the rest of the United States can come together and do the same. I encourage Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski to support clean energy legislation that prepares us to adapt to the coming, inevitable changes. I also encourage you to contact Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski by going to and ask them to protect the climate and Alaska's great outdoor heritage.

Roman Dial, Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Alaska Pacific University, has explored Alaska's wilderness for over thirty years.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Upper Yough, Western Maryland

If only I'd discovered boating in my teens -- I'd likely not be writing this now, nor live in Alaska, nor have the kids I have. I'd be a river rat.

The reason is that in my teens I lived in Northern Virginia, where it gets into triple digit temps and near 100% humidity in the summer. Stupid me. Back then I was climbing slimy rocks and camping in the humid Appalachian forests when I could have been paddling the cooling Potomac and other creeks and rivers west of there.

It seems quite likely that exciting water sports would have not only satisfied my yen for physical adventure, but also cooled my body enough to stay around here (I am currently visiting my Mom in Northern Virginia). Boating may well have been enough to keep me on the East Coast, instead of moving to Alaska.

For the first time I have brought my packraft to paddle Virginia and Maryland, particularly after watching hardshellers dropping Great Falls of the Potomac on YouTube.

This week I have packrafted below Great Falls (won't be dropping them on this trip, but the Virginia line looks in the realm of the packrafting-possible) on Thursday with Alan Dixon (co-founder of and Saturday with Cody Roman (who's been on a road trip out here). On Friday, Adam Cramer, an attorney with the Outdoor Alliance, led me down western Maryland's Upper Youghiogheny, from Sang Run Road to Friendsville.

Now I boated in the East last year. That was a remote, seldom run creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Hazel Creek, a three day solo trip of hiking and packrafting.

But this Upper "Yock" trip was very different from anything else I have yet done. First it was a dam released flow. Second the steep creek was crammed with boaters. And third it was pretty much the wildest run of adrenaline I have had east of the West Virginia border.

There must have been a hundred boaters or more. Mostly hardshell creek boats, but some play boats, a canoe or two, some long, oddly shaped downriver boats, some black cats, and a handful of short commercial rafts.

At the put-in the middle aged hardshellers gave me the normal stink-eye I have come to expect at paddling centers around the world, while the younger boaters ask, "WOW, is that a packraft?" (Yep, it's a packraft) "Cool! I've never seen one for real...just in videos."

During the run I got the "Can you roll that?" (Sometimes) and "That thing really spins and turns on a dime," (Yea but they don't move fast and can't boof far).

By the end of the day, even the gray-beards and bald-heads had quit their taunting and were asking, "So did you learn to paddle a kayak first?" (Nope).

It was neat that how many people had heard of the packraft and associated it with Alaska. In fact I met a Vermonter named Danny who had paddled with Ganey who posts YouTube videos of packrafting (but has recently turned to hard shelling). I met a pony tailed guy who was moving north and knew a kid from PA, a friend of Nathan Shoutis, who had run Bird Creek with me last summer. Small world of paddlers, I guess.....

The dam releases at 1 PM, we put in at 2 and by the time we'd reached the "National Falls" midway down the steep mile of beefy, boulder drops at 4 PM it was running over 700 cfs.

There were heaps of -- for me -- stacked drops. From above "Bastard" and for the next hour or so, whenever looking downstream I was shocked that we were heading onward. I could usually see a few other boaters ahead, and nobody, I mean nobody was getting out to scout.

If it had been me and Thai, or Paul, or even Brad on some empty river we would have been getting out and looking at every drop and walking most of them. But not on this run. I only got out to dump my boat and steal a glance at what was coming.

Sure it was pretty smooth boulder-garden rock-hopping and boat scouting, but mostly it's familiarity. It's all been plumbed and probed and piloted. Adam would just say, "Follow me," and then a half dozen or more times he'd wave me into an eddy and describe what moves to make for what was coming next on juicy drops named "Bastard," "Charlies", "Triple Drop", and "Tommy's Hole".

This Upper Yock run reminded me of a brown NZ run with smaller rocks and way more people. Friendly people who all seemed into the idea of a packraft as whitewater craft by the end of the four miles of whitewater. And I had paddled the best day of boating since the Hokitika, best in the sense that I pushed my experience level in juicy (500-700 cfs) combined with steep (150-170 ft/mile for the middle miles) and technical. Following a Class V kayaker who's made literally 50-100 runs of this mid-Atlantic gem helped push my envelope.

Nowhere on the Yock did I drop the single hardest rapid I have yet run, but there was a half mile in there that felt like it was my longest stretch of continuous hard paddling without getting out of my boat to scout, a stretch ending right below National Falls. I was grateful to hear that below it was still big but no AS BIG as the Bastard-National stretch.

Overall, the Bastard to National was harder than Six Mile's Third Canyon at 9.8 feet, harder (technically but not psychologically) than the must make moves on the Upper Hokitika, but not as out-there as I've felt in Canyon Creek in the pre-thigh strap days.

If I'd made this run in June, instead of walking the Magic Mile, I would have given that Mile a lot more of a go. At the level that we saw the Kings that day, we could have done it, given what I have learned after the Upper Yock. While the Upper Yock is not so steep, it had twice the flow and quite similar architecture in the technical bits and holes.

On the Yock and following Adam I boofed and I carved and rode up on pillows and made lots of moves through holes that I normally avoid but here simply couldn't. Boofing into eddies to the sides and below of 3-4 foot drops was new for me -- as was dodging kayakers.

In addition, I felt like for the sake of all us whitewater packrafters out there, I had to deliver a clean run of all the big, named drops. But doing so left me with a kink in my neck!

Adam said he normally just "bombs down" the run. By doing so we stayed ahead of the crowd which released a lot of the pressure I would have felt with a bunch of people all around the goof in the clown craft/pool toy. Thankfully I was able to drop National with all the people and video cameras running there above the carnage pit of a hole that eats people and swallows them and spits them out fifty feet downstream.

Forrest McCarthy had set Adam and me up for this "blind date" of boating, and I was grateful that Adam was helpful but not hovering, encouraging but not sand-bagging. In short, he was the best guide I could hope for, a great conversationalist on the drive and a great partner on the water.

Next year, if I have a solid roll, stronger boof strokes, and a couple 15-20 footers under my bow and stern, maybe Adam'll take me down the Virginia Line at Great Falls.

Now that's something to aspire to!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Low Water Boating

One of my goals was to run bigger water this year. This sort of amounts to doing the popular kayak runs at "normal" flows. So I ran Six Mile's three canyons (minute 2 onwards) just under 10 feet. We looked at a juicy Magic Mile and walked 3/4 of it. I did the Campground Rapids loop when it was running high, too.

Part of this is probably a reaction to kayak sneering, and part of it is wanting to push my limits. But what I have discovered is that low water is where packrafts really excel and where kayaks are overkill and canoes and IKs unwieldy. Nothing puts a grin on my face as long and strong as low water Ship (back when it was legal and below 5 feet), Bird (when Ship's running below 5 feet), Montana (5.5 feet or lower), Honolulu (white rock in 4 inches water, gray rock dry), and Little Su below 3.4 feet. Same goes for Six Mile below 9 ft.

By low water I mean steep creeks that are substantially below their normal flows and the style is unloaded, sport boating for whitewater as substance abuse -- hormone dosing "naturally".

People often ask me "Why not just get a hardshell?" And after yesterday's double "flip" on Little Su, I know why: It's because I am too old and testosterone-dry to run "the brown" and "the gnar-gnar". I am not a "bad-ass". I am a packrafter and this is my favorite style of packrafting:

Yea, the Little Su is super fun right now. So fun I ran it three times in the last week. Once with Erik Tomsen, who boated a bunch with me in NZ. Then again yesterday with Luc Mehl in the sunshine and crowds. What a beautiful day! And we ran into other packrafters, some with mountain bikes and others with open boats(!).

The best place to put in when it's this low (3.3 feet) is at 11 Mile Fishhook Road. Leave a bike at the Fishhook Bridge (about 8.5 mile), then drive up and park at the Government Peak Picnic Area. Walk up the road 50 yards and put in. Upstream of 11 Mile is too bony and flat for my tastes at these super low flows. Brad M. would likely give different advice. He likes longer runs and somewhat higher flows (I think his adrenaline habit is a bit chunkier than mine, these days). I prefer to pick out the steep sections of creeks and run them multiple times -- what kayakers call "running laps" but what I called "flipping" in an earlier post.

Luc Mehl and I flipped Little Su twice yesterday and it was great.

Not much of a warm-up but super fun when you put in at 11 Mile. Anywhere upstream of the Fishhook Bridge a swim can be bruising and whatever you do, if you fall out of your boat, don't try to stand up as the rounded granite boulders could grab your foot like a lock.

There are about eight or ten wild drops and lots of boulder gardens between 11 Mile and the Bridge. Even after running it three times in a week I'd be hard pressed to list or describe them in series. It's never dull, always exciting and a bit like a miniature golf version of New Zealand's boulder garden runs like the Hokitika and Arahura, but instead of a thousand cfs past boulders that are big as a bus, it's a couple hundred cfs past boulders maybe as big as a VW bug.

As you drive up the road you can see the creek here and there. Early on (upstream of the bridge at the third time the river comes in view, starting with the bridge view) there is currently a log under water, jammed between the river left bank and a midstream boulder. Also visible from the road at about nine point something (maybe the fourth view?) is a long stretch alongside the road. You'll see a big triangular boulder midstream and it's undercut. We met a couple other butt-boaters and they got a boat stuck under it. I like to run far right of it as trying to go left seems to bring you brushing by the undercut. Upstream and still in view (there's a dirt pull-out) is a flat-topped rock with an undercut also. Again, I go way right of this. Worth looking at these two rocky drops as you drive up to the put-in by getting out and scouting from the road.

Between 10 Mile and these roadside views are several steep rocky drops that can be boat scouted, but might better be bank scouted the first time through. "Death Ferry" is pretty radical as are two other super-steep drops, one maybe 5-10 minutes above and another 5-10 minutes below.

In general, follow the main flows and biggest tongues everywhere. If you don't/can't then you run the risk of running up on a boulder and falling out of your boat. Staying in the best water demands a lot of maneuvering and quick turning and the "snicker-snack" technique, where you are pivoting and alternating back-stabbing back-paddles with forward power stroking to slalom through the rocks.

Anyway this is a classic packrafting creek, worth multiple runs in a day.

By the way, best to use the USGS gauge rather than the NOAA one. USGS seems to have a more accurate stage to discharge relationship.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kings Magic Mile: Learning to Walk

The Kings River “Magic Mile” is one of Alaska’s mythical whitewater runs. For about half a mile it drops at the rate of 400 feet per mile through a maze of granite boulders, tight constrictions, and tall ledges, a steep creek by any definition. The second half of the Magic Mile drops over 200 feet per mile with two gnarly drops. The Mile has been described as "a Little Su on steroids".

First run by Embick and crew in the mid-1980s at a level (175-200 cfs) shown in Tim Johnson’s Alaska Whitewater (page 120, “Pick your faith”), Embick’s descent was pretty far ahead of its time. Fed by glaciers, the Kings’ flow peaks when the snow melt overlaps with the glacier thaw in June. Recently Tim Johnson, Josh Smith and John Cox ran it at super high water. Last fall Brad M., JT, Tony Pirelli, Luc Mehl, Mark Outhout and I packrafted the so-called “Lower Kings” (including “Gotta Give ‘Er Gorge") at a level I wished we had this past week when Nate Shoutis, Thai Verzone, Paul Schauer and I hiked up to the East Fork of the Kings to packraft the Magic Mile.

Brad Meiklejohn has been pushing the Magic Mile for a while, so when Nate Shoutis was in town his suggestion of the Kings fit in with my envy of Brad in the Brooks Range running Alatna River tribs. So I contacted the usual suspects needed as back-up for the steep stuff -- Thai Verzone and Paul Schauer -- and off we drove in my son’s ’87 Four-Runner up the Permanente Road, parking where the ATV network spiders around mudholes and the two branches of the road split. This offers an ideal loop trip taking out at the “Gotta Give ‘Er” gorge.

We walked to the put-in in about two and a half hours, inflated and launched into water that certainly didn’t look as low as it seemed at the Glenn Hwy Bridge where no rocks projected in the channels.

“There’s water in the bushes.”

“Yea, and it sure seems pushy. I’ve never packrafted in water with this much flow,” said Paul, whose packrafting experiences so far have been low water runs of Montana, Bird, and Disappointment Creeks.

This was opaque, milky Kings River, and by the time we got to the first rapid, “Bubblegum”, at the top of the 400’/mile section, we all felt the push. The push to sneak, portage, and walk. Which we did for the next few hours in open woods and alders, rarely on boulders alongside as the water lapped at the alders and submerged the shoreline rocks’ moss and lichen.

“What do you think?”

“I want to run it, but the consequences look bad.”

"If you look good going down it, I'll go for it."

“I don’t mind a bruised ego over a bruised body.”

“My ego won’t be bruised. It’s cool just to be in here and see this.”

There were only little sections that looked runnable and they were stacked between sections that didn’t look swimmable.

“Let’s deflate and walk.”

Every now and then we’d hear big water and we’d poke our heads out of the brush to see what the river was doing.

“Wow. The flat water looks like Little Su. And the drops just look too big for us.”

We did a couple ferries between the big drops. We ferried and snuck between “Bubblegum” and “Pick Your Faith”, then again upstream of the bend leading into “Underground Railroad”. There were a couple other huge drops that have no names, too.

The walking was pretty good in open woods of mossy boulders or game trails, but it felt good to run the last bit below “Chunder” to the miles and miles of boogy water leading to the first, opening ledge drop of the lower Kings.

There was a log across the stream below the big tongue in a canyon that pours river left past a wide dry ledge, and plenty of juice in all the folding ledges below. We pulled out just upstream of the Gotta Give Er Gorge and walked the mile back to the truck from there.

The Kings has three sections: the super stout granite Mile, which is like a king Susitna; the middle miles of splashy Class II-III that would be every intermediate kayaker's dream roadside run, like a scenic Willow; and the final sharp schist canyons, like an easier version of Six Mile's third canyon. It's a classic run overall, worth all the hiking.

And it’d been a good day, if not a great one. A day to remind us that we can’t yet run everything in a packraft.

We’ll go back in September at 200 cfs when we can run the Magic Mile. But this June trip was a good scout.

After all, as everyone knows, you gotta walk before you can run, and that's especially true for packrafts on the Magic Mile.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New Bike

Bought a bike today. A full-suspension, 29er -- the Mach 429 by Pivot Cycles.

Riding it on the Underwood Trails and some other, off-piste singletrack on the Hillside today gave me the same thrill as the first time I rode a mtn bike in the 80s: a bike that can go anywhere, do anything. And it climbs better than my out of shape legs.

It is simply the sweetest bike I have ever ridden.

Can't wait to do some wild rides.
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