Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Magic Mile

In the 1980s when I was a climber I hung around Andrew Embick's house in Valdez where hard men told stories about the first descents and epic kayak runs of the day: Canyon Creek, Kings Magic Mile, and Caribou Creek's Falls, among others.

Then, I was a wilderness racer and mountain traveler whose biggest whitewater experiences were limited to the likes of Class II and III on the Chitistone, Nenana, and John Rivers in an open Sherpa Raft. I never thought that I'd have the skills to paddle a kayak, much less a packraft, down the test-pieces of that golden-age era.

My, have the times changed.

This weekend several groups ran Six Mile's three canyons, Echo Bend, and Canyon Creek in packrafts -- albeit at low water -- and had a good time on those classics.

Canyon Creek is the surprise for me. When Six Mile is below 400 cfs on the USGS gauge Canyon Creek is like the new Ship Creek: lots of improbable drops (dozens), lots of fun. There is a waterfall portage, a waterfall that Embick wrote as three-tiered and "80 feet". But don't look for an 80 foot falls to portage - - it's more like 30 feet in three drops. Best to go down Canyon with someone who knows the drops and the portage as Canyon Creek is a bit more serious -- especially with its sharp rocks and mining debris -- than Six Mile. And at higher water -- when Six Mile is over 9 feet, Canyon gets back to its gnarly 1980s reputation for we butt-boaters.

Here's Timmy J running the Third and Fourth "Box Cars", a train of a half-dozen closely spaced ledge drop-rapids below Canyon Creek's only published rapid name, "Saddle Slide" ......

But the really big news is Kings Magic Mile.

Maybe it's another Embick exaggeration -- he called it 400 feet/mile -- but no matter. It is DARN STEEP and sustained! Imagine all the steepest drops in Little Su stacked back to back with Little Su's filler cut out. That's still not as steep as Magic Mile. Or maybe think of a microcosmic version of the West Coast New Zealand runs like Arahura and Hokitika. It's a steep boulder run and -- while no place for novices -- there are likely a dozen people in Anchorage with the skills to run it in packrafts at the 150-200 cfs we ran it yesterday. Make no mistake: it's the most serious, most demanding and difficult creek that we have packrafted in Alaska.

Thankfully we had Tim Johnson along to advise us with his experience and calm, reassuring, safety-minded nature.

Last year Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, I and others ran lower Kings and talked about the Mile. This past June a crack-team tried it at high water -- no, we looked at it -- at high water with Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and Nathan Shoutis.

But this Fall, Thai was gone, Paul was busy and Nathan, well, not sure where that nomad is currently wandering, so Luc and I convinced Tim and Brad that it was time. That the endless Indian Summer was as good a time as any to hit Magic Mile at low water. Except the Indian Summer ended this weekend and we hit the Mile in snow.

Surpassing New Zealand's West Coast, Disappointment Creek, and Maryland's Upper Yough, this was the highlight of my packrafting experiences so far, as it is a legendary run in Alaska. I missed a brace in the last rapid and got chundered, but everything else was a most satisfying challenge that I will be buzzed about all week, maybe all winter.

Luc even pulled off a combat roll in the upper third and re-ran the "Underground Railroad" in the lower third, yielding a run of every rapid. Of course, as you'll see in the video Timmy J is a master of water strokes, no matter the craft, and ran the Mile with a load in his boat and a long paddle duct taped together. And in flip-flops (I jokes about that).

We drove into the first mud-hole, started hiking at 10 AM, reached the put-in three hours later and were on the water by 1:30. It took until after 4 PM to pass the mile. We met Jule Harle at her warming fire below the Mile and she climbed into a loaner Llama (!) to run Lower Kings with us to below "Gotta Giver 'Er". We were out by 6 PM and back to the truck by 7 PM.

The sun finally came out and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes filled the autumn sky above the Matanuska. It had been a wonderful day.

And the version on Vimeo if YouTube has no music:

Magic Mile Packrafting, Kings River, Alaska from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Toby Schwoerer's Review of Feathercraft's Packraft -- The Baylee

Yesterday Luc introduced me to Toby Schwoerer when we did a little Echo Bend flip -- two runs on the prettiest river in the Anchorage area -- Eagle River in the mountains. Indeed, hiking up the Eagle River Trail to the Eagle River crossing and then floating back now would make for a great girlfriend/wife/daughter/person-who-doesn't-like-packrafting-as-much-as-you-do (yet) trip. The colors are awesome, the mountains steep and big, the river manageable, and the difference in views between hiking up in the woods and floating back amazing. But best to take out just above Echo Bend with beginners.

But for intermediates Echo Bend offers a super Class III adventure worth multiple runs and with Polar Bear Peak at the end and Yukla as a backdrop at the beginning, it's as much fun to look around as it is to move nimbly between the rocks shooting slots at will.

Anyway, Toby and I got to talking and he told me that Goo Vogt had the Bailee by Feathercraft, a heavy but study packraft that Goo already put thigh straps in -- Goo's an inflatable boater going back decades -- and that Toby has posted a review of it and a comparison with his mid-oughts vintage Yak:

Check this out

But don't call Goo. I already have and he's out hunting caribou, so I have dibs on demoing the boat next week.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Monatuak Gnat Stove -- 1.6 oz

As part of Hendrik's gear pass-around I got a chance to test the "lightest [canister stove] in the world", the Monatauk Gnat. I went rafting and moose hunting and carried the 1.6 oz Ti and Al cutie around but never used it in the field.

I would have used it to start a fire a la Thai Verzone-style (think gas barbeque grill vs charcoal grill to ignite the fire) while packrafting or as a hot drink fixer while moose hunting, but the moose came down 150 yards from camp and our boating has all been warm and dry (no cold swims), so I had to settle for a test at home.

Now, I have been fortunate enough to share shelter and stove with Skurka and seen his catfood can in action. That's gotta be the lightest stove out there, for sure, but I like the convenience of a canister stove for shorter trips and don't really like messing with liquids.

The beauty of these micro canister stoves like Pocket Rocket, Soto OD-1R MicroRegulator and the like is that they fit in my "Thing" worn inside my rain jacket or drysuit while wilderness boating. The Thing I use as an internal "pack" (but I load the front mostly) to hold fire starter food and extra camera, as well as map. So these micro stoves are for starting wet wood on fire in the rain when we are cold, wet, and miserable in fall weather on a glacial river in Alaska: dumbstruck cold with hands that won't work and teeth chattering.

Liquid fuel stoves are too finicky and bulky for this application.

Currently the stove I have been carrying is the Soto (2.6 oz). I like its igniter which saves the weight of a lighter, but it has pot supports that are attached using little screws which I have had fall out! This made the stove incapable of holding a cook pot. The standard stove I have as a canister stove for family-trips is the JetBoil. Heavy though it is, it's super convenient and stable and better in the wind.

My test was these three stoves mentioned above using the system I'd have: i.e Jet boil w/100g fuel (each test used a 100 g can) and its integral pot; the other micros stoves with the Backpackinglight.com Ti cook pot (about 1L).

I usually have no wind screen and if I cook usually it's inside my pyramid-style, floorless shelter: the tests were in 10 C weather, cool, calm morning on my front porch, no wind screens or other surrounding breaks.

I put 3 cups of cold tap water and a waterproof datalogger in each and then lit the stoves. The micro stoves got brand new cans of fuel. The Jet Boil had some slightly used fuel. I turned the stoves on, lit them and then turned them on full and backed down a little so they were right where the initial big "brrrrrrrrr" sound starts. My thinking was this was maximally hot hot but not wasteful and likely where I'd set it if I was heating water without using the thing as a fire starter. I then let each go until water was spitting out the lid (i.e. roaring boil).

Here are the results:

As you can see the Jet Boil was slowest and the Gnat and the Soto very close in heating rate at about 10 C/minute. The jet Boil has other nice features (stability, integrity, neoprene sleeve and cap for drinking) but the micro stoves are what I am really comparing -- the Jet Boil is just an outgroup. My dataloggers should have been set at a closer interval than 1 minute, but alas that's all I had time for. There are no replicates either and all the usual oh-wells and qualifiers that go along with gear tests like this.

I'm going to buy the little Gnat as it's cute and Ti and has no parts to fall off or fail and it's an ounce lighter. I usually have a lighter too, anyway, and I am a sucker for stoves.

Thanks Hendrick for this opportunity and Beni, sorry the stove's late on its way to you.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Videos that have caught my eye

Butt-boating, mtn hiking, and 29er biking are probably my favorite outdoor activities and here are some other folks adventures to enjoy:

Ed Plumb of Fairbanks has posted a neat Alaska Range video:

and Forrest posted several from the WInd Rivers, this being my favorite, I think:

and then there's Mike Curiak's gonzo "ne school" trail riding:

Teton Pass from lacemine29 on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Whitewater Junkies

"Ironically as they paddle more and more whitewater, their reward circuitry (for dopamine) dulls, which makes the easier runs less satisfying and drives them to still harder runs and bigger drops to compensate.They are essentially chasing the high of earlier, heavenly thrills on easier water. This is precisely what we see with chronic alcohol or substance abuse."

Yea? Well, adrenaline is a substance and I'd call this "hormone abuse".

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Comstock Stories

While in the Gates of the Arctic recently, my companions rquested I tell Chuck Comstock stories and Michael Brown shot video during a couple of them. Peggy says I do a better job when I am not being recorded...but in any event here's one about ice climbing in the Wrangells in 1987

and another about Chuck during the Wilderness Classic Nabesna to McCarthy in 1988 and 1989:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Montana Creek @ 450 cfs

Last year Paul Schauer, Thai Verzone, and I ran Montana Creek near Talkeetna at 350 cfs on the NOAA Guage. It was super fun but a bit bumpy:

Yesterday Gordy Vernon and I drove up to Talkeetna after eating lunch at Senior Taco in Wasilla (super good, authentic Mex) just to do the lower canyon on Montana Cr. The NOAA Guage was reading about 465 cfs at UTC midnight (=4 PM AK time) and the USGS read 451 cfs; both gave about 5.4 feet. This was a juicier, cushier flow but not pushy. I'd say it was pretty close to ideal.

Gordy drops "Big Sky Country":

The crux for me, besides making the far left side of "Big Sky Country" is the mini boulder garden about three drops later, below both "Big Sky" and "Chockstone" and signaled by a big central boulder that you go left around then hard right then left again. There was a wee bit of wood, but nothing to get hung up about.

Montana's lower canyon a bit like a backwards Ship Creek lower canyon in that the hardest drop is the "Big Sky" falls right off the bat. There were a total of five drops in the short run and for me it's worth the drive. If we'd got an earlier start we would've walked up the extra mile or so for the upper canyon that has another five or so good drops. Unlike Ship Creek a swim here might have consequences with all the big boulders (foot entrapment, stuffed under an undercut). The run I like to do is shorter than Ship but longer than the lower canyon on Bird Creek -- harder to flip than Bird but more satisfying in a way and doesn't need the flip, I guess.

"Chockstone" often has wood but this time it was in a safe place:

Anyway, this info might be useful to some....Mark Oathout ran the creek in his IK, too, at a juicy flow last month.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Skurka Video Compilation

On my way to Fairbanks to meet Skurka and his NGS crew I bumped into Katmai and Erin McKittrick passing through security with me. They were waiting on Hig who was out running last minute errands before their family trip from Point Lisburne to Kotzebue. She was five months pregnant and passed on a video message to Skurka. It's possible though improbable that the two sets of mega-trekkers will meet in Kotz, as the Ground Truth Twitter says the fam is still up by Kivalina and Skurka's chomping at the bit to finish, maybe, tomorrow?

Anyway, here's pretty much the best video I have from the trips I did with Skurka and the National Geographic crew.

Hope it offers an honest flavor of that grand trip of his.

Vimeo version for Euros:

Andrew Skurka's Alaska Yukon Expedition: two legs from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

Michael C. Brown

Mike Brown is my favorite photographer and he too chased Skurka in the Brooks Range:

Dan Koeppel

Dan Koeppel is a writer and editor whose path crossed mine walking with Andrew Skurka last week. He's in the mountain bike hall of fame, too! (how do I get in?)

He's a soon-to-be dad, an avid walker of urban routes, a former editor of Mtn Bike Magazine for Rodale Press back in the day when I wrote hellbiking pieces about wild rides with Carl Tobin and Jon Underwood across Alaska's wilderness, and an awesomely quick witted but slow walking guy, born in New York, transplanted to LA.

He's written a wonderful book on bananas and one on his father, a world class birder who was among to see the most of 10,000 species of birds in the world or so. Anyway I don't think I've laughed so long and hard as I did during the four day walk to Anaktuvuk from the Haul Road.

Here's the vid:

Dan Koeppel (writer) and Andrew Skurka (walker) hiking in the Brooks Range from Roman Dial on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Skurka Video

Recently back from 300 miles and two weeks with Andrew Skurka. Here are some clips:

On top of Ariel Peak in the Arrigetch Peaks. This is a great summit, easy too, as well as spectacular.

An awesome Grizzly Bear trail that went on for at least a mile and a half:

And a gang of kids swarm us in Anaktuvuk Pass.
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