Monday, September 15, 2008

Untouched for now.....The Upper Ashlu

Hiking into the Upper Ashlu, high in the clouds.

As good as the Birkenhead was to us, it was almost too good. Nothing can ruin a good day on the water like expectations. In fact, I think the key tenet to having a great day, and more in general a totally fulfilled and happy boating life, is to throw expectations out the window. Taking this into consideration, the Upper Ashlu was next on the agenda with the added rains of recent, and this stream seemingly would have an up creek battle to not disappoint.

We came into Whistler and ate a good meal, drank and were merry. Morale was pretty high from the Birkenhead, so in the morning, after MORE rain, we headed to the Ashlu valley. Tony had been there years ago for the Mine run, but the rest of us were to have our virgin Ashlu experience.

Looking west from Highway 99 over the Squamish-Cheakamus divide, to the Tantalus Range.

We grabbed food in Squamish and then headed up the Squamish Valley and then turned across the river over to the notch in the valley where the Ashlu gushes out from its realm in the coast range wilds. We rode up to security, which is precluded by a mile long swath of haulers, track hoes, drills, and general upheaval. We drove over the bridge below the power station and immediately deemed the level HIGH. The bottom mile was almost as sobering of a sight as the powerhouse construction, which will have this stretch mostly dewatered beginning next November.

After gaining the initial jump in elevation past the bottom mile, we dropped down to the putin for Commitment Canyon at 50/50 Falls. Here the road crosses at the takeout for the Mine Run. The water was too high for everything so far, with the entrance to the Ashlu Box looking very much like a final visual capture for anyone silly enough to put on.

Peering into the Ashlu Box at maching high water.

Nonetheless, Bone seemed to have a line picked out. We then continued further into the valley and it quickly became apparent from the condition of the road that traffic above the diversion site above 50/50 was "recreationalist only" driving.

A sad sight indeed, the lower Ashlu diversion is a sign of things to come for British Columbia.

It took us a long time to get to the upper reaches of the valley, and the further we drove, the more the feeling of isolation sunk in. I loved it. There were many washouts to work through and a few boulders to move. All the side tribs were raging with silty high energy flows, and we knew Tatlow would be too high, but thought a quick scout of the takeout pool and drive in would be useful, as we would be returning in a few days after some chill time at Callaghan Creek. It was as high and beautiful as I had thought it would be, and after a brief photo opportunity, we continued to the takeout bridge for the Upper Ashlu.

Group photo at the takeout pool for Tatlow Creek.

From conversations with local boaters, the Upper stretch of the Ashlu below the 40 footer gorge was some "chill" BC class 4-5. That combined with reports of fun low stress ledges beckoned the crew into a place of mind that it would be relaxing and quality fun water. I felt like throughout the trip I had to keep reminding these guys that we were in British Columbia and that nothing comes easy, excepting maybe a day at the Cheakallamus.

So with the steady rain, and the expectations of a quick ride, our afternoon dwindled away. We couldn't make it up the shuttle road but a half mile before encountering some sketchy washouts. Combine that with someone leaving their skirt at the takeout and we were hiking up around 3pm. With the good beta Bryan Smith gave us, we confidently dropped off the main road at a faint but recognizable spur and then off the spur into the BC bush.

It was a pleasantly adventuresome 30 minute hike in, with boat throwing, butt sliding, meadow cruising and creative launching. There was one reasonable way out at this point, downstream. It was around 4:20 at this point, and with the dense fog, lack of sun, and dark valley surrounding us, the idea sunk in that we were in a situation that had all the makings of a classic misadventure.

Determined to avoid spending the night unprepared, we began working our way down the river, which was definitely a creek at this point in the watershed. The initial run was open meadows with moderate boulder fields frequenting the river bed, with a none too threatening attitude. This open and lush meadow scene with purple flowers and every shade of green imaginable was a real fairy land to paddle through. Slowly we began accompanying the river through ever deepening notches in the bedding, eventually defining a course of absolute travel, as the walls of the canyon grew to 30-50 feet above the river. A tributary sprayed in on river left, adding to the flow a heavy grey texture, as the creek was now laden with mineral signatures from the glaciers above.

The rapids quickly metamorphosed into long, wood filled affairs with many places you wouldn't want to be, and a lack of accommodation in the way of eddy support. So it was at this moment that the downstream progress slowed to a literal crawl, as the banks were thick with the bush, and the scouts were becoming more involved than we wanted for the circumstances.

Psychologically, this is an fascinating occurrence for paddlers. You are in there. There is one way out. Darkness seems more eminent around every bend. The drops are becoming more consequential and tightly stacked. Amidst this, morale is dropping. Concern is thickening in the group. Emotions are brewing. Yet, the solution is clear. Do the best with what you've got, and leave no man behind. Within this narrow and bleak construct, I find simplicity in purpose, and a level of focus beyond description. So a paradigm shift occurred, and luckily it did before dwelling on the emotions too long, and we began militantly and without mercy, descending the river corridor, one crux at a time.

The stare, Keith below our mandatory portage.

Now maybe on a different day, with more light, more time, and less weariness, this run would be a delightful jaunt through virgin yellow cedar boxes. But there is more to a river trip than the physical nature of the rocks and the water. Hence the uniqueness with which everyone experiences common rivers, and the hearty lore and spirit we attach through stories after our own experience is realized. To me, it is often the case that when everything is lined up wrong, that is the exact occasion to fully live, and be mindful of one's presence in the external world. These situations often happen during a day of work, dealing with relationship struggles, or in other manifestations . So in a way, to have these crucial dilemmas in the most beautiful places on earth, with friends you trust, and a clear directive, is the best environment to be aware of your own breath. If you can less learn, but more DECIDE to find the good and growth in these moments, and focus on it, you will feel alive. If so inclined, you can also channel this energy and boat like a real animal.

We portaged four times, the first out of prudence, the second out of annoyance, the third out of fear, and the fourth out of mandate. There is always a reason. It is usually always different, as is every unique situation we encounter.

There were some KILLER boofs in there, and many ledges were both gratifying and with full pucker factor. The final set, much like the Birkenhead, was a culmination of upstream features, but the nature of the creek was a little meaner and less forgiving. The crux was a most excellent four part rapid that began with a double drop with bad holes and undercuts that threw into a river right wall where a side trib cascaded in, helping to reinforce the already boily and backed up nature of the drop. The river then turned 90 degrees to the left and ducked a huge old growth before straightening out for a sweet 10 foot boof(for those in the SE, think Midnite Hole) into a stompy boxed in hole. Then the final rush, after careening off some boulders in the center, channelized and piled into a 6 foot drop that was totally boxed and had backwash coming in from 15 feet downstream. Even the cavalier Tony Robinson, who scoffs at all hazards, minimizing them all to rocks and water, exclaimed that the hole was "really horrible", with the widest of eyes and overtly serious tone. I was in the zone and so was Bone, and with that we boarded our vessels and came to the brink. I had a great line all the way through, and as for Robert, all is well that ends well. All I can say is that boy sure can fight. He has great composure when its not looking good, and is a core paddler. Tony was a key component to the success of the extrication, employing a swift bank response. I didn't really help all that much, but did scream quite loudly for moral support.

After the intense four part set, we all organized for what was an uncertain distance of at this point walled in forboding drops. We immediately eddied above a big unscoutable unportageable section, with wallshots and violent holes within a slotted out, boulder filled passageway. We could see a pool at the end of what was visible and then the gorge turned to the right, out of sight. There was no time for qualms and deliberation, so I verballed the team through, and without incident. I swept the rapid but really the rapid did all the sweeping. It picked me up vertical and splatted me against the wall like a broom handle and then summoned me back upstream into the pocket for a brief talking to. I almost flipped, but braced up coming out of the hole and then rode the rest of the drop rather bad form. Shane was smiling at the bottom, and so was I.

Then the mood really lightened, as we thankfully ran the last walled in drop just within sight of the takeout bridge. The safety of dry clothes, food and shelter was attained, and revelry and reflection began. Most of the crew didn't care for the run, disregarding it as low quality, dangerous, and not worth the hassle. I just did my best to keep my mouth shut. I guess we weren't running it in the morning.

We ate, drank, and slept in the most out there place I feel I have ever been. I have been further from civilization before, but it isn't always the distance from it, but how thick the world is between you and it. Though we were but 30 kilometers as the crow flies from Squamish, a sizable sea town, that distance was so thick with pure wilderness and quiet, untracked expanse, that if you weren't on top of your own mind, you might even feel a little claustrophobic down in the place where we were. But we also knew EXACTLY where we were, and it was a good place to be.

We awoke the next morning from our perch above the valley and were greeted with fleeting clouds, deep blue sky, and deeper blue glaciers over our heads. The creek had lost its milky slate green color and had dropped it sediment for a clearer jade.

The forest had a new depth and charm, and I just kept thinking that every day in BC is completely different than the last. We loaded up and headed back to Whistler to have some downtime to gather ourselves and paddle the local cruiser, before returning to run the best short creek run in North America.

Here are several more shots of the trip to the Upper Ashlu:

The spectacular view towards Endall Creek

Yard sale at the takeout

Those purple flowers I was talking about.

Moving through a peaceful meadow.
Ashlu scene early on.

Shane on the easier section.

Open meadow scene

Tony entering the canyon

Can you see the 15 foot drop in here?

Boof! Great double boof rapid.

Looking down from the takeout the following morning.

View from camp in the morning, Endall Creek glacier.

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