Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Brief Ride on the Wave of Exploration

Due to having a family and other pertinent things cooking in my life, but also admittedly in part to being somewhat of a reluctant prude when it comes to throwing caution to the wind and going for it, I typically ride comfortably in the second car back when it comes to pushing the envelope, running big drops, or getting involved in the uncertain and oft indifferently blunt edge of whitewater paddling. There is a lot of work being done out there to refine the techniques and exploratory limits of what can be done in a kayak, and as with many endeavors, the perfect blend of threshold experience and the comfort of the casual is where I try to sit.

Thanks to everything from the "stomp", to dry bags, to the Internet paddling sphere, I can happily let the pushers roll through, as I draft closely behind in relative bliss. The thing is, everyone has to do their share to keep the peloton streaming along, and more than that, everyone wants a piece of the headwind themselves, for in whitewater, the edge isn't always an uncomfortable and laborious place to be. While as I have found out this summer that can certainly be the case, the excitement resultant of clear purpose, and out of the box mindset involved with being down in the trough of the big break is a cleansing and centering experience; a privilege by all accounts.

Living in the southeast, exploratory boating is a trifle notion, with often even the best of discoveries amounting to what is usually a lot of hiking or logistical acrobatics for novelty paddling at best. Yet in the most poured over and paddled country in the world, the American West will, for the foreseeable future, still offer up annual opportunities for getting out in the thickness of new and exciting river gorges. Despite the slowing of the pace of running new rivers since the eighties and nineties, the accomplishments in the past few years have definitely proven that not all is cashed out in the West, and that while investing in the futures market of first descenting is not red hot, it is still somewhat of a lucrative pursuit.

I had no delusions of striking it rich, but when I saw the flow of pictures and words coming out of the Wind River Range from last year, I logged onto the information superhighway and immediately started counting contours and mapping routes. The North Fork of the Little Wind had just been run the week prior, and it looked like one of the top one day runs in the country. After mapping out the first descenders route, it became immediately clear that there was more to the North Fork than the bottom few miles that they broke off. Although there were some obvious detractors, like a big hike in, and what appeared to be some likely unrunnable sections, the upper section of the river below Raft Lake looked promising, and with good gradient on the maps and plenty of granite on the aerials, it was looking like a place I needed to go. The South Fork was the next thing I started to investigate, and no more than a few days after peeking at it on the web, Aaron Mulkey updated his blog telling of a marathon one day first descent of the creek, accompanied with a multitude of great pics confirming the idea that these creeks were quality. So, combining these multi day runs with a trip down the Clarks Fork Box, and I had Summer 2010 squared away.

Few in Knoxville roll on Shabbas, but Jim is always a shark, so we booked flights and arranged to borrow my uncle's Jeep for the trip, saving us the exorbitant cost of renting 4wd. Tom Janney would be picking us up from the airport and taking us to pick up the jeep, after which we would be meeting Evan Stafford and Nick Wigston in Fort Collins. We met up, finalized the plan and got a crack of midnight departure for Lander.

Emo Jim sound asleep

Sleeping on the ground at a rest area in the southeast will likely result in a stolen wallet or a new boyfriend, but in Wyoming its a different story. Wyoming's population is less than Knox County's, so it was a quiet night on the high plains. In the morning we picked up our trespass permits, since we would be on the reservation the whole time. While the permits were pricey, the ambiguity of the reservation stance on boating and cost of permits is what has delayed the coming up of the east drainage of the Winds, as far as exploration is concerned. Needless to say, discretion and a low profile is the order of the day when boating on the reservation.

Wanting to avoid an enormous shuttle and brutal hike out, we took a hidden 4wd track to within 3/4 mile of the river and got everything sorted. The shuttle was only around 8 miles, but was pretty much a non-stop, steep and loose road, before topping out and dropping into Washakie Park, an alpine cove of immense beauty.

Seeing how far our luck and the road will take us

Getting organized at the new takeout

Gaining some serious elevation

Negotiating a bridge down in Washakie Park

Maybe we could just hang here for a few days. Oh yeah, ... Mosquitoes.

Once hiking, we lost the trail right off the bat, but after an hour of "hey bear!" and pine trees, we found the trail and continued in the right direction. We passed by an idyllic meadow and then climbed around a bend into the North Fork watershed. The views were grand, with Yahtic Lake and our destination, Twin Lakes, in the distance. Even though we could see our goal, it took a good 3 more hours to get there, with the trail disappearing frequently and a lot of up and down. We estimated the trail was more in the neighborhood of 7-8 miles, and after almost 5 hours on the go, we came down into our new home aside the lower lake of Twin Lakes. I was destroyed. In preparation for this trip I mowed the lawn a few days before our flight. This was not sufficient training. Thank God we weren't hiking into Bull Lake Creek! I wanted to plop down and cook my 20 ounce steak I carried in, but we had to paddle across the upper lake and then hike almost 2 more miles to scout the Raft Lake Gorge. Once across the lake, we found a rough trail to follow and the further we went, the more good stuff we saw. The decision was made that we would definitely be coming up in the morning to hit what was looking like a pretty fun stretch of whitewater.

Looking for the trail.

Evan alerted me just in time to avoid my early demise at the hands of this monster

Ladies, check out that stylish hat Tom is modeling for us.

**Tom gave permission to use his stunning pics on the condition that I emphasize
his good looks and availability on my blog for any girls who might read this.

We just don't have stuff like this in the southeast. Splendid.

Here I am back-looping out of a sick stand of sagebrush.

Are we there yet?

Why is he smiling?

A distant view of our first camp at Twin Lakes

The runout of Twin Lakes, and the reason Nick was smiling.

Evan paddling across the upper of Twin Lakes to scout the upper gorge

Tom, readying his shooter.

Looking up towards the Raft Lake Gorge

The North Fork pouring out of Raft Lake into the gorge below

Back at camp, the fire blazed and we all had a big dinner to refuel from the gruesome hike in. Lying down, the sound of whitewater soothed our aching bodies, with granite all around us, lit up by the moon and like the moon. It had been a year since I was lying on a bed of granite staring at moonlit mountain ramparts, with the roar of the future only a stone's throw away. That's what it's all about.

Twin Lakes Twilight

In the morning, it was obvious that whatever flow window we had was waning. The level had dropped a little, so we got on it and began working our way up to Raft Lake. Still being exhausted from the hike, I opted to shoot pictures instead of rapids on the top half of the section, which was a good call ultimately, though it was hard to pass up on the beginning of what I had my sights on for some time.

Here, Jim perfects his emo-wave fishing technique. Its productive, and fashionable.

Upper Twin Lake in the morning

Jim is seen here hiking along the upper section of Windscraper

Evan floating into the gorge

Nick Wigston

Everyone cleaned up on the Raft Lake Gorge, with some firing into what is being called "Windscraper" for it's resemblance to a similar drop in California. But this one is in the Wind River Range, so the proper adjustment towards the "gnar" side of the spectrum is to be expected. The entrance would have been a long and worthy drop on its own, but the eddy was small and not likely, so it really was just a long mega-rapid.

The bottom of the long entrance to Windscraper

Tom coming into the main drop

All wound up

Nick lining up the nasty ledge at the bottom

Another angle

Everyone styled Windscraper, and after one portage downstream, we paddled one of the longer slides I have paddled. It dumped us back into Twin Lakes, and we paddled down, loaded the rest of our gear, and then started working our way into the gorge below the lakes, where another chunk of gradient lay in wait. Unfortunately, this gorge was too steep, though with a little more flow, the last set could be run, which contained a 20 foot waterfall.

Jim in the runout of the Twin Lakes Gorge

From here down the idea of just how low the water was sunk in, as we wheel-chaired a great deal in between drops. After a few cascade portages we ran some quality slides and a cool mini-gorge, and then dropped into a walled in canyon that lasted over a mile, giving up great read and run boulder gardens. As the sun grew low in the sky and the gorge opened up, we found a decent camp up on a dome overlooking a great fishing hole. We were now into reserve rations, as some only packed for one night.

Slides Section

Action in the mini-canyon

Tom showing his ass.

Jim bringing in some fresh dinner

Me showing some leg. And to think the guy at Blue Ridge
said I wouldn't want to hang around camp in my underwear.

Nick and Evan brought juicy salmon from home.

The trout was delicious too.

Packing up in the morning

The next morning we knew we would be dropped into the previously run lower section, and with Tom and Evan having prior experience with this stretch, they took the lead. After paddling a long meadow, we started bombing down the familiar slides of the lower run, where the quality amped up quite a bit. We quickly arrived at the West Cherry rapid, a killer double drop that is as classic as it gets. The flow was a bit low for the next set at Boofington Heights, but it still went, and the run out ended up swiping someone's paddle.

Golden Stroke

Result of Golden Stroke

Second drop of boofington

My sponsors would kill me if they knew I was leaking this sick new move.

From here, we did a portage around an un-runnable gorge, and then started getting into the steep mank above the waterfall gorge. We ended up working our way around the part above the falls due to the flow, but after taking a look from the rim, it was clear that gorges with clean waterfalls are always good to go, despite sub-optimum water levels!

I haven't run many vertical drops over 20 feet or so, but I wanted the first one badly. It looks to be around 30-35 feet, with a smooth roll off, and a deep pool contained within a narrow overhanging gorge. Perfect! Everyone had good lines, and the landing was oh-so smooth. Good practice for Heath Springs number one. The second falls was pretty chilled out with the low flow, but still entailed a massive melt through a hole. The final 18 footer was just your normal run of the mill massive boof onto a big foam pile. The waterfall gorge was kinda like Rogers Creek's Rocky Mountain cousin, and while there might be better runs in BC than Rogers, and better runs in the Rockies than the North Fork(not sure about that), both of these places are special in the purest way for creek boaters.

Is this the shot of the trip? Jim on the big one

At the lip of the biggest drop I've run

And a new favorite. What a feeling!

Evan lining up

Tom tucking up tight

Gorge view at the second falls

Wigston about to go deep

Evan on #2

Emo Jim

Tom stomping number three


Once at the bottom of the stacked up falls, steep boulder gardens persisted for some time, with walls to the sky right out of the water. Soon though, we hit the geologic fault from granite to limestone, and we passed the hike out trail and paddled into the deserty scrub-lands below. The paddle out wasn't too bad, and with optimum flows on the North Fork, would be quite a bit of fun. After a few miles of limestone dodging, the valley opened up and we began watching for the Jeep, which was on a high terrace on the right. The walk up took 30-40 minutes, though in hindsight we could have driven all the way down to the river.

Scenery on the walk up to the Jeep

Five boats on factory racks

This shot is for you Uncle Marty. Thanks for the Jeep.

Saw a furry friend on the shuttle to get Nick's truck.

Washakie Park at dusk

I finally completed my virgin first descent outside of the southeast. The water level was low, and the hike in was rough, but it still was one of the coolest things I have ever done, and the classic drops of the lower gorge were top notch. Meeting and paddling with Evan and Nick was great, as they are sick boaters and fun to hang out with. We finished up shuttle and headed back to Lander for some surprisingly good pizza and beer. After some recounting of moments and such, Jim and I parted ways with the Colorado Boys, and after deducing that the South Fork might be another low water-fest, we headed north to our next adventure; a river that I have wanted to run for as long as I have been paddling. We were off to Cody, WY to get supplies ready for our trip down the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone.

Here is a big thanks to Tom Janney, Evan Stafford, and Nick Wigston, for allowing me to use their excellent pictures on this post. Stay tuned for an update on the next leg of our trip.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT write-up and pics. And maybe mow the yard twice next time (I laughed at that)?