Monday, August 16, 2010

Casper and The Hick

Once we exited the lower canyon of the Clarks Fork, the tail end of our trip was missing any substantial options. With the Winds dropping out earlier than we anticipated, and having already completed a run on the Clarks Fork, I was out of ideas. Luckily, Jim came to the rescue with some internet sleuthing, and found that a usually dewatered section of the North Platte between two reservoirs near Casper had several thousand cfs raging through it earlier in the month, and that it still might have flow. After networking with a few locals, it sounded like the canyon was a miniature version of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, with a few class 4 rapids. There was also a lower section with some locked in class 5 that supposedly was run by some Polish guys over 10 years ago. We were sold!

We headed straight for Casper and to Fremont Canyon, a local climbing mecca. The terrain wasn't seeming to suggest that any whitewater was nearby, but as soon as we rounded a bend and dropped into a little valley, it was obvious that there was something down in there. I have moderate acrophobia, and I have never had such a hard time scouting a river. It took A LOT of cruising around and hiking back and forth and along the rim of this crack in the earth before we felt we had it figured out. So we bedded down at a nice little climber camp spot next to the rim and went to sleep, dreaming of floating through slots canyons.

Scouting the lower section that only has only seen one descent by some Poles

Sunset on our scouting road

Looking downstream from the upper canyon

This place is really impressive.

The next morning, we put a camera, water filter, a couple of power bars, and $20 in a drybag and dropped in. We had plans of running the lower canyon, where the walls soar almost 1000 feet overhead, paddling the 4-5 mile lake paddle and then bribing our way back to the put in.

I think many paddlers are familiar with the roadside effect. You show up and check out some river you haven't paddled, and everything looks mostly manageable, and you pick your lines through the rapids from the bank. Then, you get in your boat, and the little two foot curl you wanted to cue off in order to line up the first smaller rapid is nowhere to be seen. Instead, there are scores of 2 foot curls surging and breaking everywhere, and a massive churning 6 foot breaker is pulsating in the middle of the river. All of the sudden, the situation becomes realer than real deal Hollifield, and since the decision has been made, you just have to deal with it; realizing the big stuff has yet to be encountered. Well, the canyon rim effect dwarfs the roadside effect. When scouting the night before, we saw everything quite clearly, but we really blew it on scaling the size of the drops and volume of the river.

I think I was in creek scouting mindset, but we were afterall, scouting the North Platte River. So when we showed up at the put in and what we thought might be 300-500 cfs turned out to be 1200 cfs or more, and the little scrapy class 2 rapids at the beginning of the first stretch were powerful gauleyesque wavetrains, we were slightly if not almost humorously concerned. We were still confident we could work our way through the run, but the lower section was already seeming like a bad idea. We charged through the surging entrance set, and were instantly committed to the rest of the entrance section. This was a true slot canyon, with 400 foot walls rising straight out of the water. Everything sounded really big, with every little noise echoing and growing in strength as it bounced from one wall to the other. The law of conservation of sound was very real in this place, as very little of it vented off at the top.

Wake up call at the entrance to Fremont Canyon

Below the first rapid, one way out at this point

The river calmed up for a brief while, and I was really enjoying the surreal place we were floating through. I got out and told Jim to paddle around the bend and I would get some shots of him. After soaking it in a bit, I got back in my kayak and paddled after Jim, rounding the bend to a deafening roar and a steaming horizonline with huge boulders blocking the path. Jim was standing on one of the boulders in the distance, so I yipped and gave the interogational form of the head pat. No response. He was just staring into the abyss of what appeared from the rim to be a straight forward two foot ledge with some undercuts on the right, and then another two foot exit ledge. As I paddled down the long straight away, my mind began to race. What had we gotten ourselves into? Was it runnable? Was it portageable? Is there going to be a newspaper article?

Luckily, Jim said it was good to go, albeit 400% bigger than we thought it was from our perch way above the previous day during our scout. I ultimately sensed this paddling in, but slot canyons tend to play tricks on you. The finallity of passing the point of no return in any canyon is chilling, and I guess this was for sure the most locked in I had been up to this point. Rounding the bend and seeing something different than what we expected threw all the other observations we had made out of the courtroom. Maybe the whole river went underground around the next bend, to a deep subterranean land where we would be enslaved by robot-crustacean hybrids and would be forced to do their bidding and of course, subscribe to their exhaustive Michael McDonald worship regimen. Anything was possible at this point.

This place was incredible!

The rapid.

Jim peering into the little class 2 rapid we scouted from the rim

Back in reality, while the rapid was bigger than we expected, it was good to go, which meant it was simply better than we expected. I ran first, dropping into a funky diagonal entrance that was up close and personal with the unpleasant right side of the river, before ruddering back to center and firing off a quick boof stroke, punching through a boiling cauldron onto a fast carpet ride to the pool below. This thing was great! If there were 10 more like it, it would be the front range answer to Pandora's Box in Durango. As it was, this was the last rapid before the committing lower section, so we tucked tail and walked out and back to the car. I mean, if the class 2 in the upper canyon was really class 4+/5-, then the stout looking class 5+ that we so accurately characterized from 1000 feet above in the lower canyon would probably be a little out of our comfort zone. I will say that at half the flow, this lower canyon might be quite interesting and much more doable. So while it was a short stretch on the water (less than a mile), it was a fun little mission, and quite memorable.

Heading into the maw

Jim finishing the "class 2 rapid".

Feeling fortunate to have squeezed some splashy recreation out of the desolate and windy ranchlands of Eastern Wyoming, we took the scenic route back to Fort Collins and made a beeline for the Cache La Poudre Narrows, where a race was being held the next day. As we drove up the canyon for a late afternoon practice run, we joked about how hilarious, and embarassing for the locals it would be, if we showed up and took the top two spots back to Tennesssee.

We scouted the lower narrows on the drive up, then the upper narrows. We put on and just bombed down the run, and then got a ride from some friendly locals for a second lap. This run is so much fun. It is a staple home run for Fort Collins locals, and has a great laid back paddling scene built up around it.

That evening we stayed with Evan and his lovely family, and had a great breakfast the following morning on the way to the race. Upon arrival to the venue of the day, it quickly became clear that the race climate at the Poudre is quite different than the Green Race. There are no people nervously pacing by their boats, however there was one dude dressed only in a pair of hot pants and a fur coat, with blue blockers. Everyone was super relaxed and the obvious goal of the race was to just have fun. Despite the carefree spirit, there was some competitive shit talking, as well as some friendly rivalry. I would imagine that the concern was whether the coveted Gnarrows Belt would remain in Fort Collins, or end up in Boulder or Denver, or god forbid, up in Wyoming. Little did this friendly cast of characters know, but that very night, their sweet precious would be stowed safely away in the belly of Southwest flight 1418, bound for Dixie!

The first part of the race was a full uppers through lowers run, which was long and exhausting, but really fun. The top two in each heat would square off in subsequent brackets, untill it was pared down to the final four. There was also a loser's bracket, where all the bottom placers in each heat had an opportunity to jump back in the semi-finals through a mass start debris flow of multi-colored chunks of plastic down the lower narrows.

In my first heat, I broke out early and kept the peddle to the metal, but had a solid lead and was able to enjoy hauling ass without someone coming up behind. Jim had Kyle McKutchen right on his stern the entire run, breaking ahead late in the heat. The losers bracket was awesome to watch, and added a few more racers to the semi-finals. My semi-final heat was tough, as I had both authors of the new bible gunning for me. Kyle passed me halfway through, and I thought it was over, but cut him off for one of the last slots and came in first. Jim also won his semi-final heat.

Right below the crux of Whiteline in the upper narrows

Head to head in the semi-finals

Winded already!

Here you can see me, mid duffek, looking over at the guidebook author as he blazes past me.

Damn it!

We instantaneously held truce, and then jumped into a 2 man kayak for the rest of the race.

Evan Stafford closing the gap

Now it was down to the final four. Our joke from the previous evening was quickly becoming a possibility. It was me, Jim, Evan, and JJ. I could feel Evan's eyes burning a hole through the back of my head. If only he had known the previous evening that he was housing the wolves. It was all down to the last 2 minutes. Christian, last year's winner, started this official televised USACK sanctioned event by having Kyle's son throw a rock in the water, and we were off. Jim and I had a strong start out of the gate, and it was the Tennessee show down all the way. People on the banks were screaming for us to take each other out, but we were in the zone. So we rode to victory, slamming into the finish rock elated and exhausted.

Giving it all we had

The buckle, in all her glory

It used to say "HUCK" but the "U" was lost. Only a hucker pure of heart, and from a certain quadrant of the country would be able to rejoin these lone members of the alphabet with their destiny. "I" was that hucker. The speed of the 865 fueled the prophecy to become reality.

Note the pudgy and non-too threatening belly that was privy to the tear down of front range dominance. Upset stomach.

Doesn't this just make you sick, dwellers of the american altiplano?

New belt for me means new belt for the boy.

That marked the close of our trip, and we began our journey home. Now its been two weeks since we got back, and I'm already deciding where to go next year. After two years of sagebrush and sun, I am truly in need of the Pacific Northwest and all the blue, grey and green that so harmoniously frame deep dark gorges laden with clean waterfalls. On to the next big idea.

Thanks to the FTC crew for the hospitallity, and to Jeff Burley for the great race shots!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're hick asses are just lucky all the "real" paddlers were fiddler crabbing the middle kings or you two wouldn't have gotten two paddle strokes in before you would've swam at the mere thought of having to race a certain young hairy stud.
-guess who pussy