Friday, August 13, 2010

Existing Inside the Box

Everyone is motivated to paddle for different reasons. We make decisions on what rivers we paddle and who we commune with based on these influences. There is this rational part of our brain that carries out the actions and makes the choices required to satisfy these needs and motivations. What fuels the process is more abstract though. On the uphill path of getting paddling gear, buying plane tickets, renting vehicles, running shuttle, carrying heavy things through the woods, and dealing with fear and consequence, there have to exist various affirmations, or mantras, to keep you in between the lines. Without these inspirational images and ideas, we would almost inevitably end up drinking beer at a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere near our destination, all too easily discounting our original plan of paddling some river as foolhardy, or just a waste of time. Paddling is a mostly selfish endeavor, and I don't know that it has the capacity to solve the world's problems, so maybe that sentiment is spot on from a progressive standpoint.

But despite the notion of the uselessness of paddling, in everyone's head who has been bitten by the bug, images of arctic blue water, perfect shoulders, idyllic rolling lips, the pink, grey, and white mix of perfect granite, the smell of sagebrush, the faint aroma of water filled with fall leaves, the cold and peaceful sensation of flying along the river bottom, the sound of the perfect landing, and so forth; We all have our own unique and personally relevant affirmations that resonate with us and spark the fire of desire.

The places I most enjoy to paddle are steep walled and committing canyons and gorges. This isn't necessary for me to find river days worthwhile by any means, but any time the walls start closing in and the banks disappear, I am immediately overcome by a wave of reverent, yet giddy euphoria. So when I first got into paddling, I stumbled onto an article on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. The write up clearly described The Box as a fully committing, walled in class 5 run, and the accompanying pictures confirmed this. One picture in particular though, of someone running Calendar Falls, created a visual affirmation in my head that would be gently nagging me for the next 10 years. Its not an impressive or hard rapid, just a rolling lip down an 8-10 foot drop onto a well padded slab of rock. But the shot, to me, really characterized my motivations for seeking out deep and dark canyons. So with me it stayed, until this year lined up to be a natural opportunity to get into the Clarks Fork.

This wasn't the only reason to visit the Clarks Fork Box. There were tons of class 4-5 rapids in a long and sustained river course with walls to the sky, excellent water quality and fishing, and a handful of unscoutable and unportageable class 5 rapids. The best way to do it also seemed to involve overnighting in the canyon, which always magnifies how beneficial the experience ends up being. The intrigue was to the floor with this run. That image of calendar falls is what kept me from succumbing to the temptations of all the epic runs in California I still haven't done, as you have to watch almost all of them come in and then drop out, in wait for the late season trek to Wyoming. Its never an easy decision to go to Wyoming when everyone knows California and BC have the best multi-day action anywhere. But there is also more to it than hitting the same place every year.

So now you know why we weren't hiking into the Middle Fork of the Kings River, hands down the best class 5 overnighter in the United States. We rolled into Cody and met Andy Quick, the local paddle sports connection to arrange a shuttle, as it is quite long, and we only had one car. After a tourist trap breakfast we quickly headed up to Sunlight Basin, where the desert foothills quickly give way to a richer more montane environment, which supports the densest grizzly population in the lower 48. After some sightseeing, we hit the day run, a pleasant and alluring introduction to the Clarks Fork. The big one on here was Adrenaline, a lengthy and squirrelly gauntlet of holes and undercuts. All too quickly we were back at the Painter Outpost, eating buffalo burgers and buying bear spray for our imminent sojourn into the wilds of The Box. The outpost had everything from wine and beer to river supplies, gas and a restaurant. This put in was quite different than our launch point on the North Fork of the Little Wind.

Speaking of visual affirmations.

Pilot and Index Peaks

A common portage on the day run, Coin Slot.

Jim punching through the crux of Adrenaline

After dinner we hopped in our boats and put on the Honeymoon run, which runs from the store 2.5 miles down to the beginning of the Green Monster portage. This is also the typical starting point for The Box. We found pushy class 4+ canyons with a more verdant feel than most other Wyoming rivers we had seen thus far. The walls were a beautiful grey and the water a deep blue. The occasional moss on the walls and rocks, and evergreen brush strokes on the rim really brought the whole picture together. This set the tone for the rest of the river below. We took out below Crandall Creek and then walked 4 miles back to the store. We loaded up and then headed to the rim camp near one of the few access points to the inner canyon, about halfway down the run. There we met some world class climbers and enjoyed their hospitality and the sharing of stories about rock and water. Then there's the obligatory argument of who is crazier, the person hanging from the cliff 1200 feet up, or the idiot down at the bottom, getting kicked around like a hacky-sack by the whitewater fury of the river.

Honeymoon Canyon is just fantastic.

I think this one is called Zoom, Boom, to the Moon.

Morning came, and we loaded up and headed to the store to put on for our three day trip through The Box. We blazed through the Honeymoon, stopping a few times to get some shots, and then ran the last stretch of Crandall Creek, dropping into the stretch above the first epic portage. There is a huge amount of excellent whitewater on the Clarks Fork Box, but I think the best way to describe the run is by highlighting the portages. The fact that many people regard it as a portagefest and are therefore uninterested in the run only adds to the likelihood of not seeing another soul in there. There are five big portages on the run, and a few small ones. The first big one is The Green Monster. You can boat pretty far past Crandall Creek, but if you passed the eddy of no return, there is no escape. I am sure your body would never be found, and your kayak would slowly be assimilated by the geologic record. One you take out, you have a short but gruelling climb to a scree slope, which you take for a good 15 minutes, before dropping down to the wooded bench below. An intermittent trail travels another half mile and then drops down to below what is certainly one of the more horrific stretches of river anywhere in the world. From here it is 5 miles of scenic flats through a huge valley. I almost fell asleep twice, just being lulled into tranquility. Though there is no whitewater, it is a very magical place to be.

Once the whitewater starts kicking in again, the worst portage comes up quick. Ankle Breaker was truly a dose of reality. You climb quite a bit and traverse a long distance before dropping down, and this is ALL done on loose boulders and scree. It is an intoxicatingly beautiful chunk of gradient though.

The Clarks Fork is not your friend. You are not worthy. The Green Monster

Don't look the Green Monster in the eye.

Ankle Breaker Portage is a true dose of reality.

I wouldn't ever bank on fishing for sustenance, but the Clarks Fork warms you up to the idea.

Early in our commitment, a distant view of the finish line

At this point, you are officially in The Box, and are through the hardest portages. What lays ahead is 8 miles of epic whitewater and box canyons. This is the real deal. After some world class white-knuckle boogie and a few more developed drops, we bedded down, excited for what the morning would bring. The next day was the action day, with several solid drops quickly bringing us to Balls to the Wall. Balls is truly a sight to behold, with 800-1000 cfs necking down against the left wall and bouncing 40 feet down a steep and drop filled slam dance to a small eddy below which resides Lower Balls to the Wall, an equally challenging but slightly less vertigo inducing run-out into a slot canyon. Running this drop, which is the biggest on the run, simply amps you up to the proper level to where the rest of the run, while being full on for sure, is par for the course, and reasonable. Snolieguster is next, and if it was roadside and you had an empty boat, it would be all well, but we took the high and dry route and boofed the sweet run out ledge into another walled in corridor.

Dirty but colossal symmetry

Being where we were. Right where we belonged

A dizzying vortex of granite and di-hydrogen monoxide, Balls to the Wall

You definitely can't get lost in a box canyon, but just maybe you can lose yourself in one.

Jim keeping his Balls to the Wall. It's really that simple. Simple in a play dead and the bear will stop gnawing on your neck kind of way.

Bonus Ledge on Snolieguster, from the ladies' tees

Ballbuster Portage resides below, alongside the one hikeout gully, should something go awry. This one wasn't bad at all, comparatively. Maybe 15 minutes up a short slope and then down the backside. Below here were many big rapids, with Dillworth being the highlight of this stretch. Several big pourovers led to a pinbally big water flush through some goal posts at the bottom. This things was big, long, and awesome. Next, the river bends left into the Calendar Falls Gorge, where I had wanted to go for so long. It was great, but there were so many more places like it or better on the run, and in this way the river truly exceeded my expectations.

Ballbuster portage runout

Russ' Underworld, a juicy casserole of chaos

This massive buttress looming below Dillworth is one of many.

If this rapid wasn't so quality, it would be really scary.

As it is, its just big fun.

This shot makes me wish I was still there.

Calendar Falls Gorge. Perfect.

This single shot gets to the core of what motivates many expedition paddlers.

The next big obstacle at Deliberation Corner was quickly approaching. This part of the canyon was a bit more open, but knowing what was coming, we were all business. The entrance to Deliberation had some wood, which was bittersweet, as it was a relief to not have to consider running it, but it also looked really good to go and it was hard to not be able to fire it up. The unportageable third drop was everything it was built up to be, with a splashy entrance to big delayed boof, into a boiling pool with oblique recirculations and dynamic currents. Lower Deliberation Corner was the real brute of the set, with powerful water dropping down quite a bit of gradient, with a messy boulderfield finishing up into an overhanging slot canyon of immense depth.

Maybe the most classic "un-un" in the country, Deliberation Corner

The seldom mentioned or seen, Lower Deliberation. 100% Angus burl

This is the heart of the run, and it was exhilerating to be floating through here. After opening up slightly, we paddled right through a huge runnable sieve, and then portaged the top of Leap of Faith, which is an easy river level 10 minute portage. The bottom section is totally unportageable and really not scoutable, but we did our homework and aced the test. Below here was a walled in black sand beach with lots of room and tons of firewood. We quickly built a fire as the rain started coming down, and settled in for a night below Leap of Faith in what was quite likely the best riverside campsite I have stayed.

Leap of Faith, or in our situation, Leap of informed confidence

Leap of Faith run-out

Trying to stay warm in the rain

Got everything we need....Baileys

View down to the trifluence with Dead Indian and Sunlight Creeks

The canyon depth triples below Sunlight Creek

Black Sand

The interplay between light and dark in such a place is truly dynamic

You'd think he'd pick up boating, considering where he lives.

Spending the night somewhere really engraves its place in your memory

The next morning, we started right out with the Sunlight Strainer #2 portage, which is where the tragedy of several years ago occurred. After you run Leap of Faith, you have to get out immediately on the left and start walking. This one only took about 20 minutes, but it had very loose and unstable rock and was definitely the sketchiest portage on the run. Back on the water we paddled some rowdy breakdown to the trifluence with Dead Indian Creek and Sunlight Creek. This is yet another awe-inspiring spot on the Clarks Fork, with huge waterfalls cascading into an ever deepening canyon.

Below here the depth of the canyon, though not vertical all the way to the top, reaches upwards of 3500 feet, making it the third deepest canyon in the lower 48. The walls come straight out of the water for the first mile below the trifluence, with stout class 4 rapids around every bend, with the dry and deserty colors creeping up from the flats and painting everything pink and buff- orange. The gradient subsides quickly though, and the walls recede back and away making room for large boulder bars and gently sloping scrub filled river banks. From here its another hour of paddling to the takeout, near the end of which some stout boulder gardens build, occasionally housing some large limestone undercuts here and there.

At the takeout; last glimpse of the canyon before returning to the semi-real world.

Once at the takeout, I really didn't want to leave, but we had done what we came to do, and I was ready for some food. So we headed back into Cody for some "Spaghetti Western" Italian food. The last 3 days all of the sudden had already been lived, and once again, I was relegated to knowing the Clarks Fork only as an image in my head. Thats all any of it ever is though, except for the exact moment you are in there, burning the images into the blank canvas of your own mind. That is why we repeat these experiences over and over. Stay tuned for the final chapter of our trip to Wyoming, where we get some bonus layover paddling near the suicide capital of Casper, WY, followed by a few days of living the Fort Collins life.


Todd Gillman said...

this is what blogging was destined to become back before facebook came around & messed up everyone's content capacity & attention spans. thanks for keeping it real.

searcher said...

Thanks for the compliment Todd.

Heading your way next summer. OP bound, would love to paddle with you guys.