Saturday, August 6, 2011

Watercolors: The Land of Big Trees and Volcanoes

Resources.  What to do with them?

This July three of us flew into Seattle to partake in a Northwest wine tasting of sorts, a dim sum of the finest day runs we could sniff out in a short ten day hiatus from the swelter-fest of the new south.  Ever since Al Gore started spewing his new music, the south has had miserable summers, and damned if I was going to fall victim once again to the tempting duet of the Rockies and the Sierras that plays in my mind this time of year.  I wanted cold water, and darkly foreboding cracks in the earth this go around.  

The notion that shivering in the approaching twilight in some sun depraved defile, all the while despairingly wrestling with the sight of walled in uncertainty, would somehow serve as the proverbial cold glass of lemonade to my sun bleached spirit was an idea best regretted when it was too late.  It sounded good at the time.  Sure it'll be terrifying when that moment comes, but if you worried about all the possibly scary or even regrettable situations we get ourselves into while paddling, we wouldn't catch as vivid of a glimpse into the mirror.  Maybe we could, but there is nothing like being forced to do so by the unscoutable and unportageable.  Oneness, resolve, calm, resignation.  These stages of enlightenment are a lot easier when there are no eddies and the walls are overhung.

But what on earth am I talking about?  This trip was mostly a vacation.  Sure, there was some grovelling in BC, a few days where we shouldered more than we sat in our boats.  There were certainly a few peak life moments of commitment and focus, a few nights spent in the wilds.  Ultimately the trip consisted of short day runs flanked by good beer, good food, and good company.  So while I was absent just a moment ago, embarked upon some silly escapade about being immersed in the deep and dark, and finding yourself and all that emo-talk, in the evenings following these experiences, we could be found wallowing in the swill, grasping our mutton and singing of the blarney stone till morning light.  There is something to be gained from all experiences, whether you are rapping solo into an unseen class V slot canyon on the north flank of Rainier, or listening to a 70 year old drunk man sing karaoke to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" in a slightly aggro biker bar on the south side of the mountain.

Our trip began as it should, sipping a pureed fruit beverage, which was served to me in a vacant parking lot by a tatoo covered stripper in a g-string and pink lace.  The lace matched well a waning stint of pink eye, which we were assured wasn't contagious.  I think we're in the clear by now, and at this point I must say that was the best smoothie I've ever had.  On to our first night, sleeping in a gravel road near Ernies Grove complete with late night firework displays and off-road drifting demonstrations courtesey of King County's finest.  

It was during this half asleep cultural immersion that we met our new friend, the hydropower tycoon.  I'm not sure if it was the pristine condition of his Eddie Bauer Ford Quad Cab, or the New Age style cover of  Eleanor Rigsby blaring out of his truck and into the expanse of Milky Way above, but something seemed a little off here.  I was immediately given a business card, the first of many on the trip, and was told all the fascinating things to come to this part of the North Snoqualmie Valley.  What I gathered from the conversation was that my new friend was one of us, via a few inflatable experiences on the lower sections of the Tuolomne and the Stanislaus many moons ago.  Furthermore, after declining his gracious offering of his diggs for the night, he followed up in the morning with a proposition of pastries to start the day.  Though we chose the grease pit where the lady from "Throw Momma From the Train" resides, rasp in all, for our morning gut bomb impregnation, we wouldn't turn him down a third time when he offered to run our shuttle.  A tour of the powerhouse and such was also offered up, and though we didn't have our personal protective equipment, we were somehow sure that whatever regulating bodies, absent on the large scale, wouldn't be there to slap us with an OSHA violation.  We were in drysuits afterall.  So after dropping the boys and the toys, I waited down in North Bend for a ride in the Trojan Horse.  I could hear Neil Diamond's voice before I could see the truck, and once we were all in there, commitment was certain.  It was when the guy told us that we should really see Neil in concert that I turned and covertly pointed the camera toward my compatriots in the back seat.  

"Play the game like we said" I reminded them with my terse facial expressions.  Would walking the shuttle have been the way to go?  Though we thought it rare at the moment, this would not be our last encounter with the greatest musician in all of modern history.  After a tour of the "facilities" and another dose of intelligence-insulting "green power" indoctrination, we were quickly deposited at the put in bridge.  

The reallity is that we all live in different worlds.  There's the real indivisible and raw physical reallity we all have to work with, and then there is the personally adjusted and filtered worlds we all create for ourselves.  While this guy related fine to our desire to get out there and work as a team to experience adventure, adrenaline, and life enrichment, what he couldn't grasp is that we would rather the North Snoqualmie be too high in the late winter and spring, sacrificing our ability to have those experiences, than to drill a tunnel through the mountain and kill the natural ebb and flow of the river, in essence it's heartbeat, just so we could have a few more days in the spring to coldly trampoleen on it's bloated carcass.  Maybe if Neil Diamond was the one that said "If you love something, set it free", this would have crossed his mind.  

  Greeks on the left, horse on the far right, Trojan in the quadrotone with collar.

With the morning already being a stimulating experience, we switched it up and traded natural resource policy for 520 cfs of powerful, steep, and unforgiving whitewater.  At least for now, on a banner snow year with a late summer arrival, you too can run Ernies with solid flow in the last week of July.  This run had a paddle in and a paddle out sandwiching two miles of stacked and stout boulder problems in between.  The rapids melded the technical and the pushy perfectly, with consequences lurking here and there to keep you breathing.    This is certainly one of the best class V runs in the state, with only maybe Little White, Robe, and the Clear Fork Cowlitz as rivals. 

The water was a clear greenish blue, mostly from mid elevation snow melt, and had a classic chill to it.

Caleb in the entrance to Raft Catch

Dave in the same, about to throw some cartwheels.

Raft Catch proper, a classic slot

David Herman took this shot of some mouth breather from Tennessee.

Tight and wet, Ernie's got some bite.

Family Portrait

After picking our way down Seattle's best run, I quickly called Chris Tretwold to see if we still had time for a tour of the classic Robe Canyon.  Two hours later we were riding to the put in fired up for our first and likely best double header of the trip.  I don't really know what to say about Robe.  For the southeastern audience, imagine the Russell Fork from Tower to Climax, less technical, bigger water, less undercuts, more holes, and 6 or 7 times as long, all set in one of the coolest canyons I've ever been in.  There are no pictures.  We didn't even bring our GoPro's on this trip, which makes me wonder why we even came out here in the first place.  In all seriousness, the best brown claw is the one that no one sees, and without any pics to drool over in the years to come, I'll have no choice but to come back again and again to this stellar class V run.  I dare to say that Robe may be the best locals run I've ever seen.  It's 3-4 miles of solid and beautiful action, and the shuttle can be jogged in an hour, or driven in ten minutes.

The water was a somewhat clearer than usual snow melt grey, sporting a slightly eerie opacity.  

With Bellingham not far away, we headed to Chris's house, where we were graciously accepted as house guests, though not before a thorough dental inspection.  Turns out we could pass for Yankees, though Caleb's lower incisors were on the line.  The next morning Chris took us to the Middle Fork of the Nooksack, the Bellingham home run, where we met his friend Jamie for a trip through the lower canyon.  The first mile of this run is one of the best miles anywhere.  You start by looking 200 feet off a bridge into a lushly wild box canyon jam packed with action.  The rapids are a little bit of a blur, but with Robe to the south and this 35 minutes out of town, I can safely say that Bellingham is the underdog never mentioned in the overplayed "best paddling town" polls you see regularly on boating forums.  

The water was almost an ashlu glacial green, but with signatures of Mt. Baker mineralogy.

Takeout for MF Nooksack

I like bridge shots.

And riding on top of cars.

Chris quickly raises his paddle in anticipation of Jamie's backhand.  A backhand well known in these parts.

The view over the bridge here sums up a big part of why a lot of us do this.  Photo by David Herman.

No time like the present

Why we boat with friends.

Blue angels and White ones.

David below Leap of Faith exiting an other-worldly mini canyon.

The Boofing Bellinghamster

Our goal for the day was, for primarily comedic purposes, the Furry/Nooksack combo.  It had a nice ring to it.  But as the metric system would have it, we made it into North Van and settled for a quick hike up and run down the Seymour Canyon.  Picture a class IV+ boulder run through a 300 foot shadow filled sheer walled canyon that happens to be in a suburban neighborhood.  Despite the friendly location, we got lost on our first run in BC, hiking up the wrong side of the river.  This was not a good sign for heading into the Squamish back-country.  After the run we drove 5 minutes down the road for the best authentic greek food I've had in years.

The water was as clear as mistakes past, and the shadows made it shine oil black in the narrow canyon.

Hey, get off my lawn slackers!

Getting ready for our short little appetizer before digging into some tzaziki glazed spanikopita

After our dinner, I reallized that though the elusive Furry/Nooksack combo was out of reach, a Seymour Nooksack combo was no second place.  A mere 50 foot walk from our parking spot at Furry Creek Golf Course confirmed that we made the right decision.  Furry was too high, and was a diarrhea inducing sight to behold.  We headed to the Mamquam and up into the wilds above the Stawamus Chief, hoping Skookum wouldn't be too high.  It was, but the camping was pretty nice, and after a helpful conversation with Steve Arns, we decided Rutherford Creek was the place to be in the morning.  

Ahh, BC!  Driving north on I5 till you leave the country is easier than getting a DeLorean, not to mention the amount of weapons grade plutonium necessary to generate the 1.21 gigwatts of energy.....uh, nevermind.

Wake up, its time to run the steaze!  David was in the process of forming a brown claw, but I timed it wrong.

Mamquam above the falls

The Falls at a "roosty" level, as the locals would put it.

The next two days we spent unlocking the wonderful run on Rutherford Creek.  A former staple in the Whistler creeking "zone", Rutherford was the first classic to get axed via the aggressive and exhaustive small hydro movement in BC.  Despite this, when flows are too high for everything else.  Rutherford has water, and reminded me of mixing Callaghan and Birkenhead into one bang up good time of a run.  The first day we just ran the lower, not sure how long it would take.  After scouting Twenty-One Mile Creek and reallizing everything was still rising and that we had high water, we thought we'd better do the whole Rutherford the next day and then head south again.  The next day the water was a good medium high, and we ran the whole thing.  Top to bottom, you drop over 1000 feet and should be pretty content when you hit the highway at the bottom.  There was so much boulder action and mildly gorged in bedrock features, as well as a perfect 20 footer, and a not so perfect waterfall/portage combo.  Out of respect and prudence, we executed the lengthy portage around this second gorge, and paddled plenty more action down to the lower, where the pushiness was intense.  Think Big Creek at 3.5 feet but 4 times as wide and you get the picture.  The lower section has another portage of a disgusting falls shortly above the takeout, after which we headed south to Squamish.

The water had a slight cookies and cream white to it, but was dominated by turquoise hues more typical of the Ashlu/Elaho region.

Peering into the lower section

Ladies and Gentlemen, the golden stroke.

The portage on the lower.  As soon as you see bedrock in the river, get out on the RIGHT. Photo by David Herman.

Classic BC

Some bedrock

It's important to have a matching boat.

Some idiot ruining David Herman's landscape photo.

Like Tommy said, if it's on the map, it's too big.

Upper Rutherford above the action

Nothing but a full day ahead of us.

Who needs a double pump in BC?

Perfect Twenty

Boofing into the next canyon.

On the way out of town, we stopped for some burgers and decided to just check the Mamquam zone.  What we found was that though flows were rising in Whistler, things had dropped a bit here, and though Skookum was still on the high side, Raffuse appeared to be in.  After a quick talk with Tretwold and Squamish local Bryan Smith we made plans to engage in a "highest water possible third descent by a foreign party".  The distinction may seem arbitrary, but a textile contract had already been awarded in Cedar Rapids Michigan, and the run of four flatbill hats had already been programmed into the loom.  Kinda makes you wonder what happens to all the apparel made for the losing team of the Super Bowl.  Nevertheless, we hiked into Raffuse the next morning, excited about a micro-creeking adventure that promised at least a few great drops and some surprises as well.  What we found was a great little creek that started with fun class 4 top rapids that eventually breached the walls into a typical dark BC canyon via a sweet double drop.

Caleb in the first of the double.  This is what you want to see in BC.

Second drop

David on the second drop from the bottom.

Red October!

David Herman helped me out of a pinch here.  Since I'm known for being such a pussy, I needed proof that I actually paddled Raffuse Creek.

It almost looks like I know what I'm doing in this shot by DH.

Fun in between canyons

After the double drop we portaged a big landslide and then started working into a second gorge above a sweet 20 footer.  After some ballsy eddy catching, we finally settled for a rim scout on the left, and found a big log right above the lip.  After a 30 minute technical portage of another jam to get to this log, we climbed over it and carefully got in our boats in this little room, and then took a mandatory pin to spin out right above the lip.  The drop was sweet, and though David is pictured taking advantage of the deep pools we so rarely can rely on in the south, boofs were had as well.

The next few shots David was under water, so I deleted them.

Raffuse ended up being 6 or 7 hours of hiking in, portaging wood, and portaging wood, but there was a lot of good whitewater in a spectacular little gorge in there, and I would do it every year if I lived up there.

The water had an unusually achromatic transparency to it.  Prismatic views of the creek bottom set the mood.

After a long day on Raffuse, we went back into town for some burgers, and re-supplied with our eye on the prize, Skookum Creek.  In the morning we opted for the lower section, feeling that with the solid flows and lack of local back up, a shorter section should be in order.  We hiked about 1 mile up the river left spur road and then dropped into the canyon, ending up on a pretty intense little rope lowering session for the last 100 feet.  This combined with the hike had us putting on the water well past noon, with no knowledge of what lie downstream, other than the best waterfall in Squamish followed by the worst, which was unportageable.  After a few rapids, we got hung up on a hard to scout corner.  After half an hour David came back with the news that we were above the 35 footer, that the entrance rapid was burly, and that we would be running blind.  With that, there was no need for any more hemming or hawing, we jumped in the boats and blasted through the entrance drop into the eddy room right above the waterfall.  I've never been so excited in all my life above a drop.  It was the biggest drop I've run, and it was pretty high water spraying off the lip.  I peeled out and planted a stroke, pulled a little, set the angle, and stomped down into a huge surging boil filled room before sneaking out the side into the pool downstream.  There really isn't anything else to say other than that moment was one of the top ones in my travels thus far.  I'm grateful for the experience, but after a half mile of class 2, we eddied left above the 60 footer, and found a huge log right in the outflow.  Without too much deliberation, we just hiked out river left, about 400 feet to a road that led back to the car.  It took around an hour to get out from the falls to the car, which wasn't too bad, but any steeper and it wouldn't have been possible.  

I don't particularly remember the water color on Skookum, other than the huge white cottonball I landed on below the classic falls.

Caleb at our lowering station on the way in.

This shot by David Herman is dedicated to Tony and Jeff, who came over a day before our trip and showed us how to use ropes.  Rappelling is fun!

Looking downstream from our put in.

The blind corner above the falls

You can see Caleb's face about as well as we could see downstream.  Searching for answers.

Look carefully in the upper right hand corner for David about 50 feet off the deck.  The scout was sketchy.

After our 5 hour hike for 12 minutes of paddling, we said our farewells to BC and scurried back south, staying in Bellingham and having some wonderful southwest cuisine before driving to the Tye the next day.  The Tye was a solid run, though a little short.  We ended up having a low level for the upper and a medium for below Monkey Cage.  The upper had some wood, and rocks in landings for that matter, and we were happy to see Deception Creek doubling the flow downstream.  Monkey Cage down was classic, with Caleb getting aggro at Crack in the Earth, and epic boofs for all at the Box Drop.  The best part of the run was the boogie Box Drop and down, with tons of sweet water boofs and some big holes and rowdy water.  

The water was emerald green, tough to capture with a camera, but easy on the creeking pallate. 

Caleb on Monkey Cage, from the Monkey Cage.

This boof is epic.

Caleb in anticipation

Boofing the big hole at Paranoia, the way whitewater should be.

Enter Leavenworth.  Nothing breaks the soul scrubbing cadence of lots of rivers and no people like a profit motivated faux bavarian village.  On the way in to town we scouted Tumwater Canyon.  The first rapid looked doable, but by the time we were a few miles above town, we had positively ruled out running it at the level we saw.  There is some scary shit in there!  After some pizza, we loaded up on high gravity beer and got the hell out of there.  Icicle Creek was our next stop, and looking back we probably should have done the whole run.  Wanting to not spend the whole day though, we just ran the Ricochet to Plunge Section minus those rapids.  

The water color was hard to pin down, as we put in at 7am and downstream faces east.  

After Icicle, we headed to Cle Elum to check out the Cooper.  The Cooper is the Wilson Creek of Washington, both in that it is a top notch class IV experience, and that you will see more people swimming in the river than paddling it, at least down in the paddle out.  It was hitching the shuttle where I recieved a second business card, as well as an invite for our whole group to join some dude and his kinda trashy girlfriend for some "beers" at their cabin.  With that we quickly loaded up and headed to the Ohanapecosh, not wanting any backwoods Washington swinger action.  That said, the river was fantastic though short, with consistent and continuous class IV bedrock for over a mile in a stunning little canyon.

The water was a cool and refreshing bottle green, with hints of turquoise here and there.

The put in at Cooper.  

Leaving Cle Elum, we quickly dropped into the desert of Eastern Washington, which looks a lot like Rawlins, WY, except you know that just 50 miles west an oasis exists, keeping morale high.  Once over the pass into the Clear Fork drainage, the views kicked in to gear, with Rainier coming into view in all of its grandeur.  Mount Rainier is one of the most impressive mountains I have ever seen.  It simply dwarfs everything else in the state, and even while driving in Seattle, I found myself continually being startled, when Rainier would suddenly come into view once passing a large building, like a giant playing peek-a-boo.  Rainier kinda defines Washington to me.

There are mountains, and then there is Rainier.

Further down the road are the Palisades, making the river left wall of the lower gorge of the Clear Fork.  The Clear Fork had good flow, and is reputed as the best run in the area, but a recent report of 23 portages kept us at bay.

Secret Camp on the Ohanapecosh is classic Northwest camping.

That night we ended up at the only place to really eat in Packwood, and got a serious show of drunken karaoke.  Some moments were awkward, some were hilarious, and some, well.....This is where our second encounter with Neil Diamond occurred, and we're just glad to have made it through.

Finally I was going to run the Ohany.  I had heard so much and knew it would be classic, and it was.  We had a high flow, which took much of the technicallity out and made for a pushy and hole filled ride through the most colorful canyon we passed through on the trip.  Grey walls had a spectrum of different colored mosses grading upward in response to the various flows that move through.  The wood was no different.  There was one log jam that required a tricky portage, after which was nothing but fun stuff down to Elbow Room, a recommended portage.  The gorge below Elbow Room was where the water level really made itself known, with nasty holes all over the place.  We ran the waterfall drop far right and portaged the last piece of work, which kinda looked like something out of Black Canyon of the Gunnison at high water.  The wall extending out of the river here was amazing.

The water was a mysterious grey blue, with unbelievable variations when the sun made it into the narrow canyon.  Glacial signatures definitely created a unique hue.

Ledge below Summit Creek.  Elbow Room is just downstream.

Contemplating Elbow Room

David on the Waterfall Drop

I love this shot!

The colors of the Ohanapecosh are always peaking.

Following our morning run down the Ohanapecosh, I jogged up and grabbed the car, and we headed over White Pass to the north side of the mountain, where the last piece of the puzzle resided.  The weather was gloomy, it was late in the day, and with a pretty thick population of meth-heads hanging out where we were going to leave the car, the rest of the group was ready to chill.  But I didn't check an extra bag filled with climbing equipment for nothing, so I rapped into the Carbon solo and worked my way down through the fantastic lower canyon before the river quickly opened up into landslide induced mankpiles of the illest kind.  The Classic Canyon itself is one of the coolest places I have paddled.  Turning the bend into that must run steep funnel into a box canyon 4 feet wide at high water was exactly what I needed, and I felt like the trip was complete as I hiked out up to the rim where the car was waiting.  While not being the best run out there, the Carbon provides an experience that teeters on the edge of reasonability, without being technically all that difficult.  It is a mindbender, and that is it's appeal.

The water was cookies and cream with a bit of toffee, and was heavily laden with minerals from the Carbon Glacier on the north flank of Ranier, creating a confusing opacity and  ghostly looking features.

Looking downstream from Fairfax Bridge at the Carbon, shortly above Rick's Slide.  At the level I ran it, Rick's Slide is supposedly a death wish, hence the big rappel.

Just upstream of the bridge.  Once down the rope and in my boat, being down in this crack was truly exciting!

So that wrapped up our trip.  The Pac NW / BC area is unbeatable for paddling.  Anywhere you have subduction zone tectonics, the whitewater ends up being pretty epic, and being on the Pacific Rim and all, Washington delivers.  The color of the water on each run is different, and the reasons why each color is different tell a long and powerful story about the world around us, inspiring me to keep running new rivers out here.  There is always more to discover and new experiences to be had.  The color of the water is always different.  

Steel Reserve.  48 ounces, 8.8%, $1.40.  You do the math.


Jack said...

Wow! some awesome scenery out there!

Anonymous said...

Glad you guys had a good trip. It was fun boating with you and I hope to make it out your way in the not to distant future to check out some of the runs we chatted about. Take care.

Chris T.

Anonymous said...

great post Kirk. wish I had known you guys were out here.

Jon Crain

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