Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“Quality Hanging Out Time” on Fish Creek

The entire time frame of an adventure can be broken into bits and pieces and, in particular, dots that mark significant turning points. There is always a first dot, the starting point, and a final dot, which marks the end of your journey. Each decision you make (another dot) often has a profound effect upon the remaining dots yet to be made. If your adventure involves kayaking or rafting, your journey normally ends as expected, at the final dot, someplace known as a “take-out” or access point along the bank of a river.

In a small clearing we rested. “How far above the creek do you think we are?” I asked Garret. The answer was maybe 100 feet or so. Not much, but it was steep and rocky, with a small cliff to start out, and we didn’t have a static line so our z-drag was going extra slow. It had taken three of us exactly three hours to move ourselves, our boats, and other miscellaneous items approximately 100 feet up and out of Fish Creek. We rested; and as we stared off in various directions I started picturing the dots that had led us to what was now a significant turning point in our little adventure.

It had started off about as normal as it gets for a group of people looking to get outside on some of Oregon’s rivers during Memorial Day Weekend. We’d run the Upper Rogue and from there headed over to the North Umpqua. We still had Monday to go boating and on Sunday afternoon the itch for an adventure hit some of us like a bad case of poison oak. I remember specifically saying something about wanting to find a creek off the beaten path. Willie, who is familiar with the area, said there was such a creek just six miles up the road from us. We drove over Fish Creek that evening and were ecstatic to see a good flow underneath the bridge. Our map showed a road that led right to the water and would give us about a five-mile run. Our adventure had been found and dot number one had sprouted.

Around the campfire that night we looked over our not-in-depth-at-all Oregon road map that had contour lines for every 300 feet in elevation. It seemed that there would be two particularly interesting sections on the creek. The first was within a quarter-mile of where we were putting in and the second was about a mile-and-a-half into the run where the creek would drop 300 feet in less than half a mile.

The next morning we packed up and drove to the put-in. The creek looked great. Dana, who was doing our shuttle and not at all enthused by our fabulous adventure, always asks me what time she should call for help. “What do you think? Six hours?” she asked. It was 10:00 and the whole run was only five miles long. We were all motivated to get it done quickly because of the drive back to Ashland. I thought for a second and replied, “Don’t get worried until it starts to get dark.” We pushed off. She drove back to the campground. And so it began.

It wasn’t long before we came to a fairly significant horizon-line-jumble-of-rocks-log-gnarl. We pulled over on river-left and hiked downstream about a third of a mile. We’d be lining and portaging this one - all of it. But other than the huge drops, sieves, and logs it looked like it would have been a great rapid! So there remained a glimmer of hope for what remained downstream.

Portaging around the first significant rapid, photo by Garret Smith:

Lining the boats. Photo by Garret Smith:

That glimmer came to life briefly as we managed to scrape a mile or so downstream without significant portaging or lining. The rapids were tight and technical and a few had some nice drops. But we weren’t making good time. We stopped and scouted everything and we did get hung up in a few places. Then, very suddenly, we came to a corner that reeked of heinousness.

The creek pooled up as it rounded a left-hand bend and slipped underneath a pile of logs. We stopped again on the left bank and my brother Skip and I started hiking. I stayed high and went quite a ways downstream. It looked like we’d be lining this one for sure, and I couldn’t see the end of it as the creek disappeared around a right turn. Garret joined us and mentioned he thought we could line along the left bank. It was now crunch time – we were definitely pushing the clock to get out before dark. It was after 2:00 and we probably had not gone more than two miles. If things continued like this we’d be in trouble. We decided to get back to the boats and begin the process of moving downstream.

Willie and Garret took to moving the small Avon while Brandon, Skip, and I worked on the much larger Vanguard. We moved as quickly as possible and had made it to where the creek began bending right when I heard a whistle blast, looked downstream, and saw Willie motioning for us to join him and Garret 100 feet down river. They did not look stoked. From where they stood the rapid not only continued to be huge, but it actually got steeper. In fact we were standing on a significant waterfall and it appeared that there was another one just downstream. What time was it? 3:00, which meant maybe three hours before it would start to get dark. We knew from looking at the map that there was a road on river-right roughly 500-600 feet above the river maybe one mile away.

Our choice was to either to risk continuing downstream and maybe not getting out before dark (and probably footing a search and rescue bill) or bailing on the trip, sending two people out to contact Dana to let her know all is well, and hiking the boats and gear out. We chose the latter. Put a dot there.

The first step in the process was to get the boats from river-left to river-right above a huge drop. Garret and Brandon went back upstream, crossed over the logjam, caught throw bags that were attached to the rafts, and pulled them across the creek into a small micro-eddy at the base of a cliff. When we re-grouped on river-right it was decided that Willie and Brandon would hike out while Garret, Skip, and I would begin the process of getting the boats started on what was sure to be an absolute nightmare of an experience.

And so there we sat, three hours later, a measly 100 feet above the river in a small clearing surrounded by tall trees. “Well according to the map the road is in that direction,” I said. We decided to go look for it. There was no way we would be getting the gear out tonight, we’d have to save it for tomorrow, but there was no reason for us stay with it until then especially since we didn’t know where the road was.

We started walking through the dense woods. “Holy shit…” all three of us muttered. We tilted our heads upward and stared at an enormous 300+ foot cliff that emerged through the trees. “Maybe there’s a way around it if we go further downstream?” We started hiking along the base of the bastard. After about a half-mile we took a break and then heard whistle blasts from back upstream. We returned them and soon were reunited with Willie and Brandon. They had found a steep and narrow gulley up the cliff, had found the road, hiked to the highway where they hitched a ride, and had caught Dana as she was driving in the opposite direction to the Ranger Station. That was a huge relief. They showed us their route and it wasn’t long before we were back in a truck headed to the campground.

That night we came up with a plan to get the gear out. The first step was getting a static line. Willie called a friend in Roseburg (Greg) who, not only lent us a rope and a bunch of extra climbing gear, but he drove it up to us that night (THANK YOU!). Our plan involved moving the gear in stages that would take a few laps each. From the small clearing we would move everything to the base of the cliff. From the base of the cliff we would z-drag everything up the gulley as far as the rope could go. We’d then reset the z-drag at the top of the gulley and get everything to the top. From there, it would be a quarter mile to the road. I figured we’d be lucky to get everything to the top of the cliff and would have to come back later that week to get it the rest of the way out.

Getting the boats ready for the hike out. Photo by Garret Smith:

Of course it rained all night and was especially cold the following morning. We packed up camp and left around 8:00 a.m. Got down to the boats around 9:00. We rolled the Vanguard so that it had four carry loops and then “one-two-three’d” it for an hour and a half to the base of the cliff. Up and over fallen trees, gaining elevation over huge boulders, squeezing it between narrow gaps between the cliff and trees, it somehow – magically - ended up at the base of the cliff. Next we went back for the Avon (which is about half the weight of the Vanguard) and the remainder of the gear. By 11:30 we had everything at the base of the cliff.

The z-drag went smooth. We had 180 feet of rope and nearly used the full length twice so the gulley was around 350 feet from top to bottom. It was 1:30 by the time everything was at the top. We were exhausted. It took two more hours to move everything to the road but we got it done by 3:30, exactly 24 hours after Willie and Brandon had begun their hike out to reach Dana.

There are few adventures I have been on where reaching the final dot has been so challenging and there are even fewer adventures I have been on where it has felt so rewarding. Normally, your final dot is at a place you’ve planned on. Perhaps the difference between an adventure and a misadventure is landing on a dot you weren’t expecting. And when that happens you must make decisions that make your future dots easier. Despite creating an absolutely heinous situation for ourselves we did overcome a tremendous challenge in avoiding injury, getting 100% of our equipment out of a tough spot, and staying positive. In order to accomplish those three things we made some good decisions after making one really bad one, which was putting on with limited beta on the run.

We arrived back in Ashland around 8:00 p.m. that night. Skip had gone back to Eugene so Willie and Garret helped unload the gear into my yard. Garret was headed back home to Shasta. Other than this weekend, we’d hardly spent much time together aside from a day of touring breweries in western Montana (actually that’s a good story too – maybe another time). When you go through an experience like we had it brings out everyone’s spirit, demeanor, and who they truly are; which is maybe what he meant when he responded to my apology about putting him through such a physically heinous ordeal with “Don’t apologize Will, I feel like we had some quality hanging out time together.” He’s right – when it comes down to it all of us involved in this adventure did spend some quality time together - and we won’t soon forget it.

This story would not be possible without the fine products made by Clavey Paddle Sports (Avon), Vanguard Inflatables, Kokatat (drysuits), and Columbia (great new water shoes: "Drainmaker").

The biggest “Thanks” of all goes to the guys who were part of this adventure. Skip Volpert, Garret Smith, Brandon Worthington, and Willie Long – your attitudes and physical capabilities are two things I will always be grateful for. And Greg, in Roseburg who lent us the rope, additional equipment, and drove it to us – we honestly could not have done it without you. Also, it takes quite the lady to put up with these so-called adventures week after week. Thank you, Dana, for always being there (and especially for not leaving early to contact S&R!).

Lastly, the photos used in this blog post are courtesy of Garret Smith. He’s a phenomenal photographer and a visit to his website would be well worth your time. Check it out at http://dirtmyth.blogspot.com/

Written by Will Volpert, owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters based out of Ashland, Oregon.

From left to right: Skip Volpert, Willie Long, Will Volpert, and Garret Smith. Photo by Garret Smith:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Whitewater Rafting Schools

We love whitewater rafting--its the roots of our business. We started

guiding many years ago, and the hook was set. Guiding commercial trips led

to running the shop and setting up gear for trips with friends and family.

But rafting is a skill and gear intensive sport. Many of our customers began

rafting as commercial guides, thus giving them the skills to do trips on

their own. When they settle down a bit and get “real” jobs, the funds become

available to buy their own set of gear.

But what if you’ve never been a guide, and don’t want to become one? We can

help set you up with the appropriate gear to get you down the river, but the

necessary skills are another thing. Fear not, there is a way to get the

river skills--a commercial whitewater school. It used to be that these were

primarily oriented to training future guides, but many are now tailored for

the general public as well as future guides. If you’ve been rafting with a

commercial company before, or with self-outfitted friends and would like to

try it on your own, consider signing up for a whitewater school. Here are a

few of our friends and associates that run whitewater schools:

Kern River Outfitters: www.kernrafting.com <http://www.kernrafting.com>

All-Outdoors: www.aorafting.com <http://www.aorafting.com>

ARTA river trips: www.arta.org <http://www.arta.org>

ECHO: www.echotrips.com <http://www.echotrips.com>

Zephyr: www.zrafting.com<http://www.zrafting.com>

A number of other companies run whitewater schools--you’ll want to be sure to ask

them how their school is structured, i.e, is it done primarily in paddle

boats or oar boats, or both? Is it done from a base camp, or is it

expedition style? Many companies will be happy to send you their

instructional outline or curriculum before you commit.

Just be careful. This rafting stuff is highly addictive. And the staff at

Clavey is ever so happy to feed and enable your addiction.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Trip Report and Boat Review

My daughter Raini and I led 7 hearty souls who braved the rain on Sunday for a trip to the marsh cabins on the Petaluma River. In a constant drizzle and rain, we paddled through the marsh and tidal sloughs to an old duck hunters cabin. The marsh is a fascinating place to explore, with signs of life everywhere. Route finding is very critical though, take a wrong turn and you'll find yourself in a dead end. And you've got to pay attention to the tide as it can leave you high and dry very quickly.

On this trip I decided to test paddle the Delta 15.5 After spending a couple of hours paddling, here is a brief sketch of my impressions: beautiful attention to detail--the hatches are easy to use, lift handles are comfortable. The seat was easy to adjust and comfortable. For a 15' kayak with rudder, the boat is light and the length makes it easy to carry over your shoulder. It does decent lean turns, and I never deployed the rudder. The cockpit is generously-sized, making it a good choice for folks who don't want a keyhole-style cockpit. The Delta 15.5 isn't the fastest boat on the water, it combines stability with reasonable responsiveness and great load carrying capability.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuolumne river days and nights: a night in the Log Jam

Some memorable times on the Tuolumne river--see the previous post to catch up on this story:

My early days on the "T", part two

Part 3 A night in the jam
The Rusty Sucker was back. But it barely made it through the logjam to hook up our train of rafts. The Sucker got about half way through the log jam before halting. From my perspective near the middle of the raft train, all I could see was Jethro and Ricky Bobby arguing, the iron rod alternating between clearing logs, pounding on the motor and being used in a threatening manner between the two “engineers”. It was getting late, and the dark clouds had made themselves at home right above our heads, with no breaks in the rain. Finally, the Sucker was restarted, but now it was clear it lacked the power to pull our rafts through the jam. It struggled to get itself out. And as it finally cleared the jam, I heard shouts of reassurance that they’d send help when they could.
Another hour passed, and I began to have thoughts that help might not come before darkness fell. The other outfitter, who had the writers with him was near the end of the jam. At some point he decided pull his boat out of the jam, row to shore and hike up the ridge and hitch back to the nearest town. As far as I could tell at the time most everyone else on the trip didn’t know this until seeing his boat tied up on the shore sometime later.
As the sun began to set that evening, a handful of cold wet bodies began to shiver in the impending darkness. Our lead guide made a decision at that point that our best option was to pull the boats to shore, through the jam as best we could and find a patch of rock to gather and build a fire. The logjam was deep with debris, and the lead guide, realizing that his lifevest might just prevent him from breaking through the jam took it off and jumped in with a bowline in his hand. He soon disappeared under a pile of debris, and a emerged a few yards from shore, bowline still in hand. Like a human Log Bronc, he pushed through and made it to shore. After securing the rope to a stout rock we all pulled like crazy to bring the rafts through to shore. Not wanting to risk spending any more time in the log jam than necessary, it was decided that an experienced guide would hike out to insure help would be on the way.

The river canyon here is steep, and mostly comprised of loose shale. As luck would have it though, there was a small semi-flat rock a short scramble from where we were on shore. A dozen wet shivering rafters crowded closely together on the rock. There was just enough room in the middle for a fire to warm and dry everyone. Firewood was scarce, but someone managed to located a good collection of brush dry enough to burn (the office received a phone a few days later from an unhappy client who had had an allergic reaction to smoke from what turned out to be a fire created from poison oak branches). But we didn’t know that at the time. It was warm and the rain had stopped.
Various stories were told, word games were played, some even tried to sleep. The stress of the situation brought one client to tears, it turns out he had terminal cancer and this was one of the adventures he wanted to do before dying. He confessed to being frightened of dying, saying over and over again “I don’t want to die”. As the night wore on we all became quiet.
I had lapsed into a light slumber when I heard it. It was a quiet night but far off I could hear the sound of a diesel engine rumbling. Others heard it too. Soon we could see two spotlights rocking back and forth in the distance. It was the Log Bronc rocking back and forth, clearing logs out of the way.
We loaded back into the rafts and through the logjam. Moving through total darkness, we motored on to take out at Wards Ferry. These days, most commercial companies on the Tuolumne use a winch rig at the take out to pull rafts out, saving the dangerous and very difficult chore of hauling gear up the steep trail to the road. Back in 1983, hardly anyone did including us.
I knew that the trail had a steep drop off of loose shale leading down into the reservoir. So I really wasn’t looking forward to humping rafts up that trail in the darkness. I was relieved when our lead guide decided that the boats would be fine tied up to the bank until the morning. We grabbed bags and oars and started the climb up to the road.
I had a duffel over each shoulder and three oars balanced in my arms and was nearing the top when I heard the screams. Shouts rang off the canyon walls and mixed with sounds of sliding shale splashing below. Someone had brought the van to the top of the trail and turned the headlights on. Unfortunately, the lights blinded a father and his son just as they had approached the narrowest portion of the trail. The son took a wrong step into the darkness and tumbled down the hill towards the water. His panicked father followed him. I dropped the bags and oars and ran up to the top of trail. A few guides from another company had arrived to help, and had quickly set up a belay line. A guide was already being lowered down to help. I joined the chain of human anchors as the kid was brought up first, followed by his father next. Luckily the most serious injuries were limited to scrapes and bruises.
Our lead guide packed up the clients and their bags and headed out. I joined the rest of the crew, loaded into the truck and drove off to the guide house to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

Dawn came in a few hours, and we headed back to take out. The boats were waiting there for us. One by one we hauled them up to our shoulders and trudged up and out of the canyon. The end of the trip had finally arrived. We were too exhausted to crack the traditional post trip beer. That and the fact that it was about 8 in the morning.
I would celebrate that evening though, as I would be rowing passengers on the next trip. I’d passed the training stage on my Tuolumne guiding career.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Clavey Half Box, Dry Box - Review

For most of my guiding career I rowed 18’ Avon Spirits with slant board frames. We would pile coolers and rocket boxes on the front deck and then cover them with a myriad of dry bags containing everything from cast iron fry pans to black bags full of melons. In the rowers compartment we would hang water jugs and propane tanks. The rear was loaded with so many black bags I could not see over my shoulder. Everything was tied down with 1⁄2” hoopie and once loaded resembled the family truck heading out of the dust bowl in the Grapes of Wrath.

When I came to Clavey 15 years ago, I learned of a whole new way to rig a raft (blog coming soon) that kept the load low, out of the way and did not rely on a spool of webbing to tie it down. My favorite piece of the “Clavey Rig” is the Half Box, dry box. Instead of hanging items from my frame like fuzzy dice from a rear view mirror I now have a Drop Deck with two of these sweet, watertight dry boxes – one on either side of my legs. These are rigged to the deck from the handles on the ends so I have quick and easy access while on the river.

If you boat with kids you know how often you have to be handing out food and the Half Box is the perfect place to stash your on-river snacks. It makes for a really clean set-up and they’re are worth every penny. Oh yeah – they also make great liquor cabinets (did I mention easy access?).

Our stock size is 20” L x 8” W x 14” D, but we can modify to your measurements.

By Tom Meckfessel