Nov 25, 2012

Packraft-astic Thanksgiving

What to do when one has four days off in a row? Well go adventuring of course!

As our days off got closer we searched across the state for the perfect trip. Would we ski into some huts at Willamette Pass? (no, not enough snow). Backpacking in the Pueblos? Any rivers flowing in Washington? Oregon? Finally after the state received a deluge of rain we noticed the North Fork of the John Day River had gone up enough for us to consider packrafting.
North Fork of the John Day River

Kirk and I had backpacked up the North Fork of the John Day over the 4th of July in 2011, and had oogled the packrafting potential of the river that runs 27.8 miles as a wild and scenic river, 10.5 miles as scenic, and 15.8 miles as recreational...which means 54.1 miles of river goodness! A trail runs alongside the wilderness section (of which we hiked last year) so we knew what we were in for. Traces of old mining camps along with active gold panning claims adds an excitement to the shiny glimmers in the sand, ther's gold in dem dar mountains!
Ooo, a nasty looking rapid just below the confluence with granite creek in the wilderness (summer 2011)

Packrafting this section in June-July is recommended!

We loaded the car after work on Wednesday, roasted a few turkey legs and packed some pie for our feast the next day. After a frosty night camped at the foothills of the Strawberry Mountains, we headed another 70 miles to our destination.

After turning off Hwy 395 at Dale, a gravel road goes about 16 miles upstream to the trailhead of the wilderness section. We had been able to drive up about 13 miles last summer before the road got too dicey for the car and disintegrated into a path where flood waters had washed away the rocky tread. This time we decided to park about 6 miles in and walk in the rest.
Kirk had to try hard not to fall over
I hide the pain of a full pack well

Yes, we brought lots of goodies to celebrate Thanksgiving in the woods, and yes, it is the end of November, so we had lots of warm clothes and layers, but GEEZ our packs were heavy. HEAVY. We were guessing 45-50 pounds each. As we labored under each step I marveled at how far I'd come in lightweight backpacking. On the Appalachian Trail back in 2002 I regularly carried a 45 pound pack. Over the 10 years I have modified, lightened and lost at least 25 of those pounds, which makes hiking 20-30 mile days cake in comparison. I had to keep reminding myself the wine, pie, turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and stuffing would be worth it. (Yes, yes it was!)
Yes, I had to prop up my pack with a pole. There's pie in there!

Our Thanksgiving day was sunny, cold and glorious. We only saw one other human, a stalwart with a mining claim along the road and exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before laboring further up the road.

We made camp that night at a vacant campground about 8 miles from the car. The water the whole day had been looking plenty floatable although we had another day of hiking before our boating began. The feast was laid before us and we indulged as we must on this day of days.

Friday began with an overcast sky. We hiked upstream with our still-monstrous packs until we reached the start of the trail...and the water started to look a little low for our boats. Wanting to continue until we found good camping, we bushwhacked off the trail just a mile later when we knew there would be no boating upstream of us, the water was just too low. So we hunkered down early in the afternoon, made a fire on the rocks, played cards and enjoyed our simple day.
I would not want to be around at flood stage!

Not long after drifting off to sleep we awoke to rain. Now, I know rain. Northwesterners are no strangers to rain. We were prepared, I had borrowed a pimp'n dry suit from the '80s from my friend Ted, we had warm clothes, our tent and tarp and rain clothes, but rain is still not so welcome on a cold November weekend.
I feel like a power ranger

Dodging drops in the morning, we inflated our boats. By the time we put on the water the sky had lightened up a bit, so when we started scraping bottom right off the bat, I was almost working up a sweat trying to navigate the shallow water and avoid rock traps. What we didn't know as we were hiking in was that the water was peaking on Thanksgiving day at about 400cfs. Ideal for packrafting. By the time we put on, the water had dropped to about 200cfs. Not ideal for packrafting.
And more floating

Oh, we got along alright. The first mile was the worst, taking about an hour to navigate, but I was proud of the fact that we didn't need to get out of our boats once, but more than once had to lift myself and my boat off a rock.

The rain started, we lunched under the protection of an outhouse before the cold seeping through my body prompted us to hit the river once again. We had orginally been planning on camping about half way from our Friday night camp and the car, but the chill running through my body and the continuous rain made camping at the car sound so much more delightful. Warm clothes, a dry shelter and beer awaited us there, so we continued on.

The floating got better as we went on, but some sections remained plain hairy. The hours got longer and by the time we reached the car just before sunset, realized we had come 12 river miles that day, quite a feat for such low water.

Then Kirk had to go mention that we could conceivably drive home that night. Although we both like to think of ourselves as sturdy outdoors people, not afraid of being cold and wet, when I have a choice I will take comfort!  So we belted our PBR, piled in the car and set off.

Now while I like a little suffering now and again, Fall and Winter packrafting takes floating to another level. The added gear and cold factors do not dissuade me from the sport, but it wouldn't be wrong to say I would prefer to ski!

There is just enough snow on our mountains to start venturing out. Maybe we can start experimenting with a ski/packraft trip????

Oct 8, 2012

Upstate New York

I spent the last week with an amazing friend backpacking around the Adirondacks in upstate New York. We met on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, and have been meeting up for adventures ever since. Nemo (trail name in the backpacking world - mine is She-ra) is homesteading on a little organic farm and was able to introduce me to four high peaks during our hike.

She-ra & Nemo on the summit of Cliff Mountain
I must say, the hiking is some of the hardest I have ever done, and that includes the over 6,000 long distance trail miles I rivals the hardest sections of the Appalachian Trail!

Oh yes, that is a trail in there somewhere.
While I used to spend most of my time in the back country thinking about trails, I spent a lot of time looking at all the waterways and evaluating them for packrafting opportunities. 

Water levels were a bit low since it was fall, the granite created some fascinating flumes, falls and come spring, raging waters will turn many of these rivers and creeks into some extreme boating!

I'm gonna bring Kirk and our boats out here next time to play in the water.

Has anyone out there been packrafting in the Adirondacks?

Sep 19, 2012

Salmon on the Salmon

A weekend wedding of a great thru-hiker friend took us to Welches, Oregon. Scott and his crew are a big contingent of the folks that like to paddle their boats underwater. As squirt boaters, they have a fascinating way of experiencing the river. Yet another reminder of how multifaceted the boating community is. While interested in packrafts, the squirt boaters would have a hard time doing mystery moves in my Llama!

The wedding provided a chance to catch up with some of some good friends I haven't seen in awhile; after the wedding, bike parade, and celebrating, we headed for the Salmon River.

With headwaters draining from the Palmer Glacier on Mt. Hood's south side, our cfs were pretty low - Fall is right around the corner. We drove to the upper bridge and packed up our boats for a hike upstream.

I use a Fanatic Fringe pack, perfect for day packing and with no frame, the 11oz bag just stuffs into a dry bag.
Kirk just strapped the boat to his back for the hike in...

Ooo, the water looked low, but my eye spied spots where we might be able to sneak through, well worth trying it out!

We only made it a little over a mile due to the cliffs that start upstream of where we put is apparently a dazzling gorge with waterfalls...something Kirk has run at higher water, and not somewhere I am likely to ever find myself!

As we were blowing up our boats, Kirk was the first one to notice the salmon. Fins were circling in a deep pool on the far side of the river and soon we noticed about 10 - 15 were splashing and swimming about. SWEET. I had never seen salmon heading to their spawning grounds before and was thrilled to see the massive fish so far upstream.

If I could take a clear picture, you would see big fish.
With the 80 foot waterfall not far upstream, we must have been close to the birthplace of all these big beauties. We put on the water and from there had a slow progression of dodging rocks and getting stuck. Ok, so maybe there wasn't enough water afterall... I portaged a good bit, Kirk made it through a few times by choosing the right channel, but overall we could have used a little more water.

Regardless, the area is beautiful and the fish continued to swim past us and at one point I had to scream as two salmon surprised me by splashing out of the water a few inches from my paddle. Did I say AWESOME?!?!

We got out of the river at the bridge despite the fact that we stashed a bike a few miles downriver. Our progress was slow and thought we'd save the bottom of our boats and leave the salmon to their journey.

Sep 10, 2012

Outfitting the boats

Since getting our packrafts this spring, we have slowly been outfitting our boats with extra tie-down points and most recently, gluing on d-rings to install thigh straps in my boat.

The thigh straps will not only making carrying a fully loaded boat easier, but also will help become more in-tune with the water so I can to move around rivers and rapids with much more control.

So...the steps for installing a d-ring, tie-down or patch...

First we measured where the d-rings would go...

and traced the outline where the four d-rings on the boat will go.

Then we found the right angle for the rings so that the thigh strap would lay flat against my leg.

Next using a fine-grained sandpaper, I roughed up the area inside the circle,

and also the bottom of the d-ring.

Using M.E.K., I applied three very thin coats to the inside of my circles.

And the bottom of the d-ring, making sure each coat dried **it is important to not get too much M.E.K. on your boat, it will eat away at it if you are not careful! (i know because I've done it)

Then Kirk mixed the activator for the Staybond glue

and painted three very thin coats on the d-rings and the boat, making sure each coat dried fully.

We had to turn my boat inside out to get the front circles painted with glue.

The last step is using a hairdryer to heat the d-ring and boat for about 30 seconds, and then slowly applying the d-ring while smoothing it as you go so that there are no air pockets.

And voila, done!

Sep 5, 2012

Grande Ronde River

We have only been back from the Grande Ronde for less than 48 hours, but it already feels like an eternity ago! Such is life.

We knew the approaching three-day Labor Day weekend would present an opportunity to explore a river farther away from home, but little did I realize we would choose one that would add up to 14 hours of driving. Whew, long hours in the car, but at least we had spectacular scenery and many podcasts to keep our brains busy.

It wasn't until Friday morning (the day we wanted to leave) that we thought about checking into the Grande Ronde River in the North East corner of Oregon. We had been up that way and boated the upper stretch of the Minam River in June (the Minam joins the Wallowa River and then downstream joins the Grande Ronde River).

I called Grant Ritchie of Minam Raft Rentals to get his take on packrafting options in the area, and he suggested boating the 39 miles from his store at the confluence of the Minam River and Wallowa River, down to Wildcat bridge. Most of the river is along a road-less stretch, and at 550cfs, the river would be just right for packrafts.

We decided the trip would be just boating, no hiking, and set up a shuttle with Grant. We jumped in the car after work and drove the six hours to the put-in. In daylight the next morning, the river looked scarcely boatable. Wide sections of the river-bed spread out what little water there was into a very thin sheet of current over the rocks. We met some rafters at the put-in, and I seriously doubted their ability to travel down the river (in reality they did fine, although jumping out to pull the raft was a common occurrence).

Mountain Goats!

What followed was a very mellow river run, a few instances of running the boats aground in shallow areas, and a very serene few days. Camps, while not super plentiful, always appeared when we needed them.
This was the most "packing" we did all trip: from camp to the river, oh about 30 feet!

We must return to boat from Wildcat Bridge to the Snake River. Eastern Oregon is a pretty wild and wide place with much to explore!
Some lady Big Horned Sheep met us on the way out of the river.

Aug 20, 2012

Upper Middle Fork of the Willamette

Another gorgeous weekend on the water...
Mmmmm, packrafting!

On a beautiful day
Two weeks ago we camped on the Middle Fork of the Willamette and made a mental note to come back with packrafts. Our water adventures have been on hold for a few weeks to let Kirk's arm heal (a nasty slice on a piece of metal from work that could have used stitches, but he decided to tough it out instead).

As we drove over Willamette Pass from Bend the skies opened up and dumped rain, but in an unlikely weather flip-flop, the skies were blue over the Middle Fork of the Willamette Valley. (most of the time the West side of the Cascade Mountains is rainy, and the East side is dry, not this weekend!).

We drove up the Middle Fork Valley  past Hills Creek Reservoir to the point where the river becomes lake and dropped off my bike so I could bike the shuttle up to the car after we finished on Sunday. After diving up ten miles, Kirk said he did not want to go up further then ten miles on a river he had not boated, had no information about anyone ever boating it, was hidden from the road and may be full of logs and lengthy portages so we parked the car and prepared for our overnight on the water. As we were in the process of unpacking, a caravan of fire vehicles and trucks sped past us and up the dirt mountain road. Interesting as we hadn't seen any smoke or fire, but there had been lightening in the area the night before, so we assumed a small fire may have been in the vicinity.

The water levels were low. Much lower and the river probably wouldn't have been float-able, but we were able to glide along for the most part, bumping and scraping in a few areas here and there. There were a number of logs in the river within in the first few miles: we had about five portages that first day, but with the nimbleness of a six-pound boat and lightweight gear, the portages were cake.
Break on the rocks

There were lots of fun little rock slides to bump down

Kirk enjoying his float

Clear water, only a few fishermen and a hot summer afternoon made for a glorious day...until...
Fire on the mountain!

We were scouting around for a good place to camp in the late afternoon when Kirk noticed the fire. Smoke was billowing up from the top of a ridge-line. We had been hearing and seeing helicopters with their water buckets all afternoon, but this was the first time we had seen any evidence of a fire, and all of a sudden the air took on that hazy look of a forest fire.

"Isn't that the ridge right by where my car is parked?" I asked.
"Yeah, it is," said Kirk.

With visions of my car becoming a charred blob, I decided to head to the road and walk the five miles back to where the car was parked and drive it down the river valley, just as a precaution. I know how fast these fires can spread and for all we knew the road was closed or we were in danger.

We floated to a bridge that was half-way along our trip and I scrambled up the bank to walk the pavement to the car. I was in such a hurry that I didn't even take water or ID or anything. About a mile up a cop from Oakridge stopped to ask if I was ok, it being unusual to see anyone walking along the road, and he gave me a ride to my car. He didn't seem to think there was any imminent danger, and was out to check on the status of the fire. Lightening from the night before had set off seven fires in the area. I still wanted to move my car as it was on the access road to the drove it up and parked near where I had gotten out. Mind at rest.

We soon made camp on a rocky bank and enjoyed a rich deep pink sunset courtesy of the fires.

Sunday morning we thought the four or so miles to the end would go quickly, but again, we had a number of log jams to navigate around.  In one spot the jams in the main channel seemed to be one after another for a good half mile with no easy way to portage, so we took a side trip down a beautiful little channel that was well worth the diversion. Eventually it returned back to the main channel right below the last set of logs we needed to portage.
Portage fest

Hmmm, where does this go?

Ancient trees clogged the waterway

Lots of little rock ledges to boat down, deep clear pools where we could see HUGE fish and an Osprey fishing were some memorable moments from the morning's journey. As we approached the reservoir, the wind picked up and we had a good half-mile paddle-fest directly into the wind in order to get to the boat launch where I stashed my bike.
Hills Creek Reservoir

All in all, a wonderful adventurous weekend. The whole stretch was along a paved road (although you cannot see the river), there was a popular trail on the otherside, lots of established and free car camping, but the river seemed remote all the same. Very nice suprise! We had maybe 10-15 portages and they were all super easy at low water (250ish cfs). Higher water may be a problem as the spring melt (up to 6-8,000 cfs) usually doesn't get big enough to clean these big boys out of the river corridor and at moderate flows (1500-3000cfs) the portages could be quite grueling.
Being the only people on many of the waterways we have been packrafting truly makes for a solitary and deeply peaceful journey. I am so addicted.