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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Road Tripping, New Zealand

Looking back at Lake Hawea, New Zealand, Chris Baer
Looking back at Lake Hawea

Kayakers are meant to road trip! Local rivers only hold interest for so long; when attention wanes, it’s time to explore. Traveling brings me so much joy, wild landscapes, new paddlers, local beta, reuniting with old friends, crashing at random campgrounds and couches – all culminating in paddling new rivers. Traveling is what kayakers are supposed to do!

the densely forested New Zealand coast line looking out onto the Tasman Sea, Chris Baer
the densely forested New Zealand coast line looking out onto the Tasman Sea

endless beaches on the West Coast of the South Island



looking into the depths Of Nevis Bluff

When searching for whitewater, gradient is usually the first major ingredient on the list. Amazingly, the Kawarau River Valley is relatively flat. Long sections flow with huge volume almost unfazed by massive cliff walls on either side. Thankfully, on a few occasions, rock formations and gradient come together to create immense rapids. Probably most noteworthy is Nevis Bluff, a rapid which upon inspection at 280+ cumecs ≈ 10,000 cfs, looks terrifying at best. Scouting from 300 ft above definitely squishes scale, but what I saw looked like huge laterals feeding into river wide frowning holes with boils reaching thirty feet downstream ripping back into the troughs.

yet another multi tired stack of boats heading to the put in

Thankfully, Ben Young and James Webster quickly arrived and hinted to move down stream towards the Citroen Rapid. Citroen gets paddled at higher flows than Nevis but still looked like solid class 5 upon first sight. The saving grace was that none of the major features looked terminal, the only major concern was a violent revolving eddy on the left side directly across from a main center pour-over. We took turns paddling the rapid. Only a few expectations were achieved, every paddler was clobbered with huge laterals and blown way offline.



Gorgeous scenery on the Taipo, New Zealand, Chris Baer
Gorgeous scenery on the Taipo

Kerry Hoglund, in the canyon section, New Zealand, Chris Baer, Taipo
Kerry Hoglund, in the canyon section
Chris Baer, making his way down stream on the Taipo, New Zealand, kayaking
Chris Baer, making his way down stream on the Taipo
Gorgeous scenery and classic class 4 fun. This section would get paddled regularly if it had road access; unfortunately, it's a 23 km helicopter flight to the put in ($180 – save your money!
The rapids are good, and the scenery is solid but with so many amazing options in New Zealand this ought to be left on the back burner.

flying up the Taipo, helicopter, river, New Zealand, Chris Baer
flying up the Taipo

Maruia Falls 


Jeff Colgrove dialing the sub 20 line, chris Baer, New Zealand, Maruia Falls, kayaker
Jeff Colgrove dialing the sub 20 line
Maruia from the awkward right hand scout, NZ, New Zealand, Chris Baer, waterfall,
Maruia from the awkward right hand scout
A defining park and huck; park the van, pull the boats off the roof, step over the guardrail, walk thirty feet to the river’s edge, and four strokes later you’re free falling twenty plus feet. Located just outside the whitewater rafting hub of Murchison, these picturesque falls allows locals and travelers a great case study on waterfall boating. The lip is scouted from river right and has a tendency to conceal the lead into the falls. I highly suggest looking at the easy but deceptive lead in from a couple angles. The average hucker gets in their boat all fired up and turns down stream only to ask, “Where is the line?” The other piece of useful beta, unless you are under twenty years old - get your nose down. The landing zone is a large boil, and it hits hard. Ibuprofen and a beer is a solid antidote for a long day at Maruia falls.

adventure brought to you by Chris Baer

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiordland, paddling Shangri-La, or Death by Sandflies?

Gonzo spotting his next line on the Hollyford River, NZ, Chris Baer
Gonzo spotting his next line on the Hollyford River, NZ
The clouds were low and thick, producing just enough drizzle to keep the constant screeching of the windshield wipers going. It was becoming harder and harder to keep up with the topography. Pulling the van over, I came to understand it wasn't the surrounding clouds that were creating the precipitation; rather the adjacent clouds were formed from precipitation at a significantly elevated atmosphere. It was snowing thousands of feet above, and most of the precipitation had already made earthly impact once. The rock structure surrounding my current location was numbingly tall and just shy of vertical. The precipitation that had landed thousands of feet above was now melting and conjoining into ribbons, veins of water, and recommencing its cascade from the heavens, into my present location.

The valley is bizarre. Dense, dark green vegetation, the kind often found in the Pacific Northwest. The walls are too steep, steeper than any Colorado canyon, steeper than physics would seem to allow. It feels claustrophobic, as if in a major city; the massive vertical rock nearly omits the sky. The rock is a dull grey, splashed with vibrant mossy green, and overlaid with countless streaks of cascading white water. The peaks above glisten in a fresh coat of brilliant white snow.

the nearly extinct Kea, these birds are very intelligent, and have a fondness for eating windshield whipper blades, door trim and kayak back bands?

Arriving in the "city" of Milford, I was immediately dispirited. The scenery was gorgeous but the immediate surroundings took on a theme park feel. There was no town, not a single grocery store, or post office, even the petrol station was unmanned, everything in the valley seemed fabricated for a quick tourist in and out visit. There were ‘no camping’ signs everywhere, and I quickly faltered at the thought that my Milford experience would equate to another tourist obtaining a handful of photos.

looking out onto Milford Sound, NZ, new Zealand, whereisbaer,
looking out onto Milford Sound

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted something brightly colored and out of place: three creek boats strapped to the top of a tiny hatchback. These were my kind of people; these weren't tourists, but people on a mission, a kayaking mission! I tried to contain my excitement as I walked in their direction, and as I approached I received the classic smile and head nod. Five minutes later Oscar Gonzales (Gonzo) was in my van, we were chasing Ben Young and Jimmy Wright over the pass towards the Hollyford River.

WHITE! Water

Gonzo making a tight pinch look good, hollyford river, NZ, new zealand, fiord land chris baer,
Gonzo making a tight pinch look good

The Hollyford River is jam packed with whitewater. It flows true white for kilometers at a time, through tight slots, and over off-angle ledges, occasionally piling into steep hydraulics. The Marian section of the Hollyford River is the crème. That single section holds more off angle features then I have ever seen on any river. It is begging to be paddled… and paddled well! Falling off any of the features early, or not making a slot, forces paddlers into powerful hydraulics and the invariable sieve laden eddy. Hazards included, the Marian creek section is my New Zealand favorite.

the take out for Moraine section of the Hollyford, sun set, new zealand, NZ, chris baer
the take out for Moraine section of the Hollyford

 Staying in Milford

There aren’t many good overnight options in Milford. It's either an expensive hotel, or a very discreet parking spot. Luckily Gonzo, Ben, and Jimmy invited me back to the "Paddle on Inn,” their (sea kayak guide) employee housing. Evenings were shared laughing with new friends, and enjoying the beauty of Milford Sound. The valley truly shines in the evenings; 99% of the tourists leave in the early afternoon, allowing Milford to settle into its surreal quietness. Sleeping in the parking lot of an adventure tourism business felt right at home.

 Sandfly mania!

The Arthur River is directly across the bay from the "Paddle on Inn". Unfortunately the Arthur is due for a case of Didymo. The amount of visitors to the river is on the rise, and the fact that you must paddle across Deep Water Basin (which is partially fed by the Cleddau River, and already infected with didymo) means every paddler needs to re-clean their gear upon arrival to the Arthur Track. This is compounded by the fact that there are millions of swarming sandflies in the area as well. Wiping down my kayak with a soapy sponge the flies begin to gather on the suds. Swatting the sand flies is futile; every swipe kills a few dozen but attracts another million.

Gonzo, escaping from the sand flies and taking in the view from Lake Ada, whereisbaer, NZ, Arthur track
Gonzo, escaping from the sandflies and taking in the view from Lake Ada

Intensifying the sandflies torment is an hour long hike up the Milford Track to Lake Ada, the put in. Thankfully I brought my pool noodle backpack system, which leaves my hands free to remove the random flies that decide to blitz into my eyes and nose. Upon arriving at Lake Ada, I took a couple of minutes to put on my dry top, skirt, and SANDFLIES! Quickly slipping into the rest of the gear I hopped in my boat and headed out to the center of the lake. A few quick strokes and my jaw dropped. I knew the area that we were hiking into had amazing geology, but it wasn't until exiting the surrounding forest that I was able to understand the magnitude of the scene.

Gonzo looking and feeling small in the Arthur River Valley, NZ, whereisbaer
Gonzo looking and feeling small in the Arthur River Valley

Utterly stunning! We were surrounded by thousand foot waterfalls cascading towards the lake that Gonzo and I were floating on. My smile was huge regardless of the sand flies... I certainly did not notice them. I looked like a child seeing snow for the first time, my face a mixture of amazement and a bit of disbelief.

it's hard to look at your line when you have scenery like this, Gonzo, Arthur river, nz, chris baer
it's hard to look at your line when you have scenery like this

Once again, although unfortunately infrequent, it was a true pleasure to paddle out of a lake (not a reservoir) into a free flowing river. The water leaks from Lake Ada into a handful of different channels that combine to create the Arthur River. The white water is high quality, and as we paddled through some of the bigger rapids I felt slightly annoyed that I couldn't stare up at the surrounding scenery. The style of the whitewater is hard to pin point. Most of the rapids were caused by a large earthquake and the subsequent landslides. The entrance to both of the major rapids are cluttered with boulders backing up the water, creating Lake Ada at the top, and a decent piece of slack water before the second major rapid. The entrances to both of these rapids are tight and technical, passing by a couple of large boulders you can feel the volume multiplying as the cluttered landslide riverbed gives way to big volume features. While scouting these rapids, try to keep in mind the fact that it is big, and you probably are not going to scout the entire tail waters. A run and gun approach works well, boof any big water feature that is in front of you.

Gonzo reaching for a boof on the second major rapid of the Arthur River, NZ, whereisbaer
Gonzo reaching for a boof on the second major rapid of the Arthur River, NZ

The Future of paddling in Fiordland 

Milford Sound is proof that the region and geology create great whitewater. The other bays of Fiordland deserve quality inspection. Logistics will be nightmarish, boats, helicopters, and long hikes. Not to mention half the crew may come back mentally insane from the constant bombardment of sand flies.

adventure by Chris Baer

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hiking in sucks! How to build a kayak backpack system and a couple of fun New Zealand rivers.

stunning Westport beach sunset, NZ, chris baer,
stunning Westport beach sunset

Paddling in remote locations is immensely rewarding. But, to do so without paying for a helicopter usually means super long shuttle drives or… hiking. The physical act of hiking with a boat sucks. Shoulders go numb, sides chafe, and its just plain awkward.

Chris Tulley's van making the first pitch of the journey into the crooked

There are a few things to think about before the hike: How much does your boat weigh? Are there any optional items that you can remove from your craft? Can you spread out the essentials: breakdown paddle, med kit, pin kit. What about interference; is your hike in snow, mud, on a steep side hill or does it have overhanging vegetation? The simplest option is the classic shoulder carry, but sometimes you can benefit from a quick and easy backpack system.

New Zealand beaches drift wood and a staggering forest , chris baer
New Zealand beaches drift wood and a staggering forest

The few backpack systems on the market that I've tried (NRS Sherpa and Salamander Bak Yak) have all failed. The production packs all score high on initial comfort but fail in longevity, hefty weight, and dizzying complexity.


How to build your own kayak backpack


10ft cam strap
pool noodle
sharp knife
duct tape

the basics, pretty light and as simple as it gets, Chris Baer, kayak back pack
the basics, pretty light and as simple as it gets



Putting the backpack together is rather simple, but there are a few tricks to making the system fit well and hold up for the long hikes.

1. There is enough foam in one pool noodle to make two systems, so cut the original pool noodle into four equal parts.

2. Wrap the ends of the pool noodle in duct tape loosely. You don't need a ton of tape, just a wrap or two, as this helps keep the pool noodle from being pinched and cut by the cam strap.

notice the duct tape is tight making the hole compress and actually forcing the strap to start cutting the noodle
 notice the duct tape is tight making the hole compress and actually forcing the strap to start cutting the noodle

looser duct tape and a better finish
looser duct tape and a better finish

3. Slide one of the pool noodle sections onto the cam strap and lace the other end under the rear of the seat.

this takes a bit of wiggling, make sure it is supported by the plastic not the rear foam pillar
this takes a bit of wiggling, make sure it is supported by the plastic of the seat not the rear foam pillar

4. Slip the other section of pool noodle on the cam strap and weave the remaining cam strap through the two stern handles directly behind the seat.

laced up and looking for a walk
laced up and looking for a walk

the carabiner in the middle is essential for a comfortable pack, chris baer, kayak back pack home made how to
the carabiner in the middle is essential for a comfortable pack

5. To get into and adjust the system, stand the kayak up vertically against something stable and take a knee. Before cranking down on the cam strap use a carabiner to attach the two shoulder straps in front of you (this really eases the stress on the shoulders).

No, this system is not perfect, and having a waist belt would seriously help to disperse the load and alleviate some shifting. But, I find the simplicity, lightness, and ease of use literally outweigh any of the other systems on the market.

tight landing zones on the Kakapotahi, NZ, new zealand, Chris Baer
tight landing zones on the Kakapotahi

this is the first slot, of the Upper Kakapotahi and there is a six foot ledge to get you here

The Upper Kakapotahi,

has turned into my staple after-work run. It only takes a little rain for the water levels to come up into run-ability and the shuttle is only about a mile, making the backpack system not necessary, but a great place to test it.

clench those cheeks the landing zone is narrow, upper kakopatahi river NZ, new zealand, chris baer
clench those cheeks the landing zone is narrow
Kerry Hoglund enjoying the upper Kakers, Chris Baer, NZ,
Kerry Hoglund enjoying the upper Kakers

The run consists of seven fun rapids and after some probing they all are acceptable at most flows. The rapids have one consistent attribute, the lines are TIGHT! Whether it's boofing into a narrow landing zone, or unique laterals that flow directly into a confined triangular rock cave, all the lines are more than snug.

Kerry Hoglund zipping out of the triangular sieve, cave, fun line, upper kakapotahi Nz, Chris Baer kayak
Kerry Hoglund zipping out of the triangular sieve, cave, fun line
be patient on the hike in you never know what you might spot, I wonder what this one does, Chris Baer, kayak NZ, blue mushroom
be patient on the hike in you never know what you might spot, I wonder what this one does


 Crooked River,

The long muddy hike into the Crooked was what I originally built the backpack for and it turns out the hike in is far from backpack friendly. There is a ton of overhanging vegetation and the steep terrain covered in mud means having a 50 pound oblong backpack on is sketchy at best. The trusty shoulder was more well suited for the almost two hour hike in.

starting into the Crooked River, NZ west coast, hike in, Chris Baer
starting into the Crooked River

Once on water the action starts quickly and after a couple of fun ledges the crux of the run is reached. Bent and Twisted is a fun two-piece rapid that starts with a Raven Fork-esque twisty lead in where all the water smashes into an overhanging left wall. Thankfully a small, but well placed, eddy splits the rapid up and allows a quick breath and reset before paddling into the stacked second pitch. From there down, the rapids ease in difficulty and risk, and allow paddlers to boat scout well.

a couple seals near Westport, NZ, west coast, chris baer
a couple of seals near Westport

Upon reaching the take out I had a solid reflection, no I didn't like the two hour hike and yes the river and location was worth the sore shoulder!

adventure brought to you by Chris Baer

Monday, January 6, 2014

Helicopter shuttles are complicated, Upper Perth, New Zealand

Thump thump thump

the approaching helicopter made its notable entrance, arcing through the amazing New Zealand backdrop of dense jungle and snow-caped peaks.

Sophia Mulder, with a solid boof to finish a rather sieve infested rapid, chris Baer,, NZ, New Zealand, Upper Perth
Sophia Mulder, with a solid boof to finish a rather sieve infested rapid

Helicopter shuttles are way more challenging than I would have imagined. Each helicopter has its own load capacity, think about it like running shuttle with either a Geo Metro, a single cab pickup, or a minivan; all of the vehicles can make the shuttle happen but they all have wildly different limitations. The helicopter we had at our disposal was a McDonnell Douglas 500 D, it seats 5 including the pilot, and has a payload of roughly 1,500 pounds. To get boats and other necessary gear to the top, a sling (glorified cargo net) is used. Packing the gear into the sling is a bit of an art form. The theory is to load the gear in a tight aerodynamic shape and weave the net snugly to minimize wind drag and the chance of the entire payload spinning below the helicopter.

wrangling the massive sling load, notice the snow caped peaks, and the jet fuel tanker in the back ground, NZ, new zealand, chris baer,
wrangling the massive sling load, notice the snow capped peaks, and the jet fuel tanker in the back ground
the gorgeous, glacial, Perth valley, new zealand, NZ, chris baer,
the gorgeous, glacial, Perth valley
On our Perth shuttle Mark and I drew the short straws and rode up with the sling load. Checking the numbers a second time makes me a little nervous. We had ten kayaks 500+ pounds, Mark the pilot and I another 500+ pounds. Obviously helicopters run on fuel, hopefully the fuel gauge was no where near full as it can hold up to 400 pounds of jet fuel. We then added overnight gear, paddles, helmets, life jackets, cameras, and beer. Totaling up the gear, fuel and us the payload was quickly reaching our 1,500 pound weight limit. Looking out of the bubbled helicopter windows, towards the massive sling load, a red sign caught my eye. The sign stated something about being extremely flammable and was attached to a large shiny tanker truck that was containing jet fuel. This massive potential energy source was just underneath the circumference of the main rotor, and was easily within swinging distance of the overburdened sling. As the helicopter slowly gained elevation I released a clenched breath.

Phil Palzer, on day one, upper perth NZ, new zeland, chris baer,
Phil Palzer, on day one
The wind was gusting, the sling load was swaying, and we were undulating, bouncing, and oscillating our way up the Perth Valley. The helicopter pilot controls the rear rotor with two opposing foot pedals, his movements were almost mesmerizing as he tap danced the helicopter up the canyon. As we rose over a steep ridge, a blast of wind slammed the machine and it swung 50 feet off course and swayed 30° off vertical. The pilot looked over his shoulder towards me "IT'S PRETTY WINDY UP HERE!" I put on my helmet.

the crew prepping to put in, NZ, upper perth, new zeland, Chris Baer,
the crew prepping to put in
The Upper Perth is a true classic and has three distinctly different sections. The first pitch allows no warm up and the rapids are formidable with lots of missing water (siphons) and arduous scouting. Thankfully the crew was on point and were quick to be out of their boats, scouting, setting safety, and collecting media. The few truly ugly rapids offered relatively quick portages and allowed the group to make steady downstream progress.

Mark Basso, enjoying the emerald blue water, upper, perth, nz, new zeland, Chris Baer,
Mark Basso, enjoying the emerald blue water
Of the eight paddlers (Jess Matheson, Rata Lovell-Smith, Phil Palzer, Sophia Mulder, Daan Jimmink, Dag Sandvik, Mark Basso, and myself) that flew to the upper put in, three were ladies, a relatively high percentage for class 5 creeking. Paddling with ladies always has a slightly different feel. The male machismo disappears and everyone seems to smile more. "It's simple, we're all here to share a beautiful experience." Paddle twirls, high fives, and giggles ensued.

Jess Matheson, leading a charge of ladies, Chris Baer, NZ, new Zealand, Perth river,
Jess Matheson, leading a charge of ladies
The first day of whitewater came to a quick culmination as we reached a large tributary and the Department of Conservation cabin that we would call home for the evening. New Zealand has numerous remote cabins strewn throughout the back-country that are maintained by the Department of Conservation. These cabins are set up with bunks and a wood burning stove. They allow long distance hikers, hunters, and kayakers to stay deep in the bush without the need of tents, sleeping pads, and most cooking equipment.

The evening allowed everyone time to share stories, jokes, and dinner.

breakfast time in the DOC hut, department of concervation, hut, perth, NZ, New Zealand,
breakfast time in the DOC hut
The morning sun reignited the crew's energy, and the cabin was quickly buzzing with kayakers gathering gear, drinking coffee and making breakfast.

another complicated, multiple route rapid on the Upper Perth, NZ, new zealand, Chris baer, perth
another complicated, multiple route rapid on the Upper Perth
The rapids on the second day started in the same style as the first. Hard lines and a multitude of options awaited at every horizon line. The difficulty continued through lunch time and then quickly the gradient dissipated and the rapids waned to big boulder class 3.

Daan Jimmink, putting together an acceptable line in the sieve laden Upper Perth, NZ, new Zeland, Chris Baer,
Daan Jimmink, putting together an acceptable line in the sieve laden Upper Perth
A few kilometers of cruising brought us to a distinctively different section. Tall striated granite walls splashed with vibrant green moss concealed the sun and revealed emerald blue water. The air temperature dropped and the horizon lines started to look imposing. Awkward scouting was possible at most of the rapids and our crew made quick work of the eerily beautiful canyon.

Dag Sandvik, checking out the peaks, or maybe getting some wheelie action? Upper Perth, NZ, new zeland, chris baer,
Dag Sandvik, checking out the peaks, or maybe getting some wheelie action?
The third different section of the trip is due to a massive convergence. The Perth and Whataroa combine and keep the Whataroa name; the run changes to big volume wave trains for an hour back to the helipad. This last pitch was enjoyed during a torrential downpour. Salutations at the take out were brisk due to the precipitation; but the entire crew knew that the driving rain meant our new-found friends would reunite soon to romp in our liquid playground.

adventure brought to you by Chris Baer