Friday, December 6, 2019

Exploration via Kayak: The Why, Where, and What’s Next?


Kayaking has a myriad of peculiar niche groups under its umbrella. Some paddlers are devoted to the freestyle aspect; from getting vertical on the Green to looping at the local park-and-play spot. Others have a need for speed; maybe racing the North Fork of the Payette, ducking gates in a manmade slalom course or trying to do the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in a day. Some push the difficulty spectrum such as with Grand Inga or Palouse Falls, making your local Class 5 seem like a kiddy pool. Others have found their niche in exploratory boating.

The whitewater kayaking community, as we know it, is still relatively young. Most of the people that pioneered your favorite local river are still alive today. Paddling all over the country and globe, I have had the opportunity to meet and chat with many of these pioneering paddlers. As an avid expedition paddler my conversations quickly turn to sharing epic tales, and aspirations for what is next.

In this article I have reached out to a variety of folks that have inspired me to explore. The questions are simple, yet every paddler returned with wildly different responses. Except for one… the map!

 

 

Why explore, why leave your comfort zone?

First off, “comfort zone” might not be the best wording,

“Comfort zone means so many different things. To some it’s working 80 hours a week on a drill rig.”
Ben Stookesberry.

Ok Ben, we get it. Everyone I reached out to in this article would be considered crazy by many. Many on this list would also consider working 40-80 hours a week and spending few moments outside crazy. Neither is correct, and we all pick and choose our priorities wildly differently. So, maybe a better phrasing is, where does that push, that drive to explore come from? More than a few paddlers seem to think it’s embedded in their psyche, something they were born with or drawn to naturally.

“As far as exploring, I think it’s a natural reaction to want to explore, and some of us have a desire to get out and see even more. Seeing rare earth and whitewater is amazing and putting together a trip successful or not is one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever had. It’s pure love. And being able to share that with friends is what it’s all about. Most people don’t quite get it and I usually don’t even try to explain, but those who know, know.”
Thomas Herring

I explore because the desire to find the next challenge is always there. There are always new places to discover and the thrill of the unknown creates a sense of adventure that is an unmatched feeling for me while paddling. Kayaking is a sport that can encompass so many things that can be enjoyed in such a variety of ways. 30 years after I started, I am still fueled by the drive to try something new and difficult, whether it is a new river or a new line on a rapid I have run countless times.”
Bobby Miller

“The whitewater kayak is this tremendous opportunity to go places that you wouldn’t or couldn’t go for any other reason or by any other means. It is a hypothetical ticket to the ubiquity that rivers represent on this planet. And so to relegate ourselves to only the well known rivers where the experiences are mostly prescribed is to miss out on the pinnacle opportunity that is facing the unknown.”
Ben Stookesberry

“Exploration is just a physical response to curiosity. It is really no different than wanting to try something new on a restaurant menu, or rather than just wondering why the sky is blue, taking the time and effort to research it. In my case, the object of curiosity is geography, and more particularly rivers. I have always been drawn to waterbodies and the desire to be by them or on them, and for rivers, to follow them. In short, I just want to personally see what is there.”
Ed Gertler

“In the ‘70s I was in Big Bend, TX, and it’s just beautiful. It was my first time seeing whitewater, and I had the quick realization I could explore via the river.”
Eric Lindberg

Is this drive to peer around the bend natural? Or is it simply the means that allows us to spend an extended period of time in remote places we find beautiful? Yet others talk about the desire to problem solve. Expedition paddlers typically spend countless hours looking at maps, setting up travel logistics, and scouting rapids. Is this what we find so enjoyable?

“Exploration by kayak has got to be my favorite aspect of the sport. A kayak on a river makes huge landscapes so accessible in a way that no other mode of transport does. You can live out of it for days, even weeks at a time. On many a good river the flow will carry you through the landscape without much effort. Having a guide is nice for expediency, but I love the feeling of solving each bend in a river with a group that is all new to a place. There's nothing quite like it. Maybe it's one incredible image that will draw me to a place, but it's all the rapids that aren't in the image, all the incredible views of the looming mountains framed by the canyon, the animals whose paths you invariably cross that make up a true experience of exploration.”
Evan Stafford

“The drive to explore via my kayak comes from the fantasy of being in a place where very few have probably ever been. It’s pretty thrilling to be in an untouched area when you know how busy the rat race is outside of those canyon walls. Many first descent rivers are remote and require lots of logistics as well as critical thinking to navigate and it’s these challenges that are appealing to me.”
Shannon Carroll

Shannon brings up the idea that even though exploring is stressful, it often can be a vacation compared to the stress our daily life puts on us. Darcy goes yet a step further referring to it as an escape.

“It’s a great escape. As we all know, life is stressful and full of problems. Exploring remotes areas is a way to forget about a certain set of problems and embrace a new set namely survival which I often find refreshing to just worry about the basics. It makes you really focus on what is important and to learn to let the rest fall away. To suffer, I get worried when I get too comfortable and life is too easy. Getting out there and experiencing physical and emotional suffering (and hopefully rising above this suffering) makes me feel good.”
Darcy Gaechter

Did Kirk and Ed dive into kayak exploration to purposely mold themselves, or was it fortuitous that their experiences augmented them? Does spending a large portion of your life in the wild make you more existential?


"Is it not our nature to peer around the corner?  To fixate upon the horizon where the limits of our vision and the birth of our imagination intersect, is to honor in a single instant, all that has come to pass, all that will be, and what it means to be right here, right now."
Kirk Eddlemon

“I know I’m going on an adventure when I commit to something, somewhere unknown to me. A new door I step through. Before going forward, I think: what to take? What could help if things get complex? Less stuff but the right stuff? The warm, the light and the bright stuff? I’ve learned to know I’ll never know until I go but must react as it happens. The adventure of stepping through invisible doors to emerge home new and safe. Learning living and loving this life is why I must go."
Ed Lucero

"I personally was looking for rivers with as much variety and difference as possible, and ended up in places where I paid for it. Fortunately I was able to get out of them alive. This extended far into my soloing, but I was happy to have partners too, it's just that some of the runs I couldn't get anybody to go with me. I had a high pain threshold. And the attitude was closely entwined with what I was looking for in paddling, and my goal, which was to integrate every kind of paddling into my style and find rivers that demanded all those techniques - including climbing - to run them. And the aesthetic is: learn to solve your own problems. Be independent. Never take somebody else's word for anything, always test it pointedly to come to your own conclusion. This is a philosophy of independence and competence. Some perception of danger is physical and affects the difficulty, but most of this is purely a psychological barrier that can be overcome by soloing (whether one wants to do this is another thing altogether). It's probably not advised to push off into an unknown vertical walled canyon like the Tsangpo at 80 grand, or the Stikine at 20K without knowing a lot about what's downstream.  But it all comes down to having the people embrace making decisions based on their own experience and outlook.  I found in my own paddling that I was willing to push far beyond all my partners, and I got massively criticized for it, so I started hiding my runs. Be your own explorer at all times, and make your own decisions.”
Doug Ammons

Yet other paddlers seem to have simply stumbled into exploration. How often do we consciously choose our path?

“Exploring isn’t for everyone and people should enjoy kayaking however it suits them. I didn’t start kayaking to explore it’s just where kayaking took me.”
Mike Ferraro


How and where did you find these unexplored places?

“We had to guess every step of the way, on the basis of watershed size, geology, altitude, similar drainages, etc., and spend a lot of time on the ground scoping things out.” 
Doug Ammons

Seems like there may never be a better substitute than being on the ground seeing things firsthand, but it’s the rumors that get us there in the first place.

“Mainly by talking to people and scouring maps. Kayakers are a great source of info, but I’ve also found amazing places by talking to non-kayaking locals about their favorite hikes, places their grandparents used to go, etc…But at least 4 or 5 times a year someone will start taking about a place and I will mentally file it away as a “must check out.”
Darcy Gaechter

“One of my friends would move to a cool new location or there would be a rumor or myth of something being in the region, really a lot of hearsay. Sometimes we just went for a walk with a chainsaw and a map.”
Eric Lindberg
 “I used to study topo maps and look for steep streams. I would compile a list and go hike the creeks during low water periods to see if they were worthy. I also received plenty of tips for where steep streams might be located over the years. Three of my all time favorite streams: White Oak Run, Laurel Run (Cheat Canyon trib), and Moore Run, were adventures that were made possible by the beta people gave me.”
Bobby Miller

The only steadfast answer I obtained during this research is that all of these folks are nerds, and love looking at maps.

“I was utterly fascinated by maps and spent hours poring over gas station road maps, dreaming about visiting the places and features they represented. When someone showed me my first USGS topographic map, it was like discovering fire.”
Ed Gertler

“My first explorations were all local, none of my crew had done them, and we didn't know anyone that had, and weren't sure if anyone had. We bought all the topo maps around the Chattooga and started picking them off one by one.”
Shane Benedict

“I used to pore over maps, measure gradients and drainage acreage etc.”
Evan Stafford

“Quarry and Sovern (which flows into the Big Sandy at the put-in) were known to all but regarded as "unrunnable" due to their steep nature. We also bagged the first D on the Upper Blackwater. It had been run before the devastating Election Day flood of '85 but was a portage fest. The river changed dramatically with the flood. We ran it in April of '86 at high water (750cfs) which may still be a high water record. It was super intense and led me to name one of the last rapids "I Can't Take It Anymore, My Nerves Are Shot”. Fikes Creek was one truly found by study of topo maps as it was hidden away
.”
Phil Coleman

“I find new sections using Google earth and CalTopo.”
Mike Ferraro

“For info, almost all internet. Google, YouTube, blogs, maps. Sometimes a dry run like hiking or driving around the area can be useful, too. Always good to get eyes on the river.”
Thomas Herring

“At first, we used Exxon road maps to find the rivers; then guidebooks. Usually, a first descent was a creek I'd seen or heard about from someone who thought it would go.”
Charlie Walbridge

“Trips that I have been a part of were always a group effort and derived from simply looking at a topo map and reading gradient lines and then figuring out your approach, since most often there isn’t a road leading directly to the put in.”
Shannon Carroll

Who inspired you?

For some, it’s the pioneers. Although often not really whitewater paddlers, they definitely had the exploration bug,

“John Muir”
Eric Lindberg

“Boomer and his partner Sarah constantly inspire me with their Arctic Missions and multi sport tendencies. When I began my career in the late 90’s, Scott Lindgren, the Knapp Brothers, the Kern brothers, Abbot, Ellard, Alardice, were paving the way of modern kayak exploration. I love hearing stories from the olden days before my time of Lars and Chuck, Lesser, Andrew Emmbick, Brits Dave Manby, Mike Jones, Peter Knoles, Mick Hopkinson (the Relentless River of Everest). But I think it’s worth looking beyond all these historic patriarchy to the females that also led the way and are leading the way in our sport. I.e. Mary DeRheimer, Eva Luna, Niki Kelly, Darcy Gaechter (small world), Shannon Carrol, etc. We know they don’t get as much notoriety as guys, in large part because they are generally less ego driven.”
Ben Stookesberry

Many of these adventurers found their friends to be their inspiration. “My friends are my Heroes!”

“The handful of first D's I've had were really led by Phil Coleman- which includes a 667 fpm Quarry Run way back in 1978. Phil was the map and 'new idea' guy. And, of course, he also originally coined the terms "Boof" and "Squirt"- terms still in use today. But, I've never been the front edge of anything like that, it's just not my thing. The guys who do the searching and mapping never get enough credit.”
Jim Snyder


“In my early days, I was inspired by people like BJ Johnson and Clay Wright, who were out running big drops on tiny creeks that few people would ever get the chance to run. The video Falling Down made extreme kayaking so real for me since most of the drops in the video were within reach, only a few hours away in West Virginia. As I got older, I considered dialing it back but then drew inspiration from the big waterfall craze. I saw how much fun guys like Evan Garcia and Pat Keller were having while running huge waterfalls. I knew there was more for me to accomplish in a kayak and I needed to step into that realm.”
Bobby Miller

“Tons of people! For paddlers, Nouria Newman—I think she’s the most bad ass person I know (male or female) I’m constantly impressed by what she is doing. Ben Stookesberry, Chris Korbulic, Scott Lindgren, and Maggy Hurchalla also come to mind. You all probably know the first 3, but Maggy is my 78-year-old bad ass kayaking friend from Florida. She took up kayaking when she was 65 and is still at it now. She’s also a life-long environmentalist fighting against big corporations for what she believes in. What I really appreciate about all these people is how nice they are. Kindness really goes a long way in making an impression.”
Darcy Gaechter

As Darcy points out it’s not always the top tier paddlers that influence us. Sometimes, it’s significantly more personal.

“My dad has always been a huge inspiration for how I live my life. Not because he is a great explorer, but because of the values he instilled in me at a young age; including courage, commitment, and perseverance. “Building character” as he would call it. These are all some of     the prominent qualities I’ve brought to the table exploring in my kayak. I’ve looked up to Ben Stokesberry a lot as an explorer.”
Mike Ferraro

“Nobody. I do this just because I like doing it, not because I want to be like somebody else. But I do enjoy the company of similarly driven people and knowing they are out there. Chasing rivers is not exactly a mainstream (no pun intended) pursuit. So, knowing others share your passion at some level is reinforcing, i.e. comforting evidence that you are not completely insane.”
Ed Gertler

Ed never saw someone else holding the proverbial bar. On the other hand Shannon is now inspiring another generation: her daughters.
“Things have changed a lot for me in the past 10 years, as I’ve started my family and become a mom. So currently, who inspires me, is Mariann Saether for continuing to pursue class V paddling. These days I put my energy towards different passions of mine. Obviously, none of us are guaranteed another day on this precious planet and I’m unable to paddle class V Rivers and canyons with the same ease that I used to before being responsible for raising my children. And, it took me a while, but I am at peace with this in my life. I am thankful for the many days of extreme kayaking that I enjoyed and the safety I had during those days, but as we know; kayaking is a particularly dangerous sport and I’m not willing to lay it on the line like I used to. What’s next for me personally is teaching my daughters the ways of river life and sharing with     them the magic within the canyons. My father taught me to raft and kayak at a very young age and to have a healthy respect for the river and its power.”
Shannon Carroll


 

With so much exploration completed what’s next?

For many, it’s the continued quest for another river.

“My goals, for now, are to travel to new places outside of the United States to paddle. I have trips to Chile and Norway on the horizon. Working for Calleva’s Liquid Adventures has opened up a whole new world for traveling, instructing, and sharing the stoke for paddling with others.”
Bobby Miller

“Labrador, Canada”
Eric Lindberg


“Next Is the Rio Guayas in Amazon Colombia, Lane, Jules and I tried it a few years ago and hiked out. We are going to give it another shot with Rafa Ortiz coming up in December.”

Ben Stookesberry


“Right now I’m exploring the world of book writing and publishing! It’s been an epic journey and scarier and harder than most I’ve done. But I’ve managed to find a publisher—Pegasus Books—and my book, AMAZON WOMAN, is coming out March 3! You can pre-order now."

Darcy Gaechter
Darcy and Mike are both changing gears in wildly different directions. Darcy is interpreting familiar material in new mediums, and Mike is taking his cool under fire prowess to its preverbal match.

“Next on the list for me is becoming a Marine. It will be a new challenge and have lifelong benefits. I go to basic training at the end of January. If I had any advice about kayaking it would be “Always believe in yourself. In reality, it’s all you’ve got. Anything else is a distraction and a weakness. If you hit it going a hundred you’re gonna make it across.” The sport continues to change and "progress" - the ways in which it changes depend strongly on vision, equipment, experience, appetite, social reward, and in some cases, ignorance of consequences.”
Mike Ferraro
 
“Well, if I had the time, skill, and money, I would love to run every inch of every stream on the planet (not that canals of Mars don’t appeal to me too). But I haven’t lost touch with reality, and I am more than happy to just catch another section of stream, anywhere that I have not seen. There are some places I would particularly like to visit, but really, just covering some new water is good enough. It would be a nice feeling to think I am the first to have the foresight to give some stream a look, and I think in my earlier days, some of my runs probably were first descents. But nowadays, there are enough boaters in enough places that just about anything has been run. No big deal. The joy of discovery is still there.”
Ed Gertler

Exploration allows me to immerse myself in foreign locations and culture, forcing me to adapt, and become acquainted to just a bit more of our amazing globe.
Chris Baer









Sunday, April 14, 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Day in the Life of a Winter Grand Canyon of the Colorado Trip



A Typical Day:


You know what you’re going to do tomorrow, sort of… First you’ll wake up. Crawl out of your warm cocoon of a bed/nest. Get dressed in the first of multiple costumes for the day. This attire will undoubtedly include a warm hat, extra layers, and at minimum one article of down clothing. Rowan took this to extremes on our trip with a down jacket, pants, and slippers! Create a delicious, filling, and hot breakfast. These meals usually contain either bacon, sausage, or chorizo! On the truly magical mornings, all three of these delightful breakfast meats can be combined. This combination feels like winning the lottery while having a heart attack! There will certainly be Baileys on the coffee table and no one will even blink when you add a glug or two to your coffee.

water colors colliding, Little and Big Colorado
side-hikes

A lackadaisical launch hour is the norm, say noonish, and usually coincides with the sun hitting the beach. Sometimes it starts snowing and you just blow it off for a day or two. Direct sunlight is precious on winter trips, and groups always seem to desire to spend as many of the sunlit hours as possible on the water to combat the chilly winter temps.

critters both large and small

above Deer Creek

Mileage on the water can be less than ten a day. Sometimes getting on the water is just an excuse to change camp locations. Other days you push for thirty-plus miles, tackling countless rapids.

Rowan trying to be a chameleon and match her dry suit to the Little Colorado

Social Norms:


Interactions with other groups can be odd, because it seems like every trip on the river has a significantly different goal. Some groups are actually on scientific work details. Other parties are exactly that… massive parties. Still others are on soul-searching missions. Interactions between these different groups are usually welcoming and ecstatic, with people more than happy to lend a hand in any way possible. On our last trip, we were forced to acquire a couple of items from other groups. At mile 150, Upset Rapid created both an exciting line and an excessively damp bread-box for Mike Crook. Thankfully, a very heavily-stocked science trip was so kind as to ration out some bread. However, there were some things we searched for during the trip that no one sold come up with: Kool-Aid for a hair dyeing experiment, and the top for a percolator. It seems like those little glass percolator tops break at least once a trip. If you’re ever in need of an emergency cap replacement, we’ve discovered that the cap off of a handle of Evan Williams whisky will suffice. Better yet the top to an Absolute Vodka bottle will actually match the chrome exterior of the percolator.

Deer Creek
Other groups get used like we use Google back in the techno world: settling arguments over irrelevant statistics, gaining an edge for the funniest sand Pictionary word, or obscure facts that someone in the group ought to know but can’t come up with. It’s interesting how we have become overly reliant on technology to tell us what is correct. Sometimes unresolved theories can turn into comical debates. Other times the banter becomes so fueled that it sparks your first interaction with a new group. “What’s the Italian word for thank you?!” “Prego!” It only took communicating with three different groups for us to get this answer.

Red Wall Cavern

Camp Life:


When pulling into camp, make sure it’s a suitable location. Things to consider: Is it large enough for a horseshoes arena? Is there wind protection for the kitchen? Is there morning sun, or any sun at all? Is there rain protection? Plenty of camps have overhanging walls that make for epic escapes if the weather turns for the worse. Are there flat tent sites? Is there enough room to sprawl out? Are there options for side hikes? There are plenty of perks and downfalls to every location, and camp selection is often the most contested portion of a Grand Canyon trip.

overhanging rock wall for rain protection

rafts trying to dry out as water levels fall

Once a camp location is agreed upon, tie down the boats! This sounds simple but can go epically wrong. Remember, there can be massive flow variations throughout the day and the trip. https://rrfw.org/RaftingGrandCanyon/Tide_Tables Sand stakes work great but will pull loose if your 2,000-pound raft starts jerking on the line in the middle of the night. On the other hand, you don’t want to pull the rafts up too high as they may be left high-and-dry if water levels drop in the morning. I prefer the buddy system: you tie your boat off to a tree or a sand-stake, and I’ll do the same. Then we tie our boats together. Note: Some camps don’t have good tie-up locations. Ledges Camp is the one that comes to my mind. It is a good idea to bring some rock climbing hardware just in case.

evening sunsets

kitchen location

Unloading the kitchen can be hard on the body. A pack for everything kitchen will be excessively heavy and can easily weigh north of one hundred and fifty pounds. The dry-boxes in which the kitchen usually resides are cumbersome beasts. They almost always require two people to maneuver out of the raft and up the mountain of sand to the designated kitchen location. This action, even when done with a competent partner, can be awkward or dangerous and include more than a few curse words.

it's not all whitewater

Once you’ve dialed in all of the amenities of camp, get the fire started. Then pick out the ultimate groover location. It’s a curtesy to have some privacy for your bathroom location, but not at the expense of having an epic view. The last group tasks are to set up the hand wash station and can crush location, aka the “snake pit.”

groover with a view

Personal camp:


I try to make this one of the easiest and least time-consuming parts of the trip. I like a basic, 6x8 tarp on the ground with a thick Paco Pad smack in the middle. The tarp allows a bit of a buffer between the sand and the bed. On top of the Paco Pad, I put my Watershed bag which contains my headlamp, sleeping bag and pillow. That bag stays closed until bedtime, which helps keep sand out of my personal gear.

Nankoweap Granaries

Now it’s time to produce an elaborate dinner! We’re not roughing it out here. Add a healthy dollop of solar-powered music, cocktail hour and hors d'oeuvres, and a constant stream of humorous and misguided conversation, exacerbated by a lack of screen time. These communal meals are a highlight on any trip.

Matkatamiba canyon

Time spent floating on the water during a winter twenty-eight day Grand Canyon of the Colorado trip is limited to maybe two hours a day. That is only one-twelfth of the entire trip. Find joy in the rest of it! Camp should be elaborate, and your company should be gregarious. I found my cheeks sore from laughter on a daily basis.

Rowan Stuart
Avery Potter
Chris Baer
Mike Crook
Brad Mcmillan

Twenty-eight days go by in a blur in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, and I can’t wait to get back to the “real world” that exists there.

 Anyone got a trip coming up I could get on?





















Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Rating System is Flawed

This (Northern Hemisphere) winter, I spent three months in Ecuador paddling a myriad of amazing whitewater rivers. The majority of these rivers were described as class IV, or maybe class IV+, or even IV++. Few seemed willing to put the grade V connotation on any of the sections. So what gives? Are we all sandbagging each other? Are we afraid to actually be class V kayakers? Maybe we are not wanting to sound arrogant? Were we just paddling those sections at much higher flows? Were all of these sections actually class IV… ish?


Baeza, everyday, loading the kayaks up with a new crew

Trying to rate every single piece of moving water from a meandering, flat creek to Palouse Falls and beyond on a I-V, or maybe a I-VI, scale just seems reckless. Heck, I even saw a New Zealand guide book talk about a class VII! (Which I certainly don’t believe in.) There are simply way too many variables. And where is the room for the next terrifying thing that gets run, where does that fit in?

Orion LeCroy, dropping into some class IV+??

So what is this scale? Where in the world did it come from? Who enforces it? And the even better question is: Who rates all the rivers? Upon doing a quick google search, I found American Whitewater claiming the I-VI scale as their own. Their current guideline is as follows: 



International Scale of River Difficulty, created by American Whitewater, (…not very international in my opinion)

Class I: Easy
Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.

Class II: Novice

Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily avoided by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class II+.

Class III: Intermediate

Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class III- or Class III+ respectively.

Class IV: Advanced

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require "must make" moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. For kayakers, a strong roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class IV- or Class IV+ respectively.

Class V: Expert

Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential.
Because of the large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV, Class V is an open-ended, multiple-level scale designated by class 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc. Each of these levels is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last. That is, going from Class 5.0 to Class 5.1 is a similar order of magnitude as increasing from Class IV to Class 5.0.

Class VI: Extreme and Exploratory Rapids

Runs of this classification are rarely attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapid has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.


Water is Life

I have to admit after reading this version of the scale I was pretty happy with their rating explanations. Except for the fact that this is extremely subjective. How big is “big”? How fast is “fast”? How must make is “must make”? There is simply too much personal interpretation for me.

new friend in Tena

Personal Opinion


The fact is that no two people will give you the same definition of class I, let alone class V, or if there even is a class VI. How, as a community, especially an international community, are we supposed to talk about the rating system?

My suggestion would be to continue with the cumbersome I-V (or VI) scale. Then, I firmly suggest that people talk more about what really defines this I-V grading scale. The following are some of the factors that I consider when contemplating a river section.

Avery Potter heading into the fairly committing (class IV) Chaco Canyon

 

Regional Differences


It seems like every region that I go to, there is some kind of hazard that the locals are so accustomed to that they no longer realize that it’s an issue, or at best they have become blissfully complacent to the local hazard.

Colorado; you are going to pin on road or train debris.

California; poison everything, plants, more plants, snakes, aaand there is always a reservoir you have to paddle across at the take out.

Southeast; there is no water. You will skip off a damp rock and then land on a slightly damper rock.

Pacific Northwest; there are trees… everywhere.

Minnesota; ice undercuts lining the shores!

New Zealand: SIEVES! (Personal anecdote: coming up to a rapid I was told that there was a really sketchy piece of wood at the bottom of the rapid. Upon entering the rapid, half of the water quickly funneled into a sieve on the right. A bit further into the rapid, another quarter of the water disappeared into a sieve on the left. And at the very bottom of the rapid there was a small branch barely sticking out from the left shore).

Zambia; crocs, hippos, baboons, elephants, oh my!

Peru; Access. Cotahuasi Canyon is the deepest gorge in the world! Towering peaks reach 20,000 feet on both sides, hiking out isn’t even fathomable.

Every place has a local hazard. It doesn’t matter how accustomed to them you have become, it is imperative to know that these are true hazards. You need to be able to properly share these regional issues to paddlers that aren’t acquainted with the region.

Canoa, not a suggested river craft

 

Vessel


That 300 cfs creek run might be wide open in a kayak, but sure is technical, or next to impossible, in a raft. Our preferred craft for the descent will drastically change our personal opinions of the rating structure.


flowers the size of your head

 

Aging


The years keep ticking by, and we don’t revisit section ratings. This is most apparent to me on the Gauley River in West Virginia. Iron Ring was considered a class VI rapid until not that long ago. Sweets (not a) Falls is still talked about as being class V (there is flat water above a ramp of water that splashes into a small non-retentive wave, backed up by a quarter mile pool). On the other end of the spectrum are the things that are being run for the first time… tomorrow. With new equipment ramping up the learning curve and a huge amount of whitewater media being produced on obscure rivers around the globe, the pace at which we are raising the bar has continued to escalate. We are now consistently paddling sections that were unimaginable mere years ago.


Cuenca vista

Cuenca at sunset

Avery Potter exploring the city


old meets new in Cuenca

 

 Paddling Partner


Another key consideration: who are you paddling with? It turns out Darin McQuid and my girlfriend rate sections slightly differently. That is ok, but you need to understand what you’re in for. If the person you’re about to go paddling with usually runs really hard class V and they tell you it’s super mellow class III (of course class III is mellow for them), this might be exactly the time to start pestering them for more beta. On the other hand, when you meet the paddler at the put in that is gripped and sweating bullets, and tells you it’s “pretty gnarly class III+++”, again, it might be time to get more beta.

Otavalo market

 

For a Little Comedy:


International System for Rating Rapids

Class I, Easy. Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Swimming is pleasant, shore easily reached. A nice break from paddling. Almost all gear and equipment is recovered. Boat is just slightly scratched.

Class II, Novice. Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Swimming to eddies requires moderate effort. Climbing out of river may involve slippery rocks and shrub-induced lacerations. Paddle travels great distance downstream requiring lengthy walk. Something unimportant is missing. Boat hits submerged rock leaving visible dent on frame or new gash in plastic.

Class III, Intermediate. Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid. Water is swallowed. Legs are ground repeatedly against sharp, pointy rocks. Several eddies are missed while swimming. Difficult decision to stay with boat results in moment of terror when swimmer realizes they are downstream of boat. Paddle is recirculated in small hole way upstream. All personal possessions are removed from boat and floated in different directions. Paddling partners run along river bank shouting helpful instructions. Boat is munched against large boulder hard enough to leave series of deep gouges. Sunglasses fall off.

Class IV, Advanced. Water is generally lots colder than Class III. Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise swimming in turbulent water. Swimming may require `must' moves above dangerous hazards. Must moves are downgraded to `strongly recommended' after they are missed. Sensation of disbelief experienced while about to swim large drops. Frantic swimming towards shore is alternated with frantic swimming away from shore to avoid strainers. Rocks are clung to with death grip. Paddle is completely forgotten. One shoe is removed. Hydraulic pressure permanently removes waterproof box with all the really important stuff. Paddle partners running along stream look genuinely concerned while lofting throw ropes 20 feet behind swimmer. Paddle partners stare slack-jawed and point in amazement at boat which is finally pinned by major feature. Climbing up river bank involves inverted tree. One of those spring loaded pins that attaches watch to wristband is missing. Contact lenses are moved to rear of eyeballs.

Class V, Expert. The water in this rapid is usually under 42 degrees F. Most gear is destroyed on rocks within minutes if not seconds. If the boat survives, it is need of about three days of repair. There is no swimming, only frantic movements to keep from becoming one with the rocks and to get a breath from time to time. Terror and panic set in as you realize your paddle partners don't have a chance in heck of reaching you. You come to a true understanding of the terms maytagging and pinballing. That hole that looked like nothing when scouted, has a hydraulic that holds you under the water until your lungs are close to bursting. You come out only to realize you still have 75% of the rapid left to swim. Swim to the eddy? What #%^&*#* eddy!? This rapid usually lasts a mile or more. Hydraulic pressure within the first few seconds removes everything that can come off your body. This includes gloves, shoes, neoprene socks, sunglasses, hats, and clothing. The rocks take care of your fingers, toes, and ears. That $900.00 dry suit, well it might hold up to the rocks. Your paddle is trash. If there is a strainer, well, just hope it is old and rotten so it breaks. Paddle partners on shore are frantically trying to run and keep up with you. Their horror is reflected in their faces as they stare at how you are being tossed around! They are hoping to remember how to do CPR. They also really hope the cooler with the beer is still intact. They are going to need a cold one by the time you get out! Climbing out of this happens after the rapid is over. You will probably need the help of a backboard, cervical collar and Z-rig. Even though you have broken bones, lacerations, puncture wounds, missing digits & ears, and a concussion, you won't feel much pain because you will have severe hypothermia. Enjoy your stay in the hospital: with the time you take recovering, you won't get another vacation for 3 years.

Class VI, World Class. Not recommended for swimming.
© 2002 by David Petterson of Calgary Paddlers.


Or for even more comedy, check out what was possibly the original grading system, from AW at the link below. It contains tons of very applicable information in a very sexist, dated journal.
https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/show-page/issue/3/page/28/year/1963/

Lower Misahualli, after portaging, maybe paddling it would have been easier?

 

The Hard Numbers


It’s time to give the I-V scale less importance, and place more emphasis on some hard figures.

Gradient. This seems pretty simple: how steep is the section? Depending on the region, this is given in FPM (Foot Per Mile) or for just about everywhere else in the globe, MPK (Meter Per Kilometer).

Volume. Again, this is not arbitrary. How much water is in the drainage? Measured by CFS (Cubic Foot per Second) or CMS (Cubic Meter per Second), and when stating these facts, give your interpretation of the flow (flood, high, medium, low). A quick side note here, the foot gauge or meter gauge or random graffiti or scribble on the bridge pylon or that specific “rock” is sometimes the only measure of volume available on more obscure sections. If this is so, do your best to relate this in at least an estimate of numerical volume so an outsider might be able to have a rough guess at what they’re getting themselves into.

With these two stats, most seasoned paddlers can start to build a mental picture of what they are signing themselves up for.

A couple of extreme examples of this in practice:

    Yule Creek, CO, 640 FPM 300 CFS, Flood, Class V… ish!
    Grand Canyon of the Colorado, AZ, 8FPM 12,000 CFS, Medium, Class IV… ish.


Trip Kinney, making class 4 fun again

 

The Solution



In reality, there is no universal “fix” to the current rating system. It’s deeply entrenched in our sport, and getting away from it isn’t feasible. Compounding the issue, every time paddling has been picked up in a new region, the scale has been bastardized by the locals. The best option for us now is to truly be aware of the shortcomings of the I-V scale and to supplement this with more tangible beta.

So when you’re looking for info on your next class IVish river, ask another question or two, will ya?



Adventure by
Chris Baer
... Still Sandbagging Everything to Class IV













Thursday, November 2, 2017

Going back to the Youghiogheny

Sixteen years ago I hopped into a convertible with a few other raft guides for a day trip to a river a few hours north of the Gauley. The location was the magical Upper Youghiogheny. The slots were plentiful and tight, and while playing follow the leader we rounded countless blind corners interspaced with a myriad of fun ledges. Years later, I now refer to this section as a staple class 4 kayak run… that has drawn me back year after year.



So the question is, why? After paddling all over the globe and tons of extremely difficult sections, why do I, and why should you, continue to flock to the Upper Youghiogheny?

Let’s start with the location. Our take out is in Friendsville, Maryland, almost reason enough right there. Friendsville is home to pizza rolls, Maui sweet onion potato chips, and fancy Yuengling beer. It used to be home to one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, The Riverside Hotel. Agnes, the proprietor of the Riverside Hotel and Restaurant, concocted the best vegetarian food I could conceive. It was simple, they only served vegetarian soup and salad (Casey Tango had to twist my arm to try this place the first time (I was complaining,“But there’s no meat!”)). After the first bite I was a believer. Hardy soups, hot-from-the-oven blue corn muffins, edible flowers on the salad (that were picked out of the backyard garden while you were paddling on the river), Tandy Cake with home-churned ice cream for dessert. (Please Agnes come back and make us delicious food again! (the Riverside Hotel changed ownership in 2015, and again in 2017. No food now, almost a reason not to go…)).

Camping is free-ish and only ten minutes from the put-in. The dense forest of the campground reminds me of the woods from the Blair Witch movie. Over the years there have been some pretty epic parties that have occurred in these Blair Witch woods. Huge bonfires, tons of fireworks, friends from all over the world. Heck, there was the one year when some riggers showed up and constructed a 100 foot rope swing attached to the tippy tops of the surrounding trees.

During my first years to the Youghiogheny there always seemed to be a rumor in the air. The reservoir was too high, it was too low, the release was late, the flows were going to be HIGH, not enough water, were we in front of, or behind, the bubble? National Falls is on fire?! I don’t know why but the rumors always made me laugh and we almost always were perfectly on the bubble with an average flow.

On water the river seems to be very reciprocal. If you’re willing to put the effort in you can run some truly hard lines. It’s like the river almost wants you to play. There are hanging eddies everywhere, slots that shouldn’t go (Sid’s Squiggle, Time Warp, left left at Tommy’s), and a couple of communal stops to enjoy some bag wine with the river community (Wait Rock and National Falls). 

So, what brings you back to the Yough year after year after year… and if you haven’t checked this place out, why not??

adventure by Chris Baer


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Class Tree in Arizona, Christopher Creek and Hell’s Gate

Walled in would be an understatement, photo by Evan Stafford

It was the middle of February in Arizona, and Avery Potter and I had just finished a mellow lap on the lower gorge of Tonto Creek when a voicemail came through on the phone. It was Evan Stafford and a posse of Colorado and Wyoming paddlers who were on their way to the area and looking to link Christopher Creek into the Hell’s Gate section of Tonto Creek. This would be a three-day mission through a truly wild and desolate portion of Arizona. I couldn’t respond fast enough… “YES!”

 
Christopher creek, hells gate

from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

Hiking into Christopher Creek

The team, Evan Stafford, Ted Decker, Thomas Herring, Austin Woody, Aaron Koontz, Caleb Owen and myself, converged in the Payson City Safeway parking lot. We all had a multitude of mutual friends, but there were still a number of introductions to be made in-between people tearing off to obtain last minute provisions for the upcoming multi-day. Luckily, Thomas was not feeling up for the Christopher Creek section, and offered to help the team by bringing in the majority of the multi-day supplies (overnight equipment and food) via truck into Bear Flats. Bear Flats is the traditional take-out for Christopher Creek and the put-in location for Hell’s Gate.

Ted Decker launching his way into Christopher Creek

Ted Decker on one of the numerous waterfalls contained in Christopher Creek

It was approaching midday as we hiked off the highway into the Arizona wilderness. A brief half-mile hike in brought us above the very pronounced Christopher Creek slot canyon where we put on. Once on the water the crew moved well; we were scouting most of the large drops and following verbal beta for the in-betweens. The crew quickly formed a jovial rapport, with everyone smiling and joking together. As we completed an almost “todo” descent of Christopher Creek, the subpar flows combined with the tight canyon walls caused plenty of bloody knuckles. After the last of the hard rapids, downed trees, river cane, and willows became abundant, obstructing our downstream view and causing us to ricochet through our last few miles. It was a pin fest down to Bear Flats, by the time we bounced our way into Bear Flats it was well past dusk.

Austin Woody enjoying some air time in Christopher Creek




Aaron Koontz running a marginal crack, I think this led to bloody knuckles and a bunch of us deciding it wasn't such a bad rapid after all

Aaron Koontz running the marginally wet far left line at Big Lebowski


Aaron Koontz airing out Little Lebowski


Ted Decker looking for the auto flake


Since Thomas had opted out of Christopher Creek, there was a truck at Bear Flats and we took full advantage of it. Group consensus was to use the truck to get the other vehicle off the side of the highway, and to acquire plentiful and cheap cold beer and pizza. The getting-to-know-you’s continued into the evening, with everyone laughing and recounting how many times they had been pinned on the way out of Christopher Creek.

Setting up camp at Bear Flats

AZ wilderness and scenery living up to the hype, photo by Evan Stafford

Day Two


We headed into the Hell’s Gate section of Tonto Creek, twenty-six miles that we planned on traveling over two long days. The walls quickly grew to towering heights, and we found ourselves in classic Arizona scenery. The water level was still a bit low for my taste, and we again found ourselves bashing through willows and bouncing our way through marginal rapids, just to be greeted with yet another classic Class 5 rapid. Our pace was strong and we were crushing miles, but I could see the group tiring as we neared 12 hours in our boats. It was late on day two when we finally reached the confluence with Spring Creek and set up our camp. Everyone was a bit beaten up from the low water and a second long day on the river. I fell asleep early and woke up excited to see what day three had in store.

Austin Woody, another classic in Hell's Gate

Austin Woody and Tom Herring eyeing up another marginal line in Hell's Gate


Day Three



Thankfully, with the added water flow of Spring Creek, the rapids became less jarring. As we continued downstream the walls continued to grow and the scenery just kept getting better. I rounded yet another blind corner to see Evan Stafford lying on the back deck of his kayak with his mouth agape. We were making our way through one of the more beautiful locations that I have ever paddled. The whitewater was plentiful, and made for yet another long, strenuous day of scouting and probing countless Class 4 mank piles inter-spaced with plentiful and quintessential Class 5 slot canyon rapids.


Quintessential scenery in the Arizona wilderness

Chris Baer finishing up the last canyon, photo by Evan Stafford

How do we get out of here?

Eight hours into day three, the walls finally subsided. We were then met with our last challenge: shallow, braided flows through a willow jungle. We slowly trudged our way through to the very sketchy “town” of Gisela. Gisela reminded me of a Breaking Bad set: dilapidated trailers and police rolling through and joking with us about how they were looking to arrest a few of the locals.

The crew celebrating exiting the canyon and looking forward to cold beer




This run should be on your radar… but understand this is not a “give me”; appropriate flows are rare, and it’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. That being said, the Hell’s Gate Wilderness is spectacular and linking Christopher Creek into it is a legitimate multi-day adventure.

Adventure by Chris Baer