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Monday, December 8, 2014

Nam Ngiap, it was supposed to be a class 3 first descent, turned out to be a 3 day, 36 mile, class 5 adventure dropping 2,500 feet!

not class 3

It was late the night before I was supposed to fly out of the States. As usual, I was sleeping in my van and trying to pack in the last tidbits of information about the trip. How far from the airport to the first hotel (Saysouly Guest House)? What kind of transportation? What is the exchange rate? How do I get my visa, again? I fell asleep still asking questions. With experience gained over the years, I now know this is routine; and see it as a confirmation that it’s about to be adventure time.

before, proper junk show in the parking lot
after, all wrapped up and ready to fly

YES! the kayak will fit

After slipping the curbside baggage guy a $20, he helped expedite the “wave-ski” (kayak) through the check in process - first major hurdle complete! Then it was just three full days of travel to get to Vientiane Laos.

Unwinding in Vientiane with a very traditional meal

As the plane doors opened, I struggled with my jet lag and stumbled out into the muggy air. Finally, I was in Laos. Looking at the visa paperwork, I quickly affirmed that the American idea that the country is called Laos is just wrong; it’s Lao. I also quickly realized that it’s HOT! While waiting in line for twenty minutes to get my visa paperwork, I started dripping in sweat. After my passport was stamped and “wave-ski” collected, I headed outside to arrange the third of a myriad of travel modes.

loaded up in the tuk tuk, wish these were in more countries

A quick van ride from the airport (with my kayak inside the van), I arrived at a hostel in the center of Vientiane, the capital of Lao. The plan was to meet with Lincoln Taylor. A mutual friend had put us in contact over the very rarely, but occasionally super-useful, Facebook. Lincoln and I spent a couple days collecting our bearings and meeting some of his local associates who would help make the month long adventure run much smoother. Foremost is Vianney Catteau; he has all of the adventure tourism connections.

Vianney Catteau and Lincoln Talyor scouting from space

Then we were off! The plan was to go to the center of the country and pick off the Nam Ngiap river (“Nam” means river or water in Laotian). Our beta was very minimal and it wasn’t until I begged for further information that we got an idea of the overall gradient. We would travel 105 miles falling a total of 3,000 feet. On that average it would be thirty feet per mile, hopefully creating good class three river.

Getting there

Lao is as beautiful as you can imagine

After two full days of travel by minivan, bus, tuk tuk, and sǎwngthǎew, an interesting open van that was carrying mostly onions and garlic, as well as two kayaks, we arrived in the small town of Muang Khoun 3,539 feet above sea level. Thankfully, the local guest house had a room and Lincoln and I checked in. We took a minute that night to get a late dinner, and to also grab some camp food for our presumed three or four day adventure.

Lao has gradient!

The following morning we were greeted with sunny skies and a very worried guest house owner. She thought we were going to die. (After years of travel, and it doesn’t matter where, there is usually a solid local concern that the waterfalls downstream are potentially deadly.) Honestly, the threats of waterfalls from the locals just boosted my intrigue. It was the talk of us being shot at that bothered me. We had already seen a fair share of young men toting AK 47’s. Waterfalls I can portage, but I’m not good at dodging bullets yet. During the influx of information there was a confirmation of a dam downstream (which I had thought was true from satellite imagery) and the people working there might not be happy that we were on the water.

It looked as if the trip was about to get canceled before we even got on the river. At this point, Lincoln’s Lao was exhausted, and my charades and show and tell picture game were failing as well. Eventually, we turned to technology and rang up one of Lincoln’s local contacts to help interpret. After a quick conversation, the guest house owner was all smiles and pointed us to the water.

the guest house was located just about on top of our put in

Day 1, Dam to Jungle

The river was gross. The town unfortunately has been dumping just about everything into the river. The trees on either side of the river were wrapped in plastic bags and rubbish, making an obvious and disgusting high water mark. I was starting to feel a little disappointed about the adventure. Then the gradient subsided and we were in an even more disturbing situation: a reservoir.

As we neared the dam, Lincoln indicated that we should to stay out of sight as long as possible. We paddled next to the shoreline hoping our obtrusive kayaks wouldn’t blow our cover. Upon reaching the dam, there was absolutely no hiding. The river was done, and a huge earthen dam was in our way. Slowly and cautiously we climbed on top of the dam to look down at a trickle of water leaving the overflow hundreds of feet below. Moments passed and soon a truck was heading our direction. Both of us took a slightly nervous stance. The truck slowed, window rolled down, and in broken Laotian a man asked us what we were up to. A handful of words passed and the language shifted to English (I was relieved, my Laotian still only involves a couple phrases). The truck driver was from China and he was in some way working on the dam project. Kindly, he offered a plethora of options, then stopped and exclaimed, “I should take you to where the river starts again!”

Thus, the beginning to our adventure was unconventional at best. Still ambitiously hoping for good whitewater, we piled into the back of the pickup and rallied around the huge hydro scheme. The Chinese man promptly dropped us off at the outflow and said, “It all jungle now.” I was really hoping he was right.

The outflow of the dam was at 3,000 feet above sea level and 480 feet below the reservoir. The almost two mile section that the dam dewatered certainly would have contained some good rapids. Paddling away from the outflow, there was one last very distinctive manmade feature: a roll over dam which was actually kind of fun.

Then it quickly shifted, and; we were immediately in thick jungle. One positive note on the dam is that it had prevented all of Muang Khoun’s garbage from continuing downstream. The river was now beautiful!

Lincoln looking ok off the ledge, notice the backed up hole

The rapids started to pick up and Lincoln and I eddy hopped through some fun class 3 water for a while. Then it changed; the bedrock showed itself and pinched the river in tight. The mix of bedrock and some large boulders started ramping up our excitement level. We started scouting more and setting safety for each other. It’s normally not a good idea to go into a first descent river with someone you have never paddled with before, but the river was supposed to be class 3, and we could handle that, right? Lincoln lined up for a marginal boof that was backed up by a couple of boulders. His stroke off the lip was ok, but the hydraulic formed by the rocks in the landing zone grabbed his kayak and dragged him back into the hole. After a couple of quick direction changes his boat locked deep into the crease…There was no good way out. He looked over his shoulder, our eyes met, and as he shouted “Rope!” My throw bag was already in flight. After some pulling, and a little paddle rescue, Lincoln and all of his equipment was recovered.

Lincoln getting sucked back in, throw rope coming soon

This slowed the pace immensely. A few seconds in a hydraulic usually feels like minutes and Lincoln’s energy was drained. I can only imagine that his confidence had taken a severe blow as well. Lincoln was now walking a lot of the more difficult rapids. I almost felt guilty as I asked him to set safety at a couple of the bigger drops. Late on day one the gradient really started to steepen. There were a couple of mandatory portages (water going underground) and a couple of difficult rapids. The two big ones were a slide to hanging eddy to double boof, and a bouncy low angle slide with a very undercut landing zone.

steep sieves, and long shadows, Lincoln not feeling it, end of day one

On multi-day trips, it’s always interesting to see how you deal with the pressure; accidents aren’t acceptable, and it’s telling to see how far you will push your limits. A couple big strokes and a huge smile. We were paddling the big rapids really well.

setting up camp, first night

Pausing at the base of a slide, I looked toward Lincoln and he was dim. We were starting to run out of light. We had been on the water for seven hours. Food, water, and sleep were quickly becoming the priority. Looking for a camp, we spotted a big bedrock outcropping on river right. The rock was relatively flat, and there was an ample supply of drift wood for a fire. Camp was built, hammock and wet cloths strung up, fire started, water UV filtered, and a delicious, though soon to be repetitive, meal of glorified Ramen noodles and mystery canned meat was consumed.

fire ablaze, still not sure it's going to scare the venomous snakes

That evening, guided by the reflections of the camp fire, I wandered to my sleeping bag. Thoughts of POISONOUS snakes, boa constrictors, and tigers (yeah there are still wild tigers in this region) rolled through my head for exactly half a minute until I passed out like a rock. I was exhausted from a long day. It was 8:00 pm.

Day 2, Big Drops and Siphons

The same internal clock that put me to bed at 8:00 pm woke me at 5:30 am. The birds were singing and a pale light was rising on the horizon. I was resting off the ground in my hammock, attached to two thick old growth trees. These trees were not only supporting me, but were home to another 1,000 life forms. Twisting vines, ants, singing birds, moss, all of us balanced in these two beautiful trees. I felt very fortunate to have join them for the night.

When I rose, Lincoln was already curled up next to the fire. A late night drizzle had prompted his relocation and stoking of the fire. We slowly warmed up water and got our morning meal going, consisting of squished bread and the ever reoccurring Ramen noodles with mystery canned meat. The highlight to the morning meal was re-purposing our “tuna” cans to become vessels for Nescafe. Over-caffeinated, we tried to wait patiently for the sun to rise, if only a bit, to commence the kayaker's lifetime battle against wet gear.

We stuffed damp overnight gear back into our boats and pushed off. The morning started gently, the gradient was mellow for the first half an hour. Then an equally sized river joined the Nam Ngiap, doubling the flow. At this point, the river started to feel rather sieve-like. The amount of water compared to the size of the boulders meant we were in a maze. We were now slowly and meticulously eddy hopping our way deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. Many of the channels simply disappeared under rocks. This caused an incessant amount of must-make ferries to attain better vantage points, only to find marginal downstream options. This went on for about one hour, and my mental game faded quickly. The constant ferrying back and forth above certain death was more than I was anticipating on this alleged class 3 adventure.

Intriguing sights and sounds of civilization emerged on the left hand side of the river. A road was nearing and, to be honest, I wasn’t happy about it. Our jungle mission was fantastic. The mere ten mile section would become a must do were it in a more developed nation. But never the less, the outside world was creeping in. The water quickly turned from a beautiful green to a muddy brown beside the unmanageable road and consequential land slides from deforestation.

Before we could start to think about the fact that there might be access to food that wasn’t Ramen, there was a horizon line. A family was fishing near the brink and their faces presented the story very clearly: if we went just beyond the cusp we would surely die. There was no need for words just that sunken eye confirmation.

Lincoln making a easy decision this ones a walk
We approached the horizon line carefully and found ourselves standing two hundred feet above the next reasonable section. Upon further inspection, there might be a line, and if it were just outside of a metropolitan location it would certainly be named after someone. Whether they would have been known as the person that broke themselves, or opened up a rowdy new line, we may never know. The risk to reward equation for this rapid certainly wasn’t adding up for me. We shouldered boats and admired the magnitude of cascading water.

Reaching the base of the cascade it was easy to tell that the gradient wasn’t finished. There was a stack of big drops to come. The first was a pillowing big water move, the second was a fifteen footer into a walled in death hole, and the third was an off-angle twenty footer. After a quick conversation and some safety was set, I managed to pluck the first and third drops.

third drop, landing zone was a little snug, and boily

Continuing to work downstream, we again entered into giant boulder gardens. We eddy hopped and picked out a handful of spectacular lines, all while dodging countless underwater tombs.

Day two wrapped up just north of a microscopic village and the confluence of the Nam Siam (which we were able to paddle a week later) and Nam Ngiap. On the second day we descended ten miles and 1,250 feet. We were now resting deep in the Nam Ngiap valley with Mt. Muang Khom standing 6,000 feet above us.

camp two, not excited about Ramen for dinner

Looking at our variety of Ramen packets, I suggested we wander into the village for dinner. After a very quick tour of town (there were a couple dozen structures), we sat at what looked to be the most happening place (there were two other people sitting there). We immediately overheard the other patrons. They were Chinese, and were working on yet another dam site. It also came to our attention that there wasn’t much food being served. A few broken communications and we got two bowls of soup. It was the next realization that made me audibly laugh; our dining establishment was really an entertainment venue. The young lady who was serving us dinner wasn’t a waitress - she was an option on the menu. We were at the local brothel, for dinner… Lincoln and I instantly started joking, and even asked the price for a room: less than ten dollars! As soon as my meal was done I was itching to vacate the premises and head back to the river to sleep in the much cleaner dirt.

a sketchy walk to a sketchy dinning location night two

Day 3, Death Falls and Water Buffalo 


Lincoln mixing up another round of Nescafe

Once again, the sun was far from up when we awoke, so we took our time making coffee and glancing at the next ominous horizon line. Upon a quick scout, there was a simple conclusion: the right line was guaranteed death. All of the water slid one hundred feet into a boulder. The left line looked marginally acceptable, minus the fact that, while scouting, we were dodging twenty foot deep vertical potholes. Three mornings in and I was certainly not on my A game, and we both walked.

marginal at best

The gradient stayed steep for a bit longer and awarded us with a few more big rapids. Then we saw a small fishing boat, then another boat, then lots more. We saw water buffalos, giant old U.S. army trucks (technically, the U.S. was never in Laos during the “American War” but somehow there is a massive surplus of military vehicles, and over 2.5 million tons of explosives which were dropped on the country?), and the communities next to the river started growing.

gradient tapering and the farming villages filling the valley

Most of the afternoon was spent paddling flat water. We eventually took out at Ban Hau, elevation 1,056 feet, fourteen miles downstream from the previous day's prostitute dining establishment. This left 70 miles and only 500 feet of gradient to the city of Paksan. It wasn’t enough to entice us.

the view just outside of Ban Hau

It was done! We had completed a gorgeous section of whitewater in the middle of a very dense and unexplored jungle. We were dirty, hungry, tired, and in need of cold beer and a non-Ramen meal. The small town of Ban Hau refueled our bellies and we started the next portion of the journey.

Lincoln catching a scooter ride into Ban Hau for a much need meal

“How do we get out of here?”

Hitchhiking provided the best option and we quickly jumped in the back of a truck for a four hour, bouncy, ride on a mostly dirt road to Paksan for the night.

This trip goes down as one of my best first descents. The rapids were spectacular and the fact that we went in with such little beta and produced a safe successful trip only lends merit to the paddling crew.

Overview of distances and gradient

Put in, Mango Khoun: 3539 feet
3 miles to Reservoir
Reservoir: 3,460 feet
1.8 miles dewatered
Dam outflow: 3,000 feet
7.2 miles to confluence (just downstream of camp 1)
Confluence: 2513 feet
3.3 miles to road
Above massive portaged waterfall: 1997 feet
7.2 miles to confluence
Confluence with Nam Siam: 1258 feet
13.55 miles to take out
Ban Hau: 1056 feet

adventure brought to you by Chris Baer

Monday, December 1, 2014

Impromptu Canadian road trip; the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers

Sam Swanson going for a ride on High Tension
Kayaking is such a unique sport: long road trips, barely knowing the people you are with, sleeping in the dirt, and new, world renowned river sections are great excuses for an adventure.

Evan Smith working some ends on the beautiful Ottawa River
This fall, while commercially guiding on the Gauley River, Sam Swanson paddled over to me and relayed a quick blurb of information. Sam, Anna Wagner, and Evan Smith were planning a quick mid-week trip up to Canada to paddle the quintessential Ottawa River, and whatever else was flowing?! The answer was quick and easy: YES! My new passport had recently come in the mail and I was itching for a new paddling destination.

setting up camp in the dark somewhere in French Canada
sharing a nice evening dinner in the dirt
Late Sunday evening the plan was starting to come together. We would awake early Monday morning and pile into Anna’s Honda “Fit”. All of the camping and kayaking gear for four people would barely fit into the “Fit.” Ten hours later, the crew was crossing the US-Canada border at Niagara Falls. We stopped for a break and took a few minutes to scout our imaginary kayak lines.

Anna Wagner awaking to our lovely, dirt bag borrowed, rafting pavilion
A pitch black sky and light drizzle welcomed us to the Ottawa River drainage early Tuesday morning. Luckily, we stumbled into a closed-for-the-season rafting outfitter pavilion. After a quick nap we awoke to partial clouds and brightly colored autumn leaves. Tuesday and Wednesday were spent making laps on the infamous Ottawa River. The Ottawa River has a characteristic that no one in the group had dealt with before: you could actually get lost on the river. Just going down stream didn’t work. The river braids into multiple channels, and to make it slightly more confusing, the locals refer to the two biggest channels as the Middle and Main! Yes, it was confusing at best. After confirming more precise local beta we started charging into fun rapids. Notable were the Dragon's Tongue line in Garvin’s Chute, easily the largest loss of gradient on the river, and Coliseum, which was a massive wave train.

Sam Swanson heading down the Dragon's Tongue in Garvin's Chute
After two days and three laps on the Ottawa, the crew was eager for something new, and packed back into the “Fit” for destination River Gatineau. The Gatineau River is located in the distinctly FRENCH province of Quebec, which led to instantaneous, bad impersonations of the language. Adding to the entertainment was the super friendly local campground host-shuttle driver that spoke with a thick French accent. On water we were greeted with relatively high flows and large rolling rapids. The High Tension wave was definitely entertaining. It’s a large surf wave-hole, and was on the low side of in, creating marginally controllable rides.

Sam Swanson hanging on to a High Tension ride

The long drive home reminded me why I love this “sport” so much. It’s the family, barely knowing my car-mates a few days before led to a great adventure, both on and off the water.

Anna Wagner surfing one of the multitude of amazing waves on the Gatineau River

People ask, “What’s your favorite river?” and I have been sarcastically, yet honestly answering, “the next one.” I think those words hold true with meeting people. “Who are your favorite paddling companions?” “The next ones.”

Sam Swanson looking relatively small

I hope we meet on the river soon.

adventure brought to you by Chris Baer

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why do we take chances? Revisiting the beast, YULE CREEK!

Looking down at Ball and Wall Check

Thirty days of commercial rafting in a row and Casey Tango gave me a phone call, “Yule’s in.” This was the perfect excuse for a much needed day off.

From the Arkansas River drainage it’s a haul to get to the Crystal River and its tributary, Yule Creek. It’s located west of Aspen, tucked behind the Maroon Bells mountain range, and nestled into the quintessential Colorado mountain town of Marble.

Yule Creek is rowdy! The first section of whitewater is class five and would be considered some of the best whitewater in the region if it weren’t immediately upstream of the horrendous gradient-loss that the creek cascades into, just before meeting the Crystal River near the Beaver Pond in Marble.

The last pitch of the creek is stunning. While scouting from a few hundred feet above it looks irresponsible, and once down in the sheer walled canyon the size of the drops becomes apparent. Everything is HUGE!

Setting safety on the bottom four drops is a misconception. With only two of us the best safety was to have another boater in their boat at the bottom of each of the towering features. Roping in one at a time wasn’t really an option so we decided that we would launch five seconds apart and go with the “we both won’t get hurt” approach. We sat in our kayaks and performed our last second rituals before plummeting: readjusting back bands, rolling my head back and forth stretching my shoulders and neck, checking the spray skirt is seated properly two or five times, dipping my hands in the icy snow melt to get the slightest skin oils off them.

The last second conversation was quick and concise, “Cool, you good?”

“Yea, have fun!”

A nod of heads, then Tango seal launched into the creek.

I was five seconds behind him, no matter what was about to happen we would both be a couple hundred feet below in a matter of seconds.

Lining up for the first big drop, Ball Check, a thirty-foot waterfall, I cleared my head, took a deep breath and waited for the horizon line, a quick flick of the wrist and I was airborne, kind of. The drop is more of a super steep slide then totally vertical waterfall. With slightly disconnected water spraying everywhere half a second passed, then the impact of the pool below, “ughhhhh.” The impact was firm but acceptable, allowing me to have a tiny bit of control. A couple strokes and I was eddied out in the hanging pool above Wall Check, the immense slide that banks off the left wall a third of the way down. The ferry out of the hanging pool was terrifying while trying to line up the six-inch wide line and being tossed around by the boil of the thirty-footer behind me. The last stroke was made and the boat teetered off the edge onto the slippery slope. Speed was a joke, faster, faster, faster, bounce over a ridge and then faster yet as the wall was hurdling in. WHAM! Huge impact, instinctive paddle bracing, and a blur of water and rocks. I was backwards, at least in the correct location, but backwards. Squaring up the boat for the bottom pitch and laterals, I actually started to smirk. Yeah it wasn’t the best line, but I had just been allowed to do another ridiculous stunt.

Skipping into the pool I looked over at Tango, he was right side up but looked stunned. He said, “I got rocked, I hit my head against the wall.” He was mildly concussed. As we went down to the next horizon line to scout Oriental Massage and Happy Ending I continued to check on Tango. Stubborn would be a gentle way to refer to him, he’s a BOSS! Yes he hit his head, and no he wasn’t ok. But yes he was going to paddle the bottom two drops. No more questions.

Once again we sorted out our five-second interval and Tango headed off the next horizon line.

Quintessential Colorado

I’m sure no one has ever used the word “control” while talking about paddling Oriental Massage. This is one of those line-up-the-rooster-tail-and-hold-on type of drops. I slipped over the brink and picked up speed nearing terminal velocity, hit something in the rooster tail, and my head snapped forward from the violent collision. There was spray everywhere and absolutely no orientation. Again the involuntary nervous system kicked in and miraculously I was right side up and careening down the massive slide in some form of mild “control”. Slamming into the pool below my boat skipped and planed out in a violent wheelie. I shouted at Tango that I was going direct into Happy Ending with a Wahoo!  And disappeared into the spray of the last waterfall. At the bottom of the massive gradient I spun around just in time to see Tango launch off the concluding drop, Happy Ending.

Both of our boats looked horrible. The bows were crushed in, but we were ok. Once again we challenged the steepest piece of runnable whitewater in Colorado.

Why do we do this? Pride? Challenge? Are we trying to understand where the line is? FUN?

Yeah, it’s fun. Yes I’m nervous at the top of these monsters but once I’m in the action the fear goes away. There’s no time for fear, there is only time for reactions, and that makes me smile.

adventure by Chris Baer

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blood, Snow, and Gradient, I love Minnesota!

Winfrey's Whimper on the Split Rock


Is not for the faint of heart, the conditions are brutal. Hiking through waist deep snow to put-ins is standard. Frigid water, and air temperatures just above freezing are a guarantee. The other guarantee is that the whitewater is going to be rowdy!

Most of the rivers are relatively steep, dropping from an ambient land mass of 1,600 feet into Lake Superior at 600 feet above sea level. This gives kayakers one thousand feet of gradient to work with that usually falls off in under five miles… Steep!  The other thing that helps Minnesota’s whitewater is bedrock, most of the North Shore is made of basalt and rhyolite. Combining steep gradient and bedrock means one thing: SLIDES! Rip roaring low angle slides. The spring thaw pumps seven months of winter’s precipitation down the steep gradient in just a few weeks.

The local boating community…

These folks are passionate about their backyard, and understandably so. Most of the boaters have access to class 3 boating for a few months a year and might attend a pool session or two in the depths of the winter, then the spring thaw happens. They come out in droves, fired up to paddle the class 5 run off for one month a year.

Minnesota boaters come out in droves!

Stewart River

Unfortunately this year, the local crowd took more then their fair share of beatings. The classic runs were dolling out shoulder dislocations and gross lacerations (the rhyolite causes intrusions into the basalt creating razor blade sharp up lifts).

Tony Locken after crushing his head on the Split Rocks' Under the Log rapid, rocks hurt!

The Lester river,

Located just on the outskirts of Duluth, is the first class 5 river to start flowing. No warm up for the locals and unfortunately it showed; I personally enjoyed a three boat pile up. One of the classic big rapids, “Naked Man” was augmented by a huge flood late in the summer of 2013 and has become rather retentive. Flying down a low angle slide into a blind horizon line I managed a quick glimpse of another paddler swimming to shore, and another throwing unintended ends in the new massive river wide hydraulic. Moments later, after a violent tag team surf session, getting crushed by each others’ boats, both Ryan Zimney and I pulled the freedom handle and exited our crafts. All three “paddlers” were now standing on the side of the river laughing, cursing, and tracking down equipment. The perk of the trial by fire paddling style of Minnesota is the local paddlers are used to this kind of carnage.

If you enjoy burly class 5 what are you waiting for? Minnesota has arguably the best whitewater in the world, in April, Get there!

another adventure by Chris Baer

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is ignorance bliss? Spending time in undercuts of the Wairoa River, NZ

Another sun set on the North Island of NZ
Another sun set on the North Island of NZ
Twenty-six days a year the Wairoa River flows through a densely forested gorge. The other 339 days it’s rerouted in order to create a small amount of hydro-power, destroying a delicate ecosystem.

at the put in for the Wairoa, cliff jumping, paddling, and kids splashing
at the put in for the Wairoa, cliff jumping, paddling, and kids splashing

heading into the beautiful canyon section

With only a few release days a year the locals flock toward the Wairoa. The upstream access point turns into an arena of cliff jumpers, sun bathers, and kids splashing in pools, not to mention the Gore Tex clad kayakers heading into the rapids downstream.

Ladislav Švarc, on the waterfall
Ladislav Švarc, on the waterfall
The shuttle on the Wairoa only takes ten minutes, which means most paddlers make multiple laps during the release days. On one of these laps I was sitting at the base of Roller Coaster, the crux rapid, which has a tight entrance and stacked hydraulics in the main pitch. The issue with Roller Coaster is that all of the water at the base of the rapid flows directly into the left wall, which is distinctly undercut.

playing of getting chundered?
playing of getting chundered?
I floated in the safety eddy at the base of the rapid watching the rest of the crew when a paddler flipped on his descent. I wasn’t too concerned because Roller Coaster has the tendency to roll a fair amount of paddlers. The undercut left wall is located nearly 30 feet from the base of the rapid, which is far enough away that most people can attempt a couple of rolls. The scare came when the paddler botched one roll attempt after another. It wasn’t until he had floated across most of the pool nearing the undercut wall that he finally snapped up. A shaky brace and spastic attempt at getting away from the wall led to another capsize. The overturned boat made contact with the wall and it instantly disappeared.

The team went into action. People clambered onto rocks with throw bags, but there was nothing to throw at, he was under the rock. At this point I stayed in my boat, unclipped my tow tether, and patted down the front pocket of my PFD where I carry a CPR mask. Thoughts of how to deal with an unconscious victim started ripping through my brain. Everything was in place for some bold rescue attempts, all we needed now was a body. After a few seconds the crowd of rescuers started getting quiet because we hadn’t seen him in a while. Other thoughts started to roll through my head... previous accidents, and the thought of setting up a lowering system to start probing the undercut. Panning back and forth across the water line there was no sign of the paddler - he, his boat, and paddle had all vanished. I neared the wall looking for any signs when a helmet finally emerged from under the corner of the rock wall. That half a second while the helmet was on the surface of the water face-down felt like an eternity. I took a couple of huge strokes toward the would-be victim, he finally tilted his head upward and took that first surreal gasp of much needed oxygen. With one more stroke my bow was in his face and he grabbed onto it. I paddled back into the eddy. Amazingly he had no idea how close he was to dying and seemed rather unfazed by the episode.

the tight entrance into Roller Coaster
the tight entrance into Roller Coaster

Is ignorance bliss? He said that he just tried to stay calm and not do too much. I know from experiences that I would have been super aggressive down there. I’ve had a few friends come up from beneath undercuts with their fingernails packed full of moss and debris. Then again, struggling hard for an unknown escape route would certainly have deprived me of oxygen more quickly.

wheelie through stacked holes of Roller Coaster
wheelie through stacked holes of Roller Coaster
Steven Johanson, boofing Bottom Drop
Have fun out there friends, and do not be complacent, especially on your home runs! Just because you have paddled a section a thousand times doesn’t make the rocks any softer or the undercuts, strainers, and sieves any less dangerous.

As the five month trip was wrapping up it was time to sell the van and other gear. Time to go to the beach for a couple days of true relaxation.

adventure by Chris Baer