Sunday, December 1, 2013

Upper Whitcombe, NZ

Upper Whitcombe, NZ 

Another North American summer was coming to an end and the thoughts of warmer destinations were circling in my dreams: Where to go? For how long? Is there anything I need to get back to the states for? Any crazy remote missions? Political Nightmares? Work opportunities? Graeme Singleton hit me up, "Do you want to work in NZ for Eco Rafting? You'll get to go heli rafting!" Yes, that is what you think it is. Instead of meeting the rafting clients and getting on an old beat down bus, you get in an old beat down helicopter and fly up a remote canyon.

hard earned cash transforming into unimaginable transportation, cash for helicopter, kayak, heli, nz, new zealand, chris baer,
hard earned cash transforming into unimaginable transportation
How could I say no? The smooth rock features, helicopter access canyons, and the idea of coming out of the winter financially stable all seemed rather intriguing.

over the ocean somewhere... long flight, whereisbaer, NZ, New Zealand, Chris Baer, kayak, travel, flying, airplane
over the ocean somewhere... long flight

The first weekend in New Zealand

was a whirlwind. My kayak got confiscated and fumigated for transporting a couple of live ants from West Virginia. Paul Siratovich took me out on the town but we got denied access into the downtown bars for wearing "jandals" (flip-flops). I bought a used Nissan mini van, and traveled six hours to Queenstown.

getting the kayak out of hock at the international fumigation terminal, NZ, new zealand, chris baer, whereisbaer, international travel
getting the kayak out of hock at the international fumigation terminal

Go figure, none of the US certificates transfer to NZ. So I spent a week in a New Zealand swift-water course, after which I was seriously itching for some real creek boating.


was the next destination, known as being the "creek boating capital" of New Zealand. Swinging through Hokitika for some groceries, I poked around looking for anyone that was paddling. Bumping into a paddling crew, that I am sure to paddle with in the future, we did the classic. "Hi… yea you paddle… well we are going into this hard section… and umm…" I have the utmost respect for that crew to deny me a spot on the difficult, helicopter access, river section. For gods sake we just met in a parking lot. Stated in many previous stories, it is imperative to know your crew. That crew did help me out with some beta. Another group of paddlers was heading to the same helipad the next day to do a slightly easier section. I was jonesing hard enough to paddle with strangers, especially if it was not going to be a super hard West Coast run.

Special Note for traveling internationally: Make sure you wash your boat and gear WELL! Not just to save the eco system you are visiting, but also so you don't get hassled at Customs. Another new trick I implemented this year: tip out the curb side baggage guy. $40 bucks made the imposing task of getting the boat past the check-in agent smooth. The curb side guy pocketed the cash, gave me a hand getting all my stuff out of the cab, wheeled it to the first class counter, and everything went on the plane without getting weighed or charged for being over sized.

The next morning I arrived at the helipad. The crew from the previous day, along with a few new faces, were all getting prepped for the incoming helicopter. Once again they stated there was another crew coming that might be in for an easier section.

A few minutes passed and another kayak laden car pulled into the parking lot. The occupants got out and after a quick couple of seconds, Mark Basso and I made the connection. We had bumped into each other seven years prior at a race on Big Timber Creek in Montana. Hands shook, and some catching up started, as he introduced me to his traveling companion Dag Sandvik. Dag classically shares a ton of mutual friends, and has become an instant buddy.

Traveling paddlers unite! 

The days paddling strategy was agreed upon. We would go up the namesake river the Hokitika and paddle back to the cars. Moments later we received some beta from the helicopter pilot. A landslide had come in on the Hokitika and had changed a particularly narrow and inescapable canyon, not to mention the flow in the Hoki was really low. Mark went up for a quick reconnaissance flight and confirmed our change in strategies. We reassessed our options and decided to put-in at the same place the other crew did, and paddle the "difficult" canyon.

part of the lower canyon looking reasonable from way above, Chris Baer, NZ, new zealand, whitcombe, upper, kayak, blue water glacial, winning, helicopter
part of the lower canyon, from way above
Watching the helicopter take flight with your kayak dangling 100 feet below in a tangle of cargo net is pretty awe inspiring. A few minutes later the chopper flew back in and we boarded for a 20 minute (18 kilometer) flight to Price's hut. Upon landing on a small gravel beach, we hopped out of the helicopter and unloaded our boats. The helicopter pilot then turned to us and said, "give me a text when you are out of the canyon, so I don't come up here looking for you tonight." The words were comforting, eerie, and stunning; we were way up a drainage with one imposing way out.

make the easy leg of the journey, heli kayaking, NZ, new zealand, Chris Baer
make the easy leg of the journey
None of our crew knew the section, or even the character of the river bed. We quickly started scouting any and all horizon lines. Putting the fun back in siphon (si-FUN), there were tons of undercuts and missing water in every rapid, along with some absolute exquisite rock formations. Every rapid had a hidden hazard and most had an appealing line.

Dag Sandvik, on one of the countless fun moves, waterfall, nz, new zealand, upper whitcombe, chris baer,
Dag Sandvik, on one of the countless fun moves
Slowly we tackled the first gorge, paddling most of the rapids, but finding a few that did not reach our risk to reward threshold. Portaging was tricky and some awkward seal launches where necessary to make downstream progress.

The crew was rather dynamic. The fact that I didn't know either of the guys really well meant that we all kept the communication lines wide open. Chatting about different paddling options, and laughing at off color jokes, all while staring at death defying rapids.

As we exited the first canyon, the walls start to widen but the rapids did not let up. Huge boulders from the canyon have been strewn downstream and it took another kilometer of tricky boating to clear the class 5 whitewater. Finally the "difficult" section was over and the next few kilometers through the "flats" went rather quickly. Our stomachs were starting to grumble as we spotted Frew's hut. The rather well kept backpackers hut was a great lunch location as it offered resistance to the obnoxious sand flies. We took a few extra minutes at lunch getting to know each other and refueling for the final canyon.

Back on the water the final canyon arrived quickly. Thankfully the second canyon looked much more paddle-able than the first, from 1500 feet above in the helicopter. As we clamored out of our boats for the first scout of the lower canyon, the rapids exhibited the same eerie construction. Nothing was boat scoutable and hidden hazards were everywhere. Gracefully the rapids had a larger margin of error and the overall gradient was less than half of the upper canyon making the downstream progression much easier. A few hours and more than a few generous boofs later we made our way into the last flat section. Another couple of kilometers of conversation and a quick, but not very obvious hike, brought us back to the vehicles.

Mt. Cook in the distance, new zealand, panorama, lake, blue water, snow covered peaks,
Mt. Cook in the distance
Old friends reunited, new friends made, and an awesome first day of steep creaking on the West Coast of New Zealand was celebrated with a couple of solid high fives and warm beer.

another adventure from Chris Baer, kayak, class 5, NZ, New Zealand,
another adventure from Chris Baer

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