Thursday, December 25, 2014

All That Glitters Is Not Gold, Nam Lik and Nam Siam

All That Glitters Is Not Gold, Nam Lik and Nam Siam

Cultural day outside of Vang Vieng
International exploratory kayaking is exactly what it’s cracked up to be… difficult. Usually it starts as speculation, “Have you seen the gradient in Asia?” Then hours of probing topographical maps ensue. This usually creates a scratch pad full of river and village names that are impossible to pronounce. Subsequently, comes more inquiry, zooming all the way into Google maps, and hypothesizing if that blur of white in the riverbed is paddleable. Assumption are made, air flights are booked, and usually nothing else, because it’s all going to change once you get on the ground. Once leaving the airport, there are countless days traveling in all modes of transportation; usually on a loud, overcrowded vehicle, covered in dust, on very steep and jarring “road”. This only allows sufficient access to start ascertaining enough of the local dialect to make peace offerings. Physical scouting is the near culmination of the experience, fumbling through dense vegetation, and over inhospitable terrain. All of this is done while creating new alliances made through fringe connections. You will eat odd local delicacies that will certainly have you running for the toilet, or bush, soon. Financially, it’s completed on a shoestring budget, where sleeping next to the river deep in a canyon is the ultimate accommodation.

Isaac catching a vertical aspect of a Golden Buddha statue

Nam Lik: A Quick Afternoon First Descent?

Lao had already produced a spectacular piece of whitewater, and anticipation of more had gotten the better of us. The group had grown, and we were now a party of six; Lincoln Taylor, Ryan Butler, Isaac Tracey, Miri Miyazaki, Marlon Butler, and myself. Armed with marginal beta, we took a stab at yet another first descent section. The Nam Lik, now known as the Nam Siphon, had appropriate gradient as far as our two dollar map could indicate; 50-80 feet per mile for 4-5 miles. The map also clearly showed that the river ran amidst some towering limestone features. Passing over the supposed take out bridge, the water flow looked low, but suitable for a first descent.

Driving to the put in, the anticipation grew. The road was gaining massive amounts of gradient as it switched back and forth. Cresting a tall ridge, we were able to finally look down towards the river. I was in awe; huge 2,000 foot spires of limestone rock shot up beside the river.  It created a gravity-defying sensation. The walls were too tall for their own good, and consisted of mostly exposed rock with every crevice or micro plateau heaving with foliage. The valley floor was obscured by the impenetrable dark green rainforest which didn’t even allow a glimpse of the whitewater below. I was sold, even if the whitewater turned out to be class three, the ability to spend time in this beautiful drainage would be worth it.

Unpacking the truck at the put in for Nam Lik

All that Glitters is Not Gold, Nam Siam and Nam Lik from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

A few more switchbacks and we passed a gate and official signage, where the road improved substantially. I was instantaneously concerned about the next “improvement.” One of the ploys used against developing countries throughout the world is a promise of new and unsustainable infrastructure. Improved roads in many locations are not put in for farmers and their cattle, but to allow access for much larger vehicles (bulldozers and dump trucks). Mining, deforestation, and hydropower companies are usually the first to exploit these diverse and naturally rich, yet ignorant populations.

The plight in our location was the ever present Chinese dam. The power is actually wired out of Lao over the border into China. Once again, we would be putting the boats in at a deforested location; and the outflow of a small hydro scheme. Luckily, the hydro station was relatively quiet when we arrived. There were no guards or employees milling around, and we took this opportunity to quickly grab our boats out of the truck and prep for the river.

Chris Baer "wheelchairing" over an early portage

It’s miraculous how Mother Nature holds her ground against the continual onslaught of human “improvement.” On water, we traveled only a few hundred yards and the dense jungle resumed its beauty, concealing the devastation behind us. It was gorgeous with huge native trees interlocking with each other to bar any outside influence. Even the whitewater was looking worthy. Before the dam existed, nature had allowed undisturbed floods and dry seasons to cut deep pools, and the occasional four foot boof. Everything was coming together, and it looked as if the river would deliver a spectacular first descent.

Isaac paddling a fun yet sieve infested line

As we worked downstream, the water split around an island where half the crew had to portage up and over a downed tree. Then there was another tree in the water. This tree was atop a pile of rocks that were siphoning the main flow of the river. Luckily, it was a quick portage through dense bamboo and over razor sharp limestone rock. After the quick scramble, we were greeted with a marginal section of whitewater that concluded in yet another portage. This exercise involved us climbing a two story siphon of limestone. It was savage to be able to look down through 20 feet of swiss cheese rock and see the river ever so diligently cutting its way through the rock.

Chris Baer, the only clean ledge

After half a dozen portages, the crew was starting to separate. I was getting concerned because a missed step or an awkward exit from a craft would easily put someone in the water. At his point, the water was consistently siphoning out, and was rarely visible on the surface. “Sketchy” would be a gentle term for the situation. Yet the team pushed on while the river pushed back; it was unrelenting. Upon clearing one massive siphon, all you could do was raise your brow to see the next, more imposing latticework of rock and vegetation.

As the team slaved its way through the maze, we soon became less and less of a team. We were all over the place; some two stories up on huge limestone ridges, others had worked to the shoreline and were battling through the dense jungle vegetation, yet others were wading and ducking under and through some of the siphons. There was no longer any support; it was everyone for themselves.

I was over it.

At this point, it would have been all too easy for someone to miss a step and end up with a massive laceration on the sharp limestone rock, or worse, slip and end up in one of the countless siphons. In order to rebuild the team, I let out a loud, “WHOOP!” and a couple others responded. Another “whoop” and the Marco Polo game commenced. Slowly, with a few sporadic curses between “whoops”, the team reconvened on the corner of a rice paddy. It was time to reevaluate our game plan. With everyone face to face, it was much easier to grasp the logistics. The facts were simple. During the two hours “on water”, we had covered just over a mile. The sun was going to set in another hour or two, and we had perhaps four more miles of unexplored river to cover until our presumed exit location…it was time to bail on the mission.

An old lesson was remembered from Mexico in 2008: dusk was upon us as we stood on the edge of a cliffed out hillside, and on the brink of a 20 foot cascade. The good news, freshly cut banana trees. If the farmers can hike out of here with kilos of bananas on their shoulders, the team realized there had to be a way for us to get out. The rice paddy that we were now standing in (in Lao) must also have a path out of it. A quick walk led Marlon to a tiny structure, where inside was the local farmer. Thankfully, Marlon’s Laotian proved to be more than adequate to chat with the local farmer. After a quick conversation, an exit strategy was ascertained. There was an overgrown trail that would lead us the mile and a half back up to the truck. As we hiked upstream through dense jungle, it felt almost forgiving, as at the very least we weren’t going to slip and end up under a rock.

Sometimes everything lines up, and it still doesn’t work. The Nam Lik is a blatant no go!

Plain of Jars
Isaac in the bottom of a bomb crater,Plain of Jars

Nam Siam

Earlier this trip, Lincoln and I completed an absolutely amazing trip on the Nam Ngiap. One of the major tributaries to the Nam Ngiap is the Nam Siam. As we passed it a week earlier, the water ran dark green in opposition to our mudslide ridden chocolate brown of the Nam Ngiap. After the trip, and returning to civilization, one of the first things on my mind was what did the gradient on the lower Nam Siam look like and what was the access? Studying topographical maps, Google Earth, and everything else I could get my hands on, it looked as if we could establish access by crossing a bridge near the confluence of the Nam Ngiap and Nam Siam. We would cross the Nam Ngiap and head upstream along the Nam Siam to an even smaller village. Upon arrival at the tiny village, we would be high in the drainage and I estimated that we would be just past the last major tributary.

We were in for a reality check.

We are in Lao, and nothing is easy. Upon reaching the confluence bridge there was a gate, and it was being well patrolled by some military and other government employees. There is a dam being built on the Nam Siam and access through the job site would prove to be difficult. The employees of the dam were already augmenting the local culture, and were definitely connoisseurs of our previous “dining” establishment. Adding to the difficulty, was the manager stumbling into our access debate on the whiskey side of intoxicated. Conversation continued and again the locals thought we would surely kill ourselves by going down the river. After twenty minutes, the manager was slowly coming to terms with our request. His counter offer included some money for his evening at the “dining” establishment, and that we “hire” a few of the men from the local military to escort us up the river, guaranteeing our safety.

Lao's navy, or just a lousy navy?
working out logistics with out hired guard

The plan was for two vehicles, loaded with four kayaks, a double ducky, a mom, young baby, and three soldiers to head up the river as far as possible to “look” at the river. Technically we were just there to look, we still hadn’t worked out permission to paddle yet. Quickly, the road degraded and the van started to bottom out. Eventually, we called the van off, but not until the van’s rear differential left a four inch deep five foot long streak in the dense clay. Halting the van wasn’t due to dragging the drive train, it was that we were high centered and the wheels wouldn’t reach the ground. The hired military escort became useful as we pushed, pulled, and cursed the van back to more appropriate terrain.

Ryan Butler on the Nam Siam

Repacking all of the gear and people into and onto the now overburdened truck, we recommenced the journey up the continually degrading path. At this point, we were only intermittently being passed by scooters heading up to the small village. We slowly covered four miles when our armed company relayed the fact that we were about to leave their jurisdiction and that we needed to stop. A quick conversation with the guards (who were keen to watch us paddle) granted us permission to put on the river as long as we exited above the dam structure. They were fine with us paddling; they just didn’t want to be found in contempt of the manager.

Ryan Butler, Nam Siam

Traditionally, the logistics are by far the hardest part of the river section. The whitewater is a mix of steep class four bedrock and meandering beautiful jungle scenery. This section would be a spectacular “class five” rafting section, with small boats and good guides. Unfortunately, it is about to disappear. The dam is well under construction and this gorgeous section of whitewater will be lost for generations.

Isaac, Nam Siam

Upcoming paddlers should entertain the possibility of entering this drainage through the top. I have no idea what kind of work it would take to access the upper village, but once there, ascertaining access to the river would have to be easier than trying to bypass the dam.

Chris Baer, Nam Siam

It’s painful to go to these stunning locations only to see the jungle clear cut and huge earth moving machines redistributing the landscape for a short term export. The world is globalizing, and with doing so, it’s imperative that we help save the culture of those we impact. Not learning from the past is the greatest way to duplicate it.

another adventure brought to you by Chris Baer

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