Friday, February 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHITE! Water

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

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

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

 Staying in Milford

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

 Sandfly mania!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of paddling in Fiordland 

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

adventure by Chris Baer