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