Thursday, April 6, 2017

Feeling Lucky in Arizona’s Fickle Paddling Season? Pump House Wash


Ted Decker sliding into Mexican Pocket

Timing the Arizona paddling season is just shy of impossible. Good flows on some of the classic sections might last for only a week, and catching the correct flow on an obscure river might just take luck. Fortune favored Tom Herring, Ted Decker, Dave Sherman, Pete Traylor, and me when early spring rain began to fall on a substantial snow pack just south of Flagstaff, Arizona.   



Pump House Wash begins atop the Mogollon Rim, just south of Flagstaff. It quickly plummets through spectacular sandstone layers to a confluence with another small tributary creating Oak Creek. Oak Creek then produces a couple of classic whitewater sections as it cascades its way down, through the city of Sedona.

Hiking down to the put in


Accessing Pump House Wash

From Flagstaff, head south on 89A to County Road 237. Early spring missions usually mean that the 237 road is closed. If this is the case, park at the gate. Walk on the seasonally sloppy, muddy road for about a 1/4 mile and then veer right into the woods and continue downhill. Once in the trees, follow your ears and you should be able to make out the flow of the small wash. Put in where you can and deal with a short-lived, bouncy paddle in. Soon you will be at the first major horizon line, Mexican Pocket. Scout or portage from river left, but remember: this is what you came for. This is by far the best rapid on the section. Mexican Pocket offers a bouncy slide that puts you dangerously close to the right wall which then drops you into a boiling hallway at the precipice of a 15’ drop. After the drop, you quickly descend into the sandstone layers. Stark white Coconino sandstone caps the classic red sandstone of the Supai Group. It’s this Coconino that you will only see high up in the drainage and the red Supai below comprises the majority of the paddling run. This relatively soft sandstone has been carved into a myriad of tiny slots, sluices, and pocketed ledges, intermixed with a few complicated, multistage rapids. Just to add character, the wash also has plenty of blind corners and partially submerged trees.


Our group portaged two successive drops near the middle of the run. The first one lands on rock, and the second is a very tight, complex lead-in to a fifteen-ish foot drop that recirculates under the left wall. Thankfully, this horizon line is rather obvious from inside your boat, and relatively easy to portage river left. Stay heads up for fallen trees and blind corners all the way down to the 89A bridge, your take out.

A motley and slightly chilly crew at the take out

Water levels are determined on a hydrological barometer gauge that can be found at:
https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/121/#tab-flow
Our flows peaked at 1,400 cfs the night before and were hovering around 1,000 cfs on the barometer gauge when we put on, meaning we were really paddling on 200 cfs at the put in and 500 cfs by the take out.

keep your eyes peeled all the way to the take out

If this stretch were all Mexican Pocket-esque drops, it would be a 5 star mission, however it never really comes together. Floating underneath arches and through tight, inescapable clefts of towering bright red sandstone makes for a spectacular location, but the rock structure never combines with the gradient at the correct time to build great whitewater. Not to mention that the water level rarely gets high enough, and when it does you’re scouting and portaging in snow. But when serendipity strikes, it’s definitely a worthwhile adventure.

adventure by Chris Baer



Monday, March 6, 2017

Sometimes the logistics aren’t as legal as you might want.


an amazing canyon

serenity above chaos
Kayaking missions sometimes lead us into murky waters, legally. Technically when I’m changing into or out of wet shorts on the side of the road I’m committing public indecency. Post-run cold ones, hopefully in a coozie and not a bootie, are open containers. Scouting, and occasionally accessing, really means trespassing. In all of these circumstances I ask myself the same question: If I’m not hurting anyone else, what does it matter?


the boys below a rather nasty hydraulic
desert run off
By no means would I ever suggest breaking a law, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil in kayaking, and sometimes the risk is worth the reward.

Adventure by Chris Baer




Friday, February 24, 2017

Biggest Class 3 in the World? Siang River, Arunachal Pradesh, India



Colin Aitken looking microscopic on the Siang River

The small jet was making its final approach into Katmandu International Airport. I knew we were close to the ground with wing flaps wide open and the slight feel of falling, but I still couldn’t see the ground. It wasn’t until we were less than hundred feet off the tarmac that I could see through the smog. While collecting my baggage, I was overrun by some of my worst fears of traveling in huge cities: rudeness, pollution, trash everywhere, horns constantly honking, and haggling for everything. After an hour of haggling at the airport, I found transportation to a dingy hotel, with non-locking doors, a cold shower, and plenty of rodent roommates. Fortunately it was just for a night, and I was able to fly out the next day, this time landing in Guwahati and somewhat more reasonable international chaos.

just a random intersection in India

The Assam region isn’t part of most people’s mental map of India. Its location and indigenous culture create a beautiful landscape reminding me more of Northern Myanmar than the hustle and bustle of Delhi. Colin Aitken and I had a few mutual acquaintances and were both looking for an opportunity to explore via kayak. We shook hands for the first time in a bus station in eastern India, exchanged pleasantries, and bought tickets to make our way to Pasighat. The bus ride was overnight, close to 16 hours of bouncing through the far Indian wild (east). The view out of the bus window of the countryside was of beautiful, distant rolling hills that fed into the Himalayas. Occasionally the bus would come to a stop and all of the occupants would file out and into what I could only describe as an Indian truck stop. I still can't believe I didn't get food poisoning during this leg of the trip.



kayaks loaded, not ready for 16 hours of bus travel

Arriving in the small, jump-off town of Pasighat meant that the chaotic pace of the big city was behind us. While sipping Assam tea we chatted with locals about the logistical challenge of getting our boats to the town of Tuting. Our local advice had us arranging a two day, jarring jeep ride north to the border town. It was seven hours up the watershed to the midway point and the mountain town of Yingkiong. There we chatted with yet more drivers about getting our equipment further up the drainage. With our limited local language skills, we attempted to schedule for a driver to meet us at our hotel the following morning. Seven in the morning came early as we waited outside our prayer flag-adorned hotel. We watched a handful of taxis and tuk-tuks rallying by, but to where? We started asking questions and determined that we ought to catch a taxi to destination unknown… hopefully where the jeep was awaiting. The microscopic taxi, with our two multi-day laden kayaks on top, bounced and bottomed out on our way to a partially completed bridge. Here, the driver gave us the international hand signal of, “Get out and walk across the bridge.”

Colin Aitken waiting outside our luxury amenities for transportation that would never arrive



Colin, damn that bridge is sketchy

It may have been that I hadn’t had my morning allotment of caffeine yet, but the bridge was sketchy and I wasn’t really feeling it. I’m pretty sure it was erected mostly with driftwood and bailing wire. There were missing boards everywhere, and it swayed with the lightest breeze. To top it off, the early morning fog was thick and you couldn’t tell how long, or for that matter how high up, the bridge was. Then I had the unnerving thought that I alone might be the heaviest thing that the bridge had transported in quite some time, not to mention I was shouldering my loaded down creek boat.

We scurried across the bridge and walked up the steep embankment on the other side to see a myriad of loaded down jeeps. Their drivers were attaching bags and pots onto the roofs of the vehicles. We were quickly greeted and given another hand signal, “Tie your boats down, we are about to go!” Still unsure if this was exactly the ride we had paid for, but not caring so long as we had a ride, we helped tie our kayaks to the roof and crammed ourselves inside with seven other passengers. We bounced another seven hours up the valley. Arriving in Tuting late in the afternoon on December 30th, Colin and I were exhausted from the travel and wanted to enjoy the labor of our work. We decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Tuting, which allowed me to capture some photo/video clips and explore the uniquely located mountain town. January 1st, we awoke to a partly cloudy sky, and we wandered down to the massive blue-green river. The hike in gave us a good vantage of the first rapid, it looked like it was going to be big. Trying to get comfortable in massive volume water, I paddled out to the main current and felt what seemed like ocean waves coming at me from every angle.

Buddhist monastery outside of Tuting
Tuting, Siang River, the beginning

The first day on the river produced by far the best whitewater of the section, including two utterly massive rapids. The first was caused by the delta of a tributary entering on the right forcing 100,000 cfs into a huge bedrock wall on the left. The water surged upward into a handful of fifteen-plus foot tall crashing waves. Coming over the first lead-in wave, I finally grasped how huge the rapid was. I was quickly entrenched in the pit of the wave and all I could see was water. The second enormous rapid was again caused by a tributary coming in on the right, but this time, instead of compression waves, it had scattered, house-sized boulders throughout the riverbed making a variety of features to avoid, and a couple of Himalayan-sized waves to blast over. The whitewater stayed world class throughout the entire day. With huge smiles, we pulled over on river left at about five o’clock in the evening to set up camp.

feeling small in India
our kitchen, night one

Awaking on the second morning to no sun, my tarp was drenched with dew and the temperature was just shy of cold. Knitted beanie and puffy jacket on, I made a delicious breakfast of oats and Nescafe. On the water, we were greeted with more giant features and a couple of intense river directional changes. While a 90° turn of the river usually isn’t scary, when there is 100,000 cfs smashing into a cliff and creating enormous swirling whirlpools, things start to get entertaining. Mid-afternoon on day two, we passed under the sketchy Yingkiong bridge which we had crossed on foot in fog only a few days before. We continued downstream through one more splashy wave train and then eddied out on river left so we could hike up to town, where we were excited to find a filling meal and an okay bed to sleep in.

evening view from Yingkiong

The roosters were crowing as we awoke in Yingkiong on the morning of day three. The very accommodating hotel owner was already up, and quietly sang to herself in a monk-like, chanting style as she made us a hardy breakfast. The rapids were slightly subdued compared to the previous days, and we were able to cover some substantial mileage. By mid-afternoon we had stopped for a good camp location just upstream of the town of Boleng, allowing us to gather firewood and the chance to set up tarps before the sun set and the thick dew set in.

Chris Baer, disheveled, exhausted, and thirsty
camp, night three
Colin Aitken, looking small on the Siang River

Extra-heavy dew and thick clouds awaited us on the fourth morning. We took our time getting off the beach, trying to let the obscured sun dry our sleeping bags and tarps. When it was time to get on the river, we started out strong, paddling a handful of good rapids and then some long pools, and then some more long pools until finally we hit the confluence with yet another substantial tributary, the Yamne River. We were now on multiple hundreds of thousands of cfs. Random boils and massive whirlpools would erupt out of nowhere. It felt more like the ocean than a river. We pushed on, skipping lunch and eating a quick snack while in our kayaks. We paddled and paddled. My hands and shoulders were sore and the sun was starting to set. From everything we had gathered, we shouldn’t have been too far from Pasighat, so we paddled on. By the time we got a glimpse of the Pasighat bridge, it wasn’t so much that I could make out that it was a bridge than there were levitating headlights in the distance.

local market

Climbing out of our kayaks after a solid eight hours of paddling was painful. We sluggishly carried them up to the bridge and hitchhiked into town. Luckily, kayakers are an extreme oddity in these parts and a few young men getting off their shift, with smiles and multiple handshakes, quickly picked us up and drove us into downtown. We eagerly, hungrily, hopped out of the truck and made our way to our favorite hole in the wall eatery. With a solid meal in us we wandered back to our local accommodations, blowing off return logistics until morning.


adventure by Chris Baer

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Feeling Small in Nepal, Upper Marsyangdi


Looking north into the tallest mountains in the world

The tallest mountains in the world surround us. Their brilliant, snow-encrusted peaks seem almost dull in comparison to the vibrant prayer flags and audaciously painted structures here in the quintessential Himalayan mountain town of Jagat. From this microscopic Nepali village, Garen Stephens and myself would start yet another trip of a lifetime. The plan was simple; kayak from just north of Jagat nineteen miles down to the slack water of the Mid-Marsyangdi hydro-dam, located just to the south of the town of Besisahar.

the $10 a night hotel in Jagat had a view


Finding Poise in International Logistics


Just under a week before arriving in Jagat, I was meeting up with Kate Stepan and Justin Kleberg in Pokhara, Nepal. We were hashing out plans for what seemed like a fairly straightforward mission… But international logistics always seem to have a dozen wrenches in them; it’s just a matter of trying to determine where they might pop up, and how to deal with them as smoothly as possible when they do. It might be that the vehicle breaks down, it might be that your language skills fail you and you end up in a town hours away from your destination, it might be that the boats don’t fit, or they get denied, or there is sharp metal that will wear through your boat on the roof rack. Or it might be that your attempt at local haggling doesn’t work in your favor, or you get food poisoning from what looked like delicious street food, or the fact that nothing is on schedule and arriving three hours late is standard. Trying to combine what seem to be simple logistics almost never works internationally, but when it does it feels almost magical.

loading kayaks for the trip to Besisahar


this bus isn't even close to full



arriving in Besisahar


local greeting committee

This first leg of the trip, we actually pulled it off: our tourist bus (has less chickens on it, and you usually get a seat) left Pokhara almost on time, it didn’t break down or get in an accident, and we arrived in Besisahar at about noon. Upon arrival, the team broke into different roles: watching the equipment, looking for a room, and searching for a jeep. With the tasks completed, we reconvened and walked to the “hotel”, tossed our bags into the room, dug out our paddling equipment, then walked back across the street to our awaiting jeep. We quickly piled boats and ourselves into the jeep and started to bounce our way up the dirt “road” to Simpani (the border of the Annapurna Conservation area). There we quickly geared up and got on the river. It was a blast! Nearly eight miles of splashy, continuous class 4 water.


looking back on the Annapurna Range

After two days of quintessential class 4, Justin Kleberg and I walked down the street from our hotel to the Annapurna Conservation Area permit office and doled out twenty dollars each to attain our special access permit. This would allow us to travel further up into the drainage. Four more miles up the road, we went to Lamjung and put on at the brink of yet another dam. Subsequently, the section had a portion of its water pulled out and through the hydro scheme. Although the section was partially dewatered, it had a slightly steeper gradient profile then the lower section. It was again spectacular class 4/4+ whitewater. The lines were significantly tighter with more river-wide, dynamic features then the lower section, but thankfully it was entirely boat-scoutable.

Annapurna special access permit

the lady standing in the aisle just out of frame pawned this chicken-in-a-bag off on these guys, they didn't seem so stoked

The following day Kate and Justin had to leave, so I messaged Garen Stephens. He said he was on his way, and wanted to know if I would stick around for a couple more days. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. The sections that we had paddled so far were classic, and a couple more laps on these gems seemed obligatory. Garen made it to Besisahar the next day around midday, and we rallied up for a quick get-to-know-you lap to make sure we would make good paddling partners. We instantly bonded and agreed it would be an exciting mission to head yet further up into the drainage.


local festivities in Besisahar


Yet Further Up the Watershed


The jeep ride got sketchier and bouncier as we continued into the upper part of the drainage. A kilometer past Jagat, the road got relatively close to the river and we signaled to the driver to pull over. The Marsyangdi had changed character; it was now walled in and the rapids were stacked on top of each other. This section is relatively steep at 122 feet per mile, and had not been dewatered by a dam making it rather pushy. We could no longer boat scout as safely as we had in the middle section, and found ourselves out of our boats at almost every horizon line. 

one of the dozen or so cable bridges spanning the river

Vertical Walls and Portaging Are a Trying Combination


We were only a kilometer downstream from the put in when Garen hopped out of his kayak to take a peek at yet another horizon line. This time, he had a different look on his face. There was contemplation, and maybe a bit of concern, as he shouted to me, “you’re going to want to take a peek at this!” The rapid was rather heinous. There was definitely a line, but it looked like one of those rapids that you fired up the day after you broke up with your significant other. Portaging looked almost equally heinous. We were heading into an uncertain black hole with overhanging boulders looming above and a 45 degree slope of slippery rocks coated in dark slime that all angled down towards the massive siphon that was the cause of our hike in the first place. Then there was a cave-like rock structure that we had to shoved our boats through. Then we precariously maneuvered a thin rock ridge thirty feet above yet more siphons. Next up was a small jump across a death crevasse, followed by a steep, overgrown hillside full of thorns. That led quickly into a dry creek bed with plenty of ankle-rolling sized cobble stones, and even more overgrown vegetation. I leaned into the melee of foliage with all my weight but the flora proved unresponsive to gravity.

Garen Stephens, enjoying another classic class 4 rapid


feeling small tucked into the Himalayas


An hour and a half later we made it back onto the water. We were making slow progress. Continuous scouting proved necessary with yet more difficult, stacked rapids that had plenty of no-go locations. Time wasn’t on our side as the sun soon dipped behind the Himalayas. Graciously, the canyon walls momentarily subsided and allowed us an escape from the river. We had made such little downstream progress that we decided to walk the kilometer or so back up to the picturesque village of Jagat, where we enjoyed a relatively soft bed, hot food, and a cold beer.


Garen Stephens heading into the unknown


Day Two, Marsyangdi


The early morning light illuminated the ridiculously steep valley as we hiked back down to the river. Our first rapid was rowdy and got us back in the spirit. The river was once again producing amazing whitewater, one great rapid after the next. Thankfully, we were able to boat scout significantly more rapids on the second day. The only portage that we encountered had a marginal line, but we just weren’t feeling it. Late on day two we stumbled upon a hot spring on river left (next time I might plan on camping at this location and enjoying the hot springs into the evening), but we continued down to the village of Lamjung where we spent the night.

put in, day two


Day three, we routed down the familiar lower section connecting nineteen miles of spectacular class 4, with a couple of bonus big rapids to contend with. If this river were stateside, it would be a true classic, with hordes of paddlers on it every day.

our daily commute




adventure by Chris Baer