Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Only Weekend: East and Main Beaver

The morning came too soon after a long night and sleep was coveted. I was in the company of folks with the same philosophy. By noon we had all gathered and an hour later kayak laden vehicles left Duluth behind, bound northward. Our destination was much a repeat of the day previous. The East Beaver river was a old stand-by and assured enjoyment.The levels and paddlers were much the same. We quickly sped for the three falls, and when the horizon line was reached we each went in succession without hesitation. I recall putting conscious attention to the first drop and it's technical nature. I went over the lip in a forward position and dug my paddle half way down. I heard the boof and was more than satisfied. I took no time to wait and went over the second falls. Another boof... my confidence was growing.

Japs on the Three Falls of the East Fork of the Beaver (Photo credit: Chad Thurow)

Four of us gathered for a second lap and hiked up the steep banks for another run. On the first falls I felt myself self plug mightily and was thrown onto my back deck. Underwater I regrouped and resurfaced upright. The second falls was much the same, and felt myself being sucked into the base of the falls. I ender myself to the right and found myself clear of its grasp. Whatever confidence I had built was diminished.

A congregation of us paddler below the Three Falls

I had agreed to go with Justin down the remainder of the Beaver River as it ran towards Lake Superior. The rest of the group had brought their boats ashore, meanwhile we paddled onward. In the distance lay a jagged cliff blocking the horizon. As it neared, the river opened widely before us as the east and west forks of the Beaver River came to a confluence. The river transitioned into class III and a ominous roar was heard over the river's oncoming horizon line. We got out of boats and marveled at the heinous drop. Giant and hungry holes confirmed it was a rapid I would likely never run, and if it was run it would be once in a lifetime experience. After portaging, our boats again met the water. Navigating through a short section of moderate whitewater, we again came to a horizon line. I sat in quiet reverence to the river's menacing beauty. I had never seen a drop of such magnitude in all of the Midwest. The river entire river poured narrowly through a cliff lined constriction over boulders the size of cars, sieved out under them, created powerful hydraulics, and cascaded in a final slide. I was unnerved at the possibility of running any portion of the drop. However Justin was ready to put in and run the final slide of the drop.

This portion of the drop bears the need of description. The entire river threads through the aforementioned boulders until it it transitions to a 35 yard wide voluminous slide that culminates in a 15 foot drop that violently collides with a van sized pyramid shaped boulder.

Staring down the aforementioned drop's horizon line

I stood on my perch overlooking the drop with a throw bag and camera in hand, meanwhile Justin put in and readied himself. Ferrying through a narrow slot he sped down the slide. Watching him nail his boof, I smiled as he shot airborne into the melee of exploding water. Avoiding the giant boulder he emerged smiling.

Justin on the Main Beaver River

I looked at the drop and knew it was within my range of abilities. Unlike many paddlers, time spent reviewing a drop increasing my chances of running it exponentially. Every paddler battles in their head with two forces. The internal protectionist focuses on every realistic point of danger and feeds doubt. In opposition, ambition sees optimistically points the direction of success. However for any paddle there comes a turning point having balanced your angels and demons and decisively turn to the chosen path. I eyed the possibilities and fought with the intimidation of the outward appearance of the drop. Justin clamored to shore to gave me needed encouragement walking me through the moves. I turned from the river and knew my path.

I set my boat into a micro eddy and nervously saddled up in my boat. Rounding the backside of a sheltering boulder I ferried up stream, caught the current, and and peeled through a narrow slot letting impulse take hold. Rocketing down the slide, I positioned myself to launch away from the disastrous boulder. Amidst a drop one achieves a zen-like meditative state. The world drops off and uninterrupted focus on the poetry of motion ensues. For a moment existence becomes liberatingly simple... survive! The world went white with aerated water as I felt my kayak take flight. I felt a soft impact as if landing on a cloud and the sky slowly came back into view. I emerged with a heart pumping adrenaline to fuel the welling enthusiasm. I was unable to contain the emotion and erupt in a primal and victorious vocalism.

Myself emerging from the chaos

The Beaver hadn't concluded it's raging yet, as we navigated the Class IV boulder field and over the last remaining drops. We exited our boats before the Beaver River turned angry as it guards the passage into Lake Superior with drops of a unwieldy magnitude.

Myself amongst the boulder gardens on the Main Beaver

I walked from the river content and thankful. It must be said that a paddling companion can make the difference in any day on the river. It not only in light of safety that we seldom paddle alone. The mental battle of paddling is not to be a solitary endeavor. Those that you paddle with are vital in one's growth as a paddler. A fellow paddler's encouragement and belief can make ever bit of difference when struggling to believe in oneself in the face of animosity. Justin had tipped the balance for me and allowed me to run a drop I otherwise would have turned from. I was grateful.

Myself on the Main Beaver

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Only Weekend: Split Rock and East Beaver Rivers

I awoke earlier than expected or need be. The sun was shining warmly and the sky shone blue as I packed my gear. Paddlers (if I may generalize) seem to revel in slow mornings. I drove to the Lester River parking lot and took a nap in my car waiting for the community to gather.

A fleet of 5-6 vehicles headed northward from Duluth, our sights set upon the Split Rock river. We arrived to find the river levels favorable. Gearing up our group of 8 paddlers set out hiking 3 miles up river, our boats heavily borne upon our shoulders. The sun was high in sky as the sweat dripped from my brow and my breath pulsed with exertion. Gradually the sound of the river came to our ears and then around a bend came into sight.

A short while later we set our kayaks upon the rock shores of the river and readied for battle. For those who have never witnessed the Split Rock river it is unlike any other. It cascades repeatedly and unremittingly over long shallow slides of rock winding it's way to the cold waters of Lake Superior. To the unseasoned eye the river is intimidating, but to any paddler it holds sheer joy. Each of us found our way rocketing down the shallow river in boundless exhilaration.

The river climaxed in a steep slide that billows into a walled in constricted hanging pool that exits narrowly through a slotted passage holding a hole that buries rock of threatening quality. So named "Under The Log" ( for the log it once contained), the drop earn a reputation over the last years for injuring paddlers.

A fellow paddler's helmet cam of "Under The Log" from that day
Courtesy of Nora Whitmore!!

I put most my thoughts of the drop aside and focused on the fact that I had run the drop the year previous without incident. This year there was no difference as my kayak and I navigated the chaos, punched the hole, and smiled broadly. The river calmly gave way to Lake Superior and strode up the cold gravel beach to our vehicles.

The sun still held its light to the land as we traveled northward for our next adrenaline meal. It was clear with little analysis that the East Fork of the Beaver was at a fun level. We all saddled up in our kayaks and paddled amongst alder and ice crusted banks of the Beaver River. When the river gave way to it's gnashing the paced picked up. Finding the horizon line we were looking for no one stopped. The East Beaver pours over 3 falls in succession and separated by hanging pools. All eight of us bombed the into the first falls blindly and confident.

I remember coming over lip and felt fate take hold of my kayak as it plugged deep. From the darkness I came to the surface in a left brace and quickly oriented myself in the boiling pool. Paddling to my left, I wasted no time in propelling myself to the second falls. I threw some hard strokes and waited paddle ready for the perfect moment. I grabbed the lip with my paddle blade and found myself flying airborne into the mist and landing with a stylish "boof". Like candy to my senses, I couldn't suppress a joyous woop and fist pump. The last falls iced an already frosted cake and I couldn't get enough as we paddled away.

A congregation of us giddy in a hanging pool on the East Beaver

We left the river and the brotherhood of 8 paddlers walked the train tracks to the awaiting shuttle. We all quickly drove over to Glenn Avon Falls on the West Fork of the Beaver before the soggy cold set in. Three brave paddlers took on the violent thrashing of Glenn Avon. It's a drop of such violence and distance I won't go into length to further described it for fear of using multiple pages. Watching Joerg passing through the exploding walls of water with his helmet clearly unstrapped and useless nearly gave me an ulcer.

Avoiding disaster, the day light waned in the western horizon. I drove home in the darkness replaying the day in my mind. I the remembrance would remain preserved and the satisfaction having fed my soul its sustenance.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A First Descent On The Stewart River

The falling of the river levels on the Lester river pointed us in the northward direction for paddling possibilities. The changing of the river conditions were signalling dire prospects for the season ahead. Joel, Andy, Cliff and myself decided that the Stewart river would be a good run. I could see from the put in that the river was not going to be as juicy as I preferred but was still at an acceptable level.

We geared up in the falling afternoon sun and put onto thee river. The Stewart river is familiar friend of mine and a yearly run I make. The river began with a longer slide that was disappointingly scrappy. After many bends of the river as it gently ran amongst it sloping canyon wall we heard the rumblings of "Plumber's Crack". There before us lay the horizon line of a clean ~12 ft falls. We each joyfully ran multiple laps off it enjoying some quality boof time and I took the time to learn the "stomp" technique. The joyful and stress free fun felt good.

We continued onward and arrived what was otherwise known to me to be an unrun falls. I had only portaged it in the past, but my companions having never seen it were intrigued by the possibility of running it. The river dropped of a ~10 semicircular precipice and fell shallowly onto a flat base of rock, then terminating in a descent hole in the center. None of us felt confident that it could be boofed effective (landing flat) so we explored the possibility of it having enough angle to slide through. Joel was feeling decisive and empowered not only by his full face helmet, shock absorbing bulk head, and warranty on his kayak. I set up safety finding a spot right at the base of the falls and waited. Without a hitch Joel skidded down shooting past the side of the hole and scoring himself a first descent. Having the falls already probed for us, we each took our turns being some of the first to run the line. Stay tuned for Joel's naming of the drop.

Only a single bend later, I went ahead and ran the "Pillow Drop" and smiled as I plunged down a 15 ft sliding falls and shot off of a giant billowing pile of water deflecting from a giant boulder. We all took to the drop without hesitation and added to days exhilaration. After portaging a nasty looking blasted fish ladder and sped through the last slide the river had to offer. We paddled into the dusk as the river opened to the flaming horizon reflected Lake Superior. It was a evening of joyous paddling not technically difficult but of sheer fun. I only wished the the river levels would hold and that another run could happen the following day. But there was no such luck for the snow had all but melted from the forest and the waters seemed to be receding. I headed homeward looking forward to the weekend of paddling before us.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The After Hours: Lester River

The season had commenced and the waters flowed generously. Every evening paddlers converged at the Lester River's edge after a day of toil, paddles waiting in anticipation. We ended our days in the dusk amongst the currents of the river. Over the course of the seasons we had all come to know the river as if it were a brother. Every drop as if a familiar face, it's roar with a recognized inflection. Our runs of the river like a friendly wrestling match; like a respectful joust.

Every day near the end of a run on the Lester River, I would find myself on a precipice looking down at a vertically twisting ~20 ft column of water exploding in a fantastic hole in the pool below. The falls aptly entitled "Almost Always", as it is almost always portaged, lay before me. Each day I looked at Almost Always attempting to summon the the confidence I had had the year previous when I had first run it. The gumption slowly grew in me through day one and two of the paddling season. On the third day I was set in my mind to run it, but was impeded by late hours at the hospital. I rushed to the river frantically hoping someone would be willing to consider another lap with me. I was in luck.

My run of "Almost Always" last year... picture it with twice as much water.

We put on and began a steady pace... no hesitation, no pause to rest. My confidence bolstered with each passing rapid. And then carelessly, as a single rapid remained between me and "Almost Always", I was over turned in my haste. My first roll attempt failed. My second was interrupted by a rock striking my helmet. My flustered third attempt barely got my head above water. My fourth attempt floundered uselessly as I pulled my skirt swimming in the river's icy grip. I retreated to shore and began running to catch my boat as it swept down stream. When it had finally been herded to shore, I discovered that "Almost Always" had left it's mark by indenting my boat's bow . The river chastened me for my over confidence and I left feeling like a fool for missing my rolls.

My pride bruised, I went the next day and took to the river and used the run to rebuild my resolve. A day later I was again mentally ready as I stood on the threshold of falls analyzing the line. My self and another companion spent 30 min contemplating the possibility of a run, both teetering on the edge of resolution. my fellow paddler climbed into his boat while I watched him style the line.

I still had my doubts as I slipped into my boat. Yet despite them I found myself pushing my kayak from shore in utter focus on the task at hand. I paddled through a small wave as my eye caught hold of my line. The water was high and the current opposed my efforts to stay on line and I paddled furiously as it was proving unexpectedly difficult to attain the right hand lip of the falls. By a small margin I snuck past threatening disaster, and was relieved to find myself riding into the vertical and falling with the water. Yet widening eyes quickly replaced my relief as I braced for collision with the hole below. It rose up and enveloped in a wall of exploding whiteness as I soon found myself less than upright and readied my roll for when calm would inevitably ensue. I emerged to the surface and raised a fist in exultant glory, grinning over my shoulder at what had been accomplished.

The summoning of strength and the majesty of overcoming fear and doubt brings a burning satisfaction to one. And we can all lay claim to parallels of this experience in our lives. I drove home warmly jubilant and endowed with an overreaching appreciation for the gift of this day whose sun was now setting.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

An Early Beginning

I sat in denial as a text message came in: "Paddling the Lester". The anticipation had been growing amongst the paddling community for almost a month. Anxious trips to the rivers found only ice clogged disappointment. And while I packed up my gear, I couldn't help but sense there wasn't something quite right about this. The earliest I had ever paddled yet was March 28th and we were embarking on an unprecedented date. What would it mean for the upcoming season.

I literally ran out the door with a tremor of excitement, kayak slung over my shoulder. Only days before the water had been ominiously running over top the river ice but the season had been like none other. The we had been thawing since February and the newspaper reports read, "the warmest spring in 132 years".

I pulled into the Lester river and checked the level and smiled... it was medium high, with little ice to be seen. Myself and rallied finding ourselves driving to the put in. I was secretly dealing with the early season doubt... I asked myself, "do you still have it after 6 months away from your kayak", "Will you remember how to paddle?", "When shit hits the fan... will you roll up?". We sat with our boats poised on shore, ready to seal launch in. I looked up and noticed a large amount of ice slabs come down the river and the water level visibly rose before us. An ice dam had broken. We sat impatiently waiting for it to pass. In the meantime we were joined by two more of our paddling companions. Finally after an hour of waiting the ice let up and the four of us slid into the water.

It came back to me as if I had never left it and a smiled as paddling was all that I had been anticipating. The entire run went flawlessly and the water was high enough I would guess I never touched rock. Emerging from every explosion of water I felt a little more alive. We found ourselves perched above the twenty foot falls, Almost Always. I walked around it feeling I still had more confidence to build before giving it a go myself. We finished out the run and were in search for more.

We carried our boats to the nearby Gazebo Falls on the Amity Creek. The low rumble of the falls made it clear that it was running high. Upon scouting I was less concerned with the falls as I was the lead in (which is usually the case for me). I decided to watch on safety as other other made light of their line. All three of my companions ran it with varying degrees of success and pain. I opted out. Being the first day of the season, I found easy justifications. We put in below the falls and ran the remainder of Amity with little incident.

I got off the river and peeled the layers of soaked neoprene and started the car. It was the day I had been waiting for for months and it failed to disappoint. And so came the early beginning as I drove disheveled and smiling.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Marathon Season: XC Ski Racing

February is a season of transition and culmination. It is the time in the winter when he cross country ski marathon season comes to pass and the winter of training comes to prove your fitness (or otherwise).

The season was particularly exciting as I helped out the Ely high school ski teams. Having witnessed the ski communities intimate support of their racers, I was moved as both Girls and Boys teams battle hard and narrow made state against their formidable opponents. A week later I went to the Minnesota State Cross Country meet to see them compete. Overcoming every expectation, the boys team emerged as champions ahead of the expected favorites. It was a story book season and a testament to perseverance and heart that the kids put into their racing.

With that inspiration I enter the race season myself beginning with the 58 km Mora Vasaloppet. I traditionally do this race every year and help out with the waxing service before hand. This year I was particularly unclear as to my fitness level and had a new approach to racing. I planned to go out slow take my time, stay relaxed, and build speed as the race wound down. And I did just that. I finished the race in a reasonable time of 2 hours 45 min. More importantly, for the speed that I was maintaining I felt perfectly comfortable throughout the race and not even the slightest sign of cramping. As the end of the race neared the end, I was able to tell my body to push hard as I jump skated the last hill and cruised into the finish feeling good.

Turning the corner for the finish of the Mora Vasaloppet

The next weekend I looked forward to a shorter fun race... Book Across The Bay in Ashland, WI. It is low stress 10 km race that takes one across Chequamegon Bay lit by the light of luminaries. As we drove furiously after work at the ski shop and arriving only 17 minutes before the race start I discovered to my dismay that I had forgotten my ski boots back at the ski shop. I frantically asked everyone I knew if they had extra boots of either classic or skate and found nothing. I was more than frustrated! It was suggested that I run the race or get the car and drive to the finish an spectate. Eight minutes before the start I lightened up and took a new attitude about the race.... I would turn it into a true adventure to be remembered. I ran and grabbed my skis and poles and found some twine in a garbage can. The clock was ticking..."5 minutes to race start" as I attempted to lashing my skis to my running shoes. The race started just as I had finished my extravagant twine work. I double poled through the masses and managed to fall on my face multiple times as I deemed the twine completely ineffective. I ripped it off and began running... I head to get in front of the crowds so I did have to maneuver so much. I quick threw down my skis and stood on them... nothing keeping me on them. The tracks were still clogged with skiers so I went ahead double poling in the skate lane literally surfing my skis to direct them and maintain balance. Soon enough I was ahead of the masses enough to find space in the tracks. I jumped in and found that I could really make time not having to surf my skis anymore. I pounded down the track passing folks left and right. Whenever coming up behind another skier in the track I had to ask them to jump out of my path and explain my story... "sorry I can't jump tracks, I'm double poling on my skis with running shoes on" I got some wild looks, some consternation, but mostly laughs and enthusiasm. I ended up finishing the race in this fashion in 46 minutes and as I hopped off my skis at the finish no one seemed to notice. It was a great adventure and a story that I will someday be able to tell my grand children.

The next weekend cam the race of all races, the largest in North America... the American Birkebeiner. The 51 km race from Cable to Hayward, WI is a nordic skiing cultural event and a yearly tradition I plan to never miss. The race also created considerable pressure as it is a seeded wave start and this was my last season to qualify for maintaining my 1st wave status. Yet once again I planned to use my previous strategy and take the race nice and easy off the start and build.

The morning of the race was shockingly balmy as I stripped down to my spandex and waiting to start. The race began with an explosion of skiers and I bided my time. The race turn out well for me as I climbed the hills with relative comfort, as I reached the final stretches of race crossing Hayward Lake I noted the time on my watch... I knew it was time to make myself feel more uncomfortable as a personal best time was within reach.

Climbing one of enumerable hills in the Birkebeiner

I gave a strong effort across the lake and burned into the finish coming in at 2hours and 38 minutes. I was happily surprised at my success and fitness level.

Charging for the home-stretch of the Birkebeiner

My last race of the season came the next weekend as we traveled North to Thunder Bay, Ontario for the 50 km Sleeping Giant Loppet. It was a new race for me and I had few expectations to be met. From the very beginning we knew the race would be warm as temperature had already been in the 40s the day previous. The race began in the sunlight and took the first 15 km fairly easy. I felt strong and upped my pace leading my pack of skiers and slowly surging ahead to catch others.

However when the afternoon sun reached it's peak the snow turn to sticky slush and at the same time the course began to climb. Despite the conditions I still felt strong and charge the hills as best as I could expect. However the last 10 km was flat and went excruciatingly slow. I finished in approximately 2 hours and 40 some odd minutes and was happy with my results.

The season came to abrupt close as the temperatures sky rocketed to full fledged spring feeling and the snow quickly melted away. It was a good race season for me and I was please with my racing. I was a bit shocked that I was in as good of shape as I was, and could only attribute it to long joyous skis in the BWCA! I look forward to the next season!