Thursday, June 10, 2010

Westward Waters: The Final Day

Waking from our warm lodgings in Vail we said our goodbyes in the early morning sunrise and caught breakfast at the local grub-ery. The night previous we had amassed a crew of paddlers and agreed to run Bailey's Canyon of the North Fork of the South Platte River (about 1 hr to the Southwest of Denver). Bellies content we headed South and Easterly headed for the small town of Bailey to rendezvous with our new crew of paddlers. Myself and John drove to small park and met our ring leader and veteran Ian as well as Thomas, and another paddler (I can't recall his name) as we all made our first greeting through the car window... we were all anxious to set up the shuttle.

Back at the put in, we slid into the swift flowing creek and moved amongst the laughing waters through the rural ranch's green fields. The river levels were considered juicy and as we caught their crest at 700 cfs (above the guide book's high water level) which was completely rare for this season. In the distance the foothills rose up from the green plains and  I was happy to take in a brief warm up amongst the scenery and moderate whitewater. After dealing with a fence that ranchers had strewn across the river and ducking some ancient frontier bridges, the river began to slowly pick up gradient.

We eddied out well above a horizon line and walked an adjacent railroad grade to view the first drop "The Four Falls". The first of the Falls was a narrowly constricted pour-over/ledge that formed a terminal hole abutted to an undercut wall. Give the high levels and the hunger of the hole, the party decided to portage this and run the next three "Falls". When the rest of the drop cam into view I was immediately excited... it was shallow boulder strewn technical creeking that reminded more of the type of paddling we did back home. After we set safety for Ian and watch him run safely the next of our party dropped in. His skirt imploded when he penciled the first pour over and we scurried along shore recovering his gear.

This picture of the "Four Falls" courtesy of Flickr is at 180 cfs.... picture this as we ran it at 700 cfs! Barely a boulder was showing!

Myself and John jumped into our boats and went ahead. I crested the first pour over and drove hard to get my nose up through the hole, and emerging lined up for the next ledge then ferried hard to river right catching a micro-eddy. From their I ferried out around a obstructing boulder and boofed a small ledge. The rest of the crew had no trouble with the drop.

From there onward the river descended through nearly 3 miles of continuous class III with IV+ drops in a section labeled "The Steeps" as it the river dropped 441 ft in the 3 mile section. We took direction from Ian and boat scouted a bombed the Steeps. At one point we paddled through a small notch of only a boat width while punching a small hole in it's constriction. We eddied out above the thunderous roar of what sounded to be a significant drop. The river made 3 set's of U turns amongst house sized boulders and giant holes before terminating in 3 foot ledge to a fast moving pool before dropping over a 12-13 ft sliding/pour-over falls. This was the run's jewel, "Supermax". The first set of U-turns was a tough and technical section of big hole, undercut rock, and tight lines superseding the large falls. Many folks simple put in below and drop the last falls given the intensity of the entrance. We did just that, but as I stood looking at the upper section I thought to myself if I had lived in CO and had run this canyon enough I could see myself running the entire drop (especially at lower water levels!).

 Again thank you Flickr..."Super Max"...picture this drop with 7x the water (180cfs vs 700 cfs), 
I thought the last pour-over was a slide when we ran it... I guess not!

Ian ran the drop first in good style and I enthusiastic jumped in my boat next. I felt comfortable with this style of boating and was confident in my lines. I slid into the water and picked my line for the first 3 ft ledge. I timed it and hit my boof and sped on perfect line for the sliding falls. I slid over it's lip rocketing downward and collided with hole at it base. It stern-ender-ed me I found myself looking skyward.  I kept control of my boat and brought the bow of the boat back to the water and avoided any need for rolling. The rest of the crew had no troubles as I watched John style his line.

Continuing onward we flew through a couple sets of Class III-IV stuff before arriving at Deer Creek, the final Class V drop. From shore I could see it was a long, continuous, and technical drop. I began with a tight line of a small but hungry pour-over requiring a left boof stroke into a right-hand small eddy. Then ferrying across the river's width would pound quickly through numerous holes meanwhile the entire river hit a house sized boulder and while cascading over a 8-9ft drop terminating in a angry hole with multiple sets of punchable holes beyond. Ian indicated in the last section the line was to  paddle onto the house-size boulder sliding down it's face and landing in a side boof having avoided the hole at it's base.

Ian and Thomas ran the line with varying degrees of success but emerged unscathed none-the-less. I went next and hit my boofboof but amidst a explosion of water I could only assume was a hole. I crashed through three more blinding explosion of water before cruising into a calm pool ecstatic and unable to remain silent with the pent up adrenaline.

 Courtesy of Flickr.... this is what most of the river looked like except with 7 times more water!!!

The river calmed and flowed through some of the most gorgeous scenery as barren granite domes rose from the rivers edges. It was beautiful enough that I couldn't help but want my climbing gear or to stop and have a lunch amongst the scene before me. We pressed onward and came to the park in which we had set up our shuttle. We bid farewell to our paddling compatriots and took to the road. 

We stayed in Denver for the night before making the long trek back to the Midwest. It was a good trip and I was sorry to leave Colorado behind. We were leaving just I was becoming comfortable with the waters. As we drove home the levels in Colorado remained high for another week, before dropping precipitously fast. We had managed to hit the peak of Colorado's season in time of record flooding. It was a trial by fire at times, but we took intimidating waters and filled a void left by the Midwest's historically disappointing paddling season.

20 hours later, I arrived home to Ely and the North woods by the cover of night and fell asleep dreaming of whitewater.

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