Friday, April 29, 2011

The Final Chapter of a Season: The Homeland

The water's were slowly tapering from the creeks in the furthest reaches of the North Shore. Meanwhile, a singular urbanite had driven northward and Joerg had left his corporate job aside for the day. He met with myself and Kiffy. Joerg is one of those legendary characters of the Midwest Creeking community: well versed in peer pressure tactics, known to take the tough lines for giggles, and eternally at the front of the crew on the river.... an all around fine gentleman! On this day Joerg's personality was particularly shining as he quickly made the sale for me and Kiffy to run the DT for the second consecutive day. Despite both of our lacking motivations, Joerg made the sale. I found myself speeding for the put in of the DT. Kiffy and Joerg represent some of the most experienced boaters in the Midwest having paddled together from their teenage years.... and then there was me: a mere 4 seasons under my belt.

 Myself atop "Triple Drop" of the Devil Track River
Photo credit of Andy McMurray

We put on the river and immediately it became clear this run was going to be spicy. Joerg made it plain that this run was going to be speedy. There would be no scouting, little eddying, but not without looking out for one another safety-wise. We barreled ahead, and as triple drop came upon us, I found myself in the rear of the crew. There was no looking back as we each dropped over the horizon lines. I remember the nasty cotton mouth of nerves as we dropped in. But in the morning sun light we each found our smiles on the river that day. I admittedly had a less than clean run, but stayed composed throughout and kept pace. I managed to get stuck in the hydraulic below portage down the middle and rolled up wasting no time. I knew it fed out on the river left. I placed 4 hard forward strokes while side surfing, and easily escaped it's grasp.

Joerg, Kiffy, and Myself Portage the Admiral amongst the majesty of the Devil Track Canyon
Photo credit of Andy McMurray

In a little over an hour and a half from putting on we found ourselves floating amongst the blue skies as they reflected in the calm waters of Lake Superior, the Devil Track behind us. 

In the coming days, the community rested as the yearly migration to the Presque Isle River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was at hand. There we would take part in the annual downriver race in honor and remembrance of Jim Rada... a legend of paddling who had lost his life on the river in the last decade. Although I had run the Presque before, I looked forward to participating in the race for the first time.

The skies shone blue and the air was warmed in the sun's golden presence. We amassed the day prior to the race to run the full Presque Isle. The crew included Kiffy, Andy, Joerg, Decker, Holton and myself. And so amongst the Spring sunshine we would make the long trek to the put in. After an hour of shouldering our boats and walking less traveled roads, the sweat dripped from my brow as the river came into view. Thankfully, I slid into the chilled waters and let the river cool me. In succession we made our way downstream, and after three or so drops, it became clear that it was going to be an off day for me. I found myself less than upright tangling with the river's bottom all too often. With this detriment to my confidence, I portaged Triple Drop and Nokomis with a majority of the crew, making the heinous portage, and rejoined the other paddlers.

We continued onward as the sun fell in the afternoon, and came upon the final mile of the Presque Isle. There the river would drop in rapid succession over 4 drops of class VI+ and V character. The river was running higher than I had previously experienced and so I awaited the horizon lines ahead with focused attention.

Nadawadaha Falls
We busted down Nawadaha Falls one by one with enthusiasm growing as the drops increased in their difficulty. Downstream we eddied out above Manido Falls. There the watered cascaded over a multitude of rock stairs, forming repetitive pour-overs of 2-3 feet in height. The last time a ran Manido I recalled getting caught in the pour-overs, tried to side surf out, and eventually ran the remainder of the drop out of my boat and on my ass. Today was my day to redeem myself, as I carefully picked my line and held the landmarks in my mind.  The horizon roared as I slid over the first pour over and attempted to time my strokes, hoping to boof the next pourover. I kept the bow up as I blew through the next pour-over and comfortably bounced down the remainder of the drop.

The Final Streches of Manido Falls
Everyone eddied out, as ahead loomed one of the most pristine falls of the Midwest. Manabezo falls outstretched nearly 100 yards wide, and dropped 25 ft to the waters below. It's line was not easy, as the lip of the falls was irregular and fractured, as we sought a narrow tongue of water. Furthermore, the landing had a history of breakings legs due to it shallowness. I had descended Manabezo twice before and last fall experienced my first spine compression as a result of boofing the falls. I hoped to learn from that experience...

The sun was falling low on the horizon, and I was feeling fired up and confident. I jumped my boat and decided I'd be the first of the crew to descend. Hugging the river left bank the scene accelerated and the familiar tunneling of vision occurred as my focus narrowed on my line.

 Manabezo Falls of the Presque Isle River in the UP of Michigan

It's moments as these that the mind slows time and the dualism of reactive/instinctual paddling comes to battle with that of intentioned/conscious paddling. Reactive paddling deals with the immediate reality of the whitewater before us and our reaction to it. Meanwhile conscious paddling focuses on the river ahead, and is planning intentional strokes before they are even placed. Each have their place, and so we struggle as kayakers to balance the two amidst utter chaos.

The horizon opened up before me and my stroke hit the lip of the falls. My bow rose to meet the horizon as I took to flight in a wicked boof. My conscious mind took over, I remembered all that I had been told about techniques to avoid spinal compression. I threw my torso forward against the deck of my boat and kept my back hunched. I landed with a audible and violent "BOOF". In the impact my paddle slammed hard against my boat and my thumb in between. I celebrated the control I had maintained; I had hit my line, place a nice boof, and protected my spine. But I was acutely aware of a warmth and throbbing in my right thumb. I had learned a new to clear your paddle on impact. On inspection, the thumb had begun to swell already. I kept the pain to myself, in denial of the injury, as the rest of the crew took joyful flight.

 Joerg Steinbach boofs Manabezo

We each paddled away from Manabezo with the knowledge that ahead loomed "Zoom Flume".  Zoom Flume can be described as series of  entangled wave holes of formidable size created by the constriction of the river rocketing through a narrow walled-in channel. It provides for the "sporty" grand finale of the run before emptying into Lake Superior. By the time I had punched a moderate sized entry hole to Zoom Flume, I knew my thumb was in poor condition, as I felt tendons snapping and pain warmly course through it. It was too late to turn back. The roar was obvious and ahead the gnashing of the Flume lay apparent. All thought of my discomfort was lost to the required focus. Deep strokes were laid as I ploughed into the melee of a chaotic wave hole sized over my head. My bow went skyward and I fought to stay upright. But a secondary reactionary upturned my boat. I went for a quick roll attempt and missed it. I waited for my paddle to reach the surface but I had no such luck. I threw for my next roll and focused my hip snap. I narrowly came to the air upright and sighted before me another large curler nearly on top of  me. I pounded through and was relieved as the onslaught had ended.

"Zoom Flume" of the Presque Isle River 

Drifting into the expanse of the lake, the crew celebrated the run and the adrenaline happily danced in our veins. But my enthusiasm was killed by the pain coursing through my thumb. Cussing repetitively, I tore it my glove off and placed the thumb in the numbing waters of  Lake Superior. In pulling it back for inspection, there was visible bruising and it was floridly swollen... I knew I had broke something. Bruising that early was tell-tale. Coming to shore, the crew noted my state and carried my boat back to the camp for me, while I sulked back.

My pulverized thumb
The Jim Rada race took place that year without me amongst its ranks. I took to filming the event and attempting to keep a good attitude. And amongst the community, I lost myself amongst the rising flames of the campfire and soaked in the glowing twilight.

Soaking in the Sunset on the Shores of Lake Superior

I was uplifted by the laughter and the fellowship in spite of an underlying disappointment.

Laughter amongst the rain
In parting the Upper Peninsula,  I drove in the morning light numb and thoughtless...  I was aware that my season had come to a close.  I grieved for the loss of it for several weeks as a x-ray confirmed what I had already known... inside my thumb I had avulsed a ligament that took a piece of bone with it. I avoided hearing anything about the rivers as the rains rolled across the North Country. I packed my belongings as I would soon move to my new home of Billings, MT for the next three years.

Midwest paddling! Thank you to the Red Dangler Community!
Photo credit of Andy McMurray

As my depression soon faded, I looked back on the season with thanks, as I had been deeply gifted. It was a season of profound change in my paddling, of countless unforgettable memories, and friendships both formed and deepened. As I drove from the North Shore and Duluth, I nodded thankfully to Lake Superior in gratitude and farewell. I drove into the Westward horizon with the freshness of the new life ahead of me, meanwhile behind me lay the setting of countless golden memories, shaped by my lifelong tenure in the North Country. The Northland would remain pridefully........ my homeland!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring of Devil's Track

The hand of Winter refused to relinquish it's grasp, as the air grew cold again. The morning came slow to the land and the sun rose sluggishly under the cover of a smothering blanket of grey. In the meantime, the snow had floated gently from the skies and the land was garnished with its white hand.

And so the masses slowly trickled from the Northern Shores of Lake Superior. The urbanites retreated from the cold to their respective lives. The nomads of paddling heard other water's calling and continued their migration. I spent a day or two recovering from my bruised thigh as it's colors transitioned from purple to yellow's and blues (due to a boat taking me out on the DT portage). I deemed the leg usable and so I joined small and stalwart midweek crew to paddle. Andy Mcmurray, Kiffy, and myself met with Paul Hooper and had the North Shore at our disposal. Neither Andy or Paul had done the Devil Track this season and felt it pulling to them. So the shuttle vehicles tore down the dirt road barreling toward the beginnings of Devil's track.

The crew was largely familiar with the river, with the exception of Paul having his virgin run on the DT (Devil Track). And so we plodded our way way to Triple Drop light hearted. The river's level had improved from the prior runs providing a more cushioned feel and less contact with the river's bottom. We arrived at the triple drop and each probed our gumption in thoughts of running the drop. Andy's shoulder remained injured and painful and thus he reluctantly chose to portage and Paul elected to do the same. And so Kiffy and myself made a small pile of twigs and started a miniature fire atop triple drop, warming our hands while awaiting Andy and Paul to portage and set safety below. A short while later, we mounted are boats and dropped over the beautiful horizon lines of the DT. At the base of the second falls I emerged unscathed and was again feeling the pure elation of the vitality of life.

 Kiffy Runs Triple Drop Amongst the Snow
Photo credit: Andy McMurray

As we put on below the majesty of the 40 ft falls known as the "Admiral", the crew felt cohesive. The bond between paddlers on the river is unique. The group has an reliance on one another for not only safety, but for an energy that can ignite a motivation and can uplift your paddling to levels you were previously unaware. And conversely poor group dynamics can be disastrous. It's as if the river's spirit can sense and reward the unity among us, and yet will evoke wrath on groups bent on the individuality of its paddlers. A mile downstream, this phenomena would be enforced.

We had moved on from serpents slide and were navigating the shallow class II and III making our way towards Portage Down the Middle. A particular section I recall being frustratingly shallow as the river divided. Thus I took the lead and directed the crew down the river right channel, hoping for more volume. I slithered my way down the narrow channel, but looking ahead noticed an unusual smoothness to the water and saw a 5 inch diameter log across the river's entire width! Frantically, I worked to the river left where 2-3 inches of water made it's way over top the log while the river right the log was nearly 3 inches from the water line. I knew the gravity of the situation and threw a hard stroke and  pulled my knees upward to raise the bow of my boat as I impacted the log. I narrowly maintained momentum as I slid over. I caught the first feasible eddy and leapt from my boat screaming at the other's behind me to eddy out. It was too late. Andy successfully boofed over the log, but to our dismay Paul's boat slid halfway up, lost momentum, and fell back upstream of the log. His boat was instantly sucked under the log, and with the log about his waist he held on. Kiffy being in close succession behind Paul narrowly maneuvered around Paul and boofed the right side. We each tore up the shore on foot towards the log, myself of the left shore and Andy & Kiffy on the right. When I had made it log and seeing its diameter, I attempted to lift it up. I gained only a few inches and Paul remained pinned, there were few nearby trees for an anchor, and I hung poised to throw my throw bag . Meanwhile, Kiffy and Andy rapidly set up a Z-drag on a nearby tree, and Paul slowly began to get sucked under as we worked furiously to help. Fortunately, Paul arrived downstream of the log intact, still in his boat, and wide eyed. We all relieved and went about removing the log. Z-dragging the log across the river we freed the river and future paddlers from it's grasp. I was satisfied with the rapidity that the group responded to the situation and the action we quickly took. But it was an effective reminder.

Myself going after "Portage Down The Middle"
Photo Credits of Andy McMurray

We moved onward, making our way through Portage Down the Middle and had good lines all around. We quickly took out of the river and watched the beads of sweat build as we huffed ourselves and boats up to the canyon rim and back down again. The runs climax remained ahead and we prepped Paul for the virgin run of his life, ahead lay "Ski Jump" and"Up Against the Wall".

I distinctly remembered the first run of these drops. Andy McMurray was in the lead and when I asked what lie ahead (most likely the 20th time I asked). He quickly exclaimed..."nothing for a mile", with a shit-eating grin on his face. A 100 yards down river, I watched Joel Decker drop from view over a large horizon line. When the scene came into view, my eye widened, and I have never grasped a paddle so tight! But on this day, we crested the horizon line with a large "woop" rising into the cold air and the acceleration began. Gleefully and cautiously I hurdled down the 30 ft steep slide before nailing a reactionary at the base and lining up for the final onslaught of the DT. The velocity was again regained as "Up Against the Wall" had begun. I took taking a left line and knowing I would be pushed right down the burly slide. Ahead it loomed... the water collided with the oncoming canyon wall and leapt up banking 90 degrees to the right. The paddle strokes became more poised and I punched up over a seam and found myself nearly in a violent eddy in the corner adjacent to the banking water. My stern caught and I banked through the wall backwards and thankfully upright.

Kiffy readying for the meat of "Up Against The Wall"
Photo Credit: Andy McMurray

The river then gradually calmed until it meandered quietly to the expanse of the Lake. Coming to the river's mouth we found a new onslaught as the surf immediately rose up and pounded into me. We paddled out beyond the break, did our ceremonial roll in Lake Superior, and took the final joy of surfing back to the land.

We had a festive night by the fire, carrying the torch of the fore fathers of paddling before us. These Northern shores are steeped in personal memories and historical lore, yet united in the commonality life giving waters that feed the past and present. I stood enveloped by the depths of contentment.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Familiarity of the Devil Track River

The twilight was falling upon the waters, and one by one the stars put holes the growing darkness.  Upon the gravel shores of Lake Superior a fellowship was amassing. The waters continued to leap heartily in the creeks of the North Shore, and spoke to the hearts of all those wielding a paddle. Escaping from the urban persuasion came the Twin cities paddlers to join their Northern Minnesota neighbors. Further yet, the paddling Nomads from Colorado and the Pacific Northwest had to come to the shores.  As whitewater brethren, we each came to answer the call, drawn inexplicably to the waters and united in our celebration of them. The the fire burned late into the night, the beer stayed plentiful, and the laughter was hearty.

Awaking to the sun's demanding light, I rolled from the bed of my truck into the morning air. A quick poll amongst the camp's different factions confirmed that today's paddling menu would contain the coveted Devil Track River. After a lengthy breakfast, I arrived at the put-in late, but in the nick of time. 15 paddlers suited up along the river's banks. I frantically threw my gear on and as the crew was divided into smaller individual groups.  I found myself thrust into the lead, guiding the Pacific Northwest paddlers on their virgin run of the Devils Track River. Putting on was Chris Baer, Scotty Baker, Dan Mentin, Jason, and myself as the final crew down. Only 4 seasons prior I stood trembling with nervous anticipation for my own first run down the Devil Track. Much had changed since those early days, sliding from the snow filled banks into the rivers path I felt confident....the Devil Track had become a familiar journey.

I gave some quick directions in the early beginnings of the run, as the Pacific Northwest crew's enthusiasm was uncontainable as they paddled onward ahead of me. Myself and Baer hung round the back of the group, and as we rounded a tight right corner to be greeted by an ominous scene. A large bridge of ice had formed between mid river boulders and river had begun to flow underneath with 3 inches of clearance from the water line. There sat Dan Mentin with the bow of his boat stuffed under the ice sieve, hands pushing on the ice, and fighting flushing completely under the ice. Meanwhile, Jason was out of his boat atop one of the boulders fishing Dan out. I quickly made way around the ice sieve and by the time I had eddied out, thankfully, Dan had been safely extracted without incident.The Devil Track declared its unforgiving nature. We took heed and paddled cautiously onward.

Arriving at the formidable triple drop, the two crews ahead of us had amassed on the banks eying a moderate sized tree clogging the entry to the first drop. Like ants we swarmed into action, the 15 of us in various roles lasso-ed the log and began hauling it out. With the log cleared, one by one each dropped into the first two tiers of triple drop.

Tony Nigon killing it on Triple Drop. Note the tiny figurine atop the first falls (gives perspective)
Photo Credit: Chris Baer!

Being the last group to arrive Iwas one of the last paddler's to drop in. Charging for the first drop, I  fought rightward, going over the lip poised for an attempt to pull the bow up, however knowing that in all likelihood my attempts at any sort of a boof would fail on the sliding falls. I entered the vertical world and plunged into the oncoming water 18 ft below me and darkness shrouded my vision. M the pool below upright, smiling, and covered in foam.

y boat and I emerged in the hanging pool pushed against the pool's wall. I fought my way back into the flow and worked my way toward the second sliding falls... below the crew awaited. I plunged over the 25 ft sliding falls whilst the world accelerated with vigor and I welcomed oncoming hit. I emerged in
And so we picked are way down the classic drop's of the Devil's Track banking through Serpents slide, Hammering into "Portage Down the Middle". We all took to the fromidable portage up to the canyon rim and around the unrunnable pitch fork falls. Instead of strenuously walking the boats back down the narrow gully to the river 200 ft (?) below, we each elected to chuck our boats down the ravine confident in their ability to stand up to impacts with the trees. However Baer decided he would walk his boat down away's before letting her loose. I was downhill when he let the boat go and I quickly stepped aside at his exclamation. The boat barrelled 10 yards downhill before glancing off a tree and coming for me. I took a direct hit to my my thigh and took me out by the legs. I lay on the ground cursing in pain and stood up findings myself battered but still intact. I knew the next days I would likely be sore ones.

We made our way down the river found the joy of puckering our sphincter's on "Ski Jump" and "Up Against the Wall". I came to know the satisfaction of introducing paddlers a new river, and found myself reliving the experience of a virgin run on the Devil Track through their broad smiles. And so the run ended with a living metaphor as the river opened up to the expanse of Lake Superior. You could sense the great opening as the flowing waters merged with seemingly unending horizon of water. Every time I make this transition,  I feel a sense of what the river to heaven might be like.

And so with bustling enthusiasm we came again to the shores, with the usual adrenaline hyped conversation reminiscent of boyhood sugar-highs. As the sun completed it's day's journey, we retreated back to the our paradise on the beach and resumed the celebration. Bloated with satisfaction we toasted beers to the day's success, meanwhile darkness fell about the lapping waves.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Redemption: The Cascade River

The waters of lake superior presided over the horizon's expanse; a the landscape whose view was framed by the bounds of my truck tailgate. I emerged into the scene before me, sat behind the wheel, and headed to the local greasy spoon to fuel up, caffeinate, and ascertain the paddling plans for the day. At a variety of paces the crew gradually awoke and when we had all amassed the consensus pointed to the Cascade River.

The Cascade looms in the minds of paddlers across the country as one of the most classic and highly respected class V runs on the Northern Shores of Lake Superior. The river's character is bipolar in that it is harshly unforgiving to those that don't heed its demands and yet so immensely rewarding to all who walk from its banks. Steeped in lore, the Cascade has dealt of some of the worst beat downs on the North Shore (some of which I had already witnessed).

Cascade from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

Chris Baer's helmet cam footage of the Cascade... check it out

At this point, I had never completed a full run down the Cascade. 2 years prior my season had been ended by it, and I hiked my boat from it's banks less than a mile into the run. Now as we checked the level (-2) I swallowed hard, keeping the nerves in my stomach and fighting them from getting into my head. It was a level higher than I had previously run. As a creeker, to claim that nervousness is not a part of your daily diet would be a lie. Nerves keep you honest and they keep you safe... and yet other times they keep your from your potential. It is a slippery game we play both listening and ignoring the heedings of our unconcious.  But as we drove to the put it, I hung my hat on the daily paddling I had amassed and the confidence I had built. I quieted my mind's thoughts and let go. It was my day for redemption....

Readied for battle at the put in included the solid crew of Chris Baer, Tango, Jason Stingl, Joel Decker, and McMurray.  Putting in below Hidden Falls, I went about setting safety in the pool below the heinous drop for the more daring of our crew. Hidden Falls is perhaps the most consequential and frequently run drop on the North Shore. It is a snaking 100 yard slide that dishes out insane boat speeds. Meanwhile  it erupts in a final roostering explosion of water that leaves paddlers rolling dice as to how how they will fare in the grand finale... finishing the drop in pissed-off, eat-your-face hole.  To add to the fun, it's only exit is flanked by a veil of dagger-like icicles hanging from a low tree branch. Those who had the gumption to run Hidden Falls had varying success. We all felt bad as McMurray carried his boat from the shores of the Cascade his shoulder feeling ominously painful.

With one less member we pushed on. "Discretion", a class V technical slide provided the initiatory introduction to the Cascade for the year. I slid over it's horizon line and braced left off a strong seam and laid a determined stroke to pound through the final and hungry hole.

Bracing through "Discretion"

 Moving a 75 yards down stream another horizon line loomed. The drop known as "Moose Rock" loomed. I knew the line, but had yet to have a good result out of it. The drop was a technical slide divided by a large rock in the center, forcing one to decide over the more technical banking left line in which the river feeds easily into, or fighting the river onto the right line and over a more straight forward slide.

I pushed on in the back of the crew and thought I would drive for the right line. But as the scene accelerated my decision became less than favorable. It was too late, I turned for plan B but I was sailing for an impact with moose rock. I let go of my paddle, put out a frantic arm, and stiff armed the dark rock. I immediately slid into the rushing slide, one hand on my paddle, and before I could regain my grip the waters banked violently. My boat threatened to flip, and I thrust my right arm out for stabilization. I felt it dragging down the jagged slide on my elbow. I pushed off the bottom, stabilized my boat, and regain my paddle grip in time to plug through a final hole. I could feel cold water on my throbbing elbow. My elbow pad was turned sideways on my arm and a gash in my drysuit was apparent. I quickly jumped out of my boat, made a quick duck tape repair and rejoined the crew, brushing off the soreness.

The time came for me to decide, was I mentally capable for the rest of the run; could I pull myself together. With the encouragement of the crew I pushed on into the unknown. Its times as these in which you rely on the paddlers you surround yourself with. They knew me well, they knew my capabilities.... their confidence and optimism quenched any self-doubt that Moose Rock may have planted. One by one we picked through the multitude of drops; my paddling growing more confident with each.

flowings. I banked up high onto the pile and braced right. I was spit from the chaos into a calm pool and in one fluid motion flipped and rolled up instantaneously. I smiled, giddy with adrenaline and could see it on the faces of my friends.

Amongst the Melee of "Long John Silver"

Paddling onward, my body and mind relaxed... the run was tapering off. We all busted through "Screaming Stingl" along side it's name sake. We cringed at the abuse I boats took scraping down  the manky slide known as "cheese grater". I stepped from the river smiling amongst the blue skies and rays of sunlight... I had redeemed the Cascade.

The firelight lit the night at paradise beach. Being that it was Friday the community was rallying in impressive attendance for the weekend. Twenty or more paddlers settled about the beach with the exchange of man-hugs from familiar faces and handshakes from the newer faces. A crew from Pacific Northwest arrived to add to buzzing camp. The energy was building in the heart of the community.  You could feel a warming excitement, blazing like the camp fire that stayed lit late into the night. I retired to my slumber in anticipation of the days ahead and fell deeply into dream.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Baptism: Illgen Falls

The morning came slowly to me, it's grey stillness inspired no movement inside me. A small parcel of the crew remained for the day of creeking. Arriving in the veil of night came Midwestern native, Jason Stingl from his Colorado home. Over breakfast the consensus became clear that Jason, Joerg, Chris, Tango, and John Alt would paddle the Cascade river at meaty levels (zero on the guage). My first and last run on the Cascade 2 seasons prior had rattled me, leaving the river with a injured thumb, putting me out for the season two years ago. With my motivation and energy already at a low, I elected to set safety and take pictures of those with more testosterone than I.

Being content with my relaxed day,  I headed back to Duluth for some much needed time back in society for a social recharge. That evening the news came that an old friend would arrive back in the Midwest. Andy McMurray was the first paddler I ever met as a beginner on the North Shore, and it had been nearly year since I had we had paddled together. And so I agreed to meet Paul Hooper and Andy at the Baptism River... for  the yearly baptismal run on Illgen falls.

Driving northward in my usual introspection, I debated whether I would would run Illgen for the third time since the dawn of my days creeking. It was not that dropping the falls had ever gone poorly, it was just that every year I seemed to sustain whiplash from it (likely due to poor impact technique) that left me sore and headache ridden for weeks.

Myself running Illgen (Photo credit of Andy McMurray)

Arriving at the Baptism, I stepped from my truck and went to greet and pay my respects to Illgen Falls. Shortly there after a Chevy Pickup arrived with the broadly smiling Andy McMurray and Paul Hooper. We quickly geared up and slid ourselves gently into the Baptism river at Eckbeck campground. We scraped along and I took the time amongst the moderate waters  to warm up before the looming horizon line of Illgen falls beckoned.

Despite my reservations, my lust drew me towards Ilgen. I couldn't help but find myself paddling determined for the lip. In my minds eye, I pieced through my body's movements and  how I would clean up my technique. Thus  cresting the lip of oblivion. As I tilted over the edge the scene suddenly opens before me as the base of the falls became visible 35 ft below. I gave a light stroke and I entered the vertical world. My focus closed in as I fell to the water below. I tucked forward, stabbed my paddle out, and seeking to protect my neck, I trucked my head a split second before impact. The impact was tolerable and I quickly rolled up, checking status of my appendages. My body felt better than any other run on Illgen as I sat in an eddy in the mist below Illgen and watched McMurray boof the hell out of Illgen.

We drove away and laid on the gas pedal heading Northward. North of Grand Marais we quickly darted off the road and  slipped into the fauna before the expanse of Lake Superior unfolded on the horizon. Upon the gravel shores congregated a hardy crew of paddlers smiling at our arrival, beers raised in greeting. There upon the shores of Paradise Beach lay the spirit of North Shore boating, steeped in history, paddlers have breathed life into the beach since the beginnings of whitewater boating. As the night crept upon the land, by the firelight an excitement loomed in the atmosphere at the possibility days ahead. I fell asleep lulled by the rolling waves, and fed by a intangible satisfaction.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Snow Filled Creeking: The Beav & Brule

Two days had past and the cold returned to Northern reaches of Minnesota. My breath rose in a ethereal cloud in the morning grey, as I lashed my boat into the bed of my trusty pickup. Stepping from my truck the frozen ground crunched loudly in the morning stillness as I walked towards the St. Louis River. Zimny, having taken a day off of work, was looking to utilize all the living daylight with boating... my enthusiasm coincided. Thus while the other paddlers still lay slumbering in their beds, myself and Zimny slipped quietly into the dark waters of the St. Louis river at flows previously unknown to me. Before us the St. Louis came alive, raging at 10,000 cfs its became character unpredictable and schizophrenic in its gnashing of teeth and yet playful nature. None the less  formidabile in its strength.

 High water on the St. Louis

Before us we climbed the the rising plumes of water, smashed through breaking waves, and rode reactionaries. The water was bigger than the whites of my eye's could encompass and yet I felt calm and controlled as we neared the Octopus. At such levels, the Octopus becomes a monstrous multiplex of hydraulics not to played with unless you felt the desire to gamble with mortality. And so we fought for the river right sneak. Yet when we arrived I took the wrong line and sat in an eddy too far removed. Before me a constricted channel had only one the mayhem of the Octopus. Zimny directed me to the only hope, a shitty upstream ferry. Having few choices, I fought tooth and nail and breathed a sigh of relief as I attained the refuge of a proper eddy. We charged ahead marveling at the transformation of the St. Louis. Rounding the island near the Jay Cooke swinging bridge we slipped over the small falls and picked our way across the river wide ferry to final eddy of the run. I swung into it breathing hard, the St. Louis was rewarding more than technique and demanded strength and exertion.

After the morning warm up we retreated to Zimny's abode, met up with Joerg, and flew the coop Northward. Driving up the Northshore a long procession of kayak topped vehicles sped up Hwy 61 bound for glory. The disappointment was harsh as the crew sadly observed that the Split Rock was too low for enjoyment. It would come to pass that myself, Tango, Chris, and Hooper would be the only one's to have run the river at reasonable flows for the remainder of the season. So the concensus became that we would run the East Beaver. And so it was a crew of 8 amassed on the East Beaver including the veteran kayak guru John Alt and sailed two laps off the triple falls. To my eyes the river paled in comparison to the levels in which I had run it days earlier, and yet the joy still remained.

In the waning daylight, the levels of the Split Rock and Beaver signalled that levels were dropping steadily and thus we all knew the more Northward creeks would be hold better snow pack and water levels. Thus we continued the Northward migration to Grand Marais and lazily sought shelter from the forecasted sub freezing temps in a hotel for the eve. After observing burly levels on the Cascade we all agreed that a run on the Brule river was in the cards.

The next morning, stepping into the crisp morning are we were greeted by a inch and a half of snow and temperatures hovering near freezing. Determined to paddle we all headed northward armed ourselves with our warmest gear. The crew had grown adding the Colorado contingent of Chris and Tango as well as Holton and
Scott White. Through the backwoods, we all trudged our boats through shin deep snow to the river. Mounting my boat, I put onto the Brule for the first time since my first season of creeking. Following the direction of Alt the large crew plucked it's way slowly down the Brule in an organized fashion. I smiled as we made our way through S-turn, The Canyon section, and marveled at the Devil's Kettle and Upper Falls while snow fell gently about the unfolding river.

 Lower Falls of the Brule (photo credit of Andy McMurray)

Thus launching in below we arrived at the final eddy before lower falls. I had only previously portaged the drop and knew of the large looming hole it hid behind a large wave preceding it. But the crowded eddy amassed with boaters hastened me to peel out and head for it. I charged for the whole focused on building momentum. The waters dipped an rose into a giant reactionary wave. Yet in it's trough a pine tree came into view, it's peak jutting out like a lance interested in skewering me. I quickly ducked and narrowly missed it, threw some strong strokes and crested the wave to see the 2 foot high wall of water ahead of me. I impacted the hole and emerged upright, unscathed, and relieved. The crew had good results and we forded onward to the last formidable drop of the run. My last run on sewer pipe, as a beginning creeker

My hands were numb as I climbed up a grassy bank from the river to the warmth of an awaiting vehicle. The run was good, but the weather was less than motivating. I made a day of it and headed back to the warm of the hotel and took hold of a beer while enjoying the hot tub. I felt blessed, but I let my motivation to paddle lay dominant to be thawed by warmer weather.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Split Rock and Beaver Rivers

 Myself on Under The Log (photo credit: Chris Baer)
The sunlight cast it's rays upon my eyelids. Prompting their opening, my first sight was the blue skies in the birth of a new day. I walked upstairs and was handed a gourd of Matte from Tango and together Chris, Tango, and I quickly came to the conclusion that today we would attempt to paddle one of the North Shore's most classic runs, The Split Rock River.

Rendezvousing with Paul, our crew of four strong drove Northward. We were the sole mid-week creekers freed from the bondage of responsibility and fueled by our hunger for whitewater. I sat in routine contemplation on the drive. This year paddling had changed, and the upcoming run on the Split Rock was exemplifying the fact that I was thrust into more of a leadership role... more than I ever expected. This season my confidence had grown to new heights; I was paddling almost daily since the spring flows began. Now I begun paddling with crews, in which I solely had the years of experience to be familiar with the rivers. However, the Split Rock was an exception, I was keenly aware that I knew few to none of the lines on the Split Rock. Every run I had done on it was completely blind and with little scouting.

Reaching the river's mouth the level was deemed adequate. We drove shuttle and stealthily found ourselves paddling the beginnings of the Split Rock as it wove through tangled alder swamps. The river gained steam with every tributary that joined it's flowings, and soon we picked our way down the opening slide of the river. The Split Rock was littered with horizon lines and in scouting the river for the first time I locked the lines into my memory. Upon reaching the unfolding of another horizon line, I entered a world of acceleration as the water danced off the shallow river and my craft rocketed downward blasting through rooster's of water and bashing through holes.

Myself running "Whimpfry's Wimper"

Towards the end of the run, I had the premonition that the river's most formidable rapid was at hand. I scanned the banks and river ahead for familiarity to signal the drop's presence. We rounded a corner and suddenly I was aware of a distinctive rumbling of water. It was almost too late, and only a few small eddies remained before a large roaring horizon line of "Under The Log". I frantically made the rest of the crew aware, but it was still too late. Tango found the last eddy before the drop and could see nothing of the line. I attempted and failed to verbally and visually inform Tango of the line, and instilled little confidence. Chris valiantly charged ahead of Tango having him follow closely on his tail leading him into the drop. I watched them both style their lines. I was now alone and found that I was in a poor eddy to hit my line for the drop. "Under The Log" plunged down a domed slide, terminating in a small and violent hanging pool before abruptly banking off the right hand wall and mashed into two burly holes (known to injure less than upright paddlers). Knee deep in flowing currents, I hiked my boat upstream and found an eddy in which I felt I could narrowly reach my line. I mounted my boat, hit my line, and plummeted over the vertical slide, keeping my eye's focused on the the banked hanging pool. I landed in the hanging pool braced left, banked, and powered through the oncoming melee. I grinned while emerging triumphantly to the company of Tango, and Chris. We finished out the run grounding our boats on the gravel shores of Lake Superior and it's deep expanse.

Split Rock from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

The elation present, the crew was ready for more. We turned our thoughts towards the East Fork of the Beaver River. It was a short run that I was extremely familiar with. The run was known to have a triple tiered falls with brief hanging pools between the three falls, each of 15-20 ft in height. Chris's memory was failing him for the line through the drops and Tango was about to experience the East Beaver for the first time: thus placing me squarely in the lead for the group and being responsible for hitting my line as we planned to blue angel into the falls unscouted. As we put on I was keenly aware the height of the river. But it wasn't until we reached the opening drop that I became aware that level was the burliest I had yet experienced on the river. I was upturned in the opening drop and rolled up quickly; conscious that I needed to paddle more guarded as the river threatened to toy with me. What was once class III boogey water had been upped to Class IV, heads up paddling. We picked our way down river and ahead I could hear the ominous roaring of the falls. I looked back at Chris behind me, indicating with my eyes that we had arrived at the falls and that the gravity of the run was about increase exponentially. I nervously passed the last remaining eddy and mentally prepared for the onslaught of the highest level I had yet paddled the Beaver. I knew the first falls to be challenging as it was a nearly vertical falls that was difficult to boof and had a small hanging pool with a margin of error for only one roll attempt before sailing over the second falls.

I lined up off the right bank paddling with gusto over the lip. Entering verticality, I battled to bring my bow from plugging the falls, throwing a desperate left boof stroke. Seconds later I found myself in muffled darkness submerged. Emerging into the misty air upright, I quickly oriented myself and to my right could see the next horizon line as the water thundered on the surrounding walls. I wasted no time, paddling strongly, I poised myself for the necessary boof stroke.  The falls loomed more massive than I had yet seen and slowly ramped before plunging 20 feet into the pool below. I nailed my stroke and took flight. It was perhaps the closest I had felt to flying in a kayak before as if my boat had sprung feathered wings!  My boat soared away from the lip and well beyond the base of the falls as my bow rose before of me to meet the horizon. Time and space beautifully slowed in that instant. Gravity melted.  I could see the boiling pillow below me but coming gently towards me and I landed softly with a loud "boof"!!!! I bellowed in an ecstatic release, trembling uncontrollably, and pumped my fists as Chris and Tango sailed behind me in close succession. Playful grins plastered on our faces, we each turned to the final falls and joyfully sailed over it's horizon.

Finishing the run, I had adrenaline coursing happily through me causing slight tremor to my hands. I could barely hold a full sentence of speech as my mind relived the run over and over. The ante had been upped and I felt the satisfaction of feeling that my paddling had been controlled! I hit my lines as my mind's eye had envisioned them, my strokes placed where wanted them, and the results as I had planned. But all of this was completely reactionary, without scouting, and was executed in the mere milliseconds of onslaught... the pure instinctual poetry of motion that every paddler seeks to achieve. It was some my first glimpse's of this sort of control amongst Class V whitewater.

When the adrenaline abided, I found myself happily exhausted. It been nine consecutive days of paddling Class V and my body was making it clear that I needed rest. I parted ways with Chris and Tango heading back to Duluth as they continued Northward. I melted into sleep the instant I hit the bed. By daylight I had lived a dream, enough so, that my sleep was fulfilling without them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Redemption: The Stewart River

 Myself perfecting the side boof on "Plumber's Crack"

A mid-week crew set about a morning run determined to get on the Stewart River after our debacle in the days preceding attempting the Stewart. Myself, Chris Baer, Brian O'Neil, and the weekday warrior Paul Hooper geared up for the day. By the time we had arrived in Two Harbors the levels were looking favorable. Thus we put on moving quickly through the pine forests awaiting the descent of the Stewart amongst the blue skies. Thereafter we were smiling as the river shared it's hidden gems while we took laps running the 15 footer plumber's crack

Paul running the "Pillow Drop"

and plunging into the mayhem of the "pillow drop". The Stewart is an old friend who has never disappointed me and one of the river's I know best. But I enjoyed even more, that I was able to share it was paddlers from throughout the country who were smiling as big as me... affirming the river's quality.

Chris Baer boof's Piton Falls
After greeting the expanse of lake superior before us we came ashore and raced back to Duluth for a quick run on the Lester. When we arrived, we found an whether red Tacoma in the parking lot and out stepped Chris's pal from Colorado...Casey Tango. We decided the Lester would be a proper intro to the North Shore paddling scene. The Lester didn't disappoint, as myself, Chris, and Tango sailed off of the 25 footer, Almost Always, for my 5th time of the year. Finally it was becoming Almost Always... a run for me rather than a portage. When we finally took off the river with the good natured crew and chatted in the parking lot amongst beers and laughter. Interestingly the take out parking lot's are often as much a part of the paddling culture as running the river itself. The left over spirit and energy of the river often spills forth directly after a run, a group of friends feeling belonging and contentment sometimes only experienced for a short season of the year.

And so another day in our short creek season had come to pass... well spent and as glorious as any.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thinking Northward: The Stewart and French Rivers

 The cross roads of the Great Stewart Boondoggle of 11'
Snow still clung about the forest floor shrinking from the fiery eye of the sun. In the northern reachs of the shore of Lake Superior many of the rivers still lay locked in ice. Meanwhile in Duluth, the season was building moment. While we all were content with waters that the Lester River had graced us with, a general hunger hung about the creeking crew, and fueled a lust to move Northward to other waters.

And so it came to pass, that large conglomerate crew ventured in the late morning to the Stewart river. Arriving to the put in we each wagered whether the river would be free of ice, some looking more doubtful than others. I remained optimistic. Knowing the Stewart like the back of my hand, I volunteered to take a the first crew down the river. Sliding into the river, within 200 yard downstream I encountered a large ice dam. Portaging around it the crew again paddled downstream only to run into another ice dam. I went a head of the crew and scouted the rest of the river, finding nearly a half mile of dammed ice. When I return with my report, I laughed at the sight 15 paddlers strewn about the woods and their anguish as we all hiked back.

Desperate to salvage what remained of the day of paddling we took to the French river in a mass exodus. Finding the river in a state of high water I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the drops in contrast to my recollections. However, 15 paddlers in direct succession made for a clustered mess, with multiple moments of choas. We all chuckled about it after finishing out the river... laughing at our own stupidity for not organizing separate groups.

The weekend had come to a close and most of the paddlers went back to their jobs. However, the small crew of us devoid of responsibility or with mid week days amassed. Taking a long morning and afternoon of rest myself, Chris Baer, and Nate Heydt were the only paddlers that could be mustered for late run on the Lester.  We arrived  finding the river swollen as it peaked at it's highest levels for the spring. We put on in excitement at burl that Lester high levels could throw at us. The waters displayed their fiest up turning our kayaks like toy boats on multiple occasions.

 Myself in the burl on "Almost Always"
When we arrived at Almost Always I was significantly appehensive given the levels... I had never run it this high. But I couldn't turn away from it. Chris fell over the lip ahead of me, as I put on.  An extreme focus on the line at hand was all that I knew and felt the whole world around melt away. Right on my line, I saw the lip of the 25 footer come quickly upon me as I place a slight left boof stroke and entered the land of verticality. Dropping into the falling waters and found myself buried in the white mixture of air and water, blinding my sight as my boat amorphously plunged downward half floating and half in flight. I readied for impact and felt my world move abruptly from vertical to horizontal.

From blindness I came to sight and found myself upright and smiling. The amount of nerves tight in my guts came to be released in primal bellow sure to be heard from miles away. I was elated in hitting my line just as my mind's eye had planned. As the sun set, I couldn't stop smiling all night and I was living on a cloud for the evening.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Spring Creeking: Lester Laps

The sun shone brightly as I awoke late in the morning basking in my freedom from responsibility. Every day I found found myself amongst the rivers waters. Chris Baer had drifted into town from Colorado for the sole purpose of boating and the two of us had of schedules and priorities straight. While spending the early afternoon scoping drops near Superior WI. As the afternoon sun began to fall in the sky we pointed the truck in the direction of the St. Louis. But when a text wrang out exclaiming that the Lester had broken free of ice and was running... we abruptly pulled a U-turn and headed for Duluth proper.

Footage via Chris Baer captures the essence of Lester River... look for me in the green boat, blue drysuit, and red paddle.

Lester River from Chris Baer on Vimeo.

Arriving at the Lester a crew quickly amassed and myself, Chris Baer, T2, Brian, Strassser, and Anthony shuttled for the first lap on Lester River for the year. We put on and dropping into Limbo Falls I immediately was knew the run was going to go well. When we arrived at Almost Always, the convoluted 25 ft falls, \given it was the the first run of the year, I new that the level was not to my liking... I would patiently wait to run the drop. By the next day the levels had risen to a comfortable medium high level and I grinned as we put on. When we arrived at Almost Always my mind was made up. I scouted as Chris styled his line over the falls. I followed up next peeling out of the eddy sighted my line and stayed focused. I dropped into the mini eddy above the falls lined-up and paddled for the lip. I placed a left boof stroke at the lip and sailed into the air landing on top of the piling waters. As my world entered the vertical I felt the boat begin to spin out leftward. I braced hard as the impact was impending. I was blown onto my back deck and soon tucked, waited for the calm, and rolled up triumphantly. After another lap and my confidence bolstered, I ran Almost Always again with improving lines (no roll needed). Techno Tommy arrived at the river late as the sun was about to set and needed a paddling partner. Being tired but still invigorated I agreed and we bombed through my third lap on the Lester!

 Tending wounds on the Lester!

By the next day, I had been paddling 9 days straight without a rest day and fatigue was beginning to greet my body. I told everyone I would take the day off and set about scoping the more northern rivers. But when I arrive back at the Lester their was a party still going up for a lap. I jumped in a truck and headed up stream. Putting on I could tell I was not on my game. By the time I had portaged "Naked Man". Our group became fractured and I found myself paddling virtually alone. When I arrived at Almost Always I had caught up to Chris. I made a quick decision and decided I would run it. As I came to the lip of the drop I saw a red boat pinned on the left lip of the falls. I found myself blasting into the micro-eddy with too much speed, and it spun my boat sideways as I approached the lip of the falls. With all my strength, I helplessly threw a monstrous sweep stroke and barely pulled the boat around as I plunged over the lip. Amongst the wash of exploding vertical waters I ready myself for the impact. I blewthrough the hole at the base emerging unscathed without a roll in need. I released the tension in my gut with a "whoop" of triumph and smiled at the waters ahead.

Flirting with distaster on Almost Always!

Over the course of three days I had lapped Lester river five times and ran Almost Always 3 times. Every night I went home my spirit felt fattened and obese with contentment... living the most fortunate of lives.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spring Creeking: The Beginning

It was beginning.

I had been listening for a sound of rushing water to be no longer muted by an icy covering. Underneath, the water sought it's deliverance from Winter's icy imprisonment. And now as I viewed the St Louis River danced amongst it's new found freedom as the ice floated broken and defeated in the eddies. Only a day before had the Thomson Dam been opened to extinguish the rising reservoir.

Myself in flight on the Lower St. Louis

We were at the water's edge upon the first report of the St. Louis river breaking open. The levels were 3 times higher than the usual summer levels, but they were not unfamiliar to me. The river showed it's changing faces and ploughed through it's walls with a big water character boiling and leaping into the crisp spring air.

Nate punches some big water on the St. Louis

The sun was shining as we put on. I put on the veil of confidence inside me despite it being 5 months since I had been amongst whitewater. As we ferried out into the enthusiastic waters and I settled in quickly. The familiarity of paddling fell into line as we pounded through laterals and surging wave-holes. Every paddler finds the ability to withstand the frigid waters of spring run off (barely above freezing) not only by our gear but by the flame of our vigor that repels the cold. The run went flawlessly and brought back the soul felt vitality that comes to my soul amongst the waters... the great reconnection.

Joel soars on the Lower St. Louis
And so it became a daily endeavor that I would feed my love affair with the whitewater. Meanwhile the St. Louis continued to rise daily and gradually became more and more of a challenge. I was feeling at home amongst the waters as I had ever had, having the benefit of time to paddle on my hands. Along side me companions began arriving from far off locations with similarities in both their enthusiasm and their lack of time constraints. We used the opportunity to warm up for the demands of the smaller and more technical creeks still awaiting their liberation.

And so the season was born and ahead lay the priceless adventures waiting to come into being.