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.

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