Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wild and Scenic Chetco: Day 3

Eric below a big drop in the heart of the Chetco gorge.

Morning broke early and bright at Taggart Bar. I was glad I had sacked out early the night before, and lazed a bit in the morning. It was hard to believe our weather -- perfectly clear skies. I'd slept out in my boat under the stars with little regard for rain. During the day, we could see 80 degrees, even in the bottom of the canyon: a perfect hit of summer.

As we prepared to launch, we all wondered how much of this upper gorge remained for us. We didn't have a landmark for the end of the steep canyon, but we'd run so much whitewater, it was hard to imagine we were not nearing the end.

We launched with sunny clear skies and big smiles. People were settling in to the rhythm of the trip and of the water's gentle demands. We paddled around the first corner, and reached our first boulder choked horizon of the day. While most of the drops in this section went, many required scouting due to the blind chutes and boulder-obstructed views. Few rapids were boat scoutable, as it was rare to be able to see past the entry move.

Our first portage, a steep S-Turn. It looks like there is a left to right line, but there was no way to get to the left starting point, and a sketchy rock pile out of sight left at the bottom.

We had a variety of portages in this section. At one point, I called an abort on a line Bill thought would work. The line was to avoid a gnarly s-turn against the right wall that ended in a rock pile against an overhanging mammoth boulder. Another was a quick lining of the boats around a sweet boof that had no exit at this flow. Our pace was slow and every hundred feet of downstream progress was earned with hard work -- and with team work.

Lovely class IV S-turn rapid

This drop had a tricky exit that proved quite entertaining. No two lines were alike. Doug gets a tough brace in, then Bill follows.

Somewhere in this section, one of our group had a little trouble. The boat partially wrapped around a rock on river right, about 10 feet above a scary steep drop into a boulder sieve. The run was left, but we were portaging since there wasn't a clean exit. It was a scary few minutes clinging to that rock but we got a rope out and safely retrieved the boat and swimmer.

The scary boat wrap occurred just above the rock pile you can downstream river right.

We continued on through the steeps. The next section featured a series of portages, first a line on the left, than two rapids with not enough water for any clean lines. This seemed to me the tightest, most constricted inner sanctum of the Chetco's gorge.

Lining the first drop of the 3 rapid series of portages

The second drop of the portage, not enough water on the right.

There was no real portage route for the 3rd drop, so we just grovelled as best we could. Here, Shappart drops in.

Here's a shot from my boat while I'm stuck on the rocks. Gorgeous canyon!

Jeff below the triple portage. Doug Soule photo.

A few drops after the triple portage, I scouted then committed to a steep S-turn. The line I scouted wasn't one I could execute -- I had an exciting moment hopping out of the boat into a picket fence, then dragging the boat over with me. It had the potential to be bad, and wisely, everyone one else portaged.

Shap goes for the tube grab on a tight s-turn

Doug lines up on one of the woodier drops we saw

Luckily we were through the steepest bits, and the river settled into a nice rhythm of a few quality III and IV rapids per mile, without the snail's pace we'd been held to in the upper canyon.

Mellow water perhaps, but the canyon is as intense as ever!

I was just mesmerized by the water every day on this float

A standout ledge late in the day offered excitement

Shappart exiting the ledge sequence

A rare photo of myself, digging the action. Bill Tuthill photo.

Somewhere in this section, Bill dropped his digital camera in the drink. We'd all written it off when Jeff did a little diving and managed to recover it!

Jeff's camera rescue

A stellar deep pool and bedrock constriction.

Doug's in the groove!

Shap droppin in

Trouble's brewing I can tell...

Bill's being followed by a boat shadow...

The scariest moment of our trip came on an innocuous class III corner. In the lead, I could see the portage would be right, but the better scout would be left, so I stopped on the left for a look-see. There was an instantly apparent line, with no margin for error, but it wasn't a hard line. I just had to run left-to-right, making sure to keep a critical marker rock to the left of my bow. I jumped in and ran the drop, only to find people shaking their heads at me when I eddied out below the drop. When I turned to look back up, I saw why: the whole river essentially plunged through a boulder sieve and my "line," so apparent from the scout, looked like a very marginal too-narrow chute.

Most of the crew opted to portage but Doug decided to try to follow my line. Unfortunately, without the vantage of the scout, or the eddy from which I started, Doug's line took him straight into the sieve.

Doug's sieve encounter. Scary ass shit.

Looking back up at the sieve. Doug Soule photo

The second I saw his boat hit, I started swearing. We just lost an experienced class IV oarsman here in Seattle to a known class IV rock sieve. I wasn't about to see a similar accident if I could do anything to stop it. I asked someone to hold my boat and paddle, tore out a throwbag and sprinted to a position where I could start getting a rope into the sieve from above. By this time, Shappart could see Doug had flushed and was ok and breathing -- a big relief, because the boat was not flushing and I was concerned Doug would be between the rocks and the boat. Which would mean we'd need to get the boat moved before helping Doug. With Doug safe, it was a trivial matter of some swift water wading to get a line on the IK and extract the boat.

Needless to say this event left us all a bit introspective about just how far out back of beyond we really were, and narrow the safe route often is. We took a break on a lovely sandbar at the mouth of Sluice Creek and regrouped.

Regrouping below the maelstrom

There were a handful of remaining standout rapids, including a really fun S-Turn wth a blind and fast lead in. There were also many deep still pools full of newts, butterflies, birds, and fish. We floated along, glad to be alive, unconcerned for the passing of time.

A series of shots from the fun blind s-turn rapid

A final fun chute to wrap up the day's whitewater

At long last we scoped out a superb little beach on river right. There was no sign anyone had ever been there before, but we found it be a welcoming and hospitable temporary home. Out came the libations and the stories from the day as we celebrated our adventures and those special moments of terror and elation. The adventure was truly under way, and there is no greater thrill than finding oneself serious challenged, the outcome in doubt, but finding in the end one is equal to the task. We celebrated our close calls, our decisions, good and bad, and the whole sheer blind luck that it had taken to bring us all together on a tiny beach deep in the wilds of Oregon.

Camp 2, my personal favorite. Happy hour!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Wild and Scenic Chetco: Day 2

Chetco snag

Morning broke with anticipation, finding all of us up early, eager to get on the water. I'd sustained some blister damage from hiking in my river shoes, and was glad to be traveling by blade, not boot.

Rigging the boats. (photo by Doug Soule)

Boats and gear moved down from our camp bench to the riverside. I love this part of a trip: the last minute adjustments to rigging, the quiet little jokes as people prepare themselves to enter a new place. None of us had ever been before, which makes for quite a different feeling than a trip with someone who can lead the river from experience.

The walls begin to coalesce (photo by Bill Tuthill)

The water clarity was stunning.

Entering the Magic Gorge

Boat scouting in the Magic Gorge

The Chetco started us off with a friendly series of boulder bar rapids, class III, which were occasionally too low to cleanly run. We scraped and nudged our way over these obstacles with good humor. We had a lucky pre-trip rain storm that had brought in some higher levels here in the upper river than we rightly could have expected -- and we knew we'd have enough flow below Slide Creek.

But the best part of this upper section of river was undoubtedly the Magic Gorge. The Gorge is the only part of the run accessible by trail. Though the path climbs high above the river, it's deep colorful pools, exceptional clarity, and lovely bedrock walls earned its fame amongst Kalmiopsis scenery.

A steep boulder rapid in the upper river. (photo by Bill Tuthill)

A critical part of multiday boating is a well-trimmed boat.

The Magic Gorge of the Chetco.

The Chetco just above Slide Creek

To experience the Gorge from river level was a rare treat. It seemed we could see 40, even fifty feet into the depths. The water, appearing crystal clear at shallower depths, consolidated into a translucent glowing emerald, now blue, now grey, but mostly, overwhelmingly green. The rock walls plunged sheer into the depths. Flood waters abandoned old growth timbers high, high overhead.

The deep calm pools were interrupted periodically by short, steep drops. Little scouting was needed. We enjoyed the alternating dance of pool, drop. Springs fed moss covered walls amongst the alcoves of the pools. The Biscuit Fire may have tortured the forest, but it could not torch this inner gorge of stone and water.

After a few miles of this lovely mini canyon, the walls peeled back and small boulders began to obstruct the river. The fire damage crept closer to the water line, and then, Slide Creek entered from the right.

Jeff breaks a paddle -- the carnage shop is officially open!

Doug drops in

Immediately below Slide Creek on the left is a long bench that would accommodate a nice camp. We lunched, consulted the maps, and soaked in the natural beauty and isolation. Already it was clear the river had consolidated, becoming more confined and well defined than the gravel bars above the Magic Gorge.

We had rough reports of a class IV gorge below Slide Creek. We set out from lunch eager to see what kind of challenges the Chetco would throw at us.

The Chetco changed character quickly. First came the boulders: no more small gravel bars. Now, obstacles were increasingly huge boulders, some large enough to block all downstream views. The river also got much steeper, creating blind, twisty drops and chutes. The routes were tight, but clear.

Our progress slowed as we scouted many blind drops, but almost all were clean. Somewhere in this upper section, Jeff broke his paddle, a minor inconvenience.

Eventually we came up to a lovely multi-move rapid that ended in a steep 8 foot ramp. The lead in was technical; the line narrow. We had a bonafied classic drop on our hands.

Bill in the classic class IV

The author drops in (photo Bill Tuthill)

This big class IV seemed to mark the beginning of the series of IV-IV+ drops. We found many stellar rapids, a few portages, and lots of fun moves. Most everything was easily scouted and portaged. Though we weren't make fast time, we were making a controlled descent with good spacing and communication. Everyone had big grins on their faces dealing with this lovely and challenging gorge.

One long multi-move sequence featured a very tight constriction on river left. Doug and Bill ran it while the rest of of portaged, not convinced it was clean.

Below here was another great blind steep chute. I caught a tiny little eddy to get a few shots.

Doug lines up on a tight squeeze we walked

A fun tight chute.

Eric enters the flume (photo Bill Tuthill)

The next major land mark was a big rapid with no exit. A steep initial ledge lead into a massively undercut wall on the left, and no exit amongst the boulder jumble at the end of the rapid. We quickly decided to walk, portaging easily on the right. While I didn't see anything that would make this a mandatory portage, every trip report I've come across does note a portage here. With more flow, perhaps that changes.

Looking back up at the big portage

Entrance to the big portage (photo by Doug Soule)

Doug probes a nice ledge

Jason cleans it up

Below the big portage, more class IV stacked up, and we scouted our way down. Often the next scout was visible from the rapid we were looking at -- there were no 1/4 mile long pools or flat sections in this gorge.

Typical boulder garden on the Chetco

I've no idea why this gorge ain't magic too

One of the drops that didn't quite have enough water

Lush jungle? Rainforest? Nope, just Wild Oregon

At last, we were in the Taggart Bar vicinity. We never did see the nice beach camp, but we found a great nook in the boulders. Thought it was not a high mileage day, we'd run dozens of class III rapids, probably 10 solid IVs, and had scouted myriad times with a handful of portages. Everyone was ready for a little R&R, and happy hour cocktails and fly rods replaced throw bags and hand signals as we nestled into the bank for the afternoon.

Jason's catch (photo by Doug Soule)

Our improvised camp at Taggart Bar.

Sunset over Taggart Bar

Debate about the days events turned to gradient, ratings, wilderness, and the many issues we ponder after a challenging day. We thought the river might be in excess of 100 foot per mile in this section. Jason put together a gradient profile that confirms this opinion:

Chetco River Gradient Profile (by Jason Shappart)

We fired up some fish over the fire, enjoyed a stunning sunset, and sacked out curious to see just how much more action this upper gorge would throw at us.