Saturday, January 26, 2013

Winter Whitewater Wonderland

by Greg
Edit: Some great pics from Mike's point of view, here. Including some nice shots of me almost flipping in The Pre-Falls.

Not that there's anything wrong with ice and snow and temperatures that have hovered between -12F and 20F for weeks… But when I was invited to rendezvous with a small band of friends for a few days of fun in warmer southern climes, I jumped at the chance.

Two of us drove away from the frozen valley we call home and headed toward Alpacka, the company that makes the highly functional little rafts we've come to love. They run a compact little operation set in the countryside of Southwestern Colorado. Work there is done by an interesting and astute group of people and attended to by a small pack of happy dogs. Too many top secret things going on for them to allow photos. But if you have any interest in playing in the water, keep an eye on them. Their boats are already amazing, but there are some really interesting things in the pipeline.

We drove onward. South, through frozen towns, past snowy mountains, toward empty horizons. Then dropped off the cold plateau into warmer elevations. Two co-conspirators joined us at our campfire in the juniper trees and cactus while stars swirled over tents and other campfabrications.

The chilly (but not snowy…) morning warmed quickly as we packed camp, rigged boats and ran a surprisingly long shuttle. In-The-Water-By-10 turned into In-The-Water-Near-Noon. Close enough, we hoped, but we made sure we had headlamps along, in case we ran out of daylight before reaching the take out.

The milky green water was cold. The air was warm. The banks were lined with bare trees and golden reeds. Birds flitted and tweeted. Canyon cliffs were reflected in slick water as we paddled downriver. A beautiful day to be out of the snowy homeland and tucked into capable little boats in the sunshine. Even Scott, who is based further south yet and was not escaping any snow, couldn't help but grin, enjoying his second packraft trip ever.

Punctuating the idyllic stretches of calm water were even more idyllic stretches of whitewater. A small river. A low flow. Lots of fun riffles and chutes. Lots of rocks to maneuver around. And a few rapids that required scouting and forethought and some careful paddling. And which -- for me, anyway --payed off in a sense of thrill.

My biggest thrill was a rapid with a three-foot high waterfall. I'd never paddled off a three-foot drop before. But Mike hit the line and dropped it so smoothly and easily that I began to believe that I could. Butt in boat, paddle in hand and heart in throat, I slipped into the river above the rapid. Dodged the proper rocks and hit the proper tongues on the approach. Pulled two hard paddle strokes for "speed" and aimed for the horizon line, not at all sure how it would go.

Mike on the Falls

The Over The Falls part went fine. The Hitting The Pool At The Bottom part didn't go quite as fine. I hit the water at an angle, which threw the nose of my boat off to the right which tipped me to the left. I narrowly managed to brace and keep from flipping. But something else -- maybe the weight of the falls hitting the back corner of my raft -- immediately tipped me hard the other way. Again, I managed to catch myself before flipping. And then I was stable again, grinning, heading toward the eddy.

Right behind me, Alan had missed his line on the approach. Instead of diving off the little falls, he came flushing down a rocky slot. Same three-foot drop. But the wilder water threw him over sideways. He stabbed with his paddle to stay upright, but couldn't and flipped and swam. Then clambered through the foam and rocks while I gathered his raft. I'd enjoyed my own thrill, but Alan had replaced most of his blood with adrenaline and couldn't help but whoop and hoot when he reached the shore.

Despite the chance of even more adrenaline, we all skipped the next rapid, a five-foot drop into rocks and foam. Another day, said Mike. Me, I'm not so sure.

Three more fun rapids and lots of scenic flatwater as the sunlight went golden and slipped over the high horizon. We were still smiling brightly when we reached the take out in the evening gloom. A short hike took us to the end of the rough road where one car had been left. We bounced back to the other cars, then drove off into the night toward the next camp and the next event. Still barely believing that we'd had a day of gloveless whitewater paddling in January.

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