Monday, April 15, 2013

Westwater Wam, Bam



By Greg

We met in town just after dark. Drove into the blustery wind and spattering rain. Near 10:00 we pulled bikes from the cars, loaded up and rode into the dark. Gravel road and double track in our headlights. Drifts of tumbleweeds and sand. Skeleton trees. More wind and the occasional splat of rain.





Near midnight we tucked into a corner of canyon and set camp amid the trash -- or artifacts -- of decades-previous campers. More rain on the tent but the clouds and wind were gone by dawn.





A short ride to the river. Bikes left behind. Into the boats and away. Miles of flatwater. Geese honked at us, flew, while a few stayed quietly on not-quite-hidden nests in the grass. Herons crossed the slow water with huge pteradacyl flaps, sticks in their beaks, toward tangled nests in cottonwood snags. Eagles swirled above, white heads shimmering against the blue sky.

The canyon began to crowd the river. First with towering walls of red sandstone. Then closer, with fractured jumbles of shiny black rock. The river narrowed and sped up and began to course through tight chutes and to froth amidst boulders.





My two companions, Mike and Doom, bolder and better than I, led the charge. I followed as best I could, digging into froth, dodging deep holes, missing boulders and jouncing over big waves.

Only once did we stop to scout a rapid. The infamous Skull. A heap of rafts and attendant kayakers were scouting as we arrived. We clambered over and up the slippery black rocks to watch and to learn. The kayakers cut a clean line, right to left, missing the ugly-looking holes and chutes. Next, the first big raft got wedged between two rocks. Ropes, muscle and time got it free. This obstacle courtesy of the low water level of this drought year. I can only imagine the turmoil and froth and thunder of this rapid when water fills the canyon to the "white line" of more normal flows that shows on the black rock; when these river rocks are deep underwater and are creating deep recirculating holes that eat big rafts and spit out paddlers.

Stuck raft:


The low water made things better for packrafters. Or so it would seem. Narrower channels, smaller waves, fewer sucking holes. All that being relative, as I had been paddling near my limit on the upper rapids and wasn't at all sure what was in store for me on this one. I shot photos while Mike and Doom ran a clean line together, weaving right then left as the kayakers had done, splashing through the holes, bouncing off the waves.

Mike and Doom:










When I clambered back over the rock to my little raft I was, er, a little tense. My heart was thumping. The churning water was pounding the air. I was visualizing my line, around the right side of the first boulder, then left to avoid a spilling chute and to not get piled on the second boulder.

I had eased down into my raft and was trying to tuck into my thigh straps when I heard a "plunk" and saw my paddle drifting down the river and heading toward the rapid. I blurted out an expletive that was not entirely unlike "Golly!" I reached for it. Missed. Then quickly back paddled with my hands, spun around and hand paddled ferociously toward it. I snagged it out of the water thinking, "I might be going through this rapid without really being in my boat." Awkward. But an improvement over going through the rapid without a paddle, which was what I'd set myself up for my charging after my paddle with my hands.

Luckily there was one last speck of calm water before the spill of fast water and I tucked the nose of my raft into it. As quickly as I could with my shaking hands, I got snugged into my boat, knees under the thigh straps, spray skirt firmly attached. Then, since I was further downstream than I'd hoped, I charged as hard as I could upstream along the calmer edge, then spun out into the current to see if I could still find my line and hit it.

It was not a beautiful run. It was not a graceful dance with the river waves. There was no sense of flow. I flailed my paddle like a windmill in a hurricane. I beat the sloshing water all around me into a further froth. I dragged myself bodily toward where I thought I should go. I pulled harder than I've ever pulled. And I made it past the first rock, through the hole, around the second rock through the second hole and on down into the calm bubbling pool below. Success.

And actually, the run wasn't all that hard. Except that, due to my mistake with my paddle, I'd started out with my adrenaline spiked to about 3000. And all my panicked paddling had driven that stress through my muscles and almost to my bones. My arms and back felt exhausted. For a few minutes I could hardly lift them. Elated by the successful run, but deflated by how I felt.

Mike and Doom clambered down off the rocks where they'd seen my run (but missed the paddle event behind the rocks…). We watched a couple of the big rafts get stuck and push through behind us. By the time all three of us were back in our boats, I could move my arms again. Painfully. But the pain was soon forgotten. More rapids ahead.

The first was the biggest wave of the day. Mike flipped his raft but then managed his roll, and came back up. Nice! I hit the wave square and came off the top of it with nothing to see but sky. I was following the other two through the next rapid, a churning boil with lots of lateral waves. I saw Mike launch near sideways off a wave, mostly in the air to the right. So I hugged more toward the left and got thrown over to my left. I gave two valiant attempts at a roll before I swam out. I quickly flipped my boat over and jumped back in, not realizing until then that Doom had flipped and swam, too.

But that was it for rapids. Good thrill and good fun. Nothing left of the day except more stunning desert canyon scenery. A lunch break on the rocks. Lots of flatwater paddling. More groups of big rafts. And a final into-the-wind muscle-test slow motion sprint (or blow back upstream) to get to the take-out.









Somehow it was only mid-afternoon. We'd been expecting it might take all day. But with few stops and lots of paddling, the run had gone quickly. We packed up our little boats amid the frenzy of big raft de-rigging. Then, muscles starting to ache, we drove to the put-in and picked up bikes. And headed home. From another fine day in the neighborhood.

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