Friday, January 29, 2010

Poland Creek - life lessons galore

For those of you with no attention span, look! Pretty pictures!



For the rest of you, read on.

Fresh back from a month of paddling in Africa, I was having a rough week of kayak withdrawal, so when my friend Nathan Werner told me about a 30 year flood happening in Arizona, I jumped on the chance for a quick fix like the desperate junkie that I am. We had a long phone conversation where we both wavered back and forth, intimidated by factors such as the truly massive flows, the weather (it was January, after all), and the 14 - 16 hour drive from Fort Collins to Payson AZ. However, after seeing enough photos of the sweet waterfalls on Christopher creek, and seeing the gauges drop from "FLOOD" to "TOO HIGH" on friday morning, I decided to throw my weight into the adventure. Natalie decided not to go, saying something about "winter" and "flood" and "blah blah blah". Nathan had his doubts also, but eventually I used my silver bullet. I called in a debt from a trip where Nathan had convinced me to run Gore instead of surfing Mwave. It turned out that weekend was the last weekend of good flows on Mwave, and Gore dropped to a terrible level. Nathan had agreed at the time that he "owed me". I played that card, and he agreed to roll the dice with me on this Arizona trip.

I know that it sort of breaks up the flow of the narrative a little, but I have to interrupt myself here with...

LIFE LESSON #1: Be like Natalie.

Nathan and I left Friday afternoon, planning to meet up with Evan Stafford and Kyle McCutchen, and maybe one other dude, identity and origin unknown. The "one other dude" assumption was extrapolated from when someone or other mentioned that with Nathan and I, the group would be up to five. We figured that maybe they just hadn't added our group of two to their group of two correctly. We were real excited to have Evan and Kyle, since, of course, they had written the guidebook, so that if Christopher creek was no good, they would probably be able to sniff out secondary options.

A photo of a photo of us driving in the snow. Full album


Long story short (to be precise, a 16 hour long story about driving through a snowstorm is being made as short as a runon sentence with parenthetical clauses): we drove through the night and met up with Evan and Kyle pretty close to the Christopher creek putin, just about an hour before dawn.

Christopher creek was snowed in. Not just by a little bit, either. There was at least a foot of that perfect soft-but-not-too-soft powder. Conditions were optimal for some backcountry skiing, but not perfect for scouting and portaging.

Sounds like perfect flow down there! Full album


We moved from Plan A to Plan B1: Fossil Creek, and hit the road again. Of course, Fossil Creek was just as snowed in, so we kept moving to Plan B2: some creek Nathan and I had never heard of, called Poland Creek.

This was also when Nathan and I finally got it all straightened out about the "one extra dude". There was actually another truck on the way, with five other paddlers. Our exponentially growing group made a rendezvous on the web of tiny old mining roads that tangles across the Poland creek basin.

Poland is lower elevation than the classics, and when we finally got to the right area, we indeed found mud instead of powder. What we didn't find was takeout. We were about to start the second descent of Poland creek, so the takeout road wasn't well established. After a complicated mini-adventure which isn't very interesting, we set shuttle and made it to the putin trailhead. It was 12:30, none of us had slept, and I kept hearing people mention how the first descent crew (Cody Howard and HuckinHuge) had been stuck out there overnight. Also, personally I had no overnight gear. Everyone else had come planning a multiday run sunday-monday, but Nathan and I needed to be back, so we hadn't bothered with any of that extra stuff.

"Well, looks like the creek is over there. Now all we need is a road." Full album


This part of the story was a little fuzzy, but somehow, half an hour later, 7 of us were hiking down to the river. Nathan and someone of the group of five had opted out of this expedition. I hate to be too heavy handed with the foreshadowing, but...

LIFE LESSON #2: Be like those guys.

As with any true adventure, we're pretty far into the story, and we're just now getting to the part where we actually went kayaking. Well, it was worth the wait. The paddling was great. On the map, Poland creek looked like about 4 or 5 miles, with maybe 200 ft/mile average. The first 2 or 3 miles seemed like they were about 300 ft/mile, so we were expecting a pretty flat runout at the end of the gorge. Even so, we kept up a fast pace, scouting and portaging as fast as we could, to avoid overnighting. The run was quite fun, with the signature 30 foot Big Dipper, and a large number of nice technical drops like Orion and McLovin.

Evan getting started with some dirty McLovin Full album


Kyle on Big Dipper Full album


Leif dippin'. Photo by Evan Stafford. Full album


Running Orion Full album


With less than an hour of daylight left, we found ourselves scouting/portaging a tricky 20 footer leading directly into an even trickier 20 footer. The first one had a strange entry but looked reasonable. The second one had a straightforward entry that pushed hard left, but the waterfall itself needed to be run far right to avoid landing on rocks. Either one looked possible, but the combination was pretty borderline. The 7 person group stalled out deliberating whether or not to run it.

This was when I started to freak out. I had no overnight gear, and it was getting real late. The gorge was widening out, and I was confident that the takeout was probably less than a mile downstream. We had eaten up a lot of the vertical of the run already, so it was looking like a quick flatwater dash back to the cars. I delivered an ultimatum: I was heading downstream, whether or not anyone else was coming with me. Kyle said he would go (since his "overnight gear" was a down parka, some pants, and a tarp), but at the last minute Evan talked him out of it. The two of them shook their heads in disbelief as I finished the portage and took off into the class IV below.

Looking back, this was a retarded decision. I really don't know what I was thinking. Normally, when I have misadventures, I have a good time laughing about them afterwords, and kind of bragging about how I managed to work my way back out of whatever jam I got myself into. This time I'm embarrassed to even write about it.

LIFE LESSON #3: Don't leave the group.

As luck would have it, right around the corner, the river didn't flatten out at all. There were three more noteworthy drops (20 foot range) just downstream. One I ran, the others I portaged. On the third drop, I was dragging my boat over some rocks when I came to my senses. I looked around and realized that it was no longer "getting dark" it was "dark", and I was nowhere near the end of the gorge. The canyon widened out, but I could see from my new vantage that it kept going at the new wideness for at least another couple miles.

I stashed the boat somewhere visible, and started working my way back upstream to the rest of the group, on foot. At first it was very dark, but soon the moon came out, which improved my speed. I was exhausted when I finally stumbled back to the campfire, and someone handed me a drink of water and some powerbars. I was overjoyed to be reunited with them.

LIFE LESSON #4: Don't leave the group. (Yeah, pretty similar to lesson 3, but this is an important one.)

Someone had an extra space blanket that they lent to me, but I quickly tore it to shreds by trying to sleep on rocks. I ended up spending the night tending the fire. I was able to mostly dry out my underlayers, but as the temperature dropped below freezing, I had plenty of time to contemplate the differences between the words "mostly" and "entirely".

The life lessons were coming in thick and heavy that night.

LIFE LESSON #5: Bring some kind of overnight gear. Anything.

Camp, just before dawn. Photo by Evan Stafford. Full album


This is where I sat pretty much all night. Kyle McCutchen photo. Full album


When the sun came up the next morning, Evan was kind enough to share some of the smoked salmon that he had with him (yeah, I had no gear at all, he had smoked salmon. Life lessons, people!), and my outlook improved immensely. Not even the rock solid frozen lifejacket and sprayskirt could bring me down. I got a head start hiking down towards my boat while the rest of the group paddled down. I was able to route them through a couple of the tricky spots. When I got back to my boat, the drop I had been portaging the night before looked a lot more runnable (lower water levels may have had an effect there) but we all decided to walk it anyway.

The so-called "runout to the gorge" turned out to be another full day of class V paddling. There were fewer major drops in the second day, but there was plenty to keep us busy.

Hunter Petitt scared of the piton. Photo by Evan Stafford. Full album


Oh. The river makes a turn here. Photo by Evan S. Full album


We ended up paddling until 5:30 or 6:00 that afternoon. Once we escaped the gorge, there was still some confusion remaining about the actual location of the takeout. (Remember that story about setting shuttle? The one that I said was complicated and not too interesting? Well, this was a little part of that story.) However, luckily for us, the two wise men that had opted out of the mission had spent the two days scouting out better takeout locations, and had found a road right to the river, saving us about a mile of hiking.

Stoked to get to takeout. Full album


Exhausted, and feeling like crap for convincing Nathan to drive all the way to Arizona just to run shuttle for me, we loaded up and started the long drive back to Fort Collins. We ended up driving through the night again, so that when I got to class monday morning, I was barely hanging on. I hadn't really gotten a solid night of sleep since thursday (although I pretty much passed out about 30 minutes into the drive home and Nathan handled all the driving). My gear and my body were disgusting after spending several days together. Needless to say, I did not do the most amazing job teaching that morning.

Later, as I unpacked an extra camera lens out of my drybag, my hand brushed against something unexpectedly soft. It turns out I had an extra dry rashguard in my boat the whole time. I was too tired to laugh or cry. To put a positive spin on the weekend, at least I had learned a lot.

Nathan drops me off at my house just in time for me to go teach a class. Natalie Kramer photo. Full album


I'd like to thank Nathan Werner for agreeing to go on the trip (now I owe YOU one), and Evan Stafford for sharing photos and smoked salmon.

Check here for the writeup of the first descent by the HuckinHuge crew. It's sort of funny how the EXACT SAME THING happened to them. Never saw that coming.

And just to be clear, this is NOT a one day run. If anyone plans to do this in the future, you need 2 days, even if you get an early start.