Sunday, May 1, 2011

Game change.

I grew up riding bikes. I also grew up around water. Living in Michigan, you couldn't swing a dead cat and NOT hit water, so it was a natural to be out in it in some capacity whenever the temps were warm enough. And lots of times when they weren't. The only way to find your true limits is to go past them, then pull back a bit, right?

Ahem. Bikes. And water.

Until a few years ago it never occurred to me that they could be combined in such a way as to be fun. I remember reading a NatGeo article way back when about an out-there (in both thinking and execution) expedition that traversed the entire Alaska Range using bikes and packrafts. And, of course, lotsa foot travel to connect the dots. But that didn't sound very appealing, especially when the participants themselves referred to it as 'Hellbiking'. They'd concocted and executed a novel, creative way to see a huge chunk of country, but to me it didn't sound like enough pure fun to be worth the cost--in dollars or suffering. The reality is that I hadn't yet acquired the experience or imagination needed to appreciate what they'd achieved.

Lately the bikerafting idea has sunk it's teeth into my hide, largely as a result of the waaaaaay-out-there exploits of Roman, Eric and Dylan, and lately Doom. Yes, ferchrissakes, you have my attention!

I've been reading their stories and salivating over the images, all the while feeling a certain momentum building inside. A few months ago a conversation started that has been building and building into something concrete: a trip involving bikes, a few friends, and some wild Alaskan country that will require the use of boats. Dave has been the driving force behind the planning, and his early efforts at learning to become a bikeboater succeeded, finally, in pulling me down that road too.

I acquired a boat and some helpful literature, devoured said literature in two late night benders, took my maiden voyage on a windy pothole lake with Fang along for company and entertainment, then decided that I needed to get into some moving water, stat.

It didn't hurt that Fruita Fat Headed Geek Week is happening right now--that's enough to dissuade any rational non-sheeple to avoid the trails entirely.

I spent the better part of Friday night fiddling with different ways of strapping the bike to the boat, and of carrying the boat on the bike. There isn't really a 'right' way to do either, just varying shades of grey depending on how far you're going to go, how strong your back is, and how brushy the creeks are. This realization, amidst a pile of junk straps and little used gear from the depths of the closet, brought me to a more important realization:

I know nothing about paddling rivers.

Canoeing on midwestern lakes comprises 99% of my experience, and most of that was an early-teenage me in the bow with Dad in the stern doing the real work of propulsion and control. Other than that, one rubber-ducky trip down the Middle Taylor (which I swam, repeatedly) and one sea kayak trip down Ruby/Horsethief on the Colorado.

In a word: Noob.

But hey--at least I know my place, and can start working from there.

Which means yesterday AM I found myself looking at aerial pics of the Colorado River a few miles from home.

Note to the unsuspecting--when you're ignorant and you know it, and you're prone to paranoia about worst-case scenarios, AND you know enough about spring snowmelt to be dangerous if not informed, the more quasi-pertinent info you find, the more paranoid you'll become. In short, the aerial pics were meant to give an idea of a put-in and a take-out. What they really did was to make my eyes sore trying to decipher which of many braids were runnable and which were too boney, or too full of strainers and sweepers. The end result of all the map lookee looing was a Grade-A case of analysis paralysis. I nearly made myself sick with anxiety.
Knowing that action of the right kind can diffuse a/p pretty quick, I tied my shoes, strapped on a helmet, and pedaled gently downhill toward the river.

I rode along the Riverfront Trail (aka the Homeless Highway) headed upstream, and stopped often to scramble through the brush and take wide-eyed looks at the river. In a word, it seemed big, and the thought of my bigger-than-a-breadbox, smaller-than-a-bathtub boat bobbing along out there brought the anxiety level right back up. The water also seemed to be moving much faster than I could ever remember.

I got back on the bike and kept pedaling.

Eventually I came to a calmish slough with a grassy out-of-the-wind place to rig up, then dropped the bike and the pack. It was getting on toward evening and I wasn't likely to find a much better spot. Time to commit.

In a few short minutes I had the boat inflated, then started fiddling with straps and trying to remember which went where.

Maybe 10 minutes later the bike was secure, all extraneous gear had been stowed, and there was nothing left to do but get in and shove off.

I slid into the boat, secured the velcro spraydeck, took a last look on the bank for odds and ends, then pushed off. I could see that the slough met the main channel of the river about 300 yards ahead, so I used that distance to practice ferrying (forward and backward) across the current, moving back upriver, changing direction 90 degrees, then 180 degrees, picking a spot on land then trying to move to it without altering course, etc... Basically trying to make these moves seem somewhat ingrained, instead of having to think about them. I have a very small amount of muscle memory for canoeing, but kayaking is just completely different.

After maybe 10 minutes of avoiding the main channel, I let myself be carried out into it. And, as most of you are already aware, it just wasn't any big deal. I was moving faster in a larger volume of water, but this little boat is so stable and nimble that it just didn't seem to matter. The biggest thing was that I needed to learn to look farther down the river--just like driving (or, um, riding) when speeds increase.

The most obvious things I noticed on this section were hordes of swifts, swallows, and martens swooping along at water level. I couldn't see any bugs but why else would they be there? They parted as I bobbed past, then came back together in my wake and proceeded, I hoped, to tear hell out of a fresh mosquito hatch.

Clouds blew in fast, obscuring the sun and dropping the temps. It rained some, then snowed a little, then just like that they were gone and it was back to sun.

The sun/rain/snow/sun cycle repeated itself on into the evening. Looking upriver at a receding cell.

Then looking downriver at another approaching.

When the water was flat and calm I could peel back the spray deck, dig out the dry bag, open it, fiddle with a few dials and then take a picture or three. Then I'd hear or see an approaching change in the river, so I'd stash the camera and get both hands back on the paddle.

In reality, there wasn't much cause for concern. An occasional sweeper, a few deep undercuts with perplexing (to my uneducated mind) currents that seemed to plow straight into solid earth, and a few small rapids with wave trains but no holes. Naturally, I was moving the boat into what seemed the 'safe' places through all of these, thus you only get to see pics of calm, flat water.

I didn't manage to snag any pictures of the 'homeless' camps along the river, partially because I was in such a state of disbelief at how many there were. Dozens if not hundreds of tents, some of them assembled into compounds where it seemed they had electricity (there was LOUD music playing from a stereo, somewhere), communal tents with huge amounts of bike parking, and communal trash pits at the apparent edges of the camps. But mostly the tents were in ones and twos. I was barked at by several of their dogs, but never saw any of the people.

It was also nice to observe that tamarisk seems to be on the downswing--mostly brown if not outright dead.

Around here I realized that most of my anxiety and apprehension were gone--I was just observing and ruminating, even as I read the river and adjusted my position in it.

And that seemed to be a pretty big milestone to me.

After that the sounds and sights of birds seemed to fill my whole world. Swifts and martens, plover and sandpiper, rails and herons, canada geese and mallard ducks, even an invisible but audible ringneck pheasant somewhere out in the reeds. Lots of life out here, but, at least on the water, I saw no people.

Maybe 40 minutes later, just before sunset, I saw an obvious takeout and ferried over to it. Not much mud, a short scramble up to flat earth, and my first bikerafting trip was 2/3 done.

A few minutes of de-rigging and reassembling and I was zipping down the Homeless Highway, bubbling with enthusiasm not at what I'd just done, but at what I would now be able to do.

Inspired. Enthusiastic. Giggling. All of these describe my state of mind as I rolled back into town.

Later, I pulled out some maps. Maps that I've been poring over for years, that I've used to plan and execute other trips in other times. And you know what?

They all look different now.

* * * * *

P.S. To Roman, Eric, Dylan, and Doom: Why the hell didn't you grab me by the scruff and TELL ME SOONER?!