Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Dark Canyon.

20+ years ago, shortly after moving to Crested Butte, I overheard an acquaintance talking excitedly about the Dark Canyon.  I was eavesdropping and as such didn't get all of the details, but the general demeanor of the speaker was of reverence and awe, such that I knew I needed to see it, somehow, someday.

Credit the packraft with finally making that long-deferred desire a reality.

Greg Luck joined me for an overnighter that coulda been done in a long day.  We opted to drive to Kebler Pass the night before, allowing us to savor some non-plugged-in camp time and just decompress a bit while photogeeking the dark, starry skies up there.

A leisurely start to the day (and why the hell not?!) saw us dawdle around camp for the sheer sake of dawdling.  Seems I'm not the only one that's hit 'terminal velocity/summer sleep deprivation mode' earlier than normal.

We followed Ruby Anthracite Trail #836 for about 3 miles, trending downhill, around the eastern flank of Marcellina mountain.  The trail had excellent tread for hiking, was lined with lush early-summer foliage, and only occasionally interrupted by beaver pond or root garden.

Views of the West Elks, Raggeds, and Anthracites kept our jaws slack, while auditory accompaniment came courtesy of the resident hermit thrush.  3 miles of laden walking is no lark with ankles as fooked as mine, but the sights and sounds that surrounded us while hoofing it had me both relaxed and energized when we arrived at waters edge.

Lower Ruby Anthracite is a steep (~150'/mile), narrow little creek with a handful of blind corners, horizon lines, and a propensity to collect wood.  We shore-scouted wherever we couldn't boat scout, and in so doing learned that the earth here is simply unstable.  Nothing was static, everything, including whole mountainsides, seemed to be in flux underfoot.

Ultimately we found only one riverwide piece of wood--it was both easily seen and easily portaged, right at the confluence with Anthracite Creek.  That portage felt like a gift, in that it deposited us just upstream of the confluence in a gorgeous, trout-filled green pool we wouldn't have otherwise seen.  

The overall flavor of the run was playful, fun, technical--largely because the flow was low enough that we could move around as needed and eddy out more or less at will.  Sometimes eddying required parking on the abundant F-U rocks or grabbing a handful of willow branches long enough to throw a glance over your shoulder to see the next 'eddy'.  Engaging, yet not scarily so.

Greg, as we transitioned from boats to bikes at Erickson Springs: "This feels like the kind of thing these little boats were meant to do".  By which I think he was referring to both their portability and competency.

We closed the loop with a mellow (weekday 'traffic'!) climb up Kebler Pass road to where we'd left my car at the trailhead.


Ascending through one of the planet's largest living organisms.

In sum this day may go down as one of my favorites of 2014.  While we can't claim to have discovered it, the revealing of this wilderness whitewater gem on this day, and in this way, was among the most satisfying boating experiences I've yet had.  

Why?  Most of my boating to date has been on routes pioneered by others, or on roadside 'learning runs'.  This one cracked open a new genre for me, by rekindling the desire to blend mapwork with my favorite tools for exploration: mountain bikes and packrafts.

Oh, and the Dark Canyon?  What we saw of it was alluring, but the speed of the water and the (short) length of the canyon meant we didn't get to linger, or focus.  Need to head back in afoot once the water recedes...

We had ~610cfs, arrived at by subtracting the Muddy Creek reading from the North Fork at Somerset gauge.  Felt perfect for a first time down at our skill level.  I wouldn't go back with much less, and would be hesitant to dive in with too much more.

Thanks for checkin' in.