Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Open mind summit.

It is a somewhat reliable maxim that any whitewater paddler believes his/her craft of choice to be 'the best'.  Years ago, deep in the 26/27.5/29" wheelsize wars, someone, possibly a Canadian, coined the phrase "Pick one -- and be a dick about it".  From my experience that 'tude seems to be the one imparted to most kayakers once their training wheels are removed.

So it was with mild surprise that I found myself joining a non-inflatable crew on the trek into Dark Canyon in Colorado's West Elk mountains when the flows finally came right last week.  Jeff and I were acquainted as skiers 25 years ago in nearby Crested Butte, and have been trying to jointly put paddle to water, and specifically on these creeks, for the past 3 years.  We've had a string of near misses in achieving that reunion, including being on the same river -- but a day apart -- in Idaho this spring.

At the trailhead I met Matt and Josh, and upon seeing Matt's canoe realized that this was not your 'typical' bunch of arrogant kayakers: The presence of an open boat and the willingness to hike several miles meant their minds were far too open to be lumped in with that bunch.  Each eyed my tiny pack with some suspicion, but as we wove our way deep into the mountains, serenaded by soft breezes and the ethereal echoes of hermit thrush, it was easy to let that detail fade into the depths of lupine and bluebell.

The boys walked fast then took civilized breaks, closely spaced such that at my tottering pace I was never far behind when the union whistle blew.

The woods were a riot of greenery, downright jungle-like in the meadows and on the fringes and then solemn, serene, cathedralesque within the groves.

Below, catching our breath at the cusp of the big drop into Ruby Anthracite Creek.

Once at the water we broke long enough to rinse sweat and grime from bodies, inhale our preferred sustenance, then dress and rig for the creek.  Before shoving off Jeff took the time to ensure that we were all on the same page with on-river communications.  It's easy to skip this step, assuming that we all 'speak' the same hand-signal language, but we've all been around this block at least long enough to know that there are intricacies and dialects that form within different cliques.  When the roar of a rapid removes voice contact from the equation, and a horizon line prevents you from knowing what comes next, being able to communicate simply and clearly is a Very Good Thing.  

Getting into the water was a relief on many levels -- mostly from the blazing (even at this elevation) heat, but also because the about-to-run-out runoff was deliciously warm on exposed skin.  Blue skies and clear water added to the this is as good as it gets feel, in my mind.

In the end there was little drama to the day.  4 individuals moved safely, efficiently, and joyfully down a small creek through a stunning canyon, each savoring the aspects that most appealed to his particular sensibilities.  See for yourself:

We had 760cfs on this gauge.  That's about as low as I'd want to hike in for anymore, although if you're at all uncertain about whether you're ready for this run, 600 is probably smarter -- slower and bonier, with lots of partially submerged rocks to hang up on and get slowed down by.

Jeff mentioned that a local friend had run it a few days earlier at 1500, and called it 'solid class V' at that level.  I've run it at 1000 and although the paddling wasn't over my head, things were happening so fast that I had trouble spotting eddies in time to hit them -- bad news on a woody creek like this.

Thus, IMO, the sweet spot is 800-900 for us non-class-V types.

Be aware that it's difficult to catch it on the way up, as Kebler Pass is usually not yet plowed and the approach would be loooooooong on foot.  Although I suppose you could use a snowmachine to get to the trailhead.  Failing that you're left to catch the flows on the way back down, and they pass through this ideal range quickly -- usually in 3 or 4 days.

We did have some unfortunately placed wood.  No real drama for a heads-up paddler to get out and around them, but one near-riverwide tree did block what is arguably the best boof on the river.

Thanks to Jeff, Matt, and Josh for opening their minds enough to include me, and in so doing giving me the opportunity to see that there is more to the kayaking crowd than intolerance, brown claws, stouts, and booty beers.


  1. Sweet Video Mike, and a great read too! Glad to paddle with you.

  2. Another awesome looking wilderness adventure Mike. Also good to see an open-boater, kayakers, and a pack-rafter sharing an adventure.

    Mike were you paddling a Gnarwhal? Didn't look like your Alpacalype or a Yak?

    1. I'm in the '17 Alpackalypse. Fantastic boat -- I hope to do a full-blown review soon.