Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Keeper Hydraulics on the Dead River: What It Feels Like To Be Stuck In A Washing Machine

Setting up for the shuttle Saturday morning. Our tiny Nine.Five is the raft on top of the 13ft raft on top of the van.

Ever wonder what tossing your cat in a top loading washing machine would feel like? ---NOTE: I'm being facetious, I would never put my cat -and probably not your cat- in a washing machine, but this is the internet and some idiot will be offended that I used literary license to set the stage for the rest of the blog.---

Last weekend we ran the Dead River at 3500cfs (technically about 3550 with the Spencer Stream inflow). It was arguably our hardest river run to date. Slightly more technical than the Indian River (Hudson River Gorge, Indian Lake, NY), much longer, and the waves were at times much higher. Though, I never found it as fast as the Indian. Like the Indian, the Dead is not particularly technical, perhaps just a handful or must do moves over 16 miles. It was definitely a fun and challenging run for us in our first full year of whitewater.  And probably about the max I'd feel comfortable with paddling without the safety net of partners in other boats.

The Dead River in The Forks, Maine is perhaps the Northeast most sustained whitewater run with a class IV-V rating at flows above 5500. At those flows there is also one nasty keeper hydraulic, which has been responsible for at least two deaths and a few guides losing their jobs. Fortunately, at 3500 it's just starting to form and not really too much of an issue. Unfortunately, it's sort of at the end of a bunch of rapids (well, a bunch of harder rapids, because the Dead is 16 miles of almost non stop rapids). So, it's very easy to let your guard down. In fact, this happens quite a bit. People think they passed it. And I did too. 

When most people think of whitewater, they think of bombing down a river like a chicken without a head. But, it's really a highly skilled game with lots of nuances and ever changing conditions. Learning to read a river and adjusting to the different currents, cross currents and features, and applying the correct strokes, angles, edge and maneuvers is really quite exhilarating. It's a chess match. My goal is to become a competent R2 rafter up to class V and a competent OC boater at least to class 3+. To do that requires a lot more than just bombing down the river and hoping for the best.  So while practicing technique on our home rivers, we've also been trying to run as many new rivers as possible.

Our original plan for Evil Nasty Hole was to run right of river center and deal with the other hole on that section of river, FBI hole -also a strong hydraulic, but one that is borderline fun at almost all levels once formed. By staying river center to right of center down the "boiling wave train" we'd be clear of Evil Nasty and perhaps skirt FBI on the left. For some reason I assumed with passed the aptly named keeper hole, Evil Nasty (also called Unemployment Hole), and we were sort of going down the left side of the river in a relaxed fashion. 

Lots of waves indicate a wave train which is generally not formed by rocks, but rather a slow down of the water in front of you, perhaps a pool or change in gradient or difference in width of the river. Waves are only an issue if two or fewer waves are seen in a row because one or two can be formed by a rock or other obstruction. As we got closer I noticed the big wave in front and called out lets head left, which was the river edge closest to us. Then at the last minute we decided to go right, which was the original plan. Still not 100% aware that this was definitely Evil Nasty. Within seconds we were sure it was, based on the cliffs down river left, and the big wave to our left. We tried paddling hard right using a combination of draws and forward strokes. In hindsight, back ferrying would have been our best option, but alas, this is where first year whitewater paddlers get into trouble. Instinctively we should have back paddled into a back ferry towards river right, using the force of the current to move us right while not getting significantly closer to the hole and most likely missing the hole. We ended up just catching the right edge of Evil Nasty because we tried to paddle down river cross current. Doh! Rookie mistake.

What lulled me (and really us) to sleep was the river description was for the 5500 flow level. The river to the center simply didn't have that big nasty looking wave train, in fact, the commercial rafts love wave trains because they look nasty and are fun with big splashes, but usually aren't the slightest bit technical, and they all went river left (one going into Evil Nasty after we left) since the wave trains simply weren't there. 

I'd say being caught in Evil Nasty at 3500 for two minutes was a fun experience, but it also was the first keeper hole we have been in, and as such, I learned just how nasty such a hole can be. If you aren't failing your probably aren't pushing yourself, and you probably aren't going to progress. Getting caught in the hole while not planned and technically a failure on our part for several reasons, definitely was a learning experience. 

I do hope to go back to the Dead for a two day release at 2400cfs (Class II+) and run it with our hardshell OC2, and also do it again at 3500cfs (Class III+) with our Aire Nine.Five raft. I'd also like to be good enough in the raft to run it R2 at 5500 (Class IV) next year by the end of the year. Not to mention I'd like to give the Kennebeck (Class IV) a run as well. Hopefully by that point we have another 30 river days under our belts, perhaps a swift water rescue course and maybe some paddling partners to give us a little more safety margin. 

Our campsite at River Drivers
After Evil Nasty you have the hardest part of the river in front of you, Little and Big Poplar Falls. Two solid class 3 sections with big waves and some maneuvers to line them up. Those went perfectly and we ran good lines. We took out almost directly at our campsite (200ft portage to our campsite) at Webbs/River Drivers campground, a small low key family operation. River Drivers no longer guides rafts or has a restaurant on site, but it's the sort of unpretentious, low key, no frills sort of place I like to stay. If you need more fancy digs, Northern seemed like a swanky place to stay (hot tub, pool, onsite restaurant, etc) and other rafting outfits also provide camping. Downsides of River Drivers, there is a logging operation
Best part of owning a raft, it doubles as camp furniture!
on site and because they are dog friendly (which is awesome) there is also the potential to step in dog poop (mostly from their 3 big, friendly, and well behaved labs). Like all rafting campgrounds, quiet hours are whenever till two ours before shuttle time, so don't count on sleeping too much, but this isn't a River Driver issue, you'll find it anywhere. They also offer a shuttle most weekends the Dead runs, and it's I believe $10 a person, $5 per boat and a $5 surcharge for the raft (don't use that as a basis for budgeting, I know it was $30 for two of us and a raft, the raft was extra). It was a friendly operation which I'll definitely use again, and I hope they continue to offer camping and shuttle service.

The rest of the trip was awesome filled with generally great weather, and included a stop in Portland, Maine, where we were compelled to indulge in some fresh Maine lobster. 
Andy's Pub in Portland. Lobster tacos, tenderloin and lobster and mussels marinara. The lobster tacos were incredible.

Evil Nasty Hole - Dead River, Maine from Mountain Visions on Vimeo.

Ever wonder what it would be like to put your cat (or yourself, for the cat lovers out there) in a top loading washing machine? There is really only one keeper hydraulic on the Dead River, it's aptly named Evil Nasty Hole, and this is it. At 3500cfs it's pretty tame, only keeping us for a little under 2 minutes and not really being a drowning machine that can form at 5000cfs.. The record, if you care, is 10 minutes in Evil Nasty, we barely even get a participation ribbon. The Dead is 13 miles of essentially non stop rapids, so I sort of let my guard down when we got to this point.. I did tell my partner​ I thought we should head left, but we then decided to move river center (as originally planned) and skirt it on the right. As you can see, we didn't quite get out of it's re-circulation.. Next time we go left (or way right).

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Labor Day on the Indian River

After some checking, with the newly acquired state lands of the Finch Pruyn land purchase, the Gooley club access point on the confluence of the Hudson and Indian Rivers is now public. Therefore it is entirely possible for those without the time or technical proficiency to run just the Indian River which is about a grade easier than the Hudson and quite accessible if something should go wrong. At summer flows this is a fairly consistent class III river with some sections of II. It's mostly non stop wave trains that really aren't very technical in nature. However, the length of consistency of the rapids makes this a fun run. This river is a basically a 1/5 scale model of what you'll encounter on the Dead River in Maine at 3500cfs.   

Downsides of this are that the official state takeout and shortest walk to the car is quite a ways up the Hudson. It might be possible at higher water levels to paddle most of the way up, but there are two issues. First, the takeout is just upstream of some rapids. Second, the water level this summer was very low and at best you could paddle about 1/3 of the way up, pull the boat while walking another 1/3 but the last 1/3 required portaging over wet slimy riverbed that wasn't ideal by any means. 

Aim ultimately found the state takeout while I found the longer portage but easier takeout trail on the point at the exactly confluence of the rivers. Neither option was ideal, but in low water the longer trailed portage was the lesser of evils. 

Fortunately for us the Aire Tributary Nine.Five deflates and rolls into a fairly compact package that we wheeled up the portage trail (this was basically an old jeep road). Unfortunately, the walk is uphill (seemingly) both ways which mean the double carry of about 1 mile was not fun (could be done in a single carry for sure, but we needed to go get the other car and the portage cart (beach cart). 

I'd say if you can put in at the beginning of the release you might be able to do two runs, but it would be very close. We didn't put in until almost 11 but I'm not sure I would have done two runs anyway. 

Hopefully next year we have the skills and the confidence to run the Upper Hudson Gorge (the section below the confluence of the Indian and Hudson Rivers) down to North River, which should be a blast in a small raft. In fact, I'm hoping to do it as an overnight rafting trip. 

One of the nice things about the raft is we can live scout runs for the OC. The Indian would be a tough run in an open canoe and we'd have to run tighter lines -we hit at least two rocks that would have likely flipped an OC2- but I definitely would like to be able to run it by the end of 2017.  As fun as it was in a tiny raft, I think it would be awesome in a hardshell OC2.

Indian River R2 Labor Day 2016 from Mountain Visions on Vimeo.
More practice in the Aire Tributary Nine.Five HD. After running familar rivers like the Deerfield (II(III)) and Sacandaga (II-III) several times since purchasing the raft, we stepped it up to the fairly continuous Class III rapids and big waves of the Indian River, which is the access point/warmup for the Hudson River Gorge -one of the premier rafting trips in the east or perhaps anywhere in the US. The Nine.Five has actually been a lot more fun than I expected, and I'm really happy with it. I don't think I'd have enjoyed a bigger raft or one with less kick.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Rafting as a Whitewater Learning Tool for Hard Shell Boaters

This is our first full year running dedicated whitewater. We started the year by taking a clinic at Zoar in Charlemont, Massachusetts, on the Deerfield River. All I can say about Zoar is it isn’t particularly cheap -cheaper for kayaking, where they have much more competition-, but the canoe clinic was excellent with a student teacher ratio of 1:2 (boats). Everything from instruction to equipment to food was top notch. And the river, the Deerfield, is absolutely perfect for learning. The Fife Brook section has safe swims, no nasty hydraulics, pools at the end of most rapids and a mix of everything you could want in terms of river features as a beginner or even intermediate paddler. You can step it up by running the class III(IV) Dryway as well. Basically, Zoar has a great location. Being exactly 60 miles away from home and it flowing every weekend and many weekdays, it’s sort of become our training ground. You can say we've adopted it as our home river. In fact, about 8 years ago, it was our first whitewater run, so it's only fitting it's the place we actually learned what we are doing. 

The goal for us is to get to be competent class III paddlers in an open tandem canoe. With the ultimate goal of being able to do big unsupported wilderness trips where we paddle everything from big lakes to class II rivers fully loaded down, portaging our gear around class III sections that we run in an empty boat. The way to do that is run as much river as you possibly can, practicing all your skills until they are second nature. The cool thing about whitewater is you don’t need to run class IV rapids to work on class IV skills. You can do class IV moves in class II whitewater. In fact, I’ll often watch people “playing around” in Zoar Gap doing class IV moves, making the Class III Zoar Gap look like class I. It’s pretty amazing, and much more entertaining than seeing the carnage of people with lesser skills choose a straight line, cross their fingers and bomb down it. On the bright side, swimming Zoar Gap is another safe swim in the Deerfield, which is why there is such a variation of paddling skills seen going down it.

It’s that ability to slow a river down, to break a rapid down into sections, to turn a raging river into a chess game of preplanned moves  that differentiates those with some skill from those who just bomb down river like a gazelle running from a lion. Just because you can push really hard on the gas pedal doesn’t mean you are a good driver.

A lot of getting better is also running new rapids which force you to learn to read the river versus memorize the rapids. I can pretty much tell you the lines to run on the Deerfield Fife Brook section from memory. I also know the Sacandaga pretty well, well enough to know that one rock, the same damn rock that hides just below the surface at the left edge of a hole, has taken us for a swim on two occasions in an 16 foot river tripping OC2. On the flip side (no pun intended), familiarity equals comfort, and comfort equals a chance to practice new moves. Knowing where it’s ok to go for a swim makes practicing easier.

So where do inflatables come in. Well, I joked with my climbing partner that rafting (or inflatables in general) requires no skill, it’s basically a giant inner tube with paddles. And in some ways that might be true on the most basic of levels, however, especially paddling R2 (tandem raft) it does require a bit of skill. Not to mention, a 9.8ft raft that is only 6ft between the kick (rocker) handles more like a canoe than a commercial raft. The other issue is when you think of rafting you think of a guide piloting a 16-20ft boat that tees up big waves and rolls over anything less than a foot above the water. The reality is the raft guide is, in many cases, the only one on the boat that knows what they are doing, knows the lines, and steers the boat. When you run a paddle raft R2, you and your partner make the decisions and work equally as a team. Much like an OC2 (tandem open canoe). 

The pros of a raft (or most any inflatable)  are as follows:

  • It allows you to run harder rapids that might be pushing your OC2 skill level. A good option is to raft a new run before taking the OC2 out and see what it’s like, scouting out rapids, surf holes, and eddies. This is especially good on rivers that are read and run. Read and run class III might be pushing the limits of OC2 for most people, but it’s generally fairly tame in a raft.
  • It allows you to learn river dynamics and choose lines without the consequences of a swim always being there (although, it’s definitely possible to flip a raft in any class river, just a lot less likely. In fact, I’ve had a few people who were accomplished paddlers in hard shell canoes, kayaks and rafts tell me that they rolled a raft in the secondary rapids at the bottom of Zoar Gap, basically the class II+ section).
    A video posted by @mountainvisions on

  • Catching an eddy with a raft and a canoe are different in terms of angles, it still allows you to practice finding eddies for future runs in an OC. On wave train rivers these eddies might be your only chance to bail an OC (unless you have an electric bilge pump). Catching an eddy in a raft requires a steeper angle of entry and more effort, IMO (but that could also just be a lack of skills on our part) but the concept isn’t really any different. Basically if you can catch it in a raft, you can more easily catch it in a hard shell boat.

    • It allows you to practice ferries and surfing (which is basically just ferrying in place). Again, not quite the same as in an OC as you don’t edge the raft like a canoe. Angle and speed are similar. Angle, speed, edge are your 3 factors in a hard shell.
    • Sight lines on a raft are higher than even an OC (much, much, higher than a kayak or inflatable kayak). This gives you a different perspective on the water allowing you to look much farther ahead and make decisions at a slower pace. It’s like being able to see the future.
    • Both paddlers have unobstructed sight lines in a raft when paddling R2 vs an OC2/IK2/ K2 where the stern paddler has to look around the bow paddler.This also means both paddlers can learn from each other.
    • Small R2 size rafts (or other inflatables) take up less storage space and some will fit in the hatch/trunk of a compact car. Portaging a deflated R2 on a beach cart isn't all that hard.
    • Rafts are a great way to take out non paddler family and friends. I was able to run Zoar Gap @ a high 1000cfs (III+) perfectly in an R3 configuration with my two 13 year old siblings, with me paddling off the back doing most of the steering, although, in a 3 man raft, everyone still plays a big role and my siblings did an amazing job.
    • Rafts are a great way to take the dog down river. This was actually the main reason we got the raft. I saw people in IKs taking their dogs down river and I was already feeling guilty for leaving ours at home every weekend. I feel like next year we'll be comfortable enough to run class II with Colvin in a OC2, but my worry was if we rolled it in some rapids this year that he'd become fearful of the whitewater and we wouldn't ever be able to take him. He actually really loves the raft and is protective of it. Barking at neighbors if they approach it. He gets excited when he sees it. 
    • A raft offers much more bang for buck than an IK.  It’s compact but holds 850lbs worth of people or gear. Two plus K9 and compact overnight gear is no problem. Or you can get 3-4 adults and dog in it. Or 4 adults (usually two couples come in under 850lbs). Definitely a lot of value for the money. You’d need at least 2 tandem inflatable kayaks for 3 adults and a dog. And probably 2 kayaks for a dog and two adults since IKs rarely hold over 400lbs and a lot of space is used by the legs being extended.

  • As far as cons:

    • You might get lazy. Although the basic techniques are the same in a canoe, kayak, IK/IC, or raft, taking balance, edging and bracing out of the equation for too long is a great way to end up swimming a lot. Most OC flips happen when the wrong edge is engaged. Canoes feel tippy but the reality is they have a lot of ability to edge, we’ve had our OC2 gunnel to the water and still recovered with a good brace.
    • A large raft generally requires a trailer.
    • Rafts aren’t cheap.
    • Rafts can be heavy
    • Rafts require a little TLC, especially get them dry for storage
    • Rafts don’t paddle long stretches of flat water particularly efficiently. They downright suck as paddle craft in the wind.

    From my perspective, the speed that everything is happening and putting it all together while in motion is the learning curve of an OC. You don’t get all that long to decide and react and in an OC2, that decision making and reacting has to be in unison. As you get better and more comfortable things slow down, but they pick back up again when you step up the difficulty.  Field of vision is somewhat limited  in a tandem canoe, and taking on big wave trains can lead to a lot of water entering the boat and an eventual swim on rivers without distinct eddies. Swimming isn’t bad per se, it usually means you were doing something hard enough to make you think, make you maneuver, or get in over your comfort zone. It also means you probably learned something, like crossing currents while ferrying between eddies,  but it’s also a chance for something to go wrong or to lose gear.

    Considering I’m not  much of an aesthetics guy, watching a skilled OC1 dance around rapids is one of the most beautiful things to watch. OC2’s rarely look that good -although, olympic slalom shows how good you can look-, but too me, a canoe is the ultimate mode of water travel. It was once the choice mode of commerce and the utility of a canoe is still far superior to anything on the water. Inflatables and closed shell kayaks have their advantages, but the open canoe is still king of the waterways when you factor in versatility.

    So if you see me out there on a raft, no worries...OC for life! In the end it’s all about getting on the water; raft, IC/IK, canoe or kayak!