NFCT Trip Report #3

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Exhausted at the end of a very long day. 

Liesl and I were getting tired at this point. The previous night we had camped at the foot of Permanent Rapids and had only traveled about 15 miles from there, but the low water and constant stress caused by the rocks and Liesl’s cavalier attitude toward water safety had drained me. My energy began to fade, and the speed we had been making in the morning slowed. Worse, the dark fingers of storm clouds had begun to creep over the peaks west of us.

I had brought two paddles. One a beater to use in rapids or shallows, the other a beautiful bent shaft carved by my friend’s uncle. A paddle he had used in the Moloka’i ocean canoe race (search this blog for my story about my awesome trip to Hawaii for the same race), and consequently a paddle that I thought must be imbued with a great deal of sentimental value. A paddle made by a family member; a paddle that traveled around the world to paddle from one Hawaiian island to another. This paddle has to be special, I thought. The problem I had was that I preferred the bent shaft and found the teardrop blade of my other paddle too long for the shallow rapids. However, I didn’t want to be damage my friend’s special paddle, so I struggled with the longer paddle as it bounced off rocks and felt altogether inefficient.

As we approached the first ledges, a class III-IV staircase at the foot of some class II rapids, I was at prepared having read the map and book. I took the boat to shore and scouted ahead to see if lining the ledge would be the best option. I choose to forgo lining in favor of a portage/drag. The rocks on river left we such that with effort I would be able to manhandle the boat and gear—albeit ungracefully—to the slack water below the staircase. It was also, for once, easy to manage my furry friend. I simply clipped her to a tree on the bank of the river and moved everything over the edge. Once the boat was ready to go, I went back for her. It was hard but it worked.

Continuing downstream I knew there was a class IV ledge about a mile ahead. That mile went fast. We came upon what, from upstream, looked like a standard drop—just a little too much for my equipment and not worth the risk so early in my trip. Conveniently there was a nice big rock in the middle of the river dividing the ledge. I thought I’d have no trouble landing on the rock, and moving the gear down over it. I was wrong.

Liesl and I approached the rock too fast. This was the first real misreading of water I had done on the trip and the timing was terrible. As we approached, the ledge began to look less and less forgiving. The river narrowed and the water directly above the ledge was deeper and faster than expected. There were less rocks and the water was funnelled quickly to either side of the big rock in the middle. I opted for the left side of the rock as it looked like the easies place to land, but when I got closer I realized it was surrounded by a shield full of jagged rocks just below the surface. It was also much closer to the lip of the ledge than I thought.

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New boat nicks and scratches from the rocks. 

I had no choice but to try and beach the boat or risk going over. In an effort to get the bow out of the water enough so that it would catch on the rocks, I got off my knees and back into the stern seat. Then I paddled toward the rock as hard as I could. It was a good plan but I had let Liesl’s leash slip out from under my knee when returning to the seat. She sensed my panic and her freedom, and choose this moment to hop once again forward to her precarious perch atop the bags in the bow of the boat.

Dachshunds are not good at hopping forward in a canoe. Dachshunds are much better going under things than over them, particularly the miniature kind like Liesl. To get on top of the bags in the front of the boat she had to crawl over wheels, small bags, the spare paddle, and general crap that builds up over a few days. Then she had to hop up to the bow seat, and from there—now with her center of gravity parallel to the gunnels—hop higher still to get to her perch. In calm water this maneuver only poses a slight problem. But nothing was calm at this point. Including me. In my stressed out, already edgy state I panicked.

The moment she elected to hop to the top of the bags was the same moment we hit the rock. The bounce from the rock caused her to miss her jump. Thankfully, she fell back into the boat and not into the current. Thinking the canoe was stuck firmly to the rock, I lunged for her because she was about to try again. As I lunged I dropped the paddle into the river, and as I caught hold of Liesl’s leash I watch the paddle get swept over the ledge and felt the stern of the boat being pulled away from the rock by the current. I threw, gently of course, but still a throw, Liesl to the rear of the boat where there was nothing she could climb on, and I grasped for the rocks. The smooth wet surface didn’t offer much purchase and I was sure we’d be going over the edge. But my hands stuck and I was able to drag the canoe onto the rock.

Once everything, quadruped included, was secure I lay back on the rock and gave Liesl the stink-eye while wondering what the f@ck I was going to do now with only one paddle for the next 1000kms, a delicate and precious one at that.

I guess I just have to keep an eye out for it, I thought more concerned with my present situation stuck on a rock atop a drop I couldn’t handle. I surveyed my situation. The rock was not going to be my ticket down the ledge that was much bigger and more violent that I had thought. I had to find away to get to shore. The right shore was impossible. The drop on the right side was much closer where I had unceremoniously beached the boat. I would have had to go upstream and over, which was not an option. On the left, I had about ten feet from the boat to the lip of the ledge, and maybe fifteen or twenty feet to shore. Not a great distance, but with deep, cold water speeding toward the ledge, I would not be able to ferry—that is paddle—across. My only option was to walk the boat over, using the boat and the one paddle as support.

I quickly sank to my knees, then my hips, which caused an uncomfortable tightening sensation in my nether regions. It was cold. I would first plant the paddle, wedging it’s beautiful shape between rocks to ensure it wouldn’t move. Then I would gingerly lift one foot, sure that the other was firmly planted, and get it comfortable and solid. Then using the boat and paddle to balance, bring the back foot forward. It was slow, cold and scary. I made it across without any further adventures, but I had left Liesl back on the rock tied to a little tree in the middle. My logic was that I didn’t know how my traverse was going to go, so if I lost the boat I’d rather she wasn’t in it. I wasn’t making the best decisions at this point. I was cold, tired, a little scared, and starving. The thing I realized was that the reason I made it across without too much trouble was because I had the paddle and canoe as support. Returning for the dog, I would only have the paddle, and to make it worse, I would be hold 12 lbs of wiener dog above the water by the handle on her little life jacket, knowing that if I dropped her she’d be instantly gone over the rapids, and would probably drown or be seriously injured.

It was like doing isometric shoulder weights on a wobble board you can’t see, with people tugging on your legs, but in place of weights was a living creature I love more than most living creatures.

Though of course Liesl and I made it across, I paid for it. To actually move the forty feet needed to get around the ledge took about two-hours. It was absolutely brutal. It was the low-point of the trip. It was the most stressful, and yes, upsetting, part. I was mad at myself for putting her in this situation and mad at myself for not being more careful, and ultimately for not resting properly, as I think fatigue and hunger were what led me to make a series of small bad decisions.

Back in the boat, I stopped trying to avoid every rock I saw and just avoided the big ones. I let the river take me down while munching on a dried sausage and some granola bars. The clouds to the west had started to catch up to me and the grey clouds cast foreboding shadows. Miraculously I found the paddle about two miles downstream, and so didn’t have to worry about destroying Tommy’s special paddle. But I still had about 12 miles to go that day. They were hard, slow, dark miles. The rains began soon after the ledge incident and when I finally pulled into the campground, I had been paddling for over 13 hours without any real break.

Exhausted I set up my tarp, and put the tent underneath in a pathetic effort to stay dry. Liesl was also exhausted. I had yelled at her—unfairly of course as she has a brain the size of an almond and obviously wasn’t trying to be the biggest pain in the ass possible—and I felt bad. She was wet, cold, and I’m convinced she sensed my anger and frustration and in her own way felt bad and, not to humanize her too much, guilty. To make it up to her, I gave her extra food a piece of dried sausage, and used the good towel to dry her off. Peace was made as we hunkered down in the damp sleeping bag and passed out to the sounds of thunder and increasingly heavy rain.


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A sad attempt to dry out my unbelievably rank shirt.