Monday, July 4, 2016

Packrafting the Uinta River

Many moons ago, when I was but a wee lad freshly landed on the shores of Utah and was still enthusiastic about the prospects of kayaking in the desert I looked at a map of the Uintas and figured that mountain range of that size and consistent altitudes with a lot of sinewy blue lines snaking out of it there had to be some secret stashes of whitewater if one were intrepid enough to search out the gems.  You’d have to generate your own beta on flows, logs, hazards, and details, because there would be little to no information available, be ready to suffer, and probably hike for them.   Not very typical kayaking. 

I also realized that an important aspect of potential kayak adventures in the Uintas would be choosing the right craft.  Due to what I anticipated would be the low volume and rocky nature of the rivers using a creek boat is obvious, but many of those blue lines started far from a road and even from a trailhead, so carry-ability would be nice.   I’ve carried kayaks before - sometimes for many miles- and they are about as heavy and awkward as you might imagine them to be.   So I kept a half an eye out for something that might be appropriate, and eventually I got a chance to paddle a Sally.    

The Sally was the precursor to the modern packraft, and was the first inflatable that was really able to paddle challenging, low volume whitewater with a rigid cockpit rim, a sprayskirt, and thigh braces.  The only problem with the Sally was that it was still a bit heavy, filled up an entire pack with it’s bulk, and has an awkwardly-sized/shaped foot pump, so while yes it was carryable, it was still sub-optimal.  But it had enough good features that it represented the allure of potential adventures, so I got one.  However, a fundamental problem quickly presented itself:  I only had one, and another important aspect of kayaking – like other activities  -is that it’s simply better to do with other people.  So in anticipation of yet-to-be-determined future pards who were as naively enthusiastic as me, I bought another one! 

But between droughts, a lack of partners who were understandably unwilling to give a funky new and unfamiliar craft a go on what would undoubtedly be adventurous paddling, the Sallies didn’t see much use.  Until one day some years ago when I saw a post on the Utah Whitewater site by a guy looking for a partner for a big hike/paddle adventure that may involve a lot of the former and little of the latter.  I was excited for us both to take the Sallies, but to my dismay he was more interested in paddling his own plastic boat rather than giving me an opportunity to validate my rash decision to buy TWO silly Sallies.  That trip turned out to be about 15 miles of first postholing in snow and then hiking alongside a wood-infested river with a couple of hundred yards of paddling.  This was both encouraging and discouraging:  yes, there might be some potential for using the Sallies in the Uintas, but this first foray – that had shown promise in theory – was a bust.  (a write up of that adventure by Daniel Anderson is here)

Over the years the reality of the lack of usefulness and opportunity to use those boats in Utah became apparent and I endeavored to sell them, which was a long process, but finally did, to happy owners who likely used the same “these represent opportunities for adventure!” enthusiastic theory that I had.  But still, the Uintas loomed, with those intriguing blue lines.  And gems did start appearing:  Daniel found a nice descent of Carter Creek into Flaming Gorge reservoir, the Father of Utah whitewater Gary Nicols found that the next drainage to the north  - Sheep Creek  -was paddleable, Big Chris Smith did some short steep creeking on the North Fork Duschene, and Kiwi Andy Windle and I had a nice first(?) and only(?) descent of Ashley Creek though a nice gorge that drains into Vernal, but all of these had driveable shuttles, so craft hikeability wasn’t an issue.  But the namesake river, the Uinta….that was different.  Folks had done it using horses to pack their boats in and reported nice continuous class 3-4 in a beautiful gorge, with a takeout that was some distance above the end of the gravel road paralleling the too-flat section.  So it was perfect for the new Alpackas! 

Apparently I hadn’t quite learned my lesson about purchasing silly whitewater crafts in Utah, so therefore this spring I got an AlpackaAlpackalypse which is sort of the more-evolved Sally, with a removeable cockpit rim and delivering pretty much the same performance in a much-more-svelte 10 pound package.  Brother Paul took my old Alpacka (that’s not quite as tricked out), and as the early-June heat made the (finally!) average snowpack in the Uintas result in a quick, intense runoff Paul and I watched the flows, waiting for the opportunity to jump on the Uinta river.   As a first shakedown trip in our new crafts we didn’t want to be in a vertical-walled gorge with a 150 foot mile gradient with a shitton of water pumping through it, but we also knew the window of floatability was going to be short (and this section has been paddled before, so we did have a little bit of info on it).   Finally when it went under 600 cfs we decided to give it a go. 

Heading out on a packraft trip is almost a giddy experience; it’s like you have this really efficient SuperToy that you feel like is going to enable you to do something super awesome that no one else gets to do.   And this trip was no different; drive to the trailhead, grab the pack that has the boat loaded into it, and start skipping up the canyon.  The trail was well away from the river for the first three miles, and when we finally dropped back to the bank we saw this:
it was channeled into many  low-volume braids, but at least they were blocked by piles of wood!

Which didn’t look very appealing to paddle into, so we identified a better spot upstream and hung a marker on a log so that we’d know to get out.  As we continued upstream we saw the gorge begin, and it definitely looked much more friendly:

Paul on the edge of the mini-gorge. that lasted for miles.

After nearly 9 miles of very pleasant hiking we got to a spot where the gorge walls were broken and we could make it down to the river, and even though the trail continued on it also went high above the river and led to a much-steeper tributary that probably wouldn’t have floatable water, so we picked our way down through the talus to the river:

 where we were happy to see that we were putting in below this log:
And finally we were on the river!  Though it was on the low side, there was still enough water to make it fun and fairly exciting, and we were glad that we waited for it to come down to that point, because twice the water  -which had been in this section two weeks prior – would have meant for a very exciting flush.   

And we had to deal with the periodic logs:

That would have been more challenging to avoid with much faster water and fewer eddies. 

As anticipated, it was continuous class 3-3+ that kept us on our toes, and because of the vertical walled gorge the rapid noise was a bit amplified, so when the walls fell away and the rapids quickly diminished as a result the sense of the calm after the storm was noticeable.  

Soon enough we saw our marker,  got out, rolled up our cute little crafts, and skipped back to the last couple of miles to the car, giddy not only because we were pack rafting, but also that my Sally-theory of good whitewater gems in the Uintas was finally realized!   

Thanks to brother Paul for indulging me and being a great pard as always, and to Alpacka for putting in the time to evolve these silly little boats into really incredible crafts.   We are heading up to Montana next week to haul those boats into two of the most remote rivers in the country:  the South Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead, which both drain the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness for a two week trip with the New England Packrafting Team.   Should be a hoot. 

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