Sunday, June 26, 2016

A quick shoulder-of-the-Uintas bike tour

At the risk of this blawg becoming something of a "look at me, this is what I did" billboard, we are such fans of bike tours that I can't really resist the opportunity for a quick post to talk about a quick bike tour we did this past weekend that reiterated for us how awesome bike tours are!

Ash and I were pretty keen to get out of town to adventure and sleep in the dirt for the weekend but were not up for a big drive, so we busted out the atlas and started looking at potential loops.  One that popped off the map very easily was a Mirror Lake Highway-to-Wolf Creek pass-to-Tabiona, over to highway 40 on a connector road, onto highway 40 for a few miles, then up Currant Creek, over a pass, and plunge into the Heber valley.  Nuthin to it!  


broad view, relative to SLC


detailed view, starting just off the upper left corner in Kamas. 
While the Mirror Lake highway can be a most-excellent road ride, we had forgotten that Saturday morning of an hot early-summer Father's Day weeekend....is sub-optimal for little bikes cowering on the shoulder while diesel F-950s towing multiple ATV's roar by in a steady stream.  But we accepted it as a price of admission and another reminder to try to avoid that in the future, and it only lasted the first 15 miles to the where the winter gate is and the Soapstone Basin road splits off.  

I had sorta thought that a road going through a thing called a "basin" would be fairly flat, but not surprisingly it was a pretty healthy climb up and out of the Provo river canyon to a pass between it and the South Fork Provo, where the Wolf Creek highway is.  The gravel road climb and descent was the first good test of our tire choice:  doing a paved/dirt road combo is always a little tricky to plan for in terms of tires in that there's going to be a compromise.  Either you are humming along somewhat annoyingly for many miles on pavement with the nobbies that you brought to march through the gravel, or you're spinning out, sinking in, or flatting with too-skinny or too slick tires on the gravel but blissfully zipping along on the roads.  And there isn't the comprehensive evaluation that Burke Swindlehurst does for his epic Crusher in the Tushars (maybe we should do his so we can actually choose the correct tires!).  In this case we anticipated that we'd be on gravel for about 25-30 miles and on pavement for 85-100 miles, so we opted for pretty road-friendly tires:



In hindsight, we probably woulda brought these:

A light cyclocross tire on the left, a well-worn mtb tire on the right; both are generally fine for pavement.   
But...we didn't melt, we only got one flat, and we had a nice time.  

A ways up the Soapstone Basin climb suddenly we saw a couple of cyclists coming at us, which was pretty surprising;  we weren't on the roads, and we weren't on singletrack; those are the two venues that Utah riders ride!  But these were a couple of 60ish guys on nice 'cross bikes doing a smaller, but similarly-proportioned day ride (Kamas-Wolf Creek-Soapstone-Mirror Lake-Kamas) and they were so stoked; "We have always been roadies but we realized how many gravel roads are in Utah and these things open up a whole new world!"  Until, that is, they saw us with our light overnight gear, and realized that the ability to do weekends or more on both surfaces opened up an even-bigger world of covering that many more wild miles.  It's not often that a coupla roadies on expensive carbon bikes are obviously envious of a couple of old steel bikes, but these guys were, and as we parted ways Ash remarked "Those guys will be going on overnights by the end of the summer!"  

The riding over the Soapstone pass was great; the Uintas seem to be characterized by a nice band of aspens and pines that go up to about 8500 feet, and then it transitions to nice open meadows: 
Note the diesel white F750's; the official vehicle of the Utah "camper"
Because it was a hot weekend, a lot of folks had escaped to the Uintas for a weekend of "camping".   There were a lot of people like this guy:

who was just sitting out in the full midday sun by himself i, listening to classic rock powered off his loud generator, in front of a fire-less fire.  As I chugged past on my bike, I'm sure that we both had the exact same thought:  "I could never, ever do that!"  

Soon enough we made it to the paved highway 35 and climbed the last couple of miles to Wolf Creek Pass

a nice 10 mile descent brought us into the hot, flat Duschene valley.  We realized that it was more akin to southern Utah than the more-lush west side of the Uintas, and that we needed to go another 30 miles to get to decent camping, which was fine at that point, as it was nice riding.

An hour east of Park City, or down in the mesas of southern Utah?  Nice to have both on a weekend tour. 

but the camping opportunities were a bit bleak.  
Soon enough we hit busy highway 40.  A necessary evil, these 8 miles were made a bit more mean by a wind that seemed to shift to ensure that even as we had turned 90 degrees, it was still in our face!  

But soon enough we turned off 40 onto the blissfully silent Currant Creek road, with a "watch for bicycles" sign right at the start.  Currant Creek is headed by a dam, so there's almost always water in it, and after traversing the desert we found ourselves in a great, dispersed, creekside campsite shaded by willows and cottonwoods


In the morning we had a nice spin up the paved Currant Creek road

with the only traffic being the Mormon campers heading back out to get to church.  Soon enough  -as we anticipated - the road turned to gravel and we started a long grind up to another 10,000 foot pass, that had some steep sections:
Hard to convey in a pic looking back, but this is pretty steep....and the 
the gravel was a little soft for our tires
and got some great views of the highest Uintas in the distance:


there were a few "pussymobiles" (as Ash likes to call the big caged 4-wheelers)
It amazes us that people are willing to spend $20 on these rigs that go to places that....their passenger cars drive to!  (we didn't see any of these actually 4-wheeling).  
It was a 19 mile cruise down into Heber Valley from here, and just out of sight in the background of the picture above it turned to butter-smooth pavement, which made for a sublime descent twisting through the aspens:

This would make for an incredible road climb as well; 5000 feet, almost no cars....

with great views west to the backside of the Wasatch.  
Once down in Heber we followed highway 40 for a couple of miles while it was constricted to one lane, and we passed hundreds of cars, feeling smug on our freedom bikes!  And then with a final 3-4 mile climb and descent finished up back in Kamas.

Getting out of town on an impromptu adventure?  check.  Great, new riding terrain?  check.  Riding our bikes all day for 2 days?  check.  Nice riverside camping?  check.  Starting only an hour from the house?  check.  Another awesome bike tour! Check!  





Friday, June 17, 2016

Jarbidge-Bruneau River(s)

I know that in my last post I said that the Owyhee is the most remotest, most beautiful, most awesome river in The World, but I had kinda forgotten that it's sister river system  - the Bruneau  - out to the east, just across the border in Idaho is probably all of the Owyhee and more.  And when we found out that the Jarbidge Mountains (in northern Nevada) still had a couple of feet of snow at 8000 feet and the temps were about to blast into the mid-90's, we knew that the river would again spring to life. Our great friend Andy Windle (of Rio Maranon fame) was going to be in town visiting from New Zealand, so the timing was perfect, and once again we were blasting through the northern Utah/southern Idaho desert with kayaks ready to launch.
the pink line in the lower left

A quick explanation for clarity:  the main drainage is the Bruneau (French for "brown"; it runs pretty dirty in the spring, and was named by French trappers back in the day) and it's two main tributaries are the West Fork of the Bruneau and what you'd think would be the East Fork of the Bruneau, but somehow the East Fork took on its own name of "Jarbidge", which some folks say is Shoshone for "monster" (but I think it's Shoshone for "really striking, deep, and craggy canyon with some sweet class 3-5 rapids and beautiful camps!")  Once the Jarbidge and the West Fork join, the river formally becomes the Bruneau for about 50 miles to where it spills into what's left of the Snake "river" (the Snake is basically a series of reservoirs to feed potatoes destined for McDonalds french fries).  Over the last few years there's been so little snow that none of the drainages have had any water, so it's been quite a while since we were in there.  Some things have changed, others haven't.

The first thing that hasn't changed is that Ed Geiger is still a great shuttle driver.

He only shuttles kayakers ("I just don't like rafters!"), is really flexible (once he drove us all the way into Oregon to run shuttle for us on the Owyhee), isn't in it to make a lot of money and is therefore quite fair in his pricing, has two ridiculously huge dogs:
and his trademark move is to put a styrofoam cooler full of ice and beers in your rig at the takeout!  Ed also is a great guy to have if you don't feel like talking; we got in the car at 8:30am and he very-impressively talked steadily until we hit the put in at 10:30.  He'd make for a good Senate fili-blusterer.  

My engineer brother was fiddling with his boat on the little wood-slatted boat ramp at the put in and apparently it got pretty intense because his leatherman slipped out of his jittery, sweaty hands and fell through the slats into neverneverland!  Andy found some pliers and came over to see if he could help, but apparently that task also made him nervous because he then dropped the pliers down the same crack!  After we finally stopped laughing the boyz got down to business (I had to help them get calm) and both tools were retrieved
I'm not sure how the pliers made it out, but once out he duct-taped sticks to the end of them to reach in and grab the leatherman.  it would be impressive.....if he hadn't dropped them in the first place! 
Our trio was one short of a quattro:  Steve "The Scotsman" Mackay is a newly-annointed airline captain and is suffering the cruel irony of the air business in that a promotion automatically puts you at the bottom of the seniority list of pilots in terms of schedules, so he wasn't there with us.  But while Steve was flying over some godforsaken Midwestern state, his Brand New, Unscratched kayak was about to have a nice time on the rio!
the moment looms
the christening! 
The Jarbidge was high (you can see the willows in the water) but previous experience at slightly-higher levels had shown that for the first few miles if you just stay in the middle of the channel and bomb along  -at about 7mph! - without worrying about the lack of eddies and hope that no trees have fallen across the river you're generally fine.  And so it came to pass. 


The Jarbidge is similar to the Owyhee in that rhyolite  -a close cousin of basalt - is the dominant rock, but the difference is that the canyon is a bit smaller and more intimate, though no less dramatic due to the cool formations.


apparently Utah doesn't have all of the phallic looking rocks....
And it's steeper than the Owyhee, with a ton of great class 3-4 rapids:
Brother Paul keeping it cool in the meat. 
One big change was that in the last couple of years a big rockslide came down and created a dam that flooded/buried an upstream rapid that was pretty fun, but at least it created a class 5+ that's a bit of a skitchy portage on slippery grass:
best not to slip
The river is moving fast enough that doing 75 miles in 3 days is really easy, and despite putting on at noon we went over 20 miles and had plenty of time for a leisurely evening of scrabble and other scintillating carryings-on at a beautiful riverside camp.   

Wally's Wallowy Wiggle (or somesuch) is a rapid that's a bit of a step up from the rest:
Andy acing it
and the thing that keeps a lot of the riffraff away is Jarbidge Falls, a good rompstompin' class 5+ that goes ok at lower flows but is a portage for most at most flows.  I didn't get any pics of that; I was too addled by heat and sweat after the portage and could only think about getting back into the icy river! 

A good multi-day Idaho river wouldn't be such without hot springs, and the Bruneau has two:
it didn't sound that appealing to sit in the 90 degree sun in 100 degree water after creating our own personal sweat lodges on the portage, so we floated on by. 
 When the West Fork comes in (the clear water on the left below) it becomes the Bruneau

It's possible for rafts to access the river here, but apparently the road is full on Class 5; 18 miles of softball/football sized rocks that takes hours to navigate, and virtually everyone I've heard of going in there  has done notable damage to their rigs, so again, a good riffraff keeper-outer.  

The Bruneau's walls are a bit higher here (1000 feet, vs 600 feet of the Jarbidge) making it feel sorta dark and ominous.  But the river mostly just burbles along here, again at a pretty zippy rate at medium flows.  

Our nice beach camp lower right; across from the mouth of Sheep Creek, which is another good adventure as well. 
while the Bruneau isn't the Grand Canyon, Selway, or Middle Fork with amazing hikes, there are a couple of nice side canyons:
Andy and Paul again being reminded about hiking in 90 degree heat in dry suits/tops, running for the shade...
the mouth of the side canyon, looking up the Bruneau canyon
Andy working on his "Bruneau" Steel look:
Since the weather forecast was for 20% chance of showers, we basically didn't bring much in the way of shelter; "hey, it's only 20%".  But the skies - like the rivers - don't really care what you think/want, and we got a pretty healthy thunderstorm.  But - as I mentioned in the post about our Owyhee trip  -there are few things better than a nice overhang at a river camp in the rain:
  In most rivers when the walls rise up it usually means the adrenaline meter will start to rise too, because the channel gets constricted and any drops tend to get emphasized, and there have been many anxious downstream looks by people hoping to see the walls fall away.  The Bruneau is a bit different in that the walled-in gorge section is really mellow, and when the walls fall back.....the river starts to stomp!  Five Mile rapids is....a couple of miles, but it contains the best whitewater on the run - pretty much read-and-run class 3-4 - and seems to go on for....miles.  Hard to get many good pics, but here's Brother Paul taking a pretty good wave hit:
Appropriate caption:  Whee!  
And then the walls really go away and you float back into the bleak floodplain of the Snake and civilization, such as it is, but at least you got this still ringing in your ears....

Thanks again to Brother Paul and Kiwi Andy for being great paddlin' pards, and and - of course - thanks to the Scotsman for allowing Andy to break in that new boat o' yourn!  

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Owyhee River

The Owyhee river is tucked deep in the SE Oregon desert and traverses what has been called some of the most remote terrain in the lower 48 states. I’m sure that there are some Montanans, Wyomingians, and even Utards who would argue with that distinction, but suffice to say that the Owyhee area is really rugged, remote, and wild (it's formally a Wild and Scenic river, of which Utah has unfortunately zero miles of!) and the river snakes through it for literally hundreds of miles; about 10 years ago a couple of friends and I did 220 continuous miles of it, making it nearly as long as the Grand Canyon.  Formally the drainage is 346 miles long, with a drainage area of 11,000 miles, which is bigger than Massachusetts (and not much smaller than Maryland), but because it’s high desert, the basin doesn’t get a ton of moisture.  It does run most years (and a bit earlier than most other snowmelt rivers, more like April/May rather than May/June), but has been pretty much dry for the last few years due to the drought.  But an average year yields average water, and to start out our 2.5 week trip “to California” (which originally was going to begin with skiing Nevada’s high point Wheeler Peak and then going to the eastern Sierra to ski those peaks!) we blasted up to paddle the mighty Owyhee, since a good remote,  self-contained kayak, multi-day river trip is about as soul-cleansing as anything there is. 

There are several sections to float, and we chose to do the Middle and Lower.  The Middle is typically referred to as the Widowmaker section due to the presence of a formidable rapid by the same name about halfway down the 37 mile portion, and the lower is from where it crosses highway 95 at the “hamlet” (even that term is a stretch) of Rome.  Below Rome is a 57 mile stretch that goes to a 52 mile-long reservoir created by the 1933 Owyhee dam that was created to irrigate the local potato growing areas. 
 
the river is highlighted in pink
Because Widowmaker is a class 5 rapid and the same boulders that create the rapid also make for a challenging portage, the Middle gets very little use, but the Lower  - being class 3, with great beach camps, a beautiful gorge, and hot springs – is pretty popular with rafters.  So we knew that we’d see almost no one for the first half of our trip and at least a handful later.  

For better or worse, we had a pretty uneventful trip:  the two class 4’s (the short Ledge rapid, just a ways down from the put in, and Half-mile, a longish rapid) above Widowmaker went well:
A nice little boof midway through Half Mile
and we violated typical rafter-type protocol by running Widowmaker late in the day, mostly so that the sun was well-positioned for a nice photo!
 
The move here is to come in hard from the side, because that looker's right side is fairly nasty.  I wasn't sure I could make it across to that center slot, and in three previous attempts at this rapid - over a 20+ year span! - I flipped upside down here....

But this time I made it clean, albeit at lower/easier flows.  
and as expected we saw no one for the first couple of days down to Rome, with great camps like this:

And lots of nice class 2's and 3's:
Ash given' er!
with some amazing canyon scenery:

We did a resupply in Rome:
Slim pickins for Rome beer, but was better than the mini-cans of Coors?  And I thought that Budweiser had recently cornered the market on Patriotic Swill by renaming themselves "America"?  
Clearly no place is too remote for wayward mylar balloons.....I hate those things! 
it's a bit hard to tell here, but that thing outlined against the sky is a sprinkler in the flatlands near Rome that was doing a pretty good job of exclusively sprinkling.....the river!  
The river itself runs pretty silty, but there are some nice springs along the way
Utah clearly doesn't have the corner on the market of nice river scenery! 
Everyone hopes for that perfect opportunity when you find a cave/overhang camp just as it starts to rain.....and that's what we got!
The Green Dragon Gorge is a several-mile long canyon near the end of the run that has 2000 foot walls of basalt; even in the basalt-rich Northwest, this is pretty unusual, and really stunning. 
The gratuitous artsy shot, channeling my inner Colter....
More awesome drinkable riverside springs
This is the end of the gorge, where the walls back off a bit and you're able to hike up the steep hills. 

Coupla folks stoked to be on the rio.
And a guy who thinks he's hilarious....
We were stoked to get on the river when we did; the flow was dropping by the day and just a few days later it got generally "too low".   A great start to our "California Trip!"  The next stop:  skiing Mt McCloughlin, about halfway between Klamath Falls and Medford......