Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dispatches from New Zealand

When I graduated from college I went for a big European bike tour and returned home from Portland pretty broke and needed to work for a while.  At about the time I got home a coupla good friends headed off on a bike tour of New Zealand, but due to the aforementioned financial issues, I couldn't join them.  A few years later I also had a friend who was going on a bike tour in NZ and wanted me to join him, but I couldn't afford the 3 weeks of vacation.  Some years later my 75-ish year old mom went to New Zealand, and....well, tearing around NZ with her probably wasn't appropriate.  About 15 years ago Ashley went to NZ for a bike tour and....I wasn't invited!  Which is not quite true; she was doing the trip with her great friend Audrey and I probably coulda horned in, but I was getting going on a new biz and it wasn't a good time.  Then I met Kiwi Andy, who had moved to Utah and became one of my best kayaking pards, and then he moved back, so I had yet another good reason to go.  and finally, And, our good friends the Southwicks were so bold as to actually pick up their family and move their entire life from SLC to a beautiful town on the north end of the south island, so we had yet another great reason to go.  But other adventures beckoned and still I didn't make it, even as Andy has kept coming back to visit us.  But this past spring when I gave my gratuitous "I really want to come down there" he just scoffed at me:  "you've been saying that for years.  You're not coming down!"  Of course, I was offended, but it was true.   But events have come together, and finally....after far too many years and opportunities, I'm in New Zealand!

One of the things that has kept me going other places is that NZ represents somewhat of a lack of the buzz of "travel adventure"; yes, it's far away and there are a zillion lifetimes-worth of adventures to be had, but in terms of exposure to a radically different culture ala many of the trips that Ash and I have taken to Vietnam, Peru, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, and others New Zealand is....very similar to the US.  It even looks a lot like Oregon; at least, so far (albeit with lots of different plants, that in total provide a similarly-verdant landscape).  But then again, I charge all over the US looking for good adventures, and they are all very US-like, so why not go to NZ to get some great adventurin' in with a great pard and partake in their culture?  

And though I had no idea that I would need it when I booked the flights a couple of months ago, after the gut-wrenching election, it's nice to be slightly away from that (though all the Kiwis are keen to hear my thoughts....)

Andy lives in Tauranga, which is a few hundred km south and east of Auckland on the coast (of the north island).  As mentioned above, it looks like Oregon, but they grow avocados, passionfruits, and citrus here!
Avocados for $2/bag, and they STILL wish me to "have a nice day?!"  I love the Kiwis....

"Rocket Lettuce"  - a far better name than "Arugula!"

My first experience with the legendary Kiwi niceness was in the Auckland airport; as I was getting ready to board my flight I asked the ticket agent if I could bring my bottle of water through security, and she said "well, this IS security, and I think it's fine if you want to drink some water!"  Hear hear!

One of the primary reasons for coming to NZ was to paddle the rivers, and if the first coupla days are any indication, they live up to their reputation.  So far we've paddled the Kaituna and Wairoa rivers; both dam release runs that are short (1km and 5km respectively) but offer a surprising number of pretty incredible quality rapids in their short span.  I didn't take my camera down the Kaituna, but here are a coupla pics I poached off the web:

I haven't paddled anything with significant gradient for a few years, so it is taken me a little to get back into the swing of things.  I flipped the first two times running the waterfall in the pic above until I realized that I wasn't quite on line; on our third lap I was able to appreciate the view with my eyes above the surface rather than below.

Paddling such a cool run (reminiscent of the White Salmon in Washington, but with warm water and a gradient sorta in between the BZ run and the Farmlands run) would be a great day in an of itself, but this river happens to drain Lake Rotorua, and I had heard about the mountain biking in Rotorua.  It bills itself as "The Best Mountain Biking in The World".  Hmm.  Really?  A bold statement.  But of course, after 3 laps on the Kaituna I had to see this for myself.

Andy and I were joined on our ride by Kylie, who knows the trails there perfectly and had also been showing me the lines on the Kaituna (she warned that she was not "bike fit", but it was clear pretty quickly that fitness doesn't have too much bearing on how much brake you grab on descents, and for her it wasn't much!).  I am never, ever prone to superlatives, but I must admit that it's the Best Mountain Biking Ever!   An area as big as Portland's Forest Park, with "heaps" (a common Kiwi term) of ridonculous singletrack; every trail is pretty much the best "flow trail" I've ever done!  (with a few more roots thrown in).   It was so much fun that we ended up riding nearly 5 hours, and there are many trails that we didn't do.
that grin is well-warranted

It was a good example to me of what can be done with proper management: this area has mt bike-only trails, pedestrian-only trails, horse-only trails, and shared use trails, with clear, concise, and descriptive (ie length, vertical) signage on all.  There's a shuttle that runs up and down the mountain that cyclists and peds both use:
I was a bit horrified by this, but the system is so vast that it seems to simply absorb people into the woods
and there's even a water station:

something that would be much-appreciated in the arid Wasatch (and in Forest Park and many other US parks as well for that matter!).

JC joined us mid-ride (he'd also been on the Kaituna) and was showing us all how to truly flow - at high speed - down the trails:
 and on one climb that traversed up through a big clear cut I said something about "too bad about the logging" and he said: "Well, we all need paper, this is second growth anyway, they rebuild the trails after they log, there's much more forest here than there is logged terrain, and we get a nice view when there are no trees!"  Those Kiwis, looking on the bright side.

We also met Reginald:
"Um, I gotta tell you, that's a HUGE lens you have there, Reg...."
who is an avid birder/photographer and was there shooting a pair of New Zealand falcons:
from wikipedia, but Reginald had some comparable pics
That are quite similar to our peregrines in size and flying ability.  We were a couple hundred yards (across a clear cut, which apparently the falcons prefer; another reason that logging is good?) from a couple who brought a dog up on their hike, and we had a good laugh watching the falcons dive bomb the threesome; they had to grab a big branch to fend the falcon off and ran down into the woods to escape the falcon's wrath!  There were signs saying "don't bother the falcons" but it was clear to us that they can handle themselves.
if our day riding in Rotorua is any indication of what's to come, they didn't even include it in this book??!  
The Wairoa is another coastal river that was almost denied to paddlers due to a dam, but local paddlers rallied to ensure 26 releases every 1976!   And it's another gem: really high quality, lowish-volume class 4+ river that's only 20 minutes from Andy's house.  His "mates" asked me how far I had to drive from SLC to get something like that, and were horrified when I said "seven hours!"
Again, I needed to get my low-volume gain on, and realized that my water-reading and boofing skills were a little rusty, but despite a coupla flips all went well.  Here are some good pics poached from the interwebs:

I missed the boof stroke here and went for a bit of a ride

I flipped once right about where this guy is; exciting time to roll!

I came a bit close to going into "the toaster" to the looker's left there....
Andy perfectly executing a boof stroke
Ash has said that she likes to put on a river and leave the car and the shuttles for three days at a time; in this case, we did the river three times in a day!  Exactly the same only completely different.  But along the shuttle route is a nice cafe, so we had ourselves a very civilized midday break in the action:
It was great to reconnect with Bruce (glasses), who was on the Rio Maranon trip in Peru last year 
I was also out for a nice road run this morn (while Andy was watching NZ's "All Blacks" national rugby team take on Ireland); I haven't done an exclusive road run for many years, but with roads like this:

It makes it quite tolerable!

So far New Zealand is living up to its billing fo sho.  The next adventures that await are a day of canyoneering (far different from Utah canyoneering:  there's running water!) and then a 3 day sea kayak around the Coromandel peninsula, and will throw up another dispatch.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Satadark" - A bigger Cataract Canyon Pack Raft Loop

A year and a half ago I did a great weekend-long pack raft trip in Cataract Canyon with Tom Macfarlane where we started at Elephant Hill (the end of the road in Canyonlands National Park's Needles district), hiked down Red Canyon, floated the river to an unnamed exit point, and hiked back.  Really great trip that I chronicled here.  While on that trip Tom mentioned that he had been doing some research on a bigger trip that also incorporated Salt Creek and Dark Canyon and would involve mountain bikes as well, and my interest was piqued.  Time rolled on and we talked about doing this trip and identified late October as the period to give this a go, and in the meantime I had told some of my pack raft pards about the trip, and it started to come together.

The logistics of Tom's adventure were a little daunting:

  • leave boats and food at the Needles visitor's center
  • drive 17 miles up to the trailhead for Salt Creek
  • leave boatless packs there
  • drive 17 more miles up to the Dark Canyon trailhead and leave car there
  • ride bikes back down to the Salt Creek trailhead
  • leave bikes, pick up packs, and hike down Salt Creek 28ish miles to the main road
  • pick up boats and food, go down lower Salt Creek about 6 miles to the Colorado river
  • float 38ish miles down the river to Dark Canyon
  • hike 25-30 miles up Dark Canyon back up to the car
  • pick up bikes from the Salt Creek trailhead on the way out
  • Try not to leave behind any critical gear behind at each transition!
A little contrived, but not bad, and it's a fun opportunity to throw three activities together.  Here's an overview map:

As it turned out, the schedules were a bit off, so Tom and our good friend Colter were going to be doing a shorter variation of the trip ahead of us, and our crew morphed into four.

I bumped into Matt Clevenger at the Utah Avy Center's party and the first thing he said was "dude I REALLY want to get into pack rafting!  I don't really hike and I don't paddle, but I can take abuse and I'm super keen!"  And indeed, Matt had been pretty badly Diegelized once before; he triggered an avalanche crossing a slope - that I chose - and was buried quite deeply in the debris, but we were able to get him out, probably not long before he slipped away.  So I was a bit flattered that Matt was willing to do another adventure with me!  

Jon Jamieson has been a great friend for many years and my pack rafting tales had gotten him intrigued, and when I had told him about this idea a long time ago he said "I'm in", and I knew that he was.  And Greg Hanlon (aka "Captain America" as he's known in New England) has been my partner on innumerable dumb and exciting adventures.  And a special addition was Greg's brother Chris, who was going to join us in the first couple of stages of our triathlon.

Our first stop was the Needles ranger station. I had talked to a former Needles ranger who is now stationed in Moab and he was not only very helpful but also pretty excited for us and our trip.  When we got to the Needles district we talked to the ranger on duty to get our permit, and he was a completely nice, earnest guy who was also keenly interested in our idea.  However, when I told him the plan he said "You can't pack raft Cataract!  That's class 5 whitewater!"  What I thought and what I said in response to that were two different things:  What I thought was "don't tell me what I 'can' and 'can't' do!" but I'm learning  - ever so slowly - so what I said was "oh that's right; what do you suggest we do instead?"  He would have doubly freaked if I'd told him not only were we doing Cataract - which is what our too-expensive permit was for - but we were also doing it with a complete rookie on our team!   

The first of our Gear Explosions was in the parking lot of the visitors' center:

and then we had another where we left Chris's truck, at the Needles road:

our third at the Salt Canyon trailhead:
The next at the Dark Canyon trailhead:
and finally we were off!
We had done a hike that day in Chesler Park to "kill some time" and then got a bit concerned about running out of daylight for our ride back, but it was a zippy ride with some great views of Cathedral Butte

And Salt Canyon.
Apparently the Bud Light litterbugs had also made the journey from the Escalante area to the Salt Creek area....

We camped at the trailhead, and the next morn we left our bikes, donned the packs:
and headed into Salt Canyon.  

I'd never really heard of Salt Canyon, but a little bit of research quickly indicated that it is pretty special:  beautiful canyon country, tons of arches, and absolutely polluted with Native American ruins.
The ranger had told us there were a lot of ruins and I asked "where?" but he only smiled and said "you'll find them, if you are looking".  As we traversed the broad Salt Creek valley:
We thought "if we were natives in these parts we'd probably be using this valley to grow stuff too" and pretty much every major alcove had ruins in them. 

The pot shard (is that one word? potshard?) collections were impressive:

And there were other remnants too:
I don't think corn cobs compost that well...

Including this:
I would call an 800 year old melon plant "heirloom" for sure!
There was also a pretty stunning piece of rock art that we'd never heard of, but later we found out it's famous:  The "All American Man"
Captain America ponders the All America Man
Though apparently, its origins are a bit controversial, according to this article.  

Matt tried to see if he could be as good of a climber as the Anasazis:

The arches were all over the place:

Salt Creek is apparently so popular that not only is it permitted, but you also have to apply for certain campsites on certain days.  We took a bit of liberty with that, and camped in the wash:
Not too far from Nutty Buddy rock:
the rangers make you take bear cannisters into Salt Creek, which we thought was stupid, until we saw this track...

Salt Creek was running, which despite the fact that we were in there in late Oct, felt great to cool off in the pools:

And frolic gaily:
Salt Creek was an ATV route until the mid-90's when the park management made the controversial decision to close it to ATV use, and in a good example of how even the desert can heal itself, the trail had "deteriorated" to a nice singletrack
When we got to the Peekaboo arch area the trail took us up:
and over slickrock a few miles to the Squaw Flat campground in Needles.  It was cool to get into the slickrock that we'd been looking up into for the last coupla days

and of course, men being...boys, in canyon country, I had to try to be funny:
Back down at Squaw Flat we grabbed Chris's rig and drove over to the trailhead where people go to hike out to the confluence (of the Green and Colorado rivers) overlook, and had another gear explosion:
 Below the highway Salt Creek goes over a thing called "Lower Jump" which is a 120 foot pourover, that I was told has no rappel anchors and if we did set up an anchor and leave a big rope there (so as to not carry it for the rest of the trip) rangers would find and confiscate it to avoid other joeys trying to do the same thing.  So we had to find an alternate route down into Lower Salt Creek, and the Big Springs and adjacent Little Big Springs looked viable on Google Earth. However, we got about a hundred feet into Big Springs and came to about a 60 foot drop, so we trudged back out and tried Little Big Springs, which turned out to be fine, albeit a bit of a thrash. 

Down in Salt Creek we camped in the wash:
And using the creek water had a nice dinner of freeze dried meals.  Afterwards we made a bit of evening tea, and anti-beverage boy Greg decided to partake (a little) and said "it's not very good".  I gave him some shit about being too much of an anti-beverage zealot: "'c''s mint tea!" until I took a sip myself; at some point after leaving the creek a few miles above and getting back down to it "Salt Creek" actually lived up to its name! 

Below Big Springs Salt Creek offered up a bit of canyoneering:
a fixed line

an anchor for a short rappel; we had brought one harness, a long throw rope, and a fair bit of webbing in anticipation of this possibility. 
And finally hit the river!
another gear explosion
Matt getting ready to christen his boat

We paddled a few miles down to Spanish Bottom and then hiked up the thousand-plus feet to the magical Doll House:

The Doll House has plenty of opportunities for adventure, from tight slots:
To fun climbs
And cool formations
Look familiar?

Greg challenging the rock to "who's got the biggest nose"
and going nose to nose on it....

 with great views.

And after a night spiced up with Ringtail cats and a skunk rifling through my food, we hit the river, with the first rapids around the corner
We laugh at Danger!
At low water the rapids are mostly class 2-3, but the waves are big and messy, and can toss a pack raft around a little
Greg lining up
 Here's Matt in one of his first-ever rapids
 I had told Matt that he'd be "fine", and I don't like to sandbag folks much, and  - like he said - he can take a beating well.  Once on the water I realized that Matt didn't really know a river eddy from Eddy the Eagle, so we pretty much tried to make him into a water-reading expert on the fly.  And he did great!  He very much took to heart our most important advice:  when in doubt, paddle hard!

JJ also paddling hard....

'cause he needed it to punch the hole!  
The Big Drops (Big Drop 1, 2 and 3) are a bit of a step up from the others, are near the end of the section, and get progressively bigger, with BD 3 being infamous at high water.  We were at basal flow, but it still had some impressive features and provided a good challenge
the left line

JJ stylin' the left line

me in the left-of-center line
And had a great riverside camp

native boy pondering the endlessness of time
Soon enough we reached Dark Canyon, for another Gear Explosion
And started the long haul out of Dark Canyon.  It was beautiful and as such made for some slow hiking

Including one spot where we had to backtrack a half mile to do a 4th class climb a few hundred feet to get out of a gorge
I kept seeing a pair of footprints, and knew that Colter and Tom had preceeded us by a coupla days:
Shoe Geek that I am, I recognized this as the Patagonia Rover, and only Colter would be hefting a heavy pack wearing pretty minimal shoes!  I also saw Tom's Hoka prints. 
We thought that Dark Canyon was 25 miles long, but we all - and Tom and Colter - felt that it was longer than that, tho maybe "hiking" like this
not only was slow, but had potential for issues:

But we were able to get some respite from the drudgery
by cavorting gaily, 

and we bumped into some locals:
We anticipated that water would be an issue in Dark Canyon; we had gotten the beta that after this nice spring
coming out of Youngs Canyon it would get pretty dry, and sure enough, it did:
But the rain of 10 days prior had created a few puddles, which we were able to survive on
And again camped in the wash, assuming our great stable weather would hold
ironically, about 20 minutes after we starting hiking the next morning, it started to rain....
And after a half day, a full day, and another half day we found ourselves back up at 8000 feet, high above the river
However, our adventure was not over.  The temp had plunged to the mid-40's the wind was gusting, and it was spitting rain as we loaded back into Matt's car, and we knew that real rain could be a big deal on the clay roads.  The trailhead was about 400 feet below the mesa rim so we had to at least get up to the mesa before the road got wet, and sure enough right as we topped out it started to rain in earnest.  At that point it was mostly downhill all the way back to the highway, but as anticipated the goo started to build and the car became nearly uncontrollable as we greased around.  Our ebullience at finishing the trip was held in check as Matt deftly muscled the steering wheel around trying to keep us from both the gooey ditch and the big drop offs into Salt Canyon, and we hustled at the trailhead throwing bikes back onto the car.  Fortunately the road surface got more gravelly, and even as it continued to rain we were able to escape.  And we needed to; we had all eaten our last food, and Matt's stashed potato chips were a distant memory, so as it was we were bonking sitting in car as we hit Moab!  

Thanks again to Tom Mac for the great idea, and sorry I couldn't have enjoyed it with he and Colter, but thanks again to Matt, Greg, and JJ for being great pards on an incredible trip.  These little pack raft things open up the opportunity for all sorts of silly adventures.  

If you haven't gotten enough pics of this already, check out Matt's great (better, really, despite the fact that I got a new camera and Matt's used his Iphone 7!) pictures here