Getting down whitewater  A steep learning curve (part 1)

Dan Clearwater reflects back on his first year of Packrafting: recounting a few close calls and lessons learned the hard way.

It’s always nice to save on a bit of postage.  My wife and I were planning a trip to the US, which just so happened to pass right by the Alpacka factory in Mancos, Colorado. A focus of our trip was Canyoning in the deserts of the Colorado Plateau, but with the prospect of picking up some packrafts, our imagination wandered to trips involving our new boats. Soon, we began planning a 3 day round trip through the Grand Canyon which combined Canyoning, Hiking and Packrafting.

Floating on a mighty river through the US desert

And so it was that we found ourselves paddling our brand-new packrafts down the Colorado River, beneath the 1000m tall walls of the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t quite our first time in a paddle boat; both of us had done a small amount of (easy) kayaking in the past and even hired packrafts back home in NZ for a couple of day trips to familiarise ourselves with how the packrafts worked. However,  it was the first time we were going to be paddling as part of a remote, multi-day adventure.

Thankfully there were no significant rapids in the section we planned to do, but the huge volume of the mighty Colorado made for some quite powerful boils and eddies. We wobbled about a fair bit, but we stayed in our boats without much trouble. We weren’t completely naive to what might happen if we tipped out; both of us knew the basics of whitewater swimming, but we hadn’t really given much thought to getting ourselves ‘tipped back in’

Packrafting is quite different from Kayaking. One of the first differences (apart from being so much easier to stay up right) is that if you tip over in a packraft, it’s relatively straightforward to right the boat, then haul yourself back in and continue paddling. The key point is that you need to hold on to your boat and paddle, and practice it in controlled environments first. It is straightforward, but does require a modest amount of strength and agility.

Back home, Packrafting was the new addiction. Our first foray was to the Hawea River, just a few k’s down the road from home. It was a bit chilly in early October, but the river (at low flow) was so easy, that we were very confident of not swimming.The track followed the river, so we had an easy bail out.

The Hawea River; dam controlled, mellow and right next to an easy walking track: perfect for beginners!

 

Next we made an overnight trip to paddle the Dart River from Daley’s Flat Hut. The weather was perfect, and the little grade 1-2 rapids added just the right amount of excitement to the trip. We were hooked!

The problem with a little excitement, is that often you end up looking for a little more. Just a week later, we explored the West Matukituki River from Aspiring Hut.  Most of the upper section is open braided river, with little wave trains and small, barely grade 2, rapids. Which is just the sort of paddling that beginners like us should be doing: fun, easy, low consequences.

At the Rob Roy Glacier swing bridge, the valley narrows (as you’d expect for the location of a swing bridge) and the rapids became more significant (as you’d expect when the valley narrows).

I caught an eddy above the rapids, and got out of my boat to go have a look (smartest move of the day).  

The rapids slowly increase in gradient just above the Rob Roy swing bridge: a mere hint of what is to come.

The whitewater guidebook calls it a “Lovely, short, grade 3 alpine style run”. To me it was a chaotic boulder garden, with multiple lines, lots of little pour-overs, and lots of hugr boulders. Did I mention there were lots of huge boulders?  I could trace a line through the rapid, but it looked quite continuous to me, with little respite for quite a while.

My buddy egged me on a little bit, which helped cement my (poor) decision to follow him down the rapid.

My paddles whirred in a frenzy, gripped with white knuckles and powered by an adrenaline fuelled terror.  Not the good kind of adrenaline, more the “I’m gonna die, why did I do this?” type of adrenaline.  I was able to make the moves, paddle the lines and catch a few eddies, but mostly I felt a bit out of control; I was surviving, rather than paddling the rapid.  At the bottom I was completely elated, having made it through the first truly risky episode of my packrafting ignorance. I was paddling way above my skill level, relying more on luck and the incredible stability of the Packraft rather than my technique. I should have known better, but instead I wanted more.

Packrafting is not all about challenging whitewater. There are plenty of fantastic trips with very mellow paddling. But for me, I found the excitement of the rapids added hugely to the overall satisfaction of the trip.

Meanwhile, a few ‘what if’ thoughts about the Matuki had got me chatting to a good mate of mine who is a highly accomplished kayaker. Justin answered my eager questions about ‘how to deal with an out of boat experience’. He spoke about holding on to your gear and then self-rescue. He began to explain the teamwork aspect of paddling; where team mates intercept lost boats, paddles (and paddlers). I nodded dutifully, trying to visualise how it would work, but not really fully appreciating the practicalities.

Justin offered to take me down the Roaring Meg section of the Kawerau, a higher volume, grade 3 run.  I knew the concept of eddy turns and ferry gliding from a kayaking course a decade ago, but my execution was clumsy. Patient as ever, Justin coached me from one eddy to another in the mellower initial section of the river.  He gave me a few extra tips about how to ‘square up’ to big crashing waves, then before I’d really absorbed the implications of his tips, he was off downstream and I was following.

Gripped with a familiar terror, again I beat the water to a froth with my frenzied paddle strokes. Between the waves, I could see Justin ahead of me, paddle effortlessly and slowly carving through the water. I was nervous about being cold, so I dressed warmly. So warm that with all the fast paddling I began to look like a terrified strawberry.  

Dan: the terrified strawberry

Turns out grade 3 is a very big step up from grade 2, which is a realisation that it is important for new packrafters to grasp.  On the Matukituki, grade 3 meant the paddler had to make lines around the rocks, and the rocks posed real hazard of pinning or impact injury. On the Meg, grade 3 meant the size of the boils had the power to hold me under for more than a moment.  I stayed in my boat for both experiences, which probably good for my safety at the time, but was counter productive for my long term education. Looking back, the old saying of “it’s not wise to paddle a rapid you wouldn’t want to swim” makes a lot of sense. If I’d swam the Matuki or the Meg, I don’t think I would have been quite so keen to keep up my premature quest for grade 3 rivers.

Since then, I’ve read articles about ‘moving up the grades’  the consensus seems to be, that before you move up a grade, you should be able to go anywhere on the current grade river with ease. Catch every eddy, surf every wave, run the rapids backwards, be able to perform a rescue anywhere on the river….   

But instead of consolidating technique and building experience gradually, I looked for the next hit for the white knuckle addiction.

Scouring the whitewater guidebook for ideas, and asking around, it seemed to be that most east coast rivers had lots of open, braided sections, making for plenty of grade 1 to 2 paddling. It also seemed that the big west coast rivers had lots of super hard stuff (grade 4 or more) in the middle and upper sections of the rivers, but that there would be sections of 2 to 3 at the bottom of the steep section before they exited the hills and meandered gently to the sea.

It was with this logic that we selected the Copland River, from Architect Creek down. But the story of that “learning experience” is best left for part 2 of this article…

Pip wandering up the Copland. Unaware of the unpleasant (but highly valuable) lessons we were about the learn the following day.

Dan works as the Development Officer for FMC and is helping support Packrafting through FMC’s Outdoor Community Project.  Part of the project is to help support the establishment of the Packrafting Association of NZ and help raise packrafter’s awareness of safety on the water.

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