The lessons hit home  A steep learning curve (part 2)

The final part of a reflection on the first year of Packrafting; near the end of the year, the lessons finally sink in.

On a gorgeous west coast morning, my wife Pip, our mate Jamie and I wandered into Architect Creek Hut. We hoped to find it empty, expecting the hordes further up valley by the Welcome Flat Hot Pools, and were pleased to find it so. There wasn’t any decent info about the Copland’s rapids (some vague comments on some internet forums) but we’d made the effort to peek into the river as much as possible on our walk up the valley (good decision), and it mostly looked good to go.  However, the only bits we didn’t see housed the biggest rapids. In hindsight, not being able to look into a river from a valley track makes it pretty obvious there’s something ‘interesting’ going on at river level.

We spent time on the way up valley scoping out the rapids and sizing up the paddling that was ahead of us.

That afternoon, Jamie and I spent time doing laps in and out of the eddies on one rapid by the hut. Using the eddies, we could go up and down river, practicing our whitewater paddling skills in a magnificent location. There was a huge flat pool below, so it was a safe place to practice, even if we flipped out.

The next morning, it had changed from gorgeous sun, to grey west coast drizzle. Still, spirits were high as we ventured onto the river. After a few mellow rapids, we rounded a corner to be greeted with a river that steepened through a maze of huge west coast boulders. Sensibly, we eddied out to have a look at what lay ahead.  The start looked a little hectic, so we started by portaging for about a hundred meters, to a spot that looked a bit more mellow. The remainder of the rapid looked several hundred meters long, so instead of portaging or walking to check it out, we thought it would be a good plan to paddle a bit further to an eddy before the next horizon line.  We figured that from there we could get out and look at the rest of the rapid.

Pip portaging past the first section of difficult rapids.

Jamie checking out the first drop in the rapid that we were about to have our mini-epic in.

Where the safe line is not immediately obvious,  competent paddlers will “boat scout” to find the route through. They navigate confidently from safe zone to safe zone, only committing to the next section of rapid when they can see the next safe zone such as an eddy or big pool beyond. If they can’t see the next safe zone, they’ll usually get out of the boat and have a good walk until they can, before deciding to run the rapid. However, this technique does require the paddler to be competent enough to make all the eddies they have selected. Missing an eddy means paddling into whitewater you haven’t yet assessed; It could be sweet, or it could have a major hazard.

In retrospect, our skills weren’t up to this style of boating, on that length and gradient of rapid. We should have taken the time to walk the whole rapid. If we did, we’d have noticed the 1.5 meter drop just below our selected eddy, and portaged instead…

I paddled down to the eddy first, then once I was safe, Jamie followed. There, we waited for Pip to join us.  However, on the first little bump, she got off balance and capsized. In our panic, both of us paddled out to try to help rescue her. With hindsight, only one person should have tried to assist her from their raft, and the other should have got out and zoomed down stream with throw bag in hand. By rushing out, we’d just exposed the whole party to an unknown hazard. Who would save us if we got stuck in the hazard?

She wasn’t able to do a self rescue, so I was yelling for her to grab the stern of my boat so I could tow her to the side. Pip was disoriented and scared, she didn’t even remember my calls for her to grab on.  As Jamie tried to help, he bumped a rock and flipped too.  Glancing over my shoulder I saw the horizon line fast approaching. We were all committed now, so I aborted my plan and paddled as hard as I could toward the edge of the drop, trying to propel myself past the hole which was surely below.

At the bottom of the drop, I was surprised to realise I was upright. I turned to see Jamie, and then Pip go over the center of the drop, straight into a nasty hole.  With horror I saw them both do a few laps under water, before being spat out. There’s nothing quite like watching people you care for go back under water over and over…

Fortunately there was an eddy close by, so I paddled my boat, which was full of water and moving like a container ship, to shore and grabbed the throw-bag. 

I throw-bagged Pip, who had just popped out of the hole. Meanwhile, Jamie had swum to the side himself.  Both had lost their paddles, but both boats were still doing laps in the hole. As soon as Pip got to shore, I ran down the bank after Jamie to try to intercept his paddle, but very quickly it was gone from sight. One of the boats popped out of the hole, so we rescued that, then finally the other boat popped out several minutes later.

So there we were. 3 people (thank goodness), 3 boats, only 1 paddle. We were all shaken up, having survived a harrowing experience that we can only blame ourselves for.  It was just dumb luck that below the biggest drop on that rapid was a calm enough spot for us to do a rescue.  It was just dumb luck that there was no sieve or pinning boulder below the drop. So many lessons here, I didn’t know where to start…

You always need to assess the ‘what ifs’:

It’s a little tricky to make the eddy.. If we miss it, what would happen?

We would have gone over a horizon line into the unknown.  

Is that acceptable?  

Not at all..

So go take a safe look at the unknown, or walk around..


Another way to look at is, is to think about the likelihood of a flip, and then the consequence of a swim. If you swim, would you soon end up in a big eddy or big pool where the team can help collect your gear, or will you be swept into a dangerous hazard, or face a long swim?  Would positioning a person with a throw bag above the hazard reduce the risk? What if they miss the throw to a swimmer?

Many of NZ’s rivers have rather continuous rapids. Even though the rapids might be easy, a flip could well mean you’ll be swimming for hundreds of meters of whitewater, around the next bend where you can’t see…..   It’s something to think about before you even put on the water: the technical grade is only one part of the picture.  Add into the mix how remote you are, and you have a lot of things to think about before choosing to paddle that section of water. 

The same ‘what if analysis’ goes for choosing eddies move between. A sensible strategy is ensuring you have a plan A eddy and a plan B eddy. Then consider, if you don’t make your selected eddy, what will you have to paddle afterwards?  If you’re not  sure you can catch those eddies and there’s enough of a consequence below, get out of your boat, chuck it on your shoulder and portage!  Packrafts are so light that portaging is easy.. Even if the rapid is easy, the consequences of a swim might mean that portaging is the right thing to do.

So now we were literally up the creek without a paddle. Pip and Jamie deflated their boats, and began to walk down the river bank, searching for the lost paddles.  I searched the opposite bank when the river was easy, and portaged even the smallest rapid.  

Losing a paddle is not uncommon for whitewater paddlers, who frequently carry a spare, 4 piece paddle for more remote trips. The consequence of being unable to paddle could be quite significant to your trip or even your safety if you are a long way up the river.  Its pretty hard to find a lost paddle; they travel quickly downriver, sitting sit low in the water making them hard to spot, and they don’t always wash up in eddies or on the shore.  

Losing a boat on the other hand is a big deal on an overnight trip;  All your food, shelter and dry clothing is in that boat.  Most PFDs have a pocket or two; enough space for a tiny dry bag containing a survival blanket and waterproof matches as a last line of defence. Although your mates would usually be able to share their food/shelter if you lost your boat, there’s been more than one story from overseas of the whole group losing boats in one rapid, way out in the middle of nowhere!

Packrafts being a lot lighter than kayaks, can get caught in the wind and blown down river much faster than the current. They also tend not to catch eddies by themselves as well as kayaks do. Having a snug perimeter line around the deck of your Packraft will give you something to hold onto during a flip, and to help right your boat for self-rescue. So when you practice self-rescue, make sure it involves hanging onto your boat and paddle!!

Thankfully we found Pip’s paddle a few km’s down river.. Jamies paddle was last seen heading to Tasmania…

Its pretty important to ‘get back on the horse’ when you have these sort of scares, so we went back to the type of river that was right for our skill and experience. Pip and I had a blissful float down the braids of the Makarora river, past the throngs of tourists at the Blue Pools and onwards for a Pie at the Makarora tourist center.  Life was good…

Back on the horse again. Pip floats down the Makarora, on a gorgeous spring day.

The opportunity came up to do a weekend packrafting safety course with Packrafting NZ, so I jumped at the chance. The course covered many aspects of whitewater safety for beginner paddlers, giving us the tools to apply to lots of tricky situations.  

Were constantly given scenarios to perform self rescue, buddy rescue, swim rapids and catch eddies, throw bag rescue, retrieve paddles and boats: certainly practice was a key element of the learning for the weekend! 

 

Our instructor demonstrates a buddy rescue technique: How to brace another packraft to provide a stable platform for your buddy to haul themselves back in.

Since Packrafting often leads to a pretty heavy pack, I’d been ‘smart’ and bought myself a super lightweight throw bag. This little number had very thin cord (6mm) and was wonderfully light. The only problem was, no one could hang onto the cord; it was just too thin and slippery.  It also became obvious, that if you need to perform a rescue, you need to move fast. Previously I’d strapped the throw bag to my bow, or behind my seat, but that meant it took extra time to get if there was an unexpected flip. Having a throw bag with a waist strap meant that it was always with you if you needed to move quickly. So I put my ultralight throw bag into a corner of the gear closet, maybe for use on very gentle rivers, and bought a sightly bigger bag with thicker cord and a waist strap.

I felt far more prepared with the skills and experience to deal with situations on the river; but there’s one thing knowing the techniques, it’s another to have the judgement to apply them to the right circumstance in real life…

Fast forward a few more trips and a few more months to the 2017 Packrafting Meet up in Lewis Pass.  Our first activity was a group paddle down the Boyle River. Mellow grade 1+ wave trains at the start made for a pleasant group paddle. Each group paused at a roadside take out before the grade 2+ gorge for individuals to re-evaluate whether they wished to continue through this next section. By now I’d progressed from not knowing what I don’t know, through to knowing what I don’t know. Shortly after we’d committed to the gorge, it became obvious there were plenty of folks who didn’t really appreciate that the difference between grade 1+ and 2+  meant that extra skills were required, rather than just offering extra fun…

The next hour or so reminded me of the rescue training course. People were out of boats left right and center; throw bags were sailing through the air to swimmers, boats were rescued from eddies on the wrong side of the gorge to their occupants; general carnage!  There were enough more capable paddlers to make sure the rescues were quickly performed, and in the end only 1 paddle was lost. However, it really made me think about the lack of understanding that beginners have entering this great sport, and how the stability of packrafts can easily lead to over confidence.

Aftermath of a little carnage in the gorge. The central vessel is 3 packrafts ‘rafted’ together into one. A total of 4 people, and 1.5 paddles…. One very effective way to reunite people with gear when its not possible to walk the bank..

Later that afternoon we cruised up valley to the Poplars Gorge on the Boyle, which proved to be a rather continuous, low volume grade 3 paddle. Some folks had realised they needed a more conservative approach after the morning’s carnage. Surprisingly however, the majority of those who’d struggled in the middle Boyle began walking into the much steeper, narrower Poplars Gorge. A few left the river after the first few rapids, realising they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Others ‘pin-balled’ their way down, bouncing off rocks and gorge walls, successfully staying safe and in the boat, due to a combination of good luck and the incredible stability of the Packrafts.  I observed that such a ‘success’ would have no doubt reinforced the blind ignorance (faith?) in the ‘she’ll be right’ stability of Packrafts, just like had happened to me earlier on in my apprenticeship.

The Poplars Gorge of the Boyle River: a fast, continuous, low volume creek. There’s so many of these to paddle east of the divide in NZ, but they can be unforgiving; lots of hazards, with few eddies raise the grade more than you might expect for such a small volume…

Paddling in a group gives you options. There’s teammates to set safety, help recover gear or assist in an emergency. But there’s a limit to what assistance can be provided.  Paddling continuous rapids with rocks and hazards has a degree of risk that cannot be eliminated; there are situations where your teammates might not be able to help you.  A swimmer who couldn’t get back into thier boat could have a long, dangerous ride. Getting pinned or stuck by a boulder in your boat, or when swimming when all your mates are down below the drop and can’t get back upstream to help you.  All mountain sports have risk; I doubt many of us would enjoy them if they were completely risk-free, but the mature approach is to understand the risks fully, use technique and judgment to mitigate them as much as possible, then make the deliberate decision to accept the risk, or not.   Whilst ignorance is bliss, its not a wise place to be on a river. There’s no point focusing too long on doom and gloom; optimism is a key part of the outdoor life; “I’m going to paddle this river and its gonna work out great” but it is vital to understand and choose to accept the possibility of all the other outcomes.  Will Gadd, a famous mountain athlete, summed this approach up well: “I believe in the positive power of negative thinking.”

After a successful Meetup, everyone had learned plenty of new skills and gained valuable experience. Cobbling together a team with a mix of old and new friends,  our crew of 6 left Lewis pass later on the last day for a four day trip to Packraft a regional classic: The upper Waiau River. The first afternoon involved a climb from Lewis Pass, to a camp on the tops by Trovatore. The next morning, we were greeted by a perfect sunrise, and enjoyed a magic day across the Opera range to our camp on the banks of the Waiau.

Looking down into the headwaters of the Henry River, en-route to our camp at its confluence with the Waiau.

The Waiau has been a highly regarded trip by Kayakers for a long time; either with 4WD access or lugging the 20 kg’s of plastic by foot, it had a brilliant reputation as a wonderfully scenic, interesting and challenging overnight trip.

It was navigating the Waiau where I got a brilliant lesson in teamwork and efficiency on slightly harder rivers. Mark was a kayak instructor from Tasmania, who’d really gotten stuck into Packrafting. His assistance had been invaluable to many during the meet up, and now I was observing and listening very carefully to all that he said and did as we made our way down this beautiful river.

There were plenty of long sections of grade 3 boulder gardens, interspersed with some shorter, steeper and gnarlier rapids at the entry to many of the numerous gorges. Initially I was tense and scared; but I learnt to relax and paddle at a lower RPM, with more deliberate intent and effective strokes. 

I watched how we spaced the group out; strongest at the front, second strongest at the back, with enough space between us to see the line the paddler in front took, but not so close that we couldn’t take a different line if we needed to.  Our group flowed well; individuals eddying out for long enough to check behind for the crew and ahead for the line, before moving on and giving space in that eddy for the teammate following.

We boat scouted most of the way, only stopping when visibility was obscured by a bend in the river, or an obviously large rapid. When our group paddled the bigger ones, one of us would portage, then get back in our boats below the rapid. That person was ready to chase a paddle, boat or person, whilst others stood below crux moves and above hazards with throw bags ready. Once through, we waited in the eddy at the bottom to regroup and check-in with how everyone was going.

Setting safety for the rapid. We were able to scramble round to river right, and get one person in the boat ready to assist. The other ready with a throw-bag. The rest of us paddled the river left line, then came back up to provide safety for the first two to run the rapid.

There was a little bit of carnage here and there, but with good teamwork, rescues were swift and effective. It was a brilliant lesson on how to paddle a river as a team and with control.

And that was my last packrafting trip for the season…  But doing a bunch of work in this area for FMC and the Packrafting Association of NZ has motivated me to share my failures, near disasters and joys for others to learn from. I hope that this had offered a few gems of knowledge to help you avoid the same mistakes I made as you get into Packrafting.  Happy paddling!

 

Dan Clearwater works for FMC as the development officer, and is looking forward to more Packrafting adventures this summer. 

PRANZ will be adding more safety resources to their website www.packrafting.org.nz soon. Follow PRANZ on Facebook to keep up to date with new resources and news.

 

Wilderlife