Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Tatshenshini & Lower Alsek

The Tatshenshini and Lower Alsek is a remote132-mile wilderness stretch of river that flows through the Yukon, British Columbia, and Alaska. The trip starts at Dalton post in Kluane National Park, cuts through the St. Elias Mountain Range in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, and ends at Dry Bay in Glacier Bay National Park. My dad was on the wait list for seven years so we celebrated when he got a private permit for July 2014. My previous Alaska experience was a summer working in Glacier Bay National Park 17 years before, and I'd been itching for an excuse to go back ever since. 

I was just as excited to share another trip with the crew I grew up rafting with: My dad, Uncle Prentis, Auntie Sue, and John and Connie Law. These people are responsible for sparking my interest in kayaking which changed the course of my life. We also had Dave and Sue Skovgaard on board (both experienced river runners who I met through their comical emails during the planning process). Monica Gokey also signed on without hesitation (she's one of my favorite people to kayak with and we've done many international trips together). The nine of us met on an early ferry from Juneau to Haines and headed up the Inside Passage to round up our rafts and another kayak. 

My dad, uncle, and aunt with the Fairweather Range in the distance

This trip was my first experience paddling huge volume, braided, glacial rivers. We had a nice medium flow which was around 94,500 CFS (Alsek R. at Dry Bay) when we got to the takeout. The first day through "The Canyon" was my favorite river section. It was continuous class III wavetrains and reminded me of my backyard run, the Lower Hood River in Oregon. The size of the river grew substantially every day and although there were few distinct rapids, the current was always moving fast. We quickly learned that it was easy to blow right past campsites if we weren't paying attention. When we reached the Alsek, the scale of the river was so big that from camp we could almost see our next destination 20 miles downstream and it would only take a couple hours to get there. 

I can't pick a favorite camp. During our 12-day trip we stayed at Silver Creek, Sediments, O'Connor, Towagh, Melt Creek, Walker Glacier, Fireweed Point, and Alsek Lake. They were all beautiful. We had short days on the water and three layover days, so there was time to soak it all in. 

The weather was variable. I brought everything from my bikini to my warmest down winter jacket and ended up wearing both of them on the trip, even on the same day. It was a huge benefit having raft-support which made it possible to bring plenty of warm clothes, shelter, good food, and beverages. It also allowed me to paddle a smaller kayak so I brought the Axiom 8.5 and loved it! It was perfect for cruising through boulder gardens in the canyon and surfing giant green waves all the way down the Tat.

I'll admit, I was probably the reason we didn't see much wildlife. I was nervous about the large animal tracks we saw weaving down the shorelines. I didn't go anywhere without bear spray and I was dedicated to making as much noise as possible everywhere we went. We did see flocks of bald eagles, plenty of small critters, a mountain sheep, and a distant black bear. Personally, I was content just inspecting the gigantic moose and grizzly tracks without actually having an encounter with one of them. 

Black bear at the Tat/Alsek Confluence

Usually if I'm hiking on a kayaking trip it means I'm portaging with a 70 lb. boat. Luckily that was not the case on the Tat. Hiking on a trail without a boat is actually pretty fun. We climbed the overlook at Sediments Creek and got a great view of the river valley below. The Knob hike above Alsek Lake was a great vantage point to appreciate the mass of iceberg sculptures, and the trek onto Walker Glacier was probably the most unique hike I've done. The one I would scratch off the list is the bushwack up Melt Creek. Somehow the mesmerizing glacial blue water convinced us it would be a good idea to crawl through thick alders and devil's club for 5 hours. That didn't turn out so well though, especially when swarms of mosquitoes found us.

Fresh glacier ice for our coolers and cocktails 

The guidebook accurately describes Alsek Lake as the "Grand Finale" of the trip. We had been told that a recent earthquake caused a significant amount of ice to break off the surrounding glaciers and fill up the lake. We scouted our options and sure enough the main channels were completely blocked by giant walls of ice. The alternate route was to take a shallow channel on river right that had just enough water for us to pull the rafts through without derigging. Another party pulled into Alsek Lake about an hour after we got to camp and it was the only time we saw another group on the river. 

My dad scouting the entry into Alsek Lake

Camping at Alsek Lake was a highlight of the trip. All night we could hear the boom of glaciers calving into the lake. The next morning was cold and we launched early for a foggy paddle past giant icebergs as we continued down to Dry Bay. We had some challenges after we blew past the obscure channel that marked our takeout. With the help of a fisherman and a quick satellite call to redirect our flight to a different airstrip, we managed to avoid missing our plane. 

There are no roads to Dry Bay so we had the flight out to look forward to. It was hectic as we rushed to derig the rafts and load the plane. Three of us were returning to Haines with the gear while the others headed home via Yakutat. It was sad to part ways after the greatest river trip of all time, but we said our goodbyes and climbed in the plane for a scenic flight over Alsek Lake and some massive icefields. Glacier Bay was just as awesome as I remembered and it was such an incredible visit. I'm hoping it won't be my last!


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Paddlers Etiquette

If you show up to a crowded surf break in California and act like a jerk, chances are it could end in some slashed tires, a broken board, or getting the snot kicked out of you. On a recent trip to some popular surf breaks in San Diego, I was sensitive to this issue and took time to inquire about beach etiquette. Rules are posted at each break and after chatting with a couple locals to get my bearings straight, I felt confident about what was acceptable behavior. Kayakers can learn a lot from surfers and establish a similar code of conduct to prevent paddling community drama off the river. As the sport grows, so do incidents of paddlers intentionally or unintentionally threatening river access and offending local communities.

I am lucky to live in one of the best whitewater towns in the country. A huge part of this is due to awesome boaters who conduct themselves professionally and represent the sport well in our community. Overall I'm proud to be a boater here, but sometimes I cringe to drive around with a kayak on my car after seeing some of the things boaters do. I am not perfect by any means and have done my fair share of dirtbagging, but I'd like to continue developing paddling etiquette for anyone who wants to visit popular paddling destinations. Most of this seems like common sense, but it's a good reminder for all of us. This is not a complete list of guidelines, so feel free to add on: 

For any paddlers coming the Hood River/White Salmon area to live, participate in events, or for any other reason, we welcome you. Please realize that this is a very special place to a lot of people and we appreciate your cooperation and respect.  I would like to live in a place where people are happy to see kayakers rolling into town, and it only takes a few people to ruin the experience for everyone else.

2011 Wind River Clean up 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

India Part IV: Rakhi in Rishikesh

Growing up as the middle children of the family, my younger brother, Jake, and I have had our fair share of sibling rivalry. Although we had a lot of common interests including playing the guitar, skiing, and family whitewater rafting trips, our favorite pastime was tormenting each other.

Here is me trying to make a buck, 
and Jake drinking all of my Kool-Aid

We both got into kayaking around the same time, but I had already moved away to college so we had few opportunities to paddle together. Jake spent a few summers on the Payette Rivers in Banks, Idaho and quickly became an incredible boater. I would randomly hear epic Idaho river stories from people talking about a Jake character, and I couldn't help but chuckle knowing they must be referring to my brother.

Now we're all grown up and Jake is busy with a family of his own. It's a rare occasion that we get to go on a river trip together, but last summer I tempted him with a dream paddling trip to Northern India. Jake is right at home in big water and I knew the giant rivers of the Himalayas would be right up his alley. Luckily, I was able to talk him into it and we met halfway around the world for an amazing international kayaking adventure!

It was fun to see my brother's traveling style because he became best friends with everyone we met. He didn't know the rest of our paddling group until he got to India, but he immediately fit right in. It was typical for Jake to hike up to a monastery, hang out with the monks for a while, make friends with them, and get a VIP tour of all the secret locked chambers. He'd make a pit stop on the side of the river and the next thing you know, he'd be hauling firewood up the mountainside for a couple of locals.  He'd get to know our shuttle drivers on long trips and take the wheel when they needed a break. He'd stop in a spa for a steam bath and shortly after he'd be on a crowded rickshaw with the spa owner, headed into town for some sightseeing. Even the hotel dog loved Jake. She would follow him to morning yoga class and when he wouldn't let her share his yoga mat, she would nap out on the front step until class was over, and then follow him back to the hotel.

It was also fun to see my brother's paddling style. He was the first one up in the morning lapping the surf wave next to camp. He's so comfortable in big water and it was great to follow his smooth lines down some of those enormous rapids. I held a rope while he ran the biggest drops and he made them look effortless. Every once in a while he'd drop into a big hole just for fun, get trundled a few times, and roll up with a huge smile on his face. Even as adults we still have our tense moments, but all in all we got along and always had an eye out for each other.

Our last stop of the trip was the Ganges. When we got to Rishikesh, the city was celebrating Rakhi, the Hindu festival honoring the bond of protection between brothers and sisters. It was explained to us that the sister ties a red thread to her brother's wrist while wishing him happiness and well-being. The brother promises to stand by his sister and protect her at all times, and they eat good food and give each other presents. We both liked the sound of this celebration and headed into the streets to join the festivities.

Rakhi was such a cool way to sum up our paddling trip. While I was tying the thread on Jake's wrist, I thought about how well we know each other, how protective we are of each other, and how much trust we have in each other on and off the river. My experience in India was so much better having him there to share it with. Even though we don't always get along, I know we'll always be looking out for each other . . . even when he drinks all my Kool-Aid.

Check out Jake's river stories from the trip!
Indian Waters: A Himalayan Kayaking Trip Report

Monday, December 23, 2013

Building Community through Kayaking

A couple months ago I decided to take a break from working in mental health and refresh my perspective by working at the Next Adventure Paddle Sports Center.  It has been a nice change of pace to say the least.

The thing I wanted to highlight, is something we call the Get Out and Paddle.  Every second, third and fourth week of the month (November through March) we offer a free kayaking trip on various local rivers.  The difficulty of river is determined by the week, meaning week two is class two, etc.  The trip is not instructional or guided, just organized for maximum fun.
Group Photo (minus Christie, Joe, Brian, and myself) at the put in for the Lower Hood
Courtesy of Jamie Webber
Fun on the Lower Hood
Photo Courtesy of James Philips
Photo Courtesy of James Philips
We have had great turn outs this year, averaging around twenty folks per trip.  It has proven to be a wonderful way for folks to meet other paddlers, try out new runs, and have a fun day on the river.

Here is a current schedule for anyone looking to join in.

A Great End to the Day
Photo Courtesy of James Philips
Hope to see you on the river!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

India Part III: The Upper Indus

The last stop on our Ladakh kayaking tour was an overnighter on the Upper Indus River. This is the river that India was named after and the valley has a rich history of ancient civilizations dating back to 3300 BC. For this trip it was necessary for us to apply for visitor permits and travel far upstream near the border of Tibetan China. It is a remote region with a strong military presence and we passed by many base camps on our way to the put-in. As we drove further and further from Leh up the dusty road, I was again relieved to have such a great group to travel with. We were joined by a long lost paddling friend, Polly Green, and a local paddler named Biru. 

Hindus consider all rivers in India to be sacred and with one look at the Upper Indus I could see why. The landscape was completely different from the Zanskar and resembled the red rock canyons of the Colorado River. The river was roadside for the most part. On our way to the put-in we were able to scout some rapids from the truck, but there were way too many to remember. The only thing we knew was that somewhere there was a surprise sticky hole that was responsible for a lot of swims.

This section of the Indus had continuous class IV to IV+ read and run rapids, my favorite kind of kayaking! From the moment we launched there was nonstop whitewater through a scenic canyon. We all jumped in line and were making good progress until we got to the legendary hole. It was sure a sneaky one and we didn't see it coming until a couple people had already taken some pretty good beat downs. Fortunately no one swam and everyone was okay physically, but mentally it presented some challenges for the group.
Jacob running a big boulder drop rapid on the Upper Indus

The next morning we continued downstream with Polly leading the charge, but Susan was gradually falling behind. The rest of us were somewhere in between, but as the day went on, the gap started getting bigger. There was talk of splitting up the group to make sure we could catch our ride at the takeout, but I fully supported taking time to scout/portage a few things and wait for everyone to catch up. The problem with being in the middle of nowhere India is that you don't really have the option of walking off the river alone if you're having a bad day. My peace of mind relied heavily on the “safety in numbers” rationale so I felt strongly that we should stick together and keep an eye on each other. 

After some negotiation we were able to pull it together as a team and find patience as others were overcoming mental struggles. Eventually the rapids became smaller as we approached a smelly bridge that marked our takeout at the Upshi truck stop. We parked ourselves and our pile of kayaks at a roadside diner and waited for our ride, but the adventure continued when the shuttle vehicle never showed up. As evening set in, we had all given up hope of being rescued and jumped on a massive bus to Leh that coincidently had just enough room for the nine of us and our kayaks.  

Upshi truck stop

Holy cow

On our last day in Leh I was not ready to leave and tried without success to strategize a way to stay longer. That night Monica, Ty, Susan, and I hiked up to the Shanti Stupa overlooking the city and reflected back on the last couple weeks. The people, places, and rivers of Ladakh had made quite an impression on me. The simplicity, happiness, and raw beauty of that area is something I will never forget. Jacob, Susan, Adam, and I said our goodbyes and headed to the airport early the next morning. I was sad to leave Ladakh but so grateful for the experience. It definitely gave me a new perspective on the world and what I value in life.

Shanti Stupa

For more information about kayaking rivers of the Ladakh region, check out The UK Rivers Guidebook at:

I got all my travel info from this book and I found it to be very helpful: