Tuesday, February 26, 2008

January on the Little White Salmon.


Its Sunday, three of us are driving from Corvallis bound for the Little White Salmon and all I can think of is a way to get out of it. The LW is at one of the perfect levels: right around 3ft. It a cold grey day, its been snowing like crazy and we know there will be feet of snow at the put in. Fortune seems to stack in my favor when one of our group, already in Portland, calls to back out. He’s feeling sick and now we don’t have shuttle. “Come by and grab a bike,” he says. “What about Canyon Creek?” I say. Chris and Rick have similar feelings but are less vocal about it and we borrow a bike and finish the snowy journey to the take out where we pile out, relieve ourselves in different directions, drop the bike and drive up the steep and snowier that expected roads to the put in. “Chris, are you sure you want to bike in this?” I ask, betraying myself again and again. At the put in after some tense, ‘I don’t know what do you want to do’ Chris G says, “quit your whining and get dressed, lets do this.” At the end of the day we are all smiling, and happily BSing about the drops: “Did you see my line over S-Turn?” “Yea, you had a sweet boof!”, “Wasn’t Wishbone weird.” The day showed we were all competent and capable and left me wondering what we (especially me) were so worried about and why I’d been putting Joe off for so long.


I’ve been down the Little White perhaps 15 times since I started creeking in July of 2004. The first was in the spring of 2005. I had a great day, was left riding high, thinking I was pretty badass and wondering why it was such a legendarily hard run. Over the next few years, a series of experiences would eventually leave me with a heart-pumping, pit of the stomach, voice quavering feeling about it. I’m no badass, I’m certainly no local paddler running 5 laps a week after work at 3.8ft and higher, but I do alright and the LW is certainly within my skill level. I’ll happily put on longer, harder, more technical rivers without the same nerves so what the heck happened? For me, it started with a Jefe. I had an unfortunate time surfing in a sticky ledge hole above a sticky ledge hole above a sticky ledge called Horseshoe. It left me somewhat shaken. I lost confidence in my ability to drive that boat and navigate that gorge. A few boats later, I was following Chris Korbulic down at a healthy flow and suddenly, I couldn’t hit my lines, couldn’t boof, blew a few eddies and even if I could catch an eddy, I’d soon be seeing Chris K’s head disappearing around the next drop. By the time we got to Island, I was pretty pissed at myself before realizing I had a large crack under my seat and the boat had several gallons of water in it. I had a long hike out for my bad day to sink in. It all stacked up to a losing ‘head-game’ on that river.


All paddlers deal with fear, nerves, the head-game at some point: new paddlers, seasoned paddlers, those in between. To paraphrase Steve Fisher: We are all between swims, as you get better they get farther apart and worse. I think the same can be said for dealing with the fear when things start stacking up against you. Except perhaps one well known paddler who has gone on record saying something like “I don’t really feel fear…” Well, I’d tell him that fear is just a word. The idea behind it is universal combination of questions: How likely am I to screw up and how bad is it going to be if I do? When you fall on the negative side of either or both, that’s something like fear. Its not always rational and its not always bad. The fear that paralyzes, when you lose it on the river, is bad. The fear that focuses, keeps you in the moment, is arguably one of the major reasons we are all on the river and what keeps it exciting and keeps us coming back.

Call it fear, call it whatever you like. It’s just a word. The balance is different for each paddler, different for each day, different for each river. There are paddlers without as much skill or experience as some, who are willing to huck themselves off big drops, knowing their chances of a clean line are minimal but not caring about, or not thinking about the consequences. Where the balance falls is obvious for them. There are paddlers who have years of experience, are so smooth and clean they never even get their faces we let alone miss a line but will never boat anything with significant consequences because the risk isn’t worth it, and of course there are those paddlers who have tremendous skill and experience who run the biggest drops clean. We all fall somewhere in there. What kind of boater are you?


I know that I am not a true hucker and probably never will be. I care too much about having a clean line, worry too much about the consequences. I’ll never be a Chris Korbulic, or Jesse Coombs. I know I don’t have enough experience or skill to be exceedingly confident yet: If I look at a big drop for more than about 20 minutes, I’ll talk myself out of it. Take Frustration Falls on the Oregon Salmon for example. We paddled up to that drop and I knew I was going to run it. An hour later, I was cold and had looked at the crux too long and convinced myself out of it.

Experience will come, its something we can all use a little bit more of, mastering my fear… who knows. To boaters that know me, I’m fairly conservative and I like it that way. I hope to get my head on right enough to run the big drops and be confident, but I’m not going to rush it and it may not ever happen. I’m ok with that though. I’m just happy to have gotten back on the Little White, for a clean, confidence-building run with friends who understand my fears, share them to a certain extent, and finish smiling and happy to do it again sometime soon.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, I was sitting up at Dr. Greg’s cabin on the hill near Hood River with Johnny, Brian, and Dave having almost an identical conversation. “I want to get back on it but it scares me,” someone says and for me it’s good to know I’m not the only one that deals with fear on the river. Its good to know the Little White gets in the heads of other boaters I know and respect. Everyone in the room agreed, if there is one river that is run regularly that everyone should respect and never take for granted, never stop being just a little nervous on, it’s the Little White. It’s good not to be alone.


Thanks to Rick Cooley for the photos.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hagen Creek, Washington

Video by Tony Skrivanek.

Having recently moved out to the Pacific Northwest I've been busy exploring and paddling as many new creeks as possible. After a dry autumn and several low water runs down the Green Truss, Little White, Wind, Ohanepecosh, and Cispus the rains finally hit and I hooked up with local paddling guru and Oregon guidebook author Pete Giordano to check out Hagen Creek. With quality class 4-5 whitewater, easy access, and a location less than an hour outside of Portland I was surprised to learn that the first descent of Hagen was made just 2 years ago. Before our run Pete explained that although Hagen had been known for some time it had always been passed by as paddlers looked for first descents to the north and east. Although Hagen itself is quite short it packs in many interesting ledges and slides and is home to a great 30' cascading falls named Euphoria. You are then dumped into the best part of the Upper NF Washougal where several technical 15-20' falls with names like Tea Kettle and Double Drop await. So whether you're an expert level creeker or someone looking to build your skills on some fun (and easily portagable) class 4-5 rapids then keep Hagen Creek on your short list the next time water's rising!

Joe Stumpfel

Photo by Rachel Crowder.

Friday, February 08, 2008

DeSoto Falls First Descent...

Whats up Everyone!

Well, I'm still in a bit of an afterglow from an incredible day of paddling in Alabama yesterday. There have been a number of waterfalls and rapids in my life that I've considered big stepping stones for myself as a whitewater kayaker, and the waterfall that I ran yesterday has kind of been the pinnacle goal for me over the past four years.

This is DeSoto Falls.

This picture has been on the desktop of my computer on and off for two years. Every time I turn on my computer to do schoolwork, edit video, or check levels this is the first thing I see, and I've literally spent hours just daydreaming and staring at this beautiful drop, and wondering about its runnability.

DeSoto at a runnable flow.

I first discovered DeSoto four years ago, while on one of my obsessive Google image searches for waterfalls. I researched it online pretty thoroughly for a while, and Spencer Cooke and I finally went to look at it three years ago after the North Alabama Whitewater Fest down near Birmingham. It wasn't running, but it was sick to just stand at the lip and think about the possibilities. Since then I've been in touch with Adam Goshorn, who is fortunate enough to live 5 minutes from the drop... and I've kept a pretty close eye on the gauge for the West Fork of the Little River, hoping to some day time it at the perfect flow of 300-600 cfs.

The past week has been a good one in the Southeast, Saturday was a sick day out on the Raven's Fork of the Oconaluftee, and after a morning run of the Green on Wednesday, and an intense afternoon run of Big Creek at 4 ft., I realized that I was paddling as well as I ever have, and with the West Fork gauge at 1100 cfs, well above floodstage, the stars might just be aligning for that incredible waterfall.

Raven's Fork... such a beautiful place to find yourself in a kayak.

Credit: Clayton Gaar

One of my favourite people to train with, Daniel Windham, and myself in Caveman.

Credit: Rob Tompkins

So early Thursday morning Chris Gallaway and I loaded up my Subie with our sights set on Alabama. After a 4.5 hour drive that seemed to last an eternity we rolled into the DeSoto Falls parking lot, and immediately saw a wall of brown water rolling off the big dam upstream of the first drop of the monster. Adam Goshorn took work off and met us up there, and after about 40 minutes of scouting and discussing with the boys, I decided that I was ready to get into the flow and paddle off it. Adam was very cool to hike all the way around and down to set safety for the drop... cheers man! Can't thank you enough.

So this drop has always appealed to me/scared the shit out of me because of the commitment of running a 15 to 20 foot drop directly above the 70-80 foot main waterfall. I chose to run the top drop down the far river left side, and knowing that the landing was only about a foot or two deep, I had to roll off vertical, and then hit a late boof off the shelf halfway down. This was also made a bit more stressful considering the two gallons of water sloshing around in my boat waiting to take me safely into the vertical plane on the big drop, rather than boofing out.

Top drop without water.

Credit: Chris Gallaway

So when it finally came time to go for it I made eye contact with Chris on the bank to make sure everything was ready, cleared my mind of all other thoughts, and reached a state of focus that I have only felt once or twice before in my life. I rolled off the first one and boofed into a stomp just as I had hoped, and then I set up really close to the left wall to keep from being pulled towards the center of the river, and the abrasive, shallow crack/shelf thing that would send you into a pitchpole or spiral into green water off the big drop.

Working out the first drop. The curler in the foreground is at the lip of the big one...

Credit: Chris Gallaway

Moment of truth.

Credit: Chris Gallaway

I took a right sweep as my left edge connected with the curler coming off the left wall at the lip, and then placed my left stroke in the water as the world opened up, and I rolled off to vertical. I have never fallen that far before and it was surreal slowly pulling my left stroke into a tuck, and staring at my landing for what seemed like an eternity as I accelerated towards it, with all the solid water around me exploding in the air and turning into spray. About fifteen feet above the bottom I finally closed my eyes, clenched every muscle in my body, and prepared for what I thought was going to be a gigantic hit.

Trying to lock in the angle... you can see the lip of the entrance drop in the very top of the frame.

Credit: Adam Goshorn

Tucking up and preparing for impact.

Credit: Adam Goshorn

I was ripped out of my tuck on impact, but DeSoto was merciful with me, it was not nearly as hard of a hit as I had anticipated, and I let out a big victory scream as I resurfaced upright to the left of the boil, staring back up at where I had just come from.

All in all, it was probably the most incredible drop I've ever done, and I feel honoured to be the first person to run it. Adam, Chris, and I finished the day off with a great run of Little River Falls and the Canyon at a great level of just over 12 inches. Thanks again for showing us the lines Adam!

Signing off from cloud nine,
Chris Gragtmans

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Mexico New Year

Greetings Whitewater World!

I just got back from an incredible trip to the country of Mexico... the place has an unbelievable amount of whitewater and some very very large waterfalls. Mexico is an awesome place to go for paddlers of all levels, but carries a special attraction for class V paddlers looking to step it up and start freefalling long distances.

Scouting in Mexico...

Pat Keller, myself and Jake Greenbaum rode down in Pat's truck, and met up with Austin Rathmann, Ian McClaren, Jon Meyers, and Lawrance Simpson in Valles, Mexico.


The reward after 35 hours of driving!

Filming at the lip of the first drop of Day 1, the Micos. 2 ran, the rest did a sick rappel off the side.

Micos waterfall from below... about 75 feet of total drop and 55 feet of freefall... Lawrance knocked out the First D of the left side on this trip, sick!

After Pat and Lawrance ran the Micos, we did the beautiful travertine waterfall run-out below and packed up to go to the second huck of our trip, Cascada El Salto. This waterfall has to be one of the coolest looking drops ever, dropping about 100 feet over three tiers. I've always wanted to run this beast, but my head just didn't feel right to do one of the biggest hucks of my life, so I opted out.

Two bad lines on El Salto...

Unfortunately day 1 took Jon Meyers out for the trip. He flipped on the 70 foot second drop of El Salto and fractured his left elbow. McClaren flipped too and although he didn't break anything, his elbow wasn't quite the same after that... the big drops will get ya!

Getting hassled by the fuzz. They had big guns.

Another 6 hours south and the next day we found ourselves in the final destination for our trip, Tlapacoyan in the state of Veracruz. This is where the Rio Alseseca makes its 30 mile plunge from the mountains onto the coastal plan flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Other than the Middle Kings, I have never seen any other river with sustained sick, (marginally) runnable whitewater for so long. The thing just keeps falling and falling, and unlike the Kings, this river is formed by volcanic basalt, and its jungles hide a tonne of huge waterfalls. Several different sections of the Alseseca were our focus for the remainder of our trip in Mexico, and I can't wait to get back and explore more.

The jungle here just makes you want to run everything. "Looks a little low but the portage is horrible, I'm gonna run it!"

Austin on Rapid 1, roadside Alseseca.

Lawrance styling one of the coolest rapids in existence, S-Turn.

The author enjoying the tropics.

Great drop on the Pezma section.

Pat Keller doing what he does best... plug in first and probe that shit for us!

The trip came to an end somewhat abruptly due to pending school responsibilities and some sickness in the group, but I know that we'll be back. If you are planning your own trip to Mexico in the future, I would advise the following precautions:
1) Wear long pants to avoid poison ivy/bug bites.
2) Don't carry anything illegal in the car... you don't want to go to jail there.
3) Take the toll roads, they are very worth it.
4) Bring tonnes of climbing gear... ascenders, two big climbing ropes and rappel gear
5) Take a vehicle with big clearance, the speed bumps are killers.
6) Bring your A game, you can go as big as you want!!

The boys satisfied after an awesome trip. We're pretty tough in case you can't tell.

Until next time...
Chris Gragtmans