Thursday, May 11, 2006

TDub, TRL & Special Guests Invade Van Island!

A big reason I decided to relocate to Seattle was for the easy access to the BC backcountry & the world class kayaking around Squamish & Whistler. I knew little about Vancouver Island. On my first couple trips to BC, Van Island appeared as a mass of low-slung mountains west of Howe Sound, blocking out a true open-water vantage of the Pacific, yet far enough on the horizon to seem remote & distant .. when it wasn't itself obscured by cloud cover, that is. I'd heard through various friends that there was good boating on the Island, but details were spotty at best -- like the Olympic Peninsula, but even more mysterious.

"Everything is bigger in BC." That's a well-worn cliche. But it's true. The mountains are bigger, hence the rivers, the gorges, the whitewater, the waterfalls, the trees, & even the *islands* are bigger. Van Island is big. At 300 miles long by 50 wide, it's the largest island on the western side of the Americas. It's also very mountainous. From sea level, the peaks reach over 6K feet. Large watersheds combined with the ample precip that hammers the Island during the violent winter storms create rivers that cut deep canyons through the landscape. The higher elevations also accumulate impressive snowpacks, which, like in any other alpine zone, will provide for a runoff season.

White River drainage, Van Island, BC

Last week, as the rainy season gave way to a warmer, dryer spring pattern, a big group of paddlers from Idaho, Oregon, California, North Carolina, Washington & BC charged the Island to take advantage of JAN DETMER'S hit-list of unrun rivers & creeks. The drive outta Seattle & the ferry ride over to Victoria were socked-in & rainy, but by the time we got out of Jan's office with notes on put-ins & take-outs, we were under a big window of blue sky. And so we decided to go for the jugular, targeting Piggott Creek, the TOP line-item on Jan's high-priority not-so-short list of unrun Island creeks. High pressure & warm temps were what we needed to get the creeks & rivers up-island going, & that's what was forecasted, so we made our way northward to Campbell River to meet up with Toby, Tristan & Bryan.

It doesn't get dark til 10:00 this time of year up there & when we finally got to camp it was well after dark. Morning came & I realized that we were camping in a huge clearcut on the rim of the Oyster River canyon. Our drive to the put-in on the logging road along the Piggott revealed that we'd have a very full day & that finishing the run in a day would be an ambitious goal. This gorge was DEEP. And long. And at the put-in we were greeted with a big waterfall in the 60-70 foot range. The falls dropped teacup-style into a perfect pool, but the +/- 15-foot lead-in rapid was full-on with zero margin for error & was right on top of the lip of the main part of the falls. Realizing the gravity of our mission, we then decided to drive halfway back down the logging road to drop one of our two put-in vehicles at a creek that could serve as an egress from the gorge if things went south. And, given the daunting task at hand, the whole team opted to forego the big drop & billygoat it down to the base of the falls to put in.

The next 8 hrs was an intense test of our group's skill & mental fortitude. Sounds cheesey, I know. But we were in deep at this point. Not far below our launch we came to a boxed-in gorge with an an obvious horizon line & no real eddy to speak of. There was enough slackwater for several paddlers to stall out in the gorge & several had run the rapid already by the time I got there. Boomer & Tristan had each caught a micro-eddy below the horizon line & scampered up onto a tiny rockpile on river-left. It was reported that the line was good-to-go, but we were being held up for what seemed like an eternity by some of the downstream beta. The rapid turned out to be a stacked double-boof line with a 10-footer that led around a massive boulder into a super dicey move that was the reason for the hold-up. At this point in the gorge, a raging tributary cascaded impressively into & across the gorge from 50+ feet overhead on river-left. The waterfall created a massive boil & a secondary upstream/downstream dynamic, as well as a logjam on the river-right gorge wall. There was no way to get past the waterfall without fighting the boil line while holding an "upstream" (for the trib) ferry angle along the river-right wall & trying to aim right for a small A-frame opening in the logjam. As if that weren't sketchy enough, the waterfall had enough volume & height to create tons of spray & mist which totally obscured visibility of the line once you were committed with downstream momentum. There was also no visibility of the 3 paddlers who disappeared around the corner. And there was no way out or around this little conundrum. We were committed.

The line ended up being scary & risky but it went, & it was our only option. Any more or less water, another log, or a shift in the current log status, and the line may end up shutting down. On the other hand, with less water in the trib, the line might just as easily open right up. This mess is within about a mile of the put-in. From here down we found several miles of excellent, clean class V ledges & bedrock as the creek entered & exited short gorges. Before we knew it we had reached the creek where we parked our Plan B car. Apart from the waterfall logjam fiasco, we had made good time to this point & stopped long enough to eat some food & then press on. Continuing on down, we had a scare when Toby was rejected out of a critical micro-eddy in front of a horrible log jam. He was sent into the meat of the logjam upside-down but with Yoda-like poise & skill, somehow managed to save himself & his paddle. At this point, there's no good way that I can recall to get up & out of the canyon to portage (otherwise we would've done just that). Having collected his wits quickly, Toby then waved us down one-at-a-time into the tiniest eddy backed up by the logjam. It's all tense class III-IV right into the hideous mess of wood, then a late cut left as your stern taps the logs & Toby grabs your boat pulling you into the safe zone. Toby definitely gets trip MVP for not dying & for keeping us all safe there.

We ran so many rapids after this & the ensuing gorges seemed to progress from being enticing & exciting to being dark, scary & full of big rapids, but amazingly just about every rapid we encountered was clean. At one obvious gorge entrance, Boomer checked out the log-choked entrance while Toby & I bushwhacked our way downstream to find that, like most everything else on the Piggott thus far, there was a way through without portaging. Another gorge required sending paddlers downstream on a potential dead-end probe mission, & again, the gorge was clean. Gorge after gorge of this until we were all reaching exhaustion & it seemed that we had reached a point where we needed to call a pow-wow & make the decision to hike out or to continue. Most of the group of 9 voted to walk out while it was still light. Boomer, Tristan & Grace decided to drop into the next dark crack in the earth. Our walk out sans boats wasn't as bad as expected, but it definitely wasn't that fun either. At camp we waited around a huge bonfire for the rest of the crew to turn up. After about 2 hours they arrived & reported that we had, as a group, made it to within one gorge of the Piggott's confluence with the Oyster River, at which point the Oyster went completely unrunnable. In the a.m., we hiked back into where we'd left our boats & finished out the last fun rapids & a portage, then hiked out. We expected to re-surface to news that the Idaho kids had fired up the put-in waterfall, but a lower flow had rendered the already sketchy lead-in rapid even more marginal. So there's a big beautiful roadside waterfall that still hasn't been run on Piggott Cr. ((By the way, Happy Birthday Billy Jones. What better way to spend a birthday than on an exploratory run in BC?))

Sorry so wordy on the descrip, but I don't have many pics from the Piggott & the story needed to be told. I didn't get the camera out much. We were in "travel quick, travel sure" mode & the light was low, & ... I'm making excuses. I was gripped the whole first day & wanted focus on not getting dead.

Half the Piggott crew. CW from Lft: Travis Richardson, Austin Rathman, Chilly Billy Jones, Toby McDermott

Grace in the runout of a typical Piggott drop. There were tons of rapids just like this.

Austin styling a killer boof line. I didn't get far enough right on this one & ended up pulling a classic kickflip-to-darkslide (i.e., I landed on my head)

Bryan Smith

Gnarly wood sieve portage. You can get a sense of the nature of the gorge geology in there from this pic.


After the Piggott, we headed farther N & into the interior of the island to the White R. drainage where Jan's beta was a lesson in German efficiency/economy. Finding our new zone proved to be something of an epic, as several apparent routes were shut down, & as our groups got somehow separated. Couple hours later, Toby & Tristan found there way to our camp & all was good. Boomer & I motivated for the a.m. creek scout & learned that Moakwa had no water, Consort was too log-choked for our tastes, & the White seemed low-flow & flat/meandering. Did we miss a turn or something?? Being that it was Toby & Tristan's last day, we decided to just put-in on the White. Within a mile we had entered a gorge (in BC? go figure.) & were faced with a blind class V rapid. The seemingly low water at the meandering put-in became pushy when channelized in the narrow canyon & the rapids kept coming for a couple miles as the gorge walls grew taller. The canyon lasted only maybe 2 or 3 miles, but had solid whitewater with beautiful polished granite. We said our goodbyes to the boys & set out immediately for our next destination, Pt. McNeil far up-island.

Fully loaded & heading northward in our rental grocery-getter.

"WHERE'S TOBY?????" (you had to be there...)

Victoria Peak at the head of the White River valley. Consort Cr runs along the base of this peak.


Typical White R. rapid. Note: (1.) Slimey polished granite; (2.) The prototype IR drysuit on Toby


Next ... we were in search of an unrun gorge on the Kokish R. reported to have a series of spectacular teacup waterfalls that we immediately dubbed "The Magical Waterfalls". I envisioned a scene from a BOB ROSS painting with granite bedrock, rainbows & unicorns, & a mix of Dry Meadow's & Rogers Cr's waterfalls. Set the expectations low & you're sure to be pleasantly surprised -- that's my motto. Driving out of Pt. McNeil & up into the backcountry was interesting. It really seemed like we were on the frontier of some wild country. Maybe it was that the only humans around were gnarly lumberjacks, or maybe it was that black bears were running around like squirrels, I dunno. The scene at our Ida Lake camp spot that night was idyllic but a bit nervous, and not because of the 1D of the Magical Waterfalls. Grace piled a cord of wood onto our fire hoping that "man's red fire" would keep the wildlife away, just like in The Jungle Book. It worked, & in the morning we approached an abrupt & super-tight gorge, the entrance of which was a perfect 20-foot teacup. It was here in this amazing place of Magical Wateralls, where few humans have ever laid eyes, that Grace spread Daniel's ashes. I can't think of a more appropriate way than on a 1D of a waterfall run for D to go home. The rest of the morning was spent negotiating the obstacles in the gorge. See pics.

Our view from camp .. Ida Lake

Building up the bear-repellant bonfire

Our put-in at the entrance of the gorge. Just out of sight is the first 20-footer.




After landing the falls, everyone got pushed right into an eddy room. From there we had to battle the boil line & stay off undercut/caved-out right wall & into a river-left eddy. From that eddy we had to ferry into this tiny eddy-crack on the lip of a sieve rapid.



All up in the guts of the amazing cavernous gorge on the upper Kokish

John filming.

Billy Jones probing the last waterfall

Boomer stiff-arming the wall


Kooky kids & their silly reindeer games

Stay tuned. More to come ... (By the way, have you signed up to get email notifications of new TRL posts? If not, you can do that over there to the right on the sidebar.)

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