Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hot Spot: Gold River; Part 1

Throughout our community of whitewater paddleboaters there are certain places that, due to a particularly dense concentration of high quality rivers & creeks, have become embedded in the collective conscience / lore, & are destinations on every traveling boater's life list. These zones have a couple things in common, most notably that there's a large "main stem" river into which any number of runnable tributaries spill, all within a close proximity of some kind of "base camp". Places like Fayetteville, WV, Hood River, OR, & Squamish, BC come to mind. This past weekend a crew of friends from Seattle, Bellingham & Victoria linked up to do some exploring in one such hot spot -- Gold River, BC.

Bryan Smith, Jakub Drnec & I had earmarked this 3-day weekend a while back with a Van Island adventure in mind. Jakub was hot to check out a couple rivers whose life expectancies, due to impending independent power projects, are especially short. As mentioned in recent posts, we've been experiencing a very cold Spring -- more like an interminable Winter -- so flows have remained low everywhere north of the Columbia. Throughout the past month we all kept our target weekend open, & as if on cue, more hospitable weather & more water arrived at the beginning of the week. On short notice, we made some calls & managed to cobble together the rest of our team, the usual suspects, who represent the underemployed dregs of Norfwest society .. but are damn fine boaters & perhaps even more importantly, great company on a long-weekend roadtrip.

One rig got an early jump on the Friday urban-escapee traffic & made haste to catch the boat outta Tsawwassen, while the other went north to Horseshoe Bay to pick up Kato.

We barely made it onto the ferry as the next-to-last vehicle allowed to load.

The plan was for all of us to meet in Nanaimo & formulate a quick strategery over dinner. Once off the mainland we came into rain, which increased in intensity throughout most of the night. Though no one was looking forward to a cold, muddy camp scene after a long day of travel, the rain was a welcome event just the same. The forecast called for sunny & warm for the rest of the weekend. We settled on GR as our destination & were psyched to finish out the remaining 3 hours of travel.

The route to GR takes you up the east side of the island to Campbell River, then northwest through the interior, over a divide in Strathcona Provincial Park, & then back down toward Nootka Sound on the Pacific side.

Hours of windshield time ..

.. leads to delerium.

GR is in the interior of the island, but sits at just 300 feet above sea level near the head of Muchalat Inlet, a great arm of Pacific that stretches deep into the island. From town you can see the big peaks of the Strathcona towering to over 6,000 ft, & in this year of heavy snows & persistent cold weather, they're still caked with big snowpack. It's a zone that's chock full of things we like a lot: big rivers & creeks, polished granite, lakes, rugged coastline, big mountains, big trees, wildlife .. & a very laissez faire attitude.

We pulled into our lakeside camp late Friday night, surprised at how dry it seemed. The rain had subsided long before we crested the pass in Strathcona & to me it looked like the storm hadn't really hit GR. We fell asleep to a chorus of croaking frogs & woke to chilly clear-blue skies.

From our camp on Star Lake

Dorking around with morning reflections on the lake

Within a 15-minute drive from camp, we had access to maybe 7 different runs, hence the "hot spot" title. We crossed the Ucona River & were disappointed to see low flow. We posited that perhaps a smaller, more channelized stream such as Pamela Creek, might be doable. So we continued on, only to find the same (predictable) situation there. But Pamela was perhaps the most seductive put-in I'd ever seen.

Her temptation overwhelmed the group, which didn't want to spend the day driving around looking for water on what was clearly a low-water day. So we decided to just drop in, knowing that we'd likely be groveling for some love on Pamela, but then would confluence with the Ucona, & with the extra flow, we'd have plenty of water for the second half of the day.

To the best of our knowledge, Pamela had been run once & the reports were "waterfalls in a spectacular gorge". The reports were spot-on .. once we got past the weak sauce low-flow boulder mank. In the gorge, the crystal clear water flowed over smooth granite & the mank was all but forgotten.

Tretwold on the first drop of the first one-two punch

The exit drop

Ryan B. on the same series, from below

Kato on #1

And Kato on #2


Another double

Shane coming out of the bottom of the second drop

Ryan in the beautiful gorge/pool just below the double

I took a ton of photos of the gorge/pool & the slide just below. The clarity of the water & the smooth rock were phenomenal.

Erik Schertzl

Below here the gorge ended & we banged down through an intensely beautiful run-out section to the confluence of the Ucona. For future reference, 2 to 3 times the flow would have been nice in there. At this point our plans were to continue boating the entire way through the Middle & Lower Ucona. The 5-km lower stretch would be considered exploratory, as at the time all we knew about it was that a team had attempted/portaged it. The Ucona drains a piece of southwestern Strathcona Park & flows westward to meet the lower Gold. Its final canyon is pinched tight between Ucona Mountain to the north & Crumble Mountain to the south for the duration of its steep 5-km descent.

We confluenced at several km into the upper/middle run(s) & were immediately into a stellar granite box canyon with plenty of water. Seeing the familiar sight of mist billowing up from below a horizon line, we got out to scout & saw an absolutely perfect 20-footer into a deep crack. Looking downstream, we could see another steep horizon line into a massive wide-open pool, but this drop appeared to be blocked by wood.

Chris dropping the first ledge ...

... & throwin' horns in the pool below.

Looking down on the bottom of the gorge. The plan became, get out river-right & portage the log, then put in immediately downstream of the log & run the last waterfall.

Looking up into the first falls

Bryan on the second falls


The author .. separation anxiety.

Jakub .. our Island host


Afterglow ..

We took much longer than planned on Pamela & the middle Ucona. By the time we got to the point where we needed to decide whether or not to continue on through the lower, it was nearly 5 o'clock. We voted to leave our kayaks at river level & send one group for the shuttle vehicles (requiring a loooooong walk on a lonely logging road), while the other group attempted to scout some of the lower canyon. The scouting didn't work out so well so we dorked around instead. I made Wayrad run the rapid just below our takeout, so I could take advantage of nice light.

And then we climbed out of the canyon & built a fire on the logging road & waited for the other group. We ended up camping there with the plan to drop into the Lower Ucona bright 'n early.

Dinner, being prepared by Kato (& Tret), never tasted so good!


Jeff said...

Hey Todd,

Pamela Creek looks sweet - and stellar pics as always! JD and I looked at that one when we were up there, but decided to put on at the Ucona bridge instead. Coincidentally, it was 5 years ago to the day that JD and I ran the Ucona! As I recall, there are only 4 major drops on the Ucona above the Pamela confluence. It was a good call for you guys to put on Pamela instead because the drops on the Ucona would probably be pretty manky at the flow you had (when JD and I were there, there was about 3 times as much water in the Ucona).

I'm looking forward to your pics from the lower canyons on the Ucona! JD and I portaged a few sieves in the last canyon, but overall it was surprisingly runnable (even with a lot more water). The final portage was a real bitch with just 2 of us, so I'm very curious if that sievey section has changed and/or was runnable at a lower flow. The character (and the undercuts) of the lower canyons reminded us a lot of Ernie's Canyon.

We did the whole Ucona in 1 day, but due to the final portage we finished shortly after sunset. This meant that JD, after losing rochambeau, had to bike the whole shuttle in the dark. Meanwhile, I was nervously keeping my distance from a family of black bears that really liked the river access at the take-out!

What was the level on the Gold when you were there?

- Jeff

AJordan said...

Nice work gang...

Hale said...

WOW! Even with low water that stuff looked good!

Todd Gillman said...

Thanks dudes.

Jeff -- Good info! I know we talked about the GR zone that night at the Trifecta party, but I'd forgotten almost all of what you said. Jakub had heard that some guys had attempted the Lower U, but had hiked around "all the rapids" .. prolly was another group. Jan said that some Americans had run just about everything except for the bottom 500 meters .. that was prolly you guys?

Anyway, Sat. was our low water day. The sun/heat combo gave us more to work with over the next cpl days. Pamela was incredible, but way too low to enjoy anything but the waterfall gorges. Middle U below the confluence was just a short canyon section that could definitely have been better with the level you had, but as you can see, it was plenty good with a trickle. With adequate water & knowledge of the lines you could easily complete the Pamela > Middle U combo in half a morning, before moving onto the next item on the day's agenda :-)

Funny you mention the Ernie's comparison about the Lower U .. Chris & I talked about that while on the river at one point.

More to come.


Jerry said...

Once again a stellar TR from some place I have never been, but now wish to go.


Anonymous said...

You guys rock. TRL is certainly my favorite blog. Great info, great stories and it truly gives me something to aspire to. Thanks for all you do to bring these places to the rest of us. My only wish is that your pics fit the PC screen a little better. You guys take some incredible pictures and I would love to use some of them as wallpapers, but stretching to fit skews everything.

Todd Gillman said...


re photo sizing, i size at no wider than 750 px & no taller than 650 px. unfortunately I'm constrained by a couple different things.

1. our blog template provides for 750 px wide. I could adjust that to allow for bigger pics in the template code, but then ...

2. load speeds for lots of large files can be very slow for some ppl .. I like to post LOTS of pics & I don't want to decrease the photo quality in favor of "bigger" pics.

3. the last thing is i have to be mindful of the "greatest common denominator" (emphasis on "common") .. meaning that for lots of ppl, going larger doesn't work for their screen size or connection speed. so for the purposes of the blog (as opposed to private use of the pics), the 750/650 thing works the best.

let me know if there's a shot in particular that you'd like to use for wallpaper & i'll try to get you a hi-rez image you can use...

Anonymous said...

where's day 2 dammit. i'm waiting on the edge of proverbial seat.

its snowing in CO. again... dammit

Mike Harvey said...

wow fellas. beautiful photos. Need to check in here more often. your old school Colorado bro...Harvey