Tuesday, March 16, 2010

About a dog; On deciding & descending

I just came in from walking Corey-dog, my 15 year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Corey-dog came into my life back in '94, when I was living in Idaho. At that time, I was not a good kayaker, but I nevertheless identified myself as a boater, & I wanted badly to be a great one. Several years before that, while I was in college in WV, I hooted from shore the first time I ever watched as my friends ran flawless “blue angels” formation over Wonder Falls & Big Splat. I wanted to be on that team, flying off of falls, to fully comprehend the dynamics of something that seemed totally alien & so thrilling to me at the time. In the months that followed I foolishly tried to run part of the Big Sandy on a bodyboard. Badly bruised shins, knees. Whitewater: I was hooked.

By the time I arrived in ID, I had many years of ocean experience under my belt, as well as first-year training as a raft guide & a couple years of bumbling about in inflatables & kayaks. I went out West with a yellow Dancer I picked up on the cheap. I hated it. Never felt comfortable or safe or even a little bit in control of that thing. One day as I walked through town, I was stopped dead in my tracks at the glimpse of a brand new, flashy blue, white & pink New Wave Sleek on an outdoor rack at the local shop. I’ll repeat that: Blue .. White .. Pink. Something about the colors & the way the fresh, unscratched plastic glowed in the springtime sunlight .. it just emanated hotness. And with it’s super radical low-volume stern & short length, it was an aggressive design that had my name all over it .. nevermind that I could hardly execute a proper eddy turn, let alone a stern-pivot or stern squirt. But having been introduced to whitewater on the Cheat & Yough, I was beyond familiar with the influence of the Snyder Brothers & with New Wave boats. I had to have that boat. I had no money. Didn’t matter. I had a verifiable job, so the owner of the shop put me on a zero-down layaway program that included walking with the boat THAT DAY. Those were different times. And that’s when it got serious for me.

Corey-dog was a charity case. As a youngster, he was obviously a sweet, intelligent dog, & from stellar bloodlines, as the American Kennel Club certified. But he was about as compliant as a virus, & was often found wandering the streets with a salmon carcass hanging from his lips, after having raided the dumpsters behind Albertson's .. or else, in the pound as a result. The guy he belonged to was a total derelict, a "Darrel". He named the dog D’Artagnan (3 Musketeers?), “Dart” for short. His only trained command at the time was, “Dart! Guard!!” .. at which point his goofy, eager-to-please manner instantaneously transformed into bloodthirsty hell-hound. Because of that guy's incompetence & constant inebriation, my roommate & I often ended up looking after "Dart", or "Scooby" as my roomie called him. Eventually we thought of the dog more as ours than as his, & eventually his owner did as well. The AKC papers were turned over to us without a fuss, & as soon as we could, we changed his name to something more reasonable.

A lot of years & a lot of river miles have passed since then. Corey’s an old dog now. He no longer chases squirrels or dives off tall rocks. He invests no effort at all in finding the perfect patch of grass or soft, low bush to take a dump on -- a process that used to be a long ritual involving endless sniffing, indecisiveness & pacing, then a final tug on the leash & proud squat with a turn of his head as if to say, “I ALWAYS find the right spot!” Not anymore though. Now he just drops bombs on the sidewalk or wherever the mood strikes, not even breaking stride to squat.

He used to exhibit the same neurotic need for the absolute perfect spot to deposit river rocks. Anyone that knew me in my CO days will attest to this. Corey's riverside behavior was legendary. After obnoxiously slapping at the surface of the water for a while, he would scrape at the bottom of the river, pulling his rock into position .. then he'd dive his head & upper body under water until he'd resurface with a big river rock held in the front of his teeth. I loved the silence when he dove under water, but always cracked up as he resurfaced & commenced the long process of pacing the shore to find the .. absolute .. perfect .. spot .. to deposit the rock. And when he finally released the rock from his mouth, it was as if it were a delicate egg or a wee baby bunny wabbit: slowly, deliberately, gently he would place the rock in its new home. Then he'd start all over again. Crazy. Awesome. Dog.

In the ‘50’s, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Herbert Simon theorized that American consumers were increasingly affected by an overabundance of choice & that consumer behavior could be categorized into 2 main profiles: “maximizing” & “satisficing”. According to the theory, a maximizer would deliberate indefinitely among all available options or choices until he had finally picked what he deemed as the best or highest-quality option. A satisficer on the other hand would settle on a suitable option right away, without much deliberation or hemming & hawing. A satisficer has criteria & standards, but is ultimately unconcerned with the possibility that there may exist a “better” choice. Generally, they’re happy with whatever they choose.

It’s been said that the rational part of the human brain -- the prefrontal cortex -- can efficiently handle up to 7 bits of information. When it comes to making decisions, the maximizer is often hamstrung because the number of available options is far greater than 7, making the task of picking the absolute “best” one a serious conundrum. The irony being, of course, that due to the rational brain’s relative inability to do anything other than cherry-pick relevant info beyond 7 choices, the maximizer must ultimately “settle” on a choice & then live with the nagging feeling that there almost certainly exists a better option than the one he ended up choosing.

I imagine Corey-dog, still wet from the river, in the back of the truck on the way home, fuming about whether his deliberate rock placements were the right calls. Or similarly, maybe he returned from walks wracked with the nagging feeling that he poo'd on the wrong grass when he should've hit the flower bed in the neighbor dog's yard.

The maximizer/satisficer theory can be applied to recreational choices too. Do you & your crew settle on your weekend mission early & decisively? Or does the decision usually end up going into extra innings before the plan comes together? Seems like our scene is plagued with the latter. It'll be late Friday night & the choice to head out and surf the Strait vs. the choice to do juicy Robe laps still hasn't been decided. In my network, we ALL seem to lean toward the maximizer profile in that regard. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that most of my friends are passionate weekend warriors like me, & that our free time is so limited & precious, that the thought of wasting any part of a weekend is a serious threat to our wellbeing. And undoubtedly it's also influenced by the environment here in the PNW & how our weather is so dynamic & unpredictable. On any given weekend, I find myself having to choose between a bunch of different activities, & each one of those activities has a bunch of different location options & a bunch of potential participants .. & it all relies on not just favorable conditions, but the absolute BEST conditions for the particular activity that I want to do .. in combination with the people I do or don't want to spend time with that weekend. Wow. That's how people like me become neurotic about weather & activity planning .. & just plain nuts, in general.

The past couple years I've taken a lot of time off from boating to focus on my surfing & other activities. But this year I've decided that I'm going to be satisfied with maximizing my kayaking opportunities as well. I got in back shape & begged the coaches to let me try out for the team again. Here are some shots & stories from our first exploratory of the 2010 season, a mission which came together spontaneously, LATE this past Saturday night.

3 or so years ago, our pal Paul encouraged us to look into a sister drainage to our beloved SF Stillaguamish (Robe Canyon) .. the North Fork, near Darrington. As I recall, he said something to the effect of, "I think y'all oughtta do some pokin' 'round up the North Fork Stilly way."

Tret took charge & in spring of '08 did just that & came back with a compelling report & some pretty pictures. (photo Chris Tretwold)

Another shot Chris took on his '08 recon

It's always so hard to tell what's what from from point 'n shoot recon shots .. but the run remained on our shortlist of worthy missions for the future. My notes from talking to Paul back then seemed to indicate that the NF hadn't really been run. Sounds like the good Dr. S, who lives right there in Darrington, suggested the exploratory to Paul, who later told me. I dunno, & it doesn't really matter anyway.

So on sunny Sunday morning I met up with Chris, Leif Embertson, & Fred Norquist in Arlington, for what promised to be a day full of pain & suffering & bushwhacking. I brought a LOT of food.

Chris & Leif, the other 2 "old guys" on the trip, preparing to suffer
TG Photo

Chris had the foresight to bring a mountain bike to stash on a trail adjacent to the gorge, in the event of an aborted mission. After that we spent an obscene amount of time driving switchbacks all over North Mountain on several wrong roads .. only to learn that we'd driven right past the correct road, which looked just like a driveway, 4 or 5 times already.

We did a lot of this ... (Photo Fred Norquist)

... and this. (Photo Fred Norquist)

Once at our put-in bridge we were dismayed to see not much water in our creek .. but what were we gonna do, not put on? Yeah, right. I was pleased at my decision to paddle my "old" boat & wear my "old" drysuit, cuz clearly, there would be a lot of rock bashing & jungle bushwhacking in my future. Much incredibly beautiful troutwater ensued .. class II/III in & out of calm, deep, green pools in low-slung gorges, with just enough channelization to keep our pace brisk, for about 2 miles.

Tret in the troutwater. (Photo Fred Norquist)

Then it got truly husky!

Gnarquist peering over the edge. We invited him because we knew he'd be down with the brown.
TG Photo

Downstream gorge view (Photo Fred Norquist)

Some sticks. If you're standing here, then you've already run the first super fun series & committed to the steepest part of the gorge.
TG Photo

Tret, amongst it
TG Photo

Scouting the husky biz. (Photo Fred Norquist)

Fred entering the gorge. Up til this point, the canyon was full of interesting geology, but here the rock formations & giant potholes become spectacular.
TG Photo

Couple shots of Chris takin' a load off in a deep pothole next to a nice waterfall.
TG Photos

Fred lining up the first real falls. You can see we had low flow, but in the gorge, it channelized enough to make it quite fun.
TG Photo

Fred's falls sequence. It's very stacked at this point in the gorge, with some husky & consequential stuff below here .. but Fred's just fine with the brine.
TG Photos

The Norskman in another fun one. This one is just below a 30-footer that lands all over a bunch of nasty rocks.
TG Photo

Fred's shot of Leif

Chris crankin' on a nasty boofstroke
TG Photo

Fred with another similar sequence on a different drop.
TG Photos

(Photo Leif Embertson)

In skating, rail grabs are not only stylish but functional. In snowboarding, grabbing rail is never necessary, but it does demonstrate poise & control while flying & spinning through the air, & since the 2 sports share a common heritage, it's accepted. Rollerbladers & skiers grabbing rail, err, boot, or whatever, never made much sense to me .. but for some reason, grabbing deck on a kayak always kind of did??? I dunno, if it's fun, then just do it. One member of our team was repeatedly spotted flying off of boofs, not grabbing rail, but instead with one hand in the air as if palming a basketball, screaming "BROOOoowwwwwwn!!!".
TG Photo

6-ft rock smear executed by a 7-ft Norwegian.
TG Photo

One of the last major drops on the run. This one is pretty sketchy, shallow, with a thin line .. very husky. I should have left this lens on my camera & shot Fred from this perspective...
TG Photo

... instead I switched to my shitty lens & got shitty results.
TG Photo

All in all, the NF Stilly was a great exploratory mission that turned out to be no real suffer-fest at all. There's for sure some work involved, but nothing that would necessarily keep me from going back. It's definitely worthy of further investigation, with more water, before proclaiming it a new "classic". I think/hope there's a magic flow where all the boulder-boogie is padded out & fun, while the gorge is still doable without being terrifying & lacking eddies. We ran about 5 miles of river bridge to bridge, the first couple miles of which is easy, but incredibly beautiful. The gorge itself is relatively short, but very husky, & with a lot of individual drops .. & the runout goes on for another mile & contains lots of boulders, slots, ledges & one gnarly sieve, before flattening out & opening up to a jaw-dropping view of Whitehorse Peak -- one of the finest takeout scenes I've seen.

The incredible Whitehorse Peak as viewed from the takeout. (Photo Fred Norquist)

One thing that needs to be mentioned is the sketchy nature of the rock throughout much of the canyon -- lots & lots of sieves, potholes & undercuts.

Last thing .. while I've yet to hear that this thing has been previously run, I'm by no means claiming our run a first descent.. just seems kind of unlikely since it's bridge-to-bridge, super accessible, super obvious on any map & surrounded by other well-known runs. If anyone has info on it, please share!


Force said...

kayaking is ALWAYS the right best thing to do!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Green said...


Hale said...

If anyone has attempted a run on the NF stilly it would probably be Gary Schilhammer???

Anonymous said...

Nice to see what's in the backyard. Thanks for the update.

kyle.kovalik said...

Yes! TRL rides again. Good to read you TG.

Shane Robinson said...

Todd, one of your best pieces of writing on this internet journal ... imho.

Wish I could have joined in the fun ... when ya'll goin back?

Anonymous said...

Great to hear from the TRL again! Thanks for the great writing

Todd Gillman said...

thanks y'all. nice to be back & hoping to keep the blog a bit more current this year .. but that's contingent upon having something to blog about. we'll see...

re the NF Stilly, J-Ro sez:

"I heard about it from Gary S too, and something like 8 years ago Matt Hudgens and I hiked around up there and found the scenic stretch and where we thought the gorge began. But I never got back to run it. I haven’t heard of many people running it. Christian may have run it years ago, because I think his crew was exploring that area (Squire Creek, Boulder Creek, etc.). Also, the Cascades Classics crew may have gone in there. And strangely enough, I ran into some paddlers from back east a couple of years ago at the Ohany campground who had just come from there. (I know the run is listed on the AW page, but it’s a pretty out-of-the-way run for traveling boaters to hit.) They told me about the difficult portage around the falls. From what I recall, they made it sound pretty big. There was another group that I talked to also that ran the NF Stilly and Downey Creek (in the Suiattle drainage)."

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one to see this and read the whole thing on the edge of my seat worried about C-dog? love him.

Ellingferd said...



I forgot it was from a weeds episode.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Rooster Juice!

Anonymous said...


Amazing writing as usual. The way you knowledgeably explore the deep rooted characterisitcs of the paddler psyche amidst the juxtaposition of canine behavioral psychology, and tie it all into the why and where of the latest mission really makes this a great post. This blog is consistently rewarding to read. I wish I could write like that and your bar of material relevance is high. Everytime I think you're over the whole blogging thing and it has come to an end, you come out with a new observation of what makes us tick, and why we choose to do what we do, and with no doubt great pics and adventure stories to paint the picture. It reminds me that there should be a reason to blog. A journal is only that, and for an audience to be pleased it has to transcend the day to day this and that. Not by pushing the record drop height/frequency, but by increasingly gaining a new level of understanding of what paddling means to us.

I am glad radiohead doesn't hose out 4 albums a year to keep the machine content. They speak only when moved to speak, and out of that comes some of the more profound music in the world today. No pressure, as a faithful reader I expect nothing I the future. Unless there is somethng else to say.


Todd Gillman said...

wow .. i just now realized there was a new comment i hadn't read on this entry .. i'm running a couple weeks behind here. thank you so much for taking the time to write that. you totally just made my week.

for what it's worth, i'm fired up to kayak this year & also to shoot photos & blog when the bloggin's worthy. hoping we can get into some fun adventures & that the writers block that engulfs me for much of the time will lift just enough to allow me to gain more insights about myself through the process of writing. i think that's the best thing that's come out of TRL for me .. that & that it provides kind of a recorded history of sorts.

anyway, thanks again for the note kirk.

Jeffrey said...

Just out of curiosity, what flow did you guys have on the sf guage when you ran this... or is there a north fork stilly guage?