Tuesday, June 10, 2008

North Platte at 3600cfs

A clear blue sky to begin with, the last we'd see for 3 days. But note the low grey clouds sneaking in over the horizon..

The bright sun turned the river from brown to silver, luring us down the primrose path (bit muddy for primroses, though).

While waiting for the shuttle drivers to return, I improved the shining hour by going fishing. There was only one little backwater in a mile of river that looked as if it could shelter a fish, and indeed it was pullulating in an invisible sort of way, down there in the murky depths. This is the biggest sucker I've ever caught, 22" or so. I thought I'd hooked a monstrous brown trout, but as a rafter from Boulder Boatworks observed later, there's no second act with the sucker. He fights well for a few minutes, then goes belly up and yields to his fate with scarcely another twitch of the fins. Quite a handsome fish all the same. A couple of smaller brown trout, then this beast, 18" with a jaw like a crocodile. His dorsal fin came sailing up through the thick water making me think it was another sucker, but he went several rounds.

Here's a view from the backwater, into the canyon. Upstream from here is some class IV water (at this water level), which a couple of rafters hiked up to inspect. They'd just come from the Grand Canyon, but decided to give the N. Platte another day to subside before they attempted this canyon.

In between that picture and this one of the first camp, there was an awful lot of activity, but no time to be taking pictures. A pity, since the waves were fearfully impressive. The whitewater canoes and the inflatable were in their element. Mike and Deb were in a well-loaded tandem boat with not much freeboard. They handled the rapids without problems, but tended to emerge at the tailout with gunnels level to the water, up to their waists inside the boat. A swamped canoe like this is very unstable: the usual procedure is to catch an eddy and bale out. Today the high water turned a sequence of class II rapids into one single class II-III rapid, leaving very few eddies, and those few mandated a close personal relationship with the willows. So, the rest of us got some rescue practice. Chasing an inverted canoe through the rapids with no time to read the water for the best route, just ripping through the rocks and holes in hot pursuit, is good for the adrenalin generators. Add in a strong cold blustery wind that kept blowing the boat sideways, and the whole thing became a bit of a tightrope dance: perhaps not the brink of disaster, but certainly an excellent view of it.

By way of comparison, here's the river as it was at 3600cfs, and the last year at 1100 cfs (thanks to Roger for last year's picture).

After all that excitement, I needed to have a quiet spot of fishing to calm the nerves. More healthy happy brown trout, like this one which looked in fine fettle,

and then a rainbow, full of jumps and aerial flourishes.

The view from this backwater full of fish:

I stayed up late that night, closed the camp down at 8:30pm, as we all collapsed into bed just ahead of driving mists. In the middle of the night I got up for middle-aged reasons, and it was the pitchiest sort of black, cold drizzle blowing by.

The inflatable canoe went into Dick's tent with him. I guess some guys really love their boats.. actually he was using it as an air mattress, to sleep on. Quoth Dick upon emerging the next morning, "and it comes with an attachment, named Zelda.."

Next morning, cold grey skies and a wind with ice and snow in it. Midsummer in Wyoming, and welcome to it. Packed up camp and fished for a bit, this morning's chapter of piscatorial incident included a 12" cuttbow which I'd never seen here before. The Wyo G&F doesn't stock the river, but there are private ranches along the river that probably dump dumb stockies in for the paying clients. I'm happy to see the stockies going feral.

Only one rapid of consequence left, Douglas Creek, half-an-hour downriver. We scouted this one since we could. Instead of washing out, the rapid had just bulked up magnificently, huge standing waves curling into white foam. The sun reappeared briefly. In its light the waves seemed lit up from within, glowing brown and gold like tiger's eye. I remember taking a small boat out into the swells off Shark Point, the westernmost tip of Australia: the huge wine-dark waves rolled in with a thousand miles of ocean behind them. These waves were a kind of landlocked miniature version of that emotion; driven by seasons rather than ocean.

"The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,..
  From different throats intone one language."

Mike and Deb decided that Ken and I could run their boat down, while they took video. We approached the entrance carefully, backpaddling and quartering into the waves to keep the boat dry. After the first quarter mile there was a narrow channel between boat-eating holes which was the must-make move. Going in there we paddled hard, crashed through with the water slapping into my chest, but stayed up and only half-filled the boat. That was fun in fact.
We pulled over after that for a little snack, taking advantage of the brief sun.

Onwards, as the weather closed in again. The sun kept trying to emerge, a bleary yellow eye in the clouds, but it wasn't trying hard enough. The rain began, driven hard by an upstream wind into our faces, like being pelted with small cold pellets. The temperature was medium 40s. As this all soaked slowly into us, on a river which was snow yesterday, it became distinctly cold. Reaching camp at 4pm, we immediately dragged up a heap of driftwood, soaked it in Coleman fuel, and torched it. No energy to accomplish anything except steam gently in front of the fire. I had a backpacking tarp secreted at the bottom of the drybag. We put it up with some paddles for tentpoles, then performed the hypothermia pavane, twirling slowly between shelter and the fire. We did get five minutes of sunset light with a rainbow and a bald eagle working his way homewards. My camera batteries had died by that point so you'll have to take my word for it.

My tent on the lone prairie, with rainbow and pointillist sagebrush.

It was cold and miserable enough that I didn't get any fishing in. Ken and Dick sat around the fire swapping military tales but I collapsed at 8:30 again.

A few rattles of rain swept over the tent in the night. I pulled an all-nighter, which for a middle-aged man like me, means I slept all night without having to get up: very exciting. In the morning, the flysheet clattered as I opened it up, being covered in frozen rain. In that frosty dawn we moved like lizards, slow and careful. We'd planned to leave early to have more time for the Hobo hot springs in Saratoga, but it was no go the merrygoround, we waited for the ice to melt off the tents.

More 'busy' water in Ken's term, that is only 2-3 foot waves, as we forged on to Treasure Island. This stretch of river has a lot of islands and riverine forest, so the birdlife is extraordinary. Ken saw a pileated woodpecker, his first in 15 years and only the second in 23 years of running this river. The rest of us saw orioles, warblers of various degrees of beauty, tanagers, bald eagles both fledged and immature. At the takeout, I did my usual bunk for the backwaters, but found nothing except a huge beaver which dove into the water with remarkable grace.

At the Hobo hot springs, the cold weather and high waters had cooled it off to a mere 105 F, so I could actually get in. Usually it's up at 110-120, and it's too hot for my thin skin. Ken found someone who knew his first wife's parents, and they had a good chat about the snows of yesteryears, the refinery tanks, etcetera. Wyoming has half-a-million people for the whole state, so it's like that. The neighbouring swimming pool had a free swim day, several kids frolicked under the eye of a chilly-looking lifeguard clad in a wetsuit, hoodie and towel.

Lunched late at Stumpy's, fine cheeseburgers and chocolate malts, which Mike paid for in his gratitude for deliverance from the fell rapids of the first day. Thanks Mike. More pictures and video on his page.

Looks like we managed to hit the peak flows for the year: