Wednesday, July 7, 2010

river ragamuffin

 Here we are, embarking upon another North Platte trip. Although this looks like the aftermath of a bad night in the sleeping bag, it is in fact C's usual appearance (Me: "your hair is a ferocious mess. You look like a wild animal !" C: "Thank you").

We've done this trip in many configurations: me alone, me and H together but in solo boats, H in tandem boat with a girlfriend, all four of us in the mighty Penobscot 186, me and one boy or another. This time Ian was at church camp in northern New Mexico, so it was C's turn to see the water from the front of the tandem canoe.

C nearly died of boredom while waiting for the shuttle, which takes about two hours. I fished quietly within view of the grumpy child, breaking off from time to time to feed him or otherwise ameliorate the tedium. The river was as always generous with its fish, first a plump but startled-looking cuttbow then a pretty red-spotted brown. The brown is a lot smaller than I remember it being.

Is this a Dagger I see before me, its handle toward my hand ? Indeed it is and we caper merrily into the eddy, dragging the Clorox baler for extra turning power.

Lunch in the canyon, below the biggest wave on the river, hidden behind the rocks from this angle. The water was relatively low and warm as we were a bit later than usual this year. On the planned weekend, there were storms, snow, and 5600 cfs: two feet of water running strong through the campgrounds. Wyoming Fish & Game actually closed the river. Ken postponed the trip to the beginning of July when the torrents of spring and the snowbanks had receded.

A blessedly uneventful paddle down to Deadwater South camp. The pumpkin-orange tent is my latest new tent, a Marmot Titan 3-man, rather more colourful than I'd prefer but the price was irresistible. It took me a while to figure it out, but the reason the two-man tents these days are so light is because they're not really big enough for two. While the MSR Zoid 2 is a fine weatherly tent, it's rather like sleeping in a coffin. I confess to a bit of a tent fetish, but buying all these tents does allow me a rich fantasy life where I get to use them all.

Water so warm in fact, that swimming and beach play were possible. Peter's canoe serves as an impromptu drying rack after a regrettable incident with a broadsided rock lurking in the flow. It took us ten minutes to pump the boat dry, and some of the dry bags weren't.

I investigated the river attentively, with a trout fly as a sort of virtual periscope into the brown waters. In past years the micro-eddies along this stretch in front of camp held numbers of trout, this time only a smattering of smaller fish. Small is of course a relative term (once wandering down a rivulet high in the Smoky Mountains, I caught a 9" brook trout that was an absolute monster) and comparisons are invidious, I was quite happy to see their bright sides anyway.

Having failed to solve the fish/river daily conundrum, back to camp where C was reading and snacking. There was a large stonefly pattern lost in the weeds by my chair, a huge black fly with an orange wedge of foam as an eyecatcher. I took the hint, lashed it to a strong leader, and went upstream to the black deep water curling and folding around itself in the hole below the rapids. It looked quite implausible, this monster fly floating about, but a splashy little rise turned into a long run deep into the rocks where the leader parted. No more stonefly patterns in my box, a Chernobyl Ant did not produce. C hiked up the riverside trail in the dusk to tell me it was time to start cooking dinner, which it was of course. With a guilty start I complied.

Here we are beneath the cathedral of trees. Canoe tripping tends to gather congeries of mild-mannered eccentrics. The upside is they all have good stories to tell.

C headed off into the woods with the potty shovel, quoting from Up: "I've always wanted to do this ! .... ... so do you dig the hole before or after ?"

Next day time for the Douglas Creek rapid, not particularly formidable at this water level though. Here's everyone lined up for the run, then Roger and Peter coming through.

Ken and I ran heedlessly down ahead of everyone else, to stop and set up rescue ropes just in case. C enjoyed the rapid too - they are his favorite part, probably because he's never yet had to swim one. I'm trying to hold off on giving him that experience. As you can see, it was all a happy blur as we crashed through the waves.

The rescue setup gave me time for a bit of nature-boy contemplation in the undergrowth among small wild roses.

We all agreed the forecast had been for calm sunny weather all three days, but it clouded up quickly and stayed grey all day. Once out of the wilderness area, there was a near-crowd of rafts and driftboats going down in pursuit of trout. After lunch C started to fish and quickly hooked and landed a nice 15" brown in front of several fishless driftboats. A thunderstorm gathered above us, clear blue skies at the horizons but grim lowering cloud above. It rained, thundered, and then hailed for a while. The hail was quite impressive, flattening the riffles while also raising white gouts of water. Once in camp it was wet cold and nasty, so the bonfire was required again. Once C had dried out and warmed up a bit, he told me "Dad you know I didn't enjoy that part".
Luckily there were some good climbing rocks available for entertainment.

I left C carefully drying his feet in the tent, bolted for the water to get in a cast or so. There was a small storm of pale yellow mayfly and caddis blowing down river, so tried a dry fly and was quickly rewarded with a handsome 15" brown, the match of C's fish from earlier in the day. I took that as my prompt to not neglect my fatherly duties again. Ken went on and caught some excellent fat fish on dry flies from around the island.

We clambered up and among the rocks. It rained off and on all evening. Usually things will dry out overnight in the desiccated Wyoming air, this time it was still sopping wet in the morning, tents, clothes, shoes and all. There's nothing like packing a dry bag full of damp matériel which you know is going to fester in there for another day and night.

The water had grown colder as we went downriver, oddly enough. French Creek came in roaring high with icy green waves breaking into the tiger's eye brown of the main stem. Paddling over near it was like going into air conditioning. A bald eagle watched us go from his dead-tree perch. The high water rushed us down to the takeout.

The Saratoga Hobo Hot Springs were too hot for comfort. C couldn't even get in, and it took me several tries. Usually there's a pool in the river at the outflow where the water mingles with cold river water, but it had been washed away. At Stumpy's Cafe the waitress was a young Goth, didn't expect that in farming country.

Back over the Snowy Mountains still plentifully supplied with snow, even a cornice or two in the highest country. There was a small moose-jam on the road, a big bull up to his knees in a flooded meadow, munching happily while surrounded by cameras. C had fallen asleep ten minutes after leaving Saratoga so we didn't stop.

Some of the pictures are courtesy of Roger. Thank you Roger.
Thanks too to Ken for putting the whole thing together, as every year.

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