Wednesday, October 3, 2018

at odds with the fall

what is the fall ?
almost at odds with the summer, which is which 
Each new autumn I get antsy because of insufficient trips up to the high country. Have to get there before the snow flies..

It gets worse each year. There is the constant awareness that at best I have another ten years of being physically capable of hiking the miles of rocky trails up to 11 000 feet and above. Baled on going to church this Sunday and took off to worship in another way, to climb the mountains and get their good tidings, as John Muir wrote.

A bit over five miles in and 2000 feet up, from the trailhead shuttle bus.

Strong wind blowing cold up around the treeline. Casting into the wind was nearly impossible with a light 4wt line, a brief lull allowed reaching the edge of rocky shallows. The idea of wading didn't survive first contact with the bitter chill of the water.

Walked around to get out of the wind but it followed me, shifting as the day warmed. At the inlet fish were rising past the dropoff, some 20 yards out, which is the limit of my abilities with a mild-mannered 4wt glass rod in a gusty swirling wind. About one cast in five made it, then the wind would blow line into a curve and drag the fly under after a few minutes. The fish wouldn't take a sunken fly, or a moving fly. This provided sufficient amusement until lunchtime, broken by the occasional success.

This fish wasn't ready for its closeup.

Wandered off up the stream to look for the next lake up. On the way there was a little pool which I estimated to be large enough to hold a fish, and there he was, most gratifying.

The game path along the stream petered out in a thicket of willow shrub and mud pockmarked by moose hoofprints. Thrashed through this to emerge bleeding only lightly, to the saddle with a glimpse of the next lake.

This lake was low, walked to edge and sank knee deep into mud between one step and another. Fell, got another bang on the shin, luckily it was a new shin this time and didn't reopen any of the old scars.

The lake isn't natural, or is natural but got a little help to deepen it. The notched dam wall at the end of the bleak forbidding rocky bowl gave the scene a desolate air, which oddly is missing from natural lakes.

Dour grey water with no signs of life. Fished all the way around, one little one, another missed, then a big one 18" rose up through the waves. I was overeager and took the fly away from him. Tut.

Krummholz at the treeline, blown by the winds and short growing season into strange shapes.

It was time to leave, had to make it back to trailhead by 6pm to catch the last shuttle bus. This was a considerable crimp to my usual style of battering out of the backcountry in the dark with a headlamp glowing weakly, as I'd forgotten to change the batteries since last year's desperate run for the hills. Still it was a pleasant novelty to walk out in the light. Found the trail again, ate an apple and took a picture of the lower lake.

The pool below these falls is again certain to hold a fish, unless someone caught it out recently. It was steep, I was late, and my bum knee wasn't happy with me: so that fish didn't get pestered today.

Ran a bit on the flatter sections of trail, to get ahead of the clock. The book on fishing Indian Peaks mentioned a nice bit of stream lower down. With the minutes earned by running I gave it a try, but started too early, in a beaver pond morass. Several fish moving in flat calm pool in a side trickle, spooked as I came up.  Got a little 6" brookie out of another pond and quit.

Down in Nederland at 8000 feet, the forecast:

At 11 000 ft it will be bleak: sneaked in under the snowline, for this year. Nine left.

damply through the Driftless

Camped in the Minnesota rainforest, at Whitewater State Park. I hoped the fish had not swum up from the streams into the air, heaven knows it was wet enough.

The Driftless is a region that was not scoured by glaciers. The term of art in geology for the remnants of retreating glaciers is 'drift', and thus Driftless. It's also a karst topography, limestone and sinkholes with rivers vanishing into caves and emerging as cold rich trout water. In England these are known as chalk streams, famous and famously expensive trout streams: in the US, as limestone spring creeks. I can't afford a beat on an English stream or a spring creek, instead went looking for fish in the land of Colleges, Cows and Contentment.

That first afternoon/evening fished the north branch, a rugged wild stream with no paths I could see. That is unprecedented in my experience: every other trout stream I know has at least informal fisherman trails wandering around it. It may be the rainforest outgrows the foot traffic. Raining hard, mist, light rain, more rain, varieties of rain. Corn too, as well as the cows etcetera.

First fish quickly, took a swung Invicta with such a trusting little nibble and pull. Generally they were not shy, got a couple whacks that moved the fly line 6" or more. That's the advantage of off-color water, none of your shy fish, it's eat quick or go hungry for them.

This was the clearest water I saw the whole trip.

Switched to a dry fly just because I'd rather fish that. The beetle got no response for several pools, then suddenly five or six in one pool and another in the riffle at the head.

Getting late and dark and spooky out in the woods, quit for the day.

Dinner at Johnny's Whitewater Saloon, 8:30pm on Labor day evening and it was full of people shouting and cussing at the tops of their voices. Wut. Nice barwoman was apologetic, "sorry it gets loud in here". Draft beer was all drunk up, only bottled left, been a long weekend I guess. An unexpectedly good pizza and beer then left before trouble could start.

Rained all night.  In the morning tried for Trout Run, pretty stream at Hardwood access, park-like lawns and trees. I could tell this would be a good trout stream, given water a bit less like chocolate milk with visibility 2-3".

Got one on a black leech, then a nice 13" in an eddy. He refused to pose for me.

Nothing after that for an hour or more, quit and went to look for clearer water. Pretty stream though.

Drove through the corn to a Trout Unlimited signpost for access to creek. Some farmer graffiti written on white plastic wrapping haybales, "without farmers you'd be hungry, naked, and sober". Fair enough.

Lots of cows staring blankly at me. Access on the ground did not match that on the map - good clear path in to the trees, then unclear, turns out need to go straight on through the trees downhill. Map said access went on upstream, signs said no. Went down for a bit planning to go to the confluence with a larger river, but hit another fenced non-access section. There might have been a path around that section ? but not at all clear if just cowpath, gave up.

DNR says big browns in this tiny creek, suspect these are spawners running up from main river - didn't look like a very rich stream itself, though I did get four fish in the 10-11" range out of the liquid mud. Too thick to drink, too thin to plough, as they used to say of the Platte river.

Tailgate lunch back at the car, excellent Wisconsin sharp cheddar and Canadian (?) tomatoes.

Lost Creek a jungle around many deadfalls. Hot by now, lots of stinging nettles and tangling creeper, no path, gave up - need long pants or heavy-duty waders to thrash through there. No sign of fish in 30min, some decent pools. DNR says high biomass but couldn't prove it by me.

South branch Root River just upstream from Lanesboro looked like a catfish river, big muddy with high banks. Floundered around for a bit, caught a few small chub, no signs of other life. Difficult to move on river and implausible habitat, gave up and went into town.

Found an unexpectedly good inexpensive single malt from Granny's Liquors, Tomatin Dualchas. Granny warned me of flooding and tornadoes in the forecast. Well that's why I went in there to get the whisky. Wandered into Root River Rods Inc, wasted Steve's time with my aimless chitchat. I'd have backed off if a real customer with actual money had appeared. He told me the wild parsnips were even worse than the nettles. Ferocious vegetables stalk the MN rainforests I find.

An hour or two of daylight left, so left to try a creek in state forest, hoping the forest would provide less muddy runoff than agricultural land. It was running strong but had visibility.

Very small water, expectations low, then got six fish in 45min up to 14", golly.

That was the best fishing of the trip, though the north branch had been fine too.

By now it was a dark and stormy night, baled.

Nice pub in Lanesboro but very busy, could not figure out how to get food, quit and went next door to sandwich place, excellent cheeseburger and fries for $10. Drove back to camp in whiteout rain which was a new experience, have driven in whiteout snow but not yet rain. Tent was utterly saturated, pools of water on top of inner and on floor of tent. The groundsheet under the floor was dry, the only dry part of the tent. Rearranged all my luggage in the car and slid seats around until I could lie crossways. It was fairly comfortable but intensely hot with the windows closed. Rain poured in the windows even at the slightest crack open, lay there and panted.

Tornado sirens went off but I couldn't think of anything useful to do about it. Drank another glass of whisky so the sirens wouldn't keep me awake, and lay down again. The kindly neighbours checked on me in the morning and said the right place is the bathrooms. I'd wondered why the bathrooms were such thick-walled robust structures. Their canvas wall tent didn't do any better than my mountaineering tent in the rain. There was an old Eureka A-frame tent pitched a few campsites away, with a tarp pitched over the tent. I think that's about the only solution for high rain high humidity: a tarp to deflect most of the downpour, then a very well-ventilated if not particularly waterproof tent under the tarp. Next morning shook out the flysheet and dried up the floor with a towel, hoped for better days. It stayed grey all day but didn't actually start downpouring.

Forestville state park has a tiny little old office, very public-works Depression era. The ranger suggested Canfield to start as it is a spring creek. The park likes to keep you on your toes - no trail markers, and the maps at the trailheads worn to obscurity by years of tourist fingers stabbing at and squirming around the 'You are Here' marker. Take the obvious trail from the angler parking, and you'll have an invigorating 1.5mile out-and-back on the Maple Ridge trail which has no streams. Found my way down the road to the right unmarked trail, at the end of which the creek was running the color of cappucino, complete with white foam.

There is a spring up there, but also several feeders that run through cow country. Oh well. Further upstream it didn't improve.

The main river here was relatively clear though, wandered up and had slow but fair fishing. A nice 12" to finish after nearly an hour of nothing, quit and went over to Forestville creek in case it was springing eternal. Nope, more muddy cold water. The smallest trout of the trip some 8" was caught hiding below one of the new islands in the creek.

Back to the office to provide a stream report as requested by the lady ranger, then went upriver to find another bit of water. A beautiful spotted brown from under a scumline and briar bush, then nothing for an hour of good-looking water.

The sun came out ! I was so excited, I took a picture.

Late again, got one more 12" and called it a day. The first fish from this stretch less than a mile upstream was well spotted, this one barely had a spot.

Went into Preston hoping for dinner but the only place open was a bowling alley. I wasn't strong enough for that so had a gas station dinner, ech. Whisky for dessert at the campsite, reading on my Kindle by solar lantern light. The caddis flies flocked to the lantern and crawled on the Kindle, turning pages for me, though not always at the right time or in the right direction. Slept well in a tent only slightly damp.

Last morning came up misty but quickly cleared to a fine cool sunny day. Of course.

I was cold camping with no stove, had to drive 5min to get morning coffee. The first morning it was the worst gas station coffee I've ever drunk. The other mornings I waited in line at Cabin Coffee, the 5min wait was worth it not to drink that tepid insipid brew from the gas station.

Did that and went on to the upper reaches of Trout Run which was now colored but not impenetrable. Second cast got a handsome brown from under the weeds, lost another good one in the weed a couple of minutes later, then an hour of nothing more.

The downside of cows on the stream is cows, the upside is cow pastures, which are much easier to navigate than thickets of MN rainforest with stinging nettles, wild brier, tangled creepers, and so on. This stretch had both. Decided to spend the last 30min fishing a dry fly anyway, after days of dredging leeches, carp flies etc. The fish were rising in runs after I'd fished the fly over them, bit of a hint that I was getting it wrong. There was a good riser under the bridge. Covered him with twenty casts or more and finally persuaded a 8" to take my beetle. I thought it would be bigger. Maybe the good riser sent up a sacrificial friend to check if all those beetles were real.

Packed up hastily, hurtled back to Northfield, washed and vacuumed son's car, caught the bus to Minneapolis terminal one, caught the train to terminal two, caught the plane back home, met dear wife at Arrivals Denver, followed by total collapse of stout party.

A good trip, but I'd really like to see the streams on a fair day with hatches coming off..

Monday, August 13, 2018

open canoe nationals

Boofing rocks in the hot sun
I fought the course
and the course won

In retrospect it probably would have been better not to fight the course. This was the canoe National whitewater slalom races, held on a wild bit of BLM land just north of Buena Vista. As usual all my training plans went to heck, so came the day and I had not been in my solo boat on the river since 2011, whoops oh well.

We had warmed up with a 3 day wilderness trip on the Rio Chama in New Mexico. The takeout of this trip is near Ghost Ranch where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked for many years. Here's younger son and I at the bottom of Aragon Rapid.

This is not Aragorn of the Dunedain heir of Isuldur, nor the dragon Saphira and her boy Eragon, nor yet that Victorian land Erewhon though it is also found over the range. Aragon was a kingdom in Spain, presumably with the appropriate castles. Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first wife, lasted eighteen years until her failure to produce a heir and the politics of the day started the beheadings and the Church of England. In Erewhon they did not allow machines, believing that Darwinian selection might produce a mechanical consciousness. Those Victorian novelists knew a thing or two. It's a long way from there to a campsite under the limber pines of New Mexico, loud with the voice of the rapid.

Over the range a small fire was burning, started by lightning some time before. We had paddled into camp watching the plume of smoke and wondering how close to camp it would be.. right over the hill in fact. We had good rains so chanced it and camped anyway. Several times in the night I woke up smelling smoke, had to go out and check if we needed to hide in the river. Luckily not.

After all that, drive six hours back to Denver, unpack, repack, and head out to Buena Vista.

There's a river out there somewhere beyond the cactus and I have the boats to do something about it. 

Looking downstream on the first evening, before the captains and the kings arrive.

Looking upstream from the middle of the course, racing day, as the boats and paddlers assemble in the top eddy.

The course designer created the most difficult slalom course I've ever paddled, way harder than the other two Nationals I attended. Eventually I figured out an approximate strategy for the first twelve gates but after that there was a sequence of downstream gates which beat me. Coming out of gate 12 was like going into a bad horror movie - terrible things keep happening faster than I can react to them for no good reason and they don't stop. My usual strategy for horror movies as a teenager was to close my eyes at the horrid bits, not useful in rapid whitewater.

The series of gates culminated in gate 16, dubbed "the suicide move", had to paddle straight at a rock in fast current and drop in behind it with a quick paddle stroke at the last split second. I did not manage this so usually just bounced off the rock and battled to stay upright.  Gate 16 is happening in the first pic above, though that is not me, but John from MT Canoes. They make light composite boats based on classic hulls from the plastic era. These are way lighter than plastic but I fear to paddle them as I'm a bit of a rock basher. My second canoe was fiberglass and more patch than boat by the time we'd finished battering it down the rivers. The plastic era ended when some GiantCorp bought out the manufacturers of Royalex and decided its profit margins were not sufficient to keep the CEOs in the style to which they wished to become accustomed. There is no replacement for Royalex - the composites are light but expensive and not nearly as durable, the polyethylene boats are tough but as heavy as the sins I can't forget. An old secondhand Royalex boat in decent condition is now more expensive that it was when new.

Another way around the rock to gate 16, worked for some but not for me.

The way it's supposed to look. This I think is Jerrod from Alabama. He'd been eager to leave AL until taking up whitewater, and realizing there were hundreds of runs available within an hour or two of home.

The first morning there was a yearling bear wandering around the camp. I got out of my car, thought "wow that's a BIG black Lab" and went to pat him, than noticed the rolling gait and realized it was a bear. He gave me a sad disillusioned look and walked off into the trees. Apparently he'd been eating garbage in town first. CPW came out and shot him with anesthetic darts, bundled off to an unknown fate. The second morning a mountain lion was reported up on the ridge above the campsites, eyeing the dogs.

This was probably the largest collection of canoes seen in the US since the last Nationals.

They littered the countryside, a terrain comprised of rocks, cactus, juniper, and a thirty foot steep drop from the plain to the river. This is fine if you have a light composite canoe, pick it up with one hand and walk off. We on the other hand had classic plastic weighing anything from 55lb to 76lb. Bucking those up and down from the river, then the quarter mile back to the top of the run, quite wore me out. I decided to start a new fitness program, CanoeFit ! Functional strength from lifting and carrying canoes up hills and over cactus and under scrubby juniper on rocky trails. You begin with the light short composite boats, and work your way up to Real Man boats, 18-20 foot Royalex weighing 80-110lbs. Like this one, from when we were young.

Back to the race.

Ota-san comes out from Japan every year to race and win. As shown he's always having a good time, too.

I am thinking much too hard. Whitewater slalom rewards a calm focus on moving smoothly through the river. Fighting the course means the course will always win. At first descent, crashing and splashing my way down, it made no sense at all. By the end it was clear it was beautifully integrated into the natural progression of rock and river, something like a work of art. Intellectually this was a delight, in the physical world I couldn't do it but at least it is wonderful to be able to try.

This gives a good sense of the infrastructure needed to hang all those gates. After one day there was already a fishing lure tangled and broken off on one of the overhead wires. I saved it when we took the gates down, mostly to spare anyone else from getting impaled by the treble barbed hooks.

Me and #2 son racing in the Citizen tandem class. We won this by virtue of being the only entrants in the class.. ha. We still did have to run at least some of the gates and stay upright, which was not a given on this course. #2 son asked, "so is this one of those medals for participation I keep hearing about ?"

Our thanks to the team of Oxenford/Carpenter in OC2 Rec, who had the fine idea of skipping the harder gates. Each missed gate is a 50 second penalty. We had done a class with Kent Ford before the race, flipped and swam out of the river. Kent was giving feedback to the other class participants, looked at us and said, "well, more time in the boat, really" which was uncontestable. I'd thought we would not race. Then Ms. Oxenford pointed out that it was possible to construct a Citizen version of the course by simply deciding to miss the risky difficult move from 7 to 8, and the peelout from 12. On our first run I also skipped 4 and 5 where we'd swum. Since we stayed up throughout that run, we included those on the second run and dropped our score by 100 seconds, which probably qualified us for Most Improved as well as National Champioeens in OC2 Citizen Rec.

We'd originally planned to be in the OC2 Youth/Senior class, before I realized #2 son had just turned 17 so was no longer a Youth. This turned out to be a good thing, as the Youth/Senior was unusually deep this year, packed with Whitterns and fierce young competitors from Spain. Here's one of them, paddling solo.

Esquif canoes donated one of their beautiful light boats as a door prize. Your fearless organizer Alan Whittern models one of the easier CanoeFit poses with it.

He worked himself to a wraith, putting this whole show on the river. Our profound thanks, Alan. I was also deeply impressed by the amount of work he got out of his daughters. Among many other tasks, they ran the radio communications between the score keepers (them), gate judges, and finish timer. When Alan got on the river for a solo run, the Disrespectful Daughter radio'd out, "old man Whittern is coming down the course now. Please have his cane ready for when he gets out of the boat". I'm sure they only do it because they love him..

#2 son, dear wife, and I all took turns as gate judges and finish timer. I really don't like judging but it's necessary for the racing. When #1 son was on swim team I'd sometimes volunteer as a stroke and turn judge, which requires disqualifying small children for stroke infractions. It was probably good for them to be disqualified in meets where it didn't matter, so they would not be disqualified in college team meets later in life. Still.

Eli takes that Equif boat or one just like it, through the gates. This looks a clear case of nominative determinism - a fine Old Testament name like that, suits the magnificent Old-Testament-patriarchal beard.

The slalom finished on the third day and the gates vanished from the river. All remaining competitors went off for the downriver racing, a four mile stretch below Buena Vista. I remained to fish a bit for the small wild brown trout. My first theory was they would have been disturbed by all the boat traffic, so would have developed good appetites and be easy to catch. The second theory was they would have been rested from fishermen, so would be easy to catch. Neither of these worked - it appears that frankly my dear they don't give a damn.  I caught a couple by grace of the fishing gods.

It was extremely strange to fish up through where the course had been. It felt like like losing your faith, all the structure and meaning we impose, gone from the world, and only bare rock and water left.

Of course the trout that live there find structure and meaning enough.

My thanks to the Oxenfords for hosting us, and to Ms. O for the pictures, which may also be found here. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Well, friends really, in this case.