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Aaron's Exp Tales

Aaron Pruzan

July 24, 2002 - 9:00 A.M. – my old friend Scott Doherty & I pushed off from below the Highway 296 Bridge. A bit of a late start I thought. The box usually takes 2-3 days. We had less than 12 hours. Quickly we set a fast tempo, paddling the dozen rapids of the Honeymoon section in a scant 25 minutes.

With few words we trudged through the first of the Clark's Forks five arduous, mandatory portages, the Green Monster. A little Class II-III brought us to portage #2. There the walls of the Box close in and the ferocity of the whitewater cranks up. Fortunately Doherty had the lines fresh in his head and we charged our way through a myriad of infamous & anonymous steepness.

1:30 P.M.we're behind schedule, was my foremost thought, but I needed to clear that out of my head. We'd arrived at Up Against the Wall, a sheer 700' of granite on the left, with huge holes & house sized boulders strewn about a ¼ mile of chortling whitewater. Doesn't matter where you're from, this is a big one. Doherty was his usual calm self. My circulation accelerated.

"Let's go," I shouted above the uproar, "ten seconds after me." Now my mind was in the moment. Stay close to the wall but keep off it, exploding wave hole, two, three, now charge right, not going to happen. I'm going through the left slot – look out. Inhale... Exhale... Oh, thank you eddy.

Time to peel out – the hair of lower Wall is calling. Then Snolly Guster, don't miss your boof! A quick snack and then climbing up for portage #3. Now solidly in the groove, we careened into another long stretch of froth. Are we really going to boat scout all of these drops? Barely time to think. Wow, I guess so.

3:30 P.M.I don't believe it, we're at Deliberation Corner. The reality that we may actually pull this off is creeping into my thoughts. Not time for that yet, here's Deliberation. A gash in the earth holding as aesthetic and technical a Class V drop as the planet has to offer. Scott takes the lead and I watch him nail the line – off the first ramp then the second, now far left, back to the right, move center – big boof, land, now charge the right slot – so smooth.

I follow. It felt good to be downstream of the Corner, but we need to keep paddling. Lower Deliberation, the Gates of Mordor, Portage #4, Leap of Faith, Portage #5, Sunlight Creek – and there's more. Oh yeah, this is the Clarks Fork. The fun-o-meter in my head was redlining.

5:30 P.M.Are we really at the take-out? Right on! Now my brain finally relaxed after calling for adrenaline all day. There is only so much our bodies have to give and running the Box in 8 1/2 hours took all I had. Paddling there now I still wonder how we moved so fast. The perfection of an amazing day – the rapids, the sunshine, the portages and the hours all blurred together with a couple of lucky kayakers enjoying the flow.

This Story and Photo originally appeared in Kayak Session Magazine 2009 - Photo is by the author

NEW FORK RIVER

I remember a few years ago reading an Outside magazine with a cover story on what's left to do in the world of outdoor feats. The section on whitewater covered the Tsangpo Gorge. With the exception of that infamous river, the article led me to believe there isn't much left that hasn't been done already. "That's strange," I thought. It seems to me with short creek boats and a little creativity, paddlers are still finding lots of fresh whitewater.

Recent searching has led me to the Wind River Range. These impressive mountains rise in Northwest Wyoming near my home in Jackson Hole. "The Winds," have yielded several Class V gems including Warm Springs Creek and the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie. Last July, following a tip from a kayaking climber, Dave Collins, Brady Johnston and I found another jewel - the New Fork River.

Rugged and heavily glaciated, the Wind Rivers have few roads. Access required paddling across New Fork Lake, then loading our Back Yaks and hitting the trail. There we rendezvoused with photographer Greg Von Doersten for the 7 1/2-mile trek in. Spectacular views of peaks, massive rock formations and blooming wildflowers distracted us from the mosquitoes as we hiked.

After 3 1/2-miles the canyon walls rose and the trail neared the river. First we heard the thunder, and then saw the churn of steep whitewater. Our nerves tingled as we hiked past the frothing river. Then the adrenaline surge began as we stopped to scout several formidable rapids. Up and up we climbed until the rowdy river suddenly mellowed and we were in the meadows of New Fork Park. At 8,800 feet we were nearly 1,000 feet higher than the lake below.

Lunch was quickly nibbled as we donned our gear and prepared to drop in. Greg went to set up the shot, Brady ferried across to run safety, and Dave was chattering madly about the lines.

Most of the New Fork's gradient is in the top three miles and the first rapid is immediately below the scant 100 yard warm up. Dave was ready to go, so I climbed into safety position at the rapid's crux, a narrow slot about the width of a slalom gate. A miss here had a harsh penalty - flushing into an undercut rock. Dave smoothly caught the key eddy and sliced through the crux.

Though we rarely name rapids in this part of Wyoming, it was clear the New Fork was special. Dave called this one "Squeeze Box."

Tracing Dave's line I followed cleanly and Brady joined us below. We paddled another 200 yards downstream until the river turned away from the trail and dropped off the side of the mountains. What a drop! A twisting, turning, throbbing jumble of rocks and whitewater threaded out over a quarter-mile downhill. I thought the "Squeeze Box," was scary but this was the steepest most continuous piece of whitewater I'd ever seen. It was also my turn to go first.

I peeled out. First move, second move, third move, suddenly a surge of foam washed my contact lenses back and I temporarily lost sight and control. Pulling the clutch roll of my life, I was lucky to be upright as I pin-balled through the meat at near free-fall speeds. I eddied out in a whitewater daze and hiked up to watch Dave fare slightly better as he rocketed down river. Brady wisely portaged the upper part and smoothly ran the lower section of what we called "Limits of Control."

Next we came to "Five Boofs to Freedom." Now in the groove, Dave and I nailed the five boofs and set up safety for Brady on the biggest waterfall.

At 16 years Brady was having fun in his first summer of steep creeking. Having coached Brady since he was 13, I was confident in his paddling ability and sober decision making. He'd demonstrated he could paddle smoothly under pressure. But if he missed his line here we would be fishing for him in the hole below. He completed the critical ferry above the waterfall and sailed off like a shot. "Yeeaaah," Brady exclaimed after acing the hardest drop of his career.

Feeling free of the toughest rapids, we enjoyed a couple miles of classic Western Creeking. Switching leads in fast and pushy whitewater, frantically catching eddies, peering over our shoulders, back ferrying above slots and boofing drops. Abruptly interrupting our rhythm, the river once again disappeared between sheer canyon walls.

At first glance Brady and I knew we were portaging. Following two eight-foot slots 2/3 of the river poured onto a shelf of rock next to a logjam. Looking confident Dave decided to go for it. He cleaned the first two slots but they were river left and he had no angle to move river right. "Wham," echoed through the canyon as Dave pitoned off the shelf and splashed into the logjam. Keeping his wits and ditching his paddle, Dave miraculously pulled himself up and around the logs, then frantically yet skillfully hand-paddled into a nearby eddy. Fortunately a slightly sprained ankle and a lost paddle were the only damages.

We continued descending through whitewater with frazzled nerves. Suddenly the river stopped falling. As night fell we meandered the last 3 1/2-miles into New Fork Lake.

Thrilled and tired we reveled in completing another run. As we slowly paddled across the lake we talked about the places we'd traveled in search of new whitewater. It was amazing that such a classic was barely an hour from home. We began thinking of other creeks nearby to explore.

Not much new left to do Outside? It just takes a look around.

Aaron Pruzan July 1999
First Published in Paddler Magazine in May/June 2000

Photo of Dave Collins by Greg Von Doerste

AP - Getting Steeper - Lower Mesa Falls

THE SHORTER THEY GOT THE STEEPER WE WENT

Jackson Hole is world famous for its great snow. But what happens to all that snow when it melts? It turns into whitewater also worthy of worldly repute. For years, river runners from near and far have enjoyed the classic whitewater of the mighty Snake River, the tumultuous Gros Ventre and the beauty of Bitch Creek to name a few. Throughout the sixties and seventies most kayakers were content with the annual thrill of riding the runoff down fun and familiar rapids. But several yearned for more, and as with most sports that involve dancing with gravity, it was improved technology that helped adventurers to push new boundaries.

Early river running kayaks were fiberglass. One word changed that – plastics. In the eighties molded plastic kayaks like the 11'6" Perception Dancer (most whitewater kayaks at the time were 12'-13') became popular and challenging difficult whitewater was a new game. Suddenly hitting a rock didn't mean a broken boat. Steeper rivers and creeks with wilder whitewater began to look good that before were not even considered. Local, "hair boaters" like Dave Pennington, Charlie Thomas and Oly Koehler began to probe the possibilities. This involved looking higher in the drainages like the Upper Stillwater or merely paddling what had only been portaged, i.e. the Bone Yard on the Teton River.

As kayaking entered the nineties designs began to radically change and technique improved to go with it. Dagger introduced a high performance plastic boat called the Freefall. It was super maneuverable at only 9'6" and an extraordinary boater named Gregg Goodyear moved to town and showed everyone in the region what the Freefall could do. With superior boat handling skills and the ability to see a clean line through rapids that appeared impossible, Gregg was truly ahead of his time. It was then that the exploration of the mostly untouched whitewater of the vast Wind River Range began in earnest and I was lucky to be along for the ride. Whether we were pin-balling down Blackrock Creek, howling through the subterranean waterways of Warm Springs Creek Canyon or sliding down the Upper Popo Agie, each spring the ante was upped, with steeper whitewater and more possibilities.

While at the time we didn't think anything would ever trump the Freefall, which we had all trusted for our local explorations as well as forays into the Box of the Clarks Fork Yellowstone and an early Heli-kayaking tour of New Zealand, technology was moving forward and we were going down with it. In the spring of '98 the, 8'4" Wave Sport "Y" hit the scene. With blunt ends and a flat hull that turned on a dime, this boat ushered in the, "hike in" era, which would take us higher and steeper than ever before.

To go higher and access the steeper creeks in the Wind Rivers meant we were on foot. Few roads travel into the interior of the range. Fortunately not only were shorter boats easier to paddle – they are less awkward to carry. Dave Collins a pro kayaker who summers in Cora, WY and 16 year old protégé Brady Johnston joined me for our first major hike-in adventure, eight miles up the New Fork River. With amazing scenery, trail side access and the steepest and scariest whitewater we had ever experienced, the New Fork was worth every step.

Poring over maps and measuring gradient, it was clear that the North Fork Popo Agie River was our next challenge. While there were many spectacular rapids much of the river was too steep to paddle. We had found our limit. After 12 hours of running questionable rapids and arduous portages we were still miles from our destination, forcing an unplanned bivouac. Next morning another five hours of hectic river running finally brought us back to civilization.

While beaten down, this humbling experience didn't dull my enthusiasm for exploring. One canyon in particular had always aroused interest for kayakers driving Highway 287 south of Dubois, where Bull Lake Creek cuts a dramatic gorge as it plunges down from the Continental Divide. It was time, Brady and I had to take a closer look. Recon from the bottom confirmed our theory – this was world class whitewater – but getting to the top was going to be tough.

Vermont slalom ace Silas Treadway and the latest local wonder-boy Evan Ross joined us for this mission. While we had a strong team, we faced 20 miles of trail with two passes near 11,000 feet, not to mention the thundering whitewater beyond. Prepared for a five day journey, we secured our Wind River Reservation permits and hired horse packers. But when we arrived at their camp the horse packers refused to carry our kayaks, insisting that the trail was too rugged for the horses to have boats banging on their backs. While discouraged, we weren't turning back now. Loading are gear on the horses and strapping our boats on our backs we began the hardest hike we had ever known. Nine blistered hours later we made it to our put-in at Deadman Lake.

Morning brought us whitewater nirvana as we descended beautiful waterfalls, crystalline pools, and granite studded rapids too numerous to name. We found ourselves in several tight spots, probing walled-in canyons with do or die consequences, but with skill, a little luck and our "Y's" we made it through. On the afternoon of the fourth day we safely emerged at the river mouth having completed what is now considered among the best steep creek runs in the world.

Where will paddling the steeps go next? With young guns like Evan, Brady and their peers continuing to test the limits and constant improvements in skills and equipment, the elusive cutting edge will continually move forward. And with nearly 600 inches of famous snow to melt this year, I'm sure more unexplored and unbelievable whitewater will be found.

This story first appeared in the Jackson Hole Mountain Guide - Summer 2008

Photo by Evan Ross

Aaron's EXP Tales