Friday, June 1, 2018

The Life of Enrichment on the Bruneau River

As I begin to write this adventure story I fret over how to write the details that express our experience without too much over embellishment.  This story has it all, fencing, fighting, romance….wait, that’s from “Princess Bride.” This story has even more, improvisation, broken vehicles, astounding countryside, Class III and IV rapids, good food, and wonderful people.  Let us begin.

Descent to the mouth of Neon Canyon on the Escalante River
The story starts in late fall of 2017 in Escalante, Utah.  I had just finished a 2 hour cross country approach to mouth of Neon Canyon with 3 other friends.  We were preparing our canyoneering equipment when all of a sudden I saw some people packrafting down the Escalante River.  I was highly intrigued and started a conversation on where they had started, and where they were going.  At the end our farewells, I had already planned an Escalante packrafting trip for the next Memorial Day weekend.    I had it all planned out, leave Thursday morning, hit Neon and Ringtale canyons, float 35 miles of the Escalante River and explore the side canyons along the way, and then hike out Coyote Gulch on Memorial Day.  Eight months was going to be an unbearable wait.

Over the next few months I started studying maps, reading blogs, and doing my home work to plan to most epic adventure.  I then extended the invitation to friends and KOLIfit members, and 10 people jump on board.  This was going to be a strenuous and physically demanding trip.  We would have to carry heavy backpacks weighing from 40-50lbs; hike over 20 miles across challenging desert terrain and slot canyons; and paddle over 10 miles each day.  This was not an adventure for the faint of heart, and I wanted to be very clear that whoever committed to this adventure had to commit to a KOLIfit fitness training program. 

Utah experienced a mild 2017/18 winter, especially in Southern Utah.  Every week I would visit and look at the snowpack for the Escalante drainage, and it did not look good.  By the end of March the snowpack was about 20% of normal. Feelings of despair inundated me over the next few days as my gut feeling told me that my epic adventure was not going to happen this year.  I started looking for blogs with reports of the lowest amount of water in the Escalante River and a favorable paddle experience.  I made a choice that 1.5’ would be our threshold. Not being optimistic that the river would reach that high, I developed plans “B” and “C.” 

The month of April did not improve the snowpack, and by the beginning of May the Escalante River was fluctuating between 1-1.2 feet of water.  It was time to make the decision to go with plan “B” and run the Bruneau River in Southwestern Idaho.
The beginning of the gorge on the Bruneau River

The Bruneau River is a tributary of the Snake River, receiving its flow from the Jarbridge Mountains in northern Nevada and running north to its confluence almost halfway between Twin Falls and Boise.  We would be paddling a deep canyon gorge over 40 miles in 2 days, with 1000’ towering walls on each side of the river.   The river walls would be the perfect setting for a fantasy movie with its chossy brittle rock and eerie grottos and caves where goblins and gules could hide during the day planning their hunt on innocent river runners. 

I started doing my homework on the Bruneau River rapids.(Click here to view Boneyard Rapid)  The river is narrow and choked with several Class III and IV rapids at 1000cfs and above.  Our group had dwindled down to 4 people including myself, but we would be joining 10 others with prior experience on the Bruneau.  As I spoke with Spence,  our 71 year group leader, about the rapids I developed feelings of apprehension about taking people down a river without any personal prior experience.  Class III and IV rapids demand respect, and if anything were to happen it would be challenging to obtain help due to the remoteness of the area.  I struggled many hours wondering if I was making the right decision to join this group of people I did not know.  I had to trust their judgment, which was difficult for me, because from my perspective there was a lackadaisical approach to running difficult rivers.  But as I continued to read and watch videos on the Bruneau rapids it confirmed what Spence had said, that the best way to scout the river is to “read and run.” 

Scouting rapids is an essential skill to managing your risk on challenging rivers.  To scout a rapid you exit the river just before the rapid and assess the best route for avoiding, holes, snags, rocks, and other obstacles that could jeopardize your safety.   The “read and run” technique is used when it is difficult to scout from the shoreline, or when you have a prior knowledge of a rapid.  To read and run a rapid you quickly look downstream from your boat and assess the safest route.  I am comfortable with the read and run technique, for an experienced paddler this adds to the element of fun.  There are quick instinctual decision made in a matter of moments that bring a great satisfy feeling.  But when you are the only paddler with extensive whitewater experience with a “rookie” crew, I was uneasy about reading a river and making quick decisions, and then relaying that information verbally, as opposed to reacting instinctually, and then relying upon my crew to react with precision to avoid harmful obstacles. (Click here to view  Class IV rapid)

To prepare my rookie crew, I requested that we do a training run down a Class II section of the Weber River 2 weeks prior to our trip in the same boat we would be paddling down the Bruneau River.  My apprehension shifted to feelings of confidence as Ryan and Syndi quickly synchronized with may paddling commands.  At this point I made the decision that we were a 100% go for the Bruneau trip and if we did not feel confident that we could run a rapid that we would portage it.  That never happened. 

Old Mining Truck near deserted Jasper mine
The rookie crew consisted of Martin who is an adventurer with an amazing resume of outdoor experiences. One being the first person in the world to summit the 7 major summits and to sail the 7 major seas.  Ryan and Syndi are mother and son who shared the same enthusiasm as I did when I announced the Escalante packrafting trip.  Syndi has many world traveling experiences, but is a novice when it comes to packrafting and river running as to with her son, who is a student at the University of Utah.  One of life’s great experiences is when unlikely people are brought together by an adventure and have a life enriching experience.  This was our experience on the Bruneau River….it just took a little hard work to earn the enrichment.

Friday Noon: Text from Syndi, “we are running a little late.”  My philosophy on a river trip is that there is no time schedule.  You wake up when you want to,  you get to your destination when you want to, you eat when you are hungry, and you go to sleep when you are tired.  River life is the epitome of relaxation and leaving your cares behind.  This trip had a few exceptions.

Bruneau River put in
Friday 4pm: Half of the group wanted to spend the night camping at the river instead of camping on the front lawn in Hagerman ID. So 7 of us consolidated our gear into Spence’s old Dodge diesel truck, which was a comparable feat to building an Egyptian pyramid.  Rafting trips are not like backpacking trips where you are concerned with the weight you carry.  On  river trips we bring “glamping” luxuries and lip-smacking food, i bowel plugging  freeze dried food.  This requires a big vehicle that can handle rugged terrain and carry a lot of equipment.  You can usually spot a river trip caravan several miles away.
nstead of thin therma-rest pads and

Friday 5pm: River camping group leaves for the 70 miles of dirt roads to the put in.  Driving to the Bruneau River is an adventure itself.  It requires a durable vehicle,  good navigation skills, and patience as you drive over miles of baby head sized lava rocks.  It is my understanding that this region of Idaho was one of the prehistoric lava flows of the supervalcano in Yellowstone National Park.  As far as you can see in any direction there are rolling hills of lava rock.  Roads that are built on lava rock are not super highways.  The overall average speed for the next 3.5 hours was 20mph.  In fact, for the last 6 miles it was faster to travel by foot than by vehicle.  And the last 2 miles requires a good competent driver down a steep narrow, rock infested road.  We all opted to walk down the road to help navigate over rocks and steer clear of the vehicle grave yard at the bottom of the ravine.

Bruneau River Country
Friday 9pm: River life began with our arrival at the put in. It was a clear beautiful night with a ¾ moon drowning out most of the celestial stars.   The waterfalls from the natural hot springs, a few hundred yards to the South, were a refreshing steam bath. We explored the area for natural pools to soak in, but they were extremely shallow and very hot.  There was a makeshift hot tub with room for one if you were the early bird.   At camp, Spence played on his harmonica, danced the Irish Jig, and recited poetry.  There is not a dull moment with Spence as the head of  river entertainment.  He has an infectious energy, and I dare you to catch him without a smile, even when things are awry.

Friday 11pm:  As we retired for the evening we reviewed tomorrows plan to meet the rest of the group at 8am, put on the river around 10am, explore Cave Canyon, and float 20 miles to our camp.  I have to laugh that we even put a time schedule on our river trip because we never stick to it. We are on the river, who cares what time it is.
Saturday 12am:  Still awake because of my idea of a sleeping in a Lamzac as a sleeping pad did not work. It only holds air for about an hour before you feel the hard ground. Good thing the constant white noise of the river distracted my disgust and I finally drifted off to sleep.   

Saturday 7am:  We ate breakfast and started rigging the 2 of the 3 rafts.  Rigging a raft is a mastery skill.  Every boat captain has their own style for stowing gear.  For most it is prioritized on what you need to access quickly.  Generally Bluetooth speakers, Oreo Cookies, and beverages (this was a non alcoholic group) are stored for quick access, while tooth brushes,  pots and pans, and trip itineraries are buried deep in the bottom of dry boxes.  We finished rigging our rafts around 8am and started looking to the horizon waiting for the rest of our group.

Nap time
Saturday 11am: Still waiting for the rest of the group.  As stated, river trip itineraries are more of a guideline.  It is essential that you keep yourself entertained until river time and real time synchronize as one.  For about 3 hours people tinkered with equipment, took naps, ran to the top of hills, and revisited the hot springs.

Saturday 1pm: At last, it was time to launch.  Boat number 3 was rigged and everyone was ready to go.  Just as we were ready to launch one of the shuttle drivers who had left about 30 minutes ago, trying to avoid a heavy thunder storm and to take our vehicles to the take out over 80 miles away, came running down the road to inform us that the old Dodge truck had broken down a 1/3 of the way up the steep rocky road. Immediately the 71 year old Spence, and his 2 grandsons, ran up the hill to see if they could find a resolution to the broken down truck.  A couple hours passed by as we continue to stretch our downtime activities, when Spence came running back to inform us that he needed everyone’s help to push the truck back down the steep rocky road.   Unfortunately, the truck lost all power due to fluid loss and was dead in its track.  2 vehicles were trapped behind and another, on its way to the river put in, was trapped in front.  There was no possibility of towing the vehicle up the hill.  The only choice was through man and truck power to carefully coast the old truck backwards down to the bottom so that the other vehicles could pass.  As we carefully reached the bottom an hour later, Spence pulled out his harmonica and “Pied Pipered” everyone with a tune as we followed him back to the boat launch without a care of what we were going to do with the truck.  “That will be figured out after we are done with the river trip,” he said with a smile on his face.
Pushing the truck back to the put in.
 If you could only see Spence's smile through
the windshield.

Saturday 4:30pm:  At last, it was time to launch. The initial plan was to run 20 miles on Saturday and then 20 miles on Sunday making it possible to get home late Sunday afternoon.  But with only 4 hours of day light left we took the rangers suggestion and camped at a beautiful location about 11 miles downriver.   My river anxiety dissipated as we ran several Class III rapids without any problems. 

Enrichment:  I heard a person ask Syndi and Ryan if they were uneasy with all the chaos.  I do not remember their response, but I remember the person replying back with, “this kind of stuff happens all the time on river trips, and we are just used to it.” Implying a “no worries” attitude.  That conversation caused me to reflect on a  quote I copied from the movie “Martian” where the character Mark Watney, who was stranded on Mars for over a year,  states to a fresh group of  cadets after his rescue  “At some point, everything's gonna go south on you and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end (or how I am going to quit). Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home (or accomplish your challenge).”    I have applied this philosophy to my adventure outings, especially adventure racing. Adventures offer the opportunity to face difficult tasks as challenges that need to be mastered rather than experiences to be avoided.  We strive so much to be comfortable in life thinking this will enrich our life, but from my observation this is not so.  Meaningful life enrichment comes from hard work to accomplish a goal or challenge.  I stated that river life is the epitome of relaxation, with an asterisk, after you accomplish all the hard things to get to that relaxation point.  I love rigging a boat, making decision on how to run a rapid, and even problem solving the best way to get your truck off the mountain.  All the hard work and chaos created an amazing story that will never be matched by a virtual experience. 

Ascent to the caves
Enjoying the view and avoiding poison ivy
The End:  The rest of the river trip was a quite traditional.  We explored the poison ivy infested Cave Canyon which had Martin and I sprinting to see what was around each bend, and then finally reaching the caves. The highly anticipated 5 mile section of Class IV rapids brought a lot of “WOO HOO’S.” At 1100 cfs the river was a perfect level for a rookie crew.  Plenty of rocks to dodge, but not pushy enough to cause any great alarm.  Spence continued with his infectious energy reciting more poetry,  playing “O Canada” in tribute to the Canadian Olympic athlete amongst our group, and even fixed his old Dodge diesel truck and drove it home a few days later. (Click here to view Burro rapid)

Now my mind shifts to next year as I have to wait another 12 months before my “Epic Adventure.”

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