Volunteer Vacations feel good
The tenth annual National Trails Day on June 1 gave many volunteers a taste of how good it feels to clean up and maintain trails in national, state, and local parks. If you want to experience that fun and satisfaction again or perhaps for the first time, a Volunteer Vacation, organized by the American Hiking Society, is just what you need.
Starting August 11 and continuing through October 12, AHS will offer four challenging and exciting experiences in the New Mexican wilderness ranging from Las Cruces and south-central New Mexico all the way up to the Taos area and northern New Mexico. Participants in these vacations have the opportunity to improve a four-and-a-half-mile trail in the Organ Mountains, reroute two short sections of the Williams Lake Trail in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, reconstruct the Skyline Trail outside of Santa Fe, or maintain the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail within the Aldo Leopold and Gila Wilderness, all while camping at elevations ranging from six to eleven thousand feet.
Volunteer Vacations are not just about rehabilitating old trails and building new ones. They are about fostering public land stewardship and providing people with an opportunity to give back to the trails they enjoy hiking so much year after year. These one-to-two week programs cost only $80 per person, which includes everything except transportation to the site. For more information, visit www.americanhiking.org, or call Shirley Hearn, 301-565-6704, extension 206.
Golf tournament to benefit shelter
Haven House, the first and only 501(c)(3) nonprofit domestic violence shelter in Sandoval County, will hold its first golf tournament, with proceeds going to support their domestic-violence program. The tournament will be at Chamisa Hills Country Club in Rio Rancho on July 15, 2002. Haven House opened its doors in January 2002, providing twenty-four-hour crisis intervention, personal and legal advocacy, support groups, personal empowerment training, community outreach, awareness and education programs, transportation, and safe emergency housing. At any given time Haven House provides shelter for twenty to twenty-five women and children who are fleeing abusive situations. Its outreach program assisted more than 350 domestic-violence victims in 2001. For tournament information or to offer financial support, contact Ron Cisneros, 440-4339.
The makings of a calamitous trip
—Ty and Barb Belknap
It felt good to be safe and warm after our latest river trip was over. We soaked in a hot spring next to one of the many creeks flowing through Idaho’s Stanley Basin, gazing up at the snowcapped Sawtooth Mountains. The rapid melting of an above-average snowpack in the Sawtooths this spring had given us a wild raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
Water was gushing everywhere up there, providing drought relief to the parched spirits of our group of New Mexico river runners.
We had been lucky to win a river permit in the lottery for the second year in a row.
The Middle Fork flows through a beautiful canyon, and it is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous whitewater stretches in the country. Last year the water was nearly too low. This year it was almost too high, bumping the upper limits of the “hazardous/experienced boaters-only“ level charted in the guidebook.
We almost hadn’t gone. Several days before our May 31 departure, we heard that the road to the put-in site at Boundary Creek was still closed by snow, but our trip leader, John, would hear nothing of cancellation. Besides, several trip members were already on their way to Idaho after a float down the Yampa River in northern Colorado.
The Yampa group got up there first and reported via cell phone that it was still possible to put the boats in upstream of the snow-packed road at Marsh Creek, which is unnavigable at lower water levels. They said it might even be possible to run Dagger Falls, which is a Class Five rapid just above Boundary Creek, named for the sharp boulders at the bottom of the rapid’s main drop.
By our launch day, the road to Boundary Creek had finally opened, but Eric (who had camped out next to Marsh Creek for three days prior) was intent on adding the hazardous course downstream to the Middle Fork to his 25-year resume. Long-time professional river guide Del was also up for the challenge. His father, Eliot DuBois was the first to run Marsh Creek during his celebrated 1942 solo kayak trip which he later chronicled in An Innocent on the Middle Fork (Backeddy Books, PO Box 301, Cambridge, Idaho) after running the river again with Del in 1982. The rest of us had never faced anything quite like this.
We sent the heavy items and several crew members for a rendezvous down at Boundary Creek, just in case we had to portage around Dagger Falls. Two kayakers and four rafts set off at about 3:00 p.m. thinking that the sixteen miles to Dagger Falls would go quickly in the fast-moving, ice cold water which was plummeting out of the mountains. Other boaters passing by had been telling us all day about the raft-flipping hazards and obstacles which lay ahead, so we had a rough idea of what to expect, but no map.
The intrepid kayakers William and Leslie took the lead with two-way radios. The rest of us followed behind listening to frantic and mostly unintelligible warnings about rocks, snags, logs across the river, and, worst of all, strainers (limbs or other underwater obstacles that can trap boats or people)—one of the most dangerous things you can ever get stuck in. Some rafts that passed by at the put-in had been caught and flipped by logs, and were stuck there for hours before they were finally pulled off with ropes and pulleys.
The level of stress built up through the back-to-back, unnamed rapids as the sun became lower in the sky. The kayakers faced blind drops and almost no eddies (reversals of current found behind boulders or river bends) as the river dropped 80 feet per mile. When we finally came to the confluence with Bear Valley Creek—the start of the Middle Fork—the water level rose enough to eliminate some of the dangers but the pace picked up. The rest of our group was anxiously waiting and had built a warming fire on the beach above Dagger Falls.
A run down the raging torrent of the falls would have been suicidal, so we carried the gear and the rafts up the path, and hauled everything by truck the final mile to Boundary Creek.
In the morning, the one rafter who skipped the Marsh Creek run elected to leave the trip after listening to the horror stories of the previous day and recognizing his limits. Leslie remarked, “This has the makings for a calamitous trip.” John encouraged other trip members with second thoughts to carry on. When we finally got everything rearranged and loaded on the boats, we set off once again at three o’clock in the afternoon into the most technically challenging five miles of the trip.
Just around the first bend was a fallen tree that left only a narrow sneak around the right side. Everybody made it through okay, but during the eddy-out (stop in an eddy), Janet, the permit holder who had invited everyone along on this fine adventure, lost her grip on the bowline, and was left behind on shore. She had to run down the side trail for a mile or so before Del found another eddy and picked her up. Unfortunately, he was left in a position that made it impossible to miss a large boulder, and was catapulted into the river along with Holly, one of his crew members. We only made two-and-a-half miles that day due to hypothermia and the setting sun.
The next day, we got an early start in hopes of making up for lost time, but first had to run Velvet Falls, a famous Class IV drop (Class IV rapid: Long rapid with powerful, irregular waves, dangerous rocks, and boiling eddies; precise maneuvering and scouting from the shore imperative; take all possible safety precautions). You can’t hear it coming. We passed Del, who had stopped in a tiny eddy above to scout. Just as we asked him where the rapid was, we watched John’s raft flip over the falls about one hundred yards ahead. All of the other boats made it through upright, except for two of our kayakers, who were caught briefly in the “washing machine” of the recirculating hole below the falls, but were spit out unharmed.
It took a while to pull the rafters out of the water, turn the raft back over, and recover one of the kayaks about a mile downstream. (Whitewater rafts are rigged to flip without losing gear.) Luckily, a soak in a riverside hot springs lay just a mile ahead. Near the end of Day Three, we were at Mile Sixteen of an eight-day, one-hundred-mile trip, not counting the fifteen miles of Marsh Creek.
Day Four was pretty strenuous with more big rapids to run. Most everybody was starting to feel a little stressed. Eric’s wife, Jayne, had developed symptoms of a serious health problem before we reached the Indian Springs Ranger Station, where we finally signed in for our trip at Mile 25 and again made camp early. Realization of our own mortality was no longer a novelty as we watched Jayne fly out the next morning on a two-prop plane. But it was a nice day, the oarsmen had shaken off their rust, the middle section was known to be easier and, besides, we thought, What else could possibly go wrong? One of our crew was even swept overboard during a momentary lapse of concentration near a rock wall. The oarsmen had been reminded many times that inattention and complacency were among the biggest dangers. They had to spot major obstacles early and work with all their might to get positioned properly, rather than just to react in a crisis.
A guy nicknamed Bunkey, perched on Jayne’s seat, in his red helmet, looked like a human cannonball in the front of Eric’s cataraft. The river washed the disposable contacts right out of his eyes.
On Day Five, we stopped at two different hot springs along the way for a welcome hot bath and shampoo and actually made it to our planned camp destination for the first time on the trip. The pizza, pesto pasta, and salad were great, and people were finally smiling. That night we wandered through lush, grassy pastures and hiked up Loon Creek to the most beautiful hot springs on the river, lined with ancient timbers and only steps from a cold splash in the creek.
Setting off in the morning at Mile 50, we did find out what else could go wrong when Eric ripped a two-foot hole in one of his cataraft tubes while running the boulder field at Haystack Rapid. We camped short at Mile 68, where he limped ashore to patch things up using the cardboard from the previous night’s pizza as patch backing, and an empty tomato can and the hot pot of rice from our dinner to mix and heat-activate the glue. That night’s dinner group had plenty of time to pull together a delicious chicken curry with all the trimmings. A storm blew in later bringing cold and rain for the rest of the trip.
Everybody bundled up early on our next-to-last day, anticipating the long, cold day ahead needed to meet our river-end shuttle bus and work schedules. By this time, the river had really picked up speed with all the water gushing in from side canyon streams and waterfalls.
The river steepened, deepened, and narrowed as we entered the section of the trip called the Impassible Canyon. There are no more trails along the river because the sides of the canyon are too steep, so the boat is basically the only means of travel. We bashed through back-to-back Class IV rapids without incident, spun through a few Class IIIs, and made camp about six miles from the confluence with the main stem of the Salmon River. Just around the bend churned Rubber Rapid, a Class IV described in the guidebook as the heaviest white water on the river. Eliot DuBois said in his book, “As I looked down on this rapid, I felt that all the others had been insignificant. This was the one that had been waiting for me. It was the great beast at the bottom of the canyon: a dragon. The spines along its back were the successive waves . . . .”
With only a short, fast nine miles to the take-out, it seemed we’d be okay, as long as nobody swam. The guidebook instructions to run Rubber Rapid were less than comforting: “. . . stay in the center and follow the tongue. This leads to the main drop where the river cascades over large submerged boulders. . . .”
It rained all night, and when we got up in the cold morning, we noticed there was snow on the cliffs a hundred feet above us. The rafts were loaded one last time, and John, the unflappable one, led the way. We watched in disbelief as his raft dropped into a hole in Rubber Rapid, where it was violently flipped over backwards by a powerful lateral wave. All four swimmers emerged and clung to the upstream side of the boat. They attempted to climb atop the overturned raft, but the frigid water, difficulty breathing in the spray, and layers of soaked clothing hampered their efforts.
Ours was the next raft to plunge through Rubber. We managed to pull the swimmers from the water while riding toward yet another Class IV rapid. After several wet people transferred to Del’s raft, everybody struggled for about a mile to haul the flipped raft into a side eddy where it could be righted. The rest of the ride felt somewhat anticlimactic.
At the take-out, most of the trip members were still unconvinced by Del’s claim that river running was stastically sixteen times safer than driving. After descending 3,500 feet in 112 miles, somewhat shaken but unharmed, we fearlessly climbed aboard the shuttle bus (without helmets) for the five-hour ride alongside the Salmon River back to our cars.