Ben Stookesberry 01/03/2018 | Posted in Uncategorized, Whitewater
I have dedicated the last 18.5 years of my life to the pursuit of exploratory kayaking. I say the pursuit of exploratory kayaking because the act of exploratory kayaking represents only a small fraction of that time. But it’s that small fraction that seems to fill the rest of the days months and years with meaning. These are the fleeting moments when an extreme sense of place is coupled with a river that moves me inexorably forward, without truly knowing what lies ahead. In this epic adventure of river exploration, as in life, nothing is guaranteed, which is exactly how 2016 began: without guarantee, at the end of a long dirt road, and at the start of a long winding trail into Northern Myanmar.
Jan – February The ill-fated Source to sea Attempt of the Irrawady
It’s heartening to know that there are still roadless places on our planet where long-format expedition becomes the preferred means of travel. Take Northern Labrador for example, where in 2014 Pedro Oliva, Erik Boomer, Benny Marr, Chris Korbulic, and I paddled and hiked nearly 600 miles over 6 weeks with only a few resupplies. With that expedition in mind, I latched onto an idea hatched by Chris Korbulic to hike into the most remote corner of the Himalayas with a kayak in order to make a first descent in the headwaters region of the mighty Irrawaddy river in Myanmar. When we decided that we would follow the river until it’s logical conclusion 1200 miles downstream in the Adaman Sea, we took on an expedition like neither of us had tried before.
Initially Chris and I were only vaguely aware of the 4 expeditions that the late, great David Allardice had led into the region between 1998 and 2009. Allardice knew his stuff like no other river operator in Himalayas which is probably why he nailed the timing of his Irrawaddy headwaters first descent and subsequent commercial expeditions. In 2011 a decade long cease-fire in the longest ongoing civil war on earth ended when a government plan to dam the Irrawaddy went ahead without the consent of the Northern Rebels. The Rebels protested, the government shot back, and the long standing disintegrated into active fighting that continues as off this writing. Chris and I failed to take this into full consideration, but quickly found out after arrival in Myanmar that there was no way we were going to receive permission to paddle through these active conflicts. We set off on our expedition anyway, willfully ignorant, with a plan to beg for forgiveness in lieu asking for permission.
Long story made extremely short, we hiked 105 miles with our kayaks to paddle a disjointed 135 miles of river that ultimately led to being detained by the secret police and put under hotel Arrest. It ended up not being that big of a deal, but at the time it seemed like it could have gone either way. If you haven’t heard the full story yet, I can’t do it more justice than was done by Jen Autchel and Duck Tape then Beer’s “Dirt Bag Diaries” podcast available here.
March – September A Frozen River Runs Through It; Super Trip 5000
2 days back from Myanmar, I received an unexpected call from Erik Boomer. It’s appropriate to mention the Torngat expedition here too because that’s where Erik and I had made this ridiculous plan: cross the Greenland Icecap by kite-skis with a kayak in tow to access a remote melt-water river. It would have remained just a ridiculous plan, were it not for Sarah McNair-Landry. Boomer’s girlfriend of 7 years has the kind of resume that no one else has, accept maybe her brother. Multiple trips to the north pole, multiple trips to the south pole, a winter Northwest Passage kite-crossing, and most importantly 5 Greenland Crossings. So when Sarah agreed to join and/ or lead our expedition, our ridiculous plan became a daunting reality.
Not so fast, this mission was a full 6 months in the making and first required me to make a trip north to Sarah’s home base on Baffin Island in order to train to arctic and kite-ski proficiency. I’ve never experienced cold like that before. It was windy and 40 below zero everyday while I was there. For Sarah and Boomer it wasn’t a big deal considering that they had just spent over 120 days dogsledding around Baffin Island in conditions that were often times much worse than windy and 40 below zero. But for me it sucked to go outside. My third day on Baffin, we went out cross country skiing in a storm and I suffered what I initially called frost-bite. That was until day 4 when they showed me photos of what actual frost-bite looks like. Let’s just say that I’ll never for get the photo of some poor fellow who forgot to zip up his fly in arctic temperatures!
On day 10 in Baffin, I was supposed to catch a plane south and I couldn’t wait, And not just because I am a wimp in cold weather. I was flying straight to Flagstaff, for my first chance to see the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. But a ferocious blizzard shut down the airport for two days and I nearly missed the launch date. The reason I mention it is that the Grand Canyon group was made up mostly of members of the Knight Family from Mount Shasta, CA. For 9 years they’re company Timberworks had kept me gainfully employed between expeditions. I thank them for my evolution (or devolution) as a professional expedition kayaker that has the opportunity to do something as stupid as crossing Greenland with a kayak. I should also give the Grand Canyon it’s due in repeating what many have said before me: It’s one of the most awesome places I have ever seen. Please don’t build a gondola in that Canyon!
But I digress, but not too far. 105 miles of hiking in Myanmar, kite-ski training in Baffin, tons of side hiking in the Grand, and those other 18 years of expedition and abuse had finally taken it’s toll on my body. Just a month and a half before the intended start date in Greenland, I was no where near ready for a 600 mile arctic crossing. That was until Eric Seymour and Jess McMillan decided to adopt me for the summer. As a world class skier and Palates instructor, Jess had a physical therapy plan for me that included identifying and treating strains and stresses, isolating the problems with my body mechanics, and strengthening with proper mechanics. Eric’s plan was to import his old kayaking buddy to Jackson Hole and otherwise help the guy he taught how to kayak.
It must have worked because by the time Sarah, Erik and I hit the eastern edge of the Greenland Icecap in early August I felt better than I have in years. That was until day 3 when I realized that we were actually going to have to haul 250 pounds of gear and supplies up a vertical mile of the shittiest and eventually scariest terrain I have ever seen before we could even think about kiting. On day 7 we were still far short of reaching the Fern Line, but we decided to try and kite anyway. That decision very nearly ended our trip when the wind, still insight of the ocean, roared to life out of nowhere. My beginner self was getting rag dolled towards the ocean and unknown crevasses. Meanwhile Sarah was trying to put her kite down in the roosting wind in order to help, when her safety jammed and she was plucked 30 feet in the air by a fully powered kite, plummeting back to earth landing on her head and back.
We didn’t find out until after the trip that Sarah had actually broke her back that day, but we knew immediately that she was injured. She had cracked a brand new sweet helmet and was immobile for almost 24 hours. I say almost because less than 24 hours after she had broke her back she started moving again. 5 days later, she was pulling all her gear by kite across second largest icecap on earth. To describe what happened over the 46 days that it took to complete this mission we called the Kite-Kayak Supertrip 5000 is not my goal here. But where things went wrong in Myanmar, they went right in Greenland. When we thought all was lost and Sarah would not make it, she refused to give up and pushed forward. When the river we had dreamed of was frozen solid, a river right next door defied frigid fall temperatures and carried us into the Arctic Ocean. And also unlike Myanmar, I will never try that again.
October AW and the giant PG&E
20 years ago PG&E, California’s largest utility and hydroelectric operator, wrote a letter to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to complain about the the brand-new mandate to provide recreational releases on a class 3 -4 dam controlled section of the North Fork of the Feather River. They claimed that since activities like whitewater kayaking were inherently dangerous, putting water back into the river for recreation would jeopardize public safety. While I’ll concede that you are much less likely to drown in a river with no water, I think PG&E was missing the point. Luckily FERC agreed and denied PG&E’s request.
Compare that with October of 2016 where PG&E was a willing participant in a flow study to test the navigability of one of the steepest creeks in California. It’s fare to wonder how such a massive shift in the perception could occur. There is actually a simple answer: American Whitewater. Yep our scrappy little 501c3 that cut it’s teeth by championing the Wild and Scenic Act in the 1960’s, revolutionized the way we think about hydroelectric operations in the 1980’s by pushing for an amendment to the Federal Power Act. The new rules mandated equal consideration to ecology and recreation when considering water and energy extraction. Think Gauley, Green, Talulah, Cherry Creek, and South Fork of the American just to name a few hydroelectric projects that turned into mandated recreational releases. But American whitewater certainly hasn’t stopped there and nowhere is this more apparent then the Grizzly Creek flow study.
For decades paddlers from across the country have probably wondered about Grizzly Creek. Driving up Hwy 70 Grizzly Creek announces its confluence into the North Feather with massive granite wall that marks the exit of the 3000 foot deep Grizzly Canyon. Despite the impressive canyon, the creek remained dry outside of flood events do the hydroelectric project that harnessed the creeks water and 2500 feet of gradient 1928. So too say that there has literally been no good chance to attempt a navigation of the creek in the last 88 years is no overstatement.
In August of 2014 local NorCal kayakers Taylor Robertson and I were alerted to relicensing of this hydroelectric project along with a dozen other California boaters by AW Stewardship director Dave Steindorf. Called the Bucks Creek Project, the system diverts the combined flows of 3 creeks including Grizzly Creek into Bucks Creek powerhouse on the North Feather. In preliminary hearings we analyzed the gradient and some relatively poorly shot footage of the affected watersheds to determine their navigability. Taylor and I advised AW, PG&E, and FERC that only Grizzly Creek had potential as navigable stretch of whitewater. In saying that, we acknowledge that if runnable it had to be on the upper limit of what is possible in a kayak, considering it’s 2800 vertical feet drop in just 7.5 miles. In the fall of 2015, PGE put 75 cfs in Grizzly Creek and choppered Taylor and I up the canyon to have a look with our own eyes probably believing that if we saw it first hand we would decide against an attempt, but we were only more intrigued. Consider that the only large drainage in California with a comparable vertical drop over such a short distance that is commonly run features multiple 100 foot waterfalls that must be portaged. Grizzly Creek on the other hand dropped continuously and at times perfectly through a canyon so pristine it was hard to believe what we had seen with our own eyes.
Even so it was clear that only a small subset of an already small group of class V kayakers would go out of there way to run Grizzly Creek principally because it is located in a region with the highest concentration of quality class V whitewater on earth. So why make the effort and spend the time and resources necessary to bring the Grizzly Creek flow study to fruition? I’ll let AW’s Mr. Steindorf answers that question: “AW is charged with putting water back in the rivers period. If we can show Grizzly Creek is navigable, we can negotiate for a return to a more natural hydrograph where interested paddlers would have the opportunity to see the creek with the right flow as PG&E would be required to draw the flow down slowly from a peak event like rain or snowmelt. More Importantly, we feel that the ecosystem benefits greatly from this effort to more naturally fluctuate the flow in Grizzly Creek.” For more on Grizzly Creek stay tuned for a soon to be released video from the flow study where I was joined by Chris Korbulic, Eric Boomer, Will Pruet, and Rush Sturges.”
November – Return to Colombia: Rio Margua
In 3 different attempts over 5 years with Shannon Linnanes, Jessy Coombs, and Lizzy English; we had completed all but two miles of a river that had defined my view of an embattled country still emerging from the throws of Narco Terrorism. But to think that I had taken more than a minute sample of one of the most hydrologically endowed country’s on earth was a mistake. But even during my last trip 2008 large amounts of the Colombia’s vast river wilderness were off limits to the outside world. In spite of the dangers, dedicated local enthusiasts like Mauricio Arredando and intrepid outsiders like Mark Hentzee and Aron (Capo) Retig continued to expand the breadth of knowledge of the countries rivers and in 2009 Mark and Aron penned Colombia Whitewater the country’s first whitewater guide. Since then politics and security of region has improved immensely to point where that original guide book should now be tripled in size with all the new rivers that have been explored.
In late November, my chance to return to Colombia for a decidedly knew experience came thanks to Lane Jacobs. He had been planning a first descent in a once dangerous corner of the Country called Northern Santander, and his contacts were now saying that the time was right for this first descent of the Rio Margua, a major Adean tributary to the mighty Orinoco River. How I got involved is thanks to the wedding of Rafa and Fernanda Ortiz. Ostensibly the union of two of the best people I know, Rafa’s wedding was inevitably a meeting of whitewater minds and that’s exactly where mine came into contact with Lane’s plan for the Rio Margua.
As anyone knows that has ever paddled with me, I worry a lot about the objective hazards of first descents. And nowhere are those hazards more significant than Colombia. In 2013 the paddling community lost Mark Hentzee in what can only be described as a tragic flash flood on a multi-day first descent. But no matter how tragic and rare, Colombia’s combination extreme topography and tropical precipitation make it a risk impossible to deny and or completely mitigate. That being said, there are things that can be done to significantly reduce the risk like choosing the appropriate season, strategically placing camps, and operating in tight, cohesive, and well prepared group. To that end we were stoked when Jules Domine decided to join the team. At this point he is the most knowledgable and successful paddler on the Colombian scene and now calls Medellin home and base of his full service guiding operation.
With that the three of us met in the city of Bucaramanga for the mission. Even on fantastic roads it took 7 hours to wind our way over the 12,000 foot pass directly out of the city and down to a lonely looking put-in bridge over the Margua. In the last few minutes of light we took in the sight of an improbable mountain range sliced just wide enough to allow for passage big river that looked by comparison to a massive scoured river bed. The next morning, still straining to hear any inkling of an impending change in mood of weather and river, we launched into the Margua, hopeful that we could make our passage in as little time as possible. I can imagine the descent as scene from over a mile above river level as three kayakers where engulfed and swallowed whole by an immense vertical landscape. But at river level the Margua maintained a character unprecedented for a river of that size and gradient allowing for a descent with few scouts and even fewer portages. In the end the rain only poured down on us the final night on the river already beyond the crux final Canyon where higher water could have made a clean exit impossible. By early afternoon on day three the terrain opened into a vast tropical plane at the border with Venezuela and our would-be take-out near the small town of Cubará.