Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ice is Out 2008

Ice is out

3 rivers in 2 days. April 12-13, 2008

A weekend of kayaking was in store.

Decided to do the Little Wolf River near Big Falls, WI. Temp was 33 with 2” or so of new snow on the ground.

Water was running high and fast this early spring day.

Although the water was high, it is not real “pushy” as the volume is not as great as if it was a larger river. I had done it many times before and in high water, but never quite this high, but still decided to take my chances solo. The rapids are rated Class I to II in normal water so even if a few reached the Class III stage I figured I’d be ok as I’ve done Class III’s before or I felt I could skirt around or portage anything I didn’t want to attempt.

As I was soloing, the high water and needing to be back to a neighboring town that would take 45 minutes of driving, to meet a couple friends to kayak another river later in the day, I decided not to do the whole stretch but leave the last tricky Dells section off . This was my sensible compromise due to the high water as it was the most technical part. Leave it for another day I figured, the river can win once in awhile.

The first mile or so is a tame stretch with no rapids. In lower water there would have been boulders the size of a VW Beetle to avoid but with the high water I floated over top of them. A number of Woodies were making the river their hang-out today and also a few Canadian Geese. Wood Ducks are considered by many as the most colorful of ducks and many a duck hunter has a stuffed Woody as a salute to their beauty. A few Mallard pairs were present, as well. Later on I noticed a hawk in one tree, maybe eyeing up a duck for lunch? It was good going and the kayak felt stable and maneuverable; even with rudder up I was able to go anywhere I wanted.

I got down to the first of two stretches of Class II rapids that run pretty much continuous for ½ mile or so. One could have considered them Class III’s today, but as long as I stayed straight and hit the standing waves perpendicular, there wasn’t a problem. There were a number of chutes further down that are fairly tricky in lower water but today it was just a fly over in the high water. After not being in the yak since last fall, it felt great to be back on the water.

It was an enjoyable run with some quiet water mixed in with some really nice whitewater.

A couple locals happened to be standing on the bridge where I took out and they helped me load my yak. They had just returned from a walk to the Dells, the section I decided to avoid. They felt a canoe could make it through but they had too many farm chores to do to make the trip themselves. They offered to shuttle my Jeep for me if I wanted to try it but I declined.

It took exactly a hr. to complete the float and as usual I used my 29er mtn. bike as my shuttle.

Details on the Little Wolf can be found in Mike Svob’s excellent series of books, Paddling Southern Wisconsin.

From here I motored on over to the west side of Stevens Point to meet 2 of my friends at our normal put in of Mill Creek. Mill Creek is normally a very shallow stream bed in summer, but in spring and after a good few days of rain it pumps up to real nice run with Class II to Class III sections.

Tom has my old Yukon Expedition, the Yellow Submarine, which he had bought from me a few years ago when I upgraded to the current Expedition for purposes of better thigh braces and a rudder.

Tom has kayaked on many lakes and calm rivers with his 17’ Prijon Kodiak Sea kayak, but I think this was his first real run in bigger rapids and he was excited to try out the much more whitewater ready Expedition.

Jeff been kayaking about 2-3 years and has gotten into playboating with his shorter 8’ Daggar Nomad playboat. Whereas Tom and I like to go down the river in more of a touring mode in our 14’ 5” Expeditions, Jeff prefers to find a good hydraulic and play in his much shorter yak. We’d have to see how the holes shaped up to see how much playing Jeff would want to do.

We started out with about ½ mile of flat water that was moving at a good clip. The water again was very high and had pushed its way well over the normal banks and into the trees along shore.

We came around a corner and I could see a horizon line, our first drop. I took off and hit the chute with good speed. The last thing I wanted to do is be too tentative and hit the 3 foot roller without enough momentum to get through it then get held back, spun sideways, and get rolled over.

I prefer to keep paddling strong to give an extra outrigger type balance effect to the yak with the paddle. Sometimes, in a long run of big water, I’ll take short somewhat, choppy strokes for the same reason and to keep the paddle blades near the surface of the water in case a fast strong stroke, quick low brace or quick steering maneuver is needed. Using the knee braces and foot pegs in the yak locks one tight in the cockpit.

After the drop, which Tom said I disappeared from view for a second, I eddied over to river left to watch Tom and Jeff come over. By the time I was able to see upstream, Tom had made his way through the drop and was still in the yak. I was impressed and relieved that a rescue wasn’t necessary. If Tom could make that, he’d most probably make it all.

Jeff, in the short play boat and with more whitewater experience made it over easily with a grin that said “bring it on!”

Looking upstream I noticed something red just below the surface of the water on river right caught in clump of small trees that under normal water levels would be the bank. It was a canoe trapped upside down. When I pointed it out to Jeff he suggested we try to free it, but the water was way too fast and the canoe appeared to be trapped way too tightly for an easy rescue. We figured the owners would be back when the water level dropped, so we took one last look at the canoe and the drop and took off.

We kept moving downstream with a few mild rapids that in normal water levels would have been some Class I rapids but today they were covered in the high water and we just skimmed over top of them.

I got a little behind enjoying the day and the ride. With Tom and Jeff in the lead, I came around a bend and noticed Jeff on shore and his kayak caught in some trees on river right. Seems he had been playing around some and tipped. He had tried to roll but had to resort to a wet exit.

No big deal. I stroked over and freed his yak but couldn’t grab anything to pull it to shore. It was full of water upside down and the handles were under the boat. I was between the yak and shore and should have been on the other side of it and just worked it to shore by nudging it. I was facing backwards as we were moving downstream and a big set if rapids was fast approaching. I had to abandon my efforts in trying to get the yak to shore and Jeff would be reduced to walking along shore till we could get his boat over to him.

With that Tom and I turned around and headed into the Class III rapids.

This was much bigger and pushier water when earlier in the day on the Little Wolf. We had to concentrate on picking good line as there was no way to be much more that almost completely perpendicular with the waves in our longer yaks or risk rolling-over. It was a continuous roller coaster with waves breaking over the bow and hitting our chests and faces.

I wanted to keep an eye out for Jeff’s yak, to look for an opportunity to get it to shore. Watching so as not go past it if it was caught in an eddy or hydraulic in the middle of the stream, was also dividing my attention. If we would go past it, there would be no way to get back upstream other than by going to shore and walking upstream with our yaks and then coming back down for it.

Well, in my desire to do all this I got too far river left. The river split around an island of trees and I decided to go to the left down the narrower channel as I didn’t have enough time or room to stay right in the main channel.

As I looked downstream I notice a huge hydraulic through a narrow spot in the trees where I had to go, maybe no more than 6 feet across. I didn’t know what was making the hydraulic, maybe a big rock or a tree that was crossways. In either case it had the potential to be very dangerous if I hit that and got trapped in it.

While trying to figure out what was ahead of me I wasn’t paying close enough attention to more immediate dangers and within a few feet of me was a strainer sticking out from the island and I was heading right for it.

It was tree about 8 inches through just below the surface.

I made a very quick turn to the left and was now perpendicular to shore and parallel to the strainer. There just wasn’t enough room with the fast moving water to get around the end of the tree and I hit it broadside.

I immediately started to roll over to my left, upstream. I threw the paddle out there to try to bring myself back upright, but the bottom of the yak was pressed hard against the tree and I couldn’t roll back over. The force of the water rolled me under the tree.

Once upside down and with no hope of getting upright I instantly realized this was not the way I wanted to go through the upcoming hydraulic. I proceeded to push me way out of the cockpit, popping the spray skirt seal. I was surprised when I was able to stand in the thigh high water. I still had my paddle in my hand.

I use a tether to keep my paddle attached to the yak but the tether is in no way a rope and if too much resistance is present something would have to give. Either the tether or the deck straps it was attached would snap if I didn’t stop the yak and it’s down stream progress. With the cockpit full of water, it was a little tough but not impossible. Problem was I couldn’t hold the weight of it in the rushing water.

There was a clump of about 3 trees that the water was rushing around just a few feet downstream from me on river right. I decided to make my way down to the clump of trees that had a protective eddy behind them.

About that time I looked out into the main channel and I see Tom go flying by, riding the waves like an expert. He turned towards me and all I can see is his huge smile, like Jake on the “Life is Great” T shirts.

Little did I know later his smile was a combination of excitement and total fear!

Excitement for the pure fun of “riding the Bull” and fear as he told me later “if Mark didn’t make it, what’s going to happen to me?”

I struggled for a bit to get the water out of the yak and climb inside all the while working in waist deep water protected in the eddy behind the tree clump. With water racing by ready at any time to grab the yak or knock me down should I get into it and loose my balance some.

Besides getting the boat, I figured that as soon as I got in I’d have to avoid the upcoming trees and that big hydraulic was still looming big down there, only 20 feet or so away. Further, I figured I need to plan a route to avoid as much of the big waves as possible after the hydraulic as I didn’t figure I’d have enough time to get my spray skirt on. It would only take a few hits of water to fill my yak and I’d be back in the water again. There was still a few hundred yards of white water and high waves awaiting me once I got back in the game of the main channel. Scouting is critical to know what’s coming and how to get to where you want to go.

To my great surprise, once I got the water out and slipped into the cockpit, I didn’t go anywhere as the eddy held me. I decided to pick my way through a few trees, get below the big hydraulic and go to shore to put my skirt on, and then head back into the main channel. Everything worked to plan.

Now I could go anywhere again. I took off into the main channel and busted on through around the bend to find Jeff and Tom.

Tom had made it through by staying in the main channel and not getting into the obstacles near shore. He eventfully rescued Jeff’s yak in the eddy formed just past the series of rapids we were both in, him figuratively and me literally!

We regrouped and talked about the past 30 minutes, realizing that the worse thing that happened was that Jeff didn’t get to rock the best stretch of the river. Tom was really excited that he made the run and me, well, I had to eat some pride and Tom got top honors by not only making it but also rescuing Jeff’s yak…at least I didn’t have to face the music of having my yak rescued!

Jeff talked about walking back up with his yak to make the run but we decided quickly that wasn’t going to happen.

Then it was time to meet up with The Wall.

The Wall is the last obstacle before the take-out. In normal flow, the creek comes rushing down into The Wall at about a 65 degree angle then the rock wall diverts the water hard to the left. There can be a pretty good standing wave right there and there is the danger of getting slammed into The
Wall, as well.

Jeff was in front and started weaving through the trees on river right to get a look at things around the left hand bend in the creek. I was right behind Jeff but a little more out to the middle of the creek and as I made my way further around we could see that the normal standing wave was not near as big as we thought it would be. We all three zipped through easily and made a quick paddle to the end (me especially as I was freezing cold and wanted to generate some body heat.)

Rusty’s Saloon right at the take out was the reward with some beer and hot food!

I had lost my stocking hat when I rolled under the strainer. Somehow it got caught under the tight deck webbing on the front of the yak. We couldn’t figure out how that happened. Jeff said I had to wear it all the time now for good luck.

It’s interesting how different a river will be during different phases of water levels. Sometimes less water makes for more obstacles and maneuvering while higher water makes for less maneuvering with more balance and finesse needed.

April 13

Went 100 miles north to my hunting shack to do the South Fork of the Jump River, which borders my land. Ice flows of all sizes accompanied me on this day as I took a leisurely float for about 2 hrs. No rapids on this stretch but the tight bends still made one watch down river and be cautious of what appeared out of nowhere when coming around them.

Eddied up a few times to watch a few “bergs” slam into corners and work their way over, under, around and through trees negotiating the tight twisting corners as they made their way steadily and purposely downstream. Sizes of the chunks ice varied from a few feet to 10-20 yards across.

Noticed a dead deer and a raccoon that had possibly gotten too close to the river at some point during the winter and couldn’t make their way back to the safety of shore.

Snagged in tree roots and tops their remains proved the possible finality dealing with nature when mistakes are made. Slaloming through these obstacles with the evidence of death so near makes one very aware of the possible dangers.

Put in at Little Wolf

Take out point. Normally I go the dam, but not today.
Shot of one of the chutes.

Below the dam on the Little Wolf, did not run!
Jeff at Mill Creek, west of Stevens Point.
Yours truly.

Pics of the South Fork of The Jump and shuttle vehicle.
The put-in is around the corner near a friends house. Wally took this shot of me.

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