Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Accidents, Burlington, and Concerts: The ABC's of my weekend...

But not in that order...

As a few of my faithful readers know (Hi Cory!), I went to Burlington, VT for a few days to celebrate my... the...well, just to celebrate really.
That's Cory up there ^
The whole thing was inspired by a Phantogram concert at Higher Ground. I've seen 3 shows there, and the artists always seem to really enjoy the scene. Exitmusic opened the show with a chill and melodic blend of post-rock and pop. In other words, fine music for listening to while reading a book, but not the kind of stuff that will get you pumped for the rest of a concert.

Fortunately, Phantogram brought it back with some pretty incredible beat drops. Their best song live is without a doubt Futuristic Casket, and When I'm small takes a close second. The best part of the show was finding out we had stumbled on the last show they plan on playing in quite some time. Oh, and it was 13 bucks!

Most of my time in Burlington was spent catching up with friends, but Cory opted to multi-task, so we went for a hike to Milton Falls.
Looking down the left channel. The little bit of  spray
 under the sun glare is the part that has been run.
Check out the rocks it lands on!
Another view of the falls that's been run
Looking up the Right Channel

Looking up at the Left Channel from the island in the center.
The first time I'd heard of this place was from Scott Gilbert who has a photo with probably 20 times the flow shown here. Seriously.

This huge set of cascades is just north of Milton and can be accessed by turning off Rt. 7 onto Ritchie Ave. There's a small gravel lot about halfway down the hill with a lookout over a small piece of the falls. Better views can be accessed by canoe or kayak by driving another 0.2 miles and launching into the pool there.

The following day I finished my novel for nanowrimo, although that's using "finish" rather loosely. I hit the target word count and the whole story line is completed, but no editing or revision has been done. If anyone wants to take a look and put in some serious editing time, drop me a line!

When I decided to head home, Winter struck.
Between 11 pm Tuesday night and 6 am Wednesday morning, 4-5 inches of snow fell in Burlington. Snow continued to fall as I drove south behind a line of flashing redlights as far as the eye could see. Tractor Trailers were stuck on hills, snowplows hadn't been out yet, and a slippery layer of extra wet snow was on the pavement beneath the ever accumulating snow. I was going 10 mph, and I WAS GRIPPED.

Not only were there Massachusetts license plates both in front and behind me, I also didn't want to come to a complete stop because my poor front wheel drive car probably wasn't going to be able to regain the momentum necessary to start moving back up that slick hill. I mean, I was in Vermont after all...

Roads improved greatly in NY, although only briefly. I dismissed my better judgement which was fearfully pleading me to take the roads that weren't covered in snow and didn't go through the mountains. Instead, that's exactly what I aimed for for these important reasons:
  • Re-routing would cost a lot of gas money.
  • Re-routing would be really boring.
  • And most importantly, driving on terrible roads in the middle of the mountains sounded like an adventure, and I love adventures!
So, with solid reasoning (or at least mislead priorities) behind me, I turned onto the not-recently-enough plowed road and began my tire spinning ascent up the first mountain pass. By now I was probably going 25 mph and way less gripped. These are good things. Every once in a while I stopped to snap a few pictures.

Yup, sketchy roads were definitely worth it...

How can Better Judgement compete with views like this?
Well, as promised, there is an accident in this story. Suffice it to say that I got a little too pleased with myself about defeating Better Judgement. Taking this route almost seemed like it was better than Better Judgement. That's right, we're talking about Best Judgement.

Unfortunately, that's the common disguise of Bad Judgement, and the little voice I thought was Best Judgement told me that I didn't need to slow down too much for the turn that had a suggested speed of 35. In fact, if I just slipped into the other lane for a second I wouldn't need to brake at all.

Well, that worked out great, but what I forgot was that turns can come in pairs (sometimes more, but that's not important). So even though I sailed through that first turn perfectly in control and without needing to brake, I was approaching the next one a little too quickly for my taste. 

Now at this point there was probably 2 inches of fresh snow on the road and another 10 in places unplowed. Such a layering of snow is not conducive to stopping on short notice, nor is it conducive to maintaining traction in a sharp turn.

As the tires locked up, I also noticed the oncoming snowplow that would soon be entering the same turn. At this moment, I recognized that Best Judgement was indeed an impostor.

Fortunately, I ended up in the ditch. This was preferable to being the snowplow's new hood ornament, and also better than skipping the ditch and hitting the giant boulders just beyond. By the time the snowplow stopped, the logging truck behind me had caught up and also got out. They spent a brief moment good-naturedly chiding me, then talked about the rather large number of other vehicles that have gone off the road in that exact spot, and then mentioned that they could help me out. I was happy to wait for them to finish their chat before they decided on this. Besides, it's not like I was going anywhere.

The (very nice, super awesome) trucker dude tied a giant piece of webbing to his truck while I hooked it  onto the convenient eyelet in the back of my car and he dragged me out. I thanked him and continued on my merry Thankful way. It was the day before thanksgiving, after all.

I stopped for a quick hike up Bald Mountain, between Inlet and Old Forge.
The Topo Map was a little hard to read...
And as soon as I passed Old Forge the roads were bare. Which is better than the roads being Bear.
They were a little foggy though...

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
This year I'm thankful for truckers and chains!
(and of course all you readers out there as well)
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On First Descents and Exploring Locally...

In an interview with Jeff McIntyre of In Between Swims, Doug Ammons says "It's going to become perhaps more local, but there's an infinite number of other [first] descents."

Whether you're still figuring out your roll, running class 3 for the first time, or a seasoned paddler with a few of your own, you've probably at least heard the term First Descent. It's the subject of dreams for some, and a source of much contention on message boards and around campfires.

Simply defined for our purposes, a First Descent is a river or drop that no one has ever paddled before. I was one of those who dreamt (and still do) about paddling such a river, although now the dreams are of the next one.
Taylor Krammen after a successful descent of One Whistle Falls on Upper
Roaring Brook. We believe this is a first descent, but welcome contesters.
These rivers are, by their very nature, mysterious. They add an expeditionary feel to the undertaking; little things like where to set safety and finding ways to scout become incredibly important. It's never easy to tell if you actually are the first paddler to slip between the gorge walls or emerge at the base of a waterfall unharmed. Many of the iconic pioneers of our sport made several first descents and never told a soul. Sometimes they ran all the rapids, sometimes they walked everything but the flat water. Some even did this solo.

So it's hard to say when attaching a name to this "First Descent" became important or what even qualifies as a true "Descent." Personally, if someone is going to claim a first descent, I'd like to see at least half of the runnable drops being run, but that's purely conjecture, and I encourage you to develop your own opinions. Ant this is the exact reason the "FD" words are such a hot term in the kayaking community. Everyone has their own opinions on what it means, and more importantly, there's always some old codger who is way better than we are that seems to know someone who did it before us. Well, almost always...

To me, a "First Descent" is actually pretty meaningless until you add another word to the phrase: Personal.

Frankly, I don't care if another person has paddled the river before me. The important thing is the experience I get from it and my personal interpretation of that. It seems foolish to get wrapped up on whether or not I was the first one to float down a stream in a big tub of plastic when someone probably took some boots, hammered some nails in the bottom of them, and stood on a log that they just cut down with an axe nearly a century ago as it floated down a river they were pretty sure ended up in town. Yeah, you want to talk about bad ass?
No, but really...
So we've got a new phrase: "Personal First Descent."
I like this quite a bit more for several reasons. 

First and most importantly, it's more accessible. Finding a river that nobody knows has been run is pretty hard. Finding one that actually hasn't been run is even more difficult. But finding a river you haven't run is probably a lot easier. In fact, there's probably one within an hours drive that you've never even heard of.

Secondly, all the conjecture and uncertainty is dispelled. No one can accuse you of false claims or say that you actually already did do that run. Besides, what difference does it make to them? I mean, really.

Another reason Personal First Descents are great is that they can be done with as much or as little beta as you want. For paddlers trying to get a taste of expeditionary paddling, they can drop in relatively blind with just a glance at a topo map; paddlers just looking for a change of scenery can talk to friends or read trip reports.

And finally, a Personal First Descent can still be a first descent. The best part of a pfd is creating your own definition of success.

All of this builds towards the newest facet of my paddling obsession; exploring locally. Even before I began paddling, I found a deep joy and sense of presence in hiking up streambeds. As I began paddling more, these excursions developed a duality. While I still enjoyed the aesthetic value of the rapids and waterfalls I discovered, I also began noting which spots looked like they would be survivable in a kayak.
Definitely surviveable. Independence River, NY
And so began a long-held tradition. I would walk up an obscure riverbed, sometimes taking photos, and store some of what I saw in the back of my mind. I'd do a little research or ask around and drop my jaw when people told me they had run this section or that. Some of them seemed impossible, if not because the whitewater was too difficult, then because it never seemed there would be enough water.
I mean, let's be real here...
Then again, I had seen them in the spring when the ground was shaking as tons of water cascaded downhill. Maybe it was possible after all...
Joiner Brook, VT in the fall floods of 2010
Or maybe the rivers seemed too far off, encased in a roadless valley somewhere far from civilization. Boats are heavy, who would want to carry them 12 miles into the mountains? Oh, right...I would.

Scott Martin and I spent some time in Northern PA last weekend specifically to find some PFDs. They may not all be unrun, but there are definitely some good ones. And they're all PFD's too.

We checked out most of the tributaries to Rock Run, a local classic that I have yet to do. Scott seems to be the Rock Run liaison for those of us to the North, so if there's water, he'd be a good guy to contact.

The plus side to scouting the tributaries here is the gorgeous scenery, which has led several publications refer to it as "The Prettiest Stream in Pennsylvania."

Scott doing his photography thing...

Scott taking a peak at our "little" secret.
It's amazing what you can find in your own back yard. A friend of mine put together this short video full of rivers we believe hadn't been paddled before. Best of all, they were all within about an hour from my house. Of course, if they have been paddled, I'd love to swap stories about our experiences.

So here's to first descents, personal or otherwise...
That one at the bottom is ~30 ft, for scale.
About 5 miles South of Lowville, NY.
Now get out there and explore your backyard!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Double Whammy!

Tandem bridge walking, it's that big...

Two rather big developments in this post:
1. I finally broke my first paddle
2. I've reached the halfway point of my novel.

So first, let me just say that I've had my $170 AT for 3-4 years now. I can't say that I intentionally mistreated it, but I certainly didn't baby it either. But hey, everyone uses their paddle as a baseball bat every once in a while, right? ....right?

Ok, so I didn't ever do that, but I did toss it on shore, use it as a depth meter, and crank really huge boofs with it.

Even when boofing might not be advised...
-Brian Murphy Photo
As those of you who have paddled with me know, it was really only a matter of time. The blades had been worn down at least an inch on the edges, and sometime last summer it started sinking in the water. It had a lovely tendency to fill with water and then leak out on dry clothes.  At some point I had this fixed with a little duct tape, but at Gauleyfest this year the problem returned. I noticed a little more flex than usual and began avoiding more committing runs (except the Oswegatchie, that's just too good to miss). In the end though, it happened on one of the rivers that gave it the most abuse.

Ahh, Fowlersville, moments before the break.

The paddle finally gave out on the Bottom Moose. It more or less folded at the joint on impact at Fowlersville. In this case, I think the tuck did more harm than my typical plug, but I guess we'll never know. Either way, I was glad it happened here instead of further down. For one, I was closer to the cars so I could drive shuttle if necessary, and two, I wasn't halfway down Powerline or Crystal trying to C1.

Not so tasty... Note the "reshaped" blades...
Fortunately for me, Jim was too lazy to take his breakdown out of his boat from our last paddling trip, and he had it assembled by the time I could hand off my broken paddle. It flexed a lot, but at this point it probably had more surface area on the blades than mine did. I finished out the day enjoying the unseasonably late warmth with good friends and a few new ones.

One of my favorite views from one of my favorite rapids. With my favorite breakdown paddle, for that matter, too.
Crystal, Bottom Moose
Ok, now for the boring part.

I just reached the halfway point in my novel, and because all of you are such faithful readers, you get a little sneak peak, inspired by the Moose!

Cobb was already sliding before he realized what Sam had talked him into doing. He had nodded and smiled and laughed his way up the steep slope to the narrow plateau and tightened the back of his seat so he was snug in the bright plastic. And now he was flying down the ocean of pine needles, rocketing through the gauntlet of tree trunks. He leaned forward and reached across the bow of his boat, minimizing the surface area left to slam into a tree branch. He breathed the soft scent of crushed pine needles. The rush of air and soft shifting of plastic along the loamy soil rang in his ears like an orchestra. In a moment, the dusky blur was blasted into a faint memory by the golden sunlight of the open river. He hung in the air for a moment and remembered those cold car rides wishing he could fly.
He landed in the dark, cool water with a slap that brought his focus back into the present. He grinned. He knew that was only the beginning of the day’s excitement. He began paddling downstream, eager for the next rush of color and sound. Sam landed in the water with a whoop and caught up. They were junkies drifting between the small boulders, looking ahead at the edge of the world, their next fix. Treetops and empty space. The black conveyer belt before them flowed onwards, indifferent to the blank space ahead. A yellow leaf drifted listlessly over the edge. Cobb followed, falling, accelerating, disappearing. He popped up in the foam and swirling pieces of driftwood at the bottom and paddled into an eddy. Sam followed soon after, and Cobb counted ten mississippis before he emerged from the grasp of the white noise, grinning. And then they were off again, weaving their laughter between boulders and over more horizons.
Cobb and Sam never once stopped to scout ahead and find the route. This was their run. They had a responsibility to know where the big holes were and at what level the ledges were still ok to paddle. Together they had over 200 runs on this section alone. It was their training grounds. Some might say their confidence was justified. The one rapid that still made Cobb’s heart rise to his throat was Crystal. There was something about that coliseum of sandy-orange rock and the cascading whitewater within it that resonated with his soul. Interacting with something like that never came as easy as he expected. Instead, it created a challenge that left him breathless, unnerved, and wishing it would never end.

 I also think the very middle word of the target word count (25,000 of 50,000) being "Rum" is important to mention. Some might say the entire novel centers around alcohol. Based on word counts, they would be correct.

And now the bonus material!

I managed to get outside between the terrible weather, paddling, and writing like a madman. I even got the family to come with. Well, some of them...

We spent some time hiking into a few drops on the West Branch of the Oswegatchie, which looks like a lot of fun, but also has a lot of flatwater. Here are a few shots.

 The biggest reasons to try and get along with fishermen:
There are more of them than there are us
They have more influence on access to rivers
They know about lots of sweet waterfalls we might not

Sweet waterfalls like this...

I found a piece of ice that looked a lot like Vermont, so I had Nicole snap a picture of me "In" an "Icy VT." The trails were all in really good condition and had some pretty sweet views at the end. They'd make some good picnicking destinations, and they're pretty easy to get to. I found all of them with directions here! 

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I am a freelance writer and photographer, collector of experiences, adventure lover, and outdoor goer.