How to determine how many images to post? No amount of pictures can tell the story. But here is a taste of my story.
The flight into Bhutan is itself an adventure. Views of the Himalayas, tallest mountain range in the world! Views of the pine needles, so close to the wing tips it seems you could reach out and touch them as the plane drops in preparation for landing! These are 2 of the many reasons to be happy to be on the tarmac in Paro!
We kayak on clear, cold, pristine rivers winding through stunning valleys. In our effort to see as much of Bhutan as we can in our twelve days, we hike through villages, we boat, we drive to the next monastery. Some days we join the locals in religious festivals. Karma, raft guide for those on the land tour and cultural guide for all, has a knack of assimilating us into the local activities. If there’s something going on, we’re in the thick of it! Fresh popped rice anyone? The shadiest spot to sip the coldest brew in town? Nuances of Buddhist imagery? He knows it all. Buffet lunches arrive riverside as we finish our day on a new run. How does he do it?
The road travel is at times as exciting as the flights. A landslide? No worries! After a few hours mingling with the Bhutanese (who are picnicking as they wait for the road crew to cut a new mountainside road) we are heading toward a new adventure! Like visiting the Takin Reserve. (That’s the muskox-like national animal of Bhutan.) Or hiking in search of the black-necked crane that overwinters from Mongolia. Or taking time to visit to the School of Traditional Arts. Then, shopping anyone?
Beyond Karma’s magic, there are so many serendipitous events that occur as to be inexplicable! As I said earlier, no amount of pictures can tell the story. You just have to come and experience the adventure of Bhutan for yourself!
We’re planning a repeat of this section and all the classics across Bhutan Nov 6- 27th, 2016. We hope you’ll consider joining us.
It was 3:00 PM, late November in eastern Bhutan. Day 1 of the first descent of the Kuri Chu. This was the hour we told ourselves we would start looking for camp. These deadlines are often better in theory than practice as we found ourselves in a section of canyon with near-vertical walls. Below us was a horizon line spewing mist. It wouldn’t be long before the low-angled sun would slip behind the ridge. It was beginning to look like we might be late for dinner.
Just beyond the horizon line we could make out a spot where the entire river, all 4500 cfs of it, flowed through a gap not much more than 15 feet wide. This narrowing we expected from our Google Earth review of the river prior to the trip. We weren’t worried about it because we knew that it sat in a pool. It was this rapid that sat between us and that pool that was a surprise to me.
We were a team of six made up of one Canadian, one Bhutanese and four from the U.S.. Thinley Thoben, Ben Morton and I were guiding Sarah Cunningham, David Lech and David Focardi. This was Sarah and Thinley’s first multi-day and the 1st time some in the group had done a first descent. I had become aware of the river in 2010 when I floated past its confluence while doing a multi-day river trip on the Drangme Chu, a drainage to the east. Curious to learn more about the Kuri, I had asked our Bhutanese outfitter, Ugyen “Yougs” Dorje what he knew. He gave me three important pieces of information: it hadn’t been done, he could get the permit and I was welcome to put together the first trip.
Ben got the group organized in eating a late lunch while Thinley and I floated downstream to have a closer look at this rapid. Without verbally communicating, I knew Thinley was also concerned about what it held, how we might get around it and how long it would take. He popped out of his kayak onto the rocks to have a look just ahead of me. I kept an eye on him as I pulled my boat out of the water, watching his body English carefully to see what it might tell me of the rapid. After a short time he turned to me and flashed a big smile while giving the “thumbs up” with one hand and tapping his head in the universal “O.K”. sign with the other. There was a way around this.
This wide rapid was broken by a ledge system, which in turn was sprinkled with numerous rocks, and holes. We were committed to running the left side. After a technical top section, the flow formed an intimidating pillow as it slammed into the left wall and exited in a 90-degree turn.
The word sonam means good luck, the kind of “luck” that comes from good living. And right now sonam was with us! We could portage the difficult top part and put into an eddy exactly where we needed one just upstream of the pillow. This eddy would allow us one by one to get into our boat and execute a ferry in front of the cushion. This intimidating yet doable move led into the pool above the narrow gap. Failure to drive far enough out into the current would result in getting pushed back leftby the force field effect of the pillow. If that happened and the paddler was still upright, they’d have to scramble back into the eddy and get themselves psyched up to try again.
We fire-lined the kayaks over the rocks and into position. Ben lead off with a perfect demo, always good for moral to see that first run go so well. We took our turns with no two runs the same. David F. had the most exciting run. He experience the “what if” line when he immediately flipped upon entering the current, rolled, flipped again then disappeared our of view from those of us waiting below. It was a tense moment. David ended up out of his boat, all the pieces together in a pocket eddy against the left cliff wall still above the pillow. Thinley, who was running sweep, was able to scramble from above to extract him from the eddy and hike his boat back into position. Dave now had to try the move again- not easy after such an experience. The second run came up with the goods. He stayed upright long enough to hit the right side of the pillow. Our cheering echoed off the canyon walls.
Now as we floated through the narrows and into the next rapid, our focus was to find a camp. Once again sonam was with us when I followed my instincts and veered off to find a hidden pool at the top of a rapid. There, at the far end nestled amongst the rocks surrounded by the steep canyon walls, was a sandy beach. Home for the night! With dusk upon us we scrambled for driftwood and filtered water, settling into the routine of making dinner and setting camp as we relaxed into the beauty and magic of this most remote place.
The 3-day descent included a day and a half of paddling 20 miles of the Kuri Chu and a another 30 after joining with the larger and easier Drangme Chu. We reached the confluence at 4:00 p.m. the next day after a full day of challenging and rewarding rapids. It was in this place 5 years earlier, during a descent of the Drangme Chu with Thinley that he and I first peered curiously up the Kuri and wondered about it’s rapids. Now, five years later, we could see some significant changes had taken place as roads were being built on the steep sides of both rivers where there had once been only forest. A dust storm blew up the Drangme as workers cleared a freshly blasted area. The threat of rock fall kept us moving, robbing us of a chance to absorb the energy of the bleanding of these two rivers. The hard rapids were behind us and the group was keen to put in another hour so as to nibble away at some of the last day’s mileage, so we pushed on and made camp in the dark.
As we broke camp our last day the view downstream was already very different than the previous camp. The air was warmer and the banks were lined with thick tropical vegetation. This is tiger country. The topography was easing back and we could sense the river canyon giving way to the flats of India. During our final day, our driver Shatu and our cultural guide Kinga were finishing up an adventure of their own. Bhutan’s rugged terrain meant they had to drive for 2 ½ days to meet us at Manas National Park, our take-out on the Indian side of the border. As we approached the take we could see their silhouettes enthusiastically waving from the shore and feel the warmth of their smiles.
Our trip had begun in Paro far to the west, on the other side of the country. Had we driven it in one push, it would have been three long days of continuous driving over winding, mountainous roads, and crossing numerous passes. Fortunately the Drangme Chu and Kuri Chu are only two of many incredible rivers Bhutan has to offer. With the Himalayan range and Tibetan Plateau as their source, the rivers flow north to south before spilling out into India. During our 16 days in country we took part in celebrating the fourth King’s birthday with the country and enjoyed a festival where few tourists ever go, we hit up eight awesome Class IV and IV+ runs as we worked our way east to this successful and rewarding run of the Kuri Chu.
The Kuri may be the finest multi-day run I’ve done in Bhutan. The quality of this river exceeded my expectations; numerous rapids at the class IV+ level, minimal portaging, stunning scenery, multiple days of living out of our kayaks and finishing in another country! I am already planning my return.
Our fall 2015 Bhutan schedule of trips and itineraries are up on our website. We’ve got some really great opportunities to experience paddling and the culture in this wonderful corner of the world. We hope you can join us. Click here to learn more:
As I write this our politicians are holding the Grand Canyon and all federally controlled recreation lands, as well as many people’s jobs and livelihoods hostage while they play a game of chicken with our national budget. Anyone who has either signed on for a commercial trip or whose long awaited start for a private permit is scheduled during this time is being blocked from launching. Ironic that the very places that many of us go to get away from it all are affected even as we try to escape.
If all you did was look at a map each time you went to run the Grand Canyon or any other river for that matter, it would look the same each time you came back. You put in at point A and take out at point B. That is where the similarities end. Each time you put on, the river is going to be a little different, it might be clear or muddy, a little higher or a little lower, the weather might be cloudy or sunny, cool or hot, but what really sets it all apart from the rest of the trips you may have done are the people. It’s a key element in all trips.
To paddle the Colorado is one thing, to experience as much of the Grand Canyon as you can is another. For many this truly is a once in a lifetime trip, the only time they’ll get to do it. Others will fall under its spell and find ways to return again and again. What if this is your only trip? Wouldn’t you want to see as much as you possibly can? We agree! So on the mellow water days we might load everyone onto the rafts (along with their kayaks) so we can focus on exploring the many side canyons and doing as many loops hikes as possible.
We truly look forward to the actual running of our trips. We’d been corresponding with many of our guests for close to a year and finally being on the river together is what it’s all about. On this trip we had folks from Germany, Switzerland and all across the US, plus our good friends Jaime and Gisela from Ecuador. We also had a great crew of guides from Tour West, our Grand Canyon outfitter. Four trip leaders! With over 500 combined trips down the Colorado between them, let’s just say that Dave, Kyle, Tom and Cameron knew their way around.
The southwest had been experiencing later-than-usual rainfall. We knew we weren’t going to have a clear water trip. Just as a splash of milk will change the color of a cup of coffee, it doesn’t take much silt from a tributary to turn the main river some shade of “colorado”. Just downstream of the put-in with an “average” flow of 35 cfs, the Paria mixes with the green water of the dam-controlled Grand. Three day after we put-in, the Paria peaked at over 7,000 cfs! Our flows for the 15 days fluctuated between 9,000 – 19,000 cfs, 2,000 – 6000 cfs more than the dam released. This silt laden run-off negated the term “whitewater” and made our paddles slippery to hold. THIS is the Colorado!!
For the first three days we lived with clouds and occasional rainfall (never at mealtime). We retreated to our tents each night to be sure we got a good nights sleep. By the forth night tents gave way to cots. From then on we slept under clear, starry skies. During those early days we hiked into the Esplanade Sandstone of North Canyon, took on the rapids of the Roaring Twenties and settled into the mellow stretch of river below Silver Grotto. We threw frisbees at Redwall Cavern, marveled at Nautaloid fossils, climbed high at Eminance Break to see this mighty river oxbow around Point Hansburough, we swam in the clear water at the end of the of Saddle Canyon hike and gazed from the granaries of Nankoweap at the iconic downstream view.
In spite of the rain, most of the side streams were flowing clear so we made stops at places like Shinumo, Elve’s, Clear Creek, Makatamiba, Havasu and Three Springs. We were also fortunate to camp at Stone Creek, Ledge’s and Fern Glen, also with clean water.
The Canyon itself was verdant! While hiking to the overlook at Unkar, normally a sun-parched wasteland, someone commented that it looked as if grass seed had been spread and a lush lawn was coming in.
We were a merry band of kayakers and rafters, all keen for adventure. The hiking trio of Jean “the machine”, Rimma and Michele were a force to be reckoned with, often heading up the pack during the longer hikes at Carbon-Lava Chuar, Tabernacle and the Surprise Valley up-and-over from Tapeat’s to Deer Creek. Michele would often stop to catalog her most recent find in the form of a plant, critter or rock. It had been a long talked about dream to share the Canyon with Todd and Becky, as it sits in their backyard. It wasn’t until this year they were able to make it happen. Mary F. gets the “Vishnu Schist” award for having undergone the greatest metamorphosis, with true grace, from neophyte camper to Canyon veteran. Amazing, Mary.
This was Jaime’s second trip down the Colorado, perhaps giving him the most runs in a kayak by an Ecuadorian (how’s that for looking for a first). Gisela, from the tropical town of Tena, Ecuador was soaking up the desert and game for anything (as long as she got a clean-water solar shower each day).
Patrick, Jerry and Steve usually led the kayak charge, going BIG by hitting both holes in Crystal, venturing right at Hance, repeatedly plugging the hole in Upset and taking the crasher at 209 head on! Carry back up to do it again? You bet! Tom, at 72, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 trips down the Colorado, was the man to watch for smooth lines with minimal effort. Eike, the nicest guy around, had never seen such big flows! An example of efficiency, he’d see his line and quickly run it clean. (A version of “they’re at the top, I’m at the bottom. I win!”) He found an outlet for his surplus energy in crushing cans in camp each night perfecting the technique of minimum blows. It was fun to watch his confidence in the bigger water began to match his solid skills.
Maren boated the Grand with us before. Right off the bat she looked like a different paddler by styling Badger on day one (it had knocked her flat three years earlier). She never looked back as she gracefully aced the big rapids. (I think she might have flipped only once the whole trip!) Thomas took the realistic approach, chose his paddling days wisely and put great effort into working on his roll and technique for negotiating the swirlies. Mark with his calm expression had a paddling style to match, never too much or too little, just steady. He survived the most dramatic collapse of Lava’s infamous Kahuna wave I have ever seen! Jim was back for more and paddled better than any of his previous times down. Todd and George consumed the most oxygen through the big rapids with heart rates exceeding their max! Each rose to the occasion and scored successes that left them confident and elated (and perhaps humbled in a couple of the biggest rapids). But who cares! It’s only water! And with the hikes, geology, flora and fauna, solitude and camaraderie, the Grand Canyon put everything into perspective.
For 15 days we had molded into a supportive, motley extended family.
And then, it was over.
It’s a weird transition, going from a place where the perspective of time doesn’t mean the same as it does back home. Where life is bared down and decisions simple. Where the eyes see differently, and the spontaneity of the moment reminds us of life on the playground. It took three days to wash most of the silt from our gear when we got back. I don’t think that it’s possible to ever wash away the memories of those 15 incredible days together. Why would anyone want to?
One of many light displays availble in the canyon.
Jerry trying to hide his pleasure.
One of the happy honeymooners.
Here’s the other honeymooner.
Scout at Upset Rapid.
Not a lot of effort for the reward, the overlook at Unkar.
The mother ship with captain Dave and crew.
Mary F. winner of this year’s Vishnu Schist award.
Cameron learning to relax.
He doesn’t look lost to me. He finds our beer, then our women, who is this guy?
We heard a varmint in the kitchen going through the food boxes so we set up a camera trap and this is what we got.
Maren finishing with style.
Sun going down, cue the moon please.
Smiling Miss. Mary D.
Looks like a National Inquirer- type moment.
Moving out along the trail on Tapeats Creek.
Leaving Thunder River.
Tom C. leaving the patio at Deer Creek after finishing the up and over.
Layers upon layers upon layers.
Vertical parking in Havasu Creek.
Near the end of the day and the end of the trip. Somewhere around mile 218.
Jim M. steady as he goes.
Jaime shows a line in Lava.
Open country on the way to the Tabernacle.
A well earned smile after 2,000 ft. of vertical atop the Tabernacle.
Mary awaiting the first wave of paddlers into Hermit.
Eveyone is all smiles at the start of the Surprise Valley Hike.
Jaime, always smiling, always watchful.
Gisela’s reaction to the Tapeats, Thunder River, Surprise Valley, Deer Creek Hike. What you don’t see is Cameron slumped into the throne next to her like a sack of wet potatoes.
Million dollar smile. Geaorge, the groups resident vulcanologist.
Nicest guy on the water, Eike.
Cameron a.k.a Mr. Flowbie.
Special thanks to Dave Stratton of Tour West for working with us to run a great trip. With over 300 voyages through Grand Canyon Dave still brings great energy down the river with him.
Patrick and his trademark move.
Thomas nears Diamond Peak and the take out on the last day. The entire vertical drop we experienced from the put in to the take is represented in the peak’s height.
When fires ignited by lightning began to burn in the Rogue River corridor on July 26th we held our breaths to see what would happen next and how that might affect our August trips. The Rogue is a beautifully forested river that hasn’t seen a major fire in many years. It had been spared from being involved in the 500,000 acre Biscuit Fire complex back in 2002 when that fire stopped just shy of the southern boundary of the river’s view shed along Bear Camp Road. This time the fire had started within the corridor and the potential for a big burn seemed high.
On July 31st the BLM closed the Wild and Scenic portion of the river from the put in at Grave Creek to Marial, just above Mule Creek Canyon. In some cases the fire had burned very close to the river and, remarkably, it had been solely limited to the south (river left) side. We had to cancel our August 7th trip.
We then turned our attention to our August 14 and 21st dates. Brainstorming with our outfitter, Jim Ritter of Rogue River Journeys, we decided to move the next trip to the Deschutes in Northeastern Oregon, just north of Bend. The Deschutes fit a number of criteria in terms of length of run, difficulty and a location that wasn’t ridiculously far from people’s original travel plans. Most of all, it wasn’t on fire.
Making the switch wasn’t without its challenges and rewarding moments. I love the boating community and the way the outfitters support each other, kinda like living in a small town where everyone is willing to pitch in and help. We activated the boating network and reconnected with friends we hadn’t talked with in a long time. Fellow kayak instructors, raft company owners and private boaters all helped us gather info about the run before we ever paddled it.
Since this would be our first time down the Deschutes and wanting to provide the best trip possible, Mary and I headed to the north with enough time to get in a quick two-day paddle of the 52 mile stretch from Warm Springs to Sandy Beach before our August 14th launch. The experience was greatly aided with the help of Brian Sykes and his guides at Ouzel Rafting who let us paddle along on an overnight trip and pick the brains of the guides about camps and the like.
RRJ guides Katherine, Saylor, Ross and Esa showed up late the night before the launch, weary from the travel but excited about a new adventure and all of us being together again on the water. The next morning we rigged and talk more with Tim, an Ouzel guide with great knowledge who guided with our trip. Jim Ritter, RRJ manager extraordinaire and our kayak guests arrived in time for lunch after a scenic drive from Medford along the upper reaches of the Rogue. Then we hit the water.
What I saw during the trip was the coming together of a great group of folks; guides who were motivated to run the best trip possible and guests who wanted to spend multiple days on the river while having a good time, learning new skills and improving existing ones. The Deschutes did not disappoint. The last day of our run was a nice climax to the trip, full of great rapids.
The most common comment we got from folks as we said good bye? “See you on the Rogue next year”.
There were lot’s of familiar faces for our first trip of the season down the Middle Fork Salmon. Tom, who probably has more trips on the MF than Mary and myself combined, made the long drive from Texas, Arn and Deb as well as Jim S. arrived from Colorado, Jane, one of Mary’s old friends from NOC days, used the trip as an excuse to bring her busy kayaking family together from Maryland. California was well represented by Kurt, Tristin, Dave, Vicki, Pam and Bill K. Also from Cali was our adopted raft passenger Bill W. who has done numerous trips with ECHO over the years. Once he stumbled onto a trip of ours, he had such a good time he’s now a member of the tribe. Rounding out the trip and all the way from the flooded city of Calgary, Canada was Paul.
For the first day and half we had a steady drizzle of rain and a stop at Trail Flat hot springs along the river’s edge gave temporary relief from the cold.
By the afternoon of day 2 the clouds were breaking and the sun warmed our camp at Marble and shown a spotlight on the surfwave just below. People took advantage of the sunshine to play frizbee golf & bacci ball, hike to a vista point behind camp or just sit and relax.
On day 3 the diehard surfers in the group enjoyed a morning surf session before paddling down to catch the rest of the group that were enjoying a soak at Sunflower hot springs. Luck had been with us on the assignment of camps and we scored Loon with one of the best hot springs on the entire trip just a mile up the creek.
Paddling into camp late afternoon of day 4 we had covered just over twenty four miles that were packed with great whitewater and dramatic changes in the canyon’s character. We were camped amongst the Ponderosa pines at Survey camp. The margaritas had been out for an hour now and the guides had strung up a rope between trees and draped it with “dare wear”, a mix of thrift store costumes for all to wear should they decide to. I’m always surprised at who wears what, but hey, “what happens on the river, stays on the river”. Dressed up, seated in a circle, we listen intently as 16 year old Jack gave us his TED Talk (No kidding, to see the original talk, minus the costume, click here). Proof again that you never know what you’re going to learn on a river trip. Our many talented musicians played into the night with all of us enjoying one another’s company and conversation.
Our last two days we paddled through the Impassable Canyon, a name that speaks of the steep terrain. The river is by far the only way to navigate this rugged landscape. After an awesome morning of great rapids our final day, we confluenced with the Main then crashed through the mighty, Grand Canyon-style Kraemer rapid to reach the take-out. As Henry B says, “The Middle Fork trip references my whole year. There’s what happens after the Middle Fork, and then, there’s what happens before the Middle Fork.” We hope many wonderful things happen in your lives before your next Middle Fork trip!!
Click photos for larger view.
The view looking out from under Veil Falls, a must visit side hike.
Paul and Anika soak it in amongst the grotto at the base of veil falls.
Setting up home for the night at Cliffside camp
Steve A feeling the stoke of surfing at Marble wave.
Andrew trying his luck in front of camp.
Morning at Marble camp looking upstream.
Jim S. puts his 4 fun to good use on Marble wave.
The raft guides take advantage of a little down time before jumping in the kitchen to prep dinner.
Father and son, Kurt and Tristin attempt the very difficult art of tandem relaxing in a pack raft.
Drying out after rain.
Colleen smiling and in the kitchen.
Love that garlic bread.
Raft guide John checks out the acoustics at Veil Falls.
Chances are you have a bucket list of rivers you would love to do some day. On our list has always been the Selway River in Idaho, one of the original rivers included into the wild and scenic river system back in 1968. The permitted section is forty-five miles long, is located in the rugged Selway-Bitteroot wilderness in Idaho and boasts a healthy forest of Red Cedar and Douglas Fir. The forest service only allows one launch a day which makes these permits hard to get, combine this with a short window of runnable flows and you can see why it might take a while to get on it.
We had been invited before, more than once, but for one reason or another it never worked out, until this year. Our good friend Dave S. pulled the permit and put together a fun group of folks from across the country. The launch date in mid- June meant it would fit perfectly before our annual Middle Fork Salmon trips. We were 16 people in five rafts and five kayaks on what seemed to be a user friendly flow of between 5,000-6,000 cfs (gauge at Lowell below take out). While we never really added it up, the combined years of river experience were probably close to 1,000 (o.k., I exaggerate, but it was a lot). The poor folks who were on their first multi-day trip had to endure a lot of year’s worth of river stories. For the five days we were on the water, we saw no other groups floating the river and we felt like we had the place to ourselves.
Clear skies and sunshine were with us for the first three days, then the sun gave way to clouds and rain for the remainder of the trip- it didn’t seem to matter, we were prepared and having an outstanding time! We hope to be back but I’d prefer not to wait another 30 years to make it happen.
If it’s not there already, put the Selway on your list.
A little aside: Along with us on the trip were Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United and Dave Steindorf of American Whitewater. We learned a lot from these two about the challenges our country’s rivers and their ecosystems face. Please click on the links, learn about the important work these organizations do and please support them.