Thursday, July 05, 2007

Survival of the Fittest!

Quick update for you:
A few weeks ago I cut my hair, which does not look to bad b/c my curly hair covers up the patchy spots. Also the salmon are running strong. The bears are being crazy this year. We have had to escort people around bears tons in the last few weeks. Also the bears have been completely closing the bridge across Brooks River for hours. This is not so bad since people want to watch bears, but it does cause some issues and tension.

Friday the 29th was a most interesting day for me. I had the day off, so I traveled to the falls in the afternoon since there was a bear jam (bear blocking any crossing of the river) all morning. I witnessed several bears fishing and had a good time talking to visitors and watching the bears. I left around 5:20 to head back to camp when I spotted two young adults wrestling about 20 yards from the end of the ramp along the falls trail. Being the good off duty ranger I helped get people to the ramp as they approached.

After the bears left I waited a few minutes to proceed down the path so that the bears might have a chance to clear out. 60 yards from the ramp the pair came running down the path behind me, so I stepped off the trail to let them pass me. The first bear stopped about 20 feet in front of me while the second stopped 25 feet behind me. Still not worried. Then a third sizeable male bear runs towards me from the left while woofing at me a couple of times. Speaking kindly I stepped further off the trail into the woods. This is when I get a tiny bit scared. To my right a large dominate male bear bluff charges down a hill towards me to stop about 3 feet away. A bluff charge is when a bear runs at you and stops some times coupled with foot stomping as it stops (as in this case). I stood my ground, unclipped my bear spray, and watch the bear cowboy walk (sideways straddled steps), then turn sideways to show me his large profile. The 2 younger males have run away at this time, but I am still between these two bears, a stand of trees in front, and a large dead spruce behind me leaving no real exit strategies. Then the third bear woofs a few times at me from the left, which causes the dominate male to bluff charge a second time with accompanied foot stomps. Honestly you don't know a bluff charge from a real one until the bear stops. Also bears can run 40 yards in under 3 seconds and this bear was only 10 yards on the second run. Luckily the third bear woofed a few times and walked away, which I promptly followed giving the fourth bear a chance to leave. So all in all it was and eventful night.

I left out July 2 to go on a kayaking trip down the Ukak River and back to camp. B/c of a bear jam we were not able to arrive at Three Forks Cabin (overlooks the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes) until 10:15 at night. We portaged one Kayak and some gear, in the rain, down 1.7 miles and 850 ft loss of elevation to below Ukak Falls. The next morning we got up and portaged the other kayak and gear down in order to start our day. We had walked part of the rim that overlooked the river the night before to check out the quality of the rapids which were supposed to be class 5. Turns out that they were only class 3 when we ran them. It was great. Greg Fahl and I cover the 1st mile in less than 2 minutes.

After that the river slowed down and the guide book we had read, copyright 1973, proposed that the rest of the river was class 1. About .5 miles later we hit more rapids that are way more intense. This is a little scary since we are surrounded by a 75 ft high canyon wall with 34 degree glacier fed water. In these rapids is when Greg flips his kayak and goes in the water (aka attempts suicide by river). Through clear mind and a little skill I was able to back paddle, unbuckle the throw rope, and toss it to with in 3 inches of Greg (text book toss) in about 3 seconds (Greg has been bragging on me ever since we returned). Next I paddled forward while keeping hold of Greg in order to ram my boat between two rocks, thus safely bring him up on the only bank available. After Greg was discovered to be ok, I took off down river and managed to get the kayak before it was too far down river. I was able to get out about a half mile down river and pull out the boat. Greg walked over the ridge to catch back up with me at which point we tossed the rope back and forth so that I could tie the kayak to it then let him drift it back to himself on the other side. Some how, we cannot crack this mystery, Greg ended up with the paddle so it was not lost, but he was not holding it when he was pulled ashore. While we were getting Greg and his kayak back together we were getting hypothermic.

To add insult to injury it started to rain and the wind picked up. Two hours after the flip we were back in the water paddling towards an area to get out and get warm. The river still had some good rapids which we managed well. It was interesting to see the Novarupta ash end so went from 60 ft cliffs to no ash 3 ft later. The weather got better and worse over the day as well so we went from hypothermic and back several times, but we knew we had to finish the river in order to get a chance at a boat pick up from Neknek Lake. The rest of the day went pretty well and we even recovered an item that Greg lost from the Kayak later on in the day. The rain had an interesting effect on the river in places. It would cause the river to stack up creating 4-5ft waves in the center of the river which would slacken into mostly flat water then back again to huge waves. I went through it once for fun, but interesting enough you could paddle to the left or right of the wave and be close enough to touch the wave with your hand. Finally we reached the braided stream at the end that feeds into the end of the Savanoski River quickly followed by the Iliac arm of the Neknek Lake. The last .5 mile of the Ukak was so shallow the boat would catch on sand so you had to hip thrust the boat into a narrow channel that lasted 3-6 ft. Needless to say my abs hurt and we eventual decided to get out and walk through the cold water to the side of the river and out to the lake.

It is about 7 pm when we stare down 2.5 ft white caps and a strong head wind against us on the Neknek. Being such a terrible location and so cold we had to tough it out and paddle for the closest reasonable area to camp. Luckily we knew of an island that turned out to be amazing. It had a nice flat spot protected from the wind that was perfect and enough dead/down wood (also drift wood) for me to make a fire to warm ourselves. We reached the island by 8 and called back to Brooks Camp to let them know we had arrived on the lake. We made dinner on our stove and went to bed not too long after.

The next morning was 40 degrees and strong winds. We called about getting a possible ride in to camp, but no one was available and bear jams prevented getting out a boat. So we braved the white caps, cold, and head wind. As the day progressed it became very nice. I switched from sweater and rain jacket to just a t-shirt and the sun even came out as we were paddling the main stretch across the lake. That blessing became a curse as I got really sunburned especially on my elbow where I had scratched off a good bit of skin saving Greg. When we reached the moraine break, which separates the iliac arm from the main body of Neknek Lake, we encountered a sharp increase in wind which created several waves about 4 ft high with white caps. Luckily we made it through with no problems and reached camp just before 6 pm.

Today was just another fun day working with bears and bridge closures. The sunburn has been a little tough, but worked out well and I was even lucky enough to get a back rub last night. All said and done we had a good time and it made for a great story. "The Ukak Gauntlet" as we are naming the trip was probably the first time it has been run in 30-35 years and might be a while before another sole paddles its length again. Good night & happy thoughts to all until we meet again.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

All I can say is I hope you're taking lots of photos because I want to see them when you get back!