Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Emotional highs and lows: my ongoing packrafting journey

Because I am usually somewhere else in the world but New Zealand each January, COVID-19 travel restrictions gave me the opportunity to at last attend a Packrafting NZ meetup. It's still a fledgeling community so opportunities for me to meet other paddlers have been scarce.

I've been lurking on the various packrafting facebook pages and it's pretty clear to me that the focus seems to be on high adrenaline runs in Grade 2+ rivers rather than what I'm interested in. Yes I would like to feel confident and skilled running Grade 2 rivers, but the purpose for me of having a packraft is to combine it with tramping. My focus isn't on running the river, but using the river as a viable route on a tramping trip.

Because I usually paddle alone I restrict myself to really easy rivers and flatwater. The Packrafting meetup is about running up to Grade 2 rivers so I booked in to a skills course beforehand. In my initial course with Arno 2 years ago I had learnt the basic skills of self rescue, swimming a rapid safely, catching eddies, ferry gliding and assisted rescue with a throw bag. Since then I have to admit to mostly floating down those easy rivers rather than spending time practising those skills.

Huw's course, usually based out of Queenstown but this time in Murchison and joined by Daan from the NZ Kayak School, was a step up from Arno's course, with more gnarly rapids to run, and swim across!, as well as more emphasis on team work and assisted rescues. My eddying skills had definitely improved over the 2 years, but this was the first time I had been exposed to the use of thigh straps in packrafts.

My boat is very basic, with a blow up seat and backrest, which means I have no back support, and because my legs are short and I have nothing to brace against I continuously slide forwards meaning maintaining an upright posture whilst paddling is hard. Thigh straps hold one's legs against the side tubes, making edging the craft much easier. I don't have them either.

I don't have any of these modifications because they all mean a heavier boat to carry around. That's the trade off....

So I made do, managing to edge my boat enough to catch the eddies, just as effectively as the others with their thigh straps. But it's hard work, continuously having to slide oneself upright again. Getting some sort of inflatable bag to brace against for my feet and/or changing my backrest to something more supportive may be a modification I need to make. But I'm still wary of pimping my boat too much.

After two days running rapids on the Buller and Mangles I had a couple of days off before the Packraft Meetup began. Mostly because it rained, a lot! There was another group doing an intermediate course with Huw also staying in Murchison and going to the meetup, so I met up with them and gained some new friends, some of whom also like tramping.

The rivers kept rising, the temperatures dropped and snow fell to 1000m ASL. It wasn't summer any more, and the rivers were now super pushy. It wasn't going to be an ease into paddling Grade 2 rivers for us newbies, it would be Grade 2+ from the get go!!

Our first afternoon we had a lake session where we practised self rescue and assisted rescue. I used to be able to pull myself into my boat, but I can't anymore. Strength, technique, energy? Something is missing. I definitely need to spend some time practising this crucial skill before I can be anything but a liability in a group. I already felt on the backfoot, and then things got worse....

The first full day we headed up the Rainbow road to run the Waiau between St Ronans Well (requiring a 5km tramp in to the put in) and Slip Flat, supposedly an easy Grade 2 run. But with river levels at least twice as high as they had been when the organisers had scoped the runs a few weeks previously, it was much more pushy. I managed to paddle down, only tipping over once, but I didn't enjoy myself. Mostly I was scared, bad adrenaline vs good adrenaline. Only on the last rapid did I actually let out a whoop of joy as I paddled through the wave train to eddy out at the take out. I wasn't alone, many people had found that run challenging and somewhat out of their comfort zone. The organisers had only opted for this run because it was the least challenging of all the rivers available!! God help us!!!

Day 2 we ran the Buller, with some getting in higher whilst the rest of us dropped in below Granity Rapid, and paddled to Owens River takeout. Cars were used to shuttle between the put ins and takeouts, like we had done on our course, and some paddled further down the river whilst a small selection of better paddlers ran the Source of the Buller, a gnarly boulder garden where it exits Lake Rotoiti at St Arnaud. I opted to only do the middle section, my confidence shot to pieces.

The final day saw the North Island bound paddlers leave for their ferries whilst the rest of us headed back to Murchison and a run on the Matakitaki. The rivers were now dropping and this was a much cruisier run, with scenic gorges to float through, as well as some adrenaline rapids. Those who wanted more action went to run the earthquake rapid instead, a Grade 3-4 rapid I doubt ever to have the inclination to attempt!!

A few of us stayed the night in Murchison, hatching plans for trips. I got invited to join a couple planning to tramp up to a hut in the upper Matakitaki and float back down. They were super experienced packrafters from Australia and the trip sounded within my comfort level. So I agreed.

We headed off in my car the next morning, up the Mangles valley and then over to rejoin the Matakitaki much higher up than where we had paddled the day before. The track basically follows the river the entire way to Downies Hut, one of the oldest DOC huts in Nelson Lakes National Park.

The next morning we walked up river a bit more as Kelvin was keen to find some features to play in. He's a really skilled paddler and a joy to watch. He and his wife Liz have been packrafting for at least 10 years!

Each of us put in at a spot we felt comfortable running, with me putting in the lowest. Then we headed down river. The rapids were all pretty easy, except for one with an overhanging tree, which Kelvin only spotted halfway through running it and skilfully avoided. Liz managed just to miss it with an effective ferry glide, whereas my skills weren't up to the task and the current took me onto it. Luckily it was just an overhanging tree and not a strainer, so me and my boat got easily washed under it and I surfaced on the other side and jumped back in my boat.

This little incident got Kelvin rather worked up so he suggested I practice my ferry glides when we got to a nice easy shale rapid. We pretended that there was a tree on one side and I had to ferry glide across to the other side. So I headed down there, angled my boat at the appropriate angle upstream and paddled myself across the river, avoiding what I thought was the spot I was supposed to avoid.

Then the others came down to me, effortlessly gliding across the current from one side to the other. Kelvin paddled up to me and began somewhat rudely telling me off. Apparently I was supposed to wait for him to lead and that wasn't a ferry glide, that was paddling across the river!! My problem was I didn't listen he said, and I needed to start listening. How to ruin a perfectly lovely trip in one verbal exchange!

Once I got back to civilisation I looked up ferry gliding again, because I think Kelvin was expecting me to have a skill level I am yet to achieve. Effortless ferry gliding with minimal paddle strokes is something I can't yet do, but I do know that I need to keep my boat at the appropriate angle to allow the current to push me across the river. At this point I'm still struggling with that so there's lots of paddling on my part involved. I still get across the river, just with more effort. Yes I need to learn to do it effortlessly, but it sure wasn't going to happen with one practice run!

We pulled up at a spot where the river met the track, packed up our boats and tramped the final 30 minutes back to the car. Yet another night in Murchison and another hearty meal at the pub. I'm almost a local!

I met some lovely people at the meetup, and made some new contacts. But I feel even more of a liability as a team member than I did before I attended although thank goodness there are still people I met who will happily come paddling with me. My confidence is pretty well shot, but that's not such a bad thing as it's not going to make me think I can tackle rapids by myself. 

There's only one way to remedy this, and that's skills practice. I'm going to start on flatwater, nailing my self rescue and working on paddle strokes and edging, then work on my eddying and ferry gliding skills on easy rapids. Then I should be ready to paddle with others.

I'm off to the Marlborough Sounds for a few days next, a perfect spot for piddling around in a boat.....

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Wet feet: hundreds of river crossings, bogs galore, and a lake

 I spent a couple of days pottering around the Peninsula, Port Hills and Lyttleton, including a half day trip out to Quail Island in Lyttleton Harbour. There are some spectacular spots in this area, so close to Christchurch, and infinitely more pretty. I really don't like Christchurch at all, but I could contemplate living in nearby Lyttleton, connected by a tunnel through the hills so only a 15-20 minute drive to the CBD. I also did a little retail therapy, buying a few bits and pieces for tramping and packrafting.

With another lovely weather window ahead I drove to North Canterbury, and up the Hurunui to Lake Taylor, where I camped a night and packed my backpack for a five day trip. It's a long drive in, and I spied a bunch of kayakers and packrafters running the river. Many were portaging a Grade 3 rapid so I had a chat with them and learnt they were part of Canterbury Whitewater Club and they regularly run the Hurunui. Some were coming to the packrafting meetup.

It was blowing a strong norwester down the Lake, but I found a sheltered spot to camp behind a stand of flax near the shoreline, and filled up my 70L pack for a tramping and paddling circuit I had devised. I was glad for the extra day as it took quite some time.

The next morning I drove back down river to the Jollie Brook swing bridge, parked the car and set off. Once over the swingbridge I walked up to the confluence with the Jollie Brook where I had to make my first route decision of the trip. I planned to stay at Gabriel Hut and had two options: continue up the Hurunui Valley for 3-4 hours, or walk up the Jollie Brook and then over a saddle to Gabriel, which would take much longer. I chose the latter.

The walk up the Jollie Brook was gorgeous. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze and the continuous need to cross the small river to continue upstream kept me cool and enjoying the scenery.

At the confluence with the Coldstream I stopped for lunch and contemplated whether I would have enough time to do a detour up to the hut to bag it. The trip time estimations on the DOC literature and signage were extremely inconsistent across the board, so I didn't know if it was half an hour, or an hour one way to the hut. I decided to give it a miss, particularly as my pack was heavy and I was taking longer than the DOC estimations, but I'd enjoyed the walk up the valley so much I was perfectly happy to do it again some other time.

From the Coldstream confluence the track to Jollie Brook Hut was poorly marked. River crossings continued, and marker poles were obscured by high grass. After climbing up over a moraine wall the track back down from the top wasn't that obvious at first, but it would have been hard to actually get lost given you just needed to follow the river.

Jollie Brook Hut was in a pearler of a location, and quite a tidy wee hut, but it was too early to stop and I wanted to be much closer to the Lake for the following day's paddle, so off up river on a gentle gradient to a low saddle, and then a steady descent to Gabriel Hut.

Gabriel Hut is a rustic oldie, with water collected from a nearby stream. Nothing quite like the old huts for character, especially when the weather is warm and you don't actually need a fire!

The next morning I headed off early, down the track to the head of Lake Sumner. Over to my left was the Lake outlet, the head of the Hurunui. Unfortunately I wouldn't be paddling that on my own. 

Since the predominant wind up here is a norwester, I needed to get on the lake early to paddle up it before the breeze kicked in. I was only going a few kilometres to Marion Bay, just after Evangeline Stream enters the lake, and there was a track to walk if I needed it. It only took 1.5 hours, in glassy conditions, and I was well off the water drying everything along the stony beach before the first wisps of wind began stirring up the lake.

From Marion Bay the track climbs up a ridge and skirts Lake Marion before joining the Te Araroa trail at Kiwi Saddle. The improvement in track quality was obvious, I was now on a regularly used trail, maintained by both higher usage and probably more attention by DOC as a result.

The descent off the saddle is steep in bits and then it was a long walk down the grassy valley to Hope Kiwi Lodge. I met one TA walker heading to Hurunui Hut, and another who had walked from Boyle Village that morning and was done for the day. Because I knew I would be staying in huts used by TA walkers I had brought my bivy bag and air mattress, but I was the second person to arrive at the 16 berth hut so my bunk was secured. 

Not long after my arrival a couple of DOC workers drove in and proceeded to mow the lawns around the hut and the track back up the valley I had just walked down. They were actually in to work on the nearby swing bridge, but were keen to do other maintenance as well. I told them about the poor track markings along the Jollie Brook, and it turned out they had only recently cleared the lower section to Cold Stream, hence why the noticeable difference. I also mentioned the inconsistent signage...

Slowly the hut filled up, mostly with TA walkers back on the trail after a few days' rest in Hamner Springs. Most of them knew each other, or had heard of each other, and they swapped stories of their travails in the Richmond Ranges. It seems the Richmond Ranges are more memorable than the Waiau Pass section....

The only other group not walking the TA were a threesome who had walked from 3 Mile Stream Hut that day. As I was planning to walk that route the next day I asked them for information about the track. It turned out they had missed the turnoff to the track over the low saddle to Hope Kiwi, instead descending steeply to Lake Sumner and then walking the TA trail back over Kiwi Saddle to the hut. What should have been an easy 3 hour walk morphed into a much longer harder day. The boys were exhausted!

I was last to leave the next morning as usual, with the TA walkers all planning to walk past Hurunui Hut to the next one along the trail. I headed up the trail to 3 Mile Stream and was immediately back on a narrower, less maintained track through beautiful mossy beech forest. It was well marked and the track very easy to follow, though there were numerous sections of alpine bog to wade through, which reminded me a little of my tramp in the Takitimus. It is absolutely glorious forest to walk through, much wetter than the drier beech forest nearer the lake, and the wasp population seemed to be much lower as well.

Wasps are a major problem over late summer and early Autumn in the north of the South Island. They feed off the honeydew produced by a sap eating insect on beech trees and create monster nests. Should you disturb a nest of these introduced European wasps then you could be stung relentlessly. Some people have had anaphylactic reactions to wasp stings, so the recommendation is to bring antihistamines if tramping at this time of year. There is some wasp poisoning going on, which is making inroads, but the problem is huge.

There is a steep descent to 3 Mile Stream where I met the track heading down the valley. There is a big orange triangle marking the trailhead for the trail I had just taken, and a DOC sign right in front of me which totally fails to point out the trailhead, so I was not surprised the fellas missed the turnoff. As they also had no maps they didn't even know how much more they were undertaking when they realised they had missed the track and decided not to turn back.

Just over the river was Three Mile Stream Hut, another beautiful hut in a pearler location. Definitely a nice spot to hang out, but I merely lunched on the river flats below it, then headed on.

The day was warming up. My trail for the afternoon involved walking up the river valley to a saddle, walking through lots more mossy bogs and around some tarns, then descending to McMillan Stream and following that down to the Hurunui above Lake Sumner.

The going was pretty easy, but the hot weather made it tiring work. Luckily I was in the beech forest most of the time, and the multiple river crossings gave me an opportunity to dump the pack and go for a full body immersion! You need a hot day for me to go jump in an ice cold NZ stream, even fully clothed I didn't linger long!!

The final section of the track sidled beside river meadows full of cows, calves and a few big bulls making some slightly aggressive behaviour towards each other. I had to walk across this meadow to get to the Hurunui swing bridge, but the bulls took no notice of me and the calves and their mothers scampered out of my way.

I crossed the swing bridge then climbed the final kilometre or 2 to Hurunui Hut. The river upstream of the lake is braided, and looked a bit too bony to float down, so I planned to walk back the next day to the Lake. It had been a long 9.5 hour tramping day for me, but one of the most enjoyable scenery wise.

There was no-one in the hut when I arrived at 6:30pm, but later five TA walkers dribbled in, having walked all the way from Windy Point. They were concerned about getting through the next two passes before forecasted heavy rain would make the rivers impassable, so were planning very long 30km plus days. I was quietly smug about enjoying my easy trip planning around good weather windows, and not stuck on a timetable of torture (which is what the TA trail seems to me from a distance). Of course if the girls had left Hamner one day earlier, like all the others I met the night before, they wouldn't be in their current predicament.....

The TA walkers all left before me, of course, and I ambled back down the Hurunui to Lake Sumner. At Home Bay I met a couple of sea kayakers who were camped across the lake having paddled there from Loch Katrine. They were planning on walking to the hot springs, then paddling back to their campsite. Me? I'm inflating my packraft and paddling right down the lake to the other side, to spend a second night in Gabriel Hut.

The paddle along the shoreline was easy going. I passed a fisherman in a tinny, and a group of teenagers camped at the mouth of the canal joining Loch Katrine to Lake Sumner. On around the point I saw no-one else, and there was not a ripple on the lake to disturb the reflections. Only my paddle strokes.

I landed at the beach where the trail up to Gabriel Hut begins, and took my time drying all my gear. I went for a wander down to where the Hurunui outlet is. It's green and wide, and probably totally fine to float down, but I don't know the river, and I'm all by myself, so I packed up my gear into my backpack and schlepped up the hill to the hut for a second night.

It's early afternoon, so I got out my book and laid in the grass reading, until I was stung by a pesky wasp. So much for a relaxing afternoon siesta, I retired to the hut and read in my bunk instead. Later, a couple on an overnight hunting trip turned up, but opted to camp in their tent so they wouldn't disturb me with their nocturnal activities. Very thoughtful of them.

The next morning was shaping up to be another hot one so I hoofed off early down the track, which is mostly in the river valley with little shade. I scoped the river as I went, which is mostly pretty docile except for a gorge I can't see into, but is avoidable. After Sisters Stream swing bridge the river gets gnarlier, and the track is much rougher, it presumably gets much less foot traffic and requires a little bushbashing to get through some sections. At last I reached and crossed the Jollie Brook and then it's a short amble back to the car.

I drove back down the Hurunui and turned north through Lewis Pass. I stopped at Maruia Pass Hot Springs and treated myself to a night of luxury. Hang the expense!

The next day I continued north to Murchison, where I will be based for a few days doing a packrafting skills and safety course on the mighty Buller River. That's next....