Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Hurunui Hooley: getting my packrafting mojo back

A couple of years ago I bought a packraft with the intention of using it to augment my tramping trips. Mostly to cross lakes and rivers that were in the way of a respectable loop route. And maybe to run some easy Grade 1-2 rivers. Since most of my tramping is solo, I felt that running anything technical by myself on a river was downright foolhardy.

Since getting my packraft I've done two safety courses and gone on lots of great expeditions, but my confidence in whitewater took a bit of a bashing in January at the PRANZ national meetup

For two reasons:

First, we'd had a LOT of rain prior to the meetup and all the rivers were super pushy. There was no gentle easing in to it, the first day being a long succession of rapids with little rest in between, the second day was talked up as being harder (though it wasn't), which psyched me out, and the final day was actually enjoyable. And then I had another rafter be quite rude to me on a trip after the meetup.

The second reason was the general vibe of the meetup. My initial feeling was that running high grade (2+ and above) was where the meetup participants wanted to be, and there were a fair amount of experienced rafters who felt that newbies shouldn't expect to be mothered. I felt like I was simply a liability and I didn't feel at all confident after the meetup to hookup with others on trips. When I was asked to join an easy float down the Matakitaki I thought that would be fine, but then that didn't go well either. I've let that experience go, but at the time it just fed in to my own feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

Since the national meetup I hadn't run any rivers until I joined a mini-meetup on the Hurunui in North Canterbury. Organised by the exceptional Sheralee, whom I'd met at the meetup in January, there were 25 or so participants, a much more manageable number than the almost 100 we'd had at St Arnaud. In particular, I actually got to have a decent chat with everybody, and to realise there were more people like me than I'd thought.

Over 3 days we ran three different sections of the Hurunui River, which flows out of Lake Sumner and through numerous gorges. It's very popular with whitewater kayakers, and has rapids from Grade 1- 4. We would only be running up to Grade 2+.

We stayed in some shearers' quarters near Lake Taylor, which was a handy base, with most people arriving Friday night.

Saturday we drove down to the Jollie Brook confluence and spent the morning doing safety drills. We swam, we self rescued, we threw throw ropes, practising these important skills. Those in wetsuits were feeling pretty chilly by the end of that session. With a slow leak in my drysuit I too was a little damp after all that swimming, and was glad to get paddling in the afternoon to warm up.

In the afternoon we paddled downriver in groups of about 6. The rapids were all quite manageable, with only one requiring portage. It was a very pleasant afternoon. I had my mojo back!

Sunday we parked at Sisters Stream carpark and walked the couple of hours up to Gabriel Hut and the outlet of Lake Sumner. Having tramped that section myself back in January, I was able to inform them of the shitty overgrown section between Sisters and Jollie Brook and advised avoiding it and to do a car shuttle instead. I was particularly thrilled that I would be packrafting this section as I hadn't wanted to do it solo on my previous trip.

The walk up to Gabriels was a breeze, but at Lake Sumner it was more a gale! Definitely not a day to be out on a lake! We walked down to the outlet and out of the main blast of the wind before inflating our packrafts and heading downstream.

Again in groups of 5-6 we made our way, through two beautiful gorges, past Sisters Stream swing bridge and all the way to our put in at Jollie Brook the day before. One of the gorges had a small drop, my first, which was fun and I made it all the way through in one piece without a swim.

Until the last rapid!

We got out and scouted it, watching others get through, and planning our line. Someone was on safety with a throw rope and a couple more were in boats downstream. The runout was pretty tame anyway, but the rapid itself pushed you towards some rock shelves on river right, the plan being to stay to the left and "paddle like f%^ck!!"

I started out OK, but the current pushed my boat far too quickly to where I didn't wish to go and then I went in to a big hole. I came out the other side, and in hindsight should have kept paddling. But I didn't and capsized instead. I'm extremely grateful to Niels for this photo sequence. There are at least 3 shots of me doing nothing, but remember the water was moving fast and the camera was on burst mode, but it teaches me that I still had the opportunity to stabilise my boat and paddle out....

I probably should have had another go, but by the time I had got back into my boat, with help from others, I had floated downstream a bit and didn't feel like walking back up. The takeout was river right so I just called it a day and began packing up. One chap ran that rapid 8 times, at least once without paddling at all!! Ah to have that confidence....

The final day was a put in below the grade 4 rapids of Maori Gully and involved a very long car shuttle. The description of the rapids as given by Hugh Canard, an absolute legend in whitewater kayaking and rafting, put me off, so I decided to finish on a high and sit out of the paddling, instead providing logistics for the final group of paddlers, who had driven the over one hour car shuttle to get all the vehicles to the takeout, on a horse farm way downstream.

I farewelled the first two groups and then began pumping up the rafts for the remaining group. There were Alpackarafts, Kokopelli rafts, and RobFinn rafts, the latter made in Czech Republic and imported by Viola, another experienced rafter and kayaker. All three had different inflation valves and systems, so it was quite an exercise in problem solving. The wind was again gusty and very strong, so it was good that I had stayed there to look after the gear, with the added bonus of all seven rafts being almost fully inflated by the time the gang turned up from their long road trip.

Once they were on the river I drove down the dirt road and all the way to the main highway, to buy a dozen bottles of Speights as thanks to the landowners for allowing us access through their land to our takeout at Hawarden Gap. Then, after popping in to the farmhouse to hand over the beer, I continued down to the river bank to welcome the paddlers. There were two others who had also sat out the paddling, someone needed to ferry the shuttle drivers back to the put in, so I had people to chat to whilst waiting. Soon the first group arrived, and not long after the second, and they all said Hugh's descriptions were a little exaggerated. The wind, however had been horrific.

The third group were a long way behind, and only a handful completed it. The rest, being blown upriver by the wind, had deemed it too dangerous to continue and had walked out through a neighbouring property and hitched back to the takeout. Since I probably would have been in the final group, I was glad that I had chosen to sit it out.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable 3 days, and I felt considerably more comfortable paddling whitewater. There was a group of us who then headed up to Hanmer Springs, and the next day, in freezing conditions, we hit the Waiau River for a fun float, being Grade 1-2 in low flow with a few nice gorges.

We put in above the Waiau Ferry bridge and floated past the two jet boating operations, having informed them that our party would be on the river. From time to time we had to pull over to the side to let the boats and their happy customers pass, but they were always courteous and were soon out of both sight and hearing.

It was a cruisy end to four great days paddling, with a really awesome crew. This time I didn't feel a liability, and really enjoyed getting to know more people in this fairly small Packrafting community.

Since I needed warming up after that day in the frigid waters of the Waiau, I booked in to the backpackers at Hanmer, had a hot shower and a good night's sleep and then headed off north for more adventures.

That's next....

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