It was an unusual trip. A commercial trip, without customers. The trips clients had fully paid but cancelled at the last minute forgoing any refund. But we were doing the trip anyway. Weather the guests appreciated it or not all the rafts and guides that they had hired to go down the river still went.
Raft guides do not make good passengers. They don’t share boats well. We all want to steer. We certainly didn’t need three 18ft gear rafts for four people. But that is how it went down. Three rafts was the origonal plan but the guides wanted to give up their vessels. The excursiveness of the trip certainly raised some eyebrows from the fly fishermen observing on the trip as we passed.
The Babine river, known as the “River of the Grizzlies” is a six day trip featuring a long two day section of canyon read and run class III. My Canadian friends did their best to prime me for the rapids, but ended up distilling their advice to”Just make good decisions”. It certainly made a change from the regular redundant advice given during such sports of “just don’t fuck it up” It didn’t help my nerves when we encountered a group of kayakers in town who had been helicopter evacuated from a camp in the middle of the canyon the day before.
Canyon paddling can be intimidating. And the Babines canyon sections were known for being tight. Any more tight and the rafts literally not make it through. More than one spot required rafters to ship (pull in) their oars or risk loosing them. The crux of the river came in the form of sphincter II rapid. Such a pretty name… The full force of the river restricted through a tiny section magnifying considerably the force of currents inside. It looked to be a tricky piece of water. There also seemed to be no clean way through it. the main tongue led to a surging biol of water promising to do devilish things to kayak and raft. Clarky and Dave both demonstrated as much with thier rafts turning sideways and breaching. Keiths raft even stopped completely starting to float back up the rapid on top of the boil line. Knowing that everyone had hit and been turned about on the boil I was not surprised to perform the same maneuver.
Blue sky was in short supply during the trip. Luckily we had been primed with suitably grim weather reports any sunshine was a plus not expected. Still the 36 hours of straight rain was a little grim. But a liberal supply of paid for alcohol and a campfire increase morale considerably. The pre ordered and paid for $13 steaks weren’t bad either.
During one stop Dave and I went in search of an abandoned indian village. Pushing through the head high grasses of British Columbia my wetsuit was soon covered with an impressive collection of burrs and needles. I actually looked like I had grown fur. We did find the remnants of buildings but the rout to the village was so ardous that we ruled out it being a possibilly for customers.
After two days of read and run canyon completed I felt suitably kayaked out. Taking more of a back seat I stowed my kayak for the final two days. Tying the kayak to the top of Keiths raft we tried to merrily drink our way through the rain. In total we had one grizzly sighting which was slightly disappointing but luckily the most disappointing part of the trip. Because it truly is a privilege to raft with friends and have someone else pay for it.
We had been climbing all day. From valley floor to ridge-line. Up switchbacks finally stepping onto the sheltered alpine meadow the other side of the ridge. The cows momentarily looked up from their grazing… It was surely one of the most picturesque paddocks anyone could imagine. The gentle sound of cow bells will forever be linked to memories of mountains in Italy.
The Via Ferrata systems through the Italian Dollarmites are well known by European tourists. A system of cables, ladders and anchors used during the first world war to move large groups of inexperienced troops. Essentially mountaineering for idiots.
We had arrived late at night in Italy with a small rental car and an unformed plan to head to the mountainy areas. Driving out of the lowlands of Italy we were soon in a fairy-tale of small mountain towns, churches cobblestones and mills. Italy is well setup for mountain travellers. In addition to the via ferrata and cows, the mountains are littered with refugios, a series of large dorm style buildings offering budget accommodations. Our Refugio even gave us a 50% discount for our Austrlaian ANU Mountaineering club cards.
Using the Refugio as a base we were able to finally get into some of the more serous via ferratas surrounding the Three Chimneys. Being peak tourist in Europe the mountains were crowded. Trails looking instead distant like distant ant paths. Marching dots occasionally dissapearing into the mountains emerging hundreds of meters away via interconnect systems of caves. These extensive tunnels more relics of the first world war. Together with foundations from barracks, barbed wire and artillery placements. The tunnels and sniper positions must have been horrendous in winter. While conditions for first world war soldiers were never the best. It must have been a particularly punishing theater for soldiers.
After three days of trekking in the area we had barley started scratching the surface. Like Canada and unlike Australia, the European mountain range was immense. We had completed a three day circuit finishing satisfyingly back at the car. The bittersweet feeling of finishing the exploration of a new area with the knowledge that we really didnt see much at all.
Trips can often descend into arguments and petty finger pointing. So it was refreshing that this years Cockails on the Castle started with the finger pointing. After driving down a dirt road that seemed to go on forever we finally emerged at a disturbingly familiar T junction. It was not the first time we had seen this intersection. We had driven in a complete circle. The finger pointing started.
While we had set out relatively early, our day was quickly evaporating in faff. We were in no particular hurry as surely-we thought-we would reach the top of the Castle by Sunset. We had all day, how could we not? I was particularly keen to get everyone to the top with plenty of time try a photo I had in the back of my mind. It did require that I bring excessive and heavy camera equipment.
The hike to the top of the Castle is not particularly hard, but the temperature, humidity and lack of wind took a toll. Sweat flowed, water supplies dwindled and progress slowed. We held hope for a waterfall halfway up but found it to be more of a frustrating joke. Water fell in drips that were cooling but not nearly enough to fill a water bottle.
Fortune was with us half an hour later when we found a stream with water cool enough to leave condensation on the outside of our water bottles. A glorious find!
All this was still costing us time, however. Not being up the top when the sunset happened was starting to be a possibility. Emerging at the scrambling section, we started along the ridge-line and finally spotted our final destination. The sun was entering the golden hour. Down the direction we came, the slower group who had split apart hours ago could be seen. And heard as it turns out. Mel’s voice carried with crystal clarity across the still humid air “CAN YOU SEND SOMEONE DOWN TO HELP WITH BAGS?”
No one in my group said anything.
Mel, concluding that we must not be able to hear them repeated.”CAN… YOU… SEND… SOMEONE… DOWN…TO… HELP… WITH… BAGS?”
It turned out that some were having a hard time with the humidity. In the end Ivan and I hustled down to help while the others shuttled our backpacks to the top. It was now getting to be a serious race against time to get this damn sunset shot. While there was talk about the slower group camping down on the track, everyone in the end made it up. And it would have been a shame to miss out anyone in the group shot.
Something to remember for those going on future Castle trips, however: Once you get to the top of the castle, you’re not finished. There was still some of the most serious bush bashing to go. There are few things harder to bear for a photographer than watching the light disappear. But it was happening.
The yellow light gave way to pink that lit the cliff-lines around the castle. But as this was happening, everyone seemed to stall. Exhaustion from the days hike, the need for a stiff drink, getting dressed in party cloths or just confusion combined to created the ultimate faff party. A faff party right on the finish line! By the time everyone was in front of the camera the sky had faded to a dirty blue. Failure!…
So why does the final photo have an orange sky? Do you really want to know? Sometimes its better not to know, so if you don’t then don’t scroll down!
Look away now, there is no going back!
Castle top shenanigans.
The great think about camping out is that you are able to get two bites of the apple. Camping next to the cliff I was able to set up for a dawn time-lapse. The final results were less than professional but I guess I am a little out of practice.
Thanks to Ivan for taking my favorite photo of the trip of my camping site.
Kayaking big water had not gone well for me three years ago. Loosing my kayak and paddle and barley managing to climb along the wall of the canyon to safety was still fresh in my mind. There was very little to consider around weather I should join a two week rafting trip. What was giving me serious pause was whether to raft or put my big boy trousers on and again, kayak big water. The trip already had two kayakers and three rafters. If I rafted i would be a passenger. A hard thing for a former raft guide to do. We tend to want to steer. So I decided to kayak but promised myself that I could walk around the big stuff.
Hells canyon is the deepest gorge in North America. Deeper than the grand canyon. Deeper at 2,436m than the Mt Kosioskio, Australia’s highest point. In fact it felt very much as if the river wound its way between two imposing mountain ranges. We rigged our rafts in the shadow its hydro dam and swapped stories with the commercial rafters preparing for their launch. It always pays to ask a local. Learning about the poison ivy, a common and nasty little plant was particularly useful. Still managed to walk through plenty, but it could have been worse.
We could see the first rapids from the put in. The longer you stare at a water feature the more you start to question yourself. So it was with some small relief that we set off. The three kayaks heading out ahead of the bulky rafts. Paddling out to the middle of the wide river so far beneath the canyon peaks we all felt quite small indeed. The trick we soon found was to stay in the middle of the main current and away from the edges where strong boils and eddy lines could cause smaller craft serious trouble. The rapids and whirlpools on the side looked intimidatingly large but The first few kilometers passed quickly and we became more comfortable in the larger water.
It was not long before we spotted the first of the larger rapids. Pulling the boats to the river side we walked up the banks to scout. Sure that I would be walking around. Looking down however I was struck by how easy it looked. To be sure there were plenty of places where you would just not want to be. But a clear line of untroubled current stretched through large standing waves. It was a matter of putting yourself in the right place and hanging on. Jeff and I were soon pulling away from the shore, me following Jeff into the large water rapid. I felt very small. The safety of the shore might as well have been light years away . The canyon walls towered over us. Everything looks bigger from your boat and the large rapids we scouted were monstrous now they were up close. Not that we got that much time to look, the current sped us through at a blurring pace. We held on enjoying the rush. The rafters described watching us like watching corks from a bottle. Afterwards I was told that that was the largest of the rapids. For the first time I was actually confident that I would be able to paddle the whole river without walking a single rapid.
I would not call the river busy but it was certainly more populated than our group was used to. Not just other rafters and families but with motor boats travelling up and down the rapids both private and tourist. The atmosphere was almost like a beach party. There were plenty of beach camp sites each day to choose from. Our rest day camp was particularly picturesque.
To my delight the rest of the rapids were much the same as the first. Imposing but with large channels through them. As long as you put yourself in the right place it was like being on a watery roller coaster. By the end of the trip I had kayaked all rapids and satisfyingly rolled once.