Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter multidays in Idaho

Entering the Murtaugh Canyon

Well, it’s official. Everything is frozen here in the lovely state of Idaho. But just because it's all icy doesn't mean that there isn’t an adventure to be had. After a weekend trip to Hood River and having some fun over there, I was really digging getting some good paddling in, the only problem is that the Pacific Northwest was experiencing on of the coldest spells in years. Rivers all over were icing up left and right. Even here in balmy Boise Idaho where temps never really get THAT cold we saw 4 or 5 days in a row with sub zero mornings and below freezing temps for days on end. But, given all that, there wasn’t enough snow anywhere to get any snowboarding in. So there was only one thing to do. Go paddling, no matter how cold.

Camp 2

Now I had been tossing around an idea for a while to do a winter multi day somewhere and I decided that this was the weekend to go give'r a shot. There were only two problems. First off, where was I going to go? As far as the classic multi days here in Idaho, everything was locked down as solid as Fort Knox in this cold snap we were experiencing and it wasn't looking like it would be over until spring. The second problem was that it was Thursday night and I had no one that was remotely interested in going paddling in the dead of winter on a multi day, especially if they had to call in sick to work on Friday to do it. So I decided I would go solo, something I've always wanted to do anyways, just not necessarily in the middle of winter. Regardless, the second hurdle was avoided...

Back to the first problem, where to go? My mind instantly went to the South Fork Salmon, probably my most favorite run anywhere, but reports of the Main Salmon being frozen over down by Riggins made me scratch that idea really quickly. Same with the Middle Fork Salmon. My next thought was golden though as I started putting together a plan.


Put in at the lower Milner on the Snake River where they divert the water back into the river from the Milner Bypass. Flows were sitting around 1800 cfs and I have never seen the canyon above Star Falls before from a boat and I heard it's really pretty. The plan was to then continue down stream through the Murtaugh stretch, portage Twin Falls and Shoshone Falls and continue down stream through the Sewage Run and take out below Auger Falls. I haven't ever done the Sewage run and thought it would be a cool end of the trip on Sunday. So with those real loose plans, I left town Friday to go check out my portage route around Shoshone Falls.

When I got to Shoshone Falls I decided that it looked like I could get around the waterfall on river right, but I wasn't sure. I figured I'd wing it when I got there. I drove up to Twin Falls reservoir to check out the ice situation and found it completely iced over. The ice looked just thick enough to walk across but just thin enough that I didn't want to. Especially for 2 miles. I damn near scrapped the plans until I remembered that some of the Twin Falls locals will hike down at Hansen Bridge for after work runs. Well I decided that if they could put on there, I could take off there and continued on to the put in.

It's cold in that canyon

I opted for the regular Murtaugh put in because I was a little nervous about the ice and the shuttle, which I was hoping to hitch on Sunday. Plus it was starting to get late and very cold (15*F according to my truck). I loaded up my boat will all the warm gear I could cram in plus my camcorder and camera, hoping to get some really cool shots of ice from all the springs and waterfalls inside the canyon and started off down stream. The first splashes to the face froze instantly and right away I had a headache from the cold water even with a skull cap. I paddled about a mile down stream and found a camp just as it was starting to get dark. Luckily there wasn't any wind to speak of, but there wasn’t any firewood at this camp either. I cooked some dinner and heated up my tent as best I could with my butane stove while climbing into my sleeping bag and reading a book of more adventures on the river (Huck Finn) by the light of my head lamp before going to sleep content and very happy as only a river trip can make you.
I woke up sometime later that night to the sound of wind picking up and I flipped on my headlamp to find the entire inside of my tent covered in frost. It was cold and I was cold. I tried to warm myself up by doing crunches in my sleeping bag and tossing all my extra cloths under my ground pad. It seemed to help but my toes were still numb. I eventually fell back asleep again. I woke up constantly throughout the night, keeping up the same routine. Crunches in the sleeping bag, careful not to bump the sides of the tent to avoid the spray of frost, curl back up and sleep for a few more hours. Eventually it got light.
Ice formations were amazing
Once the light didn't seem to be getting any brighter, I got out of my tent and found that during the night it had snowed a few inches. But the sky had cleared and the sun was just peaking over the canyon wall. Which was way more than I ever hoped for and really sparked my motivation so I hurried to break down camp and get on the water, anxious to see what I would see in the canyon below, and knowing that some of my favorite rapids were just down stream.

More ice

I put on the river in the sunshine, but it quickly turned overcast and begin to snow. Each of the rapids was the same as they have always been, but completely different because of the cold and the ice undercuts along the shore. The consequences were much higher too, and for some reason, harder to push out of my mind. But after the first few rapids I forgot it was winter and started enjoying myself, focusing on each swirling current and playing in every whirlpool, enjoying the way my fully loaded boat stuck to the water and crashed through the currents. In the flat water I found myself not just paddling through. Instead, I just sat there reflecting on the river and the amazing canyon with all the ice sculptures formed by the many springs coming in through the canyon walls. Noticing for the first time small things about the canyon, like the many beaver dens, or that most all the springs come in from the river left, or an old man made shelter located on river right. I got to watching the ducks and the geese, just floating along hoping that they wouldn't notice me and I could just float by. The river was filled with special moments that I've never taken notice in before.

I got to second camp, just a couple of bends upstream of Hansen Bridge. The only place I could find level enough to set up a tent was a pothole that was filled up with ice. I cleared off the snow and set up the tent directly on the ice, laid out all my gear on the bottom of the tent to absorb the cold and started to collect drift wood to build a fire. My feet were still numb from the night before.

After getting camp all set up, I settled in and watch my fire burn, enjoying the quite evening and the dull rumble of the small rapid right next to my camp. I watched as ice flowed down through the rapid and disappeared in the foam, popping back up into the eddy below. As I was sitting there the snow stopped and the sky cleared, and I watched as the last rays of sunshine crawled up the canyon wall and disappeared. It started to snow again.

Looking upstream at Camp 2

Later in the night while I was in my tent, I heard rain pattering on my tent and the wind whipping through the canyon. It was a long cold night with many more crunches and changing positions to keep anywhere from getting too cold. I felt like a rotisserie chicken slowly turning around and around. Eventually it got light again and was still drizzling.

Loading up the boat

I packed up all my gear and made a big breakfast of mashed potatoes, rice, steak, and hot water to wash it down, counting on the carbs to keep me warm. I filled up my water again in an icy spring, loaded up my gear, got back into my already cold and wet fleece, got back into my half frozen dry suit, put on my completely frozen gloves and skull cap, got in the icy water and paddled down the icy river.

When I got to Paradise Rapid, I didn't even look at it; I just got out of my boat, drug it over the snow around the rapid, and got back in. I was cold. I paddled down stream.

Just after Hansen Bridge before Hooker Rapid was a large ice dam, which was fine, it was where I planned on getting out anyways. I started carrying my boat up the cliffs, trying to find a way out. I didn't make it more than 40 feet above the river before I decided that I would have to carry out all my gear in stages. I unloaded my boat and made two 1 hour trips with my dry bags up to the top of the canyon, finding multiple sketchy spots where the climb out of the canyon felt rather exposed with the ice and snow and the melting temptures. I think that it was probably because I was cold and that my motor skills weren't 100%, but I felt off balance and very tired. I decided that it wasn't safe to be carrying my kayak out of the canyon, so I made one final trip down to the river and stashed my kayak in some rocks hoping that some rednecks don't decide to shoot it before I go back in to get it. I then hiked back out with a few odd pieces of gear I didn't want to leave behind.

Once I was back up to the top of the canyon rim, I stashed all my gear in some bushes and went to the road to try to hitch a ride. After a lot of waves, smiles, and a bunch of break checks (they slow down until you start walking back to the car, then they speed away), a car goes by with kayaks on top. Just randomly it's my buddy Davis Gove from Pocatello driving by on his way back from a swift water rescue class and he gives me a ride back to the put in to get my car. Defiantly a lucky break.

The winter multi day is something I will be doing again. It has to be one of the more rewarding experiences of my life being in that canyon for two nights. It wasn't so much about the whitewater or the paddling, but the entire experience of the three days. From having to do crunches in the middle of the night to try to keep warm, to watching ice crash down and smash on rocks below, to just floating and watching the world spin round and canyon walls all around me, knowing I was never any more than 1/2 mile from a house, but still feeling like I was a tiny little insignificant speck inside this remote canyon. It was a special experience.

A very great experience.

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