Sunday, August 12, 2012

Untamed NE - leg 8 (last one!)

[Photos courtesy of John Beard, Dmitri Kaganovich, and Andreas Strand]

If you have been keeping track in the previous Untamed posts (which would be impressive!), you'll see that I skipped leg 7.  Our whole team did, actually, because we were short-coursed around a monster lake paddle.  We were looking forward to the nav in that section, but I'm not sure we (or at least I) happened to be overly upset that we missed the paddling part.

We left the final TA in the dark of night, on foot, lugging all the packraft gear again.  The Danish team left just ahead of us, but they stopped at the main road to see what we would do.  It seemed odd at the time, but we knew where we were going so we continued on foot down the road to locate the entrance to the trail system.  It was the same place we had biked out of during leg 2, and it was dark then too so it should look about the same.

The Danes didn't follow.  We had a bit of nav to focus on until we got to the right dirt road.  Once we were satisfied about going the right way I took a look at the map in a more "overhead" view to see what the other team might be up to.  Hmm, do you suppose they decided to packraft the upper part of the Dead River?  We were slightly incredulous about this at first, but it had to be the reason they were carrying their paddles all assembled and wearing extra clothing.

Looking closer at the map, we were still completely happy with our choice.  The river was less direct, and when we got a view of it later from the trail it didn't appear to be moving at all.  The dam was scheduled to be opened at some point in the morning but no one could tell us what time that would be.  In the meantime, we're pretty sure we would never opt for paddling the little boats when we could trek an easy flat trail next to the river instead.  Unless we had major foot problems or there was a good current to float on.  One that wasn't scary (spoiler alert).

So we went for a pleasant morning walk.  Eventually the sky lightened, waking up the danged mosquitoes.  We pulled out the bug spray to wet ourselves down with it - yay!  The trail was nice and packed down from all the bikes passing through the field a couple days earlier.  All in all, a pleasant morning.

We were on a bridge made of wooden slats, when Druce somehow dropped his shades through a gap between the boards.  He had been having issues with losing things at a rate of approximately one item per day (the magnet from his bike odometer was missing, one of his lights got soaked and shorted the battery).  Understandably, he had had enough of that!  He jumped down to look for it, and after some searching he located it in the one puddle below the bridge.  Strange luck.  At least he found it, no more losing stuff!

The trail led to the site of the ropes from day 1, and it was fun to see it in the daylight.  We traveled around the little trails by the "Try to Sleep Beach" and the top of the rappel.  Very cool.

Somewhere in here Dima told us a story about a porta-potty and Russian newspapers, which was funny in itself, but then Val asked what the modern equivalent would be, and we got started laughing about iPads, iPod Touch, I can't remember what all else, but in our sleep-deprived state we thought it was extremely hilarious.  Giggle fits all around, and when Val and Druce started alternately making each other laugh, I completely lost it.  We had to cross a gate, and I dropped to the ground to slide under but I was laughing so hard I couldn't move.  Dima apparently captured some of this insanity on his GoPro, so we might get to see it eventually.  On the other hand, I'm sure it was WAY funnier in the moment than it could ever appear later.  You'll just have to stay up for 3 days straight first to really appreciate it.

Another happy moment when we discovered a small trail leading through the woods up the hill to the hut (which was actually the "lodge" we had been searching for in leg 2, the same building that we had passed right before figuring out how to get to the ropes site).  We didn't have to hike the roads around to it, awesome!  And we had previously skipped biking a rather gnarly little section of trail, also awesome!

Up to the top, we found a couple nice volunteers at CP34 at the hut.  We couldn't go inside this one or use the amazing bathrooms, but we sure had been treated royally well at the previous huts, so the only minor bother was the swarm of mosquitoes also manning the hut.  We hung out and plotting our remaining checkpoints, chatting with the guys.  They had not seen the Danish team yet, so at least we didn't lose any time by trekking instead of packrafting that section.

To get to the finish line, "all" we had to do was find several checkpoints along the Dead River and then finish up with a bit of trekking on the way to the finish line at The Forks on the Kennebec River.  The lead team had not reached the finish when these volunteers had called down at 2 a.m., but it looks from the leaderboard that they just missed catching them there less than an hour later.

Time to get down to the river.  We thanked the nice volunteers and headed down to find a good put-in spot.  Because the first couple CP's were on the opposite bank, we had no obvious choice but to attempt packrafting several miles.  In fact, we were looking forward to sitting in the boats in some moving water for a while.  Well, I think 3 out of 4 teammates were looking forward to it.

I'm going to interrupt this race report with an injection of personal opinion.  This race was extremely well designed, fun and interesting, with only minor nav quibbles but mostly complete raving.  So why, at the very last leg, were teams required to ride little packraft boats down some serious whitewater?  We were not (at least I was not) under the impression before arriving in Maine that there would be anything above a bit of class 2 water.  And I'm very far from being an expert, maybe class 2 looks a lot bigger up close.  We were not told that we should bring high quality packrafts, and there was no suggestion that spray skirts might come in handy (that would have been a big clue!).

The course designers could have rewarded teams that brought the best gear and knew what they were doing in whitewater, without overly penalizing teams like us who tried to get away with "light and cheap" and had no experience with this, simply by putting the checkpoints on the trail-side of the river instead of on the opposite bank.  Hiking down the hill on over 23 km of slow up and down trail vs. getting to ride the waves seems like it would be penalty enough.  At least that's my opinion.

As it was, I feel like this section was a safety risk.  I heard stories of people bouncing off rocks and getting caught in underwater holes.  Multiple teams lost various pieces of gear.  Throw bags were on the required gear list for paddling (on a lake) but not for packrafting - I saw one team had figured out that they should carry them here, but our team did not think to do so.  Heck, we were 3+ days into a race with minimal sleep.

So we did the best we could, somehow managed to get the upper two checkpoints, and got the hell off the river as soon as possible.  We started with two 2-person packrafts and ended up with half of one (one floated away, one busted on a rock).  Luckily that was all we lost to the Dead River and none of us got hurt.

It was a long, long walk down the trail.  As much as it took a long time to bike up that trail on day 1, it took even longer to trek down it.  Wet feet, feet that had already trekked from CP33 to CP34 this morning, and tender skin gave way to blisters partway down.  Thank goodness for trekking poles.

And dang those mosquitoes again.  We ran out of bug spray and had to resort to hand-slapping, pine bough-waving, and fern-wearing.  Yep, the fern thing was me - I couldn't do much with my arms since I was leaning on my poles, so I got desperate and plucked ferns to shove under my cap, over my ears.  Amazingly, the mosquitoes couldn't find their way through the greenery, so I no longer heard them buzzing around my head. They still landed on the back of my neck.  Solved with another fern.  My forehead was the real problem.  I put up with bites on my face for a while until finally I couldn't stand it and stuck a fern over my face.  It was hard to see, but I wasn't moving very fast to begin with.  Druce called me Fern Goddess of the Forest or something funny in a "regal" tone of voice.

We could hear the river from way above, and we had visions of the whole field of teams passing us in the fast-moving current.  We caught sight of another team with packrafts on the trail behind us, and it looked like they were looking for somewhere to put back on the water.  One team had stopped on a rocky beach on the opposite side, but we couldn't tell why.

So we walked...

At some point the sleep bug finally hit me.  After holding it off surprisingly long, it came after me in a big way.  I looked for any opportunity for a short nap, but between the vicious mosquitoes and the guys thinking we were a lot closer to the bottom than we actually were, the team tried to keep moving.

Eventually Val and Druce took turns carrying my pack as I staggered along.  Druce made several good suggestions of things to try, and the one regret I have is that I turned down his idea of caffeine.  As John said later, why did I go completely off caffeine in prep for the race if I didn't take advantage of how good it would work when I finally had some?  I really appreciate my teammates' help this day and I think back upon it fondly.

Finally, we did make it down, walking along the campsites by the river and down the dirt road toward town.  I'm not quite sure what our team looked like, all dirty and smelly and one of us with a head covered in ferns.  But I didn't really care.  We are almost back to civilization.

Still, we had one major problem remaining.  Two of the last checkpoints were again on the opposite bank.  The Dead River was running fast but it looked doable without any obvious rocks or obstacles.  We knew the Kennebec would be easy.  All we needed was a boat or two...

We emerged from the woods staring at a possible answer - a whitewater rafting company!  We practically salivated over the idea of renting a "Duckie", a heavy but practically bomb-proof inflatable boat that would fit the whole team.  Trying our best to convince the folks of our ability to pay and our promise to return the boat right after the race, we still did not succeed.  Something about insurance, I guess.  Or maybe we really did look half-insane (but I took the ferns off even!).

Gosh, how cool it would have been to finish the race in a Duckie!

They did allow us to rest under the cover of their outdoor boat storage area, and right at that moment a massive rainstorm hit.  We had been ignoring recent thunder, but we couldn't ignore the pouring rain and our sudden amazing good fortune to be under cover at the exact right time.  It was worth not taking a nap on the way down.  And now Mother Nature was making sure I would get the little bit of sleep I so badly needed.

I was immediately out cold, vaguely hearing the comings and goings of groups of rafters but not caring one iota.  A while later, when the rain slowed to a light patter, Val woke us up and we were ready to get on the move again.  It wasn't quite a boat, but at least it was a nap!

We started walking down the road toward the other rafting company in town.  On the way we spotted another team trekking alongside the river, so we called over to them to see what they were up to.  It was team Florida Xtreme, and they had also lost some gear to the Dead River.  It turned out that our teams matched up well in terms of available gear to share and willingness to work together to finish up this race.  Awesome!  Our luck was definitely turning for the better.  Thanks Florida Xtreme!

What fun to have some company over the last couple hours, all of us in various states of sogginess and tiredness and sore feet-edness.  Other teams converged and diverged with our ragged band as we gathered the remaining points on land and across the river.  We were all looking forward to finishing, sitting down, eating hot food, showering, and getting some sleep.

As we were closing in on the finish line, John caught us on camera a couple times:

One last climb up a trail for one last checkpoint in the woods, then one last hill to limp down to the finish line.  We were done!

At last we could sit down:

It didn't take much to make us start giggling again:

With our new-found friends, Team Florida Xtreme.  Y'all rock.

What a ride!  The last bit of the race got kind of crazy, but we made it to the end on Saturday evening.  15th place overall, 12th in the Premier (4 person co-ed) division.  Thank you to Untamed New England for putting on such an incredible event!

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