Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cowboy Tough - legs 10/11 (packraft/trek)

(Photos by Vlad Bukalo, Chris Radcliffe, Randy Ericksen, Jason Bagby, Tom Turley, and John Beard)

This section was a doozy!  Multiple parts, lots of stuff to carry, weather that probably affected many teams at some point, all manner of packrafting, and a bit of navigation.  We better get started.

Legs 10/11 - "Marcy's Bad Day"
[43 miles of trekking and packrafting, off trail travel, flat and class II-III whitewater, listed as 200' gain and 900' loss but I think those numbers are low]

Our transition was slow, a surprise to no one.  I was trying to be methodical but mostly I was a bit zoned out.  At least we weren't cold as long as we were moving around.  We finally had our bike boxes and paddle bag back, so we needed to pack up the bikes, get stuff from the gear box, and bring out the packraft gear to carry.  This was always going to be the hardest transition, with so much to do, and now it's dark, and I'm kind of out of it.

I focused on the bike for a while - this I have practiced and it has a definite flow and a goal (and a list of instructions that I attached to my box), so that goes pretty well.  OK, what's next?  Dave handed me a packet of Emergen-C so I mixed it in a Nalgene bottle and shared it with him to try to stave off any sore throat-related sickness.  Thanks Dave!

We needed to make sure that any items for the final leg were packed into the bike box, as we wouldn't see another gear box after this transition.  Dave got the tracker reset finally, so we were good to go there.  Clean and lube the feet.  Fill water.  Try to figure out how much packraft stuff I can carry - stuff the PFD and strap paddles onto my pack.  Luckily I had swapped headlamp batteries earlier in the day, one less thing.

I still sensed tall trees all around us, but photos of this TA in the daylight show a very different landscape!  John was there when Rootstock Racing came through, I believe this is their team in transition - in the middle of a prairie with exactly zero trees:

Here's our view of the area:

My pack, ready to travel:

Working on everything by headlamp:

We were finally all ready to go, and I was finally ready to think about sleep like everyone else had been doing all day.  We had moved the sleeping bags to this gear box (when they got removed from the Sinks Canyon one), maybe we should try sleeping here?  We bundled up and found spots on the grass, but it started sprinkling and soon we were all shivering.  Maybe we got a bit of shuteye but it didn't last long.  At least my eyes felt better and didn't need to be propped open with little sticks.

OK, let's start down toward the Pathfinder Reservoir (finally).

Dave located the trail heading out of TA and we set off on a good compass bearing.  Here's Rootstock Racing starting this trek a few hours before us:

We were careful, watching the compass closely and tracking the pace count.  We lost the trail once and immediately backtracked to find it.  Our brains were working well enough, probably aided by a bit of adrenaline with the thought that we really didn't want to get lost in here in the dark.

The gradual descent took less time and effort than I had expected.  Thankfully it wasn't sunny and hot.  We had no problem finding CP29, but what we weren't enjoying was all the weight we were lugging.  Two large packrafts and all the paddle gear = heavy!  I had ditched some extraneous items but we were still overloaded.  Such is the downside of using nice solid rafts.

That also made it a challenge for doing any "find the way" back and forth navigation, and this came into play right after we found the checkpoint when we tried to find the lake.  You'd think a giant reservoir would be easier to locate than a little checkpoint flag, right?

We kept running into tall grass, high sand dunes, water plants, swampy areas, everything but an obvious shoreline.  We saw racer tracks going every which way and racer lights in a couple directions (maybe doing the same thing we were, or maybe launching their rafts, we couldn't tell).  We tried a couple things but nothing was helping.

It is entirely possible that sleep deprivation had something to do with this dilemma.

I ended up getting turned around, and Leslie finally took the lead and declared "Let's go northeast."  Sure, that's as good a plan as any.  Magically, she led us through some short grass for a ways and then there it was, water lapping gently on the sand.  We were amazed and thankful.  We had seen Team Uruguay in the area, and we yelled for them to come over this way, but I guess they didn't hear or understand.

Time to air up the rafts.  We got everything set up, Dave and I shared a serving of Spiz, and we were ready to push off.  Just a few reeds to paddle over and we were on the lake.  Nice.  Taking a bearing to the northeast across the water, we saw lights in the right general area of CP30 and I theorized they were from the campgrounds/marina.  Great, we'll just aim for that.

There was a slight north wind wafting toward us, which wasn't ideal, but I guess be careful what you wish for.  Perhaps 15 minutes later, the wind picked up - from our back, great!  Oh, that's a bit more wind.  OK, now that's a LOT of wind.  On one hand, thank goodness it was blowing us the right direction.  On the other hand, it's dark and the waves are getting bigger.  Kinda freaky!

We started talking (yelling, really) through our options, but it only made sense to keep forging ahead, using the tailwind, and dealing with the uncertainty of never having been in this situation before.  I channeled my Hawaii outrigger canoe surfing experience, and that helped a lot as far as being comfortable with the wave motion (even though we couldn't actually surf with the soft rafts - too bad!).  Dave kept reassuring me that the rafts wouldn't sink, so worst case was that we'd swamp and need to call for assistance.  He told me to just hang onto my paddle - oh, no problem there!

We had tried tethering the boats together to get some help from Tom and Leslie who were paddling a hair faster than Dave and I were, but eventually we gave up on that in the larger swells.  And anyway, by that point Dave and I were keeping up better with the aid of the tailwind.  Amazingly, I think some of my teammates were still falling asleep.  I most certainly was not.

The sky started to brighten and we could see that we were making great progress (without a huge amount of effort, just a good bit of trying to stay calm on my part).  It would have been great if that had continued now that we could see.  No such luck.  The wind suddenly shifted again, this time from the west (what is with the wind this morning?).  Now we had to work to stay on a northerly course and not get blown to the eastern shore.

I think we were all more comfortable now that we could see, plus we had gotten across the big water and we were reasonably close to shore in case we did need to get off the water.  A wavy lake paddle, this was nothing new.  We could tell we were still moving along, just not as fast now that it was a side wind instead of from the back.  Dave started steering harder with the right paddle and I tried to draw some from the front left to keep us pointed north.

It became a slog but at least I understood the situation.  Swells from the left side moved us around, but nothing too large that might break over the rafts.

We talked about turning into the next cove to land, climb over the last peninsula, and paddle across the next (more sheltered) bay but Dave opted to stay on the water.  We worked our way around the west end of the peninsula, with our right wrists bearing the brunt of the effort.  Happily we could still see the marina lights as we came all the way across the water and it was the right thing to aim for.

Finally we were even with the marina bay and I started trying to pinpoint the exact location of the checkpoint.

John was watching for us from shore - gee, the waves don't look so bad from here:

I aimed for the rightmost campground as we approached land:

Here's a view of the campground, from the dam on a calmer day during scouting:

We landed on the beach, phew!!  We were so happy to be back on land, intact and unsubmerged.  It turned out the checkpoint was around the corner, but the team didn't seem to mind having an enclosed bathroom at the campground to drag ourselves into.

I wandered around looking for a water spigot, finding only a sign for the non-potable tap at the dump station up the hill.  No one who was up that early (and there were a couple campers awake) seemed to know anything (you don't know where the water is?  and why didn't I check this out during scouting?).  After a moment of feeling sorry for myself on top of being somewhat shellshocked from the wild experience on the lake, I got myself together and went back to the team.

We needed to get moving, no reason to sit here getting cold.  I detailed all the pieces we still had to get through - there's a lot to do today.  So we picked up the gear and rafts and went over to punch CP30 on an old building near the dam.

After leg 10 (Pathfinder, CP30) = 114:37:07, 29th place

Next up was a short trek over to the start of Fremont Canyon:

There was a lot of photo documentation going on during this next section, starting with John watching our walk to the dam:

I was excited to point the way over the dam, as this is a very cool little hike.  Although we were a bit bedraggled and coming to terms with the tempest we had just lived through, so the team was pretty quiet.

How often do you get to walk across the top of a dam, with no one around monitoring you?

The passageway was a bit narrow with some sharp wires that concerned Tom, so we deflated the rafts to safely carry them through:

A pause to figure out how to tote everything again:

John watched us coming across the dam:

Heading for the trail that drops down along the canyon:

Going down the trail, we reviewed our next choice - we could walk down the road a little further to skip some shallow water/rocks, or we could put in here at the bottom.  We had plenty of raft-carrying to go and Dave was concerned about his foot blisters, so the team opted to put in as soon as we could.

It was turning into a nice morning and a sunny day:

Tom asked John for a photo of this sign - yep, we wouldn't want to do anything fatal!

Getting the rafts aired back up and everything waterproofed for the upcoming whitewater.  We also found checkpoint 31 somewhere around here:

Another team showed up right behind us and we met the Italians for the first time - good morning!  And buon giorno!

All pumped up and ready to start this next phase of a multi-step day:

The first stretch of water below the dam was calm and deep, a good place to verify that we had everything in order.

Our instruction sheet for Fremont Canyon.  I'm still not sure where each of those "water hazards" was located, I really think it was just a long string of rocks.

The "map" of the canyon - most useful for telling us where we weren't allowed to go, and where CP31a was actually located (the instructions said river right, the map shows river left, and they verified that river left was right, um, correct, right before the race started):

It didn't take long to start hitting rocks, so we got out to walk in the river or on the bank, climbing over a fence, and then got back on the water to float to the next bridge where John was hanging out watching for us:

Hello again!  I'm not sure why we're in a boat on this little river, but here we are:

Dave and Leslie were more interested in running rapids (when we eventually got to those), and Tom and I were more interested in portaging around hazards, so we swapped boat partners for this section.  Wading through more shallow water:

Here's a story about John C. Fremont, the namesake of both the canyon and the reservoir above it (repeated from my scouting post because I like it enough to show it again):

We decided we should try to avoid any "dumptrucking of the crew and cargo into the water" today.

Out of the boats again, wading through shallow moving water and trying not to slip on the rocks.  And me trying not to say "this is stupid" more than a couple times.  At least out loud.  Hey, there's Vlad (one of the race photographers) - hi Vlad!

Tom was concerned about putting holes in the boats, but the rafts seemed real sturdy and the rocks seemed mostly smooth.  On the other hand, I later read a race report from a team (Canada AR) that punctured both of their rafts and had to get assistance (and loaner rafts from a team ahead of them) and a 4 hour penalty to continue on in the race.  So there's that.

I worried more about banging knees, catching feet on rocks, turning ankles.  Nothing was dissuading me that this section was stupid.  Just get it over with and try to do the least possible damage to ourselves and our boats.

I have no idea why it looks like I'm swinging my paddle like a bat in this photo.  I was annoyed but resigned.  Nowhere near the point of lashing out.  Yet.

We approached the mouth of the canyon, moving into faster water and larger rocks.  More race photographers popped up - we hadn't seen one since the first day of the race, and now it looked like we were the main attraction of the morning.  I guess the lead teams had finished the race so the photographers were looking for someone else to film.  So we got a few nice photos of our team coming down the little rapids:

Too bad I had grumpy face going and wasn't much into smiling for the camera.  I probably don't have to explain my mood beyond showing you this:

A whitewater guide stopped us to give instructions and options for the biggest rapid.  He explained the big drop, going left or right, and the steering required.  Tom and I opted to portage, while Leslie and Dave wanted to run it (although neither of them could remember his detailed instructions on fuzzy brains).

While Tom and I fought with the raft and gear to get it over and around the giant boulders, we watched Dave and Leslie do the big drop and then immediately dump over.  That actually made me smile (not being sadistic, it was just comedic).  They were OK and didn't lose any gear.  Tom hated the portage and wanted to try staying in the water instead.

Back together in the boats, we tried to find a way through this mess.  The spaces between the rocks were narrow and we frequently got the rafts stuck.  We heaved the boats over boulders, pushed them off rocks, and unweighted them to try to get the boat off the stones that kept holding us up.

The Brits and Italians came along right behind us, occasionally creating a line of boats trying to get through the narrow spaces.

You know, it was stupid and I didn't see the point, but hey, it was better for me than actual whitewater.  I wasn't afraid of the water beyond trying not to get a foot stuck or injuring ourselves, so there was that.  But I certainly wasn't comfortable.   I hope I didn't yell at Tom too much (sorry Tom!)

On the bright side, I found out later that Leslie really enjoyed the experience, so I was happy to hear that!


The area of the takeout and CP31a - finally we were there and I was so happy to be done with all that.

We carried the rafts and gear up a steep trail and set about to organizing everything up top (another gear explosion - we're pretty good with creating those):

I ran back down to refill water in a couple bottles for the next road walk, and I think the Brits and Italians were all at the take-out at the same time.  I tried to remember a few words of Italian but only managed "buon giorno!" and "ciao!" which is pretty pitiful, but at least I didn't embarrass myself with "ravioli" or something inane.

We got organized with the giant load of stuff that we needed to carry and got ready for the next crappy section - 5 miles on pavement:

I think this wasn't the original course design.  Before the race I found out from a local gear store guy that we probably wouldn't be allowed to paddle past the output of a power plant (alliteration unintentional).  The power plant was just down-canyon from our take-out, and there's no good way around it.  So a road schlepp it shall be.

It was a nice morning to carry two packrafts up a road - geez Tom, that's quite a load you're carrying:

I remembered that there was a nice bathroom at the next bridge, so I ran over to use it - a real toilet, yay!  Then more road walking, boo.  The highlight was crossing the bridge over the high gorge, very pretty:

Hilariously, this photo by Randy Ericksen was posted on Facebook during the race and my friend Art commented, "I didn't realize there was a Quidditch section to the race!!" - too funny!

We took a brief break in the shade, and Dave immediately went to sleep.  Jason (a race photographer) happened to drive up right then, so Tom jumped at the opportunity and now we have this (yes, we're goofballs):

Jason also asked if we would help him stage a photo of us walking up the road, so now we have this:

John's photo of us was a bit less professional:

Well, that was a humorous interlude.  Back to the trudgery of walking up the road.

Dave determined that even with blistered feet he could carry one of the rafts, so that helped Tom a lot.  Tom decided he wanted to dry some clothes so he got us to hang his shirts, pants, all kinds of things on all possible "hooks" including the tall paddles sticking out of Leslie's pack.  We were a walking laundry line.  Wish we had gotten a photo of that!

It was a good idea to dry some stuff in the sun, so I put on my light wool top to air it out.  We reached the apex of the big hill and started down the long descent.  Dave was looking for a shady tree to sleep under, and we spotted a large bush that we could easily get to.  Score!  I crawled around back and was out like a light for about 30 minutes.  Dave and Leslie slept too, but I guess Tom wasn't quite as tired because he took the time to snap this photo while we were all snoozing:

Much better!  We got up and finished the road walk down to Cottonwood Campground.  It was a nice place to put in on the Alcova Reservoir, with a nice bathroom and a good little beach.

We made quick work of the paddle over to checkpoint 32:

The checkpoint was up on some rocks, and good thing Leslie spotted it because the flag had been flattened.

Photos of Alcova from scouting:

View across the reservoir to the dam opening:

I enjoyed this short packraft section (first enjoyable water section for me that day).  I was able to kneel for a while, although my knees complained just a little afterward.  There were hardly any speedboats, the clouds threatened rain but didn't drop any, and the scenery was pretty.

Dave and I talked about the topography ahead of us and decided to aim for the first inlet to the right of Alcova Dam.  That worked great and it was an easy take-out.  We decided that the vegetation was sparse enough to leave the rafts inflated for carrying.  We found a small path and then cut over to a small road that went left and uphill.

Leslie and I scouted ahead as the guys carried the rafts, and we verified that the way continued up and over the small ridge.  There was a short drop through a drainage and soon we were on the road by the dam.  That was an excellent little route through the vegetation.

We found the park on the other side and CP33.  Last checkpoint of this monster leg!  Just a river paddle remaining to finish this thing.

After taking a few minutes to eat and set up glowsticks and water refills, we were back in the rafts.  I was happy to see that the water was moving - this section had looked stagnant the week before (maybe they were releasing water from Alcova after recent rains).  We paddled across to the moving water and floated around the horseshoe bend.

There were lots of grasses and reeds not far below the surface but we mostly moved just fine over the top of them and we tried to stay away from the parts of the river that were more overgrown.  Cold wind blew in our faces; the afternoon was no longer nice and warm.

One last portage!  There was a small dam above the river proper:

We took out on river left and ran over to a small shelter to put on all the clothes we had as the wind hit us.  I guess we weren't done with storms for the day.  Tights, long-fingered gloves, rain jacket, overmitts, yep, I appreciated all of it.  We started wondering how cold this next paddle was going to be.

Just a few miles of river to the next TA (the highlighting is the road we're not allowed to travel on):

We hiked a short distance to the next put-in (final portage!) and I ran up to use the bathroom (have I mentioned that sit-down toilets are a nice luxury?).  Then it was time to paddle the North Platte River:

We shoved off onto decent moving (and deep) water, finally a river I could relate to.  Dave and I started looking for faster current, trying to avoid the quiet non-moving water.  This became a rather fun game and something to keep our minds occupied.  Especially since it started raining as soon as we started paddling again.  It wasn't terrible rain, just wet, better not to dwell on that part of the situation.

There were dark clouds in all directions and we hoped we wouldn't need to try to climb out of the river up a steep bank in case of lightning.  We saw lots of vegetation on both sides, plus then we'd surely be cold.  So far we were doing OK staying warm as long as we kept moving, and the wind wasn't as bad as we thought it might be.

The river split a couple times, and one of the channels we picked was a little shallower - this was made obvious when a deer ran across it, in between our boats!  Very cool.

The evening rays of light were nice and low so we could easily see the water surface - all the ripples and eddies of the subtle currents.  That helped a lot in figuring out where to find the faster water.  This was my favorite rafting section of the day.

For Tom, probably not so much.  He was starting to talk gibberish.  We weren't sure if that was to keep himself awake, or if his sleep-deprived brain was starting to go.  It was funny to listen to for a while, but Leslie had to bear the brunt of it as our boats drifted apart.  Dave and I were actually paddling slightly faster than they were, for once.

Dave lost his place on the map and miscalculated how far we had left to go, making everyone excited until he realized his mistake.  For some reason, having it turn into a longer paddle than his pronouncement didn't bother me at all (and I think I suspected he might be wrong).  But the mood in the other boat darkened as we were still nowhere near the highway.

We saw videographers on the bank and a drone followed us for a couple miles, that was neat.  The drone had a pretty amazing range on it.  It was a good place to film, too, with neat shapes and colors on the river banks in the evening light.  If I had been visually hallucinating, these would have been great fodder for it.  Nope, I was still quite lucid today.

Tom was not doing as well.  He had switched from outlandish to angry.  Our boat was having a nice, mentally interesting paddle, sorry y'all for leaving you back there.  We really should have hooked up a towline and taken both rafts through the moving current, as we paddled from one side of the river to the other to chase it.

The rain finally stopped at some point, but we were wet and it was nearing dusk.  Would we finish this section before dark?

Yes we would!  There's Government Bridge, yay!

As much as I was enjoying this (much more than the rest of the day), I was also ready to be completely, utterly done with this long section of the race.

Here's the boat ramp where we got off the water for the last time:

We dragged ourselves and our boats up the bank and immediately we were cold.  But we were at the end of leg 11, so you'll have to wait for the next (and last!) piece of this race report to see how that turned out...

After leg 11 (rest of the packraft/trek, CP34) = 127:17:18, 31st place


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