Sunday, April 04, 2010

Ides of March

I know it's April, and this trip took place in April, but the creek is called March Brook and it does have 15 rapids. This post is a quick update on this steep creek and a small crew that went for a mini-epic on Sunday. A new, easy access route was confirmed and three new rapids at the top of the river were added to the inventory of known waterfalls on the brook.

The first waterfall on March Brook.

I've been captivated by March Brook since my first hike up the bottom portion of the creek in 2001. The first descent in 2002 was hampered by the fact that it was -7C and two of us were in unfamiliar, brand-new creek boots. However, that didn't stop Kev England from stomping six of the seven big, manky waterfalls while the rest of the crew watched. Ever since I've wondered, perhaps obsessed, if it was the day or me that held me back from running more of the drops.

Now I know, it was me. In stark contrast to the first descent Sunday was 15C and sunny, perfect conditions for an exploration trip. The first order of business was to establish a new hiking route into the upper reaches of the brook. Isaac, Erlangga and I followed a well used quad trail to a plateau of barren lands east of Pipers Hole Brook. The views of the area are fabulous up here and even better there is no bush crashing. And in a bizarre turn of events Erlangga voluntarily dragged my boat part of the way.

I didn't check the time, but our 5 km hike to the put-in took about an hour and a half. The quad trail is well used and can't be missed on the hike up Pipers Hole River, once on the trail take every left. The idea is to skirt the tree line along the western edge of the bog, so eventually you have to leave the quad trail. We left the trail at the height of land and followed a creek down to the first rapid on March Brook. This route is pretty obvious on the high resolution Google Earth image.

One of the main points of this trip was to find out how many waterfalls were present above the 2002 put-in. We found one class IV rapid that consisted of two broken ledges. Below this rapid is a distinct, river wide horizon line that marks a 3 m waterfall. There are multiple lines on this drop and it is pretty straight forward. I chose a line that was not obvious until I was downstream scouting the next horizon line. This drop makes for a very motivating start to March Brook.
Landing the first waterfall, just to prove I can boof.
The next horizon is misty and simply feels bigger than the first waterfall upstream. The waterfall is 6 m high and is defined by a u-shaped ledge. An ugly looking pocket forms at the upstream end of the U, but there was a lot of water flushing downstream on the river left side of the drop and I don't think getting stuck would be a problem for very long. Still, being a Nervous Nelly I chose the conservative line on the extreme downstream side of the ledge on river left. This end of the ledge lands entirely on water flowing out of the drop and is a pretty easy line to hit and you still get airborne for 6 m. Mind you I could have made it look prettier with a proper boof.
On the brink of the second waterfall. This can't end well.

At the next horizon line the trip started to disintegrate. I scouted on river left while I waited for the safety guys to bush crash their way downstream. This is the first waterfall that Kev ran in 2002 and it was taller (7.5m) and mankier than I remember, not to mention there was a whole lot more water in the brook. However, there are two lines on the drop that skilled, committed paddlers could hit. The difficulty of the waterfall is greatly increased by the mandatory blind corner that is itself a 4.5 m waterfall into a stout hole and forms the run-out of the first drop.
A 2002 photo from downstream of the fourth rapid on March Brook, a 7.5 m waterfall. This photo makes it look smaller than reality.

I started walking at this point and my boat didn't see water until I was at Pipers Hole River. There a few factors that contributed to this disappointing end to the day: first and foremost I was in over my head, the water level was higher than expected and the drops were beefy, and finally I would have been completely on my own in the canyon. Isaac and I think that more of the brook would be runnable if your entire team were in boats at river level. Scouting and safety set-ups are required on both sides of the brook so the team needs to maneuver back and forth across the brook. Furthermore, portaging is generally easier from the river right bank.

So, what are the take aways from Sundays mini-epic? There is new, easily hike-able access to March Brook. The first three rapids and waterfalls are fun and very runnable. The rest of the canyon is really hard whitewater, but it is runnable by folks with the requisite class V to V+ skill set; lesser mortals may still be able to safely pick away at a few of the waterfalls in the main canyon. The last take away is a comment on water levels. I previously thought March Brook required very high water on Pipers Hole River (2.5m to 3m) to be runnable. However, yesterday Pipers was fairly low, maybe 1.1m to 1.2m on the gauge, all the feeder brooks that people are familiar with were trickles, and March Brook was still at what is probably the high-end of medium for this brook. I'm at a loss to explain this correlation, but I did note that on Saturday and Sunday the Northwest River, the adjoining catchment basin, was on the rise. Perhaps there was still snow higher in the drainage area, but that is hard to imagine this year. Whatever the reason I would revise level expectations for March Brook. My new hypothesis is that March Brook is likely to be at viable levels any time Pipers Hole River rises to playable levels. This scenario would greatly increase the season for March Brook.

Now on a final note. I have this monkey off my back, I now know what lies upstream on March Brook. The question remains, will I go back. Maybe, but only if Isaac wants to return when his back has finished healing. It will definitely be at lower water and the whole team will be on the river. Besides, I have a water level hypothesis to test.

Monday, March 08, 2010

A Chinese Riot on Petty Harbour River

Last week more than 100 mm of rain fell on St. John's, NL. I didn't want the ski season to end, but that much rain, combined with snow melt, means the creek boating on the Avalon Peninsula is phenomenal. For a few brief weeks every March or April multiple class IV and V creeks run within a 20 min drive of the province's capital city.

Cody Neal stomping the line on the first waterfall.

This spring I had a brand new, never seen the water Riot Magnum that was manufactured in China. There were two things about this that bothered me: I hate unscratched boats and I was unsure about the durability of my new boat. Excited to be able to address both these issues I floated a plan out to the local crew for a run on Rennies Mill Brook. This brook runs through St. John's, changing names at every pond, but the section from Columbus Drive down to the old mill site consists of several class IV to V drops at flood levels. However, through a series of disjointed emails and phone calls it was settled that we would head to Petty Harbour to run the lower section of the river there.

Petty Harbour is a relatively short (1 km in length), high-gradient run located about a twenty minute drive southeast of St. John's. Construction of the first hydro-electric power project in the province was started in 1898 and the river bed has been dewatered since 1900. Fortunately during huge rain events and spring melt the reservoir comes up 1.5 m and flows over the dam, bringing a high quality class V run to life. The first descent was during the 2001 hurricane season by Kevin England. Due to the paucity of flowing water and sheer difficulty of the rapids Petty Harbour River has only seen a few complete and partial descents since 2001. All of the class V drops are located in the first half of the run and the lower half consists of a 4 m waterfall and three steep, class IV boulder gardens. This section was the 2010 season opener.

Working our way through the boulder garden rapids.

I've scouted the river several times and have always walked away from the sieves and pourover ledges in the upper section without considering the lower half of the river. Cody Neal and Dave MacDonald ran this section at medium to low water levels couple of years ago and gave it a good review. On Sunday morning looking at the section in flood and a temperature of -1C the pucker factor was high and I found myself wondering why I wasn't launching into the polluted waters of Rennies Mill Brook. Once I was in my boat and comfortably numb from the cold water on my face I remembered why I was there; 4 m waterfalls with tricky lines are the best way to start the season. Plus, I'm not going to get sick from drinking the water.

Chris Buchanan shaking off the winter cobwebs on Petty Harbour River.

Cody and I both had good lines on the waterfall and this settled our nerves for the next three boulder garden rapids. In the first one I had to make a hasty ferry to avoid running over a broached Cody and ended up pitoning hard as I came over the wave. A dented bow was a forgone conclusion and the second piton left me without a doubt that my boat was no longer a virgin. Next time I'll just run Cody over. The thing that struck me about the lower section of Petty Harbour River wasn't the difficulty or that the holes were much meatier than they looked from the river bank, but that overall the rapids were easier than I thought during the scout.

The dents in my boat after less than 15 minutes on the river.

At the end of the day Petty Harbour River deserves its position as an Avalon classic and I agree with the boys that when it runs everything should be dropped to get in a run on it. I hope it is warmer next time and we can consider running from the dam down to the ocean. At the very least, the 200m of river upstream of the waterfall looks like fun and manageable constant gradient whitewater. Thanks to Dave MacDonald, Dave Ennis, and my father for the photography and video.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Labrador Access on the Trans-Labrador Highway

Wow, two posts in a week, let alone a year. This is just a brief note about improved access to rivers in southern Labrador. Over the holidays I saw a news article that was about the first two vehicles to travel over the recently completed trans-Labrador highway. This is great news for paddlers. It is now possible to drive from Blanc Sablon on the south coast of Labrador to, well, anywhere on the continent.

When I first started map research in the province I noted several runs east of the Pinware River which have the right topo characteristics to be great creeking. Until now access was a bit miserable though, but the new road comes very close to the headwaters of several of these runs. The road may also provide access to rivers that were previously accessible only by flying. At the very least you'll only have to fly to the put-in. However, the challenge remains in getting back to civilization once you hit the ocean. Communities are far and few between here, but I'm sure locals would be amenable to fishing boat pick-ups.

I hope this highway heralds a new era of river exploration in southern Labrador. Even the ability to drive gear and supplies to Goose Bay will reduce costs for getting teams into the more isolated northern rivers. Anyone want to go and see what the Torngats have to offer?

If you take advantage of the highway for paddling, hopefully you'll let me know and contribute to the database of river knowledge in the Newfoundland and Labrador.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

September, 2009: The West Coast of Newfoundland

My New Year's resolution this year, well there is two, write a post about a White's River trip in September and finish my thesis this year. Here is the first one done and let’s hope the second is as easy. This post describes a road trip in September, 2009 to paddle the White’s River in western Newfoundland. I was using a new camera on this trip and I’m not pleased with a lot of the river pictures, so I apologize in advance for image quality.

After a month in the bush I found myself with a few spare days, a vehicle, and a paddling partner. To sweeten the deal the island had a fair bit of rain just before I came out of Labrador and rivers were running. Unfortunately only Cody Neal could make the trip, but we were determined to get on a few west coast classics. I flew through Deer Lake on the way home and was able to scout the White's River, excellent water levels, but from a few thousand feet it's hard to tell and maybe there would be too much water. Cody and I left town just after lunch with the intent of spending the night at Rafting Newfoundland with Paul Rose.

First waterfall on Eels River. My battery died before Cody ran it.

Along the way we stopped at Eels River, just east of Norris Arm on the TCH. Paul discovered and opened up this run a few years ago, but I've never been there when it had water. Cody and I found enough water for the first waterfall and suited up. The first waterfall was great and we ran it a few times, but downstream of this was way too bony. I'd say we were a day too late for decent flows on this little river. However, it has some nice drops and with enough water it would be a great, full-on run.

We should have skipped Eels River and gone straight to Leech Brook. There was enough water that evening, but it was dark and things were dropping fast which meant Cody didn't get his chance to launch Second Falls. At Paul’s place we monitored Aspen Brook overnight, but after sleeping-in decided it was better to head west than waste time with a waterfall that was at marginally low levels. The landing zone already looked like a pretty hard hit compared to my previous runs on this classic drop. So, west we went.

In the first box canyon of Upper Lomond River.

Fortunately for us my parents were on the island and agreeable to running shuttles. In hindsight they might have regretted this offer. Our first run was Upper Lomond Brook. This is a section of river that includes several beefy drops in committing box canyons. It defeated us on the first descent, felt sketchy on the second descent, and was fun on the third. Cody on the other hand has a contradictory opinion of this river. Although I didn't intend to sandbag him, Cody maintains that I may have under-estimated the visual intensity of this river in previous descriptions. I still think the drops that aren't portaged are class IV to V rapids.

Entrance ledge to the "Access Denied" box canyon.

That said the river is essentially remote, rescue would involve a helicopter, and the consequences of missing any of the lines looks awful. At the end of the day I maintain that Upper Lomond Brook is a classic class V creek, but Cody warns that the undercut, bouldery drops look heinous. The moose burger platter in Wiltondale was still cheap and good though.

The plan after Lomond was to set shuttle for White's River and camp at the put-in. This noble plan quickly turned into a SNAFU. An old logging road accesses a group of cabins on Adies Lake and I had previously suggested that this should be used as the take-out for the White's River. This road is really nothing more than a buffed up skidder trail; it's hard to believe logging trucks ever used it. My Jeep Patriot is a light-weight in the world of off-road vehicles and it was truly tested by this road, but would have made it in the light of day. After creeping down the road at 2 kph in the dark, a strategic retreat was called for by the other participants in the epic and we regrouped in Deer Lake. Early the next morning we headed down the original take-out road on the south end of Adies Lake. In 2006 we drove all the way to the take-out, however, alders have grown in and we were only able to drive to within 500 m of the take-out. At least our shuttle was finally set.

Bridge gauge at the feeder brook put-in. This was very low.

The White’s River logging road was in much worse shape than my last trip into the Long Range Mountains. It will soon require a 4-wheel drive vehicle. The traditional put-in has always been the bridge over a feeder brook to the White’s River, which is where an informal gauge is located. This brook looked low, but the gauge indicated the same level as my 2006 trip. It turned out the feeder brook and upper reaches of the White’s were way to low and lots of boat dragging was required. I’m sure this gauge indicates when the water is way too high for the river, but it is only a vague indicator of low to medium levels. Repeated flights over the White’s and Google Earth indicate that several sets of rapids are located above and below the bridge which crosses the White’s River.

Differences in water levels at the same rapid.

The alternative put-in does not add any river distance to the run and likely adds some good rapids to the start of the day. Also, a gauge on this bridge may provide a more accurate depiction of the levels downstream. These are the gauge levels for the region in September, but I don't have enough data to know how closely these relate to the White's: Main River @ Paradise Pool = 25 cms, Humber River above Black Brook = 28 cms and Humber River @ Reidville = 83 cms

Our run down the White’s was uneventful, but shallow water definitely made the day longer. Here is a picture of a rapid to illustrate the difference in water levels:

A few notes are required to update my previous description of the river:

"Split Lip, " the first major rapid (IV).

1. Once the first major rapid, “Split Lip” is reached there are three class –IV rapids before reaching the first canyon. The third rapid is some distance downstream from the second and is recognized by an obvious, easily avoided boulder sieve on river right. The big waterfall is still a long way downstream from here and there is plenty of time to eddy out above the falls.

Downstream from White's River Falls.

2. The waterfall marks the start of the first canyon. Below the waterfall there are two rapids, class III and IV+, before a rapid that is usually portaged.

3. The only other notable deviation of the original report from reality is in the second canyon. I had described a long pool above the class VI waterfall in this canyon, but forgot about a class III rapid between the blind corner and the waterfall. It isn’t a big deal, but it might as well be known feature.

After leaving the channelized canyon rapids the water almost disappeared on the braided alluvial fan that marks the mouth of the river. This wasn’t much fun, but was far better than the headwind hell that we faced crossing Adies Lake to the take-out. I fully recommend getting a vehicle into the cabins on Adies Lake, it will make the day much shorter. Quads may be useful in shuttling this run, but someone has a motor home parked on Adies Lake so surely we can drive there. This run took Cody and me seven hours, but two of those hours were spent crossing Adies Lake.

One final note: some maps, Google included, indicate that Rd# 422 heads north from Cormack to Sir Richard Squire’s Provincial Park and eventually makes its way to the TCH near the Sop’s Arm turn-off (Rd.# 420). While not exactly wrong, these are barely roads and seem to primarily exist to be snowmobile trails in the winter. At the end of the day it is quicker to back-track to Deer Lake, have a beer and then head north on the TCH.