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.


Tony said...

Chris, I bet that has to be the first time anyone has whitewatered down a river this time of year. Good stuff!

Tony :-)

Chris Buchanan said...

Hi Tony,

Paddling in February and March is pretty common on the island, especially on the Avalon. The ice blows of most of the rivers when they flood during a thaw or rain event. Cold is the main enemy, and since I used the cold as an excuse on Sunday I must be getting old.

The crew I boated with in Saskatchewan in the late '90's paddled through the winter. That's cold that gives a brass monkey shrinkage.