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.