Thursday, February 26, 2009

Inversion Therapy

I have one strong attribute that keeps me going in the adventure play arena, and it sure as heck isn't competence. Mostly, it's that I'm not smart enough to be embarrassed. Heck, I'm the guy who kicked his ice axe into a crevasse right in front of Yvon Chouinard during an ice climbing class on Mt. Hood (I wonder; between global warming & nearly three decades of glacial movement, I bet I could get it back now!). You know, the guy who started Patagonia and possibly the most influential climber of the whole golden age of Yosemite big-wall first ascents? Let's just say I got off on the wrong foot with one of my heros, and stayed there the rest of the day.

So we should probably get this out of the way right up front: the highlight of my first trip down the whitewater section of the Verde River was the descent of the Class IV Verde Falls.

Upside down.

Yeah, I managed a raggedy roll in the hole at the bottom of the Falls and paddled myself out without needing any rescue. But I can hardly claim that was my first choice.

I woke up that morning expecting to do chores around the house all day, despite a hearty scramble all week trying to put together a paddling trip. I'd met Ben (he's the one pictured at the left, while we were scouting the falls) several months back and wound up talking kayaking, ending with a general agreement to look each other up when the water got back up in the local rivers & creeks. We'd reconnected last week with plans to run the Salt, Tonto Creek, or something, but I didn't know much beyond that. I passed on plans with my friend Bill to run an easier section of the Salt River, and heard half an hour too late on Saturday about an early morning meetup to go run the Class III-IV section of the Verde from Beasley Flats to Gap Creek. Without any contact info for Ben or word from him, I figured it was a good day to work on getting the garden ready for spring. But with a late morning phone call & a gracious green light from the love of my life, I was scrambling to remember just what all I needed to pack for honest-to-goodness whitewater.

Half an hour later, I was headed for Beasley Flats & setting up a shuttle with Ben and his housemate West; it'll be interesting to see how long we know one another before it becomes necessary for us to know last names. The river was on the low side for that run -- around 350-400 cfs -- and that contributed to my first mistakes. At that level, the first named rapid, Off The Wall, seemed pretty inconsequential. I allowed myself a bit of hubris, which got me in trouble the very next riffle, which I ended up running backwards after catching a rock right at the top. See, while it's not that pushy at 350, at that level the Verde has plenty of rock gardens that lurk just under the surface, waiting to trip up the inattentive, the arrogant, and the just plain clueless. A year and a half out of whitewater boating, and I had a bit of all three going for me.

One of the big tricks with Verde Falls is the Pre-Falls rapid just above it -- an abrupt 3-4 foot drop over a rocky, toothy shelf that is pretty bony at low levels. Mess up at Pre-Falls, and you've got very little room to recover before the Falls proper. Still feeling tentative & shaky in the boat, I was doing the baby-duckling thing with West, following his stern where ever it went. Right up until the moment when he zipped into a little eddy and I went sailing past (my East Coast friends Helene & Scott will know how this story ends) and into a rock-bashing solo read & run of Pre-Falls, along one of the uglier, barely-passable lines through the rapid. Chastened, I got my butt into the first available eddy and waited for my betters to catch up.

Verde Falls at 350 looked straightforward enough, with just two things I had to get right. First, don't screw up in the little slot to the right of the cleaver rock that splits the current and creates a couple of funky curlers right above the falls. Second, get in a good boof stroke at the lip of the falls & catch a little air there, because: a) it's a hell of a lot of fun, and b) it'll carry you clear of the recirculating hole that will suck you back into the bottom of the falls. Failing the first, I brushed the cleaver rock and capsized in the slot. Uh-oh.

West tells me I actually managed an upside down boof that carried me & my boat clear of the falls; best I can guess, that must have been the big whack (as distinct from all the smaller rock smacks) I felt on my shoulder and helmeted head somewhere between flipping and rolling back up in the frothy jumble at the bottom. Fortune, it seems, once again favoring the fool.

Though rehashing my pratfalls is fun a few days later (lord only knows how much mileage I've gotten out of the Chouinard story), it doesn't do a bit of good when I still have miles of whitewater between me and the takeout.

I probably looked pretty goofy with my grim little game face on, but a conscious focus on the fundamentals -- aggressive posture, paddle in the water, seeing the whole line ahead rather than fixating on the immediate obstacle -- seemed to pay off. I started to feel my hips loosen up and let the boat react to waves & random thumps. My paddle strokes actually started to have a purpose again, instead of random, reactive flailing. By the last significant rapid before the takeout at Gap Creek, a fun Class III called Punk Rock, I was finally starting to feel the old flow, putting the boat where I wanted when I wanted. More or less.

Pushing on through bouts of the stupids has generally served me well. If I'd stayed rattled after the embarassment of Verde Falls, it's even money or better that I'd have slam danced with Punk Rock an hour or so later. Now that I think back, the most vivid memory of that ice climbing class isn't the mortifying one I've told a hundred times, but late that afternoon front-pointing up this translucent, overhung serac about 30 or 40 feet high, with an ice axe I'd borrowed from Yvon Chouinard.


  1. I fully relate to having stiff hips when I'm out of practice in my kayak. I have to force myself to relax, starting with uncurling my toes, relaxing the muscles in my feet and ankles, and so on, until I get up to my hips and torso. Once that tension is gone it's so much easier to move with the current, which helps a lot with staying upright and on line.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm paddling on Saturday for the first time since November but thankfully it's a very gentle, easy creek. No Class IV Falls until I get back in the groove.

    Look forward to reading about your adventures, Brad. Take good care.

  2. Helmet Cam!!!! That is what you need!!!

    Also... said 'slot.'