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Lunging up granite steps in the trail, I was glad to have nothing but a skinny day pack, but I couldn’t help thinking about carrying a loaded kayak. This was the trail to Bishop Pass, and the Middle Fork of the Kings River. It’s a run I have never done, but it must be the ultimate whitewater journey in North America—8,000 vertical feet in 50 miles from the high Sierra to the low foothills. I reflected on Doug Tompkins, millionaire philanthropist and total badass who made the first descent of the river in 1982. I wrote about Doug’s last kayak trip, and his environmental legacy, in this summer’s issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine. Life for someone like that is so full and long, but also so short, at age 72.
The Sierra was not my mission, however, I was en route to the Klamath River Mountains to research a story for American Forests. First stop: Duck Lakes Basin, and the greatest conifer assemblage on the continent, maybe the world. I counted 17 different species, and probably just didn’t hike high enough to find the 18th.
Pack rafting on the South Fork of the Trinity brought me to an outstanding grove of Pacific yews, slow growing little trees that natives favored for fishhooks, and scientists once coveted for their cancer fighting chemicals before artificial laboratory reproduction was developed.
The Klamath Knot, coined by author David Rains Wallace, is a mountainous redoubt in northern California and southwestern Oregon containing 38 different conifers. The only place on earth with more is New Caledonia, in the South Pacific.
My last destination within the Knot was the Trinity Alps, and a stunningly beautiful drainage called Canyon Creek. With national park-like scenery, the word is out, and I passed at least 60 backpackers coming out of the basin over the 4th of July weekend. Still, the place wasn’t terribly trashed. Impacted, yes, with some curiously deposited toilet paper and random trash, but I was thankful the forest service hadn’t implemented a permit system, otherwise I’d have been a criminal, or not there. Education, not regulation, is my credo for such environments. One day following the holiday, mine was one of just a few camps in the valley.
I woke to a tumbling mountain stream before hiking out to meet my friends for an afternoon run on the Trinity River’s Burnt Ranch Gorge. Three years in a row of paddling class V on my birthday! I sense a streak starting.
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Maybe a dozen years ago, I decided that 200 cubic feet per second was the minimum water level for paddling Oak Creek. In a hard shell kayak, this still seems about right. It’s a diminutive stream for sure, but still worthwhile—more water than rock, anyway.
This season I had a revelation. Pack rafts draw less water than kayaks, they slide over rocks and logs easier, they fit into small eddies better, and if the river disappears completely, they are simple to portage. So, as I drove along Oak Creek at a winter base flow of 95 cfs, I tried to imagine myself out there, in a pack raft.
My first trip down was a total experiment. If it was turning out to be ridiculous, I’d chalk it up to research and go home. Three rapids into the run, I was having a blast! Pack rafting at 95 cfs was about the same as kayaking at 200 cfs. Low water boaters, there’s a new game in town.
It took some convincing to get McNaughton and Govi out there, but a promise of cold beer at Indian Gardens afterward worked its magic. At 200 pounds in the high performance Alpackalypse model, McNaughton needed more water. At 150 pounds in our Yak models, Govi and I were floating free. Paddlers, the Oak Creek season just got longer.
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Despite what the Internet said about reliable flows in the Tuolumne River, I couldn’t squelch a sudden rise of panic when the forest service clerk said, “You know the water is gone for today, right?” There was nary a patch of snow in the Sierra. Why would there be water in the river? Still, we pressed on, content in the fact that we Arizona paddlers can have fun on the most diminutive waterways.
California’s river plumbing produces ecological disaster for many environments. In late summer of a drought year, it also provides a recreational opportunity where there wouldn’t otherwise be one. That worked for us. At the put-in, I ran into Richard, the ex-ranger on the Tuolumne. Two years ago, we’d met in Futaleufu, Chile, in the backyard pad of river legend Josh Lowry. Richard told me the river was only dropping to roughly 700 cfs between pulses of 1,200 cfs this season. This was good news. With one kayak, and one Yak pack raft, we launched on the cold clear Tuolumne, a river Lisa had never run. It had been 16 years since my last visit.
Pack rafting was unknown to me back then. Now it is fast becoming my river craft of choice. I was duly impressed with how the Yukon Yak handled the class IV rapids, catching eddies and dodging holes with perfect ease. On day two, we traded boats, and Lisa decided to give the little raft a test by center-punching the frothiest hydraulics.
At the first hole, she gave a valiant performance, riding the inescapable pocket for a solid minute before flipping and swimming downstream, through a few flushers and into a gorgeous green Tuolumne pool. The raft surfed for a couple minutes before catching a lucky break and flushing out. At the second hole, the ride was shorter, but no less dramatic.
What better way to cool off on a hot day than in the chill waters of California’s most iconic river?
At the take-out, the beauty of pack rafting was again readily apparent as we watched the big rafts winch straight to the bridge, heavy and hot. Our pack rafts rolled into a neat bundle before getting tossed into the back of the car, ready to move on to the next adventure.
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Leaving the tourist enclave of Tavan Bogd, we were the morning sideshow. Pat, Susan, and I paddled away on the swift Tsagaan Gol, the Milk River.
Back in the van, we rattled down the Tsagaan Gol Valley. Out of the high country and into the desert, Ahktilek turned down a dirt track that climbed back into green steppes, topping a windy pass where the snowy Altai revealed itself in distant grandeur.
It was 8 pm by the time we found a semi-sheltered camp near the outlet of Hurgen Lake. From here, it would be 130 kilometers down the Hovd River back to the town of Olgy.
The lake gathered itself into a deep blue river, big and choppy. At 5 miles, a tributary entered. Neither watercourse looked like a normal river. There was no evidence of high water; no beaches, no driftwood. They flowed over wide beds of boulders right up to grassy banks, like spring fed creeks. But these creeks combined to make a swift river of 5,000 cfs. We rode the restless current into a stiff wind, stopping for lunch at a ger with racks of cheese drying in the breeze.
Out of the mountains, the river braided into a bizarre maze of channels. It was like a sluggish floodplain, but it wasn’t sluggish. Steady current raced through a patchwork of willow jungle, and we followed the biggest arteries, hoping they would all re-unite. They did, at an open bay where a westerly wind swept us past sand dunes into an inexplicable gap through a stark desert range.
Clouds swallowed morning’s blue sky, and we sped out of the desert range into a blustery grey valley.
Camp came atop a rocky promontory surrounded on all sides by the river, and millions of mosquitos, but up there on our breezy outcrop they were scarce. A winter residence, or hasha, provided a windbreak.
Jagaa’s welcome smile greeted us at the bridge in Olgy. Laying in the hotel bed that night, I realized it was the first time I’d been awake after dark for weeks. Moslem prayer songs echoed through the streets, doing battle with brutal karaoke coming from the hotel bar downstairs. In 7 hours, I’d be meeting a ride to the airport, and the start of the long journey home.
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The chief ranger, Gana, greeted us in a worn purple hoody. He wasn’t the picture of earnestness that we all know from our NPS rangers in smoky-the-bear hats, but if I was stranded somewhere in his park, he seemed like the kind of guy I’d want on the search.
Ranger Gana led from his horse. Behnid him on a string walked the camel with our kayaks. A light rain began as we scrambled along the rim of the gorge, scouting. At a chunky 20-foot falls, a simple up-and-over portage route was apparent, and I signaled Gana onward before turning to Pat and Susan, “Is that sleet I’m seeing?” Twenty minutes later there was little doubt about the precipitation. It was full-on snowing.
I pulled on my drysuit over wet socks and soaked long underwear, sucking on my fingers to keep them operable. The glacial water was difficult to read, and we skipped over rocks hiding in the dirty grey silt.
The Tsagaan Gol Gorge is an angry place; cold, grey, fast, sharp, loose. The unrelenting snowstorm only added to the drama. I was loving every second.
We shared a relieved high-five at the mouth of the canyon. The run-out was dreamy, the afterglow of adrenaline coaxing us into crashing wave trains. Children of the ger camps alerted their families, and lines of people came spilling out to watch from above.
I woke in the middle of the night to find a crystalline twinkling sky and a fresh cover of snow, July in the Mongolian Altai.
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Cresting a range of desert hills, a broad swampy lowland opened before us, prompting Jagaa to proclaim, “I think you’d die from mosquitos down there.” The thought of a breakdown in these lonely barrens crossed my mind just then, and the swarming marsh took on a sinister aura. I rattled along in the passenger seat feeling detached, like I was a character in a Lord of the Rings remake, powerless to my fate amid the spooky mysticism of Middle Earth.
We rattled past the death zone of skeeters cleanly, following a road that wasn’t on my map. Almost imperceptibly, the desert was replaced with foothills of rolling green steppe bathed in late evening light.
With no shade for miles, the morning sun rousted us too early. We all gave up on sleep and climbed inside the jeep to creep up the Harhiraa River, an unknown blue line on the map that held paddling potential. As we hesitated at a deep crossing, Pat implored, “Jagaa, there’s no pressure to cross this river.” Jagaa sighed, then declared, “It’s okay.” We rolled in. Water seeped through the doors. The jeep buckled, but kept crawling out the far bank. We cheered.
The Harhiraa ran a light glacial blue, speeding down a broad cobble floodplain. Pat and I zoomed along, dodging shallows and sprinting for the occasional surf wave.
Across a huge valley and through a mountain gateway, we stopped to cool the radiator as a motorcycle horse herder pushed past. He stopped to share a drink of water, thirstily gulping beneath a Life is Good ball cap.
Back to the lowlands, it was again time to cool the engine. Pat and Jagaa set up the stove to boil ramen water. I went for a walk, listening to booms of thunder over the mountains of Russia, rising blue beyond an inland sea surrounded by sand. The arid landscape offered familiarity for me and Pat, the desert rats, but it also whetted our appetites for the glaciers and green meadows of Tavaan Bogd Park, and the highest mountains of Mongolia, our next destination.
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I was half-awake watching the flames of the fire when the sound of a jeep rousted me to my feet. Guarding my relief, I looked closely to see if it was Jagaa’s familiar white Russian-made four-door. He opened the latch. “Jagaa, it’s good to see you,” I said. The vague glow of dawn crept over the mountains as we sat around the fire and shared beers in celebration of our reuniting.
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong with our shuttle mix-up, but I’ve had similar things happen in the States, where we share a language and a culture. Take away those commonalities, and shuttle follies are bound to occur sometimes. We were just glad to be back with our friend, and our gear.
After a few hours’ sleep everyone rallied to continue downstream. The river was now called the Shiver Gol. Jagaa insisted that the translation for “shiver” was “foot odor.” Taking his claim with some suspicion, we coined the stream as the Stinky Foot Fork, and followed its penetration into the rocky front range of the Harhiraa Mountains.
The rapids were perfect class IV, with chutes and eddies spilling through round stair-stepping boulders.
Several drops in, we were surprised to see vertical walls emerge, closing the river between sinuous smooth cliffs—a real gorge.
The upstream Khagartin was perhaps the hardest whitewater in Mongolia, but the downstream Shiver Gol was almost certainly the best. As the gorge grew, the rapids diminished, allowing our worry-free gaze at the soaring walls.
Tumbling out of the mountains and into the desert, the river refused to flatten completely, constricting into class III sluices beneath steep low banks. Finally, the Shiver Gol split into multiple channels, as many Mongolian rivers do, once reaching the valley plain. Jagaa was waiting patiently at the take-out, standing in the smoke of a dung fire to keep the horseflies at bay.
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Not every day in Mongolia is pleasant, but they are almost always interesting. As Pat and I started across the grassland with our boats in tow, it struck me that Jagaa’s departure in the jeep came somewhat hastily. But at the moment it seemed there were more important issues at hand, like finding a route to the water.
Off the edge and down fields of wildflowers, we emerged from thick stands of larch onto a moraine field of round granite with a clear mountain stream coursing through. This was the Khagartin (Ha gar teen). Our descent would not be the first, that honor went to the British Universities Expedition several years ago. Still, this was probably the hardest whitewater in Mongolia.
The river was fast and shallow. After berating myself for portaging a rapid that was all clean, I came to see my decision in a better light after watching Pat narrowly pry himself off a boulder. I did the same a couple rapids later. The riverbed was young, and unexpected rocks lurked in every channel.
At a scout, we agreed the move was to split the boulders. I was too aggressive, and stalled on the pillow, sluicing backwards into a submerged rock that flipped me. Trying to roll in the shallows, all motion stopped when bedrock pressed against my back and the kayak pushed down from above, flattening me forward onto my front deck. It wasn’t overwhelming force, but the seriousness of the situation was apparent, and I resolved to swim out at the next opportunity. Seconds later my chance came, and I surfaced standing chest deep in a marginal eddy. “Paddle!” I yelled as Pat swept by. It wasn’t encouragement, it was an alert to locate my missing blade. He chased it down, and javelin-threw to shore. From opposite ends of a gorge corridor, we exchanged the all-okay signal.
A bedrock sluice, an up-and-over portage, and more paddling brought the Footbridge Gorge. We’d seen a picture of this on Google Earth from back in Flagstaff. The glimpse of whitewater in that photo led us here. Now reaching the long sought location, there was more whitewater than we’d ever imagined.
Another mile led to the Ireg River, below which we floated on a luxurious 400 cfs through a scenic class IV canyon. Emerging into an open valley, we scanned for Jagaa and the waiting jeep. We saw neither. I reached for theories, “Maybe we’re late and he’s off looking for us.” Pat was more resolved for a long wait. “There’s a spring downstream where we can get water, and those larch trees will provide firewood.” Two hours later we sipped fresh water by the fire. The sky was cloudy. A gentle breeze wafted upstream.
Around midnight, I put on my drysuit, arranged my pfd as a pillow, and announced to Pat wishfully, “I’m crawling in.” To deter the occasional mosquito, I draped my sprayskirt over my head. In a half-sleep haze, I could feel the chill of night on my back overpower the warmth of the fire at my belly. When this happened, I’d sit up and place more wood on the smoldering coals, then watch as it smoked into a release of beautiful orange flame.
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We followed a wide dirt road into a desert basin incongruously featuring a big blue lake. Red crags rose on the far shoreline and our destination, Harhiraa (Har hear a) Mountain, rose snowy in the distance. Another hour of driving brought a green plain and rocky foothills dwarfed below the snow draped massif. Entering the facade, we passed ger villages filling verdant valleys where streams tumbled over beds of granite.
Our route degenerating, we stopped to ask directions from a woman wearing a traditional del. Although I couldn’t understand a word, she clearly spoke with conviction, telling Jagaa that our route lay a couple draws back.
The road climbed onto mountaintop steppes. At 9,000 feet, we realized that we were off course, but it was too late and too beautiful to turn back. Jagaa turned his jeep off the two-track and drove across the grassland toward the rim of a glacial valley below. When the snow dome of Harhiraa rose above the treeless plain, it was clearly time to camp.
Our morning started by glassing the river, its noisy rapids easily heard from 1,000 feet above. Pockets of larch grew throughout the valley, where two streams joined to form the Khagartin (Ha gar teen) River. The raucous creek seemed too low for paddling at first, but through the binoculars our perspective changed. We returned to the jeep and geared up for a day of kayaking, blissfully unaware of the adventure that was due to unfold.
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Launching on the swift Buyant River, we were uncertain whether we’d see the vans later that evening or not. They had a long unknown shuttle ahead, crossing creeks and tracing old horse paths with tire tracks, thus qualifying them as roads. We paddlers packed sleeping bags, and extra snacks.
The river braided past rocky bluffs and opened into a valley where young men rode their horses and an old woman in a del whipped at some recalcitrant goats. We lounged at the rendezvous point in warm evening sunshine, placing bets on the vans arrival time, or their non-arrival. To our relief they pulled in at 7 pm. Jess was the big winner.
Driving into the town of Hovd, there was much conjecture as to the availability of hot water. Bulgaa explained that there was hot water from the town’s central plant in winter, but not in summer. I puzzled over this for some time before the obvious answer struck me. There simply weren’t enough resources—energy, man power, money—to dedicate to the luxury of hot water in summer, when it wasn’t a matter of survival. Still, our hotel claimed to have some. Pat Phillips persevered to find the one shower, and the one hour, when steamy liquid flowed. Impatient, I bathed delicately, part by icy part.
At the airport we said goodbye to Merida, Jess, Pat Welch, and Bulgaa.
Phillips and I climbed into Akhtilek’s van, following Nurca and Jenke in theirs. At the edge of town, a young guy in a T-shirt pulled a rope barrier at some sort of checkpoint, and we sped off on a paved highway. It turned to dirt in about 200 yards. Five hours later, the pavement returned, and the town of Olgy burst into view, a panoply of colorful Russia influenced rooftops filling the valley bottom. It was obvious that Islam was a player here. Women wore head scarves and mosques appeared behind roadside walls. We turned down a pot-holed street and into an alley where a blue gate slid open revealing a grinning shirtless man. This was Bulgaa’s brother, Jagaa. Together, we would search the Harhiraa (Har heer a) Mountains for whitewater.