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Feeling better after my two-day bout with the Yak-dung-water funk, I walked down the far side of a pass with Bulgaa. He told me this was the place where his mother died. Bad brakes on an old Russian firewood truck, it was easy to see how it might have unfolded. All life is uncertain, but the edge is a little closer here in rural central Asia. Bulgaa’s father, in his sixties, is one of five survivors from a family of eighteen. We paused, and gazed at snowy ridgelines forming the Chinese border.
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By afternoon the vans were climbing over worsening boulders toward 10,500-foot Red Pass—the highest in Mongolia. Our van got high-centered on a rock at one point, requiring several of us to pull sideways on a rope attached to the roof rack so the van wouldn’t roll as it was extricated. By now we were accustomed to such tactics, standard Mongolian driving, really. Most of us walked down the other side of the pass. It was less violent than riding, and just as fast.
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Driving in Mongolia is a lot like off-trail hiking in the States, sometimes you merely follow a route between a series of rock cairns. And if the locals tell you this is the way, this is the way. So we went, weaving from cairn to cairn through boulder studded alpine meadows. When another valley opened before us, it was again all riders out for the treacherous descent.
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There were no gers in this valley, a refreshing surprise. The vacancy made it feel like Alaska, and we camped straight in the middle of it, beside a gurgling tributary of the Buyant River. Among green meadows splashed with white and yellow wildflowers, Pat sat with his back against a drybag and made notes while sipping a beer. “I live for this shit, man,” he said grinning.

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I expected the Bulgan River to be washed out with the high water. I was wrong. Breaking waves filled every rapid (as evidenced by Merida Scully’s acrobatics below), and the rapids led one into the next, non-stop. A few of the harder drops left us chattering like giddy children from the safety of eddies below.
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The mood was celebratory at the take-out, where the high Bulgan covered the road and wolf tracks ran through the mud. An aging bridge looked vulnerable in the torrent, so we piled out of the vans and hastily crossed on foot just as a hard rain started to fall. Driving, we scanned for campsites, but nobody was too thrilled about jumping out into the deluge. At an empty white adobe, Pat scurried through the rain to test the front door—open! Within an hour my wet cotton was hanging near the warmth of the stove. The concept of private property is vague and insignificant in this land of nomads. This was a family’s winter home. If we travelers needed it for a night while the owners were up in the high country tending their herds, so be it. We tried to leave the cozy cabin as we found it, ready for the next person in need of shelter.
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Pat Phillips and I awoke ill. Nausea, fever, muscle aches, exhaustion; nobody else suffered from this sudden imbalace of bodily humors, wo we figured it was a result of one too many open mouthed surfs on the flooding Bulgan. The following day, we “guides” watched while “clients” Jess Matheson and Pat Welch made a first descent of the upper Turgen. Jess is an instructor at Otter Bar, and the New Zealand Kayak School. Welch, a physicist, started paddling as a kid in the 70s, and has pioneered several rivers near his Oregon home. They enjoyed the clear mountain stream while Phillips and I staggered along the rim back to our sick tents.

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After a three-hour flight over steppe, then mountains, then desert, we landed in Hovd, a small town sitting in a broad desert basin with a braided river running through, it could’ve been somewhere in Nevada. From here our team of five kayakers, two drivers, one cook, and one very important translator—Bulgaa—would set off on a kayak tour of the Southern Altai. There was just one hitch in our plan. We didn’t have any kayaks.
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They’d been arranged to arrive by truck from the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. But there are many potential pitfalls when shipping large items across a country the size of Alaska, and of mostly dirt roads. Cell phone contact told us that the shipment was “almost there,” but as the slow northern evening progressed, they still weren’t. So at midnight, Phillips, Bulgaa, and driver Nurca set out in search of the missing boats. While I stayed snugly at camp, the search team apparently drove halfway across the Gobi Desert to find the overdue kayaks. Through the night, they stopped every set of approaching headlights—about one per hour—to glean new information on the missing truck. Reports varied. “One day back,” “passed them six hours ago,” “never saw that truck.” At 10 am the road warriors finally crossed paths with their tardy cargo.
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Reunited, our caravan headed for the Dund Tsenger (Doond Sen ger, South Fork of the Blue), a river that was listed as “possible” on Pat’s maps, and showed great promise on Google Earth. At the road crossing, it was over wheel-deep, and the rocks were round granite. Out of a heat haze shimmering on stark desert basins, a real possibility of Mongolian kayaking began to take shape.
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While on the water a rain began. It didn’t stop for six days. Fortunately for us, kayaking is a fine activity in the rain, and the weather is also conducive to accepting the incredible hospitality of nomadic Mongolians. We each stepped inside, carefully striding over the threshold and moving to the left before sitting in a half circle on the ground rugs. The heat was enveloping and wonderful. A lean woman tended batches of fry bread at the center stove. A little girl stared inquisitively from across the room. A rifle that looked about circa 1920 hung on the back wall. “Did you see the baby?” Bulgaa asked, pointing behind him to a pile of blankets that I might have flopped straight into. The infant cooed.
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Camp came at a grassy field beside the high flowing Bulgan River. I discovered my backpack had gotten wet, soaking the cotton clothes inside. This prompted me to start a drying fire, which led me to the question of what one burns in a land without trees. The answer is dung, but it must be dry. As I returned from the desert with a few dry sticks of prickly bush, the rain resumed. Fire prospects were not looking good. High water for tomorrow, however, seemed guaranteed.

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Although many Americans might have a hard time pointing to Mongolia on a world map, upon arriving in the country foreigners are swiftly reminded of Mongolia’s former empire. The wall map below is displayed at entrance to the immigration office.
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While much of the Western world associates Ghenghis Khan with barbarism, he is revered in his homeland principally for uniting the Mongolians, but also for many other forward-thinking achievements. American schoolbooks fail to tell us that it was ancient Mongolia which established some of the first public education. Brutal and effective as their warfare was, Mongolian khans executed fewer criminals than the United States does today. Ghengis Khan even established the first officially recognized hunting seasons. His statue overlooks Ghengis Khan Square in the center of Ulaan Baatar, the capital city.
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Ulaan Baatar is a booming metro of well over one million residents, nearly half of Mongolia’s total population. Autos and paved roads have seen rapid construction here in the past decade. A government waiver on import taxes for Toyota Priuses has produced a plethora of the little gas savers. They buzz around the city with other shiny new cars, a strange juxtaposition of affluence in a city where a dinner out costs less than six bucks. Architecture in UB ranges from gers (yurts) and adobe structures—standard Mongolian fare—to Soviet style apartment blocks, modern high rises, and newly popular wood frame houses.
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But I did not come to Mongolia for city life. After almost a week there making preparations for travel to western Mongolia with Pat Phillips and his Mongolian River Adventures, it was time to penetrate The Countryside as the Mongolians call it. Open steppes, roaming herds, horseback herdsmen, and lonely gers, this was the Mongolia I’d heard rumor of, the Mongolia beyond the fences; traditional, true.

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If you follow the Funhog Blob (and I know there are at least three of you out there who do), you might have noticed that there’s been a gap in publication recently. My excuse? General laziness. Despite this, two new guidebook revisions have made their way to stores. Check them out: New covers! New content!
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But guidebook revisions have limited value unless they are supported by current exploration. In April, John Govi and I did some canyoning in the Little Colorado River Gorge. We didn’t bring drysuits, a questionable decision given the pletniful water we encountered. My article on the Little Colorado River will appear in Arizona Highways magazine in the Fall.
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By then, Big Tree Hikes of the Redwood Coast might have a sister title, featuring the Sequoia trees of California’s Sierra Nevada. Lisa and I took some time for book research this spring.
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Escaping the snowless Sierra before a series of winter storms arrived in May, it was off to Colorado for a visit to Alpacka Raft headquarters. Alpacka is the original pack raft manufacturer. They are the most innovative company, with the best boats, so my visit there was long overdue. En route to the factory, continuing May storms offered some incredible light in Monument Valley.
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The stormy weather provided ideal hiking conditions in the desert. Beneath the cool of cloud, I met some wonderful people while guiding for OARS and Outdoors Unlimited. That Bright Angel Trail just doesn’t get old.
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But alas, to appreciate the world’s most spectacular landscape, one must sometimes leave that landscape for something different. So, I am off to the steppes of Mongolia, and the rivers of the Altai Mountains. I’ll be guiding and traveling with my friend Pat Phillips and his Mongolia River Adventures. Don’t expect any regular blobbing from central Asia. Spending time on a computer somehow seems antithetical to experiencing a nomadic culture that ruled the world by horseback seven centuries ago. But I do hope to share some stories upon my return. Mr. Philliips is sure to facilitate the high adventure. We’ve been training for the unexplored rivers of Mongolia since winter’s floods on our local creek. I hope we are ready.

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Bouncing down Oak Creek at 210 cfs, it was clear that the season on our local gem was winding down. Okay not just winding down, over. So how do we eke out another day of creek boating in this land of spectacular landscapes but ephemeral water? Pack rafting!
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Josh McNaughton and I set off in red rock splendor, our neat little boats tucked into our packs for a 5-mile hike to the flowing waters of Sycamore Canyon. I’d paddled through this canyon once before, during times of more liquid abundance (Check the info on that in the soon to be released Paddling AZ – new edition.), but this would be the first pack raft attempt, traveling the lower dozen miles of Sycamore as it runs through the red sandstone of the Schnebly Hill Formation.
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The put-in brought hope, with a nicely channelized rapid. The next mile brought reality, in the form of scratchy cobble bars covered in 80 cfs of dropping water. Pack rafts are the ultimate craft for low water travel, but this was even too low for our small boats. A retreat was hastily executed. We’ll be back, ephemeral Sycamore!

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Arizona: Marginal to Optimal. Flagstaff icon Steve Garro came up with this maxim, and it was never more true than over the past two weeks. With barely a patch of snow in the high country and record high temperatures falling daily, water-based recreation in Arizona looked terribly marginal. Then came 1.5 inches of moisture in a rain/snow mix. The rivers responded, and the powder skiing was deep. Later in the week, a 3-day storm dumped another 4.2 inches of precip on the Flagstaff area, and it was game on. Suddenly, things were optimal.
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When rivers are rising, it can be difficult to find a stream that isn’t completely out of control. On March 1st, Upper Rattlesnake Canyon fit the bill. It was high, but not TOO high, we surmised. And although this would be a first descent, it wouldn’t be too hard, we conjectured.
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The first half-mile was very nice, eddy-hop class III water, with a few bigger drops thrown in.
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And then the brush arrived. The next half-mile was spent portaging, sometimes in the water, sometimes in the cliffs, but always in the bushes.
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Just when things seemed desperate, the Hunting Tank Fork entered. The gradient decreased along with the brush, and the small river dropped through several bedrock sluices. Upon take-out, we marveled that nobody had ever before run this fine piece of water. But indeed someone had. At home that night, I got a phone call from “Chevelon” Bill Langhofer. It seems his party (Langhofer, Mike Mijuskovic, Ryan Fair) were an hour ahead of us. They had driven in a different road, and launched at the fork, where the paddling got good. In doing so, they notched a new Arizona run, perfect for those rare days when the water is a bit too prolific.
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Despite multiple attempts, it had been several years since I’d paddled the East Verde River, so while creeks raged near home, Pat Phillips (with whom I’ll be traveling to Mongolia this summer), and I slid down the low river.
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The East Verde is a fine class IV run, but true Middle Earth beauty exists in the depths of Tonto Creek’s Hellsgate. One of the finest multi-day kayak runs in the Southwest, this was our mission as the storm cleared.
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The Hellsgate run flows through several gorges, and its namesake cleft—Hellsgate—is one of the most challenging to pass. This year it is especially spicy, with a log placed in the runout of the last rapid.
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By our third day, the water was lower, but still at a moderate level for the Last Hurrah Gorge.
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Per usual, the portage option at the last drop looked much scarier than the paddle option. So after a scout from high above, we returned to our boats and paddled off the lip to see what might come. Deliverance to a big calm pool was our reward, beyond the GATES OF HELL!!! So optimal.

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Pumphouse Wash is the headwater stream of Oak Creek, in northern Arizona. It runs through a narrow shady canyon that holds deep pillows of snow well into spring. Pumphouse been paddled a handful of times, always in March or April, when icefalls still cling to the sandstone walls and some drops are un-runnable because of snow bridges spanning the channel. At least that’s how it used to be. Mark your calendars, folks, because the climate that scientists have been warning of since the early 1990s has arrived. In 2015, the first January descent of Pumphouse occurred.  Even in the canyon’s darkest depths, there was hardly a pile of snow.

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Following steady precipitation that fell as rain up to 10,000 feet, the Mogollon Rim’s meager snowpack came washing down, bringing life to rivers in the central and eastern parts of Arizona.

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The late-January storm was the second runoff event of the month. Following both storms, teams of paddlers got on the rarely optimal upper Oak Creek, and schussed the rapids of Slide Rock among others.

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The Verde River saw groups of boaters over several days, with accompanying temperatures in the 70s.  No drysuit needed here. The bright sunshine and high water was a familiar treat, but in January? In Arizona, you take what you can get, whenever you can get it.

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Normally, 9 days of paddling in January would mean the start of a stellar season. This year, I’m not so sure. Only patches of snow remain on the Rim as we head into a week of record high temperatures during early February. Maybe our well-watered January will be the beginning, and the end, of paddling season 2015.

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An optimist might think otherwise. The ground is saturated, and several weeks of the winter storm season remain. More than once, Flagstaff has recorded over 70 inches of snow during the month of March. Maybe that will happen this year. Or perhaps it will rain frogs. In these times, either outcome seems equally likely.

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While September and October are months of perfect contentment, November brings the cold reality that our hemisphere is inexorably creeping from the sun’s embrace. Following the golden days, late fall is our comeuppance; drab and dark and just downright uninspiring. But there is a remedy. Drive south. Without even leaving the North American continent, one can find a few regions that are just about perfect during this season between seasons. My top choice: West Texas’ Big Bend country.
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It had been twenty years since I guided raft trips on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, and discovered its isolated enclave of Terlingua, home to escapists of many things; winter, creditors, lawmen, mainstream America. The cultural clutter to which most of us have become accustomed does not exist here. There are no strip malls. There really isn’t much of anything. That’s exactly how folks here like it.
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Our first mission was a two-day paddling trip through Santa Elena Canyon, the crown jewel of the Rio Grande in Big Bend. I recalled blister inducing days of my youth, rowing tourists through the canyon’s twenty-one miles on a meager 300 cubic feet per second of water. This time around, we took a leisurely 2 days, and enjoyed a robust 600 cfs. The extra water came thanks to Autumn’s tropical storms and resulting dam releases on the tributary Rio Conchos in Mexico, the primary water source of the Rio Grande through Big Bend.
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It was like completing a circle upon my return to Santa Elena. Memories flooded back with a tinge of embarrassment at my naivete then. The Rio Conchos was full of mystery to me in those days. Now, I returned to ride its waters after having visited its source mountains in northern Mexico a few years ago. My life is about connecting the dots—through time, across landscapes. Here in Big Bend country, there were a few dots left hanging, and they were called the Lower Canyons.
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As the Rio Grande finishes its big bend, and turns once again easterly toward the Gulf of Mexico, it enters the Lower Canyons. This 83-mile section weaves through the remote Valley of the Robbers before entering an 1,000-foot deep limestone canyon. Hiking from the river corridor into the many side canyons usually requires hacking through spiny Chihuahuan Desert scrub. Once into the creekbeds, however, bedrock sidewalks lead to cathedrals of stone.
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There is whitewater in the Lower Canyons. Occasional class I and II rapids break the monotony of long flat stretches, and at Hot Springs Rapid, a genuine class III+ awaits. It provided both Lisa and I a facefull.
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Sunshine gave way to solid grey midway through our 9-day trip, as a cloud shield invaded from the Great Plains. It was a depressing development initially. I wondered, did November find us? Once realizing that the temperature remained a near perfect 70 degrees both day and night, and the threat of rain was minimal, we adjusted to the new paradigm. It seemed to match the mellow grey mood of the canyons.
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Combined with the warm cloudy weather, walls of invasive river cane drooped over the water to produce a tropical feel. The grasses grow into twenty-foot tall jungles that line the river for long stretches, virtually forcing paddlers to remain on the narrow corridor of water.
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Campsites varied from grassy meadows to rocky ledges to open beaches. We thought we’d found the perfect flat clay beach until eyes shone just beyond our fire’s glow. It was a raccoon, and it was bold. Despite our threats and mis-thrown rocks, it persisted to creep into our space, even pawing at a bag within our open-sided tent. We tucked all food into hatches, dropped the tent walls to the ground, and grabbed driftwood clubs to sleep with. In the morning, Lisa discovered a freshly chewed tear in her drysuit, which had been tucked inside her pfd and weighted with a rock.
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Fortunately the drysuit wasn’t imperative in the mild weather. After the clouds finally produced a night of heavy rain, it was almost steamy. We entertained ourselves all morning long by patiently making a fire with wet wood, then paddled the last few miles of the Lower Canyons to meet our most punctual shuttle driver Roy, creator of the Snake Days Festival in Sanderson, Texas. November was over, and it was time to return, back to America.

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The canyon relented from its stairstep plunge of slick polished chutes, and for a time, we were able to walk unhindered along firm gravel, weaving in and amongst boulders as big as my backyard shed.
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Each of us found our own pace, strolling through the wonderland quietly, alone and swallowed by a far bigger world. Cliffs of Redwall Limestone rose everywhere, holding alcoves big enough to shelter a small village. Unexplored caverns of black mystery peered down at us from 800 feet above.
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When the next geologic layer surfaced beneath our feet, we gathered to sort our ropes, inspect anchors, and abseil deeper into the smooth belly of the canyon. My pack dangled below me, a sliver of sky shone overhead, and chambers of rock wrapped around from every side.
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Late in the day, Rob identified a side canyon as our halfway point. With that, I thought we might be spending the night in these depths, but hazy mystical light filtered into the gorge from the river canyon below, illuminating walls of striated gray and painted red. The river couldn’t be far now. A buried beer treasure awaiting us at the Colorado prodded us onward. As nighttime darkness filled the gorge, we sat contented, cold beers in hand and the soothing hum of the river passing by at our feet.
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Pack rafting downstream proved easier than our desert walk had been, up above. That was a 9-mile march across the Esplanade Sandstone to the head of Cove Canyon. Now, we floated on the strong back of the Colorado.
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At the roar of Lava Falls, we turned back into hikers, climbing through loose slopes of hardened black lava.
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On the rim, my gaze upon open grassland valleys felt liberating. Perhaps it was only this way because I had felt the other side, the deep hidden embrace of Cove Canyon.

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