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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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When Hurricane Norbert doused the Phoenix area with up to five inches of rain, I was somewhat disappointed with myself that I didn’t throw my new Fluid kayak in the truck and drive two hours to chase the water. But 6,000 cfs of street runoff in the nation’s fifth largest city didn’t seem like a whitewater paradise. When my own neighborhood flash floods, I honor the obligation and ride the wave, but this time, I decided to leave the ghetto boating to the locals.
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Lucky for me, a shot at redemption was at hand. A second pulse of Norbert moisture hit southwestern Utah, sending the Virgin River to flood stage just as my friend Bill Barron pedaled his way toward Zion on his bike campaign for U.S. Congress. Bill’s platform supports a tax on carbon at its source, thus forcing industry to invest in renewables, and maybe slow the acceleration of climate change. We stopped and saw Bill at a Zion campaign event. And we rode the fruits of a wild climate.
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For good paddling, the Virgin was way too high and silty and full of floating logs, but North Creek looked just about right. Fed by a famous canyon known as The Subway, North Creek tumbles toward the Virgin through a quaint desert valley lined by colorful bluffs and deep green cottonwoods. This was the section we hoped to paddle, before the water was gone. In true Southwest fashion, the 1,000 cfs we spotted on our first pass dropped to 200 cfs by the time we returned an hour later.
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Once on the water, Josh and I were pleasantly surprised by the flow. It was higher than it looked, almost perfect for a first descent. Was it a first? Probably not, but until one of you southern Utah paddlers tells me otherwise, we’re claiming it! In any case, it was new to us, a new and unexpected drop lurking around every corner.

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The groomed elk path vanished, and we found ourselves in the deep woods, linking passages in old growth forest—wading through huckleberry bushes, sliding down gullies, stepping over and into rotten mossy logs. By moving slowly and carefully, we could make steady progress without undue risk. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of slow caution. Darkness crept up from the depths, and the thought of bushwhacking by headlamp into the Queets River gorge nagged at me with every new horizon of trees unfolding ahead. At least the river chimed encouragement from below, far below.
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Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula offer opportunity to float through one of the world’s great forest reserves. When comparing forests of big trees, the Olympic rainforest is unequaled. Nowhere else do so many trees of large diameter—5 to 15 feet—and soaring height—200 to 300 feet—exist in a single unmolested unit. Walking through these forests gets one up close and personal with the giants. Floating here offers longer views to the multi-storied canopy. Our pack raft trip down the Queets River promised a little of both.
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Climbing above the North Fork of the Quinalt on day one was a humid, even muggy affair, appropriate conditions for the beefy hemlocks and massive cedars that loomed over our trail. The balmy feel abated by morning, when fog formed before our eyes as the transpiring forest released its moisture with the rising sun.
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Up we marched, out of the cloud and into the changing forest of the mid-elevations. The cedars changed from red to yellow, the hemlocks from western to mountain, and the firs from Douglas to silver. The record Alaska, or yellow, cedar, gave us reason to pause for a photo and due reverence, a wonderful gnarly old tree. When we spotted another huge Callitropsis nootkatensis an hour down the trail, we felt compelled to measure it and compare numbers. By my rough measurements, the old champion retains the title, but the two trees are close enough in size to warrant a return with tape and laser to record exact dimensions. A new champion could be on deck!
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Emerging from the forest into sunny subalpine parks of distinct Olympic lime-green, we shed our packs for a quick swim in a shallow cool pond. Onward, upward, downward, the “traverse” trail seemed to constantly climb or descend.
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We pushed on toward an airy ridge where Mt. Olympus and its trademark glaciers burst into view. The Queets was visible below, glistening like a silver ribbon on the dark woods. A snowfield rested nearby, assuring our water supply. This was camp.
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Another long day of up and down hiking along the Skyline Route led to Lake Beauty, and the first other backpackers we’d seen.
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Soon we were hustling into the gorge in a race against darkness. With twenty minutes of light remaining, the opaque color of the upper Queets peeked out beneath cedar boughs. At water’s edge, we found ourselves in a gorge of smooth grey walls. Luckily, a mossy camp presented itself, sitting beside a cold spring-fed creek feeding the river.
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I hadn’t planned on much whitewater during this almost-source-to-sea mission, but our route into the canyon deposited us farther upstream than anticipated. Although we were below the unrunnable Service Falls gorge, several rapids remained before our deliverance into the valley. Bret had never paddled a pack raft before. His game face was on.
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Following a full scale portage (boats deflated in packs) around class V Kilkelly Rapids, we re-launched in late afternoon sunlight and pitched camp amid the wild Upper Queets Valley. Surrounded by old-growth forest in a rarely traveled river corridor, this was the place, the moment I’d been seeking since scanning the map from my living room floor years earlier.
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Day five was about making miles. Low water crept us along and logjams forced several short portages. A herd of elk, the first we’d seen despite plentiful sign, crossed the river above camp just as dusk turned to dark. Another small herd crossed the shallow river while we ate lunch two days farther downstream.
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It was not elk but fish that the natives were after near the river mouth. From the highway 101 bridge we could see numerous skiffs plying the water between their nets of coho salmon. The river debauched into the Pacific as a narrow stream carving through a fog-shrouded coastline. The humble opening gave few clues to the wild splendor that exists upstream, on the wild Queets.

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Josh probing

On Friday, August 2nd, we lost Josh Lowry, a kayaking legend. I make that claim because writing about notable whitewater personalities is my job, and Josh’s story produced perhaps the best profile I’ve ever written. But my professional opinion doesn’t meaningfully identify Josh as a legend, his life’s actions took care of that.

This past winter, I spent a week with Josh at his rafting company in Futaleufu, Chile. His staff of guides, all three of them, had found their way to Josh and his world of idealistic simplicity through various means, but looking back, it was a whitewater pilgrimage for them all. Working for Josh wasn’t a job as much as an apprenticeship in the art of river gypsy, under the master. These young boatmen had no delusions of squirreling away money through guiding. They were there to paddle, to integrate into the relaxed pace of rural Chile, practice their Spanish, sleep in the backyard and eat raspberries off the bush for breakfast—to be Lowry-ites. On days off, they’d go kayaking with their esteemed boss, still one of the guys (but also THE guy) at 61-years young. Their loyalty towards Josh spoke volumes.

When a young traveler stopped by the office wanting a raft trip but having no money to pay for one, Josh took him down his beloved Futaleufu anyway. He simply asked for some help around the property, and called it a trade. He showed the young man how to dig an efficient irrigation trench for a new garden plot. Later, we all transported posts to Josh’s undeveloped riverside property. We placed those posts in a barn that Josh had built with beams acquired in another trade, for his retired ambulance shuttle rig. He’d procured the ambulance, somehow, from a band of true Patagonian gypsies.

This was the flow of Josh Lowry’s life, always seeking a symbiotic solution through his ascetic existence, in harmony with the seasons, in tune with the river. “I am a minimalist, both in life and paddling,” he once told me. With that, I couldn’t help chuckling at the recollection of our West Clear Creek trip, and Josh’s ancient Noah Jeti kayak with stripped seat bolts, his thread-bare wetsuit, his leaky paddling jacket. My wife, Lisa, and I wore drysuits, and even we were cold. Not surprisingly, Josh was always the first to get the fire going at camp. That trip was so epic, hard, and beautiful, so perfect, that I’ll never go back. Yet it was just one small adventure in Josh Lowry’s ledger of “trips of a lifetime.”
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He was the first to run Mexico’s classic Agua Azul and Chile’s renowned Baker. His Chilean road trips of 1994 (with John Foss and Clay Wright) and 1995 (with Arnd Schaeftlein, Bernd Sommer, Manu Arnu, Olli Grau, and Dave Kashinski) included many other exploratories in lands that were unknown to the whitewater world, the stuff of dreams. There were also countless trips down Grand Canyon, many summers on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and adventurous jungle romps in southern Mexico. His whitewater Opus was the Rio Pascua. The river has only attracted a couple expeditions since Lowry’s 1999 descent because it is logistically difficult, full of terrifying rapids and grueling portages, and located in remotest Patagonia—Lowry country.

One might think that a nomad like Josh would lack in personal contact, but his voice, his laugh, his looks—his presence—was not easily forgotten. In the little town of Futaleufu, he was an institution. Show up and ask anybody in town, pantomime if you didn’t know Spanish, and you would find Josh before long.
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When Josh fell off a 50-foot cliff to the rocky bed of the Deschutes River, I can only suppose he was scouting the line through Benham Falls below, transfixed by the intricacy and randomness of tumbling water. That made sense to Josh.

In response to questions I posed for his profile (Kayak Session #35), Josh offered his philosophy on paddling technique. On the surface it was an appraisal of paddling style, but Josh was well aware that his answers ran deeper than that. His approach to paddling mimicked his approach to life, and it was an honorable course worth emulating. “I just place my paddle vertically in the river to feel the water, and hold it there without paddling, with short bursts of pushing or pulling to control angle. I feel that going slower than the current gives me a feeling of timelessness, a chance to look around, scouting, on the run.”

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A somber grey overcast draped an uneasy quiet over the Canyon, accentuating our insignificance beneath limestone walls that seemed to press in from two thousand feet above. The rumble of Upset Rapid grew louder as we rounded the corner. Among the kayakers, a collective anxiousness was palpable, because leader Mary DeRiemer had laid the ground rules clearly: If you want to run Lava, you have to run left at Upset. This was the test.
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From Andrew’s brave charge in the front to Wayne’s Blackadar-esque rolling frenzy to Rick’s unique big water line through the heart of the lateral, everyone succeeded in their own way. At the bottom, howls of relief echoed between the canyon walls. Adrenaline, focus, determination, and finally the joy and camaraderie that comes at the end of that one little victory, within an awe-inspiring place. This is whitewater kayaking.
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Of course our fourteen day trip with DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking and Tour West wasn’t all high drama. Most days were the same old wonderful routine of life on the river: Wake to daylight and birdsong, go boating, stop for a hike, crack a cold one, eat, sleep, and repeat—the good life. My highlight was a hike to the 50-Mile Diving Board, due to be featured in the new edition of Grand Canyon River Hikes.
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But I get to lofty heights in beautiful places often. This is my life. What inspired me most on this trip in particular was seeing a crowd of 50, 60, and 70-somethings who were kayaking and having fun with it. Septuagenarian Tom Cowden was the senior paddler of the trip. He was on his 23rd, and maybe last voyage through the Canyon. His presence offered me something to shoot for, three decades down the road. It was an enlightening juxtaposition from my recent visit with Rush Sturges, Ben Marr, and posse—the elite kayakers of today—around whom I felt more than a little over the hill. Kayaking clearly has many faces, from pushing the limits of class V, to challenging one’s self on class III, to simply following the flow and watching the cliffs slip past.

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Half-awake, I gazed at passing countryside reminiscent of Washington’s Skagit Valley. After a few hours on the paved and empty highway—the best kind—Samuelo, an Escualo, turned onto a narrow dirt road. A shortcut? No, just another leg of the still-developing Carretera Austral, Chile’s national southern highway. Patagonia was giving me civilization cravings.
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Arriving at the Futaleufu was a strange, ethereal experience. Having referenced and written about this place for so long, I had created a vision of the river and the surroundings in my head. Now that I was actually there, those ideas were shattered. I was presented with a reality that was quite different; beautiful, but different. It felt as if I were playing an unnatural role in my own dream.
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Paddling big fun challenging whitewater like the Futaleufu gets a hold on people. Lives revolve around this place, the paddling, and the river. Josh Lowry is the embodiment of this, and his small dedicated crew are disciples. Twenty-eight-year-old kayak junkie Joey Simmons is keenly aware of his  position in Lowry’s wake. “I’m here for the Josh Lowry experience,” he says with hardly a trace of sarcasm. Of course he’s here for the paddling first, but his Lowry association is cherished.
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Presently, Josh’s team is fired up on business strategies for their living-legend boss, whom I wrote about in issue #36 of Kayak Session. A switch in company name could be on the horizon, from the current “Futaleufu Explore” to “Futaleufu Experience.” The guides seized on the marketing possibilities immediately, scanning the Internet for Hendrix-esque company T-shirts. A new advertising tag-line was obvious: “Are you experienced?”
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I joined the boys for some experiences on the powerful Futaleufu, but my attention could not be strayed from a craggy spire above town. I had yet to reach the high country of the Andes during my visit to Chile, and the spire, called “La Teta,” beckoned. After following a caballero’s horse trail out of the valley, I camped on a flat of compacted volcanic ash, left overs from the Chaiten eruption that made international news several years ago.
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On the summit of La Teta the following morning, I watched clouds waft through an array of snowy Andean Peaks. As I left the summit, a whistling sound drew my attention to a condor hovering fifty feet overhead.
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Farther down, a hawk buzzed me three times as I emerged from the forest onto an open ridge. I thought it quaint at first, but then it nearly knocked me over with a high speed fly-by, and swooped once more when I wasn’t even looking. After that, I got my camera case ready to swing and knock it the hell out of the sky if it came in again.
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I spent a week in Futa before continuing north by bus to Chaiten, and then air to Puerto Varas, and the lovely Margouya 2 Hostel. One last paddle on Llanquehue Lake treated me to a rainbow over the water, luring me back to beautiful Chile before I’d even left.

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