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Monthly Archives: May 2013

ImageLoaded as my truck was with boxes of the new book, Big Tree Hikes of the Redwood Coast, I was slightly hesitant to commit to 40 miles of unknown dirt road. Interstate 15, however, was stop and go traffic snaking across the Mojave Desert, propelled by an army of hazed-out, Vegas-bleary zombies programmed for home in Southern California. I’ll take my chances with a wind-swept desert road any day.
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Following Henry Crabb’s escape route down the throat of Death Valley was more my speed, trailing a cloud of dust below the looming Panimant Range. Warm Springs Road was my planned shortcut through the range to the Sierra, but a worsening road induced a retreat to pavement, and the long way around. Escape from the desert’s springtime winds didn’t come so easily. Monoliths of dust tumbled across each valley, clouding the atmosphere in a smudge of brown. Desert winds are a peculiar animal. They can be relentless and grinding, unpredictable, gusty. But they can also soften and die in the lee of a mountain range, and this is what provided glorious respite for camp, on the slopes of the Argus Range.

Following a short stop at Sierra South and the Kern River, the sweet green hillsides of the coast were a welcome change from the wonderfully harsh open spaces east of the mountains. Climbing into the Santa Lucia Range, I found what ranks in the top-three of my all-time best campsites—three thousand feet directly above the Pacific!
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San Francisco was a change of pace from the lonely road. I happened to arrive on the weekend of 4-20, a date of celebration in the land of free thinkers. Golden Gate Park was a culturally iconic event, featuring thousands enjoying the sunshine with the aid of all things marijuana. Adjacent to the celebration, a youth soccer match took place without skipping a San Francisco beat.
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Out of the city and into the green hills of Marin and Sonoma counties, then through the forests of Mendocino, and finally to the redwoods of Humboldt County, I drove. Big Tree Hikes was well received, and is now available throughout the North Coast at tourist attraction and bookstore alike.
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The Salmon River of California might just be the perfect river, clear and robust and laced with whitewater. I spent two days there, coinciding with the annual Cal-Salmon downriver race. We posted up at Cascade Rapid, where the most excitement was sure to occur. We were somewhat confused when the first racer came through without another paddler in sight. Later that evening, I recognized a familiar face. It was Jakub Nemec, who I had met in Corsica two seasons ago. Now things made sense. “Did you win, Jakub?” I asked. He replied with a sheepish “yeah, maybe.” His lead at the finish line was over two minutes.

After a stop to leave books at Ashland’s Mountain Supply, it was time to head south. Not yet sated with big trees, I blasted Interstate 5 to the southern Sierra, and the giant Sequoias. I was completely blown away. The trees are massive, and consistently hold more gnarly upper limbs than their coastal redwood counterparts. Perhaps another research trip to this mountain enclave of great trees is now in order.

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On a map, Point Hope pokes into the blue of the Chukchi Sea like a bird’s beak, projecting westward from Alaska’s barren northwest coast. It is the final spit of land sitting at the end of the last range of mountains on the North American continent. If the world were still believed to be flat, this would be its edge.

It is a fitting place to finish a journey, and this expedition will do just that. In June, 2013, John Govi and I will be running the Ipewik River, an Arctic watercourse that incongruously writhes down the spine of the Lisburne Peninsula to continent’s end, at Point Hope. The Ipewik’s winding 135-mile course will lead us through a vast rolling tundra, a rich but unforgiving landscape ruled by roaming wolf packs and curious barren ground grizzlies.
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From Kotzebue, Alaska, a bush plane will fly our Kokatat sponsored expedition to a gravel bar along the Kelly River. From here, we will climb west, navigating through barren peaks of the western Brooks Range to the upper Kukpowruk River. Inflating our pack rafts, we will paddle west down the river for two days, until the Kukpowruk bends north. Here, we leave the water and continue on foot (Williams will be testing new TEVA boots), walking over a low pass to the headwaters of the Ipewik. It is nine more days downstream to the sea, and the Inuit village at Point Hope.

Our journey will make a first descent of both the Ipewik and the upper Kukpowruk, leading across the unknown and unprotected Lisburne Peninsula. The Lisburne Traverse compliments Williams’ Source to Sea Project, which descends significant rivers of North America’s Pacific Coast.

Lisburne overview map

The tangible effects of climate change, accelerated here in the North, are already playing a role in the expedition. Alaska is experiencing its coldest spring on record, delaying the snow and ice break-up significantly. This might seem like an unlikely symptom of global warming, but shifting weather patterns are a part of the new paradigm, and long cold springs in Alaska are increasing in frequency. The famed Tanana River tripod set a new record this year, finally falling through the ice on the afternoon of May 20th. Remnant auf ice, which often forms low bridges over small rivers of the North, will likely persist later than usual. Grizzlies, hungry due to a later than usual snowpack covering their spring browse, could be more aggressive than normal. Currently the Lisburne Traverse Expedition is considering a delayed start date due to these unusual conditions.

ImageThe rural two-lane curved and climbed through rolling slopes of green and then entered a copse of forest—oak and pine—before emerging suddenly on the rim of an escarpment. Below lay paradise. The valley was flat and perfectly green, with big oak trees scattered among lush pastures and small homesteads and neat orchards. In the middle of the basin was a village center, backdropped by layers of blue mountains, the highest of which held patches of snow.
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We entered the idyllic scene slowly, stunned in surreal silence. Our quiet was broken with the thrill of spotting a tree born of fantasy. Huge oaks thrived throughout the valley, but one dwarfed them all. The base was a dozen feet across. Twenty feet up, it split into two trunks that soared in equal grandeur, competing for the title of tallest. This tree, a valley oak (Quercus lobata), defied the notion of the stout and round oak, where most large specimens top out at 80 or 100 feet. The Round Valley Oak climbed and climbed, massive and spreading, to reign above the valley at over 150 feet.
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Into the dream hamlet we rolled, stopping at the market for final provisions before passing a quaint casino. Casino and quaint are two words that don’t normally associate, I realize, but in Covelo, California, even the gambling house presented an air of cuteness, or at least moderation. A portion of Round Valley is reservation land, a fact quite accurately explained on an historical marker at the top of the escarpment. “The first inhabitants of Round Valley were the Yuki, who resided here for thousands of years in harmony with their natural surroundings. In 1854, European settlers entered the valley.” It continues, “Conflicts escalated…additional tribes were forced on the property…In 1864, the government reduced the reservation by four-fifths to its current size.” A devastatingly honest appraisal of history, it was hardly your average roadside factoid.
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The Middle Fork of the Eel looked as stunning in its wildness as the valley did in it’s bucolic quiet. The river had intrigued me ever since reading Lars Holbek’s description of the place as somewhere “one can dream of British Columbian outback.” So when my friend Ravi Fry suggested we paddle it, I was all-in. Ravi, who once paddled some of the most dramatic rivers in the world from Nepal to Bhutan to Idaho, was re-entering the sport after a dozen year hiatus. The class II-III Middle Eel was a perfect rust-duster.
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The water was clear pale blue. Deer scampered away at nearly every bend, and bear tracks covered most beaches. Dreamy green hillsides were dotted with bright spring green oaks. Shady slopes harbored lush forests of buckeye and flowering madrone, their sweet fragrance permeating our world. The whitewater was almost non-existent until the afternoon of day two, near notorious Coal Mine Falls. At 500 cfs, the sieve laced rapid was slow, a one-boof class IV+ with a bony lower drop. Pleasant rock dodging class II and III was the rule from here to the take-out at the main Eel.
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We drove back through the Round Valley idyll to the put-in, where Ravi received the sad news of Dave Allardice’s passing. Eerily fitting that Ravi, who paddled and worked closely with Dave in Nepal, would get the news as he re-entered the world of paddling. “We have a toast to drink,” Ravi said as he relayed the word that was spreading around the world through Allardice’s broad river community. Sipping bourbon, we sat beneath brilliant stars as Ravi told stories of Dave “Gasman” Allardice. The sound of the river hummed its forever song from the canyon below.

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