Lugs, Chains, and Paddle Blades

With these three modes we explore the natural world around us. The lugs of our shoes, the chains of our bikes, and the blades of our paddlecraft.

This is our archive of amateur exploration.


Monday, February 20, 2017


At one of the many turnouts off of Canaan Loop Rd, high up in West Virginia's Tucker County, there is a campsite. It's along Red Run, one of the color-coded tributaries of the Cheat River, one of the East's last remaining untamed river systems.

Let's go there with nothing to do, for days.

In Northcentral PA's Allegheny National Forest, near Merienville, is a seldom visited tract of grassland serviced by a gated forest road. It's called Buzzard Swamp, and I was introduced to it by a friend in the summer of 2015. A few miles in, at the far end of a pristine lake is a campsite under a lone, giant sycamore.

I want to pack in, sit down, and find some time, just us.

On the pristine streams like Indian Creek, not too far away from home, are pools that, at low water on a beautiful July afternoon, are isolated and idyllic. Nobody for miles. Big gulps of fresh forested air and crystal clear water trickling across the bedrock. They're on the small creeks and on the tributaries of the big rivers. They're easy enough to get to for a day trip and hard enough to get to for crowds. It would be just us.

Let's sit in it and breathe it in.

Dreams like this are challenges because they represent a paradox to me. In theory, I want to soak up as much of a unique natural setting as possible by just sitting, observing, and being present. Being mindful. Then, when I get the chance I typically don't. I run. I climb. I swim and paddle and jump and swing and dig. Then, if I have time, after I've exhausted myself, I relax.

But sometimes it eventually happens. Come along and see.

In the summertime, the water's warm and clear in French Creek. In the evening, in the low sunlight, you can lay belly-down on one of the many shallow, rocky shoals. If you lower your face to the water and look upstream you can watch the continual approach of water as it swirls around you on its gentle downhill journey. If you're lucky the water reflects a pink sky and setting sun above the pines. I like to lie still until the riffles subside to a flow state. It might be the most relaxing thing I've ever done.

Will you come and do it with me? Can I show you? We can jump off the rope swing first if that makes any difference.

I'll do the things you want to do, too. I love a matinee and really enjoy sushi. I'll play chess and build Legos. I'll draw you pictures to color in, try the dance moves you just learned, cook your favorite meal, and watch you learn karate. I've been known to enjoy the beach.

Let's dream together. In a flash we can have treehouses designed, built, and lived in. Rivers floated, trails navigated, and bastards knocked off. Then, just being there. The only thing common to these dreams are the characters, and then let's really do it.

Let's find some good weather and toss top-roping gear, a chess board, a few books, and camping gear into a canoe and float Smokehole Canyon over a week, really slowly. I think there are some crags back in there worth exploring. Let's do that lying down in the water thing there, too.

Let's lash cedar logs together and pole down a stream, fishing, talking, thinking, and not much else.

Let's make a plan to have no plan for a few days, in Montana. Just us. The family.

Then let's do that same thing in the Adirondacks.

You're in for a trip, because I'm no different than anybody else, always dreaming. And like anybody else I try to make those dreams come true.

Or am I different? Are we? I often wonder.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Best. Summer. Ever!

Iceland wasn't our first choice, much as it had always been on my bucket list. After a year mostly spent in bed because of two reconstructive foot operations, and Matt on full time duty (bread-winner, chef, parent, cleaner, care-giver, etc.), we decided that the Worst Year Ever should be followed by The Best Summer Ever. We planned to vacation our hearts out on a budget of about $15 a day. Because, you know, the Pascals love a challenge.
One of the bridges at Ϸorsmork

For two months, we tried to make a western US National Parks road trip work, but, as it turned out, the year that the National Parks celebrates 100 years, everyone wanted to go to the same place. Matt and I generally like to go places other people don't like. For example, hiking is great during Steeler games around here.

So, with Yellowstone and Old Faithful in my mind, I searched for geysers worldwide. It turned out that the name "geyser" came from Iceland (pronounced: GAY-seer). Then I found tickets for about $300 round trip per person to Reykavik and back. The destination was nailed down when I then found a camping card that gave us 28 nights of camping throughout Iceland for $100. Without deliberation I called Matt at work.

Totally viking
“I just bought airplane tickets. We’re going to Iceland.”

“Now?” he asked. It was January.

“No, this summer, for a month!”

A reasonable person at this point should have had some worries. You know what "they" say about a good thing - if it's too good to be true.... Well, it turns out, that not many people in their right mind would spend a month camping in Iceland- even in July. The summer days hit 60 at best on a good day and often drop into the 30s (on what they still consider a good day). Over and over, we were told, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." It can go from sun and blue skies, to sideways rain, to snow, and back again before you can get your winter coat out. But, it’s never hot. Then, there's the wind. Let's just say, they don't sell umbrellas in Iceland. 

And then there’s the cost of food and of renting a car and the petrol to make it go. Here’s how one should go about estimating these costs: take the amount you’d expect to pay here in the States and multiply it by five.

That’s if you find a deal. If not, make it eight. Or, ten.

Food is somewhat ripe for frugality and the result was a loss of about 25 collective pounds between the four of us. There’s no choice about gas, it just costs a lot in Iceland. So the real way to survive on a budget in Iceland is to rent a cheap car. Of course, you get what you pay for. Our 15-year-old Toyota Rav4 had no gas cap. It was squared-off with dents like a Lego creation and looked like the builder ran out of black blocks and had to instead finish the project with green. All of the following attributes of the car were wildly insufficient for driving on a paved road, much less the gravel “F-roads” that are necessary if you want to find the real gems: tires; suspension; wipers; windows and the motors to open them; gas gauge; door latches. You know, all the things that make driving safe, other than the engine. Cry if you like, because our “Sad” car (a real rental agency) eventually got a flat and then two days later broke down completely. For all we know it’s stull marooned roadside between Gullfoss and Geysir.

Secret Lagoon, in Fludir
Yet the car boldly took on un-guard-railed switchbacks, one way bridges, one way tunnels  (miles long, with pullouts carved out of the rock so one can swing out of the way of the car barreling towards you), and one police officer.

Fortunately we were prepared for frugality in one department. We are self-proclaimed "tech-rebels" and traveled the country with a pre-paid flip phone with 90 minutes of usage. Total. It remained off, never needed charging in the entire month, and kept us in the dark for weather forecasts, news, and social media. (Of course it is never actually dark in July in Iceland). We used it once, when the car broke down.

Matt and I have been to a decent number of places in our lives. Between the two of us, we’ve either traveled to or lived in many countries in Europe as well as Israel, Turkey, India, Thailand, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, South Africa, and at least forty states. Does “passing through” or layovers count? If so, that list would more than double.

The Flat 
The point isn't the number of places, it is the surge of excitement and fear, of uncertainty and awe. It is the experience of putting of oneself purposefully into the position of "other" which hammers American jingoism out of the mind and forces the visitor to learn and respect how many ways there are of living. This is what we want to experience again and again, and what we want to give our children. 
Over the years, cities have fallen low on our list and been replaced by natural wonders. In 3.5 weeks of traveling around Iceland, we spent about a half day in the city of Reykavik, home to the majority of Iceland’s population. The remaining 24 days, we spent exploring the wildness.

We drove through lunar landscape that made me almost believe the moon landings could have been faked. We found Hobbiton. We hiked volcanoes, touched glaciers, bathed in hot rivers and counted hundreds of waterfalls. Ate countless gas station breakfasts. 

Crossing a river in a bus
Aggressive Arctic terns brought my husband to his knees while our six year old son defended him with his wooden replica Viking sword. Hopping on a monster bus which forded rivers 20 times to reach the idyllic den of Ϸorsmork. Walking at 2 am under a white sky. Skipping the tourist mecca of the Blue Lagoon (affectionately nicknamed by the locals as “The Hot Sperm”) for “The Secret Lagoon.” Hitting dozens of geothermically heated swimming pools, waterslides, and hot tubs around the country, but best of all, discovering the secret naturally heated “pots” known by locals and unlisted in the guides. All you can eat pancakes on bone china inside a 150-year old turf house. 

And we learned a smattering of Icelandic along the way. Here we are practicing:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Riviere Batiscan (Batiscan River) Trip: June 2016

Day 3, approximately 2 pm:  It's a different kind of boating.

That's what I told myself as I dragged my kayak, loaded with four days' of camping gear and food, onto the bank. If I was in my shorter creek boat, and if it didn't weigh 85 or 90 or 110 pounds (whatever it was), I'd be running this rapid. But I knew just from the sound of the rapid, and from the limited view I was able to get of it, that I'd be portaging around it.

Because it's a different kind of boating.

After climbing up onto a van-sized boulder, we were perched a mere ten feet to the left of a high-volume class 5 feature composed of a 15 foot slide into an ugly hydraulic shouldered by a reasonably straight-forward line through thundering waves, the three of us stared at the line. It was there. It was obvious. I bet I could get on that line with like three paddle strokes. But all my gear is in my boat, and it weighs so much I can't even lift the damn thing. 

Nobody spoke as we all hoped that somebody would chime in with a definitive plan, either NO or GO. But instead, Brian pointed upstream and screamed something different. His unmanned craft, which had apparently slipped from shore on its own, ran the line we were all staring at without even flipping over. We just stared in disbelief. Apparently I wouldn't even need three paddle strokes. But then it was out of view and as all three of us simultaneously realized that the boat contained everything Brian needed in order to survive, without a word we dashed into the woods and ran downstream as if our lives depended upon it.
Sometime around 2013, after my second kid was out of diapers, Alden Bird's guidebook, Let It Rain, took the pole position on my nightstand, and the Canoe Tripping section of it began to wear heavily. The thick book includes extensive overviews of rivers in the NE United States and SE Canada. But, it has only 8 pages of short entries for long trips worthy of overnighters. Readers must explore and expand that information first-hand, expedition style.

Within that section was this:

A pre-train campsite at Portneuf
Batiscan  This definitely falls more on the "whitewater" end of things. There is a 70-mile stretch of this that begins at Lac Edouard and ends at Notre Dame des Anges. It's broken into a few sections. First, from Lac Edouard down to Miquick. From there the river is a little harder down to the Barrier Batiscan (near Riviere a Pierre). Then the river is easier down to Notre Dame des Anges (which is right near the town of Notre Dame de Montauban). Although there are some cascades right near the end. This should have water all summer. I have heard that the train shuttle might be the way to go. The train goes at least from Riviere a Pierre to Miguick, although I'm not sure of details. This might be more of a good one for decent kayakers looking for an overnight trip that's not too far out there but still has whitewater.

Waiting for the train
A train shuttle? That phrase was double-underlined and gave Quebec's Riviere Batiscan (beh-tee-SKEH) two stars.

There are 20 rivers listed in the section of the book.  Page corners ripped from dog-earing and dirty smudges formed on the edges. Tiny little stars accented rivers of interest like the Bonaventure, Moise, and Magpie and underlining emphasized the vague details of rapid ratings, access points, and distances.

First It was the Petawawa River in May 2014, where I discovered wild and beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. In three days, two friends and I paddled 55 miles through the most remote forest I'd ever experienced and found out that overnighters in wild places make for a different kind of boating, a phrase that would become a theme.

For my 2016 trip I began to investigate the Batiscan. I cross-referenced the section with maps, online trip reports, gauges, and other resources, but little electronic information exists for these way-out-there rivers. 
The whitewater begins

Day 2, approximately 4 pm: Our second portage of a big rapid was only about 250 feet long. But, it took us over an hour to do it because the portage trail was barely scratched out of the steep and rocky canyon wall. We first removed all the gear from our boats and carried it around to leave it at the bottom of the rapid, our re-launch. Then, we walked back up, grabbed our boats, and either dragged or carried them. It was a bloody ordeal thanks to the thick vegetation, sharp rocks, and inexplicable leg-swallowing holes under the forest's thick debris. All of this was done adjacent to the deafening intensity of a swollen torrent of a rapid, rated class 3-4, within which lived a deadly hydraulic feature large enough to swallow a herd of Quebecois moose. It was as loud as a jet at take-off. I can't think of a class 3 or class 4 rapid on any other river I've had to portage. That's when I realized that the river was high.
The beginning of the Batiscan as it drains Lac Edouard
I paddle rivers a lot, but not as much as I'd like to (nobody does). But, when I paddle I generally run all the safe rapids. That is to say, the ones where screwing up won't kill or seriously injure me (locally, that means I don't run Splat or the Meadow slides, but go ahead with pretty much everything else on the classics). Looking at rapids in the context of a multi-day trip is a much heavier prospect. Lines need to be relatively straight, or maybe with a gentle turn or two in them, because long, heavy kayaks don't maneuver well. Eddies need to big enough and easy enough to catch with a boat that responds poorly. Swimming, usually a pain in the neck that everybody laughs about later, could be catastrophic if your boat or any gear is swept away and not recovered. Because of the gravity of the situation, we are much more likely to choose the portage over gambling with the consequences of running a questionable rapid.

And so our trip down the Batiscan followed such protocol: if it sounds big, get out and take a look. If it drops out of sight, get out and take a look. If there's an straight-forward line that looks like it can be done, go for it! In all other cases, consider a portage or - at the very least - carrying your gear around and running with an empty boat.
Day 2, approximately 6 pm: For several hours after getting through the toughest portage, we saw a few more rapids, but none were all that intense and none were rated above class 2. But the intensity of that portage had shocked my nerves and left me with a touch of trauma. I'd never experienced trauma from not running a rapid before. But that's how I was feeling and it had rained hard at least three times through the day and a fourth storm was currently ramping up. Rapids downstream were building; it was like I could feel it in my blood. So, we found the first reasonable campsite so we could let them settle down for the night. 

The site was just barely adequate. Downstream of us was over ten miles of class 3, 4, and 5 rapids, and the high river was clearly going to be rising further. I was scared. And, to add toxicity to the mixture, I really began to miss my family. Scared. Sad. Ed told me I looked like I was miserable. The rain let up a bit, which made the bugs really happy. We got a fire going only thanks to our campstove. I was soaking wet. Ten miles of portaging could take days. I was on vacation.

The second day on the Batiscan was, for some reason, one of the toughest days I've experienced kayaking. Forty kilometers over ten hours with two portages (both described above). Perhaps it was the rain, the fact that the sun never came out, and the chill I couldn't seem to shake all day long contributed, and having to portage two class 3 rapids because they were swollen to class 5. But that wasn't it. I wasn't having fun, I was having an adventure. An epic. Something that is exciting in the future, hard in the present, and fabulous in the past.  I don't leave my wife and kids very often, and so even a short (and healthy) separation for a few days makes an adventure like this even harder.

On that second day, my camera stopped working thanks to all the moisture. I don't regret it, though, because Ed was right and my photos would have certainly reflected it. I went to my tent early, partially because I wanted to just sleep it off, partially to escape the bugs, but mostly to fast forward to the end of this epic. 
Day 3, approximately 10 am: When the railroad track was next to the river, portaging became a relative breeze. As a team we could lug the boats up the embankment. Rest the boat across the rails. Fasten a sling of webbing, end to end across the boat, and pull. It was like pulling a 100-pound sled across an ice rink, except it was even easier than that because our footing was solid. The biggest fear, of course, was a train, which came along once, whistle screaming at the worst possible spot: a sharp (aka, blind) bend in the tracks. I don't know how far the train was from hitting them, but when the whistle blew, I instinctively looked back and saw nothing but the front end of a diesel locomotive thundering toward me, and wee-little Brian and Ed quickly and furiously dragging their boats to the side in a microsecond. 
On our third day on the Batiscan, we paddled through 5+ mile section of rapids that were, with one exception, rated up to class 4. It was the fabled Gates of Hell. We ran all of the drops, except for that one class 5 slide. The sun shone bright and the high water gave us one big water sequence after another. I yeehawed at least a dozen times. Morale had taken a 180.

At the end of it we were faced with the homestretch: 12 more miles of flatwater pushing fast through the deep canyon. I finally felt for certain that we'd make it to the car in one piece. So, as I had done on the Petawawa in 2014, I did something stupid, but ritualistic. I popped open my water bottle, lowered it into a swift section of river where the water flows crystal clear, and drank a liter of the Batiscan like a vampire drinking the blood of its victim.

Bottoms up!

The content below is intended to be a resource for kayakers and canoeists who wish to plan a trip down the Batiscan.

For non-boaters it will probably be nothing more than technical jargon-laden boredom with a couple pictures.

Happy boaters aboard
Train Shuttle: Brilliant, even if you're not a 4-year-old boy. The ViaRail 601 train travels upriver from Montreal every Mon/Wed/Fri. As of June 2016, tickets were $23 Canadian per person (pay over the phone and tell them you have a kayak) and $50 Canadian per boat (payment must be taken on the train; credit, US cash, and Candian cash are accepted). If you're not sure where to launch, then buy a ticket to Lac Edouard because you can always ask the conductor to drop you off before your stop at the last minute, but not after. While on the train you get to see many of the rapids, including much of the Gates of Hell and the slide below the confluence of the Batiscan and Jeanotte rivers , probably the second biggest of all the drops you'll encounter. As the train approaches Lac Edouard it will become clear whether or not the upper reaches are runnable. If they are, you'll be excited to see the creeky drops that flow out of the big lake. If not, then you're going to to carry around a half dozen dry rapids.

At the pick-up spot, Rousseau, QC
Take-out and train shuttle pick-up: Rousseau, QC is a very small village and few people in the area even know it as a place, rather then know it as the name of the road -- Rue Rousseau -- that passes through. Despite its colloquial anonymity you can purchase a ticket on the ViaRail train from Rousseau. To be clear, there is no train station. There is no designated stop. The train conductor is notified that he or she has passengers picking up the train there and so the train slows while passing through until you're seen, waving at the train.

We safely parked our car here, where the train crosses a small dead-end road, and there was a very convenient pair of dumpsters there for when we got off the river. This is a great take-out because it's easy to find from the water, just below a very well-defined rapid (S3/4) followed by a hard right bend, and the river is very close to the road.

Fresh off the train, Lac Edouard
NOTE: While looking for Rousseau, we got lost for a bit and nearly missed our intended pick up time because the road (Rt. 367) is marked as a North/South (Nord/Sud) route and in this area the road travels geographically South (Sud) while being marked Nord (North). So, be careful, but bear in mind that the train is usually late (90 minutes in our case), as confirmed by the attendant on the train.

Put-in (option 1, high water): Lac Edouard, QC is a vacation spot with a handful of cottages, lots of boat shelters, and absolutely zero amenities. You are NOT going to grab that last item you forgot to pack here. For us, the conductor even drove a few hundred meters past the official drop-off point to get us closer to the water. These guys are so helpful and friendly. There is a 2 or 3 mile paddle around the lake to get to the outflow into the Bat.

Launching at Lac Edouado
Put-in (option 2, lower water): Pearl Lake, QC is also a vacation spot with no amenities though the lake itself is away from the tracks so putting in here is a snap: launch onto the lake's outflow stream and you're on the Bat in no time.

There are other options for launching (Club Jacques-Cartier, Miguick, Linton, perhaps others) but these two seem to be the more common spots.

  • Canadian Canoe Routes has a few discussions about the Batiscan as well as other links.  
  • This PDF document, in French, was useful for us simply for its maps for the section between Lac Edouard and Pearl Lake. (note: S means ledge-drop, or slide, though I began to think of it as a single drop; R means rapid, which usually means longer, and potentially more complicated whitewater). If I could read French it would have probably been more useful to me.
  • This PDF document, in English, was tremendously useful for its maps below Pearl Lake, commentary on rapids, and gear suggestions. However, the writers were on the Bat at very low water, so some of the rapids' rating would be modified in better water.
A heavenly campsite
Camping: The Bat is not paddled very regularly, so campsites are scarce. We didn't use any of the ones on the map, instead electing to make our own (not my typical philosophy) simply because we were running out of time each day and couldn't find any established camps in time.

The river passes through the Reserve Faunique de Portneuf (listed on maps at second pdf link above) and theoretically one must purchase a permit at the office in Riviere a Pierre to camp within its borders. We paid the $40 Canadian for one night, but the likelihood of being found camping without a permit is negligible.

Bugs: Freaking atrocious in early June 2016. Netting is essential, and getting off the river at the end of the day tends to be delayed until absolutely necessary. These little enemies, along with the fast water through the flats, got us to our take out much faster than expected. Your best friend is a smoky fire.

A creeky drop high up on the Bat
The river: The distance from Lac Edouard to Rousseau is 105 km. Putting in at Pearl Lake shortens it by 20 km. From Lac Edouard, the river starts with a handful of really fun creeky drops through the narrow channels that separate the grassy flats. For the most part all of them are straight shots not requiring a scout, but we had to portage one of the drops due to a strainer blocking passage. This is a beautiful and unintimidating, but slow, stretch of river. We covered 15 km of it in 3 hours.

Below Pearl Lake the river gradually gains strength until a big S3, which was more like class 4-5 when we saw it at high water. A small dirt road on the right makes an easy portage. At this point you're in the whitewater section, and other than the obvious flatwater sections indicated on the map, you're in for an awesome ride, and probably a handful of portages, all the way through the Gates of Hell. The collection of class 4/5 drops in the vicinity of the Jeanotte confluence are spectacular - and probably a great ride at lower levels - but not worth the risk for us. We portaged the first two in a single boat-drag along the tracks, and the third with a second drag. On our second day we paddled 40 km in ten hours, and on day three we paddled 50 km in ten hours.

If you're familiar with mid-Atlantic rivers in the US, we saw a river with big rapids that looked the Gauley with some hidden holes.

Post-portage splash down
Gauges: This gauge provides a virtual reading on the Batiscan way downstream of the section we paddled. Depending on which report I was reading, the optimal levels for this would be between 25 cms and 100 cms. When we paddled it the level was between 180 cms and 210 cms. It was definitely high, but not too high for the seasoned whitewater boater willing to portage the big ones. For my own preferences it was too high simply because I was hoping for stress-free trip with few portages.

This gauge provides a reading from an unidentifiable (by me) source that relates to the Gates of Hell section of the river. The page claims that the ideal levels are between 55 cms and 200 cms (an enormous range) and when we were at that section of the river we had levels of around 130 cms. We were fine with a few portages, but I'd have preferred lower levels while paddling a 12-foot boat loaded with the gear I needed to survive another day on the river.

Technique tips:
  • The maps in the above links are essential for gauging mileage and for navigating the lakes of the upper river because where the river flows out is not at all obvious in many cases. Prior to launching, maps should be double-sealed in ziplocs in pairs so that you can flip over from one page to the next. Then, you get the next pair out when it's needed. Opening the bag, even off the water, is a risk, because everything is soaking wet. Laminating would be a better, but more expensive, option. The maps are out a lot in between rapids, getting blown off the boat and into the water, and so they get soaked. That's why they should sealed well and two copies would be good. As far as rapids go, the maps are helpful but not necessary if you've paddled enough to know when to get out and scout.
  • Scouting from the tracks
    Portaging comes in various forms. If there is a rough portage trail, or no trail at all, then you're probably emptying your boats and carrying the gear and boat separately. Or, you might give the rapid a shot without gear (and without the risk of losing all your stuff). If you're along the railroad, then you can put your boat perpendicular across the rails and drag. But, don't be surprised by a really loud and terrifying train whistle tells you that that you and your boat are in its way and to get your shit off the tracks pronto!
  • As you become more acquainted with the river, boat scouting will be more informed. However, don't be surprised by the Military Ledge (S5), which at the levels we saw had an obvious big-volume line down the left that nobody wanted to dance with. We started with a policy to scout anything class 3 or higher, but eventually boat scouted everything that didn't have a blind horizon or wasn't really long. That policy worked for us just fine.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bad Ass Mother Fricker

Registration Fee (Elvira Eichleay)
Running: it's the easiest outdoor activity you can do. It requires little more than a pair of suitable shoes. There's no learning curve, no requisite equipment to buy, no fees to pay. It can be done in any weather, in any place, on any surface, wearing anything, and an hour is plenty of time for it.

In the world of outdoor pursuits, running is about as simple as it gets. Just walk out the door and go. Because of this, I've always been a runner.

Races? I've run more of them than I can remember, the first one when I was 8 years old. That was the only one that involved an ambulance, because an 8-year-old can only hit a dead sprint for about 2 miles before he collapses. In all of my races I rarely did as well as I'd like to have at the time, but well enough to now be proud of most of my past results. Then at a certain point I realized that it just wasn't worth the registration fee to sign up for a run I could just as easily do on my own for free, whenever I like. Hell, I could do it every week and race against myself every time. Yeah, it's fun to train for an event with a group of buddies, and it's nice to have aid stations and timing chips, but my T-shirt collection is out of hand and all those everybody-gets-a-medal medals are just sitting in a forgotten box somewhere.

So I made up my own running event. A free one. I wanted any runner to be able to do it, regardless of how serious they are. It could be something to train for, but still attainable for those who didn't have the time to train because everybody could do as much or as little as they want. The course would eliminate the need for water/aid stations and the things you'd get with your registration fee. A running event for everybody. 

Of course it had to be on the funnest trail network around, which happens to be just beyond the patio behind my house.

The event was piloted this past weekend, recruiting participants strictly through word-of-mouth over the past few months. I called it the Mother Fricker because we held it in Pittsburgh's Frick Park. Here's the flyer I sent out:

Four loops. Optional distances between 2 and 20 miles. Free registration, just get rid of a pair of shoes you probably should have gotten rid of months ago. And, most profoundly, no timing. It would be an event that need not be taken seriously; just get out and run. Who wouldn't want to join in?

The Mother Fricker would happen on April 9. Early April around here is usually good running weather. Not necessarily the dryest time of year, but very unlikely to be cold and snowy. 

Not this year. For the first-ever Mother Fricker, the forecasters predicted 2 - 4 inches of snow overnight beforehand. 

Bull-headed and committed, three of us spent all morning the day before marking the course even though we were told there was an 80% chance all the markings would be covered with snow by morning. Holding onto that elusive 20%, the course was marked in white flour and yellow corn meal. That put the event budget at about $30, a cost I can probably nearly recoup if I can manage to sell a BIG BOX OF USED RUNNING SHOES (various sizes) on Craigslist. 

Prior to alpha loop (Elvira Eichleay) 
As the scheduled event time, 8:15, approached, one of the participants, Michael, plopped two dozen donuts onto the table that up until then had only contained a 7.5 gallon jug of water, a clipboard, and two hand-drawn course maps. There were no energy bars and no portable toilet. Cars were pulling into the lot and a few more runners began to mill about, stretching, stuffing things into pockets, sipping water, and hopping up and down to ward off the cold. 

A man who called himself an associate of a representative of the organizer of the event, who would for at least 5 more hours deny all culpability and responsibility for the event, called the runners into a huddle. He announced that he was speaking on behalf of the representative of the organizer. "Welcome to the Mother Fricker. If you get lost, try to make your way back to this spot, because that's where your car is." A few chuckled, but he wasn't that funny. 

He then explained the course and apologized for confusion created by the snow that was falling because it looked "a whole heck of a lot" like the flour that was only 24 hours earlier dropped onto the trails at the intersections. Everybody introduced themselves to each other, including the youngest participant, Jake, who was celebrating his 15th birthday. 

Fifteen runners began the alpha loop, an 8 mile course through the slag heaps that tracked along infamous trails by the names of Beyond, Crater, and Humpular, to mention a few. The course winded up, down, and through a particularly steep and gnarly network in a forest surrounding the steel industry's wasteland of by-product. Just after the runners began, a 16th runner dashed out after them, and then about ten minutes later another car arrived and a runner darted out of it, grabbing a map off the table. 

Before long, the group split into three distinct packs. Butt-sliding down the steepest descents and clinging to roots and saplings to get up them, all 17 starters made it back to the lot within an hour, grabbing a swig of water before heading out for the second half of alpha loop. One runner dropped out in an attempt to avoid a knee re-injury. "That's steep!" she exclaimed when asked. Another runner was not  present at the pre-event meeting, missed a critical turn just out of the lot and was off course.

The second half of alpha loop began for the remaining 15 runners with a 1.2 mile ascent of the slippery Iron Grate trail, a thrilling descent for local mountain bikers. By the top, the mud was starting to thicken underfoot, and the runners began to notice added weight on the soles of their shoes. The climbing was now mostly behind the runners, but the snow was accumulating. Traversing the entire park on contours about 40 feet apart, the packs began to spread out on the Goat Path and Falls Ravine trails. At a right turn onto Bradema, things got slick again for a full mile of descending through a thick bisque of mud and snow. At the bottom, it was a one-mile trot back to the cars. 

All 15 runners to complete alpha loop had done so with at least some time to rest. A few said good-bye and  some fresh runners arrived (including the youngest runner to that point, 13-year-old Xavier).

The headcount gets fuzzy at this point. Approximately 15 runners began beta loop, a 6 mile course that began with a ridiculously steep jaunt up a scree field that nobody could run, much less walk without using hands. Another traverse of the park, this time at a lower contour, brought the field - led by a group of 4 including Xavier - to a sketchy road crossing and then to a place where anybody who went to Central Catholic has spent a Friday evening partying. Rather than chugging 12 ounces of Beast, though, they dropped down a steep hillside and connected back into the park's main trails for a long circuit. Tossed in among the Homewood and Tranquil Trails were signature off-the-beaten-path singletrack called the Stinky Bridge and Backyard trails before the home stretch back to the lot. By now, about ten runners had completed 14 miles of the stickiest, sloppiest, and steepest Frick Park terrain available. In between loops, runners were leaving and others (including 10-year-old Simon) were arriving to strike a balance.

This is the point where the Mother Fricker prevails. The next loop, gamma, would be 4 miles long. After running 8- and 6-mile loops, the psychology involved in then running a 4-mile loop is easy to manage. And, it would be the first half of alpha loop. The runners knew what was ahead, and by comparison to the other loops, it would be short. No sweat.

It was now snowing in earnest as gamma loop began. Most of the field knew the course from alpha, and so newbies jumped right in for the ride. There would be more mud, more snow, and more wind, and somehow it had gotten steeper. So steep in fact that at least one ascent required teamwork. 

The five Mother Frickers
Running the gamma loop were 8 runners who had started with alpha loop in a field of approximately 12. Despite the fact that only one 2-mile loop remained, at the end of gamma, three of them said something about something and drove off. Five were left for the two mile delta loop. 

Seven runners finished the delta loop, five of them thus completing all 20 miles of the event. That loop, a run of the ultra-fantastic 276 Trail, required two creek crossings and at least a dozen switchbacks, because 276 is a trail that was designed with limited acreage. Essentially high-fiving along the course between those switchbacks, the last remaining runners hobbled and grunted out the last of their reserves. 

Throughout the day, one runner, Chuck, was in the lead pack for every loop. He's a general contractor in the East End who worked the Mother Fricker into his marathon training regimen. His son, Otto, came and ran gamma loop with him. Congregating in the lot after the event,  everybody congratulated him on his performance and then asked if he'd mind taking the box full of trash that had accumulated that day since he had such a nice truck. That's what kind of event the Mother Fricker was. 

If I could give myself a nickname, I'd like for it to be ANALOG. Try this sometime: just lace up and run. Leave the watch at home; no phone, no music. Just try it. Do it in the forest, where you don't need an iPod to drown out the noise of traffic. Run at an unknown pace for an unknown amount of time. Maybe shorten it a bit if you want; or make it longer. Run on a trail you've never run, just to see where it goes. Stop for a bit and walk, just because there's no clock ticking. Then run like the wind, off trail, like you're a predator. If you're really fast, you might catch something.

Git r dun.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Whitewater Decrescendo

Spring Break 2016. Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.

I've begun to feel that if you want to really experience a river, paddling it is only part of the game; you should spend a night with it, too.

The right combination of water level, free time, and partner availability provided an opportunity for a river trip several years in the waiting: 35 miles of whitewater and wilderness on the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River through the Monongahela National Forest, US 250 to US 33. Right up my alley. Finally I got my turn.

It takes about 8 hours of paddling to complete this trip but it's a four-hour drive to get there, followed by a one-hour shuttle. With a 6:30 pm sunset, this stretch of Shavers Fork is an overnighter. I left home at 7 am on a Tuesday and we launched at noon.

It would be, as all trips are, a gradual fall. But not only in terms of elevation -- all rivers flow in the same direction: downhill -- but also in terms of temperature and, in my case, confidence, which is not something to be losing slowly on a trip such as this.

Of course i's easy to start a trip; finishing is the accomplishment.

My friend, Bill, and I arrived at our starting point where Shavers Fork, narrow and slow, drifts past the Cheat Mountain Club. The sun was beating down on us for an uncharacteristically warm first day of March. "S'posed to get cold tonight; maybe as much as 8 inches up here," warned Gladys, the club's caretaker. "High winds, blow down, they say it could get pretty serious," she continued, as if questioning our muster, but I insisted we were prepared for it. I hope I didn't come off too cavalier, but if I did there was probably something to it: I knew what I was getting into but didn't expect to find it so tough.

Parked next to the historic log and stone cabin, I pondered Gladys's warning as I loaded my boat with gear and food. It was then that I started really thinking about what I was about to do. I had everything I'd need, but the whitewater below loomed as heavily as the forecast.

In 2013 a friend of mine was selling a kayak called a Prijon T-Slalom and when I saw it I had this river trip in mind. A T-Slalom hasn't been manufactured in decades, so I got it cheap. After picking it up, I modified it by adding a hatch in the back and small foot stops up front, just so I could more easily stow gear on a long trip. It's been waiting.

Into the T-Slalom went dry bags filled with warm, dry clothes and camping equipment. Small, ultralight camping accessories. Dehydrated meals. When each of these items was initially acquired, Shavers Fork Trip might as well have been penned on the packaging.

We dragged our heavy kayaks across the club's lawn, launched into the clear water, and began the first leg: the cruise. We knew that it would be over ten miles before any significant rapids and so navigating the river was simple; flat pools interrupted by some low-water rocks and shoals. The air was hot and the sun reflected harshly off the water, so I splashed the snowmelt-cooled water on my face. Bill removed his helmet and did the same. The railroad was above us on the right bank, and Bill wondered out loud if we'd hear trains all night long.

Clear waters, sunshine and wide grins
It wasn't long before we fell into a groove on the meandering stream. One stroke after another - with a little bit of effort in order to establish a reasonable pace - pushed us past a bare, wintered woodscape with signs of the cold all around. A few hearty geese and ducks were about, early for the season.

For three hours we moved along calmly, enjoying the scenery and water. We mused about politics and family life, striking a few sophisticated disagreements among many agreements about the former and enjoying the contrasts in the latter (Bill's kids are a bit older than mine).

Right around mile 20, the Shavers Fork got Appalachian on us as we met the first big rapid. The section we were now in would consist of roughly 5 - 8 miles of technical whitewater. We knew of this ahead of time, and primarily of three big ones. The first of those, a 15+ foot waterfall called High Falls of the Cheat, was disconcerting mostly because we were both paddling long boats (i.e., difficult to maneuver) loaded down with heavy gear (i.e., difficult to launch over the lip).

It was obvious when we came upon High Falls because of an observation deck on the right bank, a landmark created by a local tourist company that runs daily train trips from a nearby town to this point, and back, in the summertime. Bill had been here before and knew how to paddle the falls safely. So, we grabbed the heaviest of our bags and walked them around the falls. This spot was in a deep canyon and so there was still snow on the ground. I stepped out of my boat into 6 inches of crusty snow and the cold hit me instantly.

From the bottom, the line is simple to see and I had done falls like this plenty of times, but I still muttered, "Okay, I'm scared," under my breath. 

Pondering gravity post-drop
(line is on the right side of the photo, land in the green spot) 
A few minutes later, Bill and I were below the falls, this time sitting in our kayaks. I don't actually remember a thing. I closed my eyes as soon as I took that last stroke over the lip of the falls, like a damned amateur.

The fear associated with High Falls was important because after I had successfully paddled over the falls came a dose of warming, inspiring adrenaline. It was getting late in the day, and I had been starting to get chilly. When that happens, my confidence begins to slip, my technique gets sloppy, and my movements more rigid. A good line over High Falls kicked all of that to the wayside, warmed me up, and got me hungry for the whitewater I knew lay below.

We repacked our boats and headed downstream.

Railroad Rapid
The miles ticked past and the sunlight waned after High Falls, and a sharp decrescendo began as soon as the adrenaline wore off. It got colder. The rapids were delightful, but two scary ones were downstream. With temperatures dropping, Bill and I had hoped to camp below those rapids. That way, paddling in cold temperatures on our second day would be safer (swimming from a loaded boat, or even carrying it around a rapid, can both be frostbite-inducing endeavors when the mercury is below freezing). At last we came to a bend in the river with two successive railroad bridges. We knew that beneath the second bridge was the second of the three big rapids, the one called Railroad.

We found a side channel to paddle, up against the river's right bank, avoiding the intensity of Railroad, essentially "sneaking" the rapid, and looked skyward. It was getting dark. We abandoned the prospect of getting through our last big rapid today and our gaze now concentrated on the banks. We were looking for a flat spot to camp. Our next host of concerns filled my thoughts. It would rain overnight. We knew that. It would turn into snow. We knew that, too. It would be windy. Right. It would be really cold by morning. Got it.

A far cry from spending spring break in Cancun. Or Florida. Or home for that matter.

The upshot was this: anything left outside overnight be frozen solid by morning. When your tent is no larger than your sleeping bag, that means nearly everything must be left outside. Anything that I would need to be dry - but that wasn't already soaking wet - had to be placed in a dry bag overnight. I became concerned the minute I pulled the skirt off my kayak, shifting operation mode from downstream progression to survive the night.

We immediately started a fire and then put water on the stove for rehydrating our food. I changed out of my wet clothes and pitched my tent. We strung up a tarp to some trees to give us a bit of shelter from the coming rain. All good; no problems. Nice and toasty.

Dinner, chat, a little booze. A little drizzle.

At 8:20 pm it begin raining in earnest so that the tarp was no longer sufficient. Bedtime.

I fell asleep quickly. At 10:30 I woke up in a panic.

My tent, brand new and never-been-used, was wet. It wasn't leaking, though. Rather, moisture had condensed all over the interior. Not a single panel that I could see was dry, not that I could see much. And it was raining hard. And it was going to get much colder. And the sun wasn't due up for 8 hours. And this tent was small. Really freaking small. So small, in fact, that the roof panel was 8 inches in front of my nose as I lay there, and it sagged down to touch my chest.  I was in a cocoon only marginally larger than the hood of a sweatshirt. Claustrophobic memories of being inside caves began to surface. And I had to piss.

Making it through the night required a mixture of emotional stamina, clever water-absorbing and heat-conserving techniques, and positive thoughts about my wife and kids. All of these were my primary focuses though my backup plan was a 2-mile hike down the railroad tracks in freezing rain to a village called Bemis, which consists primarily of cottages that were, given the weather and time of year, unlikely to be inhabited on a Tuesday night.

It felt like a long, long night and I slept very little.

Frozen neeners
On Wednesday morning I was greeted by clothes that were frozen stiff: wetsuit, drytop, helmet liner, life jacket, pants, base layers, mid-layers, shoes, mittens. More than that, it was all coated with ice. My shoes and mittens were my greatest concern and I began to accept the reality of frozen toes and fingers. Coffee, to warm me up from the inside, was my first priority.

Bill came out of his tent - an enclosed hammock - singing the praises of a good night sleep and at this point the disparities of our scenarios became abundantly clear. Bill's kayak had a properly manufactured hatch for stowing gear. My DIY hatch leaked throughout the day and got me wet. His paddling apparel, a single-piece jumper that keeps him completely dry from toes to neck, had been under his hammock overnight and was ready to wear. My gear was frozen stiff and I spent the next two hours warming water on my campstove and then pouring it on each piece of gear to loosen it up enough to put on. Outer layers were placed in pools by the bank to thaw. One piece of thawed, wet gear at a time I slowly dressed to paddle the remaining ten miles of river. At the very end of the process, after eating and packing up, I dragged my boat to the water and used the last pot of warm water to thaw my mittens and shoes. Putting them on felt like a test. I barely passed and now had fully numb digits. I was shivering.

I've gone paddling in the cold before. In the very cold. Usually, though, I start off warm and dry. And I generally avoid challenging whitewater when doing this. All of this because paddling through liquid water at a temperature when it turns into solid ice can be dangerous, not to mention really unpleasurable. But this is exactly what I was doing as I shoved my heavy boat into the current. If only we'd made it past the last big rapid yesterday.

It had dropped 45 degrees since we launched the prior day. We had at least one big rapid to negotiate. The wind was blowing flurries around us. I felt like I was in a really cruel snow globe.

"You cannot swim. You MAY not swim," I told myself as we moved along in harmony. Bill had his own cold hands to deal with (my mittens were the only piece of gear superior to Bill's; he wore pogies) and so we silently moved along, looking out for the rapids we knew were below.

This is actually normal, talking to myself. I do it a lot when I paddle whitewater, reminding myself of what I should be doing ("take a big gulp of air before this next drop in case you get some downtime and need air before rolling" or "this move is important; don't mess it up."). When it gets really intense, I sing to myself. (Springsteen's version O Mary Don't You Weep, for some strange reason, has been at the top of my mental playlist for over a decade).

I was up front, but Bill had told me what to expect. A series of 4 or 5 river-wide holes, likely created by ledges of bedrock, stacked right on top of each other. About 50  yards long and dropping about 30 feet overall. In a smaller, lighter boat, maneuvering would typically be a zigzag down one of the sides. He also told me that the bottom hole was big. So, I knew it when I saw the river disappear from vision. I paddled to the side.

I really wanted to "boat-scout," which means to paddle into the last possible eddy on the side, point upstream, and look over my shoulder into the rapid. If it was safe to do so, I'd stay in my boat where I was least exposed to the cold. From this vantage point, I'd be able to either step onto shore, ferry to a good line to take into the rapid, or even paddle back upstream and try the other side.

The first drop was clean to the far right. I nodded to Bill, letting him know that I would soon leave the eddy and that he could take it, and then spun around and dropped toward the right side of the first hole.

One down, several to go, and a healthy dose of some adrenaline to aid in my comeback.

Again, looking over my shoulder I saw a second similar line into another eddy just below me. I replicated the move I'd just taken while Bill followed my first in nearly perfect synchrony. I was now past two holes and looking over my shoulder I could see very well that I was at the end of a reasonable run of the rapid. The next two holes were too risky and I was right next to an easy portage. I motioned to Bill that I'd be walking. He followed my lead and did the same.

Soon we were at Bemis and had either 7 or 14 miles to paddle, depending on which guidebook you choose to believe. One more fairly technical rapid gave way to our final leg: another cruise. Class 3 rapids mellowed into class 2, and class 2 rapids mellowed into class 1. Feeling safer, I began to paddle harder to knock the shivers off; sensation in my feet had terminated around mid-foot long ago. An upcanyon wind made paddling harder and colder. Spray hit my face and froze my eyelashes together. I've never had to use the muscles in my eyelids, but on this day I was forcing open frozen eyelids. Ice crystals formed on my eyebrows and eyelids, limiting vision. Bill, similarly restricted by ice and frozen hands, hoped that the guidebook that said 7 miles was the correct one.
At the take out

Fortunately it was. We paddled less than two hours that morning through a cold front that blew down trees all over the area.  Serendipitously we'd chosen a campsite that was protected by steep canyon walls.We found our take-out just past Bowden, WV just before 11 am. While I carried my boat across the floodplain to my awaiting car, the wind was blowing it like a sail. My legs, previously wet but mostly warm inside my boat, were covered in ice in seconds. My helmet was frozen to my head. The zipper on my life jacket was entombed in ice. My hands were inoperable. I turned on my car and sat in it, sheltered from the wind, as it warmed up. Eventually Bill joined me. We didn't talk much; cognition was delayed.

Some friends of mine paddled the Grand Canyon in winter a few years. When they launched it was more than 20 degrees below zero. They paddled for 12 days. By comparison this trip was nothing, but it felt hard, and I left something behind on the bank of the Shavers Fork. I can only imagine what they left in the Canyon.

Git r dun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Narrowing Constraints

If you do even the tiniest bit of research on popular hikes in Utah's Zion National Park, you'll soon find that "The Narrows" is on everybody's list. Hiking the deep gorge that the Virgin River has created in the past few million years is like going to another planet.

With only about a month to go before Molly and I would be in Zion, I went about securing a permit for the Narrows. You see, you aren't allowed to just go and hike the Narrows. You must have a permit to do it, or else you get the consolation prize of only hiking a small part of it as an out-and-back single day trip.

It only costs 5 bucks online to secure a permit for the Narrows and because it was so cheap I didn't pay much attention at the time to the details of the hike, other than its distance: 16 miles. That's pretty long, worthy of an overnight. Uh . . . no overnight permits remaining for the entire week we'd be there. Whoa, this is obviously a popular hike! Okay, we'll have to push it and do a long day. We can handle that kind of distance if it's worth it.

Only one permit left. A single day Narrows hike on Tuesday of the week we'd be there. Click. We're on.

Then, for a few weeks we researched lots of other potential hikes, and even secured a permit for another special place called "The Subway," the following day, but the Narrows was, in my mind, the main event. We essentially planned our entire vacation around that Tuesday.

Hmm . .  16 miles . . . that's a serious day trip. Maybe I should look into this hike.

I found out that the logistics are serious: 12 of the 16 miles are in a creekbed, not on a proper trail. The hike begins at Chamberlain's Ranch, private property outside the park, which is a 90 minute drive from the campground. The hike ends at a road in the park that can only be traveled by shuttle buses and those buses stop running at some point every day. Don't miss that last shuttle, or you'll be stuck on a road with no vehicles in the middle of nowhere.

This is the first vacation Molly and I would take without kids in over 7 years. I couldn't screw this up.

I found that many local outfitters offer van services. I booked two seats on a van that would drive us to Chamberlain's Ranch that Tuesday morning with a meeting time of 6:15 am. Loads of time to get that shuttle.

On Monday, the day before our scheduled trip down the Narrows, we got in line at the Zion Wilderness Desk (Zion has so many visitors seeking permits for various trips that there is a place just for permits at the Visitor's Center). That's when I realized we were doing something serious.

First, there is the flash flood danger. Zion Nation Park officials have produced a campaign of notices, images, and alarming videos such as this Flash Flood Video that is enough to make Noah scared. You're not swimming in a flash flood, and you're sure as hell not outrunning it. There are placards on the wall next to the Wilderness Desk that list the warnings of floods in the park for the current day, and the next. In our case, Tuesday was the next day and the placard told us that flash floods would be PROBABLE. To me, that sounds like it would be a relatively safe bet that there would be a flood, like more likely than not. Molly gazed at me with a look I know very well.

Okay, maybe that forecast will change in the next 24 hours.

To obtain our permit (I had only reserved it online) I was surprised to have to cough up another $10 and sign a form that was more extensive than the one I signed when I purchased my home. Initials here, signature here, date there . . . over and over . . don't forget the backs of the pages. I have no idea what rights I waived, but it was made clear to me by the friendly park employee that Molly and I were pretty much screwed.

There's more. The park shuttle that drives to the end of the trail? The last one leaves at 8:30 pm. I asked, What if we get to the shuttle stop after hiking 16 miles all day long and it's 8:35? The flat response I was given was, "the road is about 7 miles long, sir." I'm not sure what was being suggested.

Searching for more information, we went to the outfitter who would be our van ride the next morning. How serious is this flash flood issue? What does PROBABLE mean? What would you do? More details . . . what should we wear? What footwear? What survival gear should we pack?

We learned a lot. Namely, if you're hiking in the middle of a creek at the foot of 1000 foot vertical rock only a few feet apart in the desert, flooding is most definitely a thing. It's so much a thing that you should be scared of it. Really scared. So sufficiently scared that you're constantly watching for signs of flash floods: clouds, rain, near or distant thunder, floating debris, cloudy water, or rising water. Seems simple enough.

Molly and I had a meeting. Considering the PROBABLE level of flash flood likelihood, we'd remain "on the fence" until the very last minute, which would be the moment when the van pulls up to Chamberlain's Ranch. And, if we decide to pull the trigger, then we move FAST and steady. We packed small, easy to eat meals for our day as well as some water, a filter, and dry bags full of warm, dry clothes in case we got stuck after dark. We did not pack anything unnecessary that would slow us down: camera, binoculars, extra shoes, shovels.

We began to see a lot of people outfitted for the Narrows. They were totally obvious in their one-size-fits-most dry pants, goofy looking canyoneering boots, and prefab walking stick embossed with the logo of one of the local outfitters. Molly and I had boots and we packed dry pants from home but we didn't have sticks. So, we walked down to the river and found some driftwood. All set.

At 6:15 am on that Tuesday, we met Devon, our van driver. The van was a monster: a 15-passenger beast lifted onto oversized, knobby wheels and a custom cow-catcher front bumper. A-team memories all of a sudden overcame me and I might have done a Mr. T impersonation but it had rained overnight, so I was way too serious with anxiety. Devon, what's the forecast? "Hmmm . . . it's not a good forecast but it's not a really bad one, either." Devon, if we ride in this van with you all the way to Chamberlain's Ranch, can we still chicken out and come back? "Sure, but you're not getting a refund." Okay, our fence ride commenced.

In the van we met Ben. Ben was a recent college graduate who took the edge off by telling us his amusing tale of inexperience and poor decisions with great enthusiasm. He'd already hiked the Narrows over the past two days and had left his car at the trailhead (which he pointed out was foolish since he had to now take the shuttle in addition to the long drive on dirt roads he'd done two day prior in a rented Honda Civic). He had left his wallet in that car and his girlfriend was back at the campground with no food or money, waiting for him to return with the car and his wallet. They had a 3 pm flight to catch in Salt Lake City, a 5 hour drive away. He still had to pay Devon.

Just as Ben was telling us about his time constraints, we all watched as Devon took a left turn at a fork. To the right, a sign told us, was Chamberlain's Ranch.

Fifteen minutes later, Devon realized that the one person who had hired the shuttle to go somewhere other than Chamberlain's Ranch was a no-show. Everybody in the van was going to Chamberlain's. Don't worry, I told him, only three of us are on tight schedules. He apologized for the error and turned the beast van around, now bound Chamberlain's Ranch.

Ben tried to continue, but instead became the victim of our ridicule as the dirt road we were traveling became slick and muddy. That rain last night? These desert road don't see much of it. So, when they get wet the top couple of inches turn into a greasy, sloppy mess, just like this. You're not going anywhere, Ben, and your poor girlfriend is stuck in the campground without any means to get food. (disclosure: Ben told us about some tech-savvy to make his phone produce cash but I got lost in the details; the truth is that his girlfriend was back at the tent with a dead phone and some hummus).

Ben was still optimistic, suggesting that if he drove "with momentum" he could make it up the slick hills and around the slick bends. Right about then, the van approach a slick hill-bend and stopped. This wasn't in any A-team episode I could remember. Our beast van was stuck.

We got out, a small group of tourists standing in a sloppy mud road, wondering what to do. It was 8 am, and Molly and I were about to make our decision. However, we had no visual on the river (was it high? it certainly had rained where we were standing). We also had only a suggestion as to how much additional mileage ("about a mile," Devon said) we'd be adding to our already stressful Narrows hike if we decided to start walking down the road to get to the trail. About a mile? Devon, if you're wrong and it's seven miles to the trail then we're simply not going to make it. "I'd be astonished if it's much more than two miles." Not exactly reassurance.

You only live once.

That wasn't actually our reasoning, but it might as well have been. We were set to hunker down overnight if needed (though it would be miserable), and as long as we really move we could make that 8:30 pm shuttle. This would not be a stroll.

At 8:33 am, we arrived at the Chamberlain's Ranch trailhead after walking with Ben for what we speculated to be 1.5 miles. He was still upbeat and optimistic about his chances of actually driving out of there in a rented Honda. In doing so he'd be slipping right past the van and Devon, which would be something else. We wished him well and he pointed out that we were also in a bit of a pickle. Touche, Ben.

Behind Devon's van, another outfitter's van became stuck and three women started hiking behind us. They had the same itinerary, and anxieties, as we did. We started on the trail ahead of them and I told Molly that my intention was to be ahead and out-of-sight of those hikers all day.

The river, when we reached it 3 miles in, was low and clear. Before long we were hiking through the water, mostly below our knees, on our way downstream. At times the gorge was as narrow as only 12 feet with nothing but slimy, shiny vertical rock ascending to a slit of bright sky. Here and there we were presented with challenges like scaling up and over boulders or swimming across deep pools. Constantly vigilant of the conditions, I hiked a few steps ahead of Molly, pointing out high ground as it came.

Recalling those indicators of flash flood, I recited them out loud to Molly. All . . . day . . . long. Not because she didn't know them ,but rather because it quelled my anxiety about the scenario. There were six indicators, but nobody told us how to approach them. What if we hear thunder but there are no other indicators? What if the water gets cloudy and it rains, but nothing else happens? Of course there's no simple answer, but we proceeded with the following plan. Unless there are no high ground options, we just kept going. If we need high ground, it's there. If we get to a section with no high ground as far as we can see, we stop and evaluate.

Don't forget we had to make that 8:30 shuttle, which meant hiking 16 miles in under 12 hours.Given the terrain we were slopping through, we were worried about our pace.

High ground in the Narrows comes far more often than the park would lead you to believe. As I looked around, it was everywhere. Sometimes it might require climbing, but as the day went on I became more and more convinced that the flash flood danger in the Narrows was overblown (rightfully so, considering some of the choices made and inexperience of many tourists). At one point it began to rain and so we stopped our forward progression before entering a narrow section to carefully watch the water level. Much to our concern the river quickly rose about an inch on the rock we used to gauge it but it then flatlined. After about 20 minutes we moved very briskly through to the next section of gorge that had high ground options.

We didn't see anybody else in the Narrows for the first 10 miles, until we got to the point where out-and-back hikers were exploring from below. Before long there were dozens of people all around, taking photos and video, swimming, and enjoying the wonder of this magical place. We'd made it with time to spare. We caught the first shuttle that came, took it to our car, and splurged on dinner out.

If you're planning a trip to Zion, I highly recommend a Narrows hike, from the top. To be in that gorge with nobody else is a priceless experience you don't want to miss.

I don't need to go on about how amazing the hike through the Narrows was; there's plenty of content out there already. And, choosing to leave the camera at the campsite wasn't such a bad idea because the ones taken by those nice folks at the Internet are better than anything I could have taken.