It had become obnoxious, his insistence that all of what enabled him to outlast and outperform us - and to do so comfortably - comes down to the way he prepares his coffee.
"Bulletproof" is a coffee concoction that includes coconut oil, butter, and heavy cream, and for nearly a year Brian has been drinking it every morning instead of eating breakfast. Ignoring any other reasonable explanations such as genetics, training, experience, or some combination of these and probably other attributes, Brian chalks it all up to his bulletproof coffee. I think he's working on an infomercial.
Our 2017 multi-day trip was underway. For some time we were geared up to explore the Sturgeon River through Ottawa National Forest Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Then, it looked like a Canadian trip to Algonquin Park. Then Mother Nature made an 11th hour decision; Michigan dried up as Canada flooded and it began to rain in West Virginia.
A week paddling exclusively within the watershed of the Cheat River, the East Coast's largest free-flowing river system and one of our "backyard" regions, would have to do.
Our first river of the week would be epic; the centerpiece. The Shavers Fork has whitewater for nearly 60 miles between Cheat Bridge and Parsons, including a section of about 10 miles of non-stop class 3 and class 4 action. The majority of the river is wilderness, flowing through the National Forest with only a seldom visible and rarely used rail line beside it (we neither saw nor heard any trains in 3 days). Recent rain had provided plenty of current, but the forecast looked more like early March than mid-May. We embarked from Cheat Bridge under dreary skies in kayaks that were stuffed to the gills with enough food, camping gear, and warm, dry clothes for as many as three nights of camping that could possibly include winter weather.
|About to launch|
Our first day was spent on a stream of gathering might. Our stopping point for the night, High Falls of the Cheat, was 14 miles into the trip and was running sufficiently high that only the youngest and most daring member of the group, Beau, would paddle over it just before we made camp and climbed into our tents. Beau's line over the 15-foot vertical drop was a little off, but he came out clean and the rest of us decided we'd take another look at it in the morning.
Then it rained. Then it snowed. And then we woke up to an early May winterland.
|Wake up, guys, it's winter again!|
The ledges just above Bemis, WV constitute a sequence of three river-wide recirculating hydraulics spaced about 20 - 30 feet apart. In between the hydraulics is nothing but strong current hoping to sweep any buoyant object into one of those hydraulics for a long and bumpy ride. With the boats full of all our camping gear and food and because of the higher water level, padding through them was quickly nixed by each of us. A conversation began about portaging along the steep and thickly forested canyon wall, which quickly became a conversation about lining the boats. Lining boats through a rapid is a relatively straight forward technique: simply use a rope to carefully lower them, unmanned, to the bottom. Well, at least it sounds simple, but it's actually rather complex, and the mishap that befell Brian's thermos of bulletproof next was straight-up comedy.
Here it is in three acts:
Act I: The Double
Ed and Beau are positioned, riverside, at the top of the ledges, with Ed letting out rope and Beau sitting as backup. My boat is attached to Brian's end-to-end and Ed's rope is attached to the upstream (stern) end of Brian's boat. From the downstream (bow) end of my boat, a second rope is attached, the other end of which I am holding, about 75 feet below Ed at the bottom of the rapid while standing on a giant slab of riverside bedrock. My boat has a skirt fastened onto it, with rope around the skirt's opening to hold everything inside just in case the boat flips over. Brian trusted our lining protocol so much that he hadn't fastened anything to anything.
Brian, sitting as my backup, informs me that he's going to run into the woods to take a leak just as Ed begins to let out his rope, and I begin to collect mine. All's fine until the boats are 2/3 of the way down the rapid at which point the current begins to pull the boats toward the center of the river (which I'm trying to prevent by tugging on my rope).Brian's boat gets snagged on a rock and begins to flip over (don't forget his boat has no skirt!). At the same time, Ed runs out of rope and all of a sudden the upstream rope lets go. I don't think Ed let go of it. Rather, something broke or snagged or loosened, but all I know is that I now have two boats at the mercy of very heavy current and gradient coming at me and I was the only one holding onto the entire system as it gained momentum. I blow my whistle hard because in about 3 seconds I'll be doing whatever I can to hold back about 1000 pounds of tension in my rope, if not more.
I ran into the woods holding the rope, which still had some slack, and got behind a small desk-sized boulder, sat down, and jammed my feet up against it. I ran the rope around my back, and got ready for the pull. I saw Beau and Ed fumbling down the bank, splashing into the water accidentally, jostling with trees, rocks, and rhododendron, frenetically trying to get to me. Brian showed up just as his boat flipped and gear began to flush out. Out splashed his water filter, his water bottle, and his thermos, which were all gone in a microsecond.
Fortunately it was over quickly. I was able to hold the rope tight as the two-boat system swung back to shore just downstream of my position, slamming against the boulder. Brian emerged from his bathroom break, quickly fastened a second rope to one of the boats, and together with the others we pulled the entire system out of the water.
That's when Brian realized his bulletproof was gone. For us, though, it made the moment all the more palatable, a small laugh to stave off the exhaustion of what had just transpired. Brian wasn't laughing.
Act II: The Single
Even though the problems that arose with our first attempt had nothing to do with the two-boat system, we decided to play it safe next by lining only one boat. Beau's boat was prepared by fastening a skirt, and again Ed positioned himself at the top of the rapid with the task of lowering the boat. I was again at the bottom taking up slack in my rope. Tragedy struck again, this time at the point when a second rope was attached on the upstream end after Ed ran out of rope. This time, the attachment snapped under the weight of the system, and - just like before - Beau's boat floated free, at the mercy of the river. Again, I ran to the woods and got into the most stable possible position, and held the boat. This time I watched Beau's boat get churned for a few seconds in one of the hydraulics. First the skirt he'd fastened was ripped from the cockpit. Then, a dry bag exited along with other gear. After my urgent whistle blast, a re-enactment of the first mishap played out and before long, all four of us were hunched over a beached boat, trying to catch our breath.
This time, however, it was serious. Beau's skirt was imperative for the remainder of the trip because without it his boat would be repeatedly swamped in every wave or rapid. So, I ran downstream to see what I could find.
Swirling in an eddy at my feet was a collection of gear -- Beau's skirt and dry bag and Brian's water bottle, filter, and, yes, even his thermos full of bulletproof coffee. When I held up the thermos to show the group, Brian rejoiced while the others' eyes rolled like bowling balls.
Act III: The Finale
Beau had seen enough. Two attempts, three boats, zero success. He attached a short leash to Ed's boat and walked next to the boat while Ed and I lined it just as we had before. It worked perfectly, and while we got ourselves back in order so we could splash into the river to finish out our day, the sun came out.
Having made it through the rapids that people talk about around campfires, our remaining bit of river, about 30 miles, would be a cruise. We made it that day to Stuart Recreation Area, where we poached a spectacular pavilion with a stone hearth. Our gear was dry and our spirits high for day three - the final stretch to Parsons, a flatwater marathon peppered with wave trains.
For three days we had paddled our kayaks down a supreme river of many moods. In the narrow upper reaches we peered through crystal to the bottom. In its mid-section waterfalls and turbulence kept our focus. Then, the bottom was the home stretch, over 20 miles before lunch. We reached Parsons with hot sun beaming down, contrasting the previous morning's taste of winter, and despite a sore back and blisters, I was ready for the next leg. But first, only a short walk from the take out in Parsons, Little Andi's Restaurant serves Rampburgers. Juicy, delicious rampburgers. How this is not a nationally-known culinary destination is beyond me.
The epic was over, but we weren't done yet. Two days of sunshine and warm temperatures enabled us to enjoy a 13 mile section of the Dry Fork, a river with some fantastic rapids, fun surfing waves, and outstanding scenery, followed by a second run down the best part of the Shavers Fork, this time at low water. With the confidence-inspiring weather, more reasonable water levels, and short, empty kayaks, we were able to tempt fate a little further this time, including a couple drops of High Falls.
|My turn at High Falls|
At the ledges, where we previously botched 2 out of 3 lining attempts and Brian had temporarily lost his incomparable bulletproof coffee, we all independently stopped, got out of our kayaks, pondered the hydraulics and possible routes around or through them, and made our best go at the big rapid. Nobody really talked much, just kind of formulated his own plan. Then each of us took a different successful route and reconvened at the bottom.
|Ed launches off the bottom ledge.|
|Brian goes deep into a seam.|
Git r dun!