Sunday, January 07, 2007

Upper Blackwater

After last week's fantastic run on the Lower B i was feeling pretty confident and finally wanting to step it up some. The level had dropped but a little rain was bringing it back up and Joe asked if i wanted to tackle the Upper Blackwater this weekend. I nervously said yes (if the level was reasonable) and he promised to get a good crew together. I planned on heading up early and running the Top Yough on Saturday so he instructed me to work on catching every possible eddy as that was going to be the hardest part of the Upper B. "Basically I give a rundown of what's coming up, where to go, where to avoid at all costs, and then you stay on my ass." he said.

I drove up with Scott A. and met Brett, Doug and Colin to run laps on the TY. We did 2 laps and i later joined Pete and Kris (who showed up a little late) for a third while the rest of the gang headed back home. I worked on catching any eddy i could see and practiced ferrying across any bit of current. I caught just about every eddy in Suck Hole, including "The Room"with reasonable ease and managed to get both in and out upright each time (unlike a few others who attempted the move after me... hee hee). I was feeling good but still nervously anticipated the next day.

The Blackwater level was dropping off slowly and we weren't sure how well it would hold. All day i was going back and forth in my head between wanting it to drop out (so we could just return to the safety of the TY), and hoping it would stay up. I spent the evening hanging out with Matt who had plenty of reasuring thoughts. Ultimately i decided i'd be fine with either outcome. We checked the gauge again and it seemed like the level should hold around 200 cfs. Low but a good level for a first time run.

In the morning I called Joe to make sure they were going to make it on time, we wanted to get out there as quickly as possible since the level was continuing to drop. After a bit of a delay due to running out of gas (and Jeremy getting to experience what it's like to do a three point turn in the middle of I-70) they showed up a bit late but we still had plenty of time at least and the level was dropping pretty slowly. Oh and there was also something about a peanut incident... Geez Joe, if you didn't want to go you could have just said so! No need trying to kill yourself! :)

Once everyone arrived I saw that Joe had indeed gathered a great crew: Seth Chapelle, Jeremy Lauks, Sean Devine, Bobby Miller, Steve Graybill, and Alden Bird. Along with Matt Walker, I couldn't have asked for a better bunch of boaters to take me down the Upper B the first time!! Ian Downard also came for his first run. So we had ten people. It was decided that Steve and Alden would lead Ian down and form one group while the rest of us paddled together. So we had a group of 3 and a group of 7. It was fine with me, i figured i liked the idea of lots of people around for safety (though i did wonder how eddy space would work out).

At the put in parking lot Joe warned that if after looking at / running the first rapid (100 Yard Dash) if i felt like i was way over my head then i probably shouldn't finish the run (it was going to be as hard from there). As we walked down the hill (very pleasant though slightly steep trail through very pretty rhododendron and evergreen forest) to the put in i could hear the roar of water and started to wonder just how big this rapid was going to be. Joe reminded me about the rapids above the put in (that we weren't running) and that put my mind more at ease.

Once we got down to the river bed i finally got a closeup look of the Blackwater Canyon. It is absolutely breathtaking. Looking up from the put in you can see 100 ft Blackwater Falls and Puke (a totally nasty rapid consisting of the entire right side of the river slamming into a monster sieve). You can also easily scout 100 Yard Dash (this was the only rapid we actually scouted out of our boats, see panoramic photo above). I took one glance at it and was surprised to find it not intimidating at all (sure the level was on the low end of 185 cfs, but still i was pleased to not be petrified by it!).

Looking upstream from the put in

Bobby checking out Puke


Second drop of 100 Yard Dash

Downstream of the put in

Ian running 100 Yard Dash

Joe explained the lines and we were off. I got off to a reasonably good start. I missed the eddy at the first drop (too many shallow rocks in the way) but was able to correct easily and get a good boof off the 2nd drop into the next eddy. After that everything is mostly a big blur of ledge drops, slots, hideous sieves, and awesome lines. I'll describe a few things that i remember somewhat clearly (and i'm sure i wont get half of this in the right order so if anyone wants to correct me feel free).

I had been told by several people that the low water level would make things a lot less pushy but that it would increase the technical difficulty a bit and the eddies would be rather shallow and poorly defined. There would be a lot of pinning / piton rocks and generally junky spots to avoid.
To my surpise though i found everythging to be a lot more spaced out and the eddies plenty easy to catch. Even with our big group i rarely had any issues with fiting in to an eddy easily.

Of the named rapids (or at least the ones i remember the names of) i really liked Tomko Falls. Really fun drops and absolutely gorgeous to look back up at. Joe did a great job of explaining lines on everything and as promised pointed out all the hazards. It was pretty sureal paddling up to a horizon line and seeing numerous options. On one rapid Joe had said to keep going left till i couldn't go left anymore. But part way down i had forgotten what he said to do once i got there. I got to where i really couldn't go left anymore and caught an eddy. There were so many narrow slots that i had no idea which one too choose. But i knew Joe was right behind me and as he came down i asked where to go and with no problems he showed me the way.

Seth at Tomko Falls

Several times the line was "anything but the left/right side", as the whole river flowed under rocks in these places. At one point Joe finished explaining the line. I looked downstream and saw how the water was all flowing under rocks on the left. "Just go left" he says. I had to laugh a little and paddled off knowing full well what he actually meant. "I mean RIGHT!!!" he yells as i'm already paddling that way anyway. :)

Overall i had good lines, lots of great boofs and had no problems catching eddies when needed (which was essentially after every single drop). The one mistake worth mentioning was getting pinned somewhere in i think the first mile of the run. I'm not sure if it was a named rapid or not (i don't think so but maybe someone could fill that in). It was a pretty congested boulder drop from what i remember. Near the top was a very sharp about ninety degree left turn. Joe went first and got slowed a bit making the turn. I made up my mind to be aggressive and round that corner with conviction. Well i guess i got a bit over zealous cuz as i came around the turn i dug my bow right between a large boulder and a smaller rock downstream of it. The flow wasn't very strong here and i barely felt an pressure on the upstream side. There wasn't much water going over the two rocks so the only thing keeping me pinned was the slight force pushing on the rest of my boat and the general tightness of the spot.

Nonetheless i was stuck in the middle of a class V drop. Not good. I held my paddle with my upstream hand, leaned forward and pushed with both hands (one still holding the paddle) off of the two rocks. I slid backwards briefly but immediately got shoved back in. I knew there were still a few people behind me so at least everyone would know what was going on. But i also was determind to get out of there quickly so i leaned forward again, gave it a good shove, and my boat slid free. Excellent!!

Well okay not quite, now i had slid back into a small hole that formed right there. i had basically been sitting in it from the begining. It wasn't very big or powerful. But it was just about as wide as the length of my boat and guarded on rocks on either side. Just the perfect size to keep my boat in there! And of course the outflow was fairly elevated making it very difficult to try to paddle out. So i was sitting there, side surfing this little hole at the top of this rapid. i tried to dig my paddled in to try to work my way out but didn't really have anywhere to go. At some point i had managed to get turned around in the hole so now i was actually pointed in the wrong direction. I flipped once and felt like i might get bottom pinned so i pushed off and rolled back up quickly.

At this point i knew i had to put some serious muscle into getting out of there so i threw my weight back and forth untill my stern caught the green water. Suddenly my boat got shot up in the air, cleared the hole, and even aimed in the direction i needed to go! I landed flat and upright and finished running the drop. When i got to the bottom i saw that Matt and Joe were both already out of their boats and had started scrambling up the rocks to help. I helped corral Joe's boat (which had started floating away), and got myslef into an eddy before i could get into any more trouble. Although not pleasant, the experience wasn't too bad and i wasn't very worried (though i think the guys probably were!). I was glad to have been able to get myself out of the situation effectively and stay calm during the process. So instead of being very scarry it was actually kinda reassuring in an odd way. After that i only had one more flip of no real consequence (aside from being a bit shallow).

At Sticky Fingers (the one rapid that has killed on the Upper B) most of us portaged. Only Joe, Bobby, and Seth ran the drop. Thankfully it was a pretty easy and short walk. The undercuts and sieves on this run were truly amazing. So many places where water just funneled into unrunable cracks or under rocks.

Just ugly

At Shock to the System i had a good clean line, bouncing of the hole easily. At this low level all the holes were pretty friendly and mostly punchable, making things a lot easier. Though i could easily see how nasty they would get with higher flow.I think my favorite rapids (aside from some truly sik boofs!) were the slides. I like slides that aren't very steep so you can actually enjoy the ride as you go down instead of it being over in a half a second at mach 2! The Blackwater (Upper and Lower) have a few of these.

After a while we got to a flatish shallow section where the beutiful cascade of Pendleton Falls drops in. I was feeling good but starting to get a little tired. I was holding up quite well, both phsyically and mentally but was starting to look forward to the last big rapid of the day, "My Nerves Are Shot (And I Can't Take it Anymore)". I can totally see how this rapid gets it's name!

Sean at Pendelton Falls

After some very junky rapids (all sorts of nasty piton rocks, bizarre ledge drops, and potential pinning spots) we finally arrived at the top of Nerves, a long series of very fun slides. I was happy to get there, i felt good but feared that my energy level might come to a crashing halt and preffered that it happened after all the biggest stuff. I really liked the last slide that bounced off an overhanging cliff forming a big pillow on the right.

One junky drop

At the bottom Joe pointed out that this was the rapid you could see from the takeout (where Kris, Rachel and i watched from last week and wondered what was going on as we saw movement but no downstream progress). At this point i could see the ridge where the North Fork came in and knew we were close to the end. But as we finished the last few drops and someone said that this was the final one i was still kinda surprised as i boofed into the takeout eddy!

Me with Joe at the takeout

It had been a great run and although i was bit nervous i had a great time. Joe did a great job of leading me down, giving just enough direction but not overwhelming me with two much detail. His instructions were clear (well when he could tell his left from right anyway!) and i felt good following him down. Matt was also very helpful, going first and eddying out at the bottom of drops and always watching out for me to make sure i made it down safe. Everyone else was also very helpful when needed, pointing me in the right direction on some of the easier rapids when Joe wasn't close by.

At the takeout i finally realized just how tired i was. Heaving my boat out of the river felt like lifting a 100 lb weight. We rested at the bottom of the hill and i guzzled lots of water. As we started the hike up (that i'd been dreading all day!) i let the guys all go in front of me. I knew i would be the slowest and didn't want to keep anyone up. At the begining i was keeping up reasonably well but eventually i was taking more breaks then anyone else. Along the way there are a bunch of flat spots next to trees that you can lean against or even lay your boat down and sit next to. I broke up the climb into little sections and just made it a goal to get to each tree one step at a time. I took a bunch of breaks to catch my breath and finally made it near the top. This was one really good flat spot under a short rock wall. I laid my boat down and sat down on it for a moment. The view of the river from here was incredible. I could see a short way upstream and what we'd just run, and a little more downstream at the first few rapids of the Lower. It was really beutifful but terrifying at the same time (have i mentioned how totally afraid of heights i am?). Joe had warned me not to look down but i couldn't resist. Watching the river so very far below me was freaking me out so i looked away for a bit, picked up my boat and made my final treck to the top (it was starting to rain anyway and i wanted to get out of there before the trail got too crazy muddy).

Hiking out

On the walk back up to the cars i finally got to look at the North Fork a bit. Matt pointed out a few of the rapids near the top. Will definitely have to get on that one sometime soon as well! :)
After that we dropped Joe, Bobby and Seth off at the top for a second run (it was after 4pm at this point) and they proceeded to make it down in record time. Matt and I met back up with Ian who had already finished his run and headed off to Siriani's for pizza.

After dinner Ian and I studied my West Virginia map to make sure we knew how to get back to the interstate. I agreed to lead the way. After a little ways into the drive we hit a very serious patch of fog. It was really terrible, there were moments when i couldn't see more than 5 feet in front of me. I hugged the center line in the road and whenever there was a short gap in it i'd panic a little. Since i wasn't familiar with the roads i didn't have a clue where the turns were. It was a much scarrier experience than anything i'd seen on the river!! At one point there was a short stretch with very bright street lights. They were turning the fog into an even brighter white blob so much so that i actually turned my headlights off because it made it worse! Thankfully the fog let up before the truly windy part of road and we made our way to Cumberland and the interstate without incident. I was rather nervous driving alone but at least Ian was behind me the whole way. Quite a way to end an adventure!

The Upper B was definitely a whole lot different than anything I'd run before, and certainly a lot of work, but at no point did I feel out of place or over my head. It was certainly challenging but not overwhelming and really not quite pushing my limits yet. I think I higher level will do that. I'll have to move up a few cfs at a time! And of course i can't wait to do it again!!

For the rest of the Photos see here: Upper B photos

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Blogger Alden said...

Very cool trip report - I hadn't been out there in about a year, and I had such a good time. I really love the stretch from the first rapid down through Tomko - 100 Yard Dash, the left bend I think you're talking about in your report (not sure), Z Falls (just an awesome boof), SIK Slot (my favorite move on the river), Baby Sunshine (boof hard right into the eddy), the Big Branch Rapid (my informal name, and which Matt Walker taught me to respect at high water), Undercut Left (again, my informal name), Bigger Undercut Left, and Tomko (best run with no eddies caught). And then I especially love one of those no name rapids shortly below Flatliner - long and straight and all down the right side with lots of boofs . . . Bungie Jump looks horrible on the right - I just noticed that. I think my vision of heaven would be the Upper B inside the Middlebury Gorge . . . Sorry for the long post - I could write a book about all this . . . Great river.
- Alden

10:43 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Maggie rocks :-) Soon you'll be the one showing me down runs...when I'm no longer broken.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Jenny said...

Awesome Trip Report!
Glad you did so well! I finally got into a creekboat for the first time and am game to try the Big Sandy again!
Great job Maggie!

11:02 AM  

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