This close encounter with a Southern Right Whale was either a transcendental example of interspecies communion, or an unconscionable crime. Take your pick.
Though wood-and-canvas canoes look great and paddle even better, few people have bothered to build them since the early 20th century. They’re not all that easy to build, and lighter, stronger materials have only become more readily available. Even fewer people take them on long expeditions.
British sea kayakers Jeff Allen and Harry Whelan may have got all the press for their record-setting 25-day circumnavigation of Ireland in the spring of 2011, but behind the scenes was a man with a camera on his own a whirlwind tour of the Emerald Isle in a cluttered Pugeot Boxer van. Photographer Vaughan Roberts racked up about 3,000 miles providing land support for Allen and Whelan, navigating the backroads of coastal Ireland and setting up shots for his new DVD, “Into the Wind.”
Flanked by pine-covered escarpments and lined with strands of sycamores, cottonwoods, and willows, the sparkling-clear San Francisco is a major tributary of the Upper Gila River, but a complete unknown to most paddlers—possibly because catching the river with navigable flows is difficult at best, and possibly because combat boating skills are a prerequisite to safely traverse this extremely remote stream. Three years ago, when we decided to explore the San Fran, we were met by a lonely land of inaccessible high mountains, rugged canyons, and stark ridges, and a river that tested our fortitude. In between quiet pools were long stretches marked by swift currents and boulder-garden rapids. Great fun. However, what required all our attention, all the time, was the threat of strainers and downed trees often completely blocking the tight channel. Not so fun. That said, the San Francisco ranks near the very top of my favorite ephemeral streams.
Cruise through the pastel landscape of North Dakota badlands, past Teddy Roosevelt’s historic ranch site, and through truly remote high plains grassland habitat. The year I went, I got frustrated interpreting the gauge and called the National Park visitor’s center. It must have been a slow morning, because the ranger put the phone down, walked over to the riverbank, and came back with the first-hand flow report. Side hikes abound (as long as rains haven’t turned the trails to gumbo). Think owls, cottonwood bottoms, coulees, and coal seams. White pelicans, desert bighorn sheep, and petrified trees punctuate the miles. Beware, the Little Missouri can brim with water one week, and go dry the next. Choose your window wisely and the reward will be a very quiet and surprisingly scenic week in the land where a few buffalo still roam.
After two trips down the Escalante, I have nearly exhausted my supply of superlatives (Unbelievable! Incredible! Stunning!) when trying to describe this rarely paddled wild jewel in southern Utah’s red-rock canyon country. And I do mean rarely paddled. I bided my time for more than a decade before catching this semi-arid stream with enough water to carry my canoe through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was well worth the wait. Just when you think that the looping, river corridor can’t get any more spectacular, you careen around a tight bend and are amazed, again and again. Sheer sandstone walls, streaked with magnificent patterns of desert varnish, tower 1,000 feet overhead. Inviting side canyons abound.
About 45 miles north of Silver City, N.M., lies the Upper Gila River “Wilderness Run,” so-called because most of this splendid stretch lies within the half-million-acre Gila Wilderness Area. A friend and I snagged this trip in March a few years back, when we found the tight, twisty stream to be delightfully boat-able after a brief period of snowmelt in the four mountain ranges around it. Starting near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor’s center, the river winds through absolutely gorgeous wilds that few have seen, an area rich in forested canyons, natural springs, boulder garden rapids, and an abundance of birds and wildlife. But not people. If you’re looking for solitude, this is definitely the place to go.
It took me a decade to hit the Dirty Devil window. I drooled over the quadrant of canyon country it scribes through, full of side slots and sandstone slickrock and Butch Cassidy hideouts. Some years it would be a bare trickle, no more. Once it came up, but I dallied one day and missed it. But last spring the snowpack was deep, spring break landed right, the river gauge was coming up nicely. We made the leap, drove 700 miles, and found ourselves in mid-March, camped all alone at the end of a four-wheel-drive road, perched above the braided, murmuring stream running about 220 cfs.
Flowing through some of the most stunning and desolate reaches of Arizona, the Verde is one of the Southwest’s finest whitewater runs, and one of its best-kept secrets. Located midway between Flagstaff and Phoenix, the Verde—Arizona’s first (and so far only) National Wild and Scenic River—tumbles south through three national forests, offering in places virtually non-stop technical whitewater amidst stark, lonely hills, towering cliffs and arid Sonoran Desert terrain bristling with cacti, including the giant, treelike saguaro. Pretty and peaceful pools alternate with long stretches of rock-dodging Class II-III rapids. There’s great hiking up hills and in side canyons with ancient cliff dwellings and pit house ruins. Roaming through the remote countryside are javelinas, river otters, mule deer, coyotes and mountain lions, as well as nearly 300 species of birds.
Dane Jackson has been touted as a kayaking prodigy since his age was still single digits. Flashes of brilliance and raw talent have always been Dane staples, mostly in the freestyle discipline, but that’s changing. Dane—who just turned 18 this year—went on a tear in 2011. From now on he’s going to be playing with the big boys. How will he fare? His results already speak for themselves. Here’s a timeline of his unprecedented last year.
Last September Australian Tom Smitheringale, 41, set off to cross the Sahara Desert, east to west, roughly 4,660 miles, from its boundaries on The Nile in Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco; all to raise money for the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which helps sick children recover from devastating illnesses.
Glassy water and uncharacteristically dry, chilly temps greeted 103 committed Pacific Northwest paddlers who competed on Jan. 7 for Seattle’s third annual New Year’s Challenge paddling race. The six-mile course started on Lake Union in the heart of Seattle and ran through the Montlake Cut to Lake Washington. All types of craft competed, ranging from SUPs and sea kayaks to canoes, OC-1s, OC-2s, OC-6s, dragon boats, prone paddleboards, rowing shells, racing kayaks, and surfskis.
We’ve all run the gnar backwards plenty of times, but never on purpose and never this cleanly. Here, Asheville, N.C.’s own Pat Keller runs the fabled Green River Narrows switch. Do the back-paddling antics mark a step forward in downriver freestyle kayaking’s progression? We’ll see. We do know that it’s been a big winter for Mr. Keller