Thursday, March 8, 2012

BLOG 2. Canoeing American Rivers by Cliff Jacobson

BLOG #2 American Rivers by Cliff Jacobson

As I grow into “middle age”, I find that the long, mean portages common to the Canadian north are no longer something I relish. And flying (bush planes) into remote areas, has become prohibitively expensive. For example, the 2012 rate for chartering a twin otter on floats is now 12 dollars a mile—which is really 24 dollars a mile because the cost is computed round-trip from the charter aircraft’s home base. To this, add a new regulation that says people and canoes can no longer be carried together on the same airplane. Why? People ride in seats on the left side of a twin otter and the canoes (a maximum of three) are stacked tight against the right wall of the fuselage, which blocks the emergency exit, which the bean counters consider unsafe. Fact is, in an emergency you can get out the left cargo door or through the cockpit in front. In the history of flying these big planes there’s not been a single problem. At any rate, the new ruling is beyond our control and now one is either stuck with paying for double flights or using folding canoes in place of hard boats. The north is changing!

Twin Otter: note the escape doors up front
The high cost of flying is one reason why I’m turning my attention to routes closer to home. Another is that I’ve done the Canadian shtick for decades and now, with gray at the end of the tunnel, I just want to try something new. So for the past few years, friends and I have made an annual spring, boy-bonding trip somewhere in the U.S.A. In the process, I’ve discovered some great paddling destinations. Here are three of my favorite routes:

Buffalo River, Arkansas. This may be the only American river where you can camp and build fires anywhere you want. The river is champagne-clear with bubbly Class I-II rapids in the upper stretches. Best done in early spring (March or April), the river is ideal for Kevlar solo cruising canoes. Camping opportunities are endless; the water quality is nearly pristine. There is no development along the banks for roughly 100 miles. The scenery is right out of the film, “Deliverance”. There’s a good current so you can drift right along. You should have some (not much) competency in whitewater to canoe the upper stretches which are curvy and strewn with rocks. Lacking that, you can attack it like the hundreds of neophytes who paddle it each year and simply capsize and come up laughing. You can’t get hurt on this river. But you can get washed out by heavy rain. The Buffalo goes up fast when it rains, often rising six or more feet! Camp well above the water and you’ll be fine. Type “Buffalo River” into your search engine and you’ll be deluged with material. Bring your own canoe (be sure it’s one that turns easily) or rent what you need. The typical 18-foot Boundary Waters cruiser is not the best choice.

Little Missouri River, North Dakota: This wide, shallow river flows through Teddy Roosevelt National Park and goes by the remains (which are hardly any at all) of TR’s ranch. The scenery is gorgeous in typical badlands mode. Camping is allowed everywhere, fires are prohibited. There are no rapids on this route, none. Very few parties canoe the Little Missouri because most of the year, it’s dry—too shallow for even a lightly loaded solo canoe. The key is to do it in late April or early May, hopefully, right after a rain. We paddled it the first week of May when the river was in flood stage. No problems. By the time we had completed the 110 mile route, water levels had dropped to “scratchy”. Ours was a ten trip, during which we saw no one on the river. A few ranchers and some cows, that’s all. If your dreams take you to the barrenlands of the far north, the Little Mo is a good training run, not for the canoeing, but for the bitter cold, wind and snow you’re likely to experience in North Dakota at this time of year. I thought this trip would be dirt easy. It was, except for the weather which reminded me of tundra trips north of the Arctic Circle.

A camp along the Little Missouri River

Rio Grande River, Texas: Mention Texas as a paddling destination to a Minnesota paddler and watch him shake his head in disbelief. Most Midwesterners have a flat-land “pan handle” view of Texas. Wrong! The Rio Grande River is truly spectacular, with canyons that rise hundreds of feet as the river winds through the Chisos mountains in Big Bend National Park. The Chisos are the only mountain range in the United States to be fully contained within the boundary of a national park. Big Bend is the least traveled of all U.S. national parks. Blow a tire or damage your truck while camping there and you may need to drive 100 miles to get it fixed. The area is truly remote.

Rio Grande River: Darrell Foss (L) and Cliff Jacobson (R)
Friends and I canoed the Rio Grande in late January 2011. It was the coldest time period on record. Day time temperatures hovered in the 60’s; night time temps dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. We began our trip at Big Bend Ranch State Park, north of the National Park. We camped at the State Park on “super bowl” Sunday and were the only ones in the park.

The Rio Grande has scores of rapids, some of which are seriously huge—too big for open canoes. That’s why you want to canoe this river in the winter when the water level is low. At low to moderate levels, nearly all the rapids are canoeable in solo cruising canoes or open tandems. Even then, you need polished rapids-running skills. We made just one portage from our put-in at Big Bend Ranch state park to the take out at Rio Grande Village. The river was technical and scratchy; the canoes took a beating but came out fine. Royalex canoes would have been the best choice. Paddling through the canyons is a mind-blowing experience.

Typical campsite on the Rio Grande
Don’t let the craziness of the news media stop you from doing the Rio Grande. The border is heavily patrolled (airplanes and who knows what?) and I would defy a drug runner to go over those mountains and hike 50-100 miles through the sharp, thorny vegetation to the nearest road. There are much easier places to cross with drugs. You can camp anywhere you want; the water quality is slightly silty but otherwise decent and you are required to carry out human waste (I’ll address these matters in another blog). Otherwise, things are simple. But oh my, the sights you’ll see. I consider the Rio Grande to be among my most memorable routes. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful. The Big Bend National Park web-site provides information on water levels, camping, weather etc. Trust me; you’ll love this river.


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