I want to share a highlight from last year’s Start and End at Home trip planning course. Christian Appel sent a report after a paddling trip he planned during the course. Several of his planning details stand out as really clever to me—I plan to incorporate these into my trips.
What impresses me about Christian’s preparation …
Bracketed conditions (a kind of personal contract)
Christian planned to paddle a remote river in Montana with very little descriptive information. Based on his research, he came up with a bracket of acceptable conditions (1100 to 1800 cfs—a quantification of how much water is flowing down the river). I LOVE this. For technical objectives, discussing and defining appropriate conditions is really smart compared to just showing up and going for it. If conditions are outside of the bracket and you decide to continue anyway … it will take some justification. This feels like a personal contract—accountability.
Christian did a ton of weather work leading up to his outing … he was aware of predicted snowfall, winds, and a mini heat wave. Some of this work was done with windy.com, a super powerful and user-friendly app.
A quick shift to Plan B
Given the changing water level due to snow, wind, and heat, Christian modified the trip plan, opting to paddle the second half first, and then reconsider the first half after receiving updated reports. It can be hard to give up Plan A … but in this case, Plan B was safer and allowed them to have an amazing trip.
The “gut check“
This is a new term to me … Christian has a “gut check” waypoint on his route (Google Earth file and Gaia GPS app)—the last location with an easy exit. I love that the gut check was an actual location on the map. This formality forces the party to stop, check-in, and decide whether to continue or not—similar to “decision points” in navigating avalanche terrain and “control points” in broader planning.
Familiarity with Google Earth imagery was a huge help when it turned out that scouting the river from the shore wasn’t always possible. I’m a big fan of CalTopo for 2D planning, but Google Earth’s 3D satellite imagery is priceless in applications like this. And priceless is right … free. How awesome is that?
I’ve added emphasis to match my points above, and removed some location information. This wasn’t my trip and I’m not in a position to share specific details about where Christian went.
My Start and End at Home trip became a reality over the past 6 days! As I had mentioned, this trip had been on my radar for a few years and had shied away from doing it due to the lack of information on the upper canyon. I had decided that if we could launch on the upper canyon when it was running between 1100 and 1800 cfs it would be a go. As the dates neared when I had time planned away from work the water levels were threatening to dip below that level. At the same time, where I live in south central MT, historical-level floods were ravaging this part of the state.
The night before we were to leave, 14-30 inches of snow was predicted to fall in Glacier. I went to bed that night looking at the Snotel sites for the drainage we were to paddle and they were 147% of normal, I awoke and they were at 243% of normal…the snow had come. The weather reports were predicting a major wind event as the snowstorm ended. I examined Windy and the major wind event had begun but was supposed to be fading to 15-20 mile-an-hour winds by 8 pm that evening followed by a mini heatwave for 2 days. We were unsure what the new snow and mini heatwave would do to the upper canyon. So as we were driving through the wind event (saw multiple semi trucks and trailer blown over on the road); we decided to paddle the lower 75 miles first. If the conditions were right after that we would hike in and run the upper 13-mile canyon run.
The lower 75 miles were amazing…as we paddled away from the majestic peaks we entered a very stark and harsh environment in its own right. We paddled through canyons largely devoid of vegetation and with magical and very oddly shaped rock mazes. The trip would have been a success by paddling this section alone. When we got off and I checked in with my wife on the inReach she responded with “1340 cfs.” We drove to the pass that night and prepared to hike to the launch first thing in the morning. Rain and lightning rattled our tent all night. The rains appeared to be lessening when we awoke and began our hike. A quick check-in with my wife before we launched showed that the overnight rains had bumped the flows up to 1650 cfs. We reviewed the maps in Gaia GPS and the location of the “gut check” waypoint and possible exit routes. We launched and agreed to discuss things further at the “gut check” point. Although the water was fast and high we both agreed that we would continue into the canyon. Once in the canyon, it was obvious that we were not going to be able to scout the rapids; the water was too high and pushing up against the walls of the canyon…this had become a read-and-run descent. I had committed to memory the entire Google Earth map I had created and it was easy to recognize the obvious features; the series of ledge drops, the chute on a sharp turn as a waterfall pours into the river from a tributary stream and the series of S-turns creating interesting hydraulics as the water negotiated the sharp turns.
Although we were both paddling near the top of our game for several miles, we were able to paddle it clean. I would say that I encountered some sort of “flow state” that I had never achieved while paddling before. When we exited the river, we both agreed that we had just paddled the greatest single day of whitewater we had ever paddled!
We had just completed paddling 88 miles of river and we never saw another person.
As I sit at home 2 days after the trip, the water levels have jumped to nearly 4500 cfs and it would be considered not runnable.
Thanks for the course Luc! Without your course, this trip would probably still just be on my radar.
The next round of Start and End at Home starts November 7th, 2022! Check it out.