San Juan River raft trip

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Lining up Government Rapid—Lava of the Juan

From my toes to my fingertips, every fiber pulled on the oars. I stole a glance shoreward to measure our progress against the wind. Willows bent and ribbons of sand swirled along the cliffs, snaking out of the canyon into space. Everything seemed to be in motion, except our raft. My strain held us stationary in the wave-tossed water, and then a stronger gust sent the boat sliding sideways across the river, straight for the dancing willows. Sometimes, I thought, it’s best to just hunker.
Such theatrics are hardly what I conjure when planning a San Juan river trip. This is the mellow river, a class II desert fairyland float through warm sandstone and spectacular, confused landscapes of canyon and valley and circular river bend. I don’t run the San Juan for high drama. But you never know what lies ahead on the river. This is precisely one of the lessons the river teaches through Grand Canyon Youth, a nonprofit based in Flagstaff, Arizona. GCY serves middle and high schoolers, educating them in ways both direct and subtle, and letting them be little river funhogs for a spell. That’s where I come in.
Five of us sat with our backs against a boulder for ten minutes while the weather front passed. When we set off again, it was into an aromatic rain-freshened desert, and the weather remained near perfect for the remaining five days of our San Juan trip. A bitter wind and salty rain is a small price, it seems, for sweet sunshine.

Storm light at Stairmaster Camp

Canyoneering Little LO Spring

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Dropping in on Little LO

Launching horizontally from seven feet up, my idea was to land on the pack and skim across the water without feeling a drop. No such luck, halfway across the pool, the unmistakable cold and wet of canyon water began to seep up my legs. My Kokatat drysuit, nearly two decades old and two gaskets down, thus relegated to canyoning detail, worked well for the first two swims, but now the gig was up. I was getting wet. I exited the pool and began to walk for the promise of sunshine. Surely it waited downstream somewhere.
It was a little early for a venture into the canyons of the Mogollon Rim, but with temperatures in the 70s, we could wait no longer. Along with Billie Prosser, Curtis Newell, and filmmaker Kent Wagner, I dropped into Little LO Spring Canyon for the first canyoneering trip of the season. A couple rappels, several swims, countless scrambles, and a long long corridor of narrows later, we emerged into main Sycamore Canyon to peel off wetsuits and start our warm-up. A good day all in all. Check out Kent’s most excellent video of the trip.

Little LO canyon mouth

North Coast winter paddling

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Billie Prosser enjoys the North Smith

Staring through clear rushing water under my bow, I fixated on an air bubble that formed off the rock beneath me, squirreling its way upstream in darting swims. As I surfed the wave that formed over that rock, it felt as if I was playing with that bubble, both of us caught in a semi-ordered, semi-random dance with the river.
I finally washed clear of my reverie to find myself on the North Fork of the Smith, a unique top-quality run that is a mandatory visit anytime I find myself on California’s North Coast. At 800 cfs, many locals wouldn’t even bother, but for the rest of us who live in the inland West, where the snow has barely fallen this year, the river was flush. I was especially grateful to share the river with a posse of recent Southwestern arrivals, my buds who had rallied a 16-hour push packed in Doctor Miguel’s storied suburban. They came straight from the severe clear of Flagstaff to the mild moist of the North Coast. They—Mike Flores, John Govi, Pat Phillips, Becky Seegull, and my 50 in 50 girl Lisa Gelczis—brought sunny Southwest skies with them.

Miguel Flores runs one of the Three Bears

Morning fog cleared as we shook off the rust on the Trinity River’s Pigeon Point run. Shirtless sunshine bathed the take-out on the South Trinity’s Three Bears, and sunlight filtered through the big trees as we launched on Redwood Creek. Even the North Smith treated us with blue skies. North Coast drizzle finally returned as we launched on  the South Smith, a perfect gloom to test my new Kokatat drysuit, and to heighten the focus for our push into the lower gorge.
The funhog safari ended as quickly as it began, returning us to the arid land of pine and rock, where we can only hope that our California paddlingshape will be used to eke out a season following the dismal season of 2012.

The posse on Redwood Creek

Big Tree Hikes research continues

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ImageA grand fir sprouted unsteadily, seemingly too tall for it’s girth. At well over 200-feet, it was in record territory. Farther on, a towering Sitka spruce dug roots into a hollowed stump shell of a redwood that was once nearly 20-feet in diameter. This was likely a record tree too, in it’s day. It was a tad ironic that on my final day of field research for Big Tree Hikes of the Redwood Coast, I stumbled into the most action-packed big tree hike of them all. It wasn’t an entirely new place, just an overlooked piece of trail that was caught in the wash of my many other research hikes. Too late to add this one now. Just as well, chalk it up as a secret stash. It’s good to know that despite my best efforts to present a range of the premier big tree hikes in far Northern California, there are more out there!Image

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