Mongolia Rivers Funhog Prep

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If you follow the Funhog Blob (and I know there are at least three of you out there who do), you might have noticed that there’s been a gap in publication recently. My excuse? General laziness. Despite this, two new guidebook revisions have made their way to stores. Check them out: New covers! New content!
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But guidebook revisions have limited value unless they are supported by current exploration. In April, John Govi and I did some canyoning in the Little Colorado River Gorge. We didn’t bring drysuits, a questionable decision given the pletniful water we encountered. My article on the Little Colorado River will appear in Arizona Highways magazine in the Fall.
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By then, Big Tree Hikes of the Redwood Coast might have a sister title, featuring the Sequoia trees of California’s Sierra Nevada. Lisa and I took some time for book research this spring.
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Escaping the snowless Sierra before a series of winter storms arrived in May, it was off to Colorado for a visit to Alpacka Raft headquarters. Alpacka is the original pack raft manufacturer. They are the most innovative company, with the best boats, so my visit there was long overdue. En route to the factory, continuing May storms offered some incredible light in Monument Valley.
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The stormy weather provided ideal hiking conditions in the desert. Beneath the cool of cloud, I met some wonderful people while guiding for OARS and Outdoors Unlimited. That Bright Angel Trail just doesn’t get old.
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But alas, to appreciate the world’s most spectacular landscape, one must sometimes leave that landscape for something different. So, I am off to the steppes of Mongolia, and the rivers of the Altai Mountains. I’ll be guiding and traveling with my friend Pat Phillips and his Mongolia River Adventures. Don’t expect any regular blobbing from central Asia. Spending time on a computer somehow seems antithetical to experiencing a nomadic culture that ruled the world by horseback seven centuries ago. But I do hope to share some stories upon my return. Mr. Philliips is sure to facilitate the high adventure. We’ve been training for the unexplored rivers of Mongolia since winter’s floods on our local creek. I hope we are ready.

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And back to marginal—an AZ pack raft attempt

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Bouncing down Oak Creek at 210 cfs, it was clear that the season on our local gem was winding down. Okay not just winding down, over. So how do we eke out another day of creek boating in this land of spectacular landscapes but ephemeral water? Pack rafting!
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Josh McNaughton and I set off in red rock splendor, our neat little boats tucked into our packs for a 5-mile hike to the flowing waters of Sycamore Canyon. I’d paddled through this canyon once before, during times of more liquid abundance (Check the info on that in the soon to be released Paddling AZ – new edition.), but this would be the first pack raft attempt, traveling the lower dozen miles of Sycamore as it runs through the red sandstone of the Schnebly Hill Formation.
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The put-in brought hope, with a nicely channelized rapid. The next mile brought reality, in the form of scratchy cobble bars covered in 80 cfs of dropping water. Pack rafts are the ultimate craft for low water travel, but this was even too low for our small boats. A retreat was hastily executed. We’ll be back, ephemeral Sycamore!

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Arizona paddling is back

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Arizona: Marginal to Optimal. Flagstaff icon Steve Garro came up with this maxim, and it was never more true than over the past two weeks. With barely a patch of snow in the high country and record high temperatures falling daily, water-based recreation in Arizona looked terribly marginal. Then came 1.5 inches of moisture in a rain/snow mix. The rivers responded, and the powder skiing was deep. Later in the week, a 3-day storm dumped another 4.2 inches of precip on the Flagstaff area, and it was game on. Suddenly, things were optimal.
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When rivers are rising, it can be difficult to find a stream that isn’t completely out of control. On March 1st, Upper Rattlesnake Canyon fit the bill. It was high, but not TOO high, we surmised. And although this would be a first descent, it wouldn’t be too hard, we conjectured.
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The first half-mile was very nice, eddy-hop class III water, with a few bigger drops thrown in.
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And then the brush arrived. The next half-mile was spent portaging, sometimes in the water, sometimes in the cliffs, but always in the bushes.
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Just when things seemed desperate, the Hunting Tank Fork entered. The gradient decreased along with the brush, and the small river dropped through several bedrock sluices. Upon take-out, we marveled that nobody had ever before run this fine piece of water. But indeed someone had. At home that night, I got a phone call from “Chevelon” Bill Langhofer. It seems his party (Langhofer, Mike Mijuskovic, Ryan Fair) were an hour ahead of us. They had driven in a different road, and launched at the fork, where the paddling got good. In doing so, they notched a new Arizona run, perfect for those rare days when the water is a bit too prolific.
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Despite multiple attempts, it had been several years since I’d paddled the East Verde River, so while creeks raged near home, Pat Phillips (with whom I’ll be traveling to Mongolia this summer), and I slid down the low river.
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The East Verde is a fine class IV run, but true Middle Earth beauty exists in the depths of Tonto Creek’s Hellsgate. One of the finest multi-day kayak runs in the Southwest, this was our mission as the storm cleared.
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The Hellsgate run flows through several gorges, and its namesake cleft—Hellsgate—is one of the most challenging to pass. This year it is especially spicy, with a log placed in the runout of the last rapid.
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By our third day, the water was lower, but still at a moderate level for the Last Hurrah Gorge.
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Per usual, the portage option at the last drop looked much scarier than the paddle option. So after a scout from high above, we returned to our boats and paddled off the lip to see what might come. Deliverance to a big calm pool was our reward, beyond the GATES OF HELL!!! So optimal.

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AZ Paddling season 2015 — Just the start, or over?

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Pumphouse Wash is the headwater stream of Oak Creek, in northern Arizona. It runs through a narrow shady canyon that holds deep pillows of snow well into spring. Pumphouse been paddled a handful of times, always in March or April, when icefalls still cling to the sandstone walls and some drops are un-runnable because of snow bridges spanning the channel. At least that’s how it used to be. Mark your calendars, folks, because the climate that scientists have been warning of since the early 1990s has arrived. In 2015, the first January descent of Pumphouse occurred.  Even in the canyon’s darkest depths, there was hardly a pile of snow.

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Following steady precipitation that fell as rain up to 10,000 feet, the Mogollon Rim’s meager snowpack came washing down, bringing life to rivers in the central and eastern parts of Arizona.

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The late-January storm was the second runoff event of the month. Following both storms, teams of paddlers got on the rarely optimal upper Oak Creek, and schussed the rapids of Slide Rock among others.

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The Verde River saw groups of boaters over several days, with accompanying temperatures in the 70s.  No drysuit needed here. The bright sunshine and high water was a familiar treat, but in January? In Arizona, you take what you can get, whenever you can get it.

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Normally, 9 days of paddling in January would mean the start of a stellar season. This year, I’m not so sure. Only patches of snow remain on the Rim as we head into a week of record high temperatures during early February. Maybe our well-watered January will be the beginning, and the end, of paddling season 2015.

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An optimist might think otherwise. The ground is saturated, and several weeks of the winter storm season remain. More than once, Flagstaff has recorded over 70 inches of snow during the month of March. Maybe that will happen this year. Or perhaps it will rain frogs. In these times, either outcome seems equally likely.

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