Wednesday, August 1, 2012

First Descent (?) North Fork of Bull Lake Creek

It's a funny thing, Bull Lake Creek is a run that had been calling at me since I first heard about it in 2008. I always loved the wilderness facet of kayaking and it seemed like this run would give you as much of that as you can handle. A 18 mile hike in, with two sections about 10,000 feet and 5 days kayaking through the rugged Wind River Range in Wyoming. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge about this run until about a week ago...

Nick and I had made our way to Jackson Hole in search of the 'Box' section of the Clarksfork of the Yellowstone, but on our way we were given a proposition that all kayakers love to hear... the elusive words, 'first descent'. Jim Janey has been looking at the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek since Demshitz and some locals managed to bag the lower two miles of it some years ago. Jim knew there was more river upstream waiting to be explored. Nick and I were lured in, obviously, and didn't even think to check out what we were in for. What would probably be one of the more arduous and epic kayaking trips we'll ever do. All we had to do was find a class V shuttle driver, thank you Emily Powell, I figure I am going to be paying for it forever. Meeting Jim and Chris at the Bull Lake Reservoir at 6am the adventure began. 

All smiles here... not for long (p. Emily Powell)

In short, accessing the upper reaches of the North Fork was plain murder. Jim had very optimistic aspirations of how far we could drive, we didn't make it that far. Although Jim's navigation was on-point and never failed, the hike almost ruined us. Nick, fresh off his 10day soft-bender, caught the short straw and felt it the most, having to take a couple of power naps to get him through the 10+ hour slog. Rain, shitty unsettled scree, the ominous threat of bears, fully loaded kayaks, severe gradient and the altitude all combined to make it one hell of a day. But, in saying that, some of the vistas we saw and the feeling of accomplishing our hike in one day did make it, well almost, worthwhile.

 Jim at the pass we climbed, looking towards the headwater of the NF 

 We hiked from well below the brown strip on the left, across the lake then 
up to this saddle... half way!

 Hurts so good

 Nick hating life

 Chris on the torture rack

Nick about to pass out... again

The last section of our access to the North Fork included paddling across little milky lake, which in the evening twilight was a sight to see. We camped on the lake and in the morning it was absolutely spectacular. A sight that rivals the view over Lake Pukaki looking at the snow capped Mount Cook in New Zealand. After sitting in awe we had to get down to business, we were hoping to make it to the confluence with Bull Lake Creek.

 Little Milky Lake

 Jim absorbing the surreal setting

One for mum

There was a mini gorge between Little and Big Milky Lakes that we were able to paddle 3 of 4 drops, tight class IV-V into another spectacular lake. Things were looking up, the setting was surreal and the whitewater started off well. But all that was about to change. Once we had made our way across Big Milky Lake we started what would be a series of hard portages, with intermittent mank paddling. Our first canyon had a boxed in 30' footer with a rock in the lip, forcing us to portage. After some mank we made our way to 'Cougar Canyon', which looks good to go from the mouth of the canyon, but with further inspection from high on river right you could see a burl 20 footer into 80+ foot cascade landing in a long/sieve mess. So we did the aptly named 'Jim Janey' portage on river left before the canyon, and made our way back down to river level below the falls.

 Jim in the Mini Gorge

 Nick paddling into Big Milky Lake

 Is that Burt Renolds - Check the Moe!

Big Milky Lake

Nick shooting the 30 footer we portaged

Looking down into 'Cougar Canyon'

The end of 'Cougar Canyon'

The Crux of the Canyon

From here there was some more mank until we reached a super steep section that had no reprieve and ended in a 50foot cascade onto a rock ledge. Yeah, another portage but at least this one was short and at river level. After this was some relatively good class IV boulder gardens for half a mile until we reached another canyon... full of wood... another portage. I think you're getting the picture by now. Did I mention it was raining sporadically, making sure the portages were slippery and our moods remained gloomy. The section below the canyon was pretty good, a lead, a tight triple drop and then a clean box canyon with a rowdy lead in. But all wasn't good for me. Due to the lack of classic whitewater I talked myself into running the tight triple drop after Nick paddled it. After I pitched off the top boof I landed one edge and my paddled became wedged in the horrid rocks of Bull Lake. Horrid in terms of their coarse and raw nature. Im not sure whether I snapped my paddled free, or it came free and we lost it in the rock pile down stream, but I took some big hits and then promptly swam as what lay downstream would be disastrous. We got my boat out all good, and other than a leg of bruises and losing some knuckle skin I was all good.

Nick selling the triple drop

 Jim selling it...

 and me eating it

Call it fate or whatever you will, but it almost turned out lucky I did swim. As it made me shy away from the next rapid, electing to portage the rowdy lead in to the clean box canyon, putting me in a good place to set safety for the boys. Where I was needed. Chris caught and unlucky rock and got pushed right of the spliting rock, where you want to be left, and got quite badly pinned. I was able to quickly sort him out before the situation became to dire, but if I had been in the line routing with the boys it would have been all but impossible to get back around the canyon to help him out.

Below the rowdy lead in.

Moving on, we had two more short scree portages and then made our way down to the 'Locked in Lake'. This is where things almost became a misadventure. Leading out of the lake was a long rapid ending in a boxed in 60+ footer followed downstream by a typical shit/mank pile. There was a chance we could get out of the canyon up through a line of trees but nothing was certain. The day was already dragging on and now we had to deal with this. Nick, Jim and I all took turns trying to find a route out of the canyon. But we were all dubious. Eventually we decided to try the tree-line opposed to portaging back upstream and trying to get out that way.

 What to do?

 Locked in, as always.

 "Are we now on a mis-adventure?"

Nick waiting for our thoughts on where to go.

 the lead in...

 and the boxed in 60+ footer

Just as I thought I had reached the canyon rim, Jim called me back down into the canyon as he had found a way back to river level. Although I was flustered as I had expelled a ton on energy getting high out of the canyon. It turned out to be a blessing as we were able to get to the other side of the river, portage the last West Cherry like slides and eventually make camp. And we needed the rest! We had only covered two miles this entire 8 or so hour day, leaving me to think how long will this actually take us. 

Day three was a lot more productive, and I guess began to make it worth while. After some boogie and short portage we had some good class V boulder gardens, although short lived it felt good to get a rhythm going. Another wood induced portage lead into a section of three slides, the first and third were all good. Then we had a meandering float down to the confluence, where we were surprised to see so little water. Nonetheless the flow topped us up nicely for the rest of the trip.

 Nick finding a reason to smile

Jim all about the clean slides

There is always a big wall behind you in Bull Lake Creek

Next came the 'Lakes Section' where its as pool drop as you want, and most the drops go. All the way down to Hagen Dazen. Excuses aside, Nick was the only one to run this opting to portage the entrance and run the finals falls. A clean line to our delight and we continued to press on to the Forked Tongue Gorge.

Nick routing Hagen Dazen

The gorge initially forks, with a hero's line waiting for a valiant charger down the right and some mank and short portage for the mortals down the left. Then the canyon turns it on, with great class V boulder gardens. There was a sketchy 10 footer we portaged and only Jim ran the lead out through the big hole. 

Jim mobbing into the big hole, and cleaned it

From here I think we might of portaged something choked up and then made our assault on the 'Jim Bridges' portage. I was dreading this portage as any portage with a name is usually heinous and long but this one didnt seem too bad. Maybe 45minutes of big boulder hoping. We paddled the final section into the lake, did ANOTHER little portage on the right and ran the final double drop. Not long after this, maybe a half a mile of paddling and I am guessing another portage, we made camp and tried to enjoy the evening sunshine. Thinking we still had two days to go.

Jim doing the 'Jim Bridges' portage. 

Always big walls. Resting on Jim Bridges. 

 Always searching for the Truth.

 Jim catching some dinner.

Soaking it in.

Breakfast was delicious, sick continous class V boulder gardens down to Bull Lake, all go. Out of the lake was a short portage then we ran another section down to Bull Lake Falls. A tremendous cascade the demands a moment to soak it all in. This portage wasn't to bad either, with Jim and Nick opting to paddle the clean(ish) 25 footer at the end of the cascade.

Bull Lake Falls

 Scree portage, who would of thought.

 Such an epic environment.

Nick doing as Drew Duval ordered, running the lead out. 

From here we had some more class V that slowly mellowed. Unfortunately, the Truth Boat had sustained some damage and we'd have to take a break and let Nick fix his boat. Not that we minded a hour chilling in the sun. Back on the water there was another 1-2miles of class III - IV before the Limestone Gorge. The two entrance drops looked dubious at best so we left them alone and portaged and paddled our way through this last little sting in the tail of Bull Lake Creek.

Nick fixing his boat... the walls still there!

Then almost instantly the gradient died off and we were in the flood plains, the ever present and daunting high granite walls fell away and we were in a vast open 'red-wall' arena. We pulled over to camp, figuring we were planning 4 days on the river and why not soak in the scenery. But after and hour or so in the mosquito plagued desert setting I somewhat pulled a mutiny on Jim and decided I would paddled out. Nick jumped on board as the mosquitos began to get the better of him and eventually Jim and Chris decided to come to. So after another mile or so of flood plain we reached the 'Final Slides' section and then finally made it to the lake for our 9 mile paddle out. And it felt all of that! Jim, Nick and I were all on pace but Chris fell behind early and it got to the point where he said to himself, "God damn, I cant even see anyone now!" The paddle out only took about 2 and a half hours but it took all of what we had left in us. We promptly packed up and made our way to Dubois for a ravenous feast and then a drive back to Jackson. 

About to stop smiling and commit mutiny... sorry Jim!

In reflection it is hard to decide whether I loved, liked, suffered or hated this trip. The whitewater isn't the reason for going I guess, it is to immerse yourself in one of the most unforgiving and isolating situations and seeing if you have the physical and mental capacity to work it out. In New Zealand we get dropped off in helicopters, way up in the alps. But none of those trips even nearly compare to the feeling of being way up in the Wind River Range. If someone asked me whether they should do the trip, I would say no. Only for the fact that if they are asking, they're not the type of people that will enjoy it. Bull Lake Creek is something a certain type of person seeks, and only after doing the trip will you understand my indifference in opinion about it. I think I loved and hated it, but more than anything I am stoked to have done it... because I will never have to do it again. 

1 comment:

Brian said...

So inspired by your adventure! Way to go. As a former whitewater kayaker and now fisherman... yes, pretty lame, I was wondering about the land path you took to Milky Lakes and where you parked (trailhead). Any info would be helpful, thanks.