Whitewater Ė A Mix of Activities
Aside from the obvious of often being out in the spectacle of nature, the "comfort" of a "sitting position", "gentle" rocking action of a river thereís the difficulty of trying to explain to a non-participant just what you can get out of sometimes being wet and somewhat uncomfortable from exposure. Itís simple, take the sport of downhill slalom skiing at whatever ability level you choose. Make sure the slalom course undulates, changes form in real time. Add the chess playerís intellectual challenge to see the complexity of multiple potential moves (slalom undulations) and net results several moves forward. On a timed basis, select and maneuver for best results. Include an athleteís endurance and strength training at an appropriate level for your skills, river challenge and plain old physical enjoyment. Remove all everyday distressful thoughts. Inhale the experience of being away from the rush of civilization and in a relatively remote and beautiful area. Submit to the joy of being "at one" with yourself and surroundings. Mix all this together in varying degrees. Package it in one physical, emotional and intellectual experience and perhaps there's something compelling in this for you.
Tellico River, TN at Baby Falls 5-11-1992
So whatís a wilderness trip? Itís many things depending on the person asked, but Iíll give it a try. First, there are two basic forms in my experience; both canoe based. One is, though remote from the norms of civilization, still within the framework of societyís overview. The other is a trip remote enough to be almost assigned an expeditionary classification.
Iíll start with the former, as itís more generally recognizable. Rivers like the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, the Yampa in Colorado, the Rio Grand in Texas or Colorado through the Grand Canyon though remote are traversed enough to be controlled by the National Parks Service. Make no mistake, they are truly remote and without access to any emergency or other late 20th century industrialized nationís societal norms. Thereís generally nothing we would call access along the route. Hiking trail access, if any, is long and arduous. You will however see others on the river from time to time. Rafts, guided by outfitters are the likely traffic.
Yet even on these rivers, our trips, generated mostly by the efforts of my close friend Curt Gellerman, are highly uncommon. Even for the adventuresome an unguided wilderness trip that can have you days or weeks from put-in or take-out is unusual. An unguided trip of canoes is an eye opener even for the guides on these rivers. Unique enough that they often know we are out there just through their internal world of associates. As in the occasion of a fleeting river conversation, "We heard about you guys." Canoes on these rivers engender thoughts of very high skill levels and just as important the realization that the group is self sufficient in a very old tradition. We are as close to our forefathers as one gets without becoming hunter-gatherers. The experience is better described from the latter, more remote wilderness undertaking.
The Nahanni and Coppermine rivers of the North West Territories Canada or the Tatshenshini (Alsek) from Yukon, Canada, through British Colombia into Alaska come to mind. The Nahanni took a day and a half drive to reach on a dirt road isolated enough that we probably didnít see another vehicle. Our driverís vehicle had to be self supplied with sufficient fuel for the round trip. When dropped off, we were still seven days from the put-in of the Nahanni. Seven days of starting down one river branch, paddling or slogging up another branch plus multiple round trips to portage gear. Most of a monthís provisions plus canoes had to cross the height of land between river systems. Lining boats up yet another river eventually brought us to a final short overland into Moose Ponds, a small lake adjoining the Nahanni. There are no hiking trails, just topographic maps and a requisite not to make unmanageable mistakes. Now we are at the Nahanni, over 300 miles by fast moving river and three weeks from the nearest settlement. Itís a week closer to a settlement then during that significant instant impression of isolation when left alone at our starting point.
Letís begin with some basic prerequisites. Credit is due Curt, explorer of archives to find out anything that could be classified as real information about a future river trip. Thereís also locating a business in the right vicinity that can provide the correct canoes at the right locale and time via three thousand mile cross border phone calls; then arranging the cross currency purchase. Transportation is also not a given. (Just for a moment, remove todayís Internet and global community. Think back to 1979 when the capitol of the North West Territories had shrunk from its peak mining-times population of 11,000; the largest population in the Territories. Back when Whitehorse, our Canadian arrival point, was a dirt road town with an airstrip tarmac and the equivalent of a Quonset hut for a terminal. Back when phoning into Canada was a costly long distance international call. Thatís a better perspective.) There are orchestrated group meetings to discuss options, schedules, group gear purchases; group provisions packaging and pre-trip assignments. How do you handle grizzly bears? What do you do about a chipped tooth, broken leg; get certain emergency medicines or what else is needed in the first aid kit. In short, follow all the planning and organizing routines of an expedition. Mess up and it could be fatal.
Thereís the question of who should or shouldnít go on these trips. Wilderness trips have succeeded or failed on personalities as well as know-how. Iíve known people who died due to a seemingly innocuous decision for lack of integrating the right personalities. Far from anywhere there is total interdependence. There is no your problem or my problem, only our problem. Itís easy to have discord from pressed closeness in a world we have even less control of then when home.
Why go? Itís the human spirit in all of us that decides what challenges or explorations stimulate the mind. The only real answers rest in being there. No one can describe the Grand Canyon to you. No photo can give you the experience. It has to be your own. I can say that if your encounter with it is short, it is certain you will not be aware that you missed it.