Thursday, July 29, 2010

Debreif 3 Some Scary Stuff

The Yukon is a very mobile river, particularly through the area of the Yukon Flats. Each year, particularly when the ice breaks up the River banks are eroded significantly and the river changes shape.
As we passed through with the river level so low, the river banks were 4 or 5 meters high. Great looking garden top soil. On the outside of the bends where the current was fastest, often the river bank was badly under cut. Curled over on top of us like riding a surf wave tube. Several times as we passed by a whole section of the undercut bank would collapse with a great crash into the water, including the trees standing on top. As the trees wipped over they could reach 20 meters out into the river.
Some trees would immediately twist their way free of the bank and carry on downstream in the current only to later be stranded on a gravel bar. Other trees would still have their roots attached to the bank. These trees would hang on desperately to the bank, majestically out in the flow. We could hear these trees from some distance as the water roared passed the branches. This gave us a bit of warning. Debris, from other fallen trees, eventually got caught up in their branches and the trees, still with roots hanging onto the bank, swung against the bank. There they sat silently until the debris washed off their branches and with a great roar and rush swung back out vertical to the bank.
Survival rule No. 1 Dont be tempted too often into the fast water too near the bank

There were no river maps in the Yukon Flats area, The topographical maps were so out of date, "they may well of been of the Mississippi". As said the race director, so we relied on relatively new Google Earth images.
The river is so full of volcanic ash and silt that you cannot ascertain its depth by its color.
Shallow water we could ascertain by boat speed on the GPS, or stranded debris and tree trunks,  but on several occasions when more than half a kilometer from the bank on either side we hit gravel and mud banks. There was no indication it was shallow, just the same creamy flowing water. Not until we were stuck and stopped did we become fully aware of how fast the river was running. Some times we simply got out and dragged the kayak to deeper water, but often the river bed was too soft to stand on and you feet sink deep into the mud and you were at risk of getting stuck falling over and letting go of your boat. With a half mile wade / swim to the shore.

Before the flats the river gauged its way passed rocky bluffs, where the ice break up showed great scraping around the water line. May be it was the rain we had, or the hotter sun, but a couple of times when we went passed these cliffs, high above, a piece the size of a house broke off and crashed into the water beside us, sending out waves that followed us down the river for some time.

If we were not 100% alert, often we got caught just on the wrong side of an island or gravel bank, this required us to paddle desperately against the current, often bottoming out as we went against the current around the top. On one occasion after a desperate effort, I backed off a bit early and was crashed broadside into very sharp tree stump. Had the boat been holed or had I been tipped in I would have been in all sorts of trouble.

The river is full of bits of trees and logs. The moose we spotted and the cougar looked just like logs in the water. Even male moose with their antlers would look like a log with tree roots. This is their camouflage. There are no predators for moose in the water, no sharks or crocodiles. They are probably most venerable between the edge of the water and the trees on the side, where bear may be waiting In fact moose we understand are very dangerous. If approached in the water they will stand on their hind legs and strike at you with their front. All three plus ton. The moose we did see we consciously paddled away from. How many did we not see. The cougar I had to avoid by doing at least twenty desperate back strokes, or I would have run into it. It made no attempt to change direction to get away from me. It just kept swimming in the same direction while looking at me. That cougar had completed at least a kilometer crossing of the channel onto an island. It could similarly find us sleeping on an island, often much less than that from the mainland.or had we come across moose or the cougar in a more compromising position in the river when we could not stop, or the current would not let us steer around them it may have been a different story.

I would often power ahead and while Steve was catching up stop paddling, eat something, do a pee, change the batteries in the GPS etc. It was amazing if he passed me too soon, how quickly he disappeared and what an effort it was to catch him again.
Similarly Steve, soon after we left Dawson, had to stop to desperately do a No. 2.
At this point the current was running exceptional fast, I noticed he was not behind me and backed off a bit, turning every now and then to see if I could see him. It was raining. I was just about to reach for the 2 way radio (range line of site 3 kilometers)when I saw him. Apparently in his urgency to get out of the boat, he fell out and capsized. All be it on the bank, his boat did fill with water. It would have taken who knows how long to paddle back up stream in that current to find him, had he not recovered by himself.

Tomorrow some funny stuff.

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