Sunday, July 13, 2008

Swift Currents and Timeless Travel: Gallup to Island Drive Park on the Huron River

The river is running high this month. It was running high in the spring. With higher water comes a faster current. Eddies of some size actually near bridges and by other places where water can be forced around in a curve into a backwash as happens with downed logs and rocks. Little riffles can actually grow to something we could consider a respectable class I rapids instead of the barely visible riffles they usually are. For people who want to run a stretch of the Huron in a tube conditions like this are wonderful. You need not worry about scraping your butt on a rock as you float down. You have to work a little harder to wade back upstream, but the tradeoff is more than reasonable.

The high water though wasn't the excuse Steve and I used to get out this past Sunday to paddle. I had read the article, and watched an interview, about two men who were going to paddle upstream along the full length of the Huron over a ten day period. They were going to do it in circa 1760 style as far as their boat and camping methods were concerned. A nod to living history (1). We both wondered about the hoops they would have had to jump through to get camping permission since the bulk of the land they would be passing was private and even the public lands did not allow overnight stays. The fact that Sunday was also Huron River Day was an added bonus though by the time we arrived at Gallup Park everything for that event was pretty much packed up.

We sauntered past the two fellows who were resting under their canvas (it appeared) shelter, wearing their period clothing, chatting with people about the river and what they were doing. We did not stop. We looked for a put-in point and then got our boats. At most we said hello to the gentlemen. Our reason for getting out to Gallup had not even really been fulfilled. They really were, at this point in time, merely the prod to get us out. Ironic and amusing. By 5:00PM we had our boats assembled, I almost got my Puffin assembled before Steve finished putting his Puffin together, that would have been a first for me. We pushed off from the slightly steep bank (after I dumped out excess water after a screwed up entry) and began the slow paddle upstream ourselves. The afternoon was warm, the sky pretty clear, and the sun shone glaringly bright off the water.

Paddling against the current is always a tough chore. It is tougher if you cannot really see the current and where the eddies are. Steve always found the better line. Having him as a guide was helpful especially as we crept islets and under bridges. In one spot, not far from the southern end of the Arboretum I found that I had gone the wrong way. I should have stayed to the left to paddle through the chute of the swift little class I rapid. Had I done that I probably would have made it but I went around the wrong way and ground to a halt. Would I have made it without the assistance of a fellow who was wading the river and found himself curious about my Pakboat Puffin? I like to think I would have. But I appreciated his help and he got to learn about my folding kayak. In fact on this journey both Steve and I shared a fair bit of information about the Puffins with interested bystanders. This experience does go to show how important being able to read the water is. It brings into sharp focus the fact that I'd be mediocre at best navigating upstream solo. Perhaps I could get better with some serious practical training but, sadly, at some point you need to accept your limitations. Having written this though I still would do this stretch time and again.

We were not in a hurry. You can't be in a hurry when the current is running as swiftly as it was. We avoided the worst downed logs and tried to stay on the river's edge poking our boats out past the worst of the branches now and then and then aiming them back at shore to avoid the worst of the current. Steve's better at this than I am. But that's the way it is. In time, after passing numerous beer barges (aluminum rental canoes with people in various states occupying them) we worked our way to the north end of Island Park. By this time, perhaps some 2.25 miles upstream from where we started, the sun was much lower in the sky and the glare off the dark brown shaded water was fierce. Neither of us could really see. It was time to turn back. We began our return journey in the company of a family of tubers. I began my journey in ignominious fashion running into a strainer of tree branches that took me a minute or two, that felt much longer, to work my way out of. I'm sure I provided amusement for the tubers. Amusement at my own expense. Oh well. I can live with that. We fell into an easy, so much more relaxing on the arms and upper body, paddle back towards Gallup Park. With the current helping us out we zipped right along. Steve had switched to a single blade and I was paddling a gentle rhythm that added a bit of speed to my travel but probably did more for steering control. Now and then, as we had on the upstream leg, we would chat but that's hard to do when someone is leading and the other boater (usually me) is trailing. Voices just don't carry well if you are facing directly away. We would pass a handful of rental canoes and other boats on the way back down. Including a couple boats with people who definitely had lightened their loads of beer perhaps a bit too much A little past 8:00PM found us pulling our damp boats, both of us had shipped water in at various times from drips and such, up on to the shote near where the living history duo had set up their camp. I think they were finishing off dinner and talking with people about cooking when we arrived. We found ourselves talking with a couple people, including a couple kids who seemed to care a lot about the fishing rod Steve had picked up, about our kayaks as we took them apart and bagged them up. The 3 or so hours on the river had been very enjoyable and I think we both felt pretty good about the trip we had just finished.

As if to make up for not chatting with the two canoers before we started we ended our trip by talking with them at length before heading to the car. They represent an interesting mix. Yes they're doing the river paddle circa 1760 style, but that can only go so far. After all, in 1760 you couldn't stop in the morning at Denny's for a bite. Nor could you call your wife at home and check in. Would a paddler using 2108 technology do the river that much more quickly than they are or be that much more comfortable? Perhaps. I reckon I can get a modern tent up more quickly than I could the shelter they are using. Certainly a modern liquid fuel stove would cook more quickly than the brazier they were using. But you can sleep comfortably with a wool blanket or a contemporary sleeping quilt. You could argue that some of the modern garb might in fact be more fragile even though it might let you get things done a bit more quickly. The point though is that what has to be done whether it is 1760 or 2108 is the same. I hope they make it. Unless something unexpectedly bad happens I do not see any reason why these two, seemingly pretty experienced, gentlemen will not make it.

(1). I first read about this on the Erie Hiker Blog. The specific article is here..
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