Monday, April 26, 2010

Whidbey Island Circumnavigation: Take 1

Andrew thought we should try kayaking in the double kayak that we plan to use for Yukon River Quest, so we rented a Seaward Passat and set out on Sunday to attempt a circumnavigation of Whidbey Island, a trip of almost 100 miles. We were originally going to leave at 4pm on Saturday (which would have caused its own slew of obstacles, e.g. Deception Pass at midnight anyone?), but we decided to leave Sunday morning instead after Andrew developed some conflicts. The marine weather forecast for Sunday was optimal: light winds (under 5mph). Leaving at 5:30am, we caught a rising ebb that peaked shortly over an hour later in Admiralty Inlet. We cruised up the coast of Whidbey, letting our heads swell as we easily achieved paddling speeds of 7 to 8 mph. By the time we took a paddling break shortly before 10am, we had already covered more than 28 miles at an average speed of almost 7 mph.

But alas, after ebbs come floods, and after our break, we struggled to find the magic touch that we had all morning. Had we started earlier, we would have cruised all the way past Partridge Point before the flood came. Somewhere beyond Partridge Point, ebb and flood currents switch (ebb goes south, flood goes north), although currents are vague and inconsistent in this area all the way to Deception Pass, and we never got a boost from the flood as we thought we would. We struggled slowly all the way to Deception Pass, arriving there at 3:15pm (9hr45min,50 miles).

Deception Pass has its own peculiar currents (hence it has its own separate chart), and it begins to ebb an hour and a half before the rest of Puget Sound. So, when we finally arrived, we had missed slack current by an hour, and a strong ebb current was going against us. I estimated it at 5mph. Getting to the pass itself was not a problem, however, as there were some strong back eddies that we could travel up in order to get close to the pass. At this point, Andrew and I dug our paddles in and went for it, eddy hopping our way up the pass in 20 to 30 yard sections before tucking back in against the cliff wall where we were protected from the force of the current. We saw dinner-plate (and larger) sized whirlpools go by. We worried that if we did not time ourselves right poking the kayak out into the current, we might hit a whirlpool and spin ourselves around, to get spit back out of the pass. As the minutes ticked by, the current was only getting stronger. We pulled out our extra stores of effort that we had been saving for the last 9 1/2 hours and struggled through, and we eventually broke out into easier water on the other side of the pass. Whew!

Of course, by easier water, I mean that the current was maybe 2mph against us, for the next three hours. Paddling upstream is not so high on the fun list. The fun-o-meter registered right down there about the level of getting stuck in the eye with a stick. We pushed on, but slowly.

We passed Hope Island. Currents against us eased up near Goat Island as we broke out into Skagit Bay. It was dinnertime and we had many miles to go before we sleep. Given the lack of favorable currents for us at this point (we were too far behind the optimal schedule), I predicted that we would finish at 3:30am or so. Andrew had to work in the morning, so he decided to call a friend (Jen, his wife), and she agreed to pick us up in Utsalady, on the north end of Camano Island at 8:30pm. In the hour before we finished our shortened trip, we started to pick up some current assist from the ebb that would eventually wrap around the south side of Whidbey (Skagit Bay is the changeover point between currents that flow around the north end and south end of Whidbey); however, we knew that we were still too far away to finish on the ebb, and that we would be caught fighting the flood current if we tried to push on to completion.

We pondered Glacier Peak and the rest of the Cascades as the sun set and Jen drove up to give us a ride home. It was a beautiful day with perfect weather, and we had managed to kayak 65 miles in 13hr15min, a pretty good solid day. We'll be back.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Grand Canyon R2R2R

Chase and Andrew and I headed back down to the Grand Canyon this week to run the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run again. A year and a half ago when we did the same run, Chase succumbed to the heat, and he wanted to "do it right" this time around. It turns out, we all did it right, and we all had a very successful run.

We flew into Las Vegas on Thursday, rented a car, drove to the Grand Canyon, and set ourselves up at Mather Campground on the South Rim. The North Rim is still closed this early in the year due to snow. We can see patches of snow on the South Rim as well, and camping is a little frosty, as the temperature dropped below freezing during the night. I was uncomfortably cold in the morning while waiting for the coffee to be ready after our 4am wakeup. We all moved a bit slowly while packing up camp, and we did not make it to the South Kaibab trailhead until 5:45am, a little later than we would have liked, although just in time for the sun to start brightening the sky.

I followed Andrew down the trail for the first few hundred yards, letting him slip on the dust-covered ice that coated the very top part of the rim, then once I was free of the snow and ice, I took off. Andrew and Chase followed behind, aiming for a 12 hour out-and-back. I hoped to run faster, and I planned just to see how I would do.

The South Kaibab trail drops steeply down to the river, losing 4700 feet over the course of 7 miles or so. Very quickly I removed any extra clothing I had and ran in shorts and short-sleeved T-shirt. Memories of last night's freeze were quickly forgotten. I noticed the lack of dust that had plagued us in October a year and a half ago after the trail had been churned up by the feet of hikers and mules all summer. The weather was still moderately cool and refreshing. I crossed Black Bridge in just under an hour, and cruised through Phantom Ranch at about 1:05 after I had started. The pre-dawn mule train was just turning around to head back up to the rim.

There is water at Phantom Ranch, but with a 100 oz bladder, I had enough water to last me all the way to Cottonwood, which was another 7 miles up the North Kaibab trail. The North Kaibab twists and turns its way along a creek all the way to Cottonwood, so it slowly gains elevation the whole way. I tried to run most of it, and I was thankful that the high canyon walls kept the sun out of this side canyon so early in the morning. I reached Cottonwood at about 8:15am, 2:30 after my start. A couple campers were just getting up for the morning, and they wished me well on my attack on the North Rim another 7 miles up the trail. I had already climbed almost 2000 feet up from Phantom Ranch, but still had another 3500 feet to go. I still had some water left, so I cruised another 1.5 miles to a caretaker's cabin where there is a year-round water source at a pump in the yard, and I filled up there. As I had run the R2R2R before, I was reasonably familiar with all the water stops and so I did not dally too much trying to resupply.

After the caretaker's cabin, the trail steepened quite a bit. It wound its way up to the rim, often precariously cut into the side of a cliff. I imagined old prospectors with dynamite-laden mules attempting to force a trail down from the North Rim by blowing it out of living rock. Seasonal waterfalls dripped down from above and cascaded across the trail in several spots, subtly hinting at the masses of melting snow above. I made good progress all the way up to the tunnel a little less than 2 miles from the North Rim trailhead.

After the tunnel, the snow started. At first it hid on the corners of the switchbacks or in other shady spots, but as I went higher, it filled the trail, until I was hiking over mounds of snow across the trail. I topped out at the North Rim parking lot in a vast snowscape. The trailhead kiosk was mostly buried under snowdrifts; winter still held the North Rim in its icy clutches. After a very short food break, I turned around and headed back down. 4:35 to the North Rim. I was really moving. I could take the return trip quite a bit slower and still finish in under 10 hours, although I had not encountered the heat of the day yet.

I worked my way carefully down the snow-covered sections, only slipping once and completely covering one leg in snowmelt mud. I passed Andrew and Chase on their way up about 20 minutes after I turned around; they were also having a pretty good day, and I estimated that they would top out at 5:25, well in line with their overall 12 hour plan. I passed the tunnel (no more snow!) and started working my quads some more as I quickly lost elevation.

I partially filled up my bladder at the caretaker's cabin again and then cruised down into Cottonwood Campground just before noon (6:00 after start). The next 7 miles was a gentler downhill all the way to Phantom Ranch. I tried to keep up a solid pace, but at this point I started to feel the wear and tear on my body as well as the heat of the early afternoon sun, and I stopped very briefly a couple times in the shade. I could feel my body overheating. I popped a few more salt tablets in my mouth and had a few more drinks of water. After interminable twists and turns, I pulled into Phantom Ranch at 1pm (7:10).

I had to have a glass of lemonade at Phantom Ranch, partially as tradition, and partially because I needed some sort of pick-me-up to get my 4700 feet up to the South Rim in the afternoon sun. I pulled the $20 bill out of my pack and waited in line for two minutes that seemed like forever in order to get my giant ice-filled glass of lemonade. The lemonade drained, I threw the ice cubes in my pack and filled my bladder to the top, then I was off.

I crossed Black Bridge about 7:20 and started to climb. At this point, the run was over; I just put one foot in front of the other and tried to speed hike as fast as I could. I looked at my altimeter watch and tried to count how quickly the elevation ticked away. I made a mental note that if I climbed at least 300 feet every 10 minutes, I would barely make my 10 hour goal for the run. I watched my watch, and after 10 minutes I had climbed 305 feet. After another 10 minutes I had climbed 300 more feet. Incessant forward motion.

On a couple of the steeper sections, I climbed more than 300 feet per 10 minutes, but there were very few hiding places from the afternoon sun, and I was hot, hot, hot and tired. I took a two minute nap in the shade, but now I was falling behind my goal again, and I had to keep moving. Up, up, up I went.

As I neared the top, I actually ran a couple of the flatter parts, and my climbs went a little faster. I had escaped the intense heat of the lower canyon. When I started passing hordes of tourists, I knew I was close. The last couple hundred yards brought some ice and snow again, and then I topped out at the South Kaibab trailhead. I never want to see that trail again. I finished in 9:47. Under 10 hours! I was happy. I decided to celebrate with a nap in the shade.

After napping, I hiked about five minutes back to our car and resupplied with bananas, chips and water, grabbed a book, then hiked back to the trailhead to get comfortable and wait for Andrew and Chase. I didn't have to wait for too long, as they came in as promised, just under 12 hours after they had started. I had been worried that Chase might succumbed to the heat again (it certainly affected me a bit), but he finished strong, and both he and Andrew looked great. We had optimistically made dinner reservations at El Tovar (a really nice restaurant on the South Rim), and everything came together perfectly. We had just enough time to drive over to the Bright Angel Lodge, check into our cabin with a canyon view, jump through the shower, and hobble over to dinner and celebratory drinks at a job well done.