Brazeau River - Nigel Pass to Ford (Gr 4+)
Written by Spencer Cox Thursday, 08 February 2007 20:23
Chip Powell Reports: on his trip on the Upper Braz.
It was an interesting trip. Set out Friday night, drove up to Nordegg via Rocky Mountain House and then tried to get along Cardinal river road. About midnight slipped down a 30 degree embankment and ended up in a tree. Unfortunately I was in the truck at the time and it now looks very second hand. Dug and bounced it out and got loaded. Went to sleep about 0300.
Sat am drove to Nigel Creek on Icefields parkway getting very odd looks from every official type person we passed. Left truck at the Nigel creek lot and started walking up Nigel creek with 75+lbs (about 37kg) of kayak, food, gear etc. Climbed 1000 feet at about 1km/hr, only thing keeping me going were the mosquitoes. Stop to breathe, get attacked; when the pain gets too bad start staggering again, for the next dozen steps. It was like working at high altitude.
Conversations with tourists leave us baffled. Typically:
Tourist "Is this what you intended to do?" (To a person carrying 80lbs of kayak, 5 days food and gear up a 1000 foot pass)
(Well, what can you say? "Oh, I seem to have forgotten to take my kayak off before I started walking up a mountain. Silly me.")
About 10 hours later we got to the top of the pass and started heading down the other side just as the wind picked up. Watching Col get blown down hill with an 80 lb load was quite worrying, especially as I knew it was going to be my turn soon. I got to the same spot and the wind was stronger so I put the end of my boat down and braced with my paddle to try and wait out the strongest gusts. Unfortunately I started blowing down hill with my feet, boat and paddle all sliding through the scree until I fell into a gulley and collapsed gracefully behind my kayak. Waited there for about 20 mins but there was no way I could pick my boat up without getting squashed underneath it. Eventually took the gear out and headed down to where I can see Colans Gus by the creek. I get there with my gear and Col is stretched out in the lee of his kayak, hurting too much to move. He's chafed. Head back up and retrieve my boat and we decide to try and paddle a little ways to get down the valley and out of the wind gulley as it's now about 2230 and we are pretty beat. Find a rocky area in a bit of a baby gorge with a couple of flat rocks big enough to bivi on and some sticks to burn.
Col gets a fire going by burning the river description and we get some hot fluids in us, about midnight it starts rain so we crash, the river (stream at this point) is really loud as it's about six inches from my head but I'm too tired to care. Even the rain does n't keep me awake. We are bivvying at about 2100m and the hills above us still have snow on. In July.
Sunday morning dawns with another skeeter attack. We get going (somewhat slowly) and started paddling, then as the gradient increases, dragging. This is quite hard in places as the rocks are pointy and have leg sized slots between them. By about 1430 we've made about 4km, a bit further and we descend into an alpine meadow. Really stunning flowers, super pretty, the yellows and pinks and blues gorgeous. Glacier lilies too. We are making progress by dragging the boats down the stream bed until it gets deep enough to float them, then sitting on top or using them like boogie boards to get across the deeper pools.
We eventually get to a section where we can paddle properly, about class 2 ish and fun as long as we avoid the shallows. This seems to go forever and I'm getting a little concerned about how this is going to affect our schedule as we have a time constraint as Col needs to be at work on Wednesday. Keep plodding on and admiring the scenery. It's worth the pain of the carry up for the views, after yesterdays tourists, we've seen no one today.
The river picks up and becomes more fun and the banks get closer in and higher , and soon we are looking at a horizon line with a blind drop.
After scrambling up the bank we start to scout the canyon. The first slot looks feasible but further down there is one of the ugliest looking rock features I've seen from a boating perspective. The line to make is probably class 4+, but the FUF is grim. The rocks on the river right are eroded to form a downward pointing M with body sized gaps between the pointy bits. The entire strata is tilted upstream and it looks like the layer below is similar, but the points are just kissing the water; very intimidating. I decide there is no way I'm running this here. There is an almost ideal cave to camp in just above it, dry, no skeeters, firewood close at hand, the only down sides are the 4+ slot you need to run to get to it, and the scary, scary thing below it. Oh, and a two foot thick layer of ice inside where it hasn't yet thawed.
We find a spot on a point at the end of the un-runnable bit of canyon. I have to unload the gear from my boat before I haul it out as it’s too much of a pain to shift otherwise. I end up making two trips and get to the site with my boat and gear about 2230. We cook and bivi in the dark again, the view from our point out over the canyon in the moonlight and the clouds across the moon are akin to illustrations from a fantasy novel. Incredible.
Monday mornings are not just a song by the Velvet Underground. This Monday morning I'm actually awake and feeling alive, properly alive, for a change. It’s also about 0630 and the light is amazing as it creeps over the mountains and illuminates Cols tarp like the lettering in monastic manuscripts. Since I'm awake I revive the fire and take a few photos while waiting for the water to boil. Rouse Col and the skeeters show up too. It seems they've been curled up with Col overnight. Oatmeal and mashed potato for breakfast (in installments) then we get it together and are paddling by 1000. The character of the river has changed again, the walls are steeper and higher, 40+ metres and the colours in the rocks would shame Gaugin.
We paddle for a little while, enjoying the rapids, then about four hours later we come across another canyon. We come to a the entrance drop, whilst this is a paddleable class 4, we have loaded boats and know that somewhere downstream lurks Terminal Velocity, by all accounts a bit of a monster. We extricate ourselves via a 40m high 75 degree rock fin. Quite airy climbing with the gear and then put a belay on the boat and climb up with that. Colans comment at the top was that the best thing about carrying his boat up was that he didn't have to climb it again. Unfortunately that meant it was now my turn.
After sweating my way up attempting not to be crushed by the Y boat or fall into the rapid below it's portage time again. Col shoulders his boat and wanders off, I pick up the contents of my boat and also wander off, unfortunately in a slightly different direction. After an hour bimbling through the forest in an overdose of pretty tree, pretty flower type moments I decide its time I was near the river again. There is no sign of Col. I find a good spot where the bank and the river meet (like it's not vertical) and stash my gear. Since I can’t find Col I decide to carry my dry top etc. up stream so that if I do find a place where I can get in I don't have to carry my kayak more than I need too.
I find Colan chilling out on a point overlooking Terminal Velocity. The more I look at this 20m multi tiered drop, the more convinced I am there is a line, I am almost convinced to run it although the bottom hole looks quite hefty, but the main argument against is the 45km walk out if anything goes wrong. After a few minutes I decide upon discretion.
After clambering down the bank to get in we head down the end of the canyon through some very pleasant class 3-4, where Col tries his first roll in the Gus, and pick up my gear. By 1900 we are back on the water and start cruising with a vengeance, we have 20 km of flat water to get to Dowling Ford and there is still a ways to go after that.
The river winds its way through little flower covered islands, some pink, others blue, more yellow. There are trees around too, some of which are down in the river so it’s worth being alert, log jumping a laden creeker is always fun. We watch the clouds go pink and red as the sun sets, the serried ranks of the clouds like an armada of pretty coloured spaceships.
We find a spot to camp about 2200 again, get the fire going eat and crash out. We’ve been burning energy like an American SUV and are quite tired. I flake out in my sleeping bag/bivi curled up behind my kayak clutching a mug of oatmeal watching the full moon light up the occasional wisps of cloud. Absolutely incredible; although the temperature drops to 3 or 4 degrees overnight I‘m cosy, drying out my fleecy gear by the fire first and having filled my big Nalgene bottle with boiling water I have a nice hot water bottle to doze off with. Luxury camping.
And then its Tuesday, We know approximately where we are and that means a relatively early start as we still have about 60km to paddle and the 135 km shuttle to run. We are actually on the water just after 0900 and start laying the miles down. We pass Dowling Ford after about 25 minutes, this is good as it means we pushed through 20+km of flat (but moving) water in three hours last night as we paddled out of the mountains and into the Front Range. The river picks up again, some nice 2-3 and just gorgeous scenery. We stop to pump water and snack, then get going again. The next few km have a bunch of nice class 4 ledges in, boat scout the first, down the ramp and nail the boof off the right to neatly skip the hole. Col tries the left side of the rock and as I turn I hear “Oh shiiiit” as he flobs off slightly sideways and sculls and draws desperately to haul himself away from the big chewy hole. Boat scout and run the next ledge, then get out and set safety for the third as it looks a little trickier. We both clean it and hammer down.
Come round a corner and surprise some sheep with a lamb. They trot away around a corner there is no way I could stand on, never mind walk around. How do they manage to do this? Col is sat in the eddy at the bottom of the cliff and a whole herd come over the brim and halt, halfway down and just look at him. From where I am sat it looks as though they are having quite a conversation.
We still have a fair ways to go so get moving again, it’s fun, class 3, some 4, practicing the super boofs off 2m ledges in 70lb kayaks, feels rather nice. We get to Psycho Crack, the last class V-V+ on this run, it doesn’t look too bad but we do have a time constraint so after a few minutes I decide to walk (all my swims this year have been when I was hurrying). The rock around the portage is cool, eroded and swoopy, this would be a fantastic spot to stop and camp.
Keep going and a ways down river we see an Old Town Tripper canoe broached against a rock on the river right. This is quite concerning. Col performs a canoe boof whilst I break out above it. It’s pretty solidly stuck. I get a rope on it and shift it slightly, then get down and with the aid of a rope and some heaving manage to get it off the rock. The good news is that there is no one in it. The better news is that this means we are now in the last 15km of the run. The best news is that there is a dry bag in it with two beers in, which we drink as reward for getting the boat off.
After a brief break where we assess the damage to the boat (split bow, split stern, right hand side cracked open) we strip the gear out and I pull it up high and tie it to a tree. There is a name and address in it, which we record and work out where we are on the map as we have a boat but no bodies yet.
The remaining 8 km or so are spent surfing the occasional wave, quite a hairy experience in a loaded boat as Col discovers when he nearly gets his arms ripped off trying to rudder the Gus and keeping an eye out for any dead bodies in the river. I am glad that we don’t find any (been there, it’s not nice)
We finally get off the water at 1700. We’ve made good time, paddling for 6 hours and covered a bit over 50km. It’s now time to go and recover the Demonic Diesel. Unless someone has stolen it (please…)
So the Brazeau from Nigel Pass to the bridge.
Total distance about 115 km, on the river 100km and a 15km carry in, some of which we dragged down the stream. Total climb over the pass about 340m, we bivvied at about 7000 feet the first night with snow on the hills above (!), probably carried our boats and gear about 20km altogether (walk in and portages) spent three nights sleeping out, ran some classy white water, saw bald eagles, bears, sheep, little furry critters and a billion skeeters, some cool flowers, paddled from the Rocky Mountains ice fields out through the front range and found a canoe and some beers.
It was a complete ball and Col and I had a wonderful time. If you’re up for it, try it sometime.
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