Imagine your favorite river that is at least partially roadside. OK, I know, I’ll be the first to admit that roadside and favorite may not go together. The road blast, the obvious intrusion, the cars, the trucks, the dumping of raw sewage, the dumping of toilet paper rolls in a sick twist of irony like they could somehow help clean up the raw sewage. Though there can be some plusses. In Colorado you’ve sometimes just got to look at the plusses. The access, the easy portaging, scouting and escape, but truly, the best runs are generally not roadside and the road is generally a key reason that they are not the best.
Now though, imagine your favorite roadside run minus the road. Visualize just one put-in access high in the drainage, top of the catchment. Pretend that the earliest take-out is at the canyon mouth. Re-imagine the rivers wild and free former self. Think about what it would be like to run that river without that road – Wouldn’t that be sweet!
The Poudre is and has been my dojo, my temple, my retreat from the hot asphalt and drunken buffoonery of town for over a decade now, but there were still short sections that I had not seen from the seat of my kayak. We’d been kicking around the idea of the FULL Poudre, the re-imagining of the river as a huge long wilderness run starting at the source and ending at New Belgium. We would try and capture what the river was like before civilization set-up camp on its banks, before the Oregon Trail.
We’d thought three, maybe four leisurely days and at the end we’d be sippin’ cold Rangers and 90 Shillings in brewery land, made with the crisp and cold Poudre water we’d have paddled so many miles of.
Well, even three days was going to be hard to come by. I’d have a Friday night and a full day Saturday. Seemed like enough to get it done but leisurely wasn’t going to be part of the equation. Oh, and we were not going to make it to town so the canyon mouth seemed appropriate.
Friday July 22nd, 2011
5:15 P.M. Poudre Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO – Plenty of flow this late in the afternoon to start paddling a ¼ mile below the lake on a three foot wide, but surprisingly also three to four foot deep channel.
6:45 P.M. Three miles in, nearing the confluence with Chapin Creek – out in front Kyle spots a handsome bull moose not more than 15 yards away. We grab some willows in an eddy and stare in awe at the sheen on his walnut brown coat and his giant furry rack until he notices us and takes a few measured steps away from the creek.
7:30 P.M. The Poudre’s first mini-canyon, the short and Big Southesque, “Source Gorge -” a quick wood portage, a mank portage, a six to twelve-ish foot boof and another short wood portage and we are back to mach speed paddling, racing the light.
8:00 P.M. Starter Fluid, Big South – glory boofs in the alpenglow lead to a quick discussion and the decision to camp in the meadow shortly below the rapid.
10:00 P.M. Starter Fluid Meadow Camp, Big South – Lounging next to a raging fire and beautiful elk skull, full from a big wilderness meal, talk of the task ahead, the short mileage under our belts and the long miles in front of us turns to yawns and a call for an early bedtime.
Saturday July 23rd, 2011
5:45 A.M. Starter Fluid Meadow Camp, Big South – Austin makes his move and gets the jet boil going for coffee and oatmeal, two things I really don’t care for. Needless to say, I stay in my sleeping bag. Frosty gear hangs in front of me. There is no rush to put it on.
6:30 A.M. Starter Fluid Meadow Camp, Big South – still in my sleeping bag, Jet Boil in hand, making some morning tea, trying to motivate.
7:45 A.M. Starter Fluid Meadow Camp, Big South – frost finally melted, gear packed and elk head hidden, we slip into the swirling boils of the Cache la Poudre, bathing in the shimmering reflection of the pink morning light.
11:30 A.M. Big South Campground/Trailhead – having made quick work of the first run of the year on the Big South and feeling full of energy still we press forward into Spencer Heights.
12:00 P.M. Tunnel Picnic Area – ahead of schedule we break for a quick lunch and hang with a large crew of the boys who’ve come from all over to run the goods in the upper canyon of the Poudre. They look surprised that we’ve already done a Big South/Spencers run before they’ve even gotten geared up.
1:00 P.M. Tunnel Picnic Area – we put back in a little behind schedule due to a quick boat repair and begin to charge the longest stretch of the trip without a class V rapid, beginning with the fun whitewater of the Sleeping Elephant run.
2:30 P.M. Somewhere in the flats above the White Mile – we see our second bull moose of the trip, this one possibly even more majestic than the first. He just stares at us while we silently float past. Signs of civilization have become too blatant to ignore though they are still few and far between. We’ve been racing through the flats for a couple of hours, and though the scenery has been outstanding, the lust for some faster moving current is palpable.
5:00 P.M. Upper Narrows – well past the halfway point and with 25 miles of racing through the Sleeping Elephant, the Big Bend Flats and the Upper and Lower Rustic runs with barely a rest, we’re all starting to feel the fatigue creeping in. What would normally be a stout but reasonable high water run of the Uppers turns into an immediate portage and some hemming and hawing over Middles. We put-in at the base of Whiteline and get pumped enough to make two crucial boofs and steer our way through Middles. Lowers is also at a “if I hadn’t paddled 45 miles already today, I would definitely give’er flow, but we proudly pick up our boats and shoulder along the road and walk the reverse way down the Lowers take-out trail to put-in. It takes some serious imagination and suspension of disbelief to pretend we are still on wilderness run of the canyon but the end is in sight and so are our burgers and cold beers at the Mishawaka.
6:15 P.M. Mishawaka Amphitheatre – slightly delirious with exhaustion we laugh at our good fortune and sip cold Ranger IPA cans. At this point, this might be one of the best beers ever, were it not for the 14 miles still lingering in front of us to the take-out.
7:15 P.M. Mishawaka Amphitheatre – putting back in with full bellies and a singular focus we begin our final charge to the take-out. It is a funny style run down a section of river I’ve probably run more than any in my life. Instead of charging for any and every boof, hard to catch eddy and hole to punch, we stay in the current, maneuvering around any and every river feature that might slow us down or require more energy than the bare minimum to navigate.
8:45 P.M. Gateway Park, North Fork Confluence – with two dam portages behind us and waning light, I move into what I like to call “Tai-Chi paddling” mode. The focus is on technique and trying to get as much power out of as slow and effortless a paddle stroke as possible. I fall behind and we each paddle through the Filter Plant run in the darkness solo, left alone to listen to and feel the presence of the river whose entire canyon from source to mouth we’ve just paddled.
9:15 P.M. Big Eddy, Picnic Rock – things hurt, mainly my shoulder blades, and picking up my boat and walking up the steep slope to our vehicles is a major effort. High fives and big smiles turns to a speedy removal of gear and pack job, and just as innocuously as it had begun our Cache la Poudre source to canyon mouth trip was complete.
65 miles and 5500 vertical feet of some of the most scenic, sustained and high quality whitewater in the Rockies later we understand what it would have been like to travel the entire Cache la Poudre Canyon before Highway 14 was constructed (minus the burgers at Mishawaka, but hey, the Mish is classic Poudre so it seemed fitting enough). For me, a new respect for the river was born, a more true appreciation for the rivers length, beauty and power, and a re-realization that there is a lot more up there than just the best whitewater in the state. It’s great that we can drive up after work, put-in in the eddy above Super Collider, take-out after the last boof in Lowers and be home in time for a late-dinner, but it was truly a journey of a different kind I will not soon forget, running the Cache la Poudre from source to canyon mouth.