Monday, September 28, 2009

Black River

Like a last-second touchdown pass that wins the game, the Black River became a great and challenging run after almost slipping into the realm of the mundane.

I hadn't been on the Black since 2003 and the times I had run it had been at very high spring flows. The dam provides water releases a few times a year, but I had never attended one. This past Saturday was a 1-day, variable flow release that would start at 400cfs and ramp up in stages, peaking at 1100 cfs before ramping back down.

The run begins just below the Hatfield dam. Most runs put in at a play wave about 400 yards downstream from the dam. From there down, it's a scenic class II-III river with a couple nice wave trains and a good stretch of flatwater.

Pike and I put on at the wave at 800cfs and were disappointed. It was small and not retentive. Front surfs were possible, but that was about it. We hung out until they pushed it up to 1100cfs, which improved the wave considerably. Still not an epic feature, but it was very surfable. After a few rides, we headed down through a couple of wave trains, slugged it across a mile or two of flatwater, and made it to the boulder gardens that lead to the takeout.

At this point, it had been a nice trip with great weather, but definitely not what I would call exciting. We loaded the boats into the truck and headed back to the put-in. By now, the level was down to 500, so we decided to take a look at the ledges that make up the 400 yards between the dam and the normal put-in. We picked up Matt along the way, who was looking for people to run the ledges with.

The ledges are steep and narrow, with lots of very sharp rock edges protruding everywhere. There's a river-wide hole at the top that looked both retentive and boney, and not at all fun to go into. It can, however, be run along the right or left walls without getting stuck in it. After that, you slide quickly through a couple head-high curlers before going over an 8' drop into a violent, but not sticky hole. That puts you into the middle pool.

From the pool, you head left over a couple of 4' drops and breaking curlers before going over another big pitch with a more powerful hole at the bottom. Luckily, the gradient has you moving fast enough that you can blow through it without getting hung up.

The hole section reminds me of the lower St. Louis in that it's Class III difficulty as long as you're on-line and upright. The consequences for going off-line or upside down make this one a Class IV section, in my opinion.

The ledges were definitely exciting and changed the mood of the whole day. It made the river a fantastic mix of fast-paced and mellow paddling all on one stretch. Big thanks to Pike for the videos, and to Matt for probing the run for us.

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