After a couple of easy but traditional-style packrafting trips on the east side of the Southern Alps, I thought I’d head to the fabled West Coast and try my paddle on a multiday trip listed in the Guidebook, “New Zealand Whitewater” by Graham Charles.
The Landsborough had been my plan. But the roads are such slow going, that i didn’t fancy the two days it’d take to get from Arthur’s Pass down there. Also, Peggy and Jazz wanted to hike in somewhere, and the Landsborough doesn’t have a good track into its headwaters. The Landsborough will have to wait for my next trip to NZ.
Instead I took the suggestions of two excellent boaters: Alaska’s own Timmy Johnson and a CO boater named Dana Kopf, whom I met in the GC last January. Each had separately directed me and my packraft north to the Kahurangi National Park on the warm and sunny-ish end of the West Coast.
Armed with three maps (Departemnt of Conservation’s Kahungari National Park, and 1:50,000 scale Land Information Topo Maps, Karamea [L27] and Mount Arthur [M27]), notes from “New Zealand Whitewater” which listed the Karamea as III+ (IV) and 50 km long (also see http://rivers.org.nz/nz/west-coast/karamea/venus-creek-to-gauge), my red boat, a head net and four days food, I felt ready to go. Even without a partner for the river, alas.
To get to the put-in Peggy, Jazz and I drove to the Little Wanganui trailhead of the Wangapeka Track, about 30 mins of dusty road south of the end-of-the-world town of Karamea. From there we walked two days and maybe 20 miles to the Helicopter Flats Hut.
The walking was a bit slow, climbing steeply over a pass on mossy rocks through tree fern and podocarp forest, descending equally steeply through mossy southern beech forest. The huts are a godsend from the sand flies, which, while maybe a fifth or tenth the size of Alaskan mosquitoes get equally numerous and have a nastier bite, itchy and swelling.
Peggy and Jazz continued east on the Wangapeka Track. I headed down the Lost Valley Track and the Leslie Track. I’d hoped to put in high but the river looked too low until Venus Creek Hut.
From there I ran the so-called III+ rapids to Karamea Bend in 3 hours. It’s about 15 km. I scouted nothing, ran everything, and swam once. There’s a big hut there to get out of the flies.
The river’s a bit different than anything I’d ever run before. It’s not so much pool-drop as it is steep boulder gardens linked by lakes. The steep boulder gardens are mostly the result of big landslides from an Earthquake in the 1940s, I think, that dam the river into these lakes. The lakes are long and slender and get pretty deep sometimes but others you can see the bottom all the way. I saw trout as long as my arm and an eel as big as my boat, head down and undulating like some weird electricity.
Most of the lakes have stumps and even standing dead trees. All of the rapids have boulders. There are no real bedrock ledge drops. There are always sieves and undercut boulders – you really do not want to swim these rapids.
These steep boulder gardens are freaky. Their difficulty depends on the size of the boulders that make them up: Big boulders = big scary rapids. Little boulders = little fun rapids. Some of the boulders are simply enormous, house-sized literally, especially at the 1 km long Roaring Lion Rapid, which took an hour to portage and a couple crossings en route.
The river’s flow was weird too. Sometimes over sand and gravel it seemed like a creek – then when the boulder dams poked their scary heads up, the river would seem to pump up in volume and curl and eddy in 3-D ways around the big round granite boulders.
There were no normal eddy lines but instead a maze of eddy “curls” linking holes and boils and fountains of water pumping up from behind boulders.
Needless to say I spent a lot of time apprehensive about these drops. At times they came like every five or ten minutes. Meanwhile I had to paddle, often against a headwind, down the lakes in between.
I swam twice. Once the first day and once the second day. The first day I realized that the drops were never clean lines down smooth tongues, but rather, snaking slalom courses through bumpy, surprising water.
The second day I learned that swimming was not really an option.
I had to drive 4 hours after finishing the river to pick up Peggy and Jazz in Nelson, so to speed up my descent, on the second day, if I couldn’t boat scout it, then I’d just portage it. I portaged Roaring Lion, Ferris Creek rapid, and the four enormous (for me) rapids in Karamea Gorge, all called Class IV but each looked like a half-dozen American Class IV’s linked together, with something mean and nasty at the end for good measure.
The Gorge is supposed to be a good run for “Intermediates” who come in by helicopter. I guess that makes me a beginner. I was humbled.
All of the rapids start sort of slow and flat then get steeper until they chunder in a big drop at the bottom. This means that if you can’t see the bottom from the top, you’re in for it unless you scout.
I ran some pretty hard rapids and a lot of super fun ones. The stretch from below Ferris Creek to the top of the Gorge and its first rapid just upstream of Kakapo Creek (“Growler”) was my favorite. Uncountable challenging and technical drops with lakes in between.
Upstream was Ferris and Roaring Lion which I portaged. They made me sick just looking at them. With a week (instead of two days), a good team (like a kayak along to chase, save, and perform CPR), and the same low water and good weather I had, then MAYBE I’d have worked my way down Roaring Lion and Ferris. But alone…I feared for my life.
There were also a bunch of big river bars, but not gravel bars. The structure was a bit like teh Charley River, but instead of gravel the bars were boulders, steep and big. Still, you had to exit early into a channel that led toward the bank or get strained out. These were fun and challenging and felt safe.
Anyway, I guess i’d divide the river up into six sections:
(1) Venus to Karamea Bend – lower volume, twisty-turny boulder gardens. Fun in a packraft if you can paddle Class IV in America with one.
(2) Karamea Bend to Roaring Lion rapid – three rapids, four lakes. The first is fun, the second is hard, and the third looked easy-enough but I missed a boof (lots of boofing on this river) and got my ass-bone kicked, my knuckles scraped, my feet stuffed into wood in a seive, and my ankle nearly caught in a keyhole. This in a rapid I scouted.
(3) Roaring Lion and Ferris Creek sections – a mix of portages, ferry crossings, small drops, and a lake or two.
(4) Ferris Creek to Grey’s Hut – fun but scary. Sort of like big water creeking if such a thing exists. Lots of maneuvering and watching the river at your bow, ten feet ahead, thirty feet ahead, and down at the end as you snake through rocks everywhere – like my favored Ship Creek – but with the force of big water like Cataract Canyon or even the Grand!
(5) Karamea Gorge – Four NZ Class IV – like Packrafting VI or VII I’d say. There was one rapid called Holy Shit that looks like six Little Susitna Bridge drops (there’s a photo in my book of that) linked together and a Six Mile Staircase at the end for good measure: That’s an NZ IV!
(6) Below the Gorge you can catch your breath and just float a couple hours to the take-out.
I’d like to give it another go, but think I’ll spend a bit more time on West Coast rivers and their freaky boulder gardens first.
Maybe next year?