Winter Whitewater: Part II

Weather is a Wicked Wildcard


There was ice in the whitewater. Like halos around the rocks, moving water was freezing around stationary objects in the river. At first fascinated, I felt suddenly anxious. Looking further out, I could see the whole body of water slushing up.

Whitewater adventure with pat taylor
Mighty Middle Fork in November

As my brain tried to wrap around the strange and troublesome observation, my gut tightened and things got quiet inside. It’s a natural tendency of mine, reflexive I think… things get slow and clear when there’s trouble. And, from what I could see happening to the Middle Fork, the cold snap that descended on our river trip was bringing trouble down on our adventure.

“That ice is getting thick. Spreading.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Will it cut the boat?”

Todd didn’t say anything, didn’t even turn around. He just stood there looking at ice gathering upstream of the whitewater… ice that shouldn’t be there. Except for the wind, it was quiet and unseasonably cold. We busied ourselves with camp work between squalls and considered the same unsettling possibilities. How bad was this going to get?

Weather Adventure

That’s what we had to plan for; that’s what we were thinking about. Not how cold or how windy, but how bad would it get? That ice in the river and the steel blue cold… could it stop us? It affected not only our travel plans, but also our moods. Our motivation. It began to influence our decision-making. More than cold and wet, it was beginning weigh heavy on our minds.

We were ‘armored up’; heavy base layers of poly/wool blend (with socks and balaclava) kept body heat close and moisture away from the skin. Another mid-layer of fur (wool bibs and sweaters) and a slim-fit down jacket. And all this was covered with a windproof, waterproof shell. None of us would freeze to death; we were technically impervious to weather.

We ate freeze-dried meals in bags for lunch because the wind was blowing like in Wyoming. I could hear it coming from way upriver, caroming around the corner and buffeting off the mountains that funnelled it toward us. Something like ice was falling like snow but not falling… blowing sideways. Wrinkles crowded around our eyes to protect them, the chinks in our armor exposed.

Winter whitewater adventure in the Frank Church Wilderness

Todd and I drank coffee and Irish cream, and tried to have fun with the situation. Every person who loves the wilderness learns to love her moods, and weather is how Mother Nature expresses herself. A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face and we tried hard that morning to get into it. But it wasn’t happening; too damn cold and windy. Two sips was all you’d get before the coffee cups went cold. We sat through the dark lost day and discussed our situation.

Shouldn’t Last, But

“Well, it’s November, Todd, so…”

“Doesn’t look like November.”

“It’s probably going to break.”

“You ever see it like this?”

“Late winter at the Flying B… yeah. Not iced over but iced up. And I saw no boats upon it.”

“Of course not. Who’s going to run a rubber boat through that? Can you imagine? Getting into the canyon and gashing a boat? Not a puncture; not something we can patch.”

Middle Fork River icing up for winter whitewater
Ice Reaching Out from the Bank

“We’re not too far to walk back to the B.”

Walking was always my first choice.  My partners knew their boats and the river and their hunting area, but I probably knew more about the surrounding wilderness. I had lots of time in the mountains on the other side of the river and that would be the direction of our escape.

At Little Pine, we were safe. The Middle Fork trail back to the Flying B Ranch was on the other side of the river. We’d have to break camp and load up, float to the other side, and repack for evacuation… leaving the boats, tents, camp gear, and anything other than weapons, trail food, and sleeping gear behind in a cache by the river. Up on the bank where it would be safe from high water in spring, we’d leave it until we could return with a packer. After caching the gear, we’d hike back to the Flying B and try to organize a flight out. Disappointing and expensive, but low-risk and within the capabilities of our crew. As long as we stayed at Little Pine, we were safe.

We talked it through while the weather wailed on us. We agreed that it was too early to make that decision, but retreating from the present position was a viable option. Or we could keep moving, which is what we needed to do. We needed to get our energy up, but that was hard to do in camp with weather that felt like extra gravity.

Last Chance at Big Creek

A few miles downriver, we’d meet with Big Creek. It was the largest tributary and it’s confluence with the Middle Fork marked the beginning of the Impassable Canyon. Twenty miles of wilderness whitewater and no way out but the river. No trails for men or horses or mules, no emergency airstrips, no snowmobile access; it was both hostile and isolated.

pat taylor the texas yeti whitewater adventure
High Above the Confluence (Big Creek & the Middle Fork)

In theory, the inflow from Big Creek meant more water in the river and less likelihood of freezing. Before we travelled beyond the confluence, we’d camp by Big Creek and reassess our situation.

“Stay another night and see what develops.”

We busied ourselves with camp work, cooked a meal and made the best of it, but it was a cold dreary day. One by one, we retreated to our reinforced shelters.

The Bristols had a new tent, a tepee with tiny woodburning stove, and they were laid out in there. I had my solo tent, as did Todd. And both of us covered our tents with tarps to provide an extra layer of insulation.

winter camping in the Frank Church Wilderness
Winter Camping in The Frank

Inside, I had my -20 degree cloud of down sleeping bag on top of two air mattresses.

“Two?” queried Todd.

“Two is one. One is none.”

“That some zen trekker’s wisdom?” he laughed.

“Voice of experience, man. One is self-inflating, the other is a half-sized closed-cell foam. Looks like an egg carton. That goes on the ground and the air mattress goes on top. I’ve spent weeks sleeping on snow that way… never ever any ground chill and it only cost me another four ounces.”

Backpacker Thinking

“No matter what’s happening outside, I need to be warm in that tent.”

That’s pretty much all we could do; retreat to our separate quarters and wait for a break in weather. For too many hours, I slept… waking now and then hoping for the best. Even in my specialized shelter, I was cold and fighting the blues. It’s not always fun being a mountain man.

Then next morning wasn’t worse, which was better. Much better, in fact. There was no precipitation and, though there was still ice ringing the rocks, the slush had disappeared from the water.

By the time we arrived at Big Creek, the situation had improved. Still miserably cold, ice receded from the rocks and banks, and the weather seemed to be stabilizing. We stopped at Last Chance camp above the confluence for a couple nights before we made our run through the Impassable Canyon.

Last Chance to Rest

Devil’s Tooth, House of Rocks, and the infamous Hancock Rapids; the Impassable Canyon presented all the same challenges, but we saw them differently that late November. They were still risks with grave consequences, but we glided through them grinning like kids on carnival rides.

winter adventure on whitewater
Finishing a Winter Whitewater Adventure

Our perspectives had changed.
Adventure can do that to you, sometimes.

Todd Nelson and Pat Taylor on the Middle Fork, Frank Church Wilderness
It’s Fun, Even When It Isn’t

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One comment

  1. It seems Mother Nature has given you a pretty good school of survival. Winter is beautiful, but up to a point…..CELSIUS.An adventure that will be remembered for a long time. Thanks God , it ended quickly.

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