After 25 or 30 miles of mostly shuffling on our skis through the Absaroka mountains (and occasionally actually “skiing!” it was a treat to be in our boats floating along.
We purposely put in on Thorofare Creek where the gradient backed off dramatically; like a lot of drainages in the intermountain West it was pretty continuous and not too difficult, but there were a lot of blind corners and -again, like many intermountain creeks – downed trees across the river was a constant concern. I had not been surprised that Mike was a solid skier and a strong hiker (carrying “regular” length and width skis, and toting pretty heavy Scarpa Maestrales in his big-footed size) but I knew that his boating experience was limited, so I kept a wary eye on him. But the wood was surprisingly minimal and the whitewater was easy, so it was a pleasant float. Jeff and I had both paddled Thorofare from the confluence with Bruin Creek (that we had walked down during our original respective DuMor trips), but what we didn’t realize is that there is a beautiful, vertical-walled gorge for the mile above the confluence that is a must-do for future DuMor packraft trips, especially since the confluence sports a great campsite.
Thorofare Creek is a pleasant, easy day or so long float down to the confluence with the upper Yellowstone River.
We took out above the confluence, mostly because our route was to cut across the V between two waterways and then hike up Atlantic Creek to Two Ocean Pass, but also because had we kept going we’d be breaking a federal law of paddling a boat on one of Yellowstone National Park’s rivers! The only park in the country to not allow boating on its rivers; there’s a long history there and not long ago there was a concerted effort to introduce congressional legislation to change that, but it got stifled. No problem to rage around on Yellowstone Lake in powerboats, no problem to overwhelm the roads and fragile and incredible natural attractions with over 4 million visitors per year, but we can’t let a few paddlers float the rivers!
Due to the cool spring that kept snow around and the current high temps that were melting that snow the Yellowstone and Atlantic creek were flooding; there’s a bridge across the main stem of the Yellowstone but most of the rest of our walking was on a “trail” that was a creekbed of snowmelt water, which made for some cold feet!
One of our tributary creek fords was actually a bit desperate; fast-moving water that went waist deep, and I had to lunge hard to snag some willows sticking off the bank, desperate to keep my pack from filling with water and dragging me into the current! We saw the first people we’d seen since our start; some fishing outfitters has horsepacked in to set up their summertime camp. It was a bit disconcerting the morning after we saw them to see another set of huge bear tracks on top of the horseshoe prints in the trail, so we continued to keep our bear spray at the ready.
But “at the ready” proved to be a little problematic for me. At one point I was just trudging up the trail like normal, and somehow – without knowing – I apparently bumped the “safety” on the bear spray canister so that it popped out. And then – by extraordinary coincidence – I happened to glance down at the ground just as my thumb again grazed the top of the bear canister, heard a “pssssttt” – and my eye exploded in pain. I had pepper sprayed myself! From less than 18 inches away, the jet went straight into my right eye.
If you ever have any reason to doubt the efficacy of pepper spray, I can now vouch that it is indeed effective at complete and utter debilitation; that is, at least for a human dumb enough to look straight into the jet. I’m not sure about a grizz charging at 30mph through a pepper spray cloud.
I was stumbling a bit through the ice water-filled trail with one good eye and still walk fast to keep up with my pards and stay warm, and soon enough we encountered a pretty ferocious thunderstorm (as they say: when it rains, it pours).
But as we went over Two Ocean Pass from the Atlantic Creek drainage into the Pacific Creek drainage (yep, it’s the Continental Divide; there’s a spot there where the creek actually divides into both directions) the sun came out and even though our feet were still in icy cold water, we were able to warm up before we got to what we felt was paddleable water and at least the first little bit we could see was log-free, so we threw down our packs again and blew up our boats.
Pacific Creek was quite a bit steeper than Thorofare Creek, and Jeff knew from a prior trip (coming up from the bottom) that there was both more wood and a likely portage. It wasn’t flooding, since Two Ocean Pass was lower than the mountains to the north and east and the snowpack was mostly gone, but it was still on the high side of medium and zipping right along, so again we were being pretty wary and always scanning for the very few eddies that existed. Again I was keeping a close eye on Mike; it was clear that he was a little out of his element, but as a guy who makes his living teaching other people what to do in challenging environments, he’s also unusually good at fully absorbing advice. I gave him a couple of tips, and to my surprise he executed what I suggested perfectly. There’s so much to be said for a solid head!
We worked our way down the creek, portaged the falls (in addition to my own camping gear and boots/skis, because Mike didn’t have the cargo zipper on his boat Jeff and I split up a fair bit of Mike’s gear, and with his big ol’ Scarpas in my boat I was staggering under the load!) and soon enough we found ourselves at the confluence of Pacific Creek and Mink Creek (which sports a nice campsite).
In Utah “creeks” are many times trickles or even dry, and some “rivers” barely have any water. Up north, “creeks” can and do have plenty of water, and Pacific Creek below the Mink confluence had about 2000 cfs in it! (Mink has a much higher, snowier drainage). The current was rocking, and while we knew (from the InReach) that a cold and wet weather system was moving in overnight, we also knew that we could cover the 15 miles out very quickly after camping at the confluence.
Sure enough we awoke to a cold rain falling into the icy water. We wriggled into our boats and pushed out into the ripping current with no eddies in site, and our earlier creekin’ had turned into pushy water. Again we gave Mike a couple of tips to deal with this new beast, and again Mike mounted up under pretty intimidating circumstances; a swim in that “creek” would have been bad. But soon enough the gradient eased as the canyon walls fell back and by stroking hard to keep warm we hit the takeout as the snain (snow/rain) started to intensify.
While “ski rafting” may not catch on as the hot new sport, it proved again that the ability to exercise some creativity and some quirky gear at the right time of year can enable pretty unusual adventures. This one was interesting in that it was actually quite easy; the “skiing” was more walking with skis on and a couple of short descents and the whitewater was no harder than class 3, but all done in pretty wild settings. Which is great.
Here’s a nice 5 minute video that Jeff made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wsr-nqsml8Y
Thanks again to Jeff Creamer for coming up with this one (and he’s already cooking up even more ambitious trips for next spring), Mike Coyle for being a great packrafting student, and both of them for being solid pards on an adventure into really remote terrain, which kinda represents a higher level of commitment by/to your mates. And of course, thanks to Alpacka for their commitment to making crafts that are up to this kind of challenge, and to Voile Equipment and Scarpa for making skis and boots, respectively, that are probably not intended for ski rafting, but are perfect nonetheless!