Evan Ross and myself had awoken early to drive the three hours from Jackson to Lander, Wyoming. We were going to the PoPo Agie river. A three mile long, Class V gem, in the heart of the Wind River Mountains. I'd never run the PoPo before. Evan had run it the previous week, with a group of older boaters. But today, it was just us. Two Jackson Hole Kids Kayak Club alumni going off into the mighty Wind River Mountains, alone for the first time.
We'd left jackson sometime around nine in the morning. With our stomachs full of Bubba's biscuits and gravy, we chatted excitedly of what lay ahead. Being my first time to the river, all I had were stories i'd heard from the, " Old timers." Stories of waterfalls and steep cascading rapids tumbling out of the mighty Wind's and into the prairie below. Their stories invigorated me. I wanted to see this place for myself. I'd only been boating two years, but after spending a semester at the school at Adventure Quest my skills had improved vastly. I was ready. It was time for the boys to become men, as cliche as that may sound, it was true. For Evan and I, this would be to us what a spirit walk was to the Native American's who first explored this area.
When we finally reached the road next to the lower section, I began eyeing the river, looking at what the character was and trying to decide if I thought it had enough water. I was like a child waiting in line at an amusement park. We couldn't get their fast enough. Finally, I could see the end of the road, and the beginning of our hike. I'd never hiked with a creek-boat before. Heck, I had hardly ever paddled a creek boat.
Evan, who had done the hike a week before, had come prepared with a home-made version of a yak-pak. Basically, nothing more than the back of an old Jansport backpack with several NRS cam straps sewn onto it. I too had an NRS cam strap. Very carefully I looped the cam strap through my bow grab loop, fastened the strap in the buckle, pulled the loop over my head and began walking. Dragging my boat three miles up a steep creek in 90 degree heat, wasn't fun or easy. My mistake not bringing a better system. Or worse, not being "man" enough to just shoulder that puppy. Needless to say, it was tiring. The whole way up the trail I could hear the roar of rapids beneath us, catching an occasional glimpse. Wow. It was steep. It was scary. It was perfect.
Hiking into the PoPo Agie
Photo Courtesy of: http:// www.therangelife.com(from a different trip)
We reached the top, right as a thunderstorm was blowing through. Luckily, the storm had its sights set elsewhere and only gave us a brief, yet refreshing shower.
The put-in at the PoPo Agie sits below a beautiful, yet un-runnable falls. The first rapid of the run, along with the next three, are often portaged, and represent the most difficult rapids of the run. However, I didn't come all the way here to start portaging right away. So I began scouting the first falls. The rapid is a jumble of rocks with a somewhat clean line through a river right slot and down a ten foot sliding waterfall. I'd heard horror stories of crashes, pitons and people running the thing upside down and nearly being decapitated. However, I was young, arrogant and I saw a line. I was gonna go.
I remember the feeling I had when I settled myself down into my boat and popped my spray-skirt down around the cockpit. Silence. Like a quarterback in football has to shut out the noise of the crowd, I'd shut out everything. The roar of the river. The sight of Evan standing downstream, camera in one hand, rope in the other. It was just me and the river.
I ferried back and forth across the river for a few minutes trying to warm up my muscles and take a few paddle strokes before I charged into the maelstrom downstream. After several minutes I was ready. I splashed my face with some water, peeled out of the eddy and lined up the right slot.
My boat starts to accelerate faster than I anticipated, I reach for my right draw-stroke too late. I come out of the slot too far sideways. If I don't recover quickly, I'm going to crash really hard. I lean and pull with my paddle hard right as I feel my boat lift off as it hits a bump. It works. My boat fly's into the air and in almost a free-wheel type motion I pull it back, straighten it out and sail smoothly down the rest of the falls. I land and start paddling hard to river left to catch the last-chance eddy above the next big manky boulder infested rapid, which had never been run. I glided easily across the eddy line, to safety. I pumped my fist and let out a loud barbaric roar to signify my accomplishment.
Austin on the put-in drop of the PoPo Agie
I got out, grabbed the camera and my rope and watched on as this time Evan ran the drop. Evan's line was perfect. he sailed out of the right slot, turned at just the right time and greased the drop making it look too easy. This didn't quite surprise me however, Evan was always making stuff look easy. Sometimes it was frustrating watching him make things look so effortlessly, when I struggled through each stroke. No matter, his perfection only showed me what I was doing wrong and made me strive to be better.
Evan on the put-in drop
Evan and I had a long look at the next rapid. Followed by a long conversation. Our consensus was there was a marginal line down the river left side. The moves consisted of three or four small ledges, backed up by pin rocks and surrounded by undercuts and sieves. The consequences in this rapid had a potential of being severe. I however was young, naive and fired up to run some big drops. I was going to giver a go.
This drop scared me far more than the previous rapid. It was not as vertically intimidating, but the line and consequences here were much more of a challenge. I would have to hit 4 consecutive boof strokes, while at the same time dodging several undercuts and bad pin rocks. Looking back, in retrospect I exercised poor judgement by running this drop without the proper amount of people to set up safety. However, when on the river we all must make decisions based on what we think we can do. I knew I could hit this line.
I got into my kayak and looked downstream. I couldn't see Evan. This added an extra element of fear I hadn't expected. Something about being able to see your safety set, calms your nerves. Deep breath. I reassured myself I could do it. Splashed my face three times, and off I went. I set my speed and angle for the first ledge and boofed. Immediately I was going off the second ledge, and pointed right. I wanted to be pointed left, as there was a very bad piton in the middle of the river. I was heading straight for it, as I went off the third ledge, which was off vertical and had a bad keeper hole. I got stuck in the hole. Luckily, though I was pointed left and moving fairly easily back to the left of the hole where I could escape. Ironic, how my second mistake corrected my first. Once out of the third hole it was smooth sailing through the human pinball machine that is the run- out. I eddied out and looked at evan, shaking his head and chuckling. He informed me how lucky I got on that one. Boy did I know it.
I got out of my kayak to scout the third rapid. This one looked really fun. A manky, boulder strewn entrance leading into a fifteen-foot off vertical corkscrew slide. One year after this trip, I found out that the far left side of the slide at the bottom is extremely shallow. But we'll save that for another time. On this day, evan and I both gave this one a go with big old grins from ear to ear. No worries, smooth transition, skipped out at the bottom, it was pure joy.
We continued downstream, going eddy to eddy through the boulder infested boogie water. This was one of my favorite parts of the run. Endless boofs through a winding maze of rocks. Before long, we came up on the creme de la creme. Corner rapid. Now I have to say this rapid and the 1/4 mile downstream is as good as whitewater as i've found anywhere i've ever kayaked. Corner rapid, is a steep boulder maze leading into a crux six foot boof at a sixty degree left hand bend in the river. This rapid is full on. It's long, commiting, but best of all it's fun.
Conor Finney on some good old PoPo Agie boogie water
Photo Courtesy of Http://www.therangelife.com (from a different trip)
Evan went first on this one. He styled the line. Coming in from the center of the river, working right then back left to stick the boof. I was inspired. Something about watching a friend style a drop is just good motivation to do the same yourself. And in an ideal world, you would. Well, my line wasn't awful, but it was nothing like Evan's. My lead in went well, making my boofs and lining up correctly, but as I approached the crux boof, I got pushed hard right and bounced through a bumpy slot. My boat spun around backwards at the bottom and I ran the next little drop backwards. I got pinned. After about 30 seconds I worked my way free and eddied out with evan to scout out the next waterfall.
The waterfall is about 10 feet tall with a super complex entrance requiring you to eddy out while your stern is dangling over the lip, peel out and boof all in the same motion. This rapid would be a slalom paddler's dream. For me it was intimidating. Not the size of the waterfall, but knowing that if I was just a hair off-line as I catch the eddy I could easily run this thing backwards and onto my head. This would not be good, as just downstream are a series of must-make moves.
Todd Gillman running the "waterfall" on the high side of good
Photo Courtesy of Http://www.therangelife.com (from a different trip)
This one was really fun. I was nervous about falling out the back of the eddy, but had no problems. My boof was good, as was Evan's and off we went down through the hardest of the boogie water. I remember feeling amazed at how accurately Evan remembered each move after only having run the river once before. His directions were precise and before long we were at the one and only still un-run rapid on the PoPo Agie. Neither or Evan and I wanted anything to do with this one. We walked around and enjoyed the mellow class IV paddle down to the bridge and our car.
The PoPo Agie River somewhere near it's source, high in the Wind River Mountains
Driving home I felt as if I had just conquered the world. No doubt I had allowed my ego to grow way too much as a result of a few good lines. Ironically, a week later I wrecked three times on the PoPo, resulting in a broken boat and a sore shoulder. Ego. Our sport just has no room for it. Just fun.