Sunday, November 16, 2014

Northwest Territories Waterfall Tour

Greetings, fellow explorers! This week, the Leif and Natalie Show visits the distant NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, deep in the heart of a tiny North American country known as Canada. As always, we journey out in search of adventure and whitewater. Here is the video of this episode:
NWT Waterfall Tour from Leif Anderson on Vimeo. HD! Full screen! Now!

This week's quest was simple: investigate the mythical waterfalls on the many creeks surrounding the Great Slave Lake. These waterfalls are caused by isostatic rebound. The thick ice sheet laying over the continent during the ice age was heavy enough to depress the earth's crust around the Great Slave Lake. After it melted, the crust rebounded upward. The process of rebound continues today. The creeks and rivers in the region began to incise downward into the uplifting terrain, and the usual method of erosion is for waterfalls to form and gradually migrate upriver. Fortunately for us, there happens to be a highway that circles the Great Slave Lake at the approximate location of many of these waterfalls. Because of the incredibly sparse population in the Northwest Territories (approximately 10 kayakers / 519,734 sq miles = 0.00002 kayakers/sq mi) most of these waterfalls have never been investigated.

We were joined in our quest by Ben Ghertner. Late friday night, Ben and Natalie left from Yellowknife, and I left Fort Smith (home of the mighty Slave river), planning to meet up near Lady Evelyn falls. The team was unable to complete the rendezvous in the dark northern night, but finally met up in the cold mists of the next morning.

Lady Evelyn falls was probably first descended back in the 1990s, for one of the Scott Lindgren films. Our team of researchers was unable to find evidence of any other descents, despite several minutes of googling. The Northwest Territories were experiencing a severe drought, and we decided that the water was too low for Lady Ev. The lip was shallow and made a sharp transition to vertical, which would make it hard to land vertically. Nobody wanted to start out the tour by falling 60 feet into a faceplant or painful flat landing.

"Maybe next summer" became the motto of the trip. We traveled from creek to creek, and almost all of them were dry. Wallace creek (which we later heard had been run) looked like a very small creekbed, which probably supports flows less than 100 cfs in a typical summer, but if it had 200 cfs or more there was a nice punchbowl 40 footer at the end of a tight mini-gorge that could deliver some beautiful airtime. McNally creek had a 20 foot drop with a strange lip, right off the highway. This one has been run several times, including a descent by John Blyth. Both creeks were so low, it looked like someone was running a garden hose down the creekbed.

Eventually we arrived at Louise Falls, on the Hay river. Hay river is a big river, draining a big region to the south, so it still had some water (although it was the lowest our team had ever seen it). On one of our trips to the Slave, back in 2007, Conor Flynn decided that Louise looked good to go, and fired off the first known descent.
From Conor's 2007 descent
From Conor's 2007 descent
From Conor's 2007 descent
We arrived with flows a tiny fraction of what they were for Conor, and although the falls-to-rock transition in the first half looked a little more intimidating, the hole at the bottom was nonexistent, so we made several runs. In 2007, we spent several hours setting safety and then extracting ourselves from the pool below the falls, but with the lower water, we were able to walk back up the riverbed immediately adjacent to the slide, and laps were relatively easy. The low water also allowed us to explore the river right side of the falls, which shows some promise for going big. We restricted ourselves to a smaller line. We downclimbed onto a shelf halfway down the falls and boofed off of it. Ben bagged the first descent of this drop. Plenty more lines, like the full drop on the far right, or the straight lip in the center, are still waiting to be run. Most look like they need a touch more water.
Our descent of the left line at Louise

Ben stoked after his first descent, with Leif still on the ledge, about to launch.

After Louise falls, we headed a few minutes upriver to Alexandria falls, which used to be the world record tallest waterfall. The conventional line is down the left bank at high water, but as Rush Sturges learned, there is a cave behind the curtain of the waterfall. He spent a little time back there but was able to swim through the waterfall to escape. At low water, the curtain doesn't stretch all the way across the drop, and getting out from behind it would be no problem. This opens up the possibility of running a line straight down the center of the river, which makes the waterfall much more of a punchbowl drop. Hunt Jennings was the first person we ever heard point out this idea. He noticed it after extensive google image searching. The levels perfectly matched the photos he had shown us. We decided that the possibility of a broken back was just a little too dangerous for us, given the amount of big waterfall experience that we had. Setting up a safety team at the bottom of the drop would have also been a daunting proposition. If Hunt had been there, he might have geared up, but we decided to call it a day.

We drove a few hours that night, and woke up to Coral falls and Sambaa Deh falls the next morning. Sambaa Deh was really the core of the reason for the Waterfall Tour. Natalie and I had been there a year earlier, at similar levels, with no boats, and I had speculated that the drop could be run. We kept discussing it, and decided that a tour of the local waterfalls was the best way to attack it. In a tour, there was no pressure to run any one specific drop, and even if one (or many) of the drops were not good to go, the team was practically guaranteed to get on the water at least somewhere.

We decided to warm up by running Coral falls, just upriver of Sambaa Deh. We made a quick initial scout of Sambaa Deh before heading upstream, and thought that it looked good to go, although we wouldn't make the final call until we came back. Coral falls was a nice 10 foot ledge, with a variety of lines. We spent some time running the various options and having a good time. The center line would have been a lot of fun, but looks like it lands on a rock shelf.

After Coral falls, we returned to the cars, had some lunch, and commenced our full scout of Sambaa Deh, which involved a more thorough investigation of the exit from the gorge, during which we all got separated and lost in the woods. We eventually met back up and just went and asked the park manager if it was possible to get into the gorge below the falls. He had a pile of maps sitting right there to answer that very question. We memorized his beta and set up our cameras.
Ben and Natalie scout Sambaa Deh falls

Sambaa Deh is more of a rapid than just a single waterfall. There is a small boof/slide thing that drops into a narrow gorge, which twists back and forth a few times before getting to the huge fan slide that is the main event. The main slide looked good to go almost anywhere, but best in the center. This is necessary if it's going to be runnable, since you might get off line in the upper gorge, and we weren't going to tolerate the risk of a truly dangerous part of the slide being in play. It's a simple game theory calculation. Take the consequences of missing a move and the probability of missing the move, and multiply them together. Compare the result to the cutoff listed in table 7. We were dealing with an unknown upper gorge, which made the probability of being off line at the lip of the slide low, but not trivially low. Similarly, the left side looked survivable, but far less preferable than the center. We decided that the risks were low enough that we were going to attempt the drop.

Ben and I walked the rapid a few more times before the final gear-up, and he pointed out a few subtleties of the current right at the lip, which caused me to change my plan a little. I was going to dodge left of the last wave and cut back to the right, to avoid drifting left, but after discussing with Ben, I changed my plan to a straight blast down a narrower line to the right of that same wave, which actually looked easier and set up a better momentum for the final slide.

Eventually there were no more excuses, and we got in the river. Ben and I decided on lemming safety, and Natalie set up the cameras to capture our runs. Ben and I paddled through a few waves and regrouped in a nice eddy before the start of the rapid. I had managed to convince him to let me go first, since I had been scouting this drop since the last year. I started the GoPro and dropped in.

You can barely see me in the entry, having just completed the first boof.


During the approach, I made a last-minute decision to switch my line a little. I had planned to run the very first entry drop to the right, but saw that my approach was sending me left with speed, so I decided to just carry that momentum into a left boof, which worked beautifully. That great feeling of the boof set an awesome tone for the twists in the gorge above the fan slide, and I had an even smoother line than I had hoped for. I came up to the lip of the main drop exactly where I had planned, skimming past the eddyline on that narrow line to the right of the final wave, and zipped straight into the slide. It was exactly as we had hoped, fast and relatively smooth, with just the right amount of kick at the bottom to boot the boat free of the small amount of recirculation at the base. I hooted a hollered a little at the bottom, which is rare for me. Ben followed a moment later, with an equally awesome line.

The final bounce

After our runs, Ben stayed at the base of the falls while I headed downstream to hike out and take over filming while Natalie ran the drop. I got a little lost again, and ended up rock climbing out of the gorge, but made it eventually. I gave Natalie a couple minor pointers based on my run, and she headed up to go fire off the drop. There's always a little bit of anxiety watching your spouse run a difficult drop, so I had a couple irrational flutters in my belly, but I trust Natalie's skill and I wasn't too nervous. Natalie went left of the final wave before the main slide, so that when she circled around behind it and entered the big drop, she had a touch more speed to the right than Ben and I had had. This sent her a little more right, which was a teensy bit shallower, but seemed to paddle just fine.

Natalie's finish
I met Ben and Natalie at the correct takeout point and we hiked back to the cars, stoked on a successful mission. We had really only run 2 out of 6 of the waterfalls we looked at (counting Coral and Sambaa Deh together) but we were still highly satisfied. We even managed it in just one weekend, not the 3-4 days we had originally planned (see Kent, you should have come with us!) Maybe next summer, with more water, we'll bag a few more drops.