How does one find oneself picking through gear in the club boatshed at 4:30am on a Saturday and then waiting by the ring road for a lift? Who hatches a day of paddling that would be best titled end of semester assignment avoidance scheme? And what is it that lures a crew on uni kids to a 1.5km section of creek in a wet, cold and rocky valley 250+km from home?
Well it’s not just the paddling.
Along the road to Falls Creek an orange bridge represents the end and beginning of two runs on the East Kiewa. Refuted to be more ‘pushy’ than the Yarra Canyon ;), the Upper section above the bridge is a formidable and committing run with a gradient of 70m/km. Thankfully, the bridge exerts a calming effect on the Lower section: reducing its gradient, continuous nature, and technical level, and removing the odd waterfall.
Before putting in, we had consulted the orange bridge oracle for guidance. The needle of its ‘central core of hardness’ detector swung to the left to indicate that we should tackle the Lower section. I breathed a premature sigh of relief, Hairy cursed. Unlike the Upper, the guidebook description of our modest Lower section is not accompanied by a little red skull and crossbones. We geared up, and while waiting in the eddy I mimicked the strange practice of cupping chilled mouthfuls of water into my mouth.
The run was rather foreboding. Steep overgrown banks and glistening rocks of all imaginable shapes hedged the narrow creek. We scraped hulls and bashed our paddles over the low-lying rocks. The level was a little on the low side, and I found the prospect of a bonier but less pushy run slightly comforting. I had heard and read accounts of ‘steep’ and ‘technical’ boating on this river, yet roaring rapids seemed beyond the scope of this rocky – albeit well lubricated – narrow run. The lack of an immediately observable challenge had me on edge.
In usual style, we filed down stream, catching eddies and swapping the lead, all the while scanning ahead in anticipation.
Timmy tames the East Kiewa
Lower flow exposed the rocky banks, making scouting easier and framing all of our photos with impressively water-hewn slabs of stone. Inspection from the bank was necessary to detect fallen trees stuck in the rapids, and helped those of us unfamiliar with the river to plan our path. Approaching a sharp bend we observed that a large tree trunk had fallen across the main flow, and that beyond lay the first significant rapid. I scouted from the bank while the others ducked under the trunk and then turned into the eddy above the drop. Following my suggested direction, Tim, Simon and Mel exited the eddy, and went down an impressive rockslide. At its base they made a tight right turn and then followed the main flow down a smaller drop. With the rest of the party at the bottom, I mimicked their path by ducking under the tree and then grinding down the rockslide. At the bottom my sharp turn was assisted by the main flow as it caught my bow. Another small drop and we were regrouped.
Mikey styling the East Kiewa
Shortly following this, we encountered the rapid of the day.
From the rock wall above the drop we discussed our intended route. Entering down a smooth ramp of water from the left, would leave us perched above the converging columns of water, were we deemed that quickly tracking to the right would enable the boater to ride atop the white water down the drop, and then bounce out from the aerated hole below.
All four heads nodded.
Simon was the first to ride. At the bottom of the drop his creeker was launched into the air in a most impressive tail squirt. Mel followed with style, but was captured upside-down at the fall’s base. Standing on the ledge above, I observed her boat stop suddenly at the bottom of its descent and then disappear underwater. Re-emerging upside-down, it was buffeted violently in the hole and against the rock walls by the water falling against its upturned hull.
Mel in trouble on the East Kiewa
Mel remained here for a time, before swimming from her boat. But as with her gravity-defying stop at the base of the drop, she was sucked headfirst – as if she were a cartoon character at the hands of a revengeful artist – back into the aerated white pile at the base of the drop. Her upturned face alternatively appeared and disappeared, until the water released its hold and Mel was flushed from its grasp. She grabbed the stern of Simon’s waiting boat and made her way to the safety of the bank. An even more time consuming process was required to release Mel’s boat which had been pinned as water circulated in and out of a horseshoe shaped depression in the rock wall.
Once order had been regained, Timmy playfully ran the drop backwards – a move for which he deserved (were the river as spiteful as we had come to expect) to be severely worked at the base – and emerged from the foaming pile with a cheeky grin.
Our crew’s endeavours at this rapid had taken some time so I had grown accustomed to its roar, and had ample opportunity to observed the water’s regular flow. I felt that I had gained a realistic picture of what the rapid entailed and that I was well on my way to avoiding the unhealthy calm that had overtaken me during a recent paddling trip to Tassie. Although I felt a long way from the complacent casualness that had caused my demise on that Lower Broad trip, I felt that a little reminder right now would serve to heighten my awareness of the job at hand. On that ill-fated day in Tasmania I had learnt – from a slightly sub-optimal encounter with a log – that the decision to run a rapid did not qualify as a passport to safety, and, that in fact, the mental decision to plunge headlong down a rapid needed to coexist with a physical preparedness to act accordingly. Now seemed a perfect time to draw upon the lesson of this experience.
Mikey lucking out on Deathstar, en route to the scary log
In anticipation of things to come I dunked my head into the freezing water, geared up and resolved to hit the drop with enough speed to escape the clutches of the hole waiting at its base. I was reassured to know that Tim and Mel were waiting below in their boats and I knew Simon was ready on the bank with a throw-rope. Although attempting to follow directions, I missed the move from left to right and instead plugged down the middle of the drop. The left and right-hand pillars converged around me and I felt my upturned boat being buffeted by the water. Deprived of sight, I was distinctly able to hear the water as it rushed around me. According to Tim, my lack of speed and direction resulted in a back-loop at the base, but all I remember is the blackness and the sound of water. While under I took a moment to acknowledge the novelty of my situation, and then registered a mental image of where I thought I was in space. This was followed by a slight panic when the retentive hole refused to relent – even brief periods of powerlessness under water provide infinite time for thinking – and frustration that I couldn’t manoeuvre my paddle to roll. As immediately and as uncontrollably as it had happened I was upright and paddling towards Timmy’s smiling face. And while I was able to acknowledge an ‘OK’ nod of the head, I had to take a minute to regain control of my breathing which had become sharp and pressured from the cold. I could only imagine how Mel felt – we exchanged looks of relief.
Only later did we learn the name of this infamous spot – ‘the drowning pool’. Gentrify, gentrified asdf osid pretentious as
A little cold, but too pumped to realise, I paddled on. Subsequent rapids followed quickly. Ramp-like sections replacing the earlier drops. We confidently descended the remaining rapids, portaged a wood choked section, and before long had reached the take-out.
Watch out for wood, East Kiewa
Simon stuck in a hole on the East Kiewa
There’s nothing like a trip away to rekindle your desire to run more in the coming weeks. And were it not for more pressing assignments I would be back in a flash.
In response to those earlier questions I can only agree with Mel’s comments on the drive up, that ‘I wouldn’t bother going on a trip with people I didn’t like, no matter how good the river’. To which I can now add, ‘the quality of both the river and company complimented each other perfectly’.
Beginner trips coming soon! I promise.