Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mother's Day Agate Hunting Jaunt

Mother's Day Agate Hunting Jaunt

As Action Adventure Team member Bill put it, “Personally, I am working out how amazing it is to even be talking about camping on Mother's Day”

And not just camping but, Kayak Camping.

And not just Kayak Camping but, Kayak Camping Agate Hunting.

And not just Kayak Camping Agate Hunting but. Well, no, just that.

The plan is to paddle down the Willamette River in our heavily laden Sea Kayaks and stop at every other interesting rock bar we see and scour them clean of all Agates. We will take a hard 15 mile 1 day trip and turn it into 2 lazy 7 mile trips. Downstream.

We will start at one of the two operational Ferries on the Willamette (at Wheatland) and end at this little dirt parking lot county park in Saint Paul (home of the world famous Forth of July Rodeo !!).

Part One: Packing

Though I am not quite the gear hound as some of my friends, I do want to have the proper equipment for any adventure. I especially want to have the right mix of emergency gear and luxury gear. I will have the first aid kit, flashlight, lighter, compass, knife, and water purification. But I also want the collapsable bow saw, back up stick stove, and ultra light rain fly. (Note for next trip: Must get one of those new foldable camp chairs like my partner). Kayak camping sits almost in the middle of the gear/craziness spectrum between backpacking and car camping. I mean, a sea kayak designed for carrying gear usually is rated for around 350 pounds. So if you weigh in around 200, you can load 150 pounds of gear. Not as much as a car, but pretty nice.

All of that stuff has to go in the little holes

However, all of this gear needs to fit through that small round hole in the bow or stern of your boat. What you find is that what you can carry is a whole bunch of short small stuff. What does that mean? Collapsable tent poles? Easy, right up in the pointy end of the bow. Ditto folding shovel and folding saw. Winter sleeping bag to keep Action Adventure Girl warm? Well, if you stuff it into a short fat bag, it doesn't fit through the hole or up into the bow and if you stuff it into a long slim bag (which is damn hard, by the way) it doesn't angle right to get it through the hole and off the bottom of the kayak. Very frustrating. Lots of other common things won't fit into the long thinness of a kayak.

  1. Large Frying Pan
  2. Cheap Grocery Store folding camp chair.
  3. Large Aluminum Pot
  4. Guitar
  5. Anything larger than a 20L dry bag (filled)

Perhaps I was being a little over zealous with the entire drybag thing. I mean, water doesn't really leak into your boat unless you flip it over and leave it flipped over for a while. The individual bow and stern compartments are pretty water tight. I know this because I put my boat on the lawn last week and filled the center compartment (the one that holds yours truly) with water. No leaks into the other compartments through the bulkheads. So, a little through the hatch covers if you are upside down. Try not to be that way. But some water will get in, perhaps through osmosis. If your boat is generally upright, that water will be on the bottom, so don't let your clothes sit on the bottom. I say this, but I put my clothes in my new waterproof 20L dry bag. Sleeping bag, clothes and bottom of our tent went into good dry bags. Other stuff went into less good dry bags. The Ukulele went into a semi rigid clear plastic dry bag.

I practiced the packing a couple of times. Here are the rules:
  1. Heavy stuff (water) goes as close to the center as possible. Behind your chair is a good place.
  2. Don't try and put that heavy stuff up in the bow. If your bow goes down, you can't steer. (says Bill)
  3. Lightweight long pointy things go in the bow. Things like collapsable saws and tent poles. But before you shove them up there, tie a piece of string to them and let it trail back to the hatch. That way you can grab the string and pull things out later.
  4. You can jam a lot of things in if they are in smaller bags. Pretend you are playing 3-D tetris.
  5. You will always find one more thing that you forgot to pack. Deal with it.

Sleeping bags were pretty much the hardest thing to save space for. As I mentioned, it is hard to pack them long and skinny. My partner and I have nice down bags (probably too warm for the weather that we got). They pack down pretty small for their warmth, but not small enough for easy stowing. The issue is that when you try and cram them into the waterproof stuff bag you need to be able to shove your hand all the way into the bottom of the sack, pushing the bag. And that is hard. I kept ending up with the thing packed, but the bottom of the sack still empty of all except air. And I couldn't get that air out, so when I sealed the dry bag, it was larger than it need be because of that extra air space.

Still and all, a lot of gear was packed.

Next time I will leave behind the hammock (no trees to swing from on those river islands) and bring a little packable camp chair. (like this one).

Part 2: Getting There

Turns out it takes a lot more thinking about how to get to and from the starting and ending points than one may think. We needed 2 cars (one at each end) and we needed to get all of us to the top with our gear to start off. We could meet at the top and shuttle a car down, but the drive was over a half hour and we didn't like the idea of an hour of shuttle (at both ends of the trip). But..... if we could get all 4 boats and 4 people and weekend of gear into (onto) both cars......

Our biggest car is the Subaru Forester. It is the smallest car that I would consider for the Action Adventure Mobile. Putting the boats up on top took a little bit of action with the Yakima J's but we made the room and got them up there. After that it was just a matter of how much gear needed to sit in our passenger's laps for the ride up to the Wheatland Ferry.

There are 2 operational ferry's on the Willamette river. The one here at Wheatland, and it's twin about 30 miles downstream at Canby. I have only seen them each one time briefly but they may be the same kind of vessel. Basically a 6 boat ferry platform that pulls itself across the river via a submerged cable. Overhead are electric lines that supply power for the ferry. Must ride them sometime soon. Perhaps a Ferry to Ferry paddle.

Wheaton Ferry. Note the overhead power. There is an underwater cable it pulls on also.

Today we just waived at the ferry as it crossed and we started our downriver paddle and float. And bask. As in sun. We have been having a very warm and dry winter and spring (thanks to the Republicans) and this weekend was like something out of our wonderful summers. 80 degrees and blue skies and just gorgeous. I had on extra sunscreen and a long sleeve shirt and a hat most of the time and was very glad for it. Bill wore his dry suit while on the water, but then he was spending some time upside down doing role practise and seeing how he felt in a loaded boat. I was just happy to stay upright, thank you.

That is a bad agate beach.

My partner made an early rule that we couldn't stop to look for rocks in sight of the ramp where we launched, so we paddled for a few minutes before we stole over to the shore. Turns out that you can't just stop any old place that you want to stop and find rocks. This is because much of the shore is artificial fill for levies, and those big sharp rocks house no agates. You have to find the flat places where the round rocks are already there or are coming out of the old river bottom that is now hill siding. But don't worry, there are plenty of places like that along this stretch of the river.

Part 3: Hunting The Wild Agate.

Agates, as you know, are a translucent form of Chalcedony that forms in air pockets of volcanic rock. The silicon rich and hot waters flow through and leave banded deposits of white, yellow, orange, and red stone, usually smaller than your fist. Smaller than your fist, HA! The ones we usually are hunting down are smaller than your pinky. Today, however, we were going to be getting somewhat picky. We were hunting the big ones.

OK, far enough, we can hunt here.

OK with me

Must be an Agate out there someplace

Gotta look to find
And where do you hunt for big agates? Well, you hunt for big Agates in beds of big other rocks. So you have to go find those other rocks. Ideally you find agates because they are glowing and glinting in the sun. So you need a sunny day (check) and a bank of rocks that doesn't have river mud all over it. This is a little harder. As the river goes down, it exposes a lot of rock beds, but those rocks are covered in mud and calcium carbonate (that white stuff). I think that if we were having some late rain, the river would probably stay low and perhaps some of that muck would get washed off. Then there would be even more rocks to hunt. Today, however, the best rock hunting was away from the shore of the river, sometimes even in the interior of the island, where fast moving current or rain had washed off the gunk and left the rock exposed.

Sometimes you just sit.

My partner and I have now searched the same beaches in different situations. Sometimes we find agates everywhere, sometimes there are few to be found. We have discovered that the main factor for hunting success is the brightness and the angle of the sun. A bright setting sun that lights up the rocks just after a light spring rain is the absolute best. You can sit down on the beach or just bend over low and see the sun shining through the big beauties 50 feet away. When we hunt, we walk sort of quickly away from the sun until we get to the end of the beach. Then we turn and walk toward the sun, hunting the rocks that are glinting up ahead of us. On one beach we played a little game where you couldn't move forward unless you saw an agate and were moving to pick it up. Then you search for another one....... THERE !!

Wow !!  Nice Hat !!

Oh, Right. Nice Rock!!

Should be one there someplace

look closely
On these little rocky islands you also need to be careful not to kill some poor innocent unborn killdeer. The elegant little birds lay their eggs in the sand on the ocean beaches, but here on the river (where there is very little sand) they lay them right in the middle of these large flows of fist size round river rocks. The little speckled things are very hard to see. If you are walking around on the rocks, and don't want to be scrambling some baby killdeer, pay attention to the mother. She will light off from the nest as you approach and set up a real racket with her high pitched call. “cree cree cree”. She will fly around you but try to lead you away. If you continue to get close to her eggs, she will land nearby, keep up her “cree” but also start a wounded bird behavior. She will put one wing out and down and extend and spread her tail feathers. She becomes very visible and awkward looking and will then limp away from you until you get too close. Then she will take to the air again. 

When she does this behavior, you are probably getting ready to step on her eggs, so be looking at your feet. The eggs are very tiny (smaller than golf balls) and they are a dark brown with lighter brown spots. The nests we saw all had 3 eggs in them (the first nest someone, perhaps me, had already tread on. Made me sad). The nests don't have any sticks or other structure but some of the rocks seem to have been pushed out of the way to make a little round depression area. We had these killdeer yelling at us on pretty much every rock bar that we hunted. I was concerned that there would be many preditors after the eggs, but that is evidently not so. I thought that racoons, for instance, would abound, but we didn't have any trouble with the little buggers during our camping, so maybe they were leaving the killdeer nests alone also.

why are they paddling away?

We hunted for agates on 4 or 5 large rock bars. Look for the low lying islands with lots of round rocks and don't waste your time searching the dirty rocks. Move around and fine good clean places to search. It is the old college statistics questions, is it better to search for your lost wallet in the darkness, where you are 90% sure you lost it but there is only a 10% chance of finding it given it is there, or search under the street light, where there is only a 10% chance that it is there, but a 90% chance of finding it if it is there. Answer: Who cares, we are looking for Agates. And they were pretty much everywhere.

We were finding agates that had some different features than we have seen before. A lot more of the pretty banded kind, and a lot of the of the red ones that my sister-in-law calls Cornelian. The ones we were finding were also large enough that some of them had definite centers. Open cores that had larger white crystals formed there. Very beautiful. We were also getting a lot of red and green Jasper. Jasper is another form of calcedony (like agate) but it is not translucent. See the pictures !!!

Our Haul from the first day.

The big boys

Part 4: Wildlife and Camping.

We didn't see a whole lot of wild life. Fish in the river, sure. Or at least we saw them jumping. But no sign of any mammals what so ever. Birds. We saw bald eagles (immature and mature), Great Blue Herons  (one every half mile or so, unless the same guy was following us around), Osprey, Canada Geese (and 12 month old goslings), crows and those killdeer. That was about it. What else was I expecting? Perhaps some racoons or an otter or beaver. Maybe Deer?



Immature Bald Eagle

We camped at Five Island (5 what? No idea). We pitched our tents in a bed of small stones and bushes, but if we had looked around a little we would have found a nice sandy meadow. We would have had to leave our boats 50 yards away. I'm not sure we would have been comfortable with that. There was a lot of nice dry and weathered drift wood close at hand and I had brought a foldable saw to cut up some fire wood so we quickly had a ready supply of materials for a night of camp fire.

Something about camping really turns your brain off from the concerns of everyday life. I have been having a lot of work stress and my partner had her own worries to escape from. But you get out on the river and you have your camp chores to be doing. Set up the tent, chop the wood, dig the fire pit, prepare the meal. Perhaps the difference of the task and the environs makes it easy to forget all of the stuff that is going on right back there in the work week. Whatever it was, it was a very welcome magic. I think my partner even forgave me when I burned our dinner in the coals.

It may surprise many of my readers to learn that, especially from the ample photographic evidence to the contrary, I am over 30. I have to go check my drivers license, but I may even be over 50. So there is this “sleeping on the ground” thing that I was not completely happy with. I went to REI and tried out their most recent array of light sleeping pads. I guess I could have gotten one of the “base camp” variety of pads for kayaking, but those things are so BIG. I was also arguing, with myself, that I wanted a better pad for backpacking. They have these ultra-light varieties that the nice sales person said were “greatly improved” and “very comfortable” but felt to me more like trying to sleep on a large zip lock bag. Yes, I did say “felt”. My cold weather bag is the kind that has no insulation for your back but depends on you having a sleeping pad that tucks into the convenient pocket there. This not only keeps your sleeping bag and pad in place during the night but it also reduces the packed size and weight of the bag. It does mean that you need to make sure the pads fit in the pocket. That is what I was doing whilst laying on the floor next to the rack of sleeping pads at REI. And you know what? not a single person gave me a funny look, though I think the 5 year old wanted to try out some of the pads also. I finally settled on a full length version of the pad I already owned, the REI 1.5 “winged” pad. It has these extra inflatable sides that keep you more centered as you sleep. Presumably that centering is a physical and not a mental thing.

The sleeping pad worked great on the bed of small stones that we had in the campsite. I was pretty impressed. But that doesn't help with my general problem that I like to sleep on my side and that is hard to do without a proper pillow. Oh well.

We heard some interesting sounds during the night. 2 huge splashes out in the water about a half hour after we turned in. Sounded like some teenage boy had dropped a really big rock from a low bridge into the deep water below. The splashes occurred close to our tent and then 5 minutes later close to our friends tent. What was it? A fish jumping? The sound was strange for that. A beaver slapping it's tail to scare us away? It was more of a “plunk” than a slap. Hmmmm. In the morning Julie found a golf ball in the water close to shore. Could someone have been doing driving practice at our camp from the bluff across the river? I doubt it.

We also had short conclave of coyotes howling up a storm in the distance. So we at least heard some mammals.

But the two loudest noises were man made. One was a water irrigation pump that was going until after dark down past the end of the island, and the other was a very loud party playing Spanish music off from the opposite direction. That went on until late in the night. Funny to get out away from civilization and then have your loud neighbors keep you up with their party.

Even back in my boy scout years, I was always the first person to be up in the morning. I liked to get up (usually in the freezing air) and put on my boots and walk around in the misty dawn. I would stoke up the fire and get the coffee going and enjoy the quiet. Today the sun was just up over the trees and I thought I would stroll down the nearby rock beach and look at the rocks with a different sun angle. I found one really nice sized deep orange agate. I gave it to my partner as her Mother's Day present. But I boiled water for coffee first. I am not an idiot.

Part 5: Epilogue

I want to say a little more about kayaking and the river. The four of us traveling have quite a bit of experience with ocean kayaks on flat water. We have also practiced (and actually done) rescues for people that have been flipped over in the water. But there is still this added aspect of the moving water. The river, in many places, is moving faster than you can swim. There are also places where the water is shallow enough that you could stand, but I am not sure you could get your feet under you in the current. And then there is the issue “sea monsters”. The same thing that gave us ample fire wood on the beach also deposits snags and logs under the surface. If you get swept into one of them you could get pulled under or even impaled. Neither of these things would be very good. So it behooves us to practice a certain amount of caution and keep in mind that we are the only rescue resource out there. Yes, a helicopter can be there in 30 minutes..... how long can you hold your breath?

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