Saturday, 25 January 2014

Preparation for our paddle from the Hume Dam to Echuca.

Cleaning out the boats. They should at least start free of Murray Mud. :)

This will be the first time for me on the Upper Murray and the first time paddling with my beautiful wife and soul-mate, Ruth.  

We are looking forward to exploring this beautiful stretch of water and sharing each other's adventure so much! I swore after my trip from Echuca to the sea, that my next trip would be with my wife. Journeys like these are as affirming and life changing as they are beautiful. For me, it is important to share them and with the most significant person in my life, doubly so. The trip was a chance for Ruth to witness how the river is important to me and for me to further understand why. In addition I had the pleasure of the company of my best friend and, as it turns out, after 23 years of marriage, being thrilled by her strength, bravery, good nature and humour. I was also humbled by her tolerance of me. I have quite a few rough edges.

But I am jumping to the end before I have even begun. Now that we had decided to go, how does one go about getting a show like this on the road?

The first step in preparing for this trip was working out what we were up for. This means tapping into the experience of others, both in the form of river guides and other paddler's experiences.

There is a very good river guide called 'River of Islands: Charts of the River Murray - Yarrawonga Weir to Hume Dam' by Kath and Leon Bentley (1985) which is worth acquiring. It is mentioned in Barry and Maureen Wright's 'Murray River Charts' and available on the CD version of their charts by agreement with the authors.

Murray River Access Guides provide an alternative to the above publications and at around $8 a booklet in 2014, they are a good deal. They include roads and river kilometres, but do not show snags, or include insights and history about stretches of the river as the other publications do. Whilst it is possible to see where you are using google maps, for the convenience and safety of knowing where you are at all times, it is worth having one of these maps. Phone reception is poor along many stretches and technology requires batteries and charging strategies which can fail. It is better to have a hard copy. 

We were lucky to have advice from others based on their experiences in the Upper Murray. This helped us feel much more confident on approaching this stretch of river. Even though conditions change dramatically with river level and time of the year, reading the accounts of others helps to understand the nature of the river and its potential dangers.

River levels change rapidly depending on the time of year and the needs of users and the environment downstream. In preparation for the irrigation season, 50 times more water is released than during the winter. Check water levels before you go. If the river has dropped recently, banks can be steep, high and muddy. Some paddlers have even experienced quicksand. Beware, a wet beach may not be firm - test with your paddle first. If your paddle slips in, don't step out. Mud can make camping in caravan parks an attractive alternative to bush camping in these conditions. Boat ramps, especially larger ones, are reliable exit points. High water is easier to deal with. At times of high water it is easy to find camping spots. There are beautiful islands, grassy banks and plenty of safe room away from tall red gums. At high water Albury is difficult to pull up at. There is a boat ramp just downstream of the park in town, or, if you can manage it, roots to clamber up. Floods are rare as this section of river is usually able to be managed within its capacity and the effect of irrigation water rejections due to unexpected rainfall events is more of a problem from the Barmah Forest onwards.

If the river is low, there are many gravel races and pebble islands as far as Howlong. These will be shown in the river charts, but not the access guides. Alternatively you can see them using google maps before your trip.

example of information on a chart from River Murray Charts

Shallow water near Albury: Google Earth

Generally follow the current, (this will be where the deepest water is), however, beware of being washed into willows and snags. The fast current means that you need to turn away from hazards well before you get to them, otherwise the current can take you sideways into them. The fast current also makes large and at times, powerful swells, which can appear suddenly and unexpectedly move your boat around. It is not the best place to learn how to paddle: this is better done downstream of Echuca where the river is slower. If you do fall out of your boat, keep your legs up and in front of you, so that they do not become trapped in snags (and you can use them to bounce off them should you be swept into them). Look after yourself. Your boat can be replaced. Do not allow yourself to be between your boat and a snag, you may become trapped. If you are a new paddler, only take on this section if you have good balance and are confident. It is a good idea to have an experienced paddler with you. People have descended the upper river alone with little paddling experience, but it is not a wise thing to do.

In sea kayaks turning can be difficult. To turn around, use the eddies on inside corners and snags. Nose into these and allow the current to do the work for you. It will bring the back of the boat around. Approaching the bank facing into the current is a much slower and gentler process where you will have more control. When pulling out from the bank, leave your stern against the bank, allow the current to catch the bow. Only start paddling once you are facing the direction that you want go. Given how narrow the river is at times, how fast the current is, and the number of snags it can be the only way to turn around at times. It is best practiced before you go to the Upper Murray. The same skills are very helpful in the narrows upstream of Picnic Point.

Turning into the shore using the current to bring around the stern.

Using the current to take bring around the bow when leaving a beach.

Navigation near and in Lake Mulwala can be difficult. To add to the complexity, the Ovens river joins the Murray river here. Without good charts it is easy to go off into side channels, or even end up in the Ovens. It may pay to have a topographic map, or use your smart phone for a GPS fix through here. Keep a sharp eye out for channel markers. Take time to explore the billabongs and side waters if you can. Locals and fishermen call the area 'the Everglades of the Murray'.

Since the weather is expected to be hot we have prepared meals which can be eaten hot, or cold, without creating too much rubbish. This includes a lot of fruit and vegetables. We chose hot weather things as these seem to last longer. Each day we inspected their quality and ate thise which needed eating first. We had very little wastage.

Fruit and veg for ten days for two people, with some top up possibilities along the way. This all went in the front compartments of one of our boats.

This initial pack list for my paddle from Echuca to the sea, which we used as a guide for what to take. Every trip is different, but it is good to develop a check list and work from there.

The next step is to actually get everything out, get a visual and check the condition and amount of gear..

Then check everything on your boats. Take tools and know how to fix them.

Facebook entries: Murray River Paddle

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