The resurgence of the Xe Bang Fai river after flowing through Tham Khoun Ex one of the worlds largest caves.  Laos, SE Asia. Photographer Braden Gunem.

An excellent adventure in Laos. Packrafting the Xe Bang Fai river cave.

Last winter Claire and I were caving and packrafting in Northern Thailand.  When some friendly cavers told us we needed to take are Kokopelli boats to the giant Xe Bang Fai ( Tham Khoun Xe ) river cave in Laos.  A week or so later we rolled into the dusty town of Bualapha.   This region isn’t exactly tourist ready.  They are still cleaning up the unexploded ordinance from the Vietnam war.  Many people were less than friendly towards us (white Americans) and travel here was difficult.  While we were there the first restaurant opened in a shack near the entrance to the cave. They are planning for big changes. Go now.

Gallery: http://www.BradenGunem.com/XeBangFai

 

Claire and I watching a movie.

THE EXTRA SCENIC ROUTE TO THE MIDDLE FORK OF THE SALMON

 

With the onset of winter looming over our heads, Braden and I set out to complete a river trip we had been scheming for the entire summer. Thwarted by “bad weather” a few times, it appeared that a window of sunny skied opportunities just wasn’t in the making. I checked the forecast once again for the seventh time in three days;

“Yep, still no change. Two days of cold overcast. Two days of snow. And some rain here and there. I suppose we better just give it a go.”  And, that’s what we chose to do.

The trip stemmed from years of peering up Ship Island Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River where Braden guides in the summer. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness serves as the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48. Over 2 million acres of a giant chunk of unseparated remote terrain exist there. Ship Island Creek rises 6,000 feet above the Middle Fork’s river bed. The Middle Fork is about the most pristine of a wilderness river one could imagine, and exploring the heart of the territory that fuels it was alluring, to say the least.  Thousands of people apply by lottery for a chance to float it during permit season each year, with only a few hundred actually winning a permit.  By waiting until late season, we were A. past the window of needing a lottery permit, and B. more inclined to see less humans. Bingo. Our grandiose plan was to bushwhack ourselves and our boats right through the middle of the Frank Church, and descend to the banks of the Middle Fork.  From there, we’d float the waterway for 30 miles through the very aesthetic Impassible Canyon section.  The hike itself would require at least 30 miles of backcountry travel, so, our highly portable Kokopelli packrafts were, suitably, the boats of choice.

We started our journey by crossing the Main Salmon River, on a section that touches the wilderness border yet is lined with several ranches.  Our last little taste of civilization ended with me ringing a bell in order to obtain permission to cross the river on a private cable car.  The man I inquired permission from raced across the river using the cable in a skilled fashion that represented to me that he had probably done this a thousand times.  I felt like I was peering into the face of a pioneer from the 30’s. A very hearty head shake “No” was all the answer I needed. I didn’t feel the urge to argue with this Idaho Rancher Man, obviously very skeptical of our intentions.

“Humpfh. You’re going in there? You do know there’s bad weather coming, right? It’s probably some pretty rough moving in there…. Hmmmm.”

Braden and I swapped glances and nervous smiles, knowing it was time to end this conversation before we, heaven forbid, had second thoughts.

Creeping across the river with overloaded boats, we peered up at hills that disappeared into the clouds in the sky. I noticed a speck of a structure on top of the hills across the river, and realized that we would in a few short miles be standing at the same level.  Wow! Google Earth had been so deceiving. I finally grasped what 6,000 feet of vertical gain in six miles truly looked like.  So, with heavy packs and optimistic smiles, we left the river valley and began our jaunt up a faint horse trail into the Frank Church Wilderness.

One mile into the hike, I felt a bit more gait-steady, as if I wouldn’t tip over with each staggering step. Two miles in, we sat down and consumed of a portion of our three liters of wine we deemed necessary to bring along.  At about mile four-ish, we welcomed wind gusts blowing us sideways, and were both so trail weary that we decided to call it a day. After all, we had hiked for a whopping four and a half hours.  Watching the sun set over the Main Salmon River and munching on oatmeal cream pies, we giggled about our trip so far; four miles in and the big bad Frank Church was already kicking our asses!

Each day, new challenges transpired that I ignored as omens of destruction, and attributed them rather to lessons from the wilderness reminding us to stay humble.  The terrain remained a consistent level of incredibly steep ascents followed by equally steep descents on repeat, again and again.  We reached the lake, our somewhat midpoint destination spot, a couple days prior to the proposed forecast I had looked at a week before predicting snow.  From this point on, we would have our toughest part of the trip navigation-wise, as we would be bushwhacking and route-finding all the way down to the Middle Fork.

The next morning, we awakened with a sky nudging us to leave.  However, Ship Island Lake lured us in for a paddle instead, with absurdly sexy granite fjords dotting the northern brim, and the most charming tiny island in the center of the water.  Besides, we had hauled those spaceboats 20 miles in for such a moment as this. Decision. Made. Our bagel picnic breakfast was even a bit romantic in a weird, perhaps masochistic sort of way, as we sat and endured wind-blast slams to the face while occasionally sneaking bites of bagel.  We finally motivated to ascend out of the lake basin and beyond when the first day of “winter” released itself. The top of the saddle twelve hundred feet above us, the pass we needed to cross, was getting exponentially more shrouded in a cloud until eventually, it was a complete whiteout.  As the storm further brewed, we reevaluated our trip, considering bailing altogether with our heads hung low and retreating back along the heinous path we just trekked.

However, as in any wilderness situation (or any situation with risk, for that matter), sometimes one just has to face the unknown, make A decision, and stick to it no matter what.  So, for better or for worse, we were getting to that damn River of No Return.  During the period of time we had stopped to discuss our options, we glanced at the sky simultaneously.  Lo and behold, there was a beaming window of overcast. Not sunny…but not snowing, either!  This was our opportunity.  We raced up to the saddle, bargaining with the clouds overhead to just keep moving.  Peering out above the lake, the forest, and the immense granite jaggedness, we deemed our decision to continue into the abyss entirely worthwhile, because this was perhaps the most beautiful place we’d ever seen in Idaho.  But, we didn’t soak it in for too long, for a new storm already brewed and it was time to rally down.

Two days later, with soggy feet and tuckered out bodies, we completed our wobble down to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The initial view of the flowing beauty had us both jumping up and down. Finally, we could celebrate with our last oatmeal cream pie, remove those giant packs for good, and embark on to the BEST PART, the boating!  We loaded our packrafts near the confluence of Big Creek, and I tried to be a little discreet inflating mine, so Braden wouldn’t notice if I had any giant tears from a week of limboing and snagging under down logs.  The repair kit within quick reach, I was ready to complete some stealthy and secretive repairs, if need be. But, alas, they’re tougher than they initially appear. Not a single slice. Phew.

We reentered the world of human encounters by paddling up to a group of pack rafting folks we observed directly across our loading zone.  It was a group of about 20, most of them floating the Middle Fork for the first time.  After conversing for a quick moment, we said our goodbyes, and began our bebop through the Impassible Canyon.

We spent the day initiating conversations with the merganzers and marveling over the geological formations, brought to us by centuries and eras of wind, water, and pure power.  I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else in this very moment than floating down this section of river, but I always feel that way about the Middle Fork.

I considered all the fearless explorers who had encountered this place before us.  I daydreamed about the Sheepeater natives, perhaps trekking through some of the same terrain we had just crossed, in a much more gallant fashion than ours, of course. I thought about preceding pioneers, constructing their own crafts to navigate these waters, sometimes being forced to disassemble and use the scraps for lumber.  I imagined the old hermits who historically lived along the river and their initial descents, waters foaming and roaring along the way.  Pfffft. And I thought our trip was tough?   In this day and age, it is a privileged wonder that we can rely on packrafts to carry us along for this journey.  In my wildest of dreams, I’m still a rogue pioneer adventurer, making first descents into unknown territories in the spirit of the great explorers who have come before me.  But, at the end of the day, it’s also equally bedazzling to hop into a comfortable boat and eat an oatmeal cream pie. – Claire Cripps  www.eclairecripps.com

Gallery: http://bradengunem.com/Big-Horn-Crags/

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Gindling  glides past ice formations in Tears.

Deepest cave in America goes deeper.

This past July, a group of core American cavers spent 10 days exploring and mapping remote alpine caves in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. 

With a surveyed depth of 1,659 ft, “Tears of the Turtle” is the deepest cave in the continental U.S. It is the first 500 meter deep limestone cave in the U.S.A., and on this expedition was pushed further than ever before.

“Tears”, as it’s known to cavers, became the deepest cave in 2014.   At this time, the survey team surpassed the depth of previous record holder, New Mexico’s Lechuguilla cave, by a few feet.  On that expedition, the team was halted at a passage of bottomless mud they named the “Slough of Despond”.  Expedition leader Jason Ballensky recalled, “It’s the kind of mud you worry about getting stuck in and not getting out,” and getting stuck in cold, sloppy mud at the bottom of “Tears” is not a place a person would ever want to be.  It’s the total opposite of climbing El Capitan, where one can simply retreat back to the bottom if something goes wrong. 

“Tears of the Turtle” isn’t the glamorous cave pictured in one’s mind. There are no giant passages filled with beautiful formations; just an endless narrow crack descending into the abyss.  Exploring this cave is Difficult with a capital D.  Arguably the most remote spot in America, the hardest part isn’t the 22 mile wilderness approach; it’s not the sheer difficulty of descending the 49 ropes through tight, sharp, icy 37 degree fahrenheit passages of sludge.  It’s mostly the task of hauling a cold and mud covered self back up the 500 meters to the surface with barely functioning ascenders jammed with goop.  A rescue from the bottom is unthinkable.

On this expedition, there was an advanced camp deep in a borehole passage above the previously unsurpassed mud pit. The camp provided the extra margin of safety and time needed to explore deeper.  Two teams of three cavers each spent three days underground, and used the middle day for an attempt to explore deeper.  Several other cavers hauled gear to and from the camp in support of the mission. 

Since the 2014 trip, plans emerged to surpass the “Slough of Despond” and an extra 1000 feet of rope was brought for what lay below.  One plan involved bringing “mud shoes”, a sort of snow shoe device made for glacial mud flats.  These quickly proved useless.  The first descending team spent most of their efforts aid climbing the wall of the passage to surpass the mud.   Beyond that obstacle, the team found more tight passages that continued mostly horizontally.  Hardly the dream borehole passage everyone had hoped.  Altogether, the teams combined surveyed 600 feet of new passage that descended only 30 feet.

Tears continues downward and we are already making plans to go back.” — Jason Ballensky

Gallery: http://bradengunem.com/Tears/

 

Taking a break on the Rio Bocay in Nicaragua.

Bosawás Biosphere Reserve – Following a river through the rainforest of Nicaragua.

I awake in a panic and spring upright in my sleeping bag.  The contents of my stomach are desperately trying to escape.  I frantically unzip the tent door and my head exits the door just as vomit sprays onto my shoes outside.  The retched sounds are almost drowned out by the orchestra of the rainforest.  This has been a reoccurring episode on this starry night, each time Claire’s comforting hand strokes my back until I fall asleep again.  The growing pile of puke smells strangely similar to last nights dinner of moldy tamales, a gift from the settlers on the adjacent shore.  I may never eat tamales again.   

It’s the first night of what some would say to be a poorly planned river trip.  Yesterday my partner Claire and I launched our pack rafts on the Rio Bocay in Ayapal, Nicaragua.  Like the phone lines and electricity, the road ends there.  We are headed along the BOSAWAS reserve to the Rio Coco and eventually

the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.  We have packed enough food to survive for a couple of weeks.  There are no roads out.

In a sense; the river begins where the road ends.  At the downstream edge of this bustling market town is a de facto harbor filled with hand dug canoes.  Pigs squeal as they are weighed and tossed into a truck, while children happily splash in the water.  Families have traveled several days by river from their rainforest homes to sell their crops, or unlucky native animals, and purchase luxuries from the outside world. 

The sun was setting when the bus dropped us at the far side of this frontier town; so we decided to stay the night and depart in the morning.  At the gateway to the river there is a ramshackle checkpoint staffed with some bored looking soldiers.  We try to be inconspicuous, which is impossible, and walk past. We didn’t exactly look into the need for permits and prefer to avoid the authorities altogether.  The officials didn’t seem to notice as much as the local kids while we inflated our vibrant boats.  Some little girls take our Alpacka boats for a cruise and we meet a mother, Helda, who has travelled, by canoe, four days upstream with her small children and brother.  That night we share the river bank with them.  We ate dinner at a shanty restaurant with “World Food Program” bags of rice in the corner.  Helda prepared a dinner of boiled plantains, cooked over a fire at the rivers edge, there was a dessert of raw sugar.  The smallest child, maybe 2 years old, begs for and receives a second handful.  He delightfully licks his hands clean of every last sweet morsel.  As the family prepares for bed by wrapping themselves in blankets and black plastic sheets we set up our space age tent with LED lights.  They have been camping on the river bank for a few days; in the morning they will pack their canoe and head home.  Their village at the Amaka river, a tributary to the Bocay is only a two day return journey down stream.

I spend the second day trying to sleep the nausea away while wondering if we should retreat upstream and go on a relaxed beach vacation on the pacific coast.  In the eddy next to our camp some young native, Mayangna, guys are putting the final touches on a new canoe.  Their presence creates a stark contrast to the foreign settlers living across the river.  Claire spends the day visiting the Spanish speaking homestead; Which consist of a couple of dirt floored shacks surrounded by stalks of corn and children.

When we started on this journey we thought we would be mostly alone in an uninhabited jungle.  We were very wrong!  We are rarely out of site of people.  Our down river progress is announced from neighbor to neighbor by children, running on the banks, with a distinct primal howl.  It appears to mean “Look at the river”, and is sent back and forth.  As we approach each home children and adults alike scurry down to the river to observe the spectacle that is us.  At night we often awake to flashlights passing our camp.  Are they hunting? Are they the notorious drug traffickers of the region?  Many people tell us its dangerous to sleep along the river.  They insist that we sleep in their homes or camp in close proximity.  Are they paranoid from their wartime experiences?  Are there leftover landmines on the beach?

One day we float into a deep pool lined with a handful of men and boys all fishing with their landlines.  There is a large gravel bar on the opposite side of their farm.  They seem disinterested and grant our request to camp on the beach.  Like most days around sunset, the locals come over to stare at us. Sometimes they speak, but they mostly just look at us and our foreign gear.  While I was attempting to pole one such man’s canoe he snagged Claire’s passport which was out drying.  I saw it in his pocket and snagged it back.  I told him “You are not my friend.”

This particular man came with his curious children.  Who stood at his side and watched.  He asked us if we knew his friends Juan and Maria in Los Angeles.  We don’t.  He offers us a tour of his farm in the morning and heads home with one of my camera batteries to charge on his small solar system.

It turns out Danny Jr. is a bit of a renaissance man on the Rio Bocay.  He is a non native settler here; an entrepreneur that got a good deal on some land.  He operates a cheesery complete with a hand made cheese press in his dirt floored home.  Every morning he travels the river collecting milk from local cattle farmers and makes about 60 pounds of fresh cheese per day.  He talks of some caves in the limestone cliffs a few kilometers behind his farm.  I wonder if he has ever heard of aging cheese in a cave. 

His wife gives Claire a lesson in making tortillas.  It’s quite simple to make this staple food.  Boil the corn, Grind the corn, Press the Corn, Cook the Corn.  These are probably the heartiest tortillas ever made.  Guaranteed to scrape your colon clean.  Danny Jr. laughs when he learns we have been eating Bimbo Brand tortillas on the trip.  While watching his nephew play a game of beat the pig.  He mentions the hog eating crocodile that lives in the pool between us and our camp.  As we paddle back I’m visualizing  dark shadows with teeth, in the waters depths.  …TO BE CONTINUED…

Gallery: http://bradengunem.com/Bosawas/

 

 

Wedding Photographer Colorado Idaho and Utah ski towns.

Getting Married in the mountains of Colorado.

It’s beginning to look allot like Christmas in Crested Butte!  I often wonder why more couples don’t get married in Colorado in the Winter.  The wedding photography would be so special in the snow globe of the Rocky Mountains.  Granted it is also beautiful in the spring, summer and fall.  There are so many great outdoor venues for the daring and some quaint spots indoors too.  Basically the Colorado mountains are perfect unless its mud season.  Then I will see you in the Utah desert or the beach somewhere.

Wedding Gallery

How to repair a bent aperture arm on a Nikon camera.

I learned a new way to break a camera the other day, but more importantly I learned how to repair it in the field.  There I was several days from internet access let alone a Nikon Service Center; Who BTW are more often than not a pain in the ass to deal with.

Apparently some Nikkor lenses don’t have a tab to stop them from rotating past the postion (White dot on the camera aligned with white dot on the lens) where it should be removed from the camera body.  This causes the lens to be stuck on the camera in a weird position if you keep twisting even further in the direction to remove the lens the lens will bend the aperture lever.  This is exactly what I did with my 14-24 2.8 on a D600.  This causes an error on the screen since the aperture arm in the camera dosen’t activate the aperture lever on the lens to close the aperture blades in the lens when you take a picture. Since the lens aperture wont stop down; you will be over exposing the image unless you manually expose for the largest aperture of the lens.

So there I was totally baffled with a lens stuck on the camera.  It felt like the lens or the camera mount was broken.  I could feel crepitus inside when rotating it, but every thing looked fine except for the lens was in a strange position on the camera with the top of the lens facing the bottom of the camera.  After much confusion and cursing the lens came off and I could see the aperture arm was bent.  Well I figured I was SOL and I would spend allot of money to get it repaired, but since it was already broken I figured I might as well try to straiten it.  So I grabbed my trusty Leatherman and went to work.  I just eyeballed it and bent it back to what looked like a proper alignment.  It worked and the camera was back in operation in a mater of minutes:)  After the trip I contacted a camera repair shop.  They told me that that is what they sometimes do to repair a bent lever.  So my camera was repaired cheap and easy with a Leatherman.

 

 

Which current photographers are inspiring me?

Well there are the classics that I very much appreciate. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Arnold Newman to name only two. They both left large bodies of important work. Then there is the recently discovered Vivian Maier. She lived in their era and left behind thousands of undeveloped “classic” images, but who is making great photographs now?

After Tim Hetherington died I watched his “Diary” more than a couple times. Since then I have been shooting allot more video on my iphone. Tim’s work along with legendary war photographer James Nachtwey. Sometimes makes me want to catch the next flight to a war zone to cover the conflict that never happened while I was in the military. These guys were and are very dedicated to their work. Photography that has made a difference.

I once had a portfolio review by a very well established photographer. One of his comments was that when the composition got hard I would tilt the camera. In other words I should keep the horizon level and look harder rather than take an easy way out. I took it with a grain of salt, but still question myself when I tilt the camera today. I remember the first time a saw a Ragnar Axlsson image. I don’t know where I saw it, but it was an image of an old man rowing a small boat. It is still burnt into my mind. The eyes of the man in a such a surreal setting. A testament to the power of the still image. From his latest project : “Last Days of the Arctic” You will notice a few images where the horizon is way off axis. If the composition works he doesn’t care if the horizon is so off it looks like the world is ending. This has added a little validity to my own tilting horizons. In this long term project Rax documents the people and their life styles of the vanishing arctic.

Renato D’Agostin seeks a different or fresh perspective of over shot subjects. For his project “The Beautiful Cliché “ He achieved just that of Venice. A very over photographed place. He says photographers had given up on finding a new vision there. Any idiot can go to a location and get the classic shots that have been taken thousands of times before. You arrive check out a couple post card stands, buy a map and check your watch to see if you have time for coffee before sunset. How creative is making the same thing that someone else has done? Like Chase Jarvis said; “Don’t try to be better; try to be different. Different is better.” That being said; I can see a little influence of each of these guys in some of my own current work.

Although sometimes as photographers we compete; we are really a giant collective that feeds the organism that is photography. Pretty pictures are important to me, but I would like to be creative and to help make the world a better place. That really makes me wonder what Sebastião Salgado is up to.

The ultimate river trip photo kit.

Are you going on a white water adventure river trip and want to take a camera? What camera should you take and how can you protect it from the water while rafting?

I was a river guide for a few years. Running rivers became an addiction. I still try to work a few trips a summer on the Middle Fork of the Salmon river in Idaho. In my opinion it is the best 6 day trip in the U.S.A.

I prefer pelican cases to protect and transport my cameras on the river. They are solid, affordable and while I don’t believe there is such a thing as waterproof they are very water resistent. They are not bulletproof and require maintenance and common sense. Pelican recommends that you replace the “o” ring every year. The pressure it exerts against the lid is what creates the seal and keeps the contents dry. Like an old sleeping bag it becomes compressed over time and needs to be replaced. Of course sand, hair or a camera strap hanging out of the case will allow water to enter. Some people like the Watershed bags with the padded liners for their camera gear. I use Watershed bags for my clothing and non crushable items on the river. They really are the only DRY bag, as opposed to the semi wet bags with the traditional roll down top. I used to throw a tripod, wrapped in soft goods, in my dry bag. It usually settles towards the outside of the bag risking damage to the tripod and abrasion of the bag from the hard tripod rubbing it. That problem was solved when I got a Gitzo Traveller (5 section) tripod. It is sturdy and supper lightweight, not to mention almost pocket sized.

The kit ready to grab and scout a rapid or go on a hike.

The Gitzo will fit in a Pelican 1450 case along all the Fuji X series gear and a bad ass SureFire headlamp.

Lately I have been enjoying the Fuji X series cameras. They are small, light and offer superb image quality. I started with an X100 and lately have been using the X-Pro 1 and it’s three prime Fujinon lenses (18,35 and 60mm). Im not sure what will get left behind to make room for the Samyang X Mount compatible 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens. I’m excited to see some third party manufactures making gear for the X mount and can’t wait to try out this lens. I am wondering what else is in store for the X series. X-Pro 2?

Here are some images from my time on the Middle Fork of the Salmon this season working with my friends at Idaho River Adventures.

Hating on winter from Astillero.

It seems I picked a good winter to miss early season skiing in Colorado. While friends at home are dreaming of snow, but biking into the new year. I currently find myself floating around Nicaragua shooting for NGOs. I’m a big fan of one way ticket, no literary, travel and this trip is that.

It seems the more I travel the faster I head to the places other travelers avoid. Like Astillero. There isn’t anything to do there except extreme chillin and you can’t have a meal without gallo pinto. OK it’s not exactly party central and you have to wait for high tide to clean the garbage off the beach, but it’s a real deal working town.

I planned on meeting a contact after one night in a sleepy fishing village. That was five days ago. Before I pushed my cash reserve down to the last $5 and decided it was time to either get a job lobster diving or catch the bus, for two hours, to the nearest ATM. There is something special about being the only gringo in town. After the 1st 24 hours of wondering around sticking a giant camera in peoples faces. The locals have heard about you and wave you over to photograph the new baby or things they find interesting themselves.

My first night I had beers with a lobster diver. Who promptly invited me to go out on the boat. Two days later I was wondering if he would even remember the plan. Well I went on the boat and would have gone diving if it wasn’t for the ear infection. When I was leaving town the boat captain asked if I needed money for the bus.

BTW: OSHA doesn’t exist in Nicaragua and lobster diving here isn’t for pansies.

I think I might have just found a long term project. Now I have to call the contact and apologize.

Stay loose and go with the flow.