Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Final Review - Bliss-Stick Tuna

So now that the honeymoon phase is over and I’ve really had a chance to get to know the Bliss-Stick Tuna, I wanted to do a follow-up review of how I think the boat performs. It should be noted that I am in fact a Bliss-Stick US Ambassador, but even so, I will give you what I feel is an honest assessment.

First off, here is little bit about me. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I started boating about 8 years ago, and immediately fell in love with the creeking aspect of it. I have never been much for playboating, although I do enjoy it from time to time – a lot of this probably has to do with the limited availability of it around these parts. Many years before I became part of the Bliss-Stick US family, I was boating with a Mystic, and loved its great all-around performance -- boofs great, resurfaces well, extremely maneuverable, and stays steady in swirly/boily water. That said, I had wanted it to be a bit faster (on some runs), have a little bit harder edges for peeling into eddies, and have a bit more volume (especially for multi-day self-support trips).

When the first details of the Tuna started to release, I began to salivate -- it appeared to address all the small qualms I had with the Mystic. Having a hard time containing myself, I contacted Bliss-Stick US to find out when it was planned to release and also if they would be interested in having me test it out and do a review on my blog. This is actually how our relationship started to form and I became a Pacific Northwest Ambassador.

When the Tuna finally released in April of this year, I knew that I would soon get my chance to see if the performance would meet the specs. When the new boat was finally delivered to Portland, I drove up after work to greet it. Unwrapping the boat, I was excited to see that it had retained the same outfitting as the Mystic, which I really love, it just fits me like a glove, especially with the adjustable/aggressive thigh hooks. All the lines looked good as well, and I was super excited to get it on the water! Since I’ve already done a first impressions review (here), and a multi-day self-support follow-up (here), I’ll concentrate my review on the months that followed.

The pick-up

My first real peek. Ain't she a beaut?!

After spending a bit of time in the Tuna, the big decision I needed to make was whether to make my trusty Mystic or this new craft my weapon of choice for everyday boating. My initial thought was to use the Mystic for steep, tight, and technical, while using the Tuna for bigger runs and self-support. Since then I have completely fallen in love with the Tuna, and my Mystic (which I still hold a candle for) has started to get covered in a fine blanket of dust. So, what is it that I like so much about this boat?! Well, let me break it down based on some specific criteria.

This is one of the areas I was a little concerned about. With the Mystic being so easy to spin around in the technical stuff, I was afraid that the extra length would make it a bit harder. For me this has not been the case, which I can only attribute to its much flatter hull design. Even on steep/tight runs, I haven’t had a problem changing directions or spinning the boat around while making last second reactionary decisions. In fact, the first time I took the Tuna out, it was on one of most technical local runs, The Miracle Mile section of the NFMF Willamette, where I felt immediately at ease.

Making moves down the Miracle Mile (photo by Roman Androsov)

I much prefer the primary stability of a planing hull boat over a displacement one. The compromise is usually less secondary stability, which I’ve adapted to over the many years of paddling flat bottom boats. Not surprisingly, the Tuna has great primary, but I’ve also found the secondary to be quite good as well. Basically, I never feel like the boat is too tippy, even in boily/squirrely water or when I put it on edge. Either way, it seems to stay right where it supposed to -- underneath me.

Staying in control while entering Wall of Voodoo - Cooper River, WA (photo by Jason Naranjo)

Keepin' it bottom side down in the middle of Island -- Upper Upper Cispus, WA (photo by Isaac Preistley)

Edge Control:
Catching eddies and ferrying has also been a pleasure in the Tuna, due to its sharpened edges. This helps tremendously, peeling the longer boat into eddies and keeping it on line when you dip the edge in. Coming from a couple of years in a Pyranha Burn (older model), I was a bit nervous about the edges at first. With the Burn, I tended to get tripped up a bit in squirrelly water. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Burn is a great boat, it was just one thing that seemed to give me problems from time to time. For some reason this does not happen to me with the Tuna. I did like how the Burn would almost give you whiplash while pulling into eddies, and although the Tuna doesn’t quite dig in as much, it still rails in with ease, allowing me to catch those micro eddies. Ferries are also much improved by the edges – of course speed also helps here, which the Tuna has plenty of and which I’ll discuss next.

Digging in an edge at the bottom tier of Island - Upper Upper Cispus, WA (photo by Isaac Preistley)

This boat is fast, probably the fastest boat I’ve ever paddled. It doesn’t take too much effort to get it up to speed, and once it is, it’s a real missile. This isn’t much of an advantage in low volume creeks, but with bigger water, speed can make or break you. It also helps for blasting through big holes. It’s really amazing how well it does in this situation; in fact, it’s right on par with my ol’ Prijon Hercules, which was a full on battering-ram. Of course you don’t have to take my word on how fast this boat is, simply see which boat took the first and third spots at this year’s Adidas Sickline competition – obviously they had some amazing pilots as well (Sam Sutton & Mike Dawson respectively; read about it here).

Blasting through the bottom hole at Island - Upper Upper Cispus, WA (photo by Isaac Preistley)

Who doesn’t like boofin’?! If you’re a creek boater, obviously you want your boat to do this well. Once again, I was a little nervous that this boat wouldn’t boof as effortlessly as my Mystic, due to the length. What I can tell you after months of using it as my full-time creeker, is it boofs like a champ! Whether it’s rock boofs or water boofs, I haven’t had a problem pulling up the nose on it. That said, when I do tip down the nose a bit to land bigger drops, it resurfaces quickly and in control, and I’ve yet to get significantly stern-squirted. All of this has made me much more comfortable running bigger ledge drops with a spicy run-out.

Takeoff at Boulder Sluice - Little White Salmon, WA (photo by Chris Arnold)

A view from the cockpit - McCoy Creek, WA

Coming in for a landing - Lower Wind River, WA (photo by Chris Arnold)

Pancakin' it - Lower Wind, WA (photo by Chris Menges)

Setting an angle - Callaghan Creek, BC (photo by Adam Frey)

I’ve always told myself not to critique a boat based on its rolling ability, but have started to come around a little bit on this. It should be noted that I do a modified C to C roll, so my assessment will only have some relevance to the standard sweep roll that most folks use. Basically what I can tell you is that I’ve had no problem rolling this boat. I believe the lowered sidewalls at the location of your hips have actually made it roll a little easier than the Mystic. To be completely honest, the only boat I’ve felt contributed to my poor roll performance was the large Burn, and that was based on the old version of that boat.

...and back up again

Okay, that’s great and all, but there’s got to be something I don’t like about the boat…
Certainly. There is no boat (or any product for that matter) that I’ve owned/used that doesn’t have a character flaw or two. As I’ve stated in my previous Tuna reviews, one thing I really disliked were the original grab loops; However, I’ve made my own, which has completely resolved this issue (see my instructions here). I also don’t like that they omitted two of the hard/security points that can be found just behind the seat on the Mystic. For locking into a pinned boat, or even roping it around, these can be very handy. Of course making a modification to fix this would be a little more difficult.

Old grab loops
Modified grab loops

Not there on the Tuna
The security points on the Mystic

Another issue I’ve had is denting the bottom/corner of the stern on a few occasions, without me even knowing when it happened. I'm not sure if this because it's squared off (and even has a bit of an edge), or if it was just a random thing. To date this has only been a minor issue, as it’s popped out on its own or by pouring hot/boiling water into the stern and letting it sit for a couple of minutes or so. I did check with the fellas at Bliss-Stick US, and it was the first/only time they had heard of it; therefore this may be an isolated incident and/or non-issue.

From here you can see the squared off stern of Tuna (right). Also note that it has a bit of an edge.

As previously stated, I love this boat! Simply put, it is the best performing boat I have ever paddled – it just really suits my style of boating. It took everything I liked about the Mystic, and resolved the misgivings. None of my gripes about the Tuna are performance related, and are more of functional annoyances, which can either be fixed or aren’t enough of an issue to take way from the overall appeal of this boat. As my progression in the sport continues, I’m confident that this boat will take me to the next level of paddling, assuming my own mental state and physical ability will allow. This is a high performance/all around creek boat that Bliss-Stick should be very proud of!

A happy customer!

So there you have it! Now head over and check out the Tuna at the Bliss-Stick US website, here. If you any questions you can also contact them directly by email at, or by calling (423)619-4680. Feel free to ask me any questions as well; if I can't answer them, I'll send you to someone who can.
Here's a couple of extra goodies:

A video compilation I put together of the Tuna rockin' PNW creeks:

Watch the Sam and Mike kick tail at the 2012 Adidas Sickline finals (obviously they're much better boaters than I...):

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Deschutes River, OR - Dillon Falls to Meadow Camp (10.20.12)

Rarely do I find myself boating on the east side of the Cascades in Oregon. This is mainly due to a limited river selection, and frankly, with all the classic runs on the west side, it's hard to find the motivation to head over there. However, in Fall when things on our side haven't really started to come in yet, some opportunities near Bend present themselves and allow us to get back on the water again. I had actually been thinking about boating in the high desert earlier in the week, and then on Friday, my buddy Joe Bushyhead suggested we head over. After looking at options/water levels, we figured our best bet was the Dillon Falls to Meadow Camp section on the Deschutes River -- with that, we called around to rally the troops. Along with Joe and me, we'd have Roman Androsov, Andy Janoski, and Alex Scott.

Our flow for the day, ~825cfs

Since we would only be going for the day, we met fairly early on the edge of town, so we could carpool to Bend, about 2 1/2 hours away. After stopping near McKenzie Bridge to pick up Andy, we headed up and over Santiam Pass. Along the way we were treated to vibrant Fall colors, and even a little snow at pass level. Coming down the east side of the pass we stopped to take a couple of pictures along the way.

Lots of Fall foliage on our drive up the McKenzie

A view looking toward Mount Washington (covered in clouds) on the other side of the pass

The Three Sisters, from just outside of Bend. It's a little bit dryer on this side of the fence.

We soon reached the city of Bend. Conveniently the run we were doing was only a few miles out of town, so it wasn't long before we reached the take-out to drop off the shuttle car. Stepping out of the car was a rude awakening, with the coldest air temps I had felt of the season. I was glad that I had brought plenty of layers for underneath the drysuit, and I didn't waste much time changing into them. Once all of us were suited up, we piled in Joe's truck, and headed to the put-in at Dillon Falls.

One thing about Bend is that they spent a lot of time and money developing the outdoor recreation sites, helping to make it one of the top outdoors/adventure towns in the country. This is obviously a double-edged sword, but it is nice from a convenience standpoint, with picnic tables, boat ramps, and a trail running the length of the river. After putting on, we boated down a couple hundred yards, before getting back out to scout Dillon Falls, the first major drop of the run.

Roman preps his ride at the put-in

Andy gets ready for a good day on the water

Dillon Falls is certainly not the cleanest ledge around, but is still plenty fun. At this water level (~825cfs) there are essentially two line options, hard right or hard left, neither of which is a total gimmie. The right side ramps down through a couple hydraulics before dropping about 6’ to 8’ off a very narrow flake. This line is much harder than it looks, since most of the flow slides off into the crack in the middle of the falls, which I've seen many people fall into. As for the left side, it starts off with a 3’ shallow boof, followed by a flat stretch, and finally dropping over a ~12’ vertical plunge. The difficulty here is the angle of the 12’er, which complicates the takeoff/landing. After finishing up the falls, you’re not done – you must now get past the Dill Hole, which at this level, wasn't too sticky, although at the same time, you wouldn't want to fall into it sideways. I have personally watched three people swim from the Dill Hole (all at once!), and have also seen a couple videos of people swimming out of it; basically don’t get complacent here.

Dillon Falls

Looking just downstream of Dillon Falls. The Dill Hole is located at the top of the rapid.

After giving Dillon a scout, I offered to go first, and headed back up to my boat. Since I had already run the right line in the past, I wanted to give the left a go. I quickly buckled myself in, slid into the water, and set my course. The first 3’er has both a shallow take-off and landing, but must be run to line up for the 12’er. Paddling toward the lip I dug in my right edge and planted my right stroke. Coming of the lip I shifted my weight back toward the left to straighten back out, but also neglected to get over the front of my boat. Entering the water at a little steeper angle than I wanted, I went a little deep but resurfaced quickly. After busting through the Dill Hole, I eddied out on river-left, and hiked back up to watch the others take their turn and take over camera duty.

Andy and Alex scout their line

The author digs in on on the left line (photo by Joe Bushyhead)

Resurfacing in the spray (photo by Joe Bushyhead)

The author lines up for the Dill Hole (photo by Joe Bushyhead)

Both Andy and Joe also opted for the left line, while Roman and Alex decided to give the right side a go. The left side was definitely producing better lines, with Andy & Joe landing nicely below, and Roman &   Alex falling into the center crack, after struggling to get far enough right. Everybody but me decided to do another lap, with Alex being the only one to give the right another go. This time he was able to avoid falling into the deepest part of the crack, but still rolled off to the side, albeit much more in control – it really is a hard line to nail. As with the previous lap, all the left side lines went well.

Andy takes his turn

Landing nicely

Alex gets caught by the tricky current and falls into the center crack

Roman finds the crack as well

Joe, going left.

Andy on lap 2

Alex goes for the right line again, and is able to keep it a little more on line.

Roman decides to go left on his second lap, with good results.

Alex launches into Dill Hole

Bustin' through

After everyone had gotten their fill, I grabbed my drybag to start packing up my camera gear. Unfortunately the bag had tipped over and had about ½” of standing water at the bottom of it, along with my 17-50mm lens – damn!!! Needing to dry the lens out before using it again, I was now stuck with my 11-16mm ultra-wide for the remainder of the day. This was actually fine, since it was the first day I had used it in the field and I wanted to get a feel for it.

Below Dillon Falls & the Dill Hole, the river crashes down through a short gorge section, with some fun splashy water over sharp lava rock. Needless to say, this would be a very bad place to be out of your boat, which pretty much applies to the whole run.

The short gorge section below Dillon Falls/Dill Hole

All too soon the rapids came to an abrupt end at a long section of flat water followed -- basically it was a lake. This stretch lasts for ~2 ½ miles with only one III- rapid about three quarters of the way through. Even though not terribly exciting, the scenery more than made up for it, with lots of fall foliage, including an amazing stand of brilliant yellow Cottonwood trees. It was also nice to just kick back, relax, and catch up with the crew! Along the way, we also encountered more than a few fly fishermen trying their luck with the brown trout, which the Deschutes is famous for. Making sure to give them a wide berth, we exchanged pleasantries as we passed by.

Taking in the scenery on the flats

The amazing stand of Cottonwood trees

With a setting like this, it's hard to complain too much about the flat water

Just as I was starting to get overly relaxed, hazard signs of impending doom ahead dotted the shoreline, signaling that Lava Island Falls was just downstream. I’m certainly not making light of these signs, they do serve a valuable purpose, especially for folks enjoying the mellow float upstream to take-out beforehand. Tragically, a couple months ago two women floated into it unaware in an inflatable raft, killing one (and yes, both were wearing life-vests). Since I had only done the run once before, and it was years ago, we made sure to take-out in the calm water above on river-right to give it a scout.
Lava Island is more of a multi-pitched rapid than a true falls. Starting things off, the river goes into a swirly water S-Turn before dropping through a narrow slot against the left wall. From here more twisty/boily water continues, until the river splits around a rock island (hence the name). As far as I know, the standard line is to go right of the island, which we all decided to take, since it was hard to see if the left was clear, at least from our vantage point. The right side basically ramped down about 10 to 15 feet into a sizable wave-hole, that wasn't overly sticky. None of the moves on their own were too difficult, but stacked together makes for a pretty exciting rapid.

I motioned to the others that I would setup for photos if they wanted to drop in first, which they all agreed to. Lava Island is actually a really hard rapid to photograph, mainly due to how long it is and how it wraps around the corner. With that, I decided to take photos at different points for each of the crew. One by one they all came through, with all having good/similar lines. The bottom hole definitely provided the best entertainment, with a variety of stern-squirts and face shots.

Roman, partway through Lava Island

Roman heads down the bottom right side of Lava Island

Alex makes the entrance move at Lava Island Falls. The upstream currents are trickier than they look.

Alex drives for right of the island

Andy drops the last pitch of Lava

Joe lines up perfectly on the bottom tier...

...and gets a nice face shot

Once everyone was through, I hiked back up to take my turn. Based on scouting and watching the others come through, I knew that the swirling water was going to be a bit tricky, which did end up being the case. The strong eddy lines made it difficult for me to drop in with much speed or grace; however, once I was in it went pretty well, including a 360 degree eddy-turn partway through. As I dropped down the final pitch, I pointed right and into the gut of the hole, smashing through with plenty of speed and a little help from my Bliss-Stick Tuna – what a fun rapid!

While the others were waiting for Roman to re-enter the water (he had been out on the island watching /setting safety), I headed down through the next rapid, “Cut Up”, so I could take photos from down below. Cut Up, is a pretty fun rapid, with a long straight stretch of splashy hydraulics. It’s pretty straightforward class III/III+ at this level, but I could see it getting pretty exciting/more fun with double the flow. From my photo perch high up on the river-left rocks, I watched/took photos as the others came through.

Joe, leading the pack though Cut Up

Hangin' below Cut Up

Since I was the only one that had done the run before, I warned the others to be careful about dropping into anything blind, as Lava 2 (aka “Barry’s Back Ender”) was not far downstream. Barry’s is not necessarily an overly difficult drop, but it has collected wood in the past and is difficult to get out once you've dropped in. Once again, because I had only done the river once, awhile back, we played it safe and started our scout from the end of a long pool and the initial entrance to Barry’s. There is a foot trail on river right which we used, but it was a bit overgrown, so there was some bushwhacking in spots. Upon getting a full look at the rapid, we found that there was in fact some wood along the right side of the river, which was somewhat in play. However, as long as you stayed left though the crux part of the drop it wasn't much of a problem, and luckily it was a pretty easy fairy to get over there. Probably the worst place to be was in the center, where some nasty looking lava rocks/pins-spots resided. The final obstacle is ~4’ ledge on the left, with a little bit of a hole to boof over, which I’m sure is what gives the rapid its nickname.

Looking down into the crux of Barry's

Once again, I would stay below to set safety and take photos while the others came through. Due to the longish hike back up to the boats, it took a while before I saw the first paddle blades in the distance. Andy was the first to drop in, and made the move to river-left with little effort. After bouncing though the meaty part of the drop, he lined up for the bottom ledge, putting in a stroke at the lip and clearing the hole. None of the others had any issue getting left either, but I did get to see a couple back enders at the bottom hole! My line went pretty much the same as everyone else's, and before long I was through and joined them below.

Andy makes it left in the crux of Barry's

Andy lines up the bottom hole at Barry's

Alex finishing up strong

Roman, almost through

Roman takes a power stroke off the bottom ledge

Joe, gettin' "Back Endered"

It should be noted that the run-out to Barry’s is splashy class III, with a river-wide strainer about 100 yards or so downstream. It’s not an issue as long as you’re in your boat, but make sure to get any swimmer out of the water if someone has issues Barry's. Luckily there’s passage around the log on hard river-right, so no portage is required.

Just below the log is one more small drop before the river comes to a screeching halt at another long section of flat water. From here we only had ~1/4 mile float to the takeout at Meadow Camp. Once we got there we changed out of our kayaking gear and into some more comfortable cotton layers. Joe and Alex went to retrieve the top car, while the rest of us sat around and waited at the conveniently placed picnic tables on the side of the river. I was bit surprised with how cold it was, and even though I had thrown on multiple layers, the cold breeze still cut deep – needless to say, we were all pretty glad we wouldn’t be camping that night.

A calm/cool takeout

Beautiful Deschutes shoreline

The end of a great day on the water!

Once they got back, we headed into Bend for beers and food at 10 Barrel Brewing, which is highly recommended and another shining example of fine northwest brew.

Happy hour!

The crew works on their Wheels & Water gang signs

It was good to get back in the boat, and even see some new high desert scenery as a change from the wetter west side. However, although the major drops, Dillon Falls, Lava Island Falls, and Barry’s are pretty fun, they're certainly not classics, at least IMO. That coupled with the overabundance of flat water will probably dissuade me from doing this run more than once every couple of years. Living in Bend it would be a different story, as it's right out your backdoor and runs almost all year at a variety of regulated flows. I also feel like I need to get on it at higher flows to feel like I’m giving it a fair shake -- I’m sure it would make it a lot more exciting. Further, I know there are other runs in the area like Meadow Camp, Riverhouse, and the Steelhead Falls section, which are also supposed to be fun. With that in mind, it could make for a fun weekend getaway, which would make the drive a little more worthwhile. Heck, another option would be to combine it with some quality mountain biking, which Bend has a plethora of.

Some footage of our run down Dillon to Meadow Camp:

POV - Dillon Falls to Meadow Camp (Deschutes River, OR) from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.