Karl Goes Jetboating

Karl took his second boat trip today, and this one fortunately did not involve a near-death experience. We went jetboating on the Dart River, through an area used as the long shots of Isengard (with digital futzing about) for LOTR.

Jetboats are big in New Zealand, where I believe they were invented. Wait, let me check. Yes, indeed, the jetboat is a Kiwi invention, by a guy who wanted to get from point A to point B with the bits in between involving a braided river system.

What is a braided river system? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. These river systems are super rare, occuring only in New Zealand, remote bits of Canada and Alaska, and the Himalayas. Basically, it requires a rapidly eroding mountain and/or glacier dumping lots of sediment and varying amounts of water into a wide, flat river plain. The result is a river made of countless narrow and usually shallow channels that are temporary and constantly changing. From the air it looks like a braid or, more specifically, wild, windblown, chaotic hair that really should be braided or combed or detangled or something. The shallow and temporary nature of the channels is what makes them so difficult to navigate in a traditional powerboat.

Back to the jet boat… these boats don’t have propellers and instead suck water into the front bottom of the boat and shoot it out the back bottom. Because there’s nothing hanging lower than the hull (like propeller blades) they can zip through water only a couple inches deep, which is important given the shallow nature of the braided river. This being New Zealand, land of the extreme adventure sport, jet boats are best known for careening past perilously close rocks, doing 360 degree spins at high speeds and spraying large amounts of water everywhere.

The sensation of riding in a jetboat is, well… have you ever hit a patch of black ice in a car that wasn’t four-wheel drive and just barely managed not to crash? Yeah, that’s it. Because the boat is on top of the water at speed, boosted up by all the jet propulsion going on beneath, it feels like you’re sliding or hydroplaning. The boat tips to one side and the next as well, and pilots (skippers? drivers? jetboat dudes?) often go through shallow bits or between rocks sideways, with port or starboard facing front. Again, just like your car on black ice on a bad day.

I got to sit in the front seat beside our rather hot jetboat dude, Christian (sort of like a more rugged, Kiwi Kevin Bacon), who was extremely laidback. Every now and then, though, as we were zipping up and down the Dart River, he’d grip the wheel a little tighter and you could feel him forcing the boat to stay its course even though it seemed to want to spin and skid and slide wildly out of control. The 360 degree spins were fun, too, though to be honest the whole ride was smoother and less daredevilish than I expected.

The main attraction was the scenery, with the Humboldt range to one side of the river and Mt. Earnslaw and the Richardson Range to the other. Several miles up the Dart, we stopped for a short hike through antarctic beech forest, mossy and reminiscent of Fangorn Forest, a place where you could really feel the age of the trees. The specific kind of beech that grows there (and throughout much of the area) is a leftover from the days of Gondawanaland, when all the world’s continents were smooshed together into one big pile of stuff. For any science non-believers out there reading this, it was the day after God created water but before cavemen were riding Jesus lizards. Hey, I’m just sayin’.

After a few more spins on the Dart, I was back on solid ground and driving Bill along yet another gravel road to the trailhead for Glacier Burn. It was a short hike, two hours up and almost as long back down, almost entirely through beech forest. Relentlessly upward and then a bit of an ankle-cruncher on the way down, it was still worth it as I was rewarded with some splendid views at the top.


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