Over the past few years I’ve noticed an almost sinusoidal pattern in my desire for adventure on the river. I’ll get tired of paddling the same places and venture out into unknown worlds exploring new rivers with friends that haven’t been there before either. This will be fun and with each success we get more stoked and look for bigger missions. Then there comes that one epic that ends in lost boats, broken paddles, and long miserable hike outs in the dark, and I start to think maybe I’ll just stick to the runs I already know and enjoy unless I can get someone to go who knows where we are going. Well early last week I found myself craving some river adventure. The timing was perfect. Sam Makman, a buddy I hadn’t seen in quite a while was on spring break in in Cali hoping to hit a classic while he was here. He lucked out that the Middel Fork of the Feather was in. This isn’t just a classic, according to Holbeck and Stanley it is the classic. I made a lot of calls and Eli Ren, recent transplant to CA, was stoked to join us. We had a crew. We would set shuttle Tuesday night and camp at the put in. This would allow us to get on the water early Wednesday morning, setting out for 35 miles of unknown class V. There was rain in the forcaste for Tuesday night and Wednesday, but flows were at a moderate level (1300). We felt confident that there was no way the flow would triple on us. 3500 is considered to be the maximum flow according to awetstate.com Well, we were right. Flows did not triple. They quadrupled. By the time we became aware of the potential problem we where several miles in passing the 4th or 5th tributary that was just raging down the mountain side adding at least 100 cfs. We were slightly concerned at this point but what could we really do about it? We were committed. Day one presented us with plenty of stout rapids to run, many of which were class V. I had heard the run described as “easy to moderate class V.” Having 3 capable class V paddlers in our crew we felt we could handle it just fine. After the first day however we were curious just how much that water had risen before we got on. The first day was perfectly manageable but we all agreed that there were plenty of rapids that were full on class V and the first day is supposed to the the easiest. “What will the next two days be like,” we asked ourselves. Again, we were committed so there was really nothing to do but keep on moving downstream and take the rapids one at a time. We made good time to camp on day one and as a result we were feeling a little too confident on day two and got a later start. Early on the morning of day two we got our first clue that flows were much higher than normal. We came to Franklin falls first thing Thursday morning. We’d all seen pictures of the falls before but when we got there it was barely recognizable. The left ledge was described as being a 12 foot boof which we were looking forward to. What we found however was a ledge no more than 4 feet high with a gnarly death hole behind it that was pulling water back from ten or twelve feet down stream. Even if you nailed the boof you would have to paddle your ass off to escape the suck. We considered boofing a pillow of water forming on the far right wall but further inspection revealed a large boil just upstream that was blocking the line to this move. The boil was a couple feet higher than the other water and surging. It was surely possible to get there but if you got rejected you would either land in the jumbled rock pile in the center or in the death hole. Portaging looked easy so we all opted to take our first walk of the trip. I think we ended up with about 5 portages all together and a couple of sneaks. Day two was much slower going with many many horizons to scout. Most of these just required a quick look to make sure an otherwise blind drop didn’t end badly. The slower pace resulted in us not making camp two under the second PCT bridge. Instead we found a sandy beach about an hour upstream of camp 2 just before dark. We got an earlier start on the third day but since we had to make up for the day before we weren’t really much better off. Day two had me pushing myself to run some stout rapids that I would have probably been to scared to run under normal circumstances, but there were no options for portaging many of them so what choice did I really have. This however was nothing compared to what day three presented us with. At least by now we were used to it. We were running blue angels down pretty much everything. It was very hard to scout a lot of rapids, impossible to portage them and no real way to set safety for each other. We decided that going blue angel was our best plan as it kept us all together and if one of us got messed up maybe another could grab him. We owe a huge thanks to Eli for stepping up to charge first on many of the rapids. We were fortunate enough that we had pretty clean lines on almost everything. Sam took a bit of a beat down in one rapid that had us boofing a river wide pour over after punching a small but sticky hole in the lead in. He got pulled back and endered a few times before swimming and getting recirced one more time before getting away. I was behind him going in and hit the brakes when he got caught by the hole. As a result I got tractor beamed back into the lead in hole and got a little surfed myself. I was watching Sam’s battle from a side surf above. I managed to get free and line up for the drop hoping to stick it so I could help Sam rather than join him. I made the move and raced after Sam. By the time I got to him he was on top of a rock in the center of the river. It was completely walled in on both sides so we weren’t really sure how we were going to get him. We spotted his boat floating away in the calmer water below another drop. Sam was able to see it from his rock and shouted directions at Eli and I. We ran the drop as instructed and caught his boat a short while later. We managed to get the boat into a micro eddy where the walls were slightly less than vertical. I popped out and had to scramble a bit to find a spot that I could stash my own boat while Eli kept Sam’s corralled in the eddy. Once I got Sam’s boat up on the rock with me, Eli started working on attaining upriver to see about getting Sam who had to swim the last drop he directed us through in order to get to Eli who was then able to tow him to where I had his boat emptied and ready to go. The whole thing went pretty well all things considered. We did lose a paddle but we had two break downs. The biggest problem was that this rescue mission took about an hour and a half and now we were pushing the end of daylight to get out of there. Knowing we were running out of time we started pushing pretty hard down river. We decided that given the lack of time, any drop that couldn’t be quickly looked at and the line very obvious should just be portaged. I’ve had to employ this strategy before. It saves the time of walking up and down the whole rapid and making a decision about if you should run it and how. This strategy basically simplifies that whole process to, you pop out of your boat at the very top of the drop, you look down stream, you either see a good line get back in and run it, or you pick up your boat and start walking. Well we did this once on a longer rapid and decided it wasn’t really saving us much time. We ended up doing what was I think our 3rd or 4th portage at this point and along the way finding that it would have been easier to run the rapid. Running would have taken less time and energy. As it was, the portage required some serious team work to lift our loaded boats up and over some very large boulders. After this the team decided to abandon this strategy, and right fully so. The next rapid we encountered was helicopter. We were able to scout/sneak our way down on the left to an eddy just above the main drop. Now we had read that this drop could be portaged on the left, and maybe it can normally but with the river still flowing over 3,000 cfs there was no option for portaging this drop anywhere we could see. To make it even more interesting, we had to stand on top of a boulder and peak around a corner just to glimpse the rapid below. We couldn’t see as well as we’d have liked, but we could see well enough to tell there was a huge hole followed by a huge lateral that was crashing into a piece of rock sticking out from the river left wall, followed by yet another huge hole. There appeared to be some water going into/under the rock sticking out from the wall. We couldn’t tell for sure. None of were stoked on running this drop. There was a line but it was a fine line that wouldn’t be easy to hit and the consequences for missing were pretty big. We check again for a portage option and agreed there were none. I looked at my watch, 7:15 PM. “It’s not going to get any easier in the dark,” I said. Sam and Eli agreed and we headed back to our boats to send it. We entered the drop blue angel as we had so many times this trip. Eli led followed by Sam and I brought up the rear. Once we dropped in I lost track of everyone almost immediately. I have no idea how Eli’s line went. Sam I saw clip the corner of the first hole and get a little vertical so I worked to get farther to the right. I caught some slack water and spun out past the first hole, punched the lateral backwards, got turned around just in time to dodge the last hole and do a bit of a rock splat on a boulder at the bottom. I looked around and saw Sam and Eli both upright in their boats and have never been so stoked to be at the bottom of a rapid. Stoked and thinking that we were done we started charging hard dropping over smaller horizons blind. We were all pumped and convinced we could make the take out before dark. (We thought that last big rapid I just described was grand finale, so we thought we were done, but it was already 730 and we were wrong.) After mis-identifying helicopter we came to the actual grand finale and it was too dark to run a rapid that stout. We began a hasty portage with hopes of putting back on and charging for the finish, but when we got up higher on the hill a look down stream revealed what appeared to be the start of yet another gorge with nothing to see from where we were but white raging water. Our portage route took us past a small flat spot just big enough for the three of us to sleep and we decided we had better take it. We had already gone through several instances that day where we thought we were done only to go around another bend an see the canyon walls still rising straight up on either side. Having never been there before we couldn’t be sure we weren’t still a few miles from the take out, even though we suspected we were close. We made the safe call and spent one last night on the river with cliff bars for dinner and breakfast. In the light of the next day we were able to see that what we thought might be another committing rapid downstream really wasn’t too bad, and we made good time to the take out. I have never been so happy to get to a take out in my life. The morning of the last day I was dreading coming up on some unexpected and unportagable class V rapid. I just did not have the physical or mental strength left to tackle another serious drop. Much to my good fortune I didn’t have to.
I set out on this trip looking for an adventure, and adventure I did find. I think I got my adventure fix for a little while. I’m looking forward to paddling some old well known runs as the snow starts to melt. I know I made this trip sound like a lot of work and it was, but it was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever paddled. I would highly recommend putting this run on your to do list if you haven’t done it yet. I would also highly recommend you go with someone who knows it and that you don’t go when flows are likely to be over 4,000 cfs. I think 1200 would be just fine. I’m stoked to go back at lower flow, maybe in July when it’s warmer instead or March and with some one who knows the run well.
Lessons From the River:
First, make sure you have batteries for your headlamp. Sam’s batteries died the night before we put on. I had some extras but it turned out that the batteries that were in my head lamp were dead too so I used my extras. They died within a half hour. We spend 4 nights with 3 people and one very dim head lamp between us.
Next, start early. Even earlier than that. Think of an early start time. Now go two hours earlier and start a half hour before then. You’ll thank me later.
In your regular paddling do some attainments. This is a good exercise and a good skill to have when you are on a mission. Eli had to attain about a quarter mile to get Sam reunited with his boat. There were also times where we boat scouted and eddy too far and had to make tough ferrys in order to get to where we needed to be. Sometimes it was helpful to attain and eddy or two back up river.
Always have a break down (or two). Even on a one day trip you never know when some one is going to lose or break a paddle. I had to give my breakdown to a buddy on the Chile Bar section of the South Fork American once. This is a class III playboat run for those of you not familiar. Lucky for him I just happened to want to paddle my creek boat that day. (I keep my break down in my creek boat. Very convenient storage place and I have it when I need it.)
Dont wear two uni-suits.
On the morning of day 3 it was like 20 degrees out. All of our gear was frozen solid and while we were thawing it by the fire I decided to double up on my uni-suit. I had packed two, one for on the river and one for sleeping in at night. It was nice wearing both in the cold of the morning and when it was time to put on I thought, “I’ll just wear both. It’s still really cold and we aren’t sleeping here tonight.” Well later that afternoon it got to the mid 60’s and I could feel sweat pouring out of me most of the day. Then as you know we did end up spending that night on the river and I had two very wet uni-suits to sleep in. I crawled in my bag and got warm only to wake up around midnight freezing. I got out of my bag and spent about 3 hours trying to keep a fire going so I could dry out my clothes. With no headlamp that worked it was challenging to find firewood in the dark. There wasn’t much but small sticks so I’d stoke the fire and stand directly over it for a few minutes and then venture out to find more fuel. Finally, at about 3 am I was dry enough to go back to sleep.