The plan for this year's Cali trip was a little different than last's. Tom and Christian weren't going to make it out until Monday, due to Christian's graduation, so the plan was to boat some slightly chiller stuff with my old buddy Daniel until the Colorado boys showed up and we really get into the flow.
We were split between going south for the Tule and Kaweah stuff or going north for Trinity tributaries, but in the end, the decision was made to go north. After a late night arrival into Sac, we got a little sleep before pulling many hours north to the Weaverville area.
The first day's plan was to do a quicky on Coffee creek. The first mile on one of the forks was pretty good and featured non-stop mini-gorge-ish boating. After the forks combined, the creek completely dechannelized from there to the take out. Honestly it was pretty low quality and dangerous for the difficulty due to a lack of eddies and lots of blind turns. I can't really recommend this run to anyone, but nonetheless it was great to be out on the water with my old Cali paddling buddies and a few new ones.
The next day we headed out to Lower Hayfork Creek, which while being kind of roadside, the road was 1000 ft. up and the river was way down in a deep gorge, looked enticing. So, with a crack of noon start, we put on at a flow of about 600, which was a little less than optimal. After a long warmup, the rapids started to build until we found ourselves in a pretty good stretch. Lots of class IV and maybe a little bit of class V. Then, after a short break, we were back into it, with more good rapids in a nice gorge setting. We eventually found the mandatory portage, which must have changed cause it is certainly no longer mandatory. At our flow, I wouldn't call it classic,but it might get significantly better with additional flow.
Unfortunately for our final day up north, Daniel's shoulder was feeling not up to snuff and Mike and Jonas had returned to Sac, so it was just Diane and I. After reviewing the options we settled on the New River Gorge. On the way there, the nerves definitely started as lots of heavy rain fell; however, they were somewhat relieved as we climbed to higher elevation and the snow set in, minimizing the chances for a fast rising river. We put on in the snow off the Denny road, hurrying to stay warm and ahead of the potential rising flows from the rain. After lots of warm up and one bear sighting, we arrived at the start of the gorge. There were maybe 10 big water creeky rapids before the portage, none of which were particularly locked in, but some of which featured some nasty pockets and undercuts. Somewhere in there we also had a playful encounter with a river otter. Always nice to see the real residents having fun on their home turf. The portage actually looked pretty good, but the risk, small group size, and inclement weather added up to a quick portage on the left. Once you portage, you arrive at the super walled in blind faith. It looked extremely difficult to portage and very difficult to scout, so we decided to just go for it. It turns out it's about a 15 ft. ramp down the left wall into a walled out and rowdy run out, probably the best rapid on the run. From there more walled in but more scoutable stuff took us through tombstone and final falls, and the one right above the confluence with the big hole, and down to the confluence with the Trinity, where we ran some great big water rapids on the run out of Burnt Ranch Gorge with about 8000 cfs in the river. This is definitely a regional classic, although too much paddle in detracts slightly, but the walled in scenery and rapids are top notch.
From there, we said goodbye to the Trinity drainage and headed back to Sac, where Tom, Christian, and Dustin were supposed to converge that night. Unfortunately a late season snow storm closed I-80 so Tom and Christian spent the night in Truckee before arriving in Sac around noon. Options were discussed and we decided to rally to the South Branch for a quick afternoon lap.
We finally made it to the put in somewhere around 3:30 and quickly geared up so we could rally on down to the take out before dark. All I can say is that the South Branch delivers in a big way. We had just a hair of water going over the gauge rock just downstream of the put in which corresponds to a nice padded medium. From the put in, bedrock mini gorge rapids build slowly for a few miles. Even though it's super low volume and easy, the quality of the rapids are fantastic. I think the whole run has like two shitty rapids. Eventually, the verticality starts to pick up, and after bombing through one walled out mini gorge with a few big holes and some logs at the bottom, the run pretty much turns to 100% top quality waterfalls and slides. This run probably has as many clean 20ish ft. waterfalls as most people paddle in a season. It's just lots of relatively low stress fun.
Then, as you get to the end of the run, the heat starts to pick up. A super shallow double drop which hurts when run properly and can certainly dish out injuries with unpure lines signals your arrival. From there, one double slide takes you to the lip of a autoboofing 20 fter towards a wall with one eddy between you and the ugly 40 fter known as 99 problems. Although all the lines I've seen off this beast have been smooth, I really don't have any interest in running anything with that kind of risk. Huge piton potential. A tight line. And, too top it off, a line ending in a blown skirt, broken paddle, or injury might well result in blowing the eddy below China and an inadvertent first d of the 80 fter downstream (at least it looks like you'd have a chance of surviving). For those portaging, you still end up running China, a slide right above the 80 fter with a hole that wants to take you to China. It doesn't look too bad, but on day 2 I was nonchalant and plugged, resulting in a huge back loop. I hit an immediate roll and still had to turn the burners on to catch the eddy. Definitely a high stress slide.
From there, a quick lowering of boats on river right brings you to the perfect waterfall. It weighs in there as the world's easiest 45ish ft waterfall, owing to a rolling lip and high angle reconnect just before landing. The downside is that the wide waterfall produces little aeration so hard hits and broken paddles are regular occurrences. Fortunately we had no broken paddles in our 3 laps, but we were all using Werner straight shafts. The AT crew didn't have as good of luck, with a 75% breakage rate. Still, I think next time I run the South Branch I'll probably bring hand paddles.
Below the waterfall you move to river right and catch an eddy on the edge of the world, as the river falls 500 ish ft. over many large waterfalls in the next quarter mile. Truly a breathtaking take out. From there, through the boat on your shoulder for about 30 minutes of grovelling with the mosquitoes giving the motivation to keep moving.
Now, I'm not usually one to just hang out and do the same run multiple times on a boating trip, there's just too many places I've never been, but the South Branch was good enough to warrant this treatment. So after a not so early start, we decided to bang out two laps of high quality waterfalls. We made it, with sore backs and necks and a broken ear drum from the 50 fter. It was a great day, with possibly more high quality paddling than I've ever done in a day, but I'm getting too old to hold up to the pounding of that many waterfalls.
With temperatures getting warmer, time getting limited, and the Kimshew gate still closed, we decided to limit our driving and head over to try to do the Little North Fork. We headed down the hill from the South Branch to discover lowish looking flows, but it was hard to tell with the flood blowout at the confluence. I decided to scale up the gorge a little ways to find the flows looked healthier in the more channelized riverbed. So we were on, and after a few hours of shuttling on decent roads, we made it to the bridge over the LNF. Again, flows looked low but adequate, so we put on planning on a leisurely two days back down to Milsap.
The river started off great. Beautiful water, California sun, and what turned out to be a pretty nice flow. Lots of bedrock class IV filled the first few miles, although the rock was much sharper than the South Branch. Eventually we came to the first gorge, which features a 20 fter with the narrowest of landings. Although runnable, none of us wanted anything to do with it, so we seal launched river right and immediately ferried across for another scout. Dusty was the only one who like the next double drop, although it was certainly much more reasonable than the first.
Soon after, the walls backed off and we were back into class IV boogie for a while. Probably 3 or 4 miles from the put in, we ran a 10 ft slide before eddying out above a huge horizonline at Jaroslav's Falls, a just slightly off vert 30 fter with a trick lead in and a bad pocket on the right. The problem with the lead in was that it narrowed and banked right before fanning out for the drop, where you wanted to head left to avoid the pocket. Somewhat successful lines were had by all, although I did a few inverted spins in the river left eddy. The rapid immediately following was the one thing we had been warned about in advance. At first glance it doesn't look bad, but closer inspection reveals two poorly placed sieves which have caused near disaster in the past. A small portage/sneak on the left was the easiest way to deal with the sieves.
Shortly after came a super sweet set of slides before the bed rock took an extended hiatus. I don't remember exact order from there, but there were lots of boulder gardens, ranging from easy to difficult and smooth to jumbled piles of shit. Somewhere we came to a lake, an odd sight on a small steep creek in the feather drainage that got us thinking one thing... landslide. Sure enough, it came, and was so close to being a sweet rapid, but the pinch was just too tight, so a 10 minute portage on landslide scree commenced. At this point, we were beginning to think about camp, both because we wanted to save some for the next day, and because the mank was beginning to wear on us.
For about a mile below the landslide, we ran and portaged some super jumbled stuff. It was all runnable, but we were at the point where running dangerous stuff just because I can be done wasn't in the cards, so we spent a fair amount of time on the banks. Finally, we came to a more channelized looking horizon line. Tom hopped out for a quick scout and smiled sending the rest of us in. It was sweet. A couple juicy holes followed by a move to the left of a big boulder into a juicy slot boof to finish. Unfortunately, Tom ran the bottom slot backwards, breaking the backband of his Nomad. It just happened that when we pulled over to fix the backband, we were at the best camping site we had seen in miles, so a unanimous decision was made to call it a day.
The next morning we lazed around, hoping for the sun to come warm us up, but it took too long due to the narrow gorge. Once we finally got going, it was quite similar to the end of the previous day, although slightly more channelized and walled in. Everything was runnable, but we walked a few due to ill-placed sieves and severe mank. Nonetheless, the run was still pretty fun and the scenery was great with many sections of cliff walls, although nothing truly gorged in.
Somewhere in there, we ran a rapid that started wide and manky before narrowing and charging left through two juicy holes. The walls tightened up a bit and Tom got out to scout quickly, sending Dustin with limited hand signals besides two drops. Soon thereafter, he sent Christian, which is when things got interesting. After Tom started running towards the bottom of the rapid, I hopped out to see Christian throw and endless assortment of cartwheels and loops for 30 seconds without any semblance of control before swimming deep. Fortunately, this one ended in a large pool so we got most of Christian’s gear back.
After Christian stopped coughing up water and cussing at Tom for bombing him into the hole, Tom had to sack up and run it. Unfortunately, from Christian’s standpoint, Tom had a sweet line with a last second lift to plane over the hole and not get his head wet, which left only me. Since it ended in a pool and wasn’t too dangerous, I just had to give it a try. Unlike Tom, I did not get the last second lift and plopped right into the fold against the wall. I fought it for about 30 seconds with a little more control than Christian, but the same result. Best line of the trip captured on the video: Christian, “Oh I wish that was Tom!” It’ll be coming shortly.
From the swim spot on, we ran a little more of the full on boulder gardens before the bedrock started to appear again in the way of a few sweet slides and boofs. Then, all of the sudden we arrived at the horizon line we’d been waiting for: Final Falls, an slide to 25ish ft waterfall. It looked super soft although it was hard to scout the left for a pocket (it turned out to not be bad), so off we fired. Good lines ranging from huge boofs to silky plugs were had by all, truly beautiful spot as well.
From the falls we heard we were pretty much done, and we were. About a half mile of class IV returned us to Milsap Bar, and the disappoint that the stash of beer we had left the morning before had been raided. Overall, I would say the trip is certainly worth doing, and the large drops are sweet, although probably not every year as it’s just not as classic as a lot of the other stuff in the area. It’s a tough run, and the less than clean boulder rapids wore on us, but everything is portagable with some effort.
From there, we considered heading to the secret stash or Kimshew, but logistics were uncertain and I needed to be back in Sac the next night to make my flight home. We discussed all kinds of options, but ended up deciding on Upper Middle Cosumnes, only one problem; heavy use had shut down what had become the normal put in. So, rather than divert, we did some work on google maps and figured out a river right put in, although with only one shuttle vehicle, this was certainly a stretch. Fortunately, Christian agreed to run the 10 mile shuttle and the river right road was open far enough for us to get to an easy 4 minute walk to the river.
From the put in, we ran about a mile of progressively larger drops before arriving at a nasty sieved out slide just above the river left put in. After portaging, we ran some really sweet drops and portaged quite a bit of mank as well as the old Tony Hawk’s. It’s a shame that thing is gone, but skate park is still one of the best rapids around, burly and frothy but relatively low consequence. I’ll let the photo’s do the talking on this one.
Video to come... Someday.