Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Reflections from Cali May 2009

Ed Gaker Dropping a Waterfall on Dinkey Day 1. Photo TJ

Thinking back on this trip swirls my brain through the oddest concoction of emotions of any trip I have ever been on. At first it was great memories for about a week. Then it was all shattered by news from Colorado that changed the flavor of the memories. To tell you the truth, after that initial onslaught, I haven't thought much about it. But now, as I sit on a plane heading back to the Sierra for another round of epic boating, I can't continue to ignore it.

The trip started perfectly. My brother Tom picked me up from the airport in Sac and, after a night in a friends house in Davis, we headed North to meet up with Ed for a three day trip down the Middle Feather from Nelson Point to Lake Oroville, deciding that the water would drop enough from the 1400 cfs we had to allow safe passage through Bald Rock. I had met Ed a few years back on Red Creek up in West Virginia, and had seen him randomly just a few weeks before on the Blackwater where plans to meet up in Cali were hatched. After a long morning and midday of gathering supplies and figuring out shuttle in Oroville, we left Ed's truck near where we thought the illegal hike out point was and made it up to the put in around 3.

It had been too long since I had been on an overnighter, and the Middle Feather is one of the finest out there. Great class IV-V for the first two days down to Milsap Bar were a fantastic warmup for a much spicier trip through Bald Rock. At Milsap, we met up with Kieth, who informed us that the flows had dropped to a still high, yet good, 1200 cfs, so we were on for the finale of the trip. Despite the high flow, we made good progress through fantastic granite boating and scenery to Atom Bomb Falls. Fortunately my internet scouting gave me a good idea of how to do the portage, but the ferry still was a whole lot boilier than any pictures I had seen. We all made it, and sighed a momentary breath of relief, knowing that things were just about to get kicking.

Ed Boofing into the Sunshine on the Portage on Devil's Canyon. Photo TJ

The pace picked up as we continued through granite boulder garden wonderland. Big waves, holes, and seems made for great big water creeking. At the first rapid we couldn't boat scout, we all hopped out for a quick look on the left. After a tricky lead in, a huge curler took the majority of the water to river right and through some exploding holes that we could only kind of see from river left. Tom decided to head across to river right for a better look, while Ed and I were fired up on the rapid. Ed ended up missing the curler and dropping through a nasty slot while I caught the curler as planned, typewritering me into the maw of big holes before being spit into an eddy on river right. Seeing our mixed success, Kieth snuck right early which shot him into the guts with no momentum towards the eddy. He rode it on through, but missed the eddy and dropped right into the meet of a nasty hole in the next rapid. After about a minute of rodeo, Kieth swam and Ed gave chase. I was torn, but decided to wait for Tom who was already in his boat and about to drop into the first rapid.

Tom Janney Blending Into Curtain Falls. Damn White Boat. Photo Keith Kugley

The second Tom made it through, I turned and gave chase to Keith and Ed. Finding Keith shortly downstream, he appeared severely beaten, but gave the okay sign, so I continued after the boat. Fortunately it had eddied out shortly above Curtain Falls. With some rope work we were able to get Keith across the river and down to his boat. He relayed the story of being recirced until he thought the lights were going out in the hole as he caught his breath. It was certainly a close call, and Keith played it safe the rest of day portaging judiciously were possible the rest of the way down.

Ed in the Lull in Three Doors, Huge Holes above and Below. Photo TJ.

We finally made it down to the lake with lots more fantastic boulder gardens. After 3 miles of lake paddling we made it to what we thought was our hike out point, and headed up the hill. We never found a trail (Is there one?), and finally made it up through the poison oak to an old road after about an hour of grunting up the loose dirt in the high 90's heat. After walking on the road for a while, we came to what is the sketchiest compound I have ever passed in my many days of trespassing. A series of connected trailers and airplane hangers comprised the beast, which we scurried by as quickly as possible to avoid detection. Fortunately we made it undetected, as I was sure we would be shot if discovered. Soon, enough we were at the gate and a quick jaunt to Ed's truck, which had obviously been scoped, but thankfully not broken into.

We loaded up and ran shuttle as quickly as possible, which wasn't quick enough. Kieth needed a break from boating, maybe we all did, but I was taking some of my priced vacation time, so a plan was hatched to push South. It was real late by the time we got the truck at the top, and despite wanting to get South for the next adventure, we didn't make it far at all and poached a night's sleep somewhere south of Quincy. Waking the next day, we drove by Love's Falls but couldn't rally the motivation and instead pushed on to a relaxing afternoon run down 49 to Bridgeport on the South Yuba, just what the doctor ordered.

From there, it was decision time. Messages on my cell told of a royal gorge trip starting the next
morning, but we never got phone connection with Dusty and Ryan to set up a plan, so we rallied with Ed South to the South Fork of the Merced. After sleeping in a pull out near the take out we met up with Nick and Oliver and found a raft guide to run our shuttle. The end of the shuttle was pretty entertaining as we were mostly on forest roads before popping out on the golf course in Wawona and finally finding the South Fork of the Merced.

The run was fantastic. It goes well as a two day run for those who don't know it and features lots of good rapids and very little bull shit. There's a great mix of boulder gardens and bed rock in there, and though there are gorges, you never feel locked in. There are no mandatory portages although most will portage a few times. No hike in or hike out and a relatively short shuttle make this run possibly the highest quality overnighter in Cali compared to the logistics. All in all just clean fun.

Ed Blasting out of a Hole on the South Merced. Photo TJ

After getting off, we made some frantic phone calls to try to decide what to do with our last two days in Cali. When we found out Dinkey was around 300, there was only one way to finish the trip... waterfalls. Having just Tom, Ed, and I having no previous waterfalls experience we took care of provisions and made it to the take out at Balch Camp that night, planning to get an early start the next morning.

Finishing the Triple Drop Switch, Resulting in a Good Ride. Photo TJ.

Our early start proved to be a bust as we wasted in trying to figure out a way through river left before retreating to the long way to Ross Crossing on river right. We ended up starting the hike at noon and making it to the river at one. After a short break, we started making slow progress down the 1.5 miles to the normal camping slab. Although the mileage is short, there are a ton of big, sometimes consequential drops during day 1 as well as one time consuming portage. Sitting at camp just chilling next to the good morning slide and looking up at the clean bedrock above is quite the experience.

Better Than Folgers... Photo TJ.

The Perfect 20fter. Photo TJ.

The next day is much longer although perhaps a little less locked in. More great clean drops, some of which are massive, like Nikki's Slide. This has to be up there as one of the best days of kayaking anywhere. Then, once you're tired and beat from running all kinds of sweet bedrock drops, the mank shows up and you run a mile of garbage to the take out, although paddling under the tube is certainly interesting.

Nikki's Slide is Big, Really Big. Photo TJ.

And like that, a week of great Cali kayaking is over. We return to Ross Crossing to grab the vehicle and make a bee line for Sac so I can make my flight back to the real world. After a couple hours in the car, I realize how truly broken my body is. There is no way I could have kayaked another day... what a satisfying feeling at the end of a trip.

The next week was a blur of getting caught up at work, repairs at my new house, and nursing my body back to life. And then it happened. I got a text from Tony, “Did you say the Ed you were boating with in Cali was headed towards Colorado? You need to read BT.” From that, I already knew something was wrong. It was just one of those bad feelings, shortly confirmed through my computer screen. One second he was there and the next he was gone.

I don't care to speculate on the what and the why. All I can hope is that Ed made an informed and commited decision on Sherman Falls. I'm not sure all the safety in the world could have helped given the situation. Sometimes that's just the way it is. You. The river. Everything else is extraneous to the outcome.

Regardless, Ed is and will be missed and remembered.

I talked to Keith shortly thereafter. I think he had heard at that point. He relayed me a story from Bald Rock that I missed. After completing the sketchy Atom Bomb ferry, Ed and Keith had started discussing why we, as class V boaters, put our selves in dangerous situations on a regular basis. The thing that struck Keith is he couldn't come up with a reason. This conversation, coupled with the swim later that day and the news of Ed's passing the following week, has kept Keith off the water since then.

Me, I'm not sure I can answer that question either. There are a lot of cliché answers, but I don't think any of them explains it. I know I feel completely focused and connected when I'm deep in a gorge. I'm not sure what it is. Thing is, the focus is strongest when the strokes are most crucial. Those times when no matter what your buddies do, they can't help. It's not that I like boating things that scare me. And it's not something I seek out every time I go paddling. But sometimes you just feel it. It all makes sense. And then you're in it. Just you. And the river.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I got bits and pieces about it from Ed, but a lot of the conversation was waiting until we were to meet up to boat last June. Nice to hear more and see photos from those trips.
    I've been trying to write a trip report on a day on Middle Cherry last year, but have had a hard time expressing the emotions and mindgames I encountered. Suffice to say, I found some boating I wasn't ready for that day, and Ed's recent passing was a part of that. Good to hear your perspective on the subject.