Sunday, July 27, 2014

Living the Fantasy

After waiting out some cold early season weather down on the Kaweah, it was time to get going on the high sierra season.  Fantasy Falls of the North Fork of the Mokelumne was first on the list, and Jason Stingl drove out from Colorado to round out our group.  Tom and I finally made it into Salt Springs reservoir at some point way too late in the night and found Jason setting up camp.  We slept in a little too and finally made it up to the put in on Hwy 4 about 1.  We lazed around in the sun for another hour, slowly getting packed for the 3 day return trip to Salt Springs.

By the time we pushed off, it was well after 2, but we were under the impression that the first day was short and relatively easy, even with no previous trips for our group of 3, so we were in no rush.  The beginning of Fantasy is anything but, as steep, sharp, and dechannelized rapids fill the first few miles.  Even with a good medium-high flow, the boating is not enjoyable, but we made it through after a few hours, a few pitons, and a few pins.  A few miles of beautiful meadow paddling separates the mank from the beginning of good stuff: where gorges and bedrock come together to make some of the best rapids in the world.

After a few more hours of good stuff the river started to form longer gorges which required long, time consuming scouts.  The whitewater was good in the gorges but with the hour getting late the water was getting higher by the minute, as the North Fork of the Mokelumne has an enormous diurnal oscillation to it's flow.  The high flow was leading to more conservatism in scouting as rapids were linking together, which in turn was making things take longer as the water continued to rise.  After some serious hole bashing and a spicy eddy catch to portage an extremely unfriendly looking ledge we finally found a gorge with a drop we were looking forward to: the watermelon seed pinch which is immediately followed by camp.

The first big drop doesn't always go as planned...  Photo: TJ

 Sam Grafton gets it right.  Photo: TJ

Joe Keck on another good early one.  Photo: TJ

Jason and I elected to run the gorge while Tom portaged due to the high water.  From the head of the gorge to the pool above the watermelon seed there was no stopping.  Jason and I blue angeled through the beginning, but as I came into the last drop into the pool, I could see something was awry.  In turning around to watch my line, Jason was stuffed into an awkward crack blocked by a log.  After a little too much adrenaline and panic we had a line on Jason and his boat so he could step out safely without risking any loss of gear.  Now we only had the watermelon seed between us and camp.  The normal funky pinch hole was just a wave train but the hole below the subsequent angled ledge was enormous.  Fortunately, we both made it far enough right to avoid the meat, cruising into the eddy at camp just as the sun was going down.

Sam Chesley early in the watermelon seed gorge at much lower flows.  Photo: JJ

Night 1 camp with much more light than the first time we arrived.  Photo: TJ

We awoke to another bluebird California day, taking our time before getting on the water.  No one was feeling the twisting slide right below camp, so our day started with a portage.  Fortunately, just around the corner was the total reality vortex gorge, which definitely is the best named and might be the finest paddling gorge in all of California.  Slide after clean slide, some big and some small, but all good and clean all contained in a glorious granite gorge.  It just doesn't get any better.

Tyson Titensor just below camp.  Photo:TJ

Sam Grafton on the same.  Photo: TJ

 Big crew heading into TRV Gorge.  Photo: TJ

More classic whitewater, including the mushroom boof, continues as the river alternates between boulders, bedrock, and meadows.  Then, the jedi mind melt gorge appeared.  Going on beta that we could work through it at river level, we dropped in.  A little bit of tenuous scouting and eddy catching took us to the lip of the mind melt.  None of us had the head space to consider the mind melt at that point, so we opted for the quick portage on the right to the end of the gorge. 

Grafton above the mushroom on a subsequent trip.  Photo: TJ

Grafton on the mushroom.  Photo: TJ

 Sam Chesley on the same.  Photo: TJ

A little more quality boogie and we arrived at the next gorge: riflemans.  The entrance was complicated by a few logs and the bottom is always intimidating as a pinch throws you onto right wall and into a big boxed in hole.  We all dodged the logs and fired into the bottom.  It wasn't pretty but we all battled through one way or the other.  The gorge opened up a bit and some great fluffy run out rapids delivered us to more scenic meadow paddling.

 TJ dropping into the main event of rifleman's gorge on a subsequent trip.  Photo: JJ

Sam Chesley catching air in the rifleman's runout.  Photo: TJ

Soon enough, we arrived at a waterfall in the meadows.  It's a super fun boof and also marks the start of the typical portage around the good to go gorge.  We took a quick peak at the whitewater to make sure we had the portage right, and we saw a few things we didn't want to deal with, so it was up an over for us.  The portage isn't too bad on the open granite and soon enough we arrived at the meadow following the gorge.  At this point we knew we had covered good distance for the day and decided to camp on a huge flat in the meadow section.  The mosquitoes were thick but we enjoyed a relaxing evening thanks to a little DEET.

TJ on the meadow waterfall above Good to Go Gorge.  Photo: JJ

Grafton on the same.  Photo: TJ

Chesley on the same.  Photo: TJ

Again, we had a nice relaxing start, waiting for the sun to arrive in camp and greet us.  After a little meadow cruising we arrived at a great waterfall with a nasty log.  Luckily it was pretty easy to get right and avoid collision with the monster.  A few more minutes downstream brought us to the untouchables, which didn't take us more than 10 seconds of looking to send the boats to the shoulders.  Just downstream we found the bear trap which had a similar effect.  As you can tell, we were portaging quite a bit, which is just the way things go on Fantasy unless you're really feeling the fire.

TJ on the good morning falls.  Photo: JJ

JJ on the same.  Photo: TJ

Grafton avoiding the sketchy log.  Photo: TJ

Hanzel on the bear trap lead in hole.  Photo: TJ

And busting the curler in less than desired location.  Photo: TJ

 JJ on the lead in.  Photo: TJ

And lining up the curler in slightly better position.  Photo: TJ

And the whiteout.  Photo: TJ

More tranquility in the meadows.  Photo: TJ

Again, the huge rapids were followed by mellow meadow paddling.  This time though, the meadows gradually build to a continuous class V read and run boulder garden.  This goes on for a mile or two, only to be interrupted by the runs namesake, the iconic Fantasy Falls, which consists of a 30 ft. sloping falls followed by a 15 ft. falls in the grandest of settings.  This set is great fun and is followed by more boulders and slides leading to the Island Slide.  It's long, complex and looked rowdy with our good flow, so chalk up another portage.  More boogie brought us to swim like a carp, where the river pours over a powerful ledge with a beautiful curler for launching.  Tom launched beautifully while I launched just well enough to not receive a beating.

 Double T on THE Fantasy Falls.  Photo: JJ
The same moment but taking it all in.  Photo: TJ

Sam Chesley on the same.  Photo: JJ

JJ on the second falls.  Photo: TJ

 TJ finishing off Fantasy Falls.  Photo: JJ

What follows is perhaps the most famous rapid in California, a beast of a slide known as show me your tits for some ancient graffiti which used to be visible at the base.  I'll be honest, if I had never seen pictures or videos of this chaos on a slab drop or heard countless stories of people running it, I would never run this slide.  But this is the internet age, and we had, so after a good bit of hemming and hawing I dropped in, hoping to make it to the bottom upright, and preferably forward.  I accomplished both of those goals, but it didn't stop the hole at the bottom from latching me into the spin cycle.  After 10 or 15 seconds I had enough, and eventually I was able to find the pull chord and end the violence.  Just like in the movies, I went deep before popping up in the huge eddy along with all my gear.  Big fun!  Tom came next with similar results except his gear didn't eddy out, but Jason, who had portaged, tracked it down easily.

TJ dropping into the big one on a subsequent trip.  Photo: TT

TJ riding switch into the bottom hole.  Guess what happened next?  Photo: TT

Even though the Salt Springs Reservoir is only half a mile down, numerous ledges follow at low pool levels, including a pinch into an undercut which isn't dangerous but is good at separating kayakers from their boats.  We had already had enough swimming so we portaged and enjoyed the rest of the goodness into the reservoir.  Despite the big walls and eagles soaring above, the lake was anything but fun as a headwind and occasional whitecaps upped the effort to cross the 5 miles to the boat ramp.

Over the next few weeks we completed two more trips down Fantasy Falls at successively lower flows.  With each trip we ran a few more rapids, but there was always plenty of portaging.  Despite the portaging, this run is becoming one of the most popular high sierra runs, and for good reason.  Great camping, great scenery, and great whiewater are everywhere.  Plus this run probably has the best ratio of good kayaking to effort of any California overnight trip.

With our last trip on Fantasy our brotherly tour is about a month old, which is by far the longest kayaking trip I've ever been on.  It's been an interesting adjustment from our normally rushed California agendas.  I'm really not good at laying low and taking rest days, but they're a necessity on a 7.5 month long kayaking binge.  Still it's a blast to be out here kayaking (nearly) every day with my brother.  Life is good!

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