Friday, September 12, 2014

Upper Cherry the Hard Way

Sometimes victories earned over extra obstacles are the sweetest; however, in the case of Upper Cherry Creek, the standard version involves an 11 mile hike to the put in, providing plenty of suffering for even the most hardened masochist. Unfortunately, the Rim Fire of 2013 burned large sections of the Stanislaus National Forest, resulting in subsequent closures for the summer of 2014. Despite that the Upper Cherry Canyon remained unburned (it's hard to burn granite), the roads used to access the put in trail and take out at Cherry Lake were closed, so we hatched an alternative plan.

Bourland Meadows, a trailhead on the west rim of West Cherry Creek, was still accessible and was only about 4 miles from Upper Cherry Creek as the crow flies. After a quick look at the satellite images for the area we discerned that most of the hike could be done on open granite and there was a small pass between West Cherry and Cherry Creeks we could use to prevent significant additional elevation gain at the expense of extending the hike to 4.5 miles. So we had a way in, but the way out was not pretty.

The closure extended to just above the confluence of West Cherry and Cherry Creeks, and all potential access points further down towards the lake were also closed. Sometimes lack of options brings clarity. We would be taking out just above the confluence and hiking back up the West Cherry Canyon to Bourland Meadows, a hike of 7 miles and about 2500 ft. gain with no trail but significant open granite. And that was the plan. We knew it would be brutal but there weren't any other options for kayaking in California, so we we're in. We tried briefly to wrangle a few others in, but no one was convinced about all the off trail hiking, so we set off as a team of two.

We were planning to hike one day, kayak a day and a half, and then hike out that afternoon. Instead we got an extremely late start out of Sacramento, resulting in having to call ahead for our wilderness permit since we weren't going to make it by the 5 o'clock close. The open roads to Bourland Meadows were pretty burly and we didn't arrive until 7:30 pm, so we decided to camp there and start early for a two day mission.

We didn't wake up quite as early as planned, but we were still walking by 8 am. We started out on the trail, figuring we had almost a mile until we'd be breaking off based on topo maps. Instead, the trail kept going the direction we wanted to head, so we kept following it for about an hour until we gained an expansive view of the West Cherry canyon. We did a quick map check, confirming the notch we saw upstream and on the far side of the valley was what we wanted, and took off down the slab aiming for just below a forested section of creek. We quickly reached the creek and hopped in our boats to cross to keep our feet dry before continuing upstream across the slabs towards the pass. About an hour's push saw us to the pass and our first view of Upper Cherry Creek.

 JJ taking a rest on the pass between West Cherry and Cherry Creeks.  Photo: TJ

 TJ excited that we can finally see our destination.  Photo: JJ
We took a good long break at the top before heading down into the first Manzenita of the hike. There were little game trails occasionally, but there was also some serious bushwhacking. Hindsight suggests that maybe traversing left at the pass would be easier, but the 15 minutes of Manzenita wasn't too bad either. Eventually, we regained the open granite and made good time to the river while avoiding a few swampy areas. It was only 12:30 and the hike was about as easy as an off trail hike in the California wilderness could be, so we took a quick dip and ate lunch thrilled to have made the river so quickly.

TJ coming down the slabs.  Photo: JJ

TJ figuring out where to navigate this swampy area.  Photo: JJ

Our put in.  Photo: TJ

After lunch we geared up and hopped in our boats, not knowing exactly where in the run we were other than we were below the put in slide and above Cherry Bomb Gorge. We started off with wide open granite before things quickly tightened up into classic California slides. Soon, we reached (and portaged) our first major rapid: West Coast Gorilla. We now knew where we were and that our hike had dropped us in about half a mile above the Gorilla. We continued on with lots of great slides and little scouting since we had both done the creek 2 times previously. Despite the slightly low flow, the kayaking on Upper Cherry is phenomenal in the fun department with very little stress, so much so that we were pretty much giggling at times.

Upper Cherry gets slightly more serious as you approach and pass through Cherry Bomb Gorge, where the creek has carved it's way between two 500 ft. domes resulting in a ultra-committing canyon with no opportunity for egress. Fortunately, the boating in Cherry Bomb Gorge is of the highest quality and at low flows not too difficult other than Cherry Bomb Falls. After a quick portage to the top of the falls, we dropped in, avoiding the pothole on the wall and the subsequent weir hole. The rest of the gorge was smooth and we continued rallying down through the big slide and the teacup waterfalls above Flintstone Lake. We were all smiles as we pulled into camp with the place to ourselves and the rest of the afternoon to walk back up and lap the big slide and teacups. We cooked up a little dinner over the fire and the full moon emerged, lighting up the canyon. It didn't take much brotherly jeering before we were walking back up for some moonlight laps on the teacups.

TJ starting in on the big slide.  Photo: JJ

About to catch some air.  Photo: JJ

The bottom of the big slide.  Photo: JJ

Suns out, guns out.  Photo: JJ

This one has a nice twisting entrance.  Photo: JJ

Ready for landing.  Photo: JJ

JJ just below the big slide.  Photo: TJ

JJ on another perfect teacup.  Photo: TJ

From another angle.  Photo: JJ

Hydration is important!  Photo: TJ

The moonlit teacups under the stars.  Photo: TJ

TJ walking up for a moonlit lap.  Photo:JJ

JJ sliding under the stars.  Photo: TJ

We were up early the next morning knowing we had some good paddling and brutal hiking ahead of us. We quickly made it through the classic section below Flintstone Lake including West Coast Groove, Double Pothole, and the Waterfall Alley. With a crew of two we didn't mess with Kiwi in a Pocket or Dead Bear Falls. Below Dead Bear the classic read and run continues along with some beautiful meadow paddling under towering pines. Unfortunately for us, the trip had to end above the lower gorges, so we took out in the meadow above the confluence and ate a quick bite while our gear dried. As we ate we were both wondering the same thing: how bad was the hike out going to be?

We knew the first part was going to be rough as West Cherry goes off a huge cascade on it's final plunge into Cherry Creek, but after a little bit of route finding through some cliff bands we were cruising on granite slabs. The top part of the cascade looked a little difficult to bypass, but we were able to keep the boat backpacks on the through a slightly technical section. We took a quick rest and the views of Cherry Lake reminded us of the easy way out.

Then the meadows started. We did pretty well for a while, finding a well defined game trail and eventually paddling upstream through sections of lake. Then we started to get bogged down as the terrain went to domes amongst thick manzanita. The route finding was more difficult and we were starting to wear down, but we pressed on. Eventually we made it to the ridge that leads up towards Bourland Meadows and we slowly slogged up the steepest section of the hike with the sun setting. It felt like forever but finally we found the trail we had hiked in on. Fatigue was setting in hard and we lost the trail in a large meadow, wondering about for 20 minutes until we regained it while the mosquitoes massacred us. Once back on the path, we picked up the pace, knowing a big push would see us to the trailhead just at dark. 30 minutes later we stumbled into the parking lot, finally relieving ourselves of our masochistic loads. It wasn't pretty, but we had gotten it done.

TJ starting up the final ridge to Bourland Meadow.  Photo: JJ

A few notes for the future:

Hopefully the Rim Fire Closure will be lifted before the 2015 season so that no one will ever have to do that hike out again.

The Bourland Meadows hike in is substantially easier than the standard Kibbie Ridge hike in while only missing the put in slide and a few others. It makes the shuttle quite a bit longer but if I had shuttle I would hike in Bourland Meadows and paddle out to the boat ramp on Cherry Lake.

There's now a CDEC gauge on Upper Cherry Creek - It's stage only with no CFS at this point and we didn't get to see it so I don't know what the stream bed is like near it, so this is somewhat speculative. We had decent low flows and the gauge read 0.72 ft. our first day and 0.70 ft. our second day (June 10 and 11). This is an ideal level if you're looking for a mellow run through Cherry Bomb while not being too scratchy the rest of the way. I think an ideal flow for the whole creek would be a few inches higher, say maybe 0.9-1.0 ft. Any higher than that and I'd guess Cherry Bomb would become extremely dangerous but the rest would probably be good a little higher too.