Monday, August 10, 2009

Deep in the Trenches

Alex Wolfgram captains his ship in a bottle-neck.

The mountains that form the Middle San Joaquin loomed above me as I first sized them up. We were driving out of the South San Joaquin canyon, and I could see where the South met the Middle. Scanning back and forth from the depth of the canyon to the height of the Middle fork headwaters in the Postpile Minarets, I could plainly see the precipitous drop the river had to make. It did this in a stupefyingly short distance. The awe that struck me then was of a scale one feels when first taking in the Yosemite Valley, its sky-scraping granite, its dizzying falls.

At one point, my intention to run the river was in seeking the geographic sense of completion of "getting them done." The river is sometimes rumored more of a trial than a good run. The fact that the Devil himself is implicated in the river's origin may be disconcerting to some.

As I processed the power of landscape that gave rise to the San Joaquin, all of this propaganda was pushed aside. My desire to run the river became an aesthetic imperative.

The San Joaquin takes all the rivers of the Southern Sierra under its name, capturing them one by one as it flows north to the Sacramento, forming the Central Valley. Rightly so- it is the mightiest river and has characters of them all. Ominous and distinct gorges like Fantasy. Domes lining the banks of absurd slides like Upper Cherry. The magnitude and beat-down factor of the Kings. Portages like the Merced. The scrubby desert beauty of the Kaweah.

Charlie Center heads up the dawn patrol to ditch the tree fuzz.


Ha, ha, ha, ha!

Yes, those waterfalls are dumping into the middle of the rapid.

"It's... so... beautiful!" When I asked Alex what this rapid looked like from the scout, that's all he said. I debated whether to get out and take a moment to behold it, or run it blind so the scare-factor would etch it more indelibly into my mind's eye. I opted for the latter.

Portage while you still can. Mwahaha!

The MF San Joaquin provides lots of practice at seal-launching.

As ready as we'll ever be.

Caveman racquetball.

The Postpile gave me clarity and focus, tested what I'd learned, and made me feel supremely alive. Big thanks to Alex Wolfgram for having the drive, Shane for driving shuttle, and Charlie for declaring entire gorges "good."

Special note: Now that California Flood Safety founder Alex Wolfgram has run the Middle San Joaquin, he has completed every High Sierra river including Grand Canyon of the Tuolomne and Headwaters of the Kern. Hella Sick!

Find more videos like this on Caliproduct

Shot by Alex Wolfgram and Charlie Center, edited by Charlie Center, courtesy

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Kings River Triple Crown

On Saturday, July 18, Luke Liebsch, Macy Burnham, Chris Tulley and I completed what may be the longest contiguous descent of river in Kings watershed history, linking runs on the Middle Kings, Garlic Falls, and the Banzai Run in a hitherto unprecedented act of river-running. Though the additional 10 miles of the class 2-3 Banzai Run only added 300 vertical feet to the trip, they rounded out 50 miles of whitewater good times and crossed off a page on the guide-book check-off. Whitewater!

The Habitat 80 tracks nice and speedy through flat water, like this cheat-line one can take by crossing Saddlerock Lake on the hike in.

I call this rapid "the data archive," because it's so backed up. Macy launching into the bottom half.

If Tulley were a marine mammal, he'd be a gnar-whale.

Getting ready to launch off some smooth Ponderosa bark.

Luke smears that rock like he's waging an underhanded political campaign.

Afternoon T-storm advisory for the greater bottom 9 area. Tulley in the shadow of gloom.

Friday, July 24, 2009

But don't take my word for it!

A.J. and I wait our turn to portage down the middle.

Reading Rainbow host Lavarre Burton would close his book reviews with the catch-phrase, "but don't take my word for it!" One must go and see for one's self the relative beauty and worthwhileness of rivers. It is one thing to browse the gorgeous photos, saturated with color, taken from god's eye vantage points on, and another to experience them firsthand from the boater's perspective. And so it was that I went to the raved-about Upper N F San Joaquin. I think I was talking about trying to get in there weeks before the river was actually running at the right levels, just to make sure I didn't miss it. Eventually I got on board with a great group and had a sweet trip down this section. I almost could have taken Korbulic's word for it since he hiked the 10 miles, ran the river, hiked out the 4 miles, rode all the way up to Sac-town, and then turned around that same day to do it all over again with our group.

For all the rapids called "triple drop," there had ought to be at least one called, "quadruple drop." Brian Fletcher in the mix.

For all the rapids named "pin-ball," there should be at least one called "ping-pong." Stookesberry stares it down.

The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, but that sh*t was still 70 ft. tall.

The other first-timers scout the "mini-crucible," one of the cool mini-gorges on the run.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Fantastic Voyage

Self-portrait, 2007 hike out.

My friend David Maurier said of the North Mokelumne, "I went to Fantasy Falls in search of unicorns, and I found them." For myself, I would say that Fantasy Falls was my unicorn, my minotaur, my elusive fugitive that twizzled his moustache in mockery just as he made his get away.

In 2007 I put on with a patched boat, which opened up like a trout with its belly slit when I poorly piloted it down a manky sneak on day one. In the next rapid, my sinking boat free-wheeled over the crux and I initiated a sequence called "beat down to wet-exit." My kayak f-ed, and myself committed a good ways down the canyon, I faced the snow-covered peaks that stood between me and egress. That was it. My reality check that showed me that the granite domes and sculpted walls we float past are more than scenic wallpaper that scrolls by, they are the imposing and real parameters of wilderness. As a friend recently reminded me, these places- rivers, mountains, canyons- are always mightier than us; it is just that sometimes it is made plainly apparent.

The trail was covered under snow, so I straight-lined it to the road, post-holing through balls-deep snow and crossing over an exposed ridge. It was cold, kinda scary, and not fun. Even without my kayak, which I later returned for and removed, it took a day. It was an experience that has changed my approach to river running.

Last month Charlie led Thomas and I down a two day bombing mission, and I got my redemption. The river charged me for my passage however, sending me swimming not in any of the notorious mackin' holes, but out of an innocuous-looking but perfect undercut one rapid shy of the reservoir. Mmmm, boootie beeer...

Charlie bombs rapids, not countries.

Thomas gets barreled in the tube.

Oh, my.

I would also like to give a shout out to our trip expeditor and former world-record waterfall holder Paul Gamache. As Chuck put it, "It is always amazing given how many variables are in play on a trip like this when we make it out as planned." To you prospective European visitors, let Paul handle the variables by hiring him as your expeditor to take care of all logistics, shuttles, and permitting. . Contact him for 2010 High Sierra packages, made very reasonable by the favourable exchange rate.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Kayaking on a bottled-water label

Macy Burnham balancing his boat for a moment's rest.

Up and over Piute Pass, in the headwaters of the South San Joaquin, lies a creek that is fed by glaciers. Looking out over the Moraine as I cleared the pass, an unusual altitude headache throbbing and gusts of wind tugging at the kayak on my back, a single prosaic thought occupied my mind: what are we doing here? We were exploring a creek, going trans-Sierra ,East side to the West side (no-diggity), starting at the source, taking a gamble, and signing-up for who-knows-what. It was an awesome, cold, spectacularly-scenic adventure shared in good company. Enjoy the show.

Piute Creek from Taylor Cavin on Vimeo.

Flow Study v. Yuba Gap

Time slows down on the hourglass slide. Chris Korbulic enjoys it.

The Diesel 80 boofs well, resurfaces predictably...

...and is easy to roll!

Darin Mcquoid has a laugh over one of those moments where someone sees their line, goes for it, and eats it!

After the first rapid on Yuba Gap, all I could think was, "That was the coolest rapid I've ever run!" That it has easy access(Take the "Yuba Gap" exit off I-80), big,classy rapids(think East Kaweah size with Hospital Rock class), and a richter-factor that will push past what you may want all goes to show: recreational releases could give California incredible resources. I can easily say this was the coolest flow-study I've hopped on because it was also the coolest single-day stretch of river I've ever run. I say let's all fill-out some paperwork, and see what we can make off with here. Un-scientific statistic: I reckon that 30% of the 100 V+ kayakers in California made time to capitalize on this run during a 3-day window.

Photos 2,3 & 4- Chris Korbulic.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

a vertical mile, 5,280 smiles

Lower Silver Fork stack-up, Thomas Moore

Over a three day weekend I decided to gear up for the coming vacation of California kayaking by going California kayaking. First up was 2009 closing ceremonies on the S F American as Jared and Thomas and I ran a one-day trifecta of Lower Silver Fork, Lover's Leap, and South Silver at low-ish flows. Hightlight: running all of Lower Silver Fork blind except for the car-wash/bruised falls set, which we portaged. California kayaking lesson: Keep that momentum rolling.

Portaging over the Lover's Leap logjam, site of the 2010 lumberjack games.

The next day, I met up with Carleton, Willy, and the SE crew of Daniel, Brooks, and Matthias to freeze our faces off at high elevation on Fordyce Creek. I got us good and lost on the shuttle partly because the cloud cover was hanging like the Fog of War and we couldn't really see far enough to read the topography, partly because duh. Then it snowed. We debated whether to put on, then ran the creek in a 3 hour race against hypothermia. I had to laugh for our South Eastern friends because they have their Lie (the Green always runs), and in California we have ours (it's sunny all the time). Highlight: remembering how fun it is to remember rapids. California kayaking lesson: Do not be discouraged by logistical hiccups. They are to be expected until we find a cure for ADHD.Brohelm throws down some torso-rotation on "rotator cuff"

The day after that, Willy had the sharp idea to put on a river that is still semi-steep, but a lot lower elevation, Bald Rock Canyon of the M Feather. It is all about being in that place, and it was sweet. Highlight: exploring caves in the Atom Bomb Falls neighborhood. California kayaking lesson: Gotta pay to play, in this case either with dollars to the boat man who can take you accross the reservoir, or with thigh-presses to hike out of the canyon (we chose the latter). To cap off the weekend, I ate what I am sure is the biggest burrito I have ever eaten.
Brohelm says that Curtain Falls could be the best boof in California.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lower Mill Creek: a true gutter

Katrina Skarda thinks this run is a hoot.

Mill Creek is a stream that cuts through an ancient lava flow that spilled off the flank of Mount Lassen. This gives the river a surreal character, because you can imagine how the liquid rock flowed and formed as you float down the water which in turn carved and shaped the rock. While the whitewater itself is not spectacular (volcanic rock is better for removing foot calluses than slip-sliding kayaks), the river canyon is nothing short of wild. In many places Mill Creek is less than a boat-length wide because the water has made quick work of cutting down into the soft conglomerated rock. Trip highlights included: Seeing a bear lumbering along on the shuttle road, raw-dawging water from Brita-quality side-streams (river right= good to go, river left = cow town), 3 liters of chardonnay-in-a-bag stowed in my boat, and angry beavers whose tail-slaps told us to "recognize!" as we paddled into the outskirts of Las Molinas. Mill Creek!

Bryant Burkhardt used to be my boss! Now he runs the show @

Katrina, Bryant and Matt make like the blue angels, minus the sonic booms.

Try to guess which way the creek is flowing.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Get your ass up here!

This is not the greatest creek in the world... This is just a blog post.

I feel I can rhapsodize about this creek without contributing to "blowing it up." California has fewer than 100 class V boaters as near as I can tell. The South East is about 3000 miles away. These two factors should keep user impact pretty low, so I will go ahead and let loose on what a few have known for some time.

Darin hits "send."
Darin had texted with the phrase "flows perfect, get your asses up here!" He could fall back on a career as a motivational speaker with this brand of self-actualization. Confirmed flow and open roads on the South Branch of the Middle Fork of the Feather made a potent argument.

These waterfalls get back-to-back like some commercial-free classic rock hits. Thomas requests "Freebird."

The funniest thing all day was spoken by Seth who meant it when he said, "Now that we've made it to the back-to-back waterfall section, I feel like I can relax a little."

I had run this creek before at low flows, but once we realized that Darin's "perfect" was considerably higher, the bumpy lead-in turned into an awesome ride. It was pretty much nodding and bombing through this stretch until we got to the photo-op one-stroke drops and could "relax a little."

Seth relaxes a little.

Thomas goes while Seth sets safety and sense of scale.

The cool weather made the hike out from the edge of the world alright and the freshly burned forest was free of tangly undergrowth. I was stoked to escape to this place and to actually run waterfalls like I usually just daydream.

For better pictures and actual beta go to and find the South Branch Middle Feather page.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A little bit closer

Darin Mcquoid, Golden Gate

Robbie Hogg, Upper Middle Cosumnes

Alan Speering, Upper Clavey

Alan punching a hole in the water like it's drywall and he's mad

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Upper Otter Creek: 1d

This trip began as the brainchild of Alex Wolfgram. During a shit-talk-storm at his house last summer, he showed me a boatload of American River tribs that had been run once or twice or not at all. Otter Creek was the name that stuck with me from this speculating, postulating, map room session of arm-chair kayaking. It came complete with an anecdote of a gold miner dredging the pool of a waterfall, the would-be take out of the run, only to find at the bottom of the ore heap evidence that the Chinese had beaten him to the punch and cleaned it out. Though this stream had been mined, and its lower reaches kayaked, there remained a stretch unknown to our kind. On March 2, Alex Wolfgram, Corey Tucker, and myself went in to see what the deal was.

Scars heal tougher: swaths cut by human activity make great access points. We soon found a trail that made the hike in buttery-as.

A ride down the otter-bahn: Alex Wolfgram on the first sweet rapid we came to (before the water started rising, browning, and scaring us downstream).

Corey Tucker on same. Something I noticed just driving into this zone, and became increasingly aware of as we hiked in was its jurassic jungle character. There is definitely some lush micro-climate going on as the trees were often encased in fuzzy mosses and the banks tangled with nets of vines. Adding to this effect was the pissing rain we had all day.

Crazy ox-bow...Thanks to the old flume trail this scout-ferry-scout-portage-portage affair only took an hour and a half. The rapid we portaged was a mesmerizing multi-pitch slide that was all good until the bottom. We think at lower flows the water would channelize in the right spot instead of fanning out over the whole thing, good and bad.

This is really happening: a perfect double on Otter Creek. Unfortunately at high side of Yee-Ha! flows (MF American went to 10k the night of our trip) it was cooking into the next rapid, which was not perfect.

Corey Tucker planing out like an Argentine futbol player celebrating a "GOOOOAAAL!" Once we got through the few hundred vert. feet of bedrock, we entered a class III tree lined float that was scary on account of the high-water and many bends out of view, but really fun on account of it being a steady wave-train. I think we portaged wood 2x in there and ran 2 IV's.

Big Bad Otter. The next time I got out of my boat I right away gave the signals for "huge," then "portage." There was a brown torrent gushing down a wavey, ramping lip into a tall drop with a re-connect half-way down, then a short pool and the river ran through waves and trees downstream. While walking around trying to figure out the portage route, I noticed a line down the guts of this falls that avoided rocks on the far left and right. I knew this was our take-out, so down-stream progress was no longer a priority. It was late, we were beat, and we still had to hike out a mile and a half, but I looked straight up to see the first patch of blue all day. Maybe this was a false omen, but I'm still glad I ran it. I walked back to Wolf and Corey who were staring at the chaos and told them I was gonna go. They were supportive with "Hell Yeah!" and "Alright!" though Wolf later told me he thought I was joking. I portaged my boat into an eddy half-way through the lead-in, mostly because I couldn't spare the daylight to scout and trace the line back any further. I snapped my deck on, splashed my face, peeled out, and spotted the seem between two laterals where I wanted to immerse myself. I reached forward, planted a right stroke, hauled on it, and then tucked it up to wait for the reconnect that never came. I realized I had cleared the reconnect when that moment passed by and then melted like the polar ice-caps, without the yank on the paddle that I expect from big falls.

Photo: Corey Tucker. Then I crossed over from glory to humbling as I resurfaced upside-down and reached for my on-side roll only to feel the thunder landing on me. I knew this feeling: locked into a side-surf. I switched over to my off-side, hoping I would catch some current and flush out, but rolled up to see that I was still side-surfing with the falls landing on me. Window-shade. First swim in a year. Pop up in big swirly eddy and made friends with drift-wood. Clambered out of the water like a scalded cat. Wolf grabs my boat! Wolf throws me a rope, wraps it around a tree, and I jump in and use it to pendulum from river right to left. I am down my paddle and my elbow-pads that sucked anyway. Wolf tells me that the mist and wind from the base was so violent he didn't really see my run. We hike out with one headlamp between three people in a tight procession, high on life, adrenaline, etc. and begin the half-joking curse of whoever came up with this idea in the first place. Hell Yeah!

Special Note: Fans of superstition will appreciate that this was my first trip wearing my brand new 5.10 savant shoes. Did I swim because I ran a waterfall at floodstage or because these shoes had never known the sweet taste of booty beer?