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?