Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting Beat Down

The last photo ever taken of this particular Habitat.
Photo: Chad Daugherty.

We are all in between swims. This adage holds true of all paddlers save an elite few: The ones who are, at that moment, swimming.

"I've never seen that happen before."

"Have you ever seen that happen before?"

"No, me niether, I have never seen that happen."

From the scout I had decided that the last part of a 4-part rapid on Chawanakee Gorge of the San Joaquin looked exactly like "locals go deep" on the South Yuba. I meant to run it the same way: plugging into the seem. I found out the plug had been overzealous when I momentarily pinned on the bottom and then had my deck implode from the surrounding water. The swim was low-stress into a calm pool where I made it to the bank with my paddle.

My cart-wheeling boat had racked up a huge rodeo score, but the 45 second siren had sounded and it refused to give up the hole. Then it made its dramatic exit: a terminal mystery move.

Standing in the water downstream, where I was waiting to wrangle the boat when it flushed, my dumbfoundment grew as the disappearing act went on. I surmised that it went extra deep on one of its retendo moves and pinned on the bottom. It was not going to show itself until the water level changed and upset the balance holding it there. With the gauge spiking like Bart Simpson's haircut in response to fluctuating electrical demand, it seemed like this could happen within an hour or two, but that was time we could not spare. My trusty dry bag ripped free from its carabiner and resurfaced like a soggy hat bubbling up from a sunken ship. This came as official notice: my boat was gone. Gone to Davey Jones' Locker.

The Monkey Court convened an emergency session on the cliff above, where the preceding lines of dialogue were spoken. Its members shook their heads as they deliberated and conveyed their best guesses to me through hand and body signals.

Deep in Chawanakee Gorge, with its steep, slick walls rising on both sides it looked pretty bleak. Climbing out of the gorge was a non-option. The clean faced sides had no gullies and few cracks systems. It would have been death-defying for a seasoned climber, which I am not. Swimming the pools and walking the rapids was out because we had already encountered an unportage-able section and could only assume more of the same lay downstream. Good thing there was a metal stair-case bolted into the granite at that one particular spot, going up several pitches to a road blasted into the bedrock. If it weren't for that thing, I'd have been in it for sure.

I'd been pardoned on a technicality. I got a steep littering fine since it will take a while to collect 50 lbs. of garbage from other rivers to outweigh my boat. I was also issued a sobering reminder that the unportage-able (no, really) is out there where even tip-toeing, creativity and rope-work can not bail you out. Sometimes commitment is more than a vague concept: it means absolute exposure.