"No agenda but the bender." I picked up this phrase from Kiwi kayaker Barny Young in reference to a debaucherous night out that his crew had in Sacramento. I feel that this phrase is also apt to describe the devotion required to catch the California classics as the snow-melt races down the mountains.
After play-boating on the Main-stem American at the Auburn Fest, the choice was clear: We would head up the North Fork American to the Royal Gorge. This was the site of an epic within an epic told in the second part of the tragi-comedy "Flirting with Miss Adventure." This premiered at the OPP filmfest and is embedded at the bottom of this post.
I completed the Royal Gorge with a group comprised of Chris Zawacki, Scott Ligare, and the indefatigable Dan Menten, who went through Fantasy Falls and said there was plenty of water for a second trip. Having someone with the many rapids, portages, and gorges of the North Mokelumne so fresh in their mind presented an undeniable opportunity. A crack-team was assembled and we went in. High-lights included: lots of beta and blind-bombing, a terrifying but character-building surf in the middle of "Island Drop," and Katie Scott getting her mojo back by leading the charge off Fantasy Falls proper shortly after a freakish pin-to-swim in some boogie water.
After the Fantasy Falls, I caught the tail-end of Ben Wartburg's bachelor party on the South Silver. From what I gathered, the Coloma portion of the bachelor party had absolutely no agenda but the bender, in the conventional sense of the word. It was hella fun bombing down the creek at mountain bike speeds and walking back up to stage a photo with a kayaker in each of the teacups (partially successful).
Then I got a text from Chris Korbulic that the South Stanislaus above Pinecrest Lake was running. I knew that the run had been done once years ago and that one of the final falls was called "Cleopatra's Bath." I pictured a waterfall into a pool where there would be concubines bathing and singing as they combed each other's hair. A business-casual start on the run the following day saw our group of four scuttling the shuttle on river left and driving through road construction on river right. Soon enough we were hiking through meadows and forest until the view opened up to reveal a slide that looked like mini-Graceland (which was still pretty big). I believe it was around five in the afternoon when we left the put-in slide after repairing a piton-punctured boat. Cool and unique rapids, some marginally runnable, others runnably charge-able followed. As darkness caught us, we were at the top of Cleopatra's Bath. This 30-40 foot waterfall looked runnable except that once you run it, you would have to ascend out on a rope fixed to the two bolts placed in the granite by canyoneers. Portaging the un-runnable gorge in the dark was rather hilarious, portaging class 3 in the dark even more so. Paddling across the lake around 11pm was cool with the stars reflecting on the mirror calm surface like we were sky-aking.
The next obvious move was to Upper Cherry Creek, but I had a strange premonition that a tragedy would occur there, and I didn't want to be there when it did. Thomas Moore dispelled my pessimism and convinced me to go in to run the creek for the sixth year in a row for both of us. Highlights included: Gareth Tate getting me re-stoked on fishing, watching about 20 people fly off of Cherry Bomb Falls in as many minutes, and Thomas' paddle flushing out from underneath the only rock in Cherry Bomb gorge after a 30-minute vigil on a rock ledge. Thanks to Brent from Idaho (who I had not seen in too long) and his friend for hoisting my boat up to the ledge.
Note: A tragedy did indeed occur several days later, when Allen Satcher lost his life in the Waterfall Alley, the first death on Upper Cherry Creek. I did not know Allen, and I don't feel that the platitude, "he died doing what he loved," offers any solace to those who did know him. It is brutal loss: I wish the risk of the river were not so real, I hope his soul finds rest, and I hope his loved ones find peace.
While un-doing our Upper Cherry shuttle, we heard word that the new Devil's Postpile gauge was dropping close to 200cfs, a level I thought meant "go-time," based on last year's success with 170cfs. It did not look like I was going to be able to convince anyone besides Dan Menten to round out a group until Kiwis Daan and Shannon popped out of Upper Cherry "keen as," with Jess graciously offering to streamline the shuttle. We pre-emptively celebrated with a barbecue and good night's sleep at Kevin's house in Mammoth, and pulled out all the charm and Jedi mind-tricks to get our car through the gate at the National Monument where they try to get you to ride a shuttle bus. A cold feeling sank into my heart as the nice lady called her supervisor, but they put the "bro" in "bureaucracy" and let us pass.
A fantastic first day on my favorite section on Earth brought us to our camp at the divide between the San Joaquin River and Fish Creek, where we preyed upon trout and tip-toed around the biggest rattlesnake I have ever seen (13 segments in its rattle, at least five feet long is my recollection). The next day, I was loathe to leave the beautiful place, but was eventually convinced by the rest of the group in their gear that it was time to head downstream.
Fish Creek added a reasonable amount of water, and we went on our merry way. At one scout I was describing the line to the others when I saw two more kayakers coming downstream. This was perplexing since we knew that a group of 3 had been planning to put on. Turns out that the trio had turned into a gruesome twosome when a boat was harmlessly but inextricably pinned in "the maze." Our number increased to six, but our American to Kiwi ratio remained 1:1.
Great kayaking continued, especially after the North San Joaquin added much more water than I had previously seen in it. The so-called "class four" that followed was extra-awesome, but I started to wonder whether we were floating on the high-side of screwed when a previous portage ledge was a half-foot under water. In some boily flat-water on the way out of that gorge, the river belched and mystery-moved me to my arm-pits. I looked over my shoulder at Dan and asked, "did you see that?" My countenance must have been one of terror.
After making a few mistakes with our portaging and the day getting long, we chose to camp at a huge beach with a spectacular view of Balloon Dome. We feasted on trout, polished off the tequila and had a pseudo-serious team meeting, speaking in corporate parlance as Daan and Shannon had brought collared shirts and neck-ties to wear in camp.
At some point Nick Murphy brought up something that had been weighing on him, something he needed to talk about. He had been present at Allen's drowning, had in fact thrown a rope into the pot-hole where Allen struggled. We spoke of mortality and risk, how our facing up to forces more powerful than ourselves makes us live more fully and intentionally while we are here, living and breathing.
The full moon did not help me sleep either as I thought about The Crucible that awaited a short ways downstream. The smell of algae drew me down to the water's edge to check the level throughout the night as the river ebbed and flowed. I tip-toed around the sleeping first-timers as my fear of the known haunted me more strongly than their fear of the unknown. As I watched the full moon trace its path across the sky between fits of sleep, I saw that it would pass behind Balloon Dome, being eclipsed by it and emanating a corona of moonbeams. If I have the luxury of dying comfortably, I am sure that it will be one of the memories I will look back on.
The next morning, I deviated from character and was the first to gear up. We got our last looks at Balloon Dome before we entered the gorge formed at its feet. We portaged "weapons of mass destruction," and walked high up a moraine to scout "sieve-il war," "broken arrow" and see the un-scoutable horizon line that is The Crucible proper.
Soon enough we were in the still pool above, and I ferried back and forth trying to peek over my shoulder to see if the middle line that Kevin and I had scouted from below the year before was still an option. Nick Murphy uttered an axiom as wise as his crew's other catch-phrases such as "where there's a hole there's a goal," and "when charging in the wrong direction, continue to charge." "Go with what you know," he said, and paddled off down the traditional right line, whooping at the top of his lungs once he had made it. A minute later we were all in the next pool, having avoided the sieve that makes the Crucible a must-make move. The lip of the final pothole of the gorge was covered with water almost all the way across to the sieve, leading me to believe that our trip had been the highest flow descent.
Many more rapids and portages continue down to the confluence with the South San Joaquin, usually just trickling due to its impoundment by Florence Reservoir, but doubling the flow on our trip thanks to the bumper snow year. From there, many more rapids and portages continue down to Mammoth Pool Reservoir. But there is something both tangible and symbolic about clearing the Crucible that brings a sense of elation without premature celebration.
Soon enough, we were eating trout at the boat-ramp, pizza in North Fork, and ingloriously driving into the wee hours back to Coloma so I could make a rock-star turnaround to go see rock and roll music with my wonderful girlfriend at Outside Lands the next day. After three days of rocking out to the likes of Black Keys, the Shins, and Arcade Fire, it was another late-night drive to Coloma and immediate 3am departure to run the Middle Kings with the same stellar team with whom I had finished the Royal Gorge. Thanks for waiting for me.
Another summer of bendering around river bends complete. Other agenda now command my attention. But I only straighten out so that I can bend again, recouping energy like the High Sierra accumulates its snow-pack, waiting to be set free and sent on its way.