California’s New River is a tributary to the better-known Trinity River, flowing out of the majestic Trinity Alps and dropping in to the Trinity at the end of a popularly-boated section called Burnt Ranch Gorge. The New is described in guide books as a Class III/IV run up to the last 2 miles before the Trinity confluence. At that point, the canyon walls begin to significantly narrow and steepen, and the river plunges into a committing Class V+ gorge. This last section is rarely run by kayakers, and even less often by raft.
March 18 and 19th on the New River Gorge:
On a boulder somewhere in the middle of the New River’s Class V+ gorge, on 3:15 am Sunday morning, I glanced up to see a beautiful full moon rising up and over the canyon’s rim, a few distant trees silhouetted against its soft glow. Behind me thundered the ever-present roar of a waterfall, cascading past and over massive boulders that the river had deposited in this narrowed passage during recent and age-old floods. For a brief moment, the immense power and beauty of the place overcame me and I felt somewhat thankful to be there.
But then I noticed a dull pain on my left leg from a rock that had just recently made its presence known by cutting off some of my circulation, and a shiver passed up my spine all the way from my freezing cold toes, still tucked inside a dry suit. I was snapped back from that moment of awe and appreciation to a very cold reality, once again devoting all attention to the important task of maintaining my body heat. And despite the beauty all around me, I thought to myself, “I sure would like to be in my sleeping bag at take-out right now, eating pasta in that warm, cozy tent that’s sitting in Danny’s truck.”
Although it seemed so far away at the time, it hadn’t actually been that long ago that we were gathering all our camping gear into the back of that truck, talking about all the good food we had brought and how nice a warm wood stove was going to be at the end of a cold day on the river. Funny how river trips never seem to go exactly as planned. (I suppose that’s half the fun of it.) This particular trip had started normally enough – 21 hours before I watched that moon rise – in a parking lot in Redding at 6 a.m. Saturday morning…
Smokey Pittman, Brad Riley, Adam Walker, Danny Walker and I had all gathered at the River Inn in Redding the night before, and after a few hours of sleep were loading up our cars, talking about where to get our morning coffee. The plan was to drive Highway 299 (connecting Redding to Arcada) towards the Cal Salmon, stopping along the way to look at the Trinity Drainage and decide which runs we should actually do. It was thought that we would either stick to a New River/Burnt Ranch Gorge combination, or drive on to do the North and South Forks of the Cal Salmon. Our decision would depend on water level, put-in logistics, and how sporty we all felt after that coffee.
Three hours later, we pulled over above the Trinity River’s Burnt Ranch Gorge section, across from its confluence with the New River. The five of us stood squinting across the 2000 foot-deep canyon, trying to determine whether or not the New was even an option. (In order for rafts to be able to run the New, it has to be high enough that you can run the second half of a rapid that is usually portaged. This is because, while kayaks can be easily hiked around the drop, big bulky rafts cannot. And lining rafts through the portage is a risky undertaking.) Smokey, who had kayaked the New several times, declared that he thought flows were actually high enough and optimal for the gorge that day.
It was at that point in time that I discovered that part of me had been hoping that flows would be too low. Gone were fuzzy and excited thoughts of the Cal Salmon, replaced by a molten mixture of adrenaline and nerves at the pit of my stomach. I realized that we might actually run a river that only one of us had ever seen, and whose final section was more committing and challenging than anything I’d ever done. For all the same reasons, though, a small part of me was strongly drawn toward that deep gorge.
The rest of the group seemed to harbor a similarly confusing mixture of reservation and excitement concerning the New River and Burnt Ranch plan (which, by the way, was running at at a very high 3500 cfs). After a few minutes of standing around staring at the New River gorge – all at once enticing and intimidating – we decided to “play it safe” and push onward towards the Cal Salmon, running either the North Fork or Nordheimer run the first day, and finishing with the South Fork on Sunday. I got those warm fuzzy feelings back as the quiet tension of indecision faded from the group, replaced by a more familiar, pre-river-trip euphoria.
That all lasted as far as the Chevron station before the turn-off to the Cal Salmon put-in. It was there that Smokey recieved a call that Burnt Ranch wasn’t actually as high as we had thought (we were thinking more like 6 grand instead of 3500) and that the Cal Salmon had dropped back down to 5 feet, making it’s South Fork gorge a more difficult raft run.
The sun, the flows, the timing of the phone call… all signs seemed to be pointing us back toward that New River canyon. And so, after a few more minutes of indecision, we turned around. (Once again the molten mixture of nerves and adrenaline in my tummy.)
By the time we reached put-in on the New, it was already noon. And put-in was a process in and of itself. Boats had to be pushed, shoved, and otherwise maneuvered down a steep ravine, probably about three-hundred vertical feet to water level. Then came all the gear, and the rigging. And then of course we were pretty hungry from all that pushing and shoving… All told, we didn’t actually get on the water until 2 pm.
This is of course the point in the story where I always get looks that say, “You put in WHEN??” And yes, looking back on it now, we all wonder why in the world we thought putting on at 2 pm was a fine idea. But we didn’t expect more than one or two portages throughout the gorge. (2 miles of Class V doesn’t sound so long when you picture yourself running most of it.) Either way, I do have to admit it wasn’t the soundest idea.
The beginning of the New’s lower section is slow, with six miles of Class II. We went as fast as we could through the flatter sections, but on top of taking a long time, it just wasn’t the best warm-up for serious Class V. The calmer waters seemed to lull us into a more relaxed state, tempting us to forget what it was we were approaching in the same way that Homer’s Sirens lured Odysseus to shore under their singsong spell. When the canyon walls closed in and we pulled over above that first horizon line, it was like a rude shake awake.
The river all of a sudden exploded in a seemingly pent-up rage. Standing above that first rapid, we realized we weren’t going to be able to run it with full boats. The only “reasonable” line to take was along the right shore, and included a pretty tight squeeze after the first drop that could flip or wrap a heavy boat. It was thus decided that we would line the first drop, and then Smokey and Adam would take the boats down alone through the squeeze move, with us holding throw bags on shore just in case. (Gotta say that I wasn’t too bummed at that point that I wasn’t guiding one of those boats!)
Already there was a half hour gone from our day that we didn’t expect to be missing. It was to be the first of a few such diversions. The next time we came upon a rapid we needed to line, it was already 5:00. The trip then started to take on a more hectic tone, as we all came to the realization that spending the night in the canyon was turning into a very real possibility. And with one sleeping bag between five of us, it didn’t sound like the fun kind of spontaneous sleepover.
An hour later, we finally arrived at the one portage we were actually expecting. Creatively named, “The Portage,” the first waterfall is never run (except by a kayaker named Charlie Center), and the second one is only run at certain flows. This is the place I referred to earlier as the crux of the gorge for rafters, where the canyon walls are too steep and “trails” too narrow for rafts to pass over the entire length of what is normally portaged, forcing rafters to commit to running the second drop.
All other options (besides running it) are either very risky or time consuming: Lining the drop would be an act of blind faith, since one would be too far above the water to have much control, and walking the boats around would require completely dismantaling all our gear and rolling the boats. In other words, if you don’t run you’re faced with either the risk of losing or wrapping a boat (which just so happens to be your only ticket out of the gorge sans helicopter), or taking half a day to painstakingly transport individual pieces of gear around the rapid.
After dealing with portaging the first drop, Smokey started off on the hike above the second one to try and determine a line. The skies were already getting darker above us, and so I asked Brad what time it was. “6 pm,” he replied. We were all fairly silent, waiting for Smokey to return. The second rapid loomed ahead of us, but no matter what rock I climbed on top of, I couldn’t see anything in between the horizon line and the wash-out a few hundred feet downstream from it.
When I realized that trying to judge the rapid from my vantage point was futile, I turned instead to watching Smokey’s reaction to it. (From a few hundred feet away this was also, admittedly, pretty futile.) Finally, though, Smokey turned to all of us and gave us a visual explanation of what he was looking at. It was sweet and simple: he held his hand out palm-up, then turned it over palm-down. Translation? The drop would probably flip us… We would not run the rapid that night.
Danny and I looked at each other with a sort-of “Well,… guess we’ll see how this goes” kind of look, and waited for Smokey to come back and tell us what we already knew- we were camping.
The next hour or so was spent gathering firewood and taking inventory of our supplies. After pulling together all our individual emergency gear, we had come up with a strange-although, as we later learned, effective- space blanket sleeping sack thing, one light-weight sleeping bag, a small tarp, some fire kindling and ….yeah.. that’s it. It was determined that one person would use the space blanket sleeping sack type thing, and the other four of us would take turns with the sleeping bag / tarp combination– two people “sleeping” while the other two tended the fire. (And yes, for those of you doing the math, two of those macho guys did eventually have to succumb to the tiniest bit of snuggling while taking their turn with the tarp and sleeping bag. But in the interest of friendship and the fact that I have to work with them the rest of the summer, they will remain nameless. You’ll all just have to guess.)
After an hour of collecting wood, we ate the snacks we had brought along for dinner, then tried to stay warm as long as we could without using any of the night’s firewood.
Being the only girl on the trip, I tried to represent for my gender and not to be the first to suggest we start the fire, but after a half hour of uncontrolled shivering, I finally gave in. As the picture shows, Smokey carefully read each page of newspaper kindling before deciding to throw it in our makeshift firepit. (Wouldn’t want to waste a good comic strip.) Soonafter, welcome flames started stretching up towards our hands and casting shadows against the rock wall behind. And thus, the long night began. Although none of us were really able to sleep, we were too exhausted and cold the whole time to really talk. Hours passed slowly just staring at the fire, and every once in a while trying to hunker down under the tarp and rest our eyes.
And so we are finally back to three a.m. on Sunday morning, when, after a few hours of shivering and shielding my eyes from smoke caused by wet firewood, I looked up to see that beautiful moon rising over the canyon’s walls.
Although we still had three or four hours of darkness left at that point, I was glad to find out that we had already made it through more than two thirds of the night. Danny spoke up for the first time in a few hours, emerging from under the silver space blanket. Quick note for anyone else ever planning to get stuck in the middle of nowhere: those space blankets apparently work. Danny informed us that he had more or less been sleeping the last five hours. Being the friendly guy he is, he offered the spot up to Brad and went about taking over fire-tending duties for awhile.
I’ll skip ahead now to a few hours later, as the rest of the night didn’t really produce any other moments quite as exciting as those I’ve already described. At seven am, we finally decided that we should crawl out of whatever corner we were trying to stay warm in, and start figuring out how in the world we were going to get out of that gorge. (When I say “we”, I mean Smokey and Adam took off with some rope and throw bags to figure out lining and running options, while the rest of us waited nervously in camp.)
I once again took up my post on the highest boulder around, and tried to read Adam and Smokey’s conversation from a few hundred yards away. This is what I saw: Adam belays Smokey down the cliff to give him a closer look at the main drop in the rapid. Smokey climbs back up. Adam and Smokey stand looking at water with hands on hips for about five minutes. Then they talk to each other, hands out in front drawing hypothetical lines in the air. They walk downstream, stand with hands on hips for another ten minutes. Smokey climbs down to get a closer look at the rapid… Process repeats several times.
It was an hour or so before they both started walking back towards our little camp. When they got there, they said: “The water has dropped a little bit. We still don’t like the look of the run, but can’t line the boats because there’s no way to have enough control… So we’re going to run it. If we flip in that first drop, we have to get the boats back over right away because there’s another Class V around the corner. Don’t swim.”
Well, if that’s not just the most inspiring game plan for a rapid you’ve ever heard… I could almost hear Eye of the Tiger in the background. I definitely wasn’t the least bit scared. Except of course for the fact that I couldn’t eat a bite of food even though I’d hardly eaten anything the day before, and my hands were shaking so much it was hard to pack up my gear.
It took about an hour to re-rig the boats and get ready to go. The tension in the air was unbelievable. I was more scared then I can remember being in a long time, and to be spending so much time above the rapid… it was right there, roaring in our ears in daring us to go ahead and try it. Most rafting I’ve ever done, even on a river as serious as Cherry Creek, involves a much more controlled kind of risk. There are people downstream, who know exactly where things can go wrong and just how to clean up the mess when they do. In the gorge that morning, none of us knew exactly what would happen, and the only thing waiting downstream was another Class V rapid.
We hardly said a word to each other before getting in the boats. I must have not been doing a very good job of hiding my fear, though, because Danny and Adam both separately told me that everything was going to be just fine. Finally Smokey looked at Brad and I and said, “You guys ready to go?”
I wanted to say no… that I would just walk around and meet them downstream. Good luck paddling by yourself Brad! But instead I just nodded, and climbed down into the boat. I felt the power of the water as soon as I set my foot down on the raft. The eddy it was tied in was hardly the calm repreive from the main current that eddies often are. Instead, it almost seemed to be trying to spit the boat out. The energy in that spot was just amazing. As we rocked back and forth, Smokey explained the line. We would set up with a right angle above the drop, forward paddle hard, and then highside left against the huge hydraulic that threatened to flip us. Brad and I nodded in understanding.
Then Smokey said, “Allright, lets go.” Brad untied the rope, hopped into the boat, and two forward paddles later we were out in the current. My heart beat at least a hundred times in the few seconds it took us to float up to the rapid. Smokey set our angle with the oars, and right before he finally called that command we saw it for the first time: an eight foot drop, blocked on the right by a huge fan rock, and surging on the left side into a huge horizontal hydraulic off the left wall.
“Forward paddle! Hard!” Eyes down to the water… just pure adrenaline and concentration now. Two hard strokes. “Over left! Now!” I see my grab hold in the form of Smokey’s oar frame. Jump as fast as I can and hold on to it. Our boat hits the bottom of the drop, starts climbing up towards that left wall…and then, thank God, stabilizes. “Whooohooooo!!!” We start cheering right away. Barely miss flipping in a hole down towards the bottom of the rapid because we’re too busy celebrating.
But we had made it. Holy crap…that was amazing.
We eddied out as soon as possible to set safety for Adam and Danny in the cataraft. The cat handled the hydraulic much better, passing over it smoothly. Adam was so happy to be at the bottom of the rapid that he jumped up and gave Danny a huge hug. The elation was wonderful.
It was strange to feel so relieved with a mile and a half of Class V rapids in front of us, but I knew the rest of it was manageable. The rest of the run had a few great rapids, and we only had to portage one more time around a log-jammed channel. But it was hard to enjoy it as much as I normally would because we all just really wanted to get to take-out; to our warm clothes, food, drinks, and eventually a place to finally sleep.
When we reached Burnt Ranch Gorge, we emerged onto an entirely different river. The transition from small creek to high water was incredibly dynamic. It felt like the Trinity just grabbed on hard to our boat, yanking us downstream. Definitely a good way to gain an appreciation for the difference between normal and high flows. From there on it was sunny skies and fun waves, with only one more rapid to worry about it.
We finally got to take-out at around 12 noon… 24 hours after reaching put in.
The first thing I did after hauling gear up? Sleep. On a nice warm rock by the water. The best sleep ever.
I can’t say the trip was the most fun rafting I’ve ever done. But definitely a learning experience. Biggest lesson? Don’t put on at two o’ clock for a Class V run in a committing gorge where you’ll have to scout every horizon line! I’m thankful to have been with the group that was there… couldn’t have asked for a more competent group of guys.
It’s funny…Even with the whole experience going as wrong as it did… that New River Gorge still calls you back. Something about a canyon that deep and powerful. On the way home there was already talk about “Next time.” Plans for howto do it better. Maybe putting on earlier. And of course, sleeping bags for everyone. Just in case.