High Water on the North Fork American

Posted May 4, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

This last Friday, eight guides and thirteen brave guests set out to attempt All Outdoors’ first trip on the North Fork of the American River at somewhere between 4500 and 5000 cfs. (The highest commercial trip AO has ever run out there.)

It took quite a while in the morning before Scott and the other guides finally decided to go. After meeting our guests and bussing down to the put in, most of the guides took off in the bus to go scout the first big rapid, Chamberlain Falls, while a few of us stayed behind with the guests to make some snacks and do our best to keep everyone entertained. The Chamberlain scout served two purposes: to decide if and how that rapid should be run, and also to decide if the entire trip should be attempted at such a high flow.

It was about an hour or so for the scouting crew to return to put-in… just enough time for all of us to build up a lot of nervous energy. Scott told us that we were going to try and run the river, but portage Chamberlain’s, and we all gathered around for the game plan. The crucial part, he explained, was the first mile or so leading up to Chamberlain’s. A swim there could be dangerous because it would be hard to get back in the boat before the falls, and swimming that would be “no fun.”

Since weren’t even going to run Chamberlain’s in boats, we needed to have a really clean run through that narrow top portion, and make sure we caught a small eddy above the falls so that we could “line the boats.” (This means pushing them over the falls empty, while controlling them with a rope from shore.) We would run the small gorge one by one, then give the signal back as soon as we had made it through OK.

Danny took a guide boat out in front with myself, Drew, Matt D., and Ryan all paddling. The guinea pig once again! (See recent post about The Shortest Swim Ever.) It was a strange thing, going through that first mile or so all alone. We had a safety kayaker out in front, but I was so busy paddling that I never saw him. Once the walls closed in on us and calmer eddies dissappeared, no one said anything other than Danny’s occassional sharp “Forward!” or “Right Turn!”

The crux move of the gorge was to make it around the right side of a large hole before Chamberlain’s that could potentially flip a boat, and then get back over left to eddy out and stop ourselves right above the falls.

We made it around the hole, and then Danny waited. I got more and more anxious the closer we floated towards the right side of that horizon line, but knew that we wanted to get some good momentum built up to make it across the strong currents and into that left eddy.

Finally the forward was called, and we charged over left. We got pretty close to the edge of Chamberlain’s, stopping ourselves only a few feet from the lip of the falls. I was amazed to see how much that rapid had changed with just a few more hundred cfs than our trip a few weeks before. All the water falling towards the left crashed into the water falling right, creating a rooster-tail wave in the middle that fell back on itself and fed directly into violent eddies on the left or right. A few hundred cfs lower, that wave had a wider, flushy portion of water flowing over the top and heading downstream. Now it just looked like it was eternally feeding Chamberlain Falls, not letting any water escape.

I was therefore pretty relieved to be out of the boat and clambering over rocks with Danny to set up safety for the other boats in a downstream eddy. We watched everyone else have great runs and portage successfully, and once we had all re-grouped the trip set off towards the next big rapid… Bogus Thunder.

Luckily when we got there, we saw that a small “sneak” route had opened up along the left-hand side, making it much easier to miss the scary holes in the middle of the river. It was fun to have a more technical move to try, and we got a chance to take a good luck at the meat of the whole as we passed it by.

We still, however, had Staircase to face. Already an intimidating challenge at normal flows, Staircase becomes a monstrous rapid when the water rises. (Upon initially seeing it at high water on our last trip out there, I had thought that it was un-runnable. When Scott came back that time to tell us he had a line figured out, running right to left across a strange-looking, pillowing wave, I almost decided to walk around. But we went for it, and much to my surprise, his idea had worked perfectly.)

The line goes like this: Forward over the first drop with a right angle into an extremely powerful eddy that really wants to turn your boat in all sorts of troublesome directions. Don’t let it. Ride the eddy fence for some harrowing moments, barely passing the biggest, middle hole. Then just a few seconds before you might feel it’s really such a good idea, back paddle as hard as you can over a strange hydraulic that looks like it just might stop you and feed you back towards that hole or right towards the bottom ledge. Land in slower water behind the middle hole, and keep your angle while backing away from the third and final ledge hole, coming out clean on the left-hand tongue.

Translation? Have a lot of control and finesse in the midst of chaotic whitewater and frenzied paddling. And be ready for a pretty big surf, flip or swim otherwise. So being the good little guinea pigs we are, Danny, Matt, Ryan, Drew and I all got in our boat and set out to try it while everyone else watched from shore.

Our run went as follows: Forwarded over the first drop towards violent eddy. Tried to keep the boat straight but got turned around. Finally regained our angle but it was just a second too late: during our back paddle we grazed the right-hand wall. Our boat got turned toward the bottom ledge. Danny called a back-paddle away from it but a couple of us had stopped in the confusion.

A few seconds later, I was looking down a five foot drop into the meat of a very big hole. Shortly after that, the boat came over my head and I was under water. Somehow when I popped up the boat was in front of Matt and I with Danny, Ryan and Drew still holding on. I swam out to the right side of the river and into an eddy, stopping myself about twenty yards below the flip. When I looked downstream again, Danny had flipped the boat back over and they were eddying out on river right a few hundred yards downstream.

So all in all not a very bad flip. Everyone had either held on to the boat or climbed out of the river fairly quickly, and they had the boat tied off downstream.

But now all the guides upstream of us had 13 very nervous people on their hands. One of Scott’s guests turned to him and asked, “Is there any chance we make it?” Scott explained that yes, there was a chance, but that the rapid was still optional if anyone wanted to walk it.

Impressively, all thirteen guests decided they wanted to give the rapid a try. Matt and I set up safety downstream with throwbags and watched their runs.

Every single one of them pulled it off. As each boat passed us safely on the other side of that final ledge, we cheered them through and watched as they gave each other high fives and hugs. The guest who had asked Scott whether or not there was any chance of making it turned to her boat and told them that it was her birthday, and one of the most special she’d ever had.

Even on shore it was exhilerating to watch them get through so cleanly. I climbed into Scott’s boat and he delivered me back to the boat I had abandoned a few minutes before.

The rest of the day had a lot of fun whitewater and waves that were much less difficult and consequential as the first half of the run, and everyone was high off adrenaline and that great feeling you get after completing something scary and challenging. It may have been late when we finally took off the water, but I think that everyone felt that the time had been well worth it. It’s so hard to really have true adventures any more, and that day definitely was one.


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