Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Anatomy of a Debacle (on The Middle Kings)

The Middle Kings

The Kings River has always held the highest place in the sacred rivers of my life.  I first got in a kayak when I was just 12 years old on the lower Kings River in the mid 1990’s.  My parents and their boater friends told many stories of what lies upstream, mostly second hand.  The take-out for the Garlic Falls section, where great kayakers sometimes perished, ended at our put-in and we once found a boat while rafting the lower, folded and full of holes, presumably from some mishap upstream.  Then even higher in the drainage, there was mysterious Middle Kings, where only the best of the best dared venture.  The folks I grew up with, who taught me how to roll, eddy out and surf, spoke of the Middle Kings as the pinnacle of stupidity, a near-sure death trap where only those with an immense amount of skill and even bigger balls would ever dare venture.  So of course, I always wanted to go there, and it became my personal holy grail.

Before the River, There was the Bowl

That's Me!

Lower Kings Fully Loaded

My Mom!  I Learned in that Boat!

Fast forward to 2013.   I’ve been kayaing class V for many years now, and the Middle Kings is finally in reach.  Unfortunately,  the snowpack in the Sierras is dismal, and all the California classics are due to come in much earlier than usual and will be hard to predict.  Still, Dan McCain, a superhero among rafters and river types of all kinds, gives me a call, leaving only this message “Matt, we’re going to the Middle Kings, you’re coming.  Don’t tell anyone.” 

That’s where it all started.  Dan wanted to get the first decent of the Middle Kings, and was worried that someone might go in there first if they heard he was going to do it.  I’m pretty sure that nobody else is willing to carry a raft over that pass, but hey, it’s been done!

At first we had a solid crew, Dan and Jeff in the raft, the Dinsdale Brothers and I in kayaks.  With the flows somewhat on the high side of good, and the weather report calling for a mild heat wave, we decided to go anyway.   We should have known better.  Dan wanted it so bad, nothing could talk him down, and I was in the same boat. 

My family, and many of the family friends who introduced me to whitewater, were going to be on their annual Kings River camp out, spending their days rafting from the take out for the Middle Kings.  How great would it be if I could paddle into their camp, near sunset, coming off the holy grail of kayaking, and have a beer and trade stories with all of my mentors.  Plus they agreed to do our shuttle!

We made the final call to get in the car and go.  On the way down, we found out that Willy and Ben ended up having some trouble on Upper Cherry, and were both incapacitated for the time being.  The rafters and I still decided to forge on, despite having lost a day figuring out what had happened to the rest of our crew. 

We met at the trailhead, got our gear together, and started the long hike.  
Dan the Mule Going Up

And Up
And Finally Over the Pass, Over 12,000 Feet
It’s a hard walk, with lots of elevation gain and lots of miles with plenty of weight on your back.  Somehow the beauty of John Muir wilderness and the high sierras trumps the pain, and the hike went by fairly quickly.  Maybe it was also that Dan was having a much harder time than me, so I felt lucky to just be carrying my kayak!
Me teaching Dan how to Click the Camera 
We made it up and over the pass, spending the night in Dusy Basin, about 6 miles from the put-in, with a lot of elevation drop.  The next morning, we got back to it, made the descent down to river level, and put on around noon.  
Jeff Going Down.

Finally at River Level!

The first 3 miles are manky and slow, and we didn’t really make good progress.  Now 2 days deep into what we thought would be a 5 day trip, we were running behind in a big way, both in time and more importantly in food.  
Beauty and Mank

Portaging the Raft Around Mank  Sucks

Once we got to the confluence of Palisade Creek and the kings, our spirits lifted and we got moving a little faster.  Other than a slight mishap at Squeeze Play, where we tried to line the raft (it pinned and we almost lost some gear) things were feeling alright.  

Squeeze Play, looks good to go yeah?

And Now the Raft is Stuck

After corralling some gear and running a sweet 20' slide right after a quick portage, we camped at a barely runnable, near vertical 30’ slide called Can of Crushed Ass, named for this gnarly flake at the bottom that sends water shooting up in a massive fan.  It’s been run!
Danimal Before the Kings Drops of the Face of the Earth
The next day, we set off first thing and made our way down to one of the best drops ever, Money Drop.  After a couple of styled lines,  and some high fives, we continued on. 
Styling the Top
Styling the Bottom

And Again; Top

And Bottom
At this point, I was starting to get quite worried about our progress.   The river is really steep in this section, at one point over 500’ per mile. The raft was having trouble stopping, forcing me to probe everything, and the water felt quite a bit higher than good.  We arrived at a series of marginally runnable drops in the midst of very continuous whitewater, and I felt my heart sink.  We’d already found that portaging the raft was difficult and time consuming.
This Looked Sweet
But it Leads Directly into This

Once we started scouting, it was clear that we’d had a somewhat close call, and unknowingly had caught a last chance eddy before the drops.   Dan and Jeff started portaging, while I ran ahead to scout the next bit of water.

The continuous water continued with few eddies and some fairly terminal looking holes.  The water level was clearly too high, and from high above the river it looked like we’d be portaging at least the next mile.   I unilaterally made the decision that the mission was over.   It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I went back and found Dan and Jeff.  They had just finished portaging a quarter mile, taking about an hour to do so.

When I told them that I was done, they were at first reluctant to give up.  A little discussion changed their minds.  We were running out of time and food.  I had reached my limit of probing, especially since we knew we had higher than usual water.  It was 2 PM on day 3, and we only 5 miles into a 45 mile run.  The further we continued, the further the hike out, until we reached somewhere around mile 30, and even then there would be no trail.  The only prudent decision was to get out of there.  They agreed, rolled up the raft, and stashed it for a return trip.  I had to work the next couple weeks, and would almost definitely miss the flow window, so I decided I’d hike all my gear out in two trips.
Weird Rock

Thus began the most grueling experience of my life.  I hiked 18 miles over the pass with all of my gear, and made it out that evening well after dark.   Dan and Jeff were going slow, and camped about halfway.  At the car, I drank a beer I had stashed, and slept like a baby on my paco pad.  The next morning I woke up at dawn,  went into Bishop, had a giant breakfast burrito, a bunch of coffee, and bought some hiking boots and trekking poles for my next jaunt in the wilderness.  I got back to the trailhead by 11 AM, and hit the trail at a near run with only energy bars, my sleeping bag and a few emergen-C packets.   Spurred along by the amazing beauty of the place, the advantage of real hiking boots and trekking poles with no weight, I made it to my boat in the early afternoon, passing Dan and Jeff on their trip out and saying a final goodbye.  That night I made it about 8 miles back towards the trailhead with my boat, and slept on a bed of pine needles.  The next morning at dawn I got up and finished it off, making sure to take in the beauty of the place, knowing I wouldn’t be back for a while.

My Third to Last Trip Over the Pass
On the way out I passed a crew of 3 hiking in.  They were all Middle Kings veterans, and were surprised to see a kayak rig at the put-in.  They said they had done the first run of the year, the highest water run, the last 4 years in a row, and that trip would be higher than they’d ever done it, possible the highest it had ever been done.  I knew then for sure that we’d made the right decision.

In all, I hiked over 50 miles, three times over a 13,000 foot pass, in about 48 hours.  With a bunch of gear on two of the trips.   The only reason I can understand for how I got it done, and without too much consternation, was the immense amount of beauty at every turn.  Whenever I lifted my head and took a look around, I was blown away.  It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been.
Amazing Trees on the Trail

Another Amazing Tree!
On my drive home, I reflected on the factors that got us there when we shouldn’t have been.  Dan’s excitement about the first decent, my excitement about making my family proud, the unclear snow report and fluctuating levels.  Many factors contributed to the debacle that we had in there.  All of them could have been avoided.  

The thing is though; I’m not disappointed in myself for making those mistakes.  We took a risk, made the leap of faith, and most importantly knew when to fold.  I look back on that trip and smile.  We got to spend the better part of a week in one of the most incredible, sacred places I’ve ever experienced.  We had a lot of good laughs (like when Dan discovered the bottle of whiskey I’d stashed in the rolled up raft for him to carry) and camaraderie.  I don’t regret it one bit. 

And for the record, Dan and Jeff made it back in there, with the Dinsdale Brothers in tow, and got it done.  They said it was the best trip of their lives. 

As you can imagine, it’s still on the top of my list.

Until Next Time.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Upper Collawash (Big Dog)

Jesse Shapiro, Priscilla Macy and I ran the "Big Dog" section of the Collawash after the Clack fest and found that the run has changed a fair bit and is a good run.  Possibly one of the better sections of whitewater in Oregon.
A young Newt at the put in.

The core beta for this run is captured well in both Soggy Sneakers and a trip report from Oregonkayaking.  The report here is a 2014 perspective of the run complimentary to those descriptions, the biggest difference being the improved wood situation and the change to the Churn.  The second large logjam is no longer a portage and there were only 2 mandatory portages on the whole run.

We paddled the 4 miles of class two broken up by a log portage and one small but tricky rapid before arriving at one of Oregon's largest log jams.  The class II moves along well enough, and the classic Oregon greenery helps.  On the second trip I paddled the last 1/2 mile of the EF Collowash at the start of the day, so got some nice class IV rapids in before the class II began.  The maps show an alternate approach that would drop a boater in just below the large logjam noted in the guidebooks.  This approach would be faster, but require more effort.
A map showing this approach is included at the end of this report.

Andrew in the exception to the rule in the class II paddle in.  

Speaking of the mega logjam, the portage is a simple affair as the logs are large and sturdy enough that a nimble boater can do the whole portage without taking their boat off their shoulder until the final 15 yards in under 10 minutes. We started center and worked right, it was neat to see so many logs piled together in one place.  We did feel the logjam might be smaller than it used to be when the original guidebook description was written.

It is still a large logjam,.

 We put back in and paddled another hundred yards, then drug our boats across a grass covered island to the river left channel to avoid another short log portage.  Other routes across the jam are available.

The grass was tall and my irrational side kept checking for the Compsognathus from Jurassic Park.

On our second trip, we recognized the jam coming up and portaged early on the left, this took about half the time and effort.  I'd go left every time in the future.

Shortly below here Dickey Creek came in on the left.  The alternate access would be at about this point. describes this next section well as "eerie".  The large, dead trees rising out of the water and slow current create this effect.

The sentinels

 Shortly below the "sentinels" the river eases to the right and there is an obvious horizon line.  This first class IV ends in a moving pool making for a fun and straight forward rapid.

The next horizon line is "Big Dog", a large class V rapid that is the first of the rapids in this stretch to have changed for the better. The log in the bottom left chute is no longer there, turning this into a good rapid.  Running far left the whole way worked well, be sure to take a peak around the corner as another smaller rapid waits just below.  As the guides mention; scout left, portage right.

Photo: Andrew Bradley

The Churn seems to have changed since the original descriptions.  It starts off with a lead in and the ledge with a pin spot, below which we eddied out to scout the second part which was a challenging boulder rapid dropping 15 feet or so over 40 yards.  I do not recognize the Oregonkayaking picture of the second part of the Churn, we believe a landslide has occurred; the resulting rapid is still good.   Take care to mind the holes, the first one provided a solid rodeo for a member of our group.  This section reminded me of Upper Canyon Creek, OR.

Kory Kellum take his turn in the first part of The Churn.

Below here the gorge offered one more class IV rapid and the seriousness of the rapids eased slightly but everything is still really fun.  However, don't let your guard down.  The rapid pictured on Oregonkayaking described as being just above "The Cave" surfed another member of our group and caused a swim. This drop through the cave has a class V-ish feel. The large log jam described on the Oregonkayaking site in this section has been altered and we were able to paddle under it on the far left.  "The Cave" itself was clear of wood and good to go, being mindful of the undercut left wall.  A few more class IV rapids keep you entertained to the take out bridge, though I recommend heading the advice on OregonKayaking and continuing down through Boulder Dash and taking out at the first tributary entering on the left.

Kory dashes through the boulders.

By the time we reached the take out bridge we had forgotten the class two paddle at the top and were all smiles.  Truly an enjoyable run for the adventurous boater.

Some more good news is the scouting and portaging is no longer as difficult as it used to be, the landslides must have settled as we felt moving around on the bank was not an issue.

After wrapping up, its easy to tack on Pegleg Falls and Blister Creek Falls before heading home.

Kory Kellum: Blister Creek Falls
Footage: Andrew Bradley

We had 2200 cfs on the Clackamas at Three Lynx in 2014, but I think levels were a bit funky.  The  Oregonkayaking trip report was done at 2500 cfs at Three Lynx though there was more water in the Collawash on our trip. We noted the Hot Springs Fork was contributing very little water. Low flows would be trashy due to the landslide nature of the rapids.  We returned at 3,000 cfs or so in 2018 and the run filled in and was more solid but still a nice medium.  More hydraulics and less rock.

Alternate access is shown on the map below.  Whether a steep bushwhack down to the river is better than 4 1/2 miles of class 2 and a couple portages is a personal choice, but the option is there.  Another ambitious option would be to run the final gorge on Elk Lake Creek (very fun) above the normal put in.  The excitement from that should help the class two go by faster.  Be sure to scout that gorge beforehand though, as the unportageable (at river level) ledge had wood in it in May 2014.

Alternate access


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Squirt Boat Worlds

Emile will be competing in this years squirt boat worlds this Saturday in Reno, Nevada.  Into the Outside is sending good thoughts his way as he represents the Mid-Willamette Valley and Oregon.  Go Emile!

One of his recent edits is below.

Nasty from Difficult E on Vimeo.


Update: Emile finished in 12th place at this competition.  Not bad to be the 12th best at something in the world!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Big Banana - Rio Alseseca

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, here's my fourth and final edit from our trip to Mexico this winter. Big Banana was my favorite section that we paddled in Tlapacoyan, and holds a spot in my top 5 creeks all time. Enjoy

Big Banana - Rio Alseseca from Nate Merrill on Vimeo.
Fourth edit from our 2014 trip to Veracruz, Mexico. The Big Banana was far and away my favorite section of the entire trip. In fact, it now holds a spot in my top 5 creeks in the world. This video was shot over the course of 4 laps down the Big Banana canyon. Although the water was too high to run Silencia and Meat Locker, Big B still packs a punch.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Public Service Post

If you have not watched the videos from Dinsdale, I highly advise that you do.  Here is their most recent installment.

i sing the body electric from b/w dinsdale on Vimeo.