Sunday, April 17

Trip Report: Merced (Moderate/High Flow) - April 16, 2005

Run: Red Bud to Briceburg Bridge
Difficulty: IV
Flow: 1900 to 3000 cfs (estimated)

It is hard to judge the flows on this Merced run given reported inaccuracies from gauges and the confluence of other tributaries the closer you get to Briceburg, a decent guess for this run would be around 1900 and rising throughout the day.

This was my first run on the Merced, and long awaited since I had hoped to hit it last year. As a transitional class IV run I was somewhat nervous about both running a new river and also given the tall tales about several of the rapids including Nightmare Island, Chipped Tooth & Ned's Gulch. As suggested, we scouted all of the rapids from the road on the way up, which was invaluable and without doubt the best idea going. We couldn't have asked for better weather with a beautiful sunny day rising into the 70s, but that didn't change the temperature of the water which was clearly snow runoff.

After the put-in at Red Bud there are a couple of shallow rock gardens and a little wave train but there isn't much time before you are right on Nightmare Island. We couldn't get a good sense of where Nightmare Island started once on the river, and so as we thought we were getting close we edged and grannied down river left as we approached the river bend, lest we end up slap bang in the middle of trouble. Might I point out that during the scout it became crystal clear that river was really flowing and most of the rapids looked pretty darn mean.

From the road we had decided to take a pretty conservative approach for this first attempt and so we came down river left through the left channel around the island and then eddied out as fast as we could on the left side of the island. We got out of our boats and took a good hard look at the right channel which was really pumping. After lots of oohs and aahs we decided to give it a miss and so we portaged across the island and put back in right below the second drop on the right channel where we finished the end of the rapid and headed on down to Chipped Tooth.

Again, there isn't much time at all before you're in Chipped Tooth since you can basically see one rapid from the other. From the road we'd voted to go around the Tooth on river right and nudge down the right channel. We eddied out a couple of times above the rapid as we snuck down before peeling out and cruising through a couple of crux moves skirting the big nasty hole & rockface at the bottom. We all did a fine job if I say so myself.

With 2/3 of the gnarly stuff past us, we headed on downstream towards Ned's through some fun class III & III+ stopping for lunch on the way. There were some killer wavetrains and some man eating holes that we avoided, but of course the nice thing about running a river for the first time is learning how to read the river and keep yourself out of trouble - a skill I need to develop but did a good job of on this run.

Then came Ned's. We eddied out above it in a large pool and paddled down to get out of our boats so we could take a walk and scout the rapid again. The river had come up a lot since our morning look-see and some of the eddies we were planning to hop down on river right were washed out. So after some deliberation we decided to peel out and head right down river center and head aggressively for an eddy on river right immediately before the crux move & drop into Ned's. Here the trouble started. I didn't take the current seriously enough and should have punched it much harder to reach the eddy, instead I barely reach the bottom end and fouled myself on a rock right as I was entering the eddy. Partly-in and partly-out of the eddy, the current lifted my boat up and pinned me upside down against a larger rock right at the end of the eddy. Trying to roll up against the current was useless and so after an attempt I felt my boat slipping into the main stream with me upside down, and so rather than head over the crux into Ned's upside down I pulled out. I had a couple of nasty moments as I surfaced and saw my waterlogged boat next to my head, but I pushed it off and swam the rest right slap bang into Ned's Gulch. Swimming Ned's is an experience I highly recommend (note the sarcasm). All in all everything went fine as there is a pretty good sized pool at the bottom where I could swim to the riverbank on river right. Had to hike to get my paddle further down, but was no worse for wear which is more than I can say for the big toothy grin on the front of my Riot Booster where it munged into a rock at full force - it only adds to the character.

We decided to take out all the way down by Briceburg bridge rather than at the old suspension bridge which was in retrospect poor judgment since there is a fair amount of pretty flat water and we were all really tired. I underestimated the length of the run and it was after 6pm by the time we got out. Since the sun was off the river the temperature dropped significantly making the rest of the run rather chilly. Suspension down to Briceburg is listed as a class II run, but let me tell you, at this flow it was no where near class II - clear class III in most places with some serious III+. Just the kind of surprise you need to keep you awake when you're beat and ready to put in for the day! :-)

I had been a pogie fan in cold water before this run, but I really don't feel comfortable about self rescue when attached to my paddle like that, so it will be gloves or bare hands for me going forward.

I loved the run and can't wait to go back up and try the Gravel Pit above Red Bud as well as some new lines and to get another shot at Ned's.

A great run, highly recommended for the newbie class IV boaters. Thanks to Brian & Melvin for having my back and being great paddling buddies for the day.

Thursday, April 14

Beginner's Warning on the South Fork of the American

This is a post I saw recently on the ListServ of Gold Country Paddlers that has some really good recommendations for not using the South Fork of the American as a "beginners" run. Worth a read if you're thinking about it.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> From Gold Country Paddlers

Hello all, I just thought I would take this opportunity to express my opinions and provide a bit of information that anyone reading this can take with a grain of salt, or any way they want. (<: If anyone does take issue, feel free to contact me directly via this e-mail address of .

I have seen other years like this one in terms of the snow we have and the river levels that we have already seen, and (in my opinion) are likely to see for the next couple of months. We have obviously not even BEGUN to see the actual melt yet! For many paddlers, this will be a FANTASTIC year for lots of available runs, different flows on their favorite runs over an extended period of time, and just a great overall paddling season.

However, I have been teaching and paddling on this river for 16 years, and I have absolutely seen incidents occur in many areas on the Coloma to Greenwood stretch (as well as other parts of this river, and other sierra runs) which has been more recently taken for granted as an “easy” or “beginner” stretch. I would urge anyone to really consider the following facts and be VERY confident in their own abilities as well as those of the others paddling with them before “taking” “newbies” or anyone else on the river under these conditions. I would also hope that nobody sees this as an opportunity to go out and prove me wrong. My intent is to suggest, inform and otherwise provide a bit of historical insight BEFORE there is any kind of incident, as opposed to after the fact. I will be quite happy if absolutely no one has a bad swim or other incident this Spring. (<:

My first point, which others can disagree with all they want, is that the South Fork American , especially under these conditions, is NOT a place to teach beginners who have never been on a river before. If they have some experience in moving water, then there are shorter stretches that can be appropriate if those leading them are VERY competent in their ability to assess where beginners will end up, and in the art and skill of rescuing people QUICKLY. Traditionally, the Coloma to Lotus run was not even considered appropriate for complete beginners. That perspective has evolved over the years, but not without incident for some of those testing that theory. Above and below Camp Lotus most definitely has areas of serious concern for new and novice paddlers, and especially at flows above the normal summer releases.

A few areas of specific concern on Coloma to Greenwood with the higher, colder flows are:

1) Old Scary: Water pushes heavily into the rock sieves on the right, and the “island” in the middle, which becomes nothing more than a very dangerous rock and vegetation strainer at flows even above 3000 cfs, certainly at 4000cfs. Many paddlers have been fooled and caught in these hazards, in particular at flows similar to those we have been seeing, and above.

2) The rapid about ¼ mile above Camp Lotus is another very treacherous one, especially if anyone ends up in the left channel, as the water beyond that corner flows strongly through the trees and rock sieves (unlike lower water conditions), and there is little or no opportunity for recovery or self rescue by inexperienced paddlers and especially by swimmers.

3) Highway Rapid and Current divider are very big concerns for their potential for foot entrapment, strainers and long impact filled swims, and are NOT easily managed by beginners, or even some “intermediates” under high flow conditions.

To reiterate:

1) The rivers are very, very cold for those of you who have not been upside down or swimming yet, and will only get colder as the snow really starts to melt.

2) The higher flows put water flowing through the willows and trees as well as involving normally high and dry rock features in some areas of the river, and self rescue for swimmers becomes MUCH more difficult.

3) The additional pushiness of the river can be quite deceiving, even for more experienced paddlers who have not worked with flows in the 3500cfs and above range!

4) If someone swims, their gear and they are likely to travel much farther and faster down stream than you are perhaps used to, and that always invokes greater potential for hazard, but especially in very cold water.

5) Appropriate gear is obviously important, but the person in a borrowed drysuit or drytop should have experience swimming with that and a skirt on.

There is a lot more that could be said, but that is for Swiftwater Rescue courses and training opportunities. Please take this post in the spirit in which it is given, and have a great Spring out there. Mother Nature has provided us with a bounty of water and flora that is in many ways is best appreciated by kayakers and other waterborn adventurers, but one incident can ruin a lot of good times, so here’s hoping everyone has a SAFE and fun paddling year!



Dan Crandall


Wednesday, April 6

Trip Report: American (South Fork "Chili Bar" - High Flow) - April 3, 2005

Run: Chili Bar to Troublemaker
Difficulty: III+ to IV
Flow: 3600 cfs

Map of the River

As an excellent follow up to last week's high flow trip down the Gorge I ran Chili Bar to Troublemaker rapid with my buddy Brian. Although the flows looked like they weren't going to top 2K, they ended up reaching 3600 cfs. This is pretty typical for the winter season, but it is still 3 to 4 times the flow that is often seen during the summer. I'm told people run the South Fork at 8000 to 10000 cfs, but I haven't seen the river that high yet.

I don't know what it is about Meatgrinder - whether it really is that tricky or whether it's just the name (or maybe it's both?), but it gets me going every time. It isn't that far after the start of the run so I never really feel warmed up. It is probably the most technical rapid on the South Fork. At low flows it's a pushy rock garden with consequences, at high flow it's a navigation through many holes & obstacles where rolling is not recommended since you better recover fast or get hit by a rock before you have the chance to think about anything else. Swimming would be ugly. Anyhoo, we got through in one piece even though my heart was pumping by the time we were done.

Racehorse Bend is the next big event, that one has probably caused me more trouble than Meatgrinder. It's exactly what it sounds like, a gallup around a pretty tight bend in the river with a couple of serious looking holes. The first one is far enough up to catch you off guard and then seriously mess you up for the rest of the run - that's my standard experience since it seems to get me more times than not. I got sucked into that first hole and after having a close encounter with a rock underwater I pulled a roll and cruised through the rest of the rapid. Racehorse Bend is my current nemesis on South Fork.

First Threat is another big hole a bit further down the river. It's probably one of the most popular surf spots since it more often that not has a big retentive wave that just asking for some play. After popping over a surprising ledge drop right upstream, we approached the hole there was someone in the hole playing, and as we got closer and closer he didn't move! Given the flow at 3600 cfs there aren't many places to go once you've lined up for the hole. Brian grazed by him on river right and I mistakenly assumed that he would get a clue and pull off the wave since it was obvious I was right behind him - the bozo stayed on the wave and we collided right in the hole. Luckily no one was hurt, but given that I broke two ribs colliding in a surf hole last year I am in no hurry to repeat it. Moral of the story is not to be an idiot when playing the middle of a narrow channel - keep alert and give people the right of way that are on their way through.

The rest of the run was fun, some nice wave trains through Second & Third Threat then we got to Troublemaker where we planned to take out for the day. Damn that thing was looking scary at 3,600. It gives me pause at lower flows, but there were a few man eating spots that I didn't want to get to know more intimately. We scouted it and watched a few boaters and rafters go through, and to be honest I was in two minds whether to give it a shot. Basically I decided that if I'm going to get comfortable in class IV water then you just gotta do it.

We decided to head down the class line river left. We skirted a little hole at the entry to the rapid that had the potential to mess you up and popped into the eddy. Although it is a decent size, the eddy was harder to catch than I expected. It's pretty rocky at that flow and hard to navigate once you're in there as you set up for the line through the rest of the rapid. Once in the eddy we lined up left of center over a nice tongue heading straight for gun sight and pushed off giving it a good hard stroke to get into place. If I say so myself, my line was near perfect. Clean and controlled, no rolling required. I was very content. There is a killer surf wave that is right after Troublemaker and so we played on that for a little while then called it a day.

A very nice run and a happy ending with a trouble free Troublemaker experience, for a change.

Looking forward to this coming weekend!!