Middle Fork of the Feather (Class V)
In the spring of 2000 Dawn Powell, Mark O'Connor and I took a road trip from Denver to California to met up with Colleen Kruse, John Mattson and Randy Kennedy. We ran Giant Gap and Chamberlain Falls together and then John, Randy and I did a three day self support through Devil's Canyon on the Middle Fork of the Feather. John wrote a story about the trip which was published in the Nov/Dec 2000 issue of American Whitewater Magazine. I was lucky enough to make the cover. This is John's story.
Two old hippies at heart, two kayaks, and a Datsun Pickup are headed west across the Nevada dessert. They are off to relive one happy childhood and try to hang on to another one.
Route 50 has been dubbed the loneliest road in America. It is an old 2-lane hi-way that threads it’s way through the middle of Nevada. . Lonely is a vanishing word in the American west that used to be so lonely. It is something that many of us have learned to cherish.
This country is beautiful in the spring. There is just enough moisture to sprout the plants and wild-flowers and everything is green and blooming. There are a few great mountains, lots of rolling hills, a few coyotes, and a town every 150 miles or so.
The miles roll away quickly as we jam away and listen to some great bluegrass music. We camp in a sage brush patch in the middle of nowhere and watch the brilliant sky. We wake early and have breakfast in an old mining town. This classic old cafe is one of the last survivors from the glory of the mining boom days.
All too soon we are in Reno. There are lots of flashing lights, fancy cars and all the other architecture that goes with an economy based on greed and stupidity. We buy some of their cheap gas, try one of their smorgasboards, and head off into the Sierras.
Our first stop is the American river. There is a great camp in the bottom of this spectacular canyon where we meet our friends and settle down to a serious fiesta. The camp is in a California paradise next to the American river and includes an incredible chorus of songbirds at sunrise.
After a lazy morning, we decide to do Chamberlain Falls. We are already camped at the put-in and it sounds like a great warm-up.
This run proves to be a classic class 3-4 in a dramatic canyon with tall granite walls and some very enjoyable whitewater . It is great fun but doesn’t quite supply the adrenaline that we fear and need. Tomorrow we will step up the action and paddle Giant Gap. “ A classic 5- run in a remote box canyon.”
We prepare another fiesta and party heartily into the late evening. Tomorrow will be a long day but it is great to be with friends on the river and the wine flows freely.
We are up at dawn and drive to the put-in. We have to drag our boats down a long winding trail to the river. We arrive hot a sweaty and jump into the icy water to cool off and wash off the poison oak that we have touched on the way down.
There is a bit of a warm up as we paddle towards the Gap which is a section of difficult whitewater in a very narrow canyon. This canyon is incredible and so are the rapids. There are many class 4 to 5- drops with challenging moves and pools below them. We reach a very intimidating rapid named (nutcracker) that cannot be scouted. Randy thinks he remembers the line and I follow right behind him. It is a blind corner with a strong current going into a nasty looking wall and a big drop that we can’t see right below it. We manage to avoid the wall but the blind drop is bigger than it looked from above. I brace hard in the first hole and stay upright but I come up completely blinded by the whitewater and go immediately into a second large hole. This one knocks me over but the rapid is finished and there is a nice pool to roll up in at the bottom.
Randy keeps telling us about a rapid named locomotion and says that he hopes he can remember where it is. He seems to be pretty concerned about it. He suddenly catches a small eddie on the right and signals for us to stop. This rapid is very difficult to scout so three of us drag our boats up to a small ledge and head downstream. We must wade in the rushing water up to our calves and then scramble up a 5.4 to an easier traverse.
The rapid consists of a very bad river-wide ledge hole. There is a thin line on the right but if you miss it you will probably be stuck in the hole. The portage is extremely difficult.
We set up a throw-line and signal to Mark who has a good run. Dawn follows and Colleen comes last. She falters right above the whole and is going sideways with no speed but manages to straighten out her boat and makes it through the hole. I look at Alex and comment. “I guess it’s not too bad.”
Mark grabs the safety line and we scramble back upstream.
Everyone has made it safely as I climb into my boat and head downstream. I am trying to go very fast and straight and I think that I have a good line when I hit something that knocks me over and end up in the hole. I try to ride it for a few seconds but it is futile. I am getting nowhere and unable to breathe so I dive for the bottom and resurface way downstream.
The water is very cold but I find a warm rock to climb on top of and my friends rescue my boat.
There is more Gap to go so we head on down to another drop that is hard to scout. Randy thinks that he remembers it and heads on down. It is a pretty big drop with a powerful lateral that slams most of us into a rock wall but we are all well padded and there is a nice pool at the bottom. There are a few more rapids with exciting and challenging moves and we paddle on as the gap widens.
Right at the end there is a very long solid class 4+ with a class 5 finish. We are searching in vain for a clean line when Randy finally thinks that he sees the one that he remembers from his youth. He had a bad run in it then but he decides to try again and barely makes the edge of a thin boof and finishes with a big tail stand.
I am not convinced and start to portage.
Alex has a clean line and Mark decides to give it a go. He takes the same line as Randy but he gets pushed just a little bit farther right. This is enough to make him miss the boof and get spun around onto an ugly flake backwards. He luckily avoids getting pinned and swims out of the adjacent hole.
Colleen slips and drops her boat and it has a pretty clean line without her. There is a large pool at the bottom where we collect all the gear and head on downstream.
After a little more class 4 the river eases and the tired group is very happy to reach the bridge that marks our camp. Another day another river and another grand dinner party at camp. It is a hard life but somebody has to do it. We toast our good fortune and start to make plans for the next river.
The Middle Fork of the Feather is at a good level for Devil’s Canyon. I have been wanting to do this run for years but the water had always been way too high. It is a little bit harder grade than I really feel up for, but if I don’t do it now, I probably never will. Randy and Alex are eager so we start to plan the logistics. The next day is spent driving, buying food and gear, and hiring a shuttle driver.
The weather is sunny and warm so we pack light and head on into the first of 3 gorges. What a great feeling it is to start a multi-day trip on a new river. Three days of great scenery and whitewater adventure lie ahead of us. There is always a little apprehension when I start a big adventure but they are so much fun and the curiosity of the unknown pushes me onward.
This first gorge starts out with some easy whitewater and gradually picks up steam as the day progresses. The hard rapids are formed by gravel bars with ledgey boulder fields at the end. The low water makes some of them quite technical but we will be happy to have the low water when we reach the lower canyons. The first canyon opens and we find a large sandy beach on river left that looks like some sort of an old mining camp. We build a nice fire and run around barefoot in the sand before retiring to sleep under the bright stars.
The next canyon is more difficult but the rapids have better character with very continuous class 3 and 4 and a few class 5’s. We are able to eddie scout most of it with a few scouts and a couple of portages. Randy is getting very brave with his eddie scouting He picks the wrong line in a very large drop and we watch him disappear over the edge. We rush to shore and see him safely downstream shaking his head.. We scout and find a clean line and are greeted at the bottom by a somewhat pumped up Randy. “Please somebody else lead and save me from myself.” After a few more hard rapids we arrive at a hiking bridge that marks the end of the 2nd canyon. It has been one of the most continuous days of whitewater that I have every paddled and we have one more canyon to go.
We take an evening hike on an old ,almost abandoned horse trail that leads out of the canyon. It takes us through a great forest of ancient ponderosa pine and a small side creek that is waiting for a first descent. We are hoping to look downstream at the canyon of the Devil, but the forest is too thick to get any views.
We spend another warm dry evening around the fire with a freeze-dried dinner and hit the hay early.
I am very tired and a bit sore but I cannot sleep. I lie awake looking at the stars and thinking about El Canyon Del Diablo that lies ahead. I think about all the great rivers that I have run and the other times that I have been frightened by them. I have seen the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. To dance on the edge is such a great thrill but to fall of is no fun at all. Once more I have brought myself here and I must muster the strength and courage because this great river will accept no less.
We awaken early and are all a little tense as we paddle cautiously into the last gorge.
There is a lot of hard whitewater and a lot of scouting. Most of the rapids have clean lines although some are quite hard to make. I portage a bit more than my friends, but many of the rapids cannot be portaged.
There is one section of solid 4+ in a almost box canyon that we think leads into a class 6 that we plan to portage. Luckily there is a large pool above the portage and the trail is obvious. This section has been run but it looks like solid class 6 to us and we happily shoulder our boats.
Rowdy Randy thinks that we are near the end but he remembers one more hard rapid that cannot be portaged. We have passed a couple of rapids that fit that description and the whitewater just keeps on coming. We are hoping that we have passed it and getting near the bridge when we come to one more really big drop. A careful scout reveals a thin, very turbulent line and no portage. At least there is a big pool at the bottom. We psyche ourselves up one more time and take our turns. I hit the line I want but the turbulent water knocks me over and I get some more rolling practice. Thank God for these California pools!
After a few more drops we see the bridge. The cold beers are waiting patiently for us and we celebrate another great run. A life filled with rivers is truly great.