Monday, April 9, 2007

Our Clear Creek Epic

On March 25, Gabe talked me and two other guys (Adam and Adam) into running Upper Clear Creek. Thankfully, we got an early start, because the water was up and we needed all the time we could get. After driving the 2 hours to Happy Camp, California, we left the arid, brown Klamath River canyon and headed up into the Clear Creek drainage. The overcast skies were starting to burn off because, after all, this is California, where it’s always sunny and 70 degrees. After getting dressed and leaving a car at the take-out, we were shut down one mile into the shuttle drive. The road was gated shut and a tree was down just beyond the gate. After a quick group meeting, we all got ready for the hike in. Hiking along the road, we got a few views of what kind of whitewater awaited us.

View downstream from the shuttle bridge into a 20-ft deep pool

The water in this creek is the clearest I have ever seen and the lushly vegetated canyon is breath-taking. The few views we did get were all too obscured for us to appreciate the seriousness of the rapids that lay below. After about two and a half miles, we finally reached a pack bridge over the creek where we could put in. Now we got to paddle. The first rapid was a fast wake-up call to the power of the river. The high flow pushed us all around as it constricted through a 7-foot wide slot. Gabe probed just about every rapid and we soon reached a long class II stretch wrapping around a blind corner. We all crammed into an eddy just above where the lead-in became a big class IV rapid.

Scouting from the middle of the first big rapid

Scouting took a while as we couldn’t see any particularly clean lines through a series of major holes. Gabe and Adam 1 opted for a 6-foot boof into a hole backed up by a rock, while Adam 2 and I chose to peel out, ferry in front of a nasty undercut, then punch through two ledge holes. Gabe dropping in

The next rapid had 90% of the water going into an ugly hole, and had a super fun sneak route on the right. The short, steep double drop featured a 7-foot sliding boof to dodge a hole followed by a super-clean 4 foot ledge boof.

I probed the drop, then took video of Adam 1 styling the rapid. Just afterward, my camera announced the battery was empty and shut itself down. I’m quite disappointed in myself for not charging the battery, because the photography conditions that day were ideal for my little point-and-shoot. We continued down through a couple more pushy class IV+ boulder gardens. The typical rapid involved making some ferry to dodge a sieve/undercut, bracing through some big laterals, and punching a massive hole somewhere in the middle. At this flow, it would be raftable by a solid team, but I wouldn’t want to be on the river with them to help portage.

Soon enough, we came up to another big rapid I’d call class V. We all opted for a partial portage along the right side then ran a little sneak slot around a hole and scraped over a shallow ledge. I tried scraping over said ledge upside down pressed against my back deck, and fortunately had elbow pads on, so I didn’t suffer any injuries. Thanks Mike! A little further downstream, Gabe started to get antsy with our slow scouting. He hopped out for a quick peek at the next horizon line, and gave verbal directions to the rest of us. “You can either boof the rock in the middle, or go right of the rock. But don’t go too far right because there’s a tree dipping into the river.” I was out of my boat scouting at this point, and Adam 1 was peeling out to probe. As he pulled out, he mentioned that he wasn’t sure which rock to boof, but wanted nothing to do with the tree, so he took his best guess.

The hole that ate Adam, taken on a later trip when the boof was good

He guessed right, but the boof wasn’t there. Adam got stopped immediately and began side-surfing. He gave a valiant effort, but the hole had no exit. He swam before I could get a rope to him and Gabe gave chase. Gabe took the tongue between the hole and the log and disappeared downstream. I went back up to my boat and Adam 2 and I composed ourselves and headed downstream. In the pool below, we still saw no sign of our friends. I got out to scout the next drop and found a sieved out right sided and a pushy left line with a nasty hole at the bottom. Adam 2 led this time and I followed close behind. After I cleared the hole, I saw Adam 2 out of his boat clinging to rocks with his boat and paddle both bouncing down the rapid. I made sure he was ok and took off after his gear.

Now we had two swimmers gear all over the river. The boat eddied itself out and I caught the paddle just above another horizon line. In the midst of all this, I had passed Gabe and Adam 1 and was now the furthest downstream. After a few minutes, we were all reunited minus one paddle. Gabe pulled out his break-down and we scouted the next rapid: a messy class V we all portaged. We got back into the read-and-run flow with Gabe out front. I seem to remember flipping a lot after the swims but always flushed and rolled up. After another half mile of class III-IV+ pool drop rapids, we came to an 8-foot ledge with an upstream horseshoe shape and a mean hole in the middle. Sneak lines existed on both sides, but after seeing one run, Adam 1 decided to hike out. This rapid marks the last spot where a hike out is reasonable. Both Adams were exhausted from their swims and decided to call it a day. I was getting tired, but still felt good about my paddling, so Gabe and I continued down.

The horseshoe ledge: your last chance to hike out

This is where the canyon really gorged up. We came to several big horizon lines that couldn’t be scouted. One rapid was marginally scoutable and just above the shuttle bridge. This one was a steep, uniform ledge with two massive holes and no sneak line. After sweating a little bit, Gabe and I worked upstream, got a little speed, and powered through both big hits without much trouble. The un-scoutable, un-portageable class IV gorge continued for about a half-mile before we eddied out for the mandatory portage. At this flow, the eddy above the portage was really only big enough for one boat at a time, but spacing wasn’t an issue with our reduced party size.

The last drop of the portage. If you're still concious going over this, you'll have to get out of your boat and rip off your life jacket to flush below the 20-foot boil line.

We made the portage and got to do a sweet seal launch into the pool below. After the next little rapid, Gabe announced we were pretty much done. We boogied through a couple more class IV drops and about a quarter mile later, we arrived at the biggest horizon line of the day. “Oh shit,” said Gabe, “I forgot about this one.”

The best scout you can get of the final mandatory class V

I could see that the river dropped out of sight, and somewhere downstream, about 50 feet below us and 200 yards later, it pooled up again. What lay in the middle was a mystery. The canyon walls made this drop completely unportageable and mostly unscoutable. Fortunately, a recent landslide had changed the rapid. The rapid wasn’t any easier, but there were some rocks to park on and at least stand up on. I found a tree that was leaning into the river and climbed up it a little ways to peer into the rapid below. All I could see was a steep rocky lead-in moving into a series of ledges, but had no idea where to go. It looked like there might have been a sneak line on the far left, so we paddled down there and caught a little micro-eddy above the first ledge. Gabe told me how stupid the left line looked up close and made a hero ferry across the river to the other wall. He gave me a quick grin, shrugged, and peeled out.

A picture of the mandatory class V finale taken from the road on a later trip. Note the kayak for scale just below the big ledge we eddied out above.

He shot through the first ledge without any problem, but then I lost sight of him until he was in the pool below, right side up. With no other options, I went to follow his line. Halfway through the ferry, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I turned my bow downstream and had time for one stroke before being swept over the edge. I dropped right into a deep seam in a powerful hole and promptly flipped. I snapped a quick roll before the next ledge, and again had time for one stroke before the next hole flipped me. One more roll and I found myself getting shoved into the wall, flipping again. My next few roll attempts were futile as I continued to get pushed against the wall. I took a hand off my paddle and grabbed the rocks to try to roll up. As I got upright again, the current grabbed my paddle and I lost my grip. I dropped into the third major hole without speed, angle, orientation, or a paddle. My hands only worked so well and I flipped again. I popped off a hand roll and got a big breath just before I was swept into the final wave-hole. By now, I was exhausted. Had I only kept my paddle, I wouldn’t be swimming at this point. I grabbed my boat and swam to shore while Gabe grabbed my paddle for me. Below this, we really were done. Good thing, too. I was now exhausted from my swim and my total of 10 or more rolls in the course of the day. We hiked up to the truck where the Adams were waiting in their street clothes.

Clear Creek doesn’t have a gauge, but it lies one drainage over from Indian Creek. When we ran Clear Creek, the Indian Creek gauge at Happy Camp was reading 930 cfs. Clear Creek typically carries a little more water, but the two levels are pretty closely correlated. At this flow, Clear Creek is definitely a class V run. Only three of the rapids are class V, but the last one is mandatory/unscoutable and with the committing nature of the gorge, this is no place for a class IV boater like me. Clear Creek was within my ability level, but beyond my comfort zone. I am eager to see the run again, with a charged camera battery and a little less water. I’ve heard rumors of a 14-mile class III-IV wilderness run upstream of the gorge that you hike into from the other side, so that just may be my next big destination. Until then, I need to get in better shape.

1 comment:

Libby said...

Good for people to know.