Roads & Rivers


Any avid whitewater enthusiast can appreciate the commitment it takes to pack up the car and drive the many miles required to get to your favorite river. Generally, you also have to run shuttle, and then there is the long drive back home. You stare at the road through cracked capillaries produced by countless holes and the sun’s glare with a tired smile generated by the many miles of majestic scenery and quality whitewater. It is all very worth it, but if often comes at the expense of extensive wear and tear on the driver, his or her car, as well as a hefty gas bill at the end.

Hailing from the Southeast, driving to my favorite rivers was long, but not a journey of epic proportions. It was usually a couple of hours to the Green, Overflow, or Chattooga, and I never felt put out by it. When I moved to California 7 years ago, driving to the put-in took on a whole new meaning. Not only was the cost per gallon significantly larger, but also the distances were exponentially greater.

 Living in Lake Tahoe, loading up to go to Cherry Creek, the Middle Fork of the Feather, Fantasy Falls, or Hells Kitchen was a commitment to many miles behind the wheel. Of course, there was never a lack of beautiful scenery or amusing road moments along the way. Getting pulled by the cops with open containers, shooting kayaks off the racks, accidentally meeting up with unsuspecting deer, treating a brown bear to some bluegrass, driving through snow drifts to get to the put-in, flat tires, a broken timing belt, stuck at a karaoke bar in Sonora, stuck in mud and snow, can’t get home because of snow over Donner Pass, getting lost, towing trees off the road, and many other detours have presented themselves along the way. Still, none of these incidences have prevented me from eventually getting to where I needed to be unscathed.

I never really accepted karma until I accidentally hit a deer going down to the take-out for Hells Kitchen one late summer afternoon. I got out of the car to see what the damage was, and I noticed a little fawn just off in the woods wondering if mom was okay. I already felt awful and now I felt even worse! At first mom was unconscious, but then she came to and began to try and stand. I was encouraged. She was very shaky, obviously discombobulated, and she couldn’t get up. After a long time of hoping, it was decided that there was not much to do but drag her over to the side of the road and hope she improved.

That night I slept horribly as I stayed awake thinking about all of the must make drops and tight gorges we would be paddling in the morning. Hells Kitchen is a commitment to 11 miles of fairly consistent class V+ whitewater with the possibility of carnage always imminent. Furthermore, we had Alex Nicks along with us on this trip, and after paddling in Peru with him I knew what kind of speed he liked to move at – fast! My evasive sleep was further affected by the inescapable guilt I felt for hitting that poor deer. Conversations went on with myself such as, if it were not for my tireless pursuit of rivers in my gas guzzling SUV the lives of two unassuming and totally innocent deer would never have been altered by my selfish existence. I continued on and on like this until the morning rudely arrived, and I climbed out of the back of my truck feeling less than satisfactory. Nevertheless, I didn’t drive all this way not to go kayaking. I was going!

As we made the drive up the same road we had come down the night before, we passed by the spot where I had hit the deer and there she was! She was standing! I was so relieved! But as I looked over at her she gave me the most evil stare as if to say, “I know you, you are the one that did this to me!” All of my buddies in the car almost simultaneously said in unison, “you are going to swim today!” I naturally did not appreciate such an awful vex upon my already diminished psyche, and I resented them for saying it. Couldn’t they be even slightly sensitive to the fact that we were going to be paddling an extremely dangerous river that day, and that I needed as much mental stability as I could muster? Hell no!

After 4-Wheel driving down the put-in and making the half-mile hike to the confluence of the North Stanislaus and Highlands Creek, we put on a classic California run with all the trimmings. Clear blue sky, towering pines, and beautiful white granite lay before our eyes as we proceeded downstream into the steep gorges that awaited us. Alex allowed us to guide the trip for a short period of time, considering he had never been there before, but as the saying goes, “it is hard to keep a good man down.” Eventually we were all breathlessly following his lead as he navigated the tight challenging lines of Hell Kitchen. At this point I was starting to feel pretty good, and thoughts of the deer incident fell away to the job at hand. We were just above the last rapid of Hells Kitchen before it turns into the Ramsey section when my fate was realized.

The last rapid has no official name as far as I know of, so we simply call it El Whappo. The entrance is a narrow sluice that has one last make eddy before it plunges over a 15-foot double-ledge that for all intensive purposes is one drop into one BIG hole. Practically every run I have seen there has consisted of a total meltdown at the top, and then some sort of scramble out of the hole at the bottom. Clean is hardly ever a description used of anyone’s run. As I came down the sluiceway and did my best to get into the last make eddy, I was rudely thwarted by the guard rock and propelled back into the main current. I had but a second to turn straight and throw in a boof stroke, but it was to no avail. Darkness. 

As I lay on the rocks below coughing out the last remaining drops of river water lodged in my lungs, I observed a family of grebes effortlessly punching the bottom hole and eddying out in front of me. They chirped and called to one another as they continued on their way downstream, and I momentarily envied their existence. They didn’t have to go through all the effort to get here. They could fly unimpeded wherever they chose, and have little impact on anything or anyone else. Must be nice. I would have to draw up my courage, shake off my swim, and make it out of this river gorge to face what may present itself downstream and on the open road.

And face it I did.

Not long after this incident I bought a house and moved to Reno. Despite having the new Truckee River Whitewater Park in close proximity, driving to my favorite rivers was going to take a little bit longer. Fordyce Creek is not far from Reno, and it has got to be one of my favorite runs because it is about as “backyard” of a class V creek as I can get. The shuttle is still no small effort, however, and in big snow years the put-in road can get washed out requiring a high clearance vehicle to get down it. I’ve almost flipped my truck in there, and I have warped every single one of my rims pounding down into big ruts. Regardless, it is all worth it because the whitewater and the scenery are stellar!

I got the call that the dam was releasing the desired flow, and excitedly strapped my creek boat to the top of my brand new 2005 Subaru Outback. I had recently decided that I was willing to trade all of the benefits of a truck for a more fuel-efficient vehicle with added safety features. Gas had gotten to be $2.60 a gallon, and despite all our efforts in Iraq, it didn’t look like it was going down any time soon.

I was pushing 70 mph as I climbed up what many of us have come to call “Death Canyon I-80,” when the unthinkable happened. Thoughts of my entrance at Split Drop, or whether I might run the Lunch Rapid, were abruptly halted when a magnitude 5.0 earthquake struck and unleashed a 4’x 4’ boulder down onto the highway. I had but a second to react as I slammed on the brakes and collided with the monstrosity that I bewilderingly saw before me. Darkness.

I awoke to the smell of gunpowder put off from the air bag and opened the door and got out. I couldn’t believe I was alive. I patted my body down waiting for the blood to gush forth or for a limb to not work, but neither of these things happened. I was for all intensive purposes okay. My kayak had managed to shoot across two lanes of oncoming traffic and somehow managed not to pierce the windshield of the unsuspected family out on a Sunday drive. It was laying across the highway perched on the edge of a precipice waiting for me. I continuously shot nervous glances at the hillside expecting the boulder’s brethren to join the scene that had transpired but none came. My car was totaled along with my plans to paddle one of my favorite creeks, but the good thing was that no one was hurt and no one else had been involved. 

Who knows, maybe something awful would have happened to me on the river that day, I don’t know. We go through a lot to go kayaking. Constant gear management and upkeep, researching new runs, risking relations at work and at home, nervously rehearsing the lines in an intimidating rapid, risking our lives on highways and in the hearts of dangerous rivers, and burning countless quantities of fossil fuels to get where we need to go. I constantly ask myself why I do it, and sometimes I think I won’t any more. Seems like a handful of paddlers die each year, and I am not getting any younger. Isn’t life dangerous enough? But then I am reminded of my run-in with deer and my encounter with the boulder. Do you really ever know when your time is up? If the moments you feel most alive are spent doing what you love the most, then you never stop.

But I still hate driving!

4 thoughts on “Roads & Rivers”

  1. Wow! Great post.

    So you’re a member of the family! Well, I’m not really but most of a lot of the folks I know are. I more of a flat water or class II kind of girl, but an injury prevents me from paddling these days. If only I could find a good kayak boy….

  2. You’re hard core Robert! There may be a a lot of risks, but those rivers and drops have taken you where the average man has never gone, or never will. How liberating is that?! Despite the unfortunate run-ins on the roadside, you’re living life and I think we’d all agree that makes it all worthwhile.
    Thanks for the link. I enjoyed it- and your pictures rock! I still have one of your kayaking pics as my screen saver. (You may not remember, but you gave me you web address with all the river shots you took back when we worked together.) Maybe if I can get my ass in gear, I’ll see you on the river one of these days.

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