Thursday, June 9, 2011
NF American - Giant Gap (5.30.11)
After getting off of Deer Creek and heading to Chico for some Thai food, it was time to decide where in Cali we were going to head next. With guidebooks in hand, we pulled up Dreamflows to check water levels. As I scrolled through the list on my Droid, it appeared that most things were sitting a little high, which was to be expected based on the unusually high snowpack. Luckily, California has a plethora of drainages coming off the Sierras, so it didn’t take me long to find one that was at a nice medium flow, the NF American. The runs on this stretch of river have been high on my list for some time. Since we were only planning to get in one more full-day of boating, the obvious choice was to do Giant Gap, which the others fully agreed with. Now that the plan was set, we finished our meal and found a cheap hotel in Chico for the evening.
The next morning I awoke in the hotel room to the smell of wet, bacteria infested, boating gear clouding the room. Outside was much more pleasant, where the sun was shining and air was a lot more pure. We had originally planned to go to a laundromat to dry out our gear, but since it was so nice out, we just decided to push the limits of our checkout time and cover the parking lot with our wears. Once we had some breakfast and our things had sufficiently dried out, we headed toward the town of Colfax, the takeout for Giant Gap. Since we would be car camping for the next two nights, we stopped at the grocery store in Colfax to load up on supplies before heading to camp. I had been told that there were free camping options at the put-in, as long as you were willing to deal with the sound of the trains passing by all night -- not deterred, we headed there to setup camp.
The first order of business was to find the trailhead that would lead us down to the river in the morning. We figured that by doing this, we'd save some time putting on. Our guidebook led us straight there on the first try, pretty amazing since there are quite a few off-chutes along the way. From the parking lot near the trailhead, we got quite an impressive view of where we would be venturing into the next day. All the literature I had read warned of the committing nature of this run, and looking into the canyon confirmed this immediately. To be honest, this was one of the major draws of the run for me. After taking it all in, we headed back up the road on a search for a good place to bed down.
Shawn, Bob, and Chris had gone out ahead of the rest of us, and by the time we caught up, they had already established basecamp right off the road on a grassy shelf, overlooking the canyon, and just up from the train tracks. It just so happened that a train was going by at the time, which we all scrambled down to get a closer look at -- we would be tired of seeing them by the end of our stay. Shawn “Machete Man” Haggin, went to work carvin’ up a good stack of firewood for the evening while most of us setup our tents and/or drank beer. By the time he was done, we already had the fire well on its way, and ready to serve as the night’s entertainment. The stars were out in full effect, while I stared at them, I thought about the place we were at, and looked forward to the following day’s adventure.
The next morning was full of sunshine and a sub-par breakfast of instant oatmeal. After dropping the others off at the trailhead, Shawn and I ran the quick shuttle down I-80. Upon our return I rigged up my boat with the famous “Gap Strap” system before heading down the trail myself. For the first half mile or so of the descent I was shouldering my boat, trying to save it, to some degree, from having a hole rubbed through it. I finally relinquished, lowered my boat, and began the dragging process. The trail surface was actually quite good for this, which was covered in a nice layer of fallen leaves. It was also fairly easy going and kept a sustained, fairly gradual gradient -- not what I had expected after reading some of the descriptions. I soon caught up with the others and we made our way down as a train rumbled by similar to the ones that had passed by our camp the night before, although not quite as loud. When we finally reached the footbridge that marked the put-in, we relaxed in the sun a bit before changing into our boating gear. I probably would have spent longer lounging on the rocks, but the mosquitos had other plans, hurrying me onto the river. As I slid into the water I took in the rock walls and crystal clear water, looking forward to what lay downstream.
Upon rounding the first bend, the first drop of many to come presented itself. Chris immediately dropped in while the rest of us eddied out. Shawn, Roman and Bob dropped in soon after, and as I lined-up for my turn, I got the boof signal from Chris, who obviously meant the water ramp directly in front of me. As I crested the lip I dug in for a stroke and went airborne. What a great way to start the run! Directly below this the walls tightened up a bit and we ran a few very fun class III/IV pool-drop rapids. Way too soon the walls dropped back a bit and the run settled down for a few miles.
Eventually the river started to gorge up once again, and judging by the high walls, I knew that we were approaching “The Gap”. For some reason, during our Cali trip my Prijon was taking on lots of water, so I pulled over before dropping into the gorge to empty it out, for what seemed like the hundredth time of the trip. When I rejoined the group, half were sitting at the top of a horizon line while the others had apparently already dropped in. After getting the beta from Jason from an eddy behind a midstream boulder, he dropped out of sight and joined the others below. It ended up being a pretty straightforward move down the left.
The next stop was one I was pretty sure I recognized from the pictures, Nutcracker, reported to be a large but relatively friendly drop. Chris eddied at the top of the drop on the left and jumped out to give it a scout. After confirming that it was good-to-go on the right, we all dropped in one by one. My line actually went really well, and I was able to use the large water features to guide my path downstream. There was a decent hole at the bottom, but it was kicking out pretty good and I had built up quite a bit of speed to break through.
Based on beta (both trip reports and people), I had assumed that the drop just below Nutcracker was Locomotive, A nasty river-wide hole that might be a portage, at least at this flow. I had gotten out above to confirm whether or not it was Locomotive, and finally determined that it was not, although the right side at the bottom did appear to be somewhat sticky. It ended up being a long but friendly rapid with a good line down the center-left, which everyone ran.
Just below this drop and above the next horizon line, I eddied out on river right, and noticed a line bolted into the wall, so I was confident that we were right above Locomotive. Chris immediately jumped out in the knee deep water to give it a look. As he waded down against the cliff wall he rounded the corner and was soon out of sight. By this time there were five of us out of our boats and standing in the water against an overhung wall, waiting for the report. The first news to come down the line was that “It doesn’t look all that bad”. However, after hearing and reading the horror stories of this notorious hole, I wanted a look before committing to running it. Unfortunately this was easier said than done, and although not impossible, it would have taken some time due to the scramble required to get a look. I finally decided it wasn’t worth it, and shuttled my boat forward so it could be partially lined around the drop. In the end everyone else decided the same, and with some good teamwork and a bit of mild rock climbing we were all safely around the drop. Now with a good vantage point, I was pretty glad I had decided not to run it, since it looked pretty horrible. There was a thin line on the far right, but even it was pulling back into the hole a bit. There were also a couple of rocks in the run-out which may have further complicated things.
Feeling somewhat relieved to be below Locomotive, I pulled up to the next horizon line, which appeared to be read & run, after dropping over a ledge at the top. Unfortunately I dropped over and fell right into a giant seam, flipping me instantly. After many failed roll attempts and mashing my head on rocks (also knocking my head-cam off my helmet), I pulled the pin. I really hate swimming, especially when it’s due to missing rolls, really makes you feel like a chump -- although at this point, all I cared about was getting to shore and not losing any gear. I was able to hold onto my paddle while the others corralled my boat and helped get me to shore. The only thing that was lost was a bit of pride...
After emptying my boat I sealed myself back in and we continued downstream. As we approached the next horizon line I was still a little dizzy from the adrenaline and cold water in the ears. This drop consisted of a large, right breaking curler, that deposited you down and through a pair of holes at the bottom. What I did not account for was the second hole (I hadn’t seen it), so I was once again tossed upside down. Again I struggled with a few rolls and smashed my head against more rocks, but this time I refused to swim. I finally rolled up with my helmet-cam dangling from the lanyard that I had tied it to, setup for just this type of event. As I pulled into an eddy I took a minute to catch my breath and recalibrate.
Doing my best to shake off my performance from the last two rapids, I gazed in amazement at my surroundings and forced myself back into a positive mind frame, before continuing on. Just around the corner we arrived at yet another sizable drop where both Jason and I got out to look (from opposite sides of the river). After seeing a nice clean line down the right, we gave the signal to the group who ran it without issue.
Before too long and after a couple more class III/IV drops, we reached what was described as the largest one on the run, Dominator. After getting out on the right to scout, it looked like there was a pretty straightforward sneak on that side, with a nice boof at the bottom, center-right. Everyone used this route to some degree with similar results, upright and smiling at the bottom.
Once below Dominator we were faced with lots of fun read & run class III/IV drops before the river finally mellowed out to class II/II+ with flat stretches in-between. There was one drop I had been on the lookout for, based on reports of a boxed-in hole between boulders that claimed the life of a paddler some years back. I believe this to be the drop shown in the following pictures, which we all ran down the left, moving center below said hole.
We decided to take a quick break and eat a snack before the paddle out, which was about 6 miles long. It ended up not being too grueling, other than the headwind, which was really bad for some stretches. Just above the takeout was one last III+ drop that almost seemed out of place after all the flat water we had just paddled. I was pretty lethargic at this point, so when we finally beached ourselves under the takeout bridge, I was pretty relieved, and looking forward to another night relaxing around the fire.
It was now about 5pm, and we quickly packed up and retrieved the shuttle vehicle, so that Shawn and Bob could start their voyage back home to Oregon. I was not envious, but also knew that we’d be doing the same the next morning. I never feel ready to leave Cali after our trip has been completed. Although my boating excursions have only included Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California, I have a hard time believing that there is any better place to paddle than the Sierras, and I'm always counting down the days before the next time.
Head-Cam Footage from our run down Giant Gap: