Saturday, June 8, 2013

MF Stanislaus, CA (Donnell Run) - 5.25.13

Every Memorial Day weekend a core crew of us head down to California for sunny skies, white granite, and of course amazing kayaking -- arguably some of the best kayaking on the planet! The crew this year would be: Roman Androsov, Chris Arnold, Shawn Haggin, and myself. Due to an abnormally light snowpack in the Sierras, boating options were not looking great and it became apparent that we would need to make a last minute decision on which watershed to head to. The weekend before our departure date, word came in that South Silver and Bald Rock were flowing at fun levels, and it also looked like they'd be releasing with a good flow on the Cherry Creek section of the Tuolumne; Unfortunately, the last few days leading up to the trip, a cold front had moved in, sending the water levels into a nosedive, putting a damper on some of the options we had come up with. After doing some additional research, I found that a run on the MF Stanislaus looked like it would probably be at a good flow. To be honest I had not heard of this drainage, but based on write-ups that glorified the Donnell section, I figured I'd add it to the tentative plan of attack.

Even though the boating portion of our trip was looking mediocre at best, our spirits were still high, just getting into the Sierras for camping was enough to justify the trip for us. With that, we departed Thursday morning and made it to Sacramento by early evening. Our plan was to head to South Silver first, hoping to catch it before it had completely dropped out. We actually made it all the way to Ice House Reservoir (which South Silver drains into) before nightfall, allowing us to setup camp with at least a little light -- Actually, with a near full moon, it never really reached full darkness. With our sleeping quarters now established, we got the campfire going strong and sat around it a bit, putting down a couple beers before calling it a night.

Moonrise over Ice House Reservoir

The ceremonial first fire of the trip

Waking up the next morning was a relaxed affair, with both Chris and Roman not super motivated to rise with the sun. Shawn and I decided to go take a look at the flows on South Silver while we let them sleep for a bit more. To reach the take-out, we only had to drive about 5 miles, where a dirt road dead ended at the far end of the lake. From the dirt lot where the creek entered the reservoir, we hiked up the improvised trail that headed upstream. Initial inspection of the water level did not look good, but I let Shawn know that the last part of the creek was pretty trashy even with healthy flows. With that, we decided to continue upstream to see if things improved as we got to the granite slides/falls. Unfortunately, when we got to Quadruple Bypass, the last good drop of the run, it became very apparent that the flows were definitely low. As we continued upstream, passing Plastic Surgery, Nose Job, Off Ramp, and Skyscraper, it looked pretty bad and that we'd probably be doing a lot of portaging due to flow. The teacup section that leads to the lip of Skyscraper looked better, but also would have benefited from additional water. Finishing up our scout mission at the top of the teacups, Shawn and I both agreed that it was runnable, but it wouldn't be a classic Cali boating day. We figured we'd report back to the others and make a group decision on what to do. I still held onto a little hope that flows would increase a bit from the higher afternoon temps that were forecasted.

Quadruple Bypass - Lookin' a little thin

Even with the low water, this is one of the coolest views in kayaking!

When we got back to camp, Chris and Roman were now up and starting to cook breakfast and make coffee. Shawn and I let them know what we had found, giving an honest assessment of the situation. In the end, we figured that since we were already there, we might as well give it a go. Since I had forgotten to bring my prescription meds, we decided that the best plan would be for me to call the prescription into Walmart in Placerville and go pick it up, giving South Silver a chance to warm up and hopefully come up a bit. By the time I had gotten back, a couple of hours had passed and it looked like we'd reach the put-in by 2pm or so. After loading up we started the trek. The last time I had done South Silver, it took us a couple of hours to find the put-in, due to terrible directions in both the online write-ups and guidebook. This time I was more prepared and got us there without much issue -- although the road was a bit rough, even for the Outback in a few spots.

After we had changed up in the parking area, we headed down the steep hiking trail to the put-in at the top of Autobahn, the first drop of the run. This was my favorite drop from last time, but at this flow, it just looked like boat abuse. We looked at each other and knew we were all thinking the same thing -- "yeah, this is way too low..." In hindsight, we probably should have hiked down without our boats to take a look beforehand. Deciding to abort the mission, we made our way up the trail and back to the car, deciding to spend the rest of the day driving to whatever our next destination would be.

While back at camp packing up, I decided to call a couple boating buddies from Cali that I knew, hoping to get some recommendations and/or to meet up for some boating. I eventually got a hold of Brian, who was actually planning to hit the MF Stanislaus with his crew the next day. Since that one was already on my radar and sounded good, I asked if he minded if we joined up, which he agreed to without hesitation --  we had a plan!

We had decided to meet either that evening or the next morning at the top of the take-out road. Looking at the gazetteer, we figured we could find some improvised camping near by, and if not, there were a couple of developed campgrounds in the area. It took us a little over 2 hours to reach our new destination, and sure enough we found a great camp spot right near the meeting point. Before long, we had camp setup again and a nice big fire, fueled heavily by Sugar Pine cones - those bastards go up like Roman candles! Later that night Brian showed up and joined us for some beers around the fire, before we all headed off to bed.

The next morning we met up with the rest of the Cali crew and talked through the shuttle logistics. The plan was to send as many cars down to the take-out (Donnell Dam) as possible, in the hopes that an extra vehicle could be left down there overnight to facilitate another day of boating, if folks decided they wanted to do it again. The road down to the take-out was pretty rough, and really required high clearance. Conservatively, it took us about 45 minutes each way, which had the crew that was waiting up top wondering if we had a mechanical breakdown. Luckily, all the cars made it down just fine, and Keith was able to bring us all back up in his big ol' Suburban. Once we had regathered with the others, we loaded up and headed to the put-in, at the Clarks Fork bridge. Looking downstream from the Clarks Fork bridge, I could tell that this was going to be a special run; we weren't even in the gorge section and it was already beautiful with great looking warm-up water.

Camp #2, at the top of the take-out road

Looking downstream from the put-in bridge

With both our group and the Cali boys, the crew was 11 strong, which can obviously be a handful, especially with the continuous nature of the run. Eventually we settled into a few smaller groups as we made our way down the first part of the run. The polished granite, bright blue skies, and clear water really set the mood of elation – it was so good to be boating in the Sierras once again! The difficulty in the first half of the run was a class III affair, with fun boulder slalom moves to keep us entertained. Since we were moving pretty fast, I really didn’t take any photos of this section, but the video at the end of this trip report should give you a pretty good idea of the nature of it. It should be noted that we did have one portage around a river-wide log, which was pretty easy to see from upstream and to walk around.

Shawn prepares for battle

Chris, starting it off

A head-cam shot of the river-wide log

 Before long, we reached a rather large horizon line, where most of the group was already out and portaging on the right. After jumping out and taking a quick look, I also decided that I wasn’t up for it and shouldered my boat with the others. Keith, who had been studying it for a few minutes, gave the signal that he was going to give it a go. With proper safety set, he entered center-left off an angled ledge and was immediately swallowed by the tricky diagonal. He was able to snap off a quick roll and ride out the rest of the drop right side up, but he certainly didn’t make it look easy – a tough drop indeed.

Keith scouts the first big one while others make the portage

Same drop, from below.

Once past the first big one, the river started to come to life, maintaining its continuous nature but kicking up the difficulty a bit. The granite boulders had also gotten bigger, making route finding a little more difficult, and we began to rely on beta from the Cali crew. I actually got into trouble in one of the class IV rapids, where I broached against a rock at the bottom-right of the drop -- I was stuck pretty good, but stable. Chris immediately tried to paddle up and assist, but was unable to reach me. All of a sudden another boater, Eric, came down and hit me head-on, with both of us now pinned. It actually helped out my situation a bit, and I was able to work my way off the rock; unfortunately, he was flipped during the event and came through upside-down, somehow managing to snap off a roll after the ordeal.

'bout to get ugly...

After regrouping we headed off downstream once again. We soon came to a drop that I was advised to get out and take a quick look at, which was easily done on river-left by scrambling through and over the large boulders. For the most part the drop looked good to go, entering center or right. However, I really didn't like the look of the hole at the bottom and decided to hike down further to give it a better look. While doing so, both Chris and Shawn dropped in. Both hit the gut of the bottom hole and crashed through with a little bit of bracing. Now convinced that it went much better than it looked, I hiked back up to my boat to take my turn. I decided to enter center, coming of a small ledge and immediately headed right, hugging a large onshore boulder. Once past the boulder, it was time to move back to the center to line up for the bottom hole, where like the others, I was able to breakthrough without much trouble.

About as calm as it gets

Chris, taking on the large hole

Shawn, about halfway through the above mentioned drop

Bustin' through

 The run out below the hole was nice & spicy, but all read & run and pretty much down the middle. More class III/IV boogie water followed, including another one that I jumped out to give a scout. While trying to be quick and not hold up the group, I didn't beach my boat well enough, and it decided to solo the drop without me while I was scouting -- quite embarrassing, but at least it stayed upright the whole time...

Eventually the river-left wall closed in, signaling the start of The Gorge, and the last set of rapids before the reservoir. We were told that the first drop was technically the hardest and we should definitely take a look. Sure enough it looked pretty tricky, with a midstream move over or around an odd rock formation that formed a mean diagonal hole in front of it. About half of us decided to shoulder and watch the others take a shot. Everybody that did run it had good lines, but they definitely had to work for it. Below the entrance drop was some fast moving boogie water and two fun ledges that were best run hard left and presented little issue.

Chris makes the move on the first drop of The Gorge

The run-out below the first drop

The crew regroups in an eddy in the heart of The Gorge

The next series of drops in The Gorge

We were now sitting in a large eddy in the heart of the gorge, where I saw one of the Cali boaters getting out of his boat to give the drop below a scout. I was told that just below us was a river-wide hole that was pretty stout but also flushed. Since I wasn't feeling solid that day, I decided to also hike down the river-right cliff to give it a look. After seeing the hole, it was not something that I really wanted to contend with and I decided to walk it with the other guy. Shawn, Chris, and Roman had all run it and had decent lines, but also said later that they would have definitely preferred to scout it. The portage wasn't bad, and before long we were back in the water heading downstream.

The river-wide ledge hole

The next horizon line, not far below, looked marginal at best, with everyone but Keith making the easy portage on the right. A couple more fun drops brought us to a boulder garden drop, which we were told had a really fun entrance move with a technical run-out that was best run down the left side. Chris, who had already run the entrance, was waving us off and signaling to us to portage. At least at this flow (~650cfs), the entrance landing on some shallow rocks and the run-out was extremely trashy. The portage kinda sucked as we jumped from rock to rock until we finally made it safely below.

A fun boogie section between the marginal drop and the boulder garden

Giving the boulder garden a look -- pretty trashy at this level

The next horizon line was supposed to be a fun ledge that dumped right into the reservoir, but since the water level was about 50’ lower than normal, we were presented with a few additional rapids that are typically covered up. The first drop was a V+ cascade (with a couple massive holes) that no one in our group gave serious thought to – I’m sure there was probably a line, but certainly not for me. It was quite impressive to look at, and even the portage was pretty sweet, hiking across and down a solid slab of granite on river-right.

The ledge that typically dumps into the reservoir -- quite a big hole on this day!

The bottom half of the drop also included a nice sized hole

Finishing up the portage on river-right

A large pool below the big boy, but still not the reservoir

Below the portage, the walls on both sides of the river went vertical and a couple more drops presented themselves , both of which looked pretty challenging. The first was a horseshoe shaped ledge that was best run off a center-right angled boof flake, avoiding the nasty hole at the base. Everybody that I saw run it had a great line, but once again I just wasn’t in the groove and decided to take the easy way out, down the sloped granite slab on the left – at least it made for a fun seal launch!

Shawn prepares to drop in on the horseshoe ledge...

...with a nice line

The next drop was even bigger, with the only good line down the beefed up hydraulics on the right side of the midstream boulder choke. Most ran this one and made it look pretty exciting. For the rest of us, a fairly easy portage was made down the left, at river level.

Between drops

Scouting another big one that was unanticipated - note the typical level of the lake painted on the cliff walls!

Going big!

Looking back up at the drop

I could now see the reservoir, with the only separation being one more drop, a really fun low-angle ledge that we all ran down the right of the center boulders. I had tried to smear/boof a midstream boulder at the lip, but there was too much rock to clear and I was directed back into the main flow, sliding right. As I hit the pool at the bottom, I held a deep low brace but was unable to keep it upright, forcing me to snap off a quick roll in the flat water to finish the run.

One more to go, just around the corner

Roman, in the reservoir below the last drop

Now on the lake, we had a 2 mile paddle out in front of us. This was a bit of a mixed bag, the views were amazing, surrounded by sheer granite cliffs and even a waterfall that cascaded down the left wall about halfway through. The flipside was the headwind that made forward progress a difficult task indeed. I had taken a few pictures on the way out and had fallen a bit behind the rest of the crew. I did have company from Matt, who had C1ed the run and only had 1 paddle blade to dig in the water – I can’t even imagine how tough that would have been… Luckily, there was young couple in a small fishing boat that offered Matt a tow, which I’m sure was based on the one blade handicap. After he accepted, I mentioned that I would also be highly grateful for a tow, which they graciously agreed to. Getting the towropes setup took a few minutes, but soon enough we were off and running, under the power of a ~5 horsepower outboard motor. Obviously this load was putting a bit of a strain on the little motor, but we were certainly making much better progress than we would have without it. Eventually we caught up and passed most of our crew, and of course I couldn’t help but rub our good fortune in their face a bit, knowing they would have been nice enough to do the same.

Getting started

Almost there


Now at the Donnells Dam, we had to figure out how to escape – due to the low level of the reservoir, the normal exit on the river-right side of the dam was not an option. Luckily, there was a ladder on the other side that we were able to use, and from above we hoisted the boats up to the dam platform with a bit of rope work. As a ceremonial end to a great day on the water, we went to tossing driftwood off the dam, with the target being the jet of water releasing out of the bottom. This was actually much harder than I thought it was going to be, requiring calibration for the wind.


Let the games begin


As the sun started to drop below the canyon wall, we decided it was best to start the ~1 mile hike to our awaiting cars. The hike itself wasn’t bad at all, along a road that was mostly flat and had a few downhill pitches. Back at the car, I was pretty pooped from our long adventure. Even though the run itself is only ~4 miles long, setting shuttle and the 2 miles of lake made it feel much longer. Since our crew was contained to my Suby, we had a quick beer, thanked the Cali crew for letting us join up, and started our drive up the long/rough dirt road out of the canyon. By the time we had retrieved Shawn’s car at the put-in and gotten back to camp, it was around 9pm and darkness had set in. I could only muster enough motivation to cook a cheese dog over the fire and drink a beer (or two) before heading off to bed.

Calling it a day

Making good use of those Sugar Pine cones

I must say that I really liked this run; I might even go as far as calling it a California classic and a must do for anyone in the area when it’s flowing. I can’t believe that this is the first I’d heard of this drainage and I’m now wondering what else the Stanislaus watershed has to offer. I had an awesome time, even though I walked almost all the big drops due to my boating that day. This actually gives me something to head back for, since the drops I portaged were certainly runnable and looked like a lot of fun. We had an inflow to Donnell Lake of ~650cfs (here), which I would consider a medium to medium low flow – a couple hundred more CFS certainly would have made the first part of the run a little nicer. It should be noted that the road to the take-out is pretty rough and you’ll want to have a high clearance vehicle. Most of the road is very manageable, but there are a few spots where it’s really a requirement. Just make sure you don’t let the road and lake paddle deter you from doing this run, it’s well worth the effort!

The head-cam footage from our run, which basically only shows the boogie water:

POV - MF Stanislaus, CA from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

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