I was starting to lose faith that I would ever get on Deer Creek, CA. For the last couple of years the flow never really came into the runnable range, and earlier this year we were forced to walk off due to higher than recommended flows (see here). My luck would change Memorial Day weekend (2011) when historically high snowpack would set us up perfect for a late May, multi-day, self-support trip through the Ishi Wilderness area.
Since the MF Feather wilderness run, our first choice, was too high, it wasn’t hard to turn the group’s attention to Deer Creek. We would have a team of 6, which in my opinion is the max recommended size for an adventure like this. From Vancouver (WA) we would have Chris Arnold, from Eugene we would have Roman Androsov, Bob Lee, and myself, from Roseburg Shawn Haggin, and last but certainly not least, Jason Naranjo from San Diego (formerly from Eugene).
The plan was to head to the put-in on Wednesday night, run the back shuttle Thursday morning, and be on the water that day by noon. With some minor delays getting out of Eugene, we ended up back on track and reached Potato Patch campground (the put-in), at around 11pm -- just enough time for a beer or two before setting up our tents and bedding down for the night. The next morning Jason and Shawn offered to drive shuttle, which allowed the rest of us to take our time breaking down camp and loading our boats for our 3 day trip down Deer Creek. While we were getting ready, a couple others who were sharing the campground came over to quiz us on what we had planned. They all seemed very intrigued, but as any boater knows, it’s hard to present what the trip would be like to non-river folks.
Before long (about 2 ½ hours later), Jason and Shawn returned. After some last minute preparations we were all on the water and headed downstream. The flow (at Vina) when we put on was ~900cfs, which would slowly drop to ~775cfs by the end of the trip.
Day 1 - Potato Patch CG to Polk Springs CG (11 miles):
The first part of the run consisted of one wood portage and lots of fun read-&-run class III drops, with one class IV about 1.5 miles into the run. This class IV was the one that had convinced us the flows were too high at 1,500cfs. At this flow it was far less stressful but still featured some nice hydraulics, including a big entrance hole to skirt.
Not far below this we encountered the bridge where we had hiked out before. As we floated underneath I knew that we had just passed the point of no return, and I was feeling pretty happy that I was finally going to do the full run this time around. Class III rapids continued for another couple miles until a more distinct horizon line presented itself, a III+/IV rapid above what appeared to me the entrance to Fish Ladder Falls, the only mandatory portage. I quickly jumped out of my boat and scouted from the left bank. At our healthy flow the rapid just above the lead-in was quite pushy with only a couple of small eddies to catch between the two. It should be noted that the lead-in rapid itself feeds right into the falls with no eddies, so it should be considered unrunnable as well. Everyone but Chris had made the mistake of eddying out and scouting the falls from river left, which was basically not a portage option. This required us all to make a fairly easy, but exciting ferry to the small eddy on river right -- basically if you blew the eddy you were running the falls. Once we were all safely on the right bank, a brief scout confirmed that the falls were a death trap, with a terminal hole feeding off the right wall. The hike around was somewhat strenuous with a loaded boat, but before long we had all regrouped below the falls, where we decided to hang out for a bit and enjoy the scenery and a quick snack.
Just below the falls was a fun little class III/III+ mini-gorge that was way too short and left me wanting more. I had decided to head out in front so I could snap some photos of the others coming through.
More fun class III water continued for some time before the creek pinched down between narrow vertical walls, signaling another short gorge section. Within this gorge we found a couple of technical class IV drops with some interesting hydraulics (seams, holes, etc.). We all bombed through with minimal issues and continued down the creek until we encountered an obvious horizon line. We all jumped out to scout, where we determined that this was the class V known as Big Boulder Bar. None of us saw a great line option, since it was littered with pin/piton potential -- we all made the fairly easy portage down the right side.
Not far below this and a couple of drops later, Shawn pulled over and jumped out of his boat, only to discover a really nasty crack in the bottom of it -- not a good thing to have on the first day of a committing three-day self-support. After a couple of expletives, we all gave it a look to determine the prognosis and how sea worthy it was. After some thought it was decided that we would drill out the ends of the crack (by hand), and boat down to camp, which was estimated to be about 2 miles downstream. We had also agreed that the best plan of action would be for a couple of us to go out in front and scout the rapids ahead of Shawn, so that we could hasten the pace a bit. We still had a few more class III and IV rapids, where Shawn would get out occasionally to empty his boat.
Before too long we passed under a deteriorated foot bridge, which would mark our camp for the evening. A brief scout by Jason indicated that the river right would be the best for camping, so we all eddied out and climbed up the small cliff band to explore our accommodations. We quickly went to work setting up a clothesline, collecting firewood, and setting up our sleeping quarters. Before long we had a fire going and all sat around discussing the day’s events and cooking dinner. Darkness fell soon after, and one by one we headed off to bed. The next morning while the rest of us were getting ready, Bob and Shawn went to work on making a duct tape patch for Shawn’s boat. The toughest stretch of whitewater lay downstream (Bandito Canyon / Maxi Gorge), but we knew if we got past that we would be able to make it to Ponderosa Way road, an access point and the separation between the Upper and Lower Deer Creek runs. From there we could reevaluate the patch job and hike out for supplies if necessary.
Day 2 - Polk Springs CG to Ponderosa Way Bridge (5 miles):
The clouds had moved in and some light sprinkles were falling. It was cloudy and cool, but not frigid. I jumped out ahead and started through a nice rhythm of class III rapids. Every once in awhile a wave would break over the top of my boat, knocking the remaining sleep from my eyes. I was still feeling pretty lethargic, but by the time we had reached the beginning of Bandito Canyon, I started to wake up. Soon, large lava rocks began to dot the river and the walls started to tighten up a bit, and I knew that we had reached one of the crux sections of the run, Maxi Gorge. As we cruised down through the first boulder maze, I broke left, away from the group. Unfortunately the eddy situation was grim, and I ended up running a really narrow chute hard river-left, which deposited me into a swirling half-boat eddy. Luckily, I was able to climb out of my boat and get to shore to scout the horizon line just below me. After a quick glance I was pretty sure that this was a rapid known as “Log X”. Basically it was a two ledge drop, with the first backed up by a midstream boulder, and the second a fairly sticky hole. The trick on the first was to drive to the right of the boulder backing it up. On the second you could run it about anywhere as long as you got in a good boof, although right was probably the softest part of the hole. Everyone in our group was able to make it through nice and clean.
Below Log X were a couple of fun drops, Kitchen Sink (Class IV) and Blind Faith (Class III) respectively. Kitchen sink was a fun boof between a large midstream boulder and the right bank, followed by a fast run-out that slammed against another large right-hand boulder, which was easy to avoid. Blind Faith, just below, was a pretty straightforward, short ledge drop that deposited you into a sizable pool.
On the other end of the pool lay the largest drop we had seen so far, Coffin Trough. I had studied this drop from the pictures of previous adventurers, but at the higher flow that we had, it was almost unrecognizable. This was a sizable class V, with a couple of mean looking holes to grab hold of any boater with a missed line. At first, most of the group was set on portaging, but sketchy portage options and watching Chris run it cleanly convinced us otherwise. I was the fourth boater to drop in. My plan was to boof the top ledge (as Chris had), and then navigate the holes below using an S-turn type move. Things went badly at the very top where I lined up poorly and hit a mediocre boof, landing in a seam and flipping instantly. I then proceeded to run the rest of the drop either upside-down or on a deep brace -- luckily this helped me flush through the holes and I was able to roll up at the bottom with some assistance from Shawn. (Thanks buddy!) Soon after, the other two came down, with some interesting lines and a couple of good hole rides.
Just below Coffin Trough is “Stay Right and Flip”, another large class V, which splits around an island of sorts. Most of the flow went right of the island, although the top part of it was still pretty junky, and the exit fed directly into the worst part of the bottom, extremely sticky, hole. The left side of the island was more or less a sneak, but still proved to be pretty exciting. In the end, we all chose the left side, and made it through without any problems.
Below Maxi Gorge the creek mellowed for a mile or two before coming to a series of tougher boulder drops, “Antepenultimate”, “Penultimate”, and “Ultimate”. I had not been boating well on this day, and these three drops would be no exception. Basically, I was flipped, temporarily pinned, and generally beat-up; luckily I was able to stay in my boat through them all. By the time the Ponderosa Way Bridge came into view, I was pretty pooped and ready for a break. At this point it was also time to decide how to proceed with Shawn’s broken boat…
Upon inspection it appeared that the patch was holding up extremely well, thanks to Bob’s incredible first aid skills. However, even with it holding, most of the group thought it would be unwise for him to continue downstream since we didn’t have any more patching materials on hand. Further, this was an access point in an otherwise inescapable run, or at least not without extreme difficulty. The plan was for three of the group to hike out of the canyon via the road and bring back more duct tape, preferably of the Gorilla variety. Shawn, Jason, and Roman volunteered to make the journey while Chris, Bob, and I stayed with the gear and setup camp. One of the first orders of business was for us to setup clotheslines to dry everyone’s gear out. For this task the road bridge made a great anchor point, and soon we had a spider web of line running back and forth across the bridge, essentially creating a road block.
Since we knew that it would be awhile before we reconnected with our fellow boaters we took our time setting up sleeping quarters and collecting firewood, most of the time was actually spent lounging around in the sun and taking a nap. After some time had gone by, the faint sound of a vehicle could be heard, and soon after it came into view. I can only imagine what they were thinking when they pulled up to the bridge and saw it completely blocked off with our laundry. When we ran onto the bridge to start disassembling our roadblock, they climbed out with big smiles on their faces and pleasant introductions. They were a couple good ol’ boys and locals from Chico, who were intrigued by our means of navigation through the Ishi Wilderness. They said they had seen us from their campsite while we were hootin’ and hollerin’ down the last set of rapids. What they also told us was not good news for our hiking buddies, for apparently the hike out would be about 20 miles on dirt road just to reach the paved, far more than we had anticipated. With that they told us they would pick up our crew when they found them and drive them to at least the top of the hill. About an hour later we heard the sound of the Jeep returning to the bridge, this time with our fellow companions on board. Amazingly they had acquired a 1/4 roll of duct tape from a guy who lived in a house at the top of the hill. It wasn’t a lot of tape, but we figured it would be enough to get us to our originally planned takeout more than 20 miles downstream.
Later that evening another couple 4x4s came down the road, and also hooked us up with a half roll of tape -- we were all pretty amazed at the availability of patching supplies, the kindness of the locals, and our overall good fortune. That night we built another big fire, ate well, and crashed under the starry skies. The next morning we discussed our plan of attack for the day. One option was to camp another day on the river about 12 miles down, the other was to paddle the full 23 miles out to meet our original finish date. We were fairly split on the decision, so we decided to reevaluate once we had reached the potential camp.
Day 3 - Ponderosa Way Bridge to Takeout (23 miles):
Not far below the Ponderosa Way Bridge, we hit one of the steepest parts of the run, “Amazing Race”, which dropped about 160ft within a mile. It was actually pretty straightforward and could pretty much be boat scouted the whole way. Once below here, the water mellowed out quite a bit for many miles. It should be noted that about 4 miles downstream there is a drop that splits around a large boulder that has a very dangerous piece of wood in it. Instead of me re-explaining it, your best bet is to read the description and look at the pictures here, which is what we did and it served us well.
It was kind of nice to have the water mellow out a bit since it allowed us to take in some of the dramatic scenery -- although I knew that we had another set of bigger drops not far downstream, which I was also looking forward to. Supposedly a drop called Lava Dome is the first drop in this second crux section; however, Ishi Falls is the first one that I recall of any significance. The entrance to the drop is blocked by some rather large lava rocks, making it difficult to see what waits downstream. I was the last one on the scene and had come through the entrance on the hard left side of the river. After hearing a yell of “hold up!”, I peeled into a tiny eddy against the left bank, trying to determine where the voice was coming from. I quickly jumped out of my boat and climbed up some rocks to see what was below me -- “hmmm, this must be Ishi Falls…”. What else became clear was that it was a pretty straightforward drop, with two main ledges and a fast, semi-technical, run-out. Since I hadn’t taken any photos of this lower stretch, I decided to take advantage of my perch and snap a couple off. Once Shawn and Chris had run it (cleanly), I told Jason to hold up so I could boat down and setup for some pics from below.
My run was actually pretty good, and I was able to hit both my boofs and clean the rest, joining the others below. After eddying out I climbed onto the rocks with a bag and my camera to wait for Jason. Once he slid into the water he went for the hard left side of the first tier and came through cleanly. Unfortunately he was not so lucky on the second, coming out of the hole in a huge back ender. After dropping the nose back down and going for some side surf action, he eventually worked his way out and finished up the drop in good form. I later learned that Roman had accidentally probed the right side of the whole drop without scouting. Supposedly his line ended up being pretty exciting, which I can only imagine.
Below, Ishi falls were a couple of other big drops, the two most notable ones being Double Drop and Single Drop. Double Drop was basically a bouldery lead-in to a broken ledge at the bottom. The middle of this broken ledge was pretty sieved out, which convinced both Roman and me to do a partial portage. Much to my comrade’s entertainment, I made this decision seem much worse than just running the drop from the top, as I pinballed my way down and eventually flipped at the bottom. As soon as my head came out of the water from rolling up, I could see that they all thought it was pretty funny.
Single Drop worked out much better for me, and for the group, as it was basically a straight forward boof off a 5’ ledge drop. There was a little hole at the bottom, but nothing too sticky. A couple more interesting drops followed before we reached another calm stretch, lasting for a few miles.
Some powerlines above signaled that we were at the next gorge. Other trip reports rate this section as class IV, but I remember it being pretty straightforward class III and not too eventful. Soon after this gorge we reached what would have been our camp for the night. Since we were all feeling pretty good and energetic, we decided there was no need for us to camp another night. With that we all blew past and continued on. Below this section was some of the most amazing scenery on Deer Creek, and rivaled that of any other river I have done. It actually reminded me a lot of the Jarbidge, with rock columns and dramatic cliff walls. At one point the creek narrowed down to about 10’ though a lave rock slot, and we were pretty happy to see that it was free of wood.
Some of the dramatic rock formations on Lower Deer Creek.
Pictures do not do scenery on this section any justice.
Pictures do not do scenery on this section any justice.
After one last snack stop, we started the ~6 miles of flat water to the takeout. We passed both the gauging station and a small dam (which we snuck on the left), that signaled that we had reached the Sacramento Valley. This stretch consisted of braided channels and shallow gravel bars. Fallen trees here and there acted as strainers, but since the water was moving pretty slow, none presented that much danger. I was starting to get pretty tired out from all the miles of paddling, so when the takeout bridge finally came into view, I was pretty relieved, and I’m sure the others were as well.
Once back at the car we got changed into some dry cotton, and celebrated our successful adventure with a couple of beers. After that Shawn and I headed up to retrieve my car at the put-in, and by the time we returned a large squall had moved through drenching the rest of our party. That night we drove into Chico, had dinner at a Thai restaurant, and tried to determine what we would do with our vacation for the next couple of days.
Deer Creek ended up being everything I had hoped for and more, not quite as good as the MF Feather, but still a multi-day classic in its own right. I had heard from one person years ago that the run was pretty trashy, but this was far from the case on our trip, which I would probably attribute to the relatively healthy flows we had. I would definitely do this run again, and look forward to getting on its sister drainage, Mill Creek, which is supposed to be even more spectacular.