Mid July and the blacktop has it so hot in my truck that we both take off our shirts when we hit Highway 99. Our damp backs now scrape against the knitted seat cover, but we decide to make that sacrifice in order to save our shirts from being sweat infused – of course we didn’t pack a back-up.
It would be a mission to get from Chico to the Tuolumne River any day. But we’re not doing this the quick way.
It is me and Ariana. We don’t do anything the quick way.
The temptation of rows of low-hanging peaches pulls my truck off the road to a orchard driveway and we quickly park and take off running through the orchard with a dry-bag for the loot we’re about to collect. The peaches turn out to be a lot less luscious and ripe close-up than they look from the roadway. But we are already stealing now so we fill our sack, hearts pounding and then rush, barefoot, back to the truck. It’s still parked in the ditch, gear, bedrolls, kayaks — just as we left them. We add the stolen, unripe peaches to the mix and careen back onto the highway.
I had picked up Ariana from her parents house on the outskirts of Chico an hour before.
Ariana and I go way back, in my terms, which means more than a year. We joined Adventure Outings together in 2011 and worked as raft guides on the American river the following summer. This summer we are both working in Chico and living together in her parent’s house while they work in Thailand for the summer.
We’re heading first to Coloma to merge with the rest of the river bums, and then to the Tuolumne river for both of our first time kayaking the lower Tuolumne.
Neither of us have kayaked class IV before — we are slightly nervous, so we reminisce on our terror the last time we were on the T, in a paddle raft with a crew of rookies. This won’t be as bad as that. We don’t know who exactly we are going to be going with this time, but we have confidence they will be better paddlers than the kids we wound up with last time.
A few more stops and it is already past 9 p.m. when we roll into Whitewater Excitement’s guide parking.
We are bombarded as we pull into the parking lot — dirty raft guides in neon colors throwing themselves on us.
The rest of the night is an extension of that — parking lots, dirty raft guides, neon colors, loud music — all of which make predawn 5 a.m. alarms from the surrounding cars in the parking-lot just plain cold.
Not car alarms, I can just hear the other guides’ phone alarms sounding as I wake up snuggled between warm bodies and kayak paddles in the back of my truck.
Steven Schmitz blonde head peers into the back of my truck.
“Wake up June Bug!”
How could anyone be this cheery — only plays across my head for a moment, then he says, “Let’s go kayaking!” And I am on my feet in the back of my truck.
Ten people, seven kayaks, one raft and a tandem whitewater kayak — known as the Topo Duo, are loaded into two Subarus and a Nissan truck and head for the river, a 4 hour drive out. But not a simple one.
We have to drive to the take out of the 18 mile scenic section of the Tuolumne outside of Yosemite Valley, and leave one car for shuttle. This means we then have to cram all of afore mentioned gear into and onto the two Subarus. We are six deep in the back of the car with gear piled around and on top of us. The second car is completely packed with gear.
All of the hubub careening up and down a narrow cliffside roads, unpacking gear from the car and packing the gear raft doesn’t leave much time for nerves.
When I hit the water I’m surprised the nerves still don’t take over. The river is easier than I remembered it my first time in a terribly out of control paddle boat. In a kayak the large boulder gardens are simple and clean to navigate. Class III really.
And we have five kayakers who basically know what they are doing. And then me and Ari. And Steven’s girlfriend thrown into the front of the Topo Duo. And then Anna and Conor, neither of which have any experience rowing, attempting to row a fully loaded oar boat down the river, which can be called real class IV for a raft.
It’s late so the river is dropping. There are several dams on the T, water is released six days a week in the morning but take too long and you can loose water and be stranded and have to wait for it to come up again the next day. Our 2 p.m. start is late enough to be stressful, even though we are only trying to make it to a campsite about 6 miles down steam.
The section’s main challenges are boulders and big romping rapids.
The only real difficult rapid is Clavy Falls, though admittedly I am tossed upside-down long
before we are anywhere near Clavy. It is the only other rapid that they warned me not to flip in. Line is center-left (as seem to be all the lines on this river), because there is a giant hole on the right and a rock shelf on the far left. It’s called Southerland Chute, according to
Ryan Turner who likes to memorize rapids on YouTube so I trust him with rapid names if nothing else. I was able to roll up and luck had it that I dropped over the shelf right beside the hole — backwards, but didn’t get sucked into the meat.
The river is low when we hit Clavy Falls, we get out to scout. Rock-hoping to a rock that extends into the mix of the rapid where there is a small fall-type-chute with a rooster-tail and then a huge fan rock, that if not avoided has been known to dislocate shoulders, and taken lives. With the water this low, any wrong move could take you under a ledge or into the fan rock.
Running Clavy Falls isn’t something that is easy to give up, but I think of my mom’s face and immediately realize it’s a “no” for me.
Then I’m just relieved when most of the other kayakers decide the same thing because the water level is so low the risk is no longer worth the reward. Paul is a class V kayaker and he runs it without a question or a flaw.
Then there is the matter of the oar boat. You don’t just shoulder it and carry it around like a kayak, nor can you sneak it down the far left shoot like kayakers can.
Anna and Conor decide to run it, despite our attempts to convince them that we should line the boat through or walk the gear around.
They push off in the fully loaded gear boat, five miles of rowing under their lifetime-belts. Someone is go-proing so I stuff a fist in my mouth to stop from yelling as the pair gets snagged on a rock just above the drop. Watching them clammer back and forth in the raft trying to dislodge the it, I feel sick envisioning their bad set-up when they finally drop into the falls, knowing that they don’t have the know-how to correct it once they are dropping in.
Watching them perch there my thoughts go from fearing for their lives, to annoyance that they put us in a situation where we might have to deal with hauling them out of this remote canyon, then back to fearing for their lives — and wishing there was a way for them to quit right then.
But then just as quickly as it had all started they dislodge and sweep down the rest of the way, sliding between the undercut and the fan rock. A clean line.
The groups response is more of a sigh than a cheer.
I remove my fist from my teeth, blood trickles down my hand.
Ariana and I don’t want to walk around, just so we can say we ran the whole section, really. So we convince Turner to run the side-chute with us.
Even the side-chute is the tightest section of the lower T, though without the consequences of the main part of the rapid.
Expecting our campsite to be around the bend it feels like an eternity later when we finally spot the “Castle.”
The castle is some sort of old cement powerhouse type place on an embankment of the river. It resembles brick ramparts with cannons sticking out of the side — if you have a good imagination it resembles that.
Regardless, it makes an excellent riverside party spot.
Exhausted we compile and share random food supplies and what clothing we brought.
Then all that’s left to the day is a setting sun, 10 kayakers and a riverside castle deep in a river canyon.
Day two gets us somehow down the rest of the river, alternating crafts and charging for the finish-line. A steep climb with gear from the canyon floor to the bridge where our shuttle car waits, spinning half-asleep back to Coloma, and then Ariana and I make the final sprint for Chico. Leaving Coloma at 3 a.m. and making it to her parents house close to 5.
I drop her off.
Drive home, sleep for two hours and then get up, put on a button up shirt and slacks, and head to work, giving thanks that there is a Dutch Bro’s Coffee next door to the Chico Enterprise-Record.