Wednesday, September 14, 2011

First Descents

Waterfalls have always been one of the most cherished moments that water rushes towards a new destination. It is a moment where the molecules gain speed as gravity takes hold more easily without solid rock beneath. When riding these water molecules in a kayak, we often feel connected to a greater source. A source that every living thing on Earth is so intrinsically dependent upon.

In the winter of 2011; Cody Howard, Darin Mcquoid, and myself began exploring never-before-run waterfalls in the Gold Country area of California. Justin Patt, local class V kayaker extraordinaire, gave us hints of a 50 foot waterfall very close to my new home of Nevada City. He was led to this drop through a very resourceful website called Through further research of this website, we found 2 more waterfalls close by; on a small, low-elevation stream called Dry Creek.
The rains began to pour, our hearts began to thump, and we knew the time had come to check out these waterfalls with ample flow. Dry creek was first on the list because it has a very small watershed that rarely receives enough precipitation to make the stream 'runnable'. This day, however, the creek wasn't so dry. So, we began hiking 2 miles up through cow pastures to see what the creek had to offer. Cody's fiance, Brandi Suppi, and dog, Timber, joined us in dodging countless, fresh, steaming, cow patties. We arrived at the falls to see an amber colored torrent cascading down not one, but two magnificent waterfalls.
The first falls was very intimidating with a raging curler protecting the lip of this spatula-shaped 60 footer. None of us were feeling fired up enough to tackle this animal. Therefore, we proceeded a short distance down to the second falls. Now this falls looked very similar to a frequently-run waterfall on the Little White Salmon called Spirit Falls. Having run Spirit Falls, and many other waterfalls in the 30 foot range, I felt confident that I could run the falls successfully. After discussing the line with my Cody and Darin, the decision was made for me to claim the first descent of this falls.

I readied myself, as I normally do for a very consequential rapid, with visualization and breathing techniques. Upon entering my custom outfitted Jefe Grande with a 4 inch foam seat and completely foam bulkhead, the realization began to sink in of the magnitude of the act, in which I was about to carry out. Splashing the cold, amber-colored, water on my face helped calm my nerves as I ferried over to the river left eddy directly above the drop. I motioned to Cody up on the bank that I was fully-charged and ready to go. Left strokes from my Werner Shogun propelled me into the main current where I immediately felt the power of the creek. I continued to take left strokes as the flow was pushing me hard left. Even though I was further left than I wanted to be, I knew that I was committed, and continued to charge with all my might as I began to feel the water fall out from under me.

The time between the lip and landing of a waterfall are spiritual moments for me. All thoughts simply vanish. My body begins moving in ways that are controlled by years of experience kayaking. And when I finally land, its almost as if I have woken up from a dream. In this case, it was a very frightening dream! Instead of using the rolling lip to take a boof-stroke and control my angle of descent, the lip literally fell out from under me. Leaving me with no place for a stroke, I fell almost completely flat onto a slightly submerged rock.

Lady luck was on my side this time as I received nothing more than a severe jarring. I wasn't stoked on my line, but I was very pleased to have run the drop without serious injury. I'm pretty certain that my supremely, cushioned, foam-seat saved me great pain on this, and many other, occasions. As we always do, we celebrated with high fives after a successful first descent of a 30 foot waterfall in close proximity to our homes.

Darin felt confident that he too could paddle the drop successfully; and so, he began his way of preparing for a serious waterfall. I set up safety and media on river left below the drop. Darin charged off the lip with great speed, but he too got pushed further left than planned. Nevertheless, he paddled away from the turbulent base of the falls all in tact and grinning from ear to ear. He also noted contact with some sort of brunt object upon landing.

After hearing that both Darin and I had felt rock on our left side, Cody was very motivated to charge the drop with plenty of right angle. He did so with typical Cody style, and beautifully boofed the drop in the center with a nice 45 degree angle of descent. If I remember correctly, he didn't touch a single rock in his landing, and motivated me to make a second attempt.
Once again, I prepared myself for a burly rapid, and ferried over to the very swirly eddy on river left. This time, I charged super-hard for the river right bank, and as I expected, was pushed left into the center of the lip. I took a nice look at the boiling landing while pulling a glorious stroke that propelled me into a sweet angle of free-fall. Moments of no-thought proceeded and I awoke at the base of the falls with an extreme feeling of satisfaction. A good line to finish off a spectacular day.

Cody, Darin, and I decided to continue paddling downstream instead of hiking back down through the cow fields. Brandi and Timber, on the other hand, possessed no floating devices; and thus, began to hike back towards the cars. Not to our surprise, we found much debris-infested class II rapids downstream of the falls. At one point, I tried to roll under a log across the river, which is never a good idea I might add. This resulted in a mellow wet exit, where I didn't really get wet since I was in my Kokatat dry-suit.

We finally arrived at the cars, still in high spirits after completing such a sweet first descent. We began to undress and wonder when Brandi and Timber would show up. After popping a few frosty beverages and watching the light quickly fade, we began to get concerned for Brandi and Timber. Our worry didn't last long as we saw Brandi come angrily tromping across the yellow bridge. We hadn't taken much note of the sign on the bridge which said not to enter the fields during a certain time of year. That certain time of year signified the mating season of the bovine breed.

With big eyes, shortness of breath, and heart racing; Brandi re-counted the story of a massive bull chasing her and Timber down. She wasn't stoked to say the least. Especially at the fact that Timber didn't show the slightest sign of bravery in the matter. She said that Timber was actually out-running her. So, if you are interested in checking out Dry Creek falls, beware of the angry cows. They will give you a run for your money. Brandi also noted that her astrological sign is Taurus. So that might have had something to do with it too.

One waterfall down, two to go. The next band of storms inspired me to go check out South Deer Creek falls, which Justin Patt had been raving about since I moved to town. The drop isn't far from the town of Nevada City, but if you don't know where you're going, its easy to get lost. The roads leading back in there are very reminiscent of the logging roads leading to Big Kimshew. I went there solo the first time, and after trudging through at least 1 foot of snow for an hour or so, I found the falls. Justin wasn't lying when he said it was very sick yet runnable. I didn't spend long out in the miserable cold rain/snow that blessed the Sierras much of 2011.

Another huge storm came barreling into northern California that got Cody and I out of the house and into the woods looking at South Deer Falls, which from now on I will abbreviate as SDF. This time, the falls were on the high side of high. But it whet, mine and Cody's appetite more than any other drop we had looked at so far. We walked away with thoughts of another drop that we knew would be better with less water.

It continued to rain throughout the night, further instilling the image of a massive curling beast into my mind as I tried to sleep in the loft of my little cabin. Cody called me early in the morning with a report that Dry Creek was going to be higher than our previous trip, and that there was a crew of people forming to go check it out. I loaded up and headed into town with high hopes of running the upper Dry Creek falls. I carpooled with Cody from Grass Valley to the staging area near Beale Air Force base.

Once there, we met Darin Mcqouid, Jason Craig, Taylor Cavin, Robby Hogg, and Gareth Tate. A fine crew of Chargers if I may say so myself. We geared up and began the hike promptly. I led the charge, as I was anxious to see the falls again. Walking through the cow pastures, the sounds of the beasts become louder and louder. Yes, the waterfalls and cows. Both can be terrifying in their own sense. After gaining permission from the cows to check the falls, I was greeted by the curling beast. There are multiple names for this falls, one being Fairy Falls, but I tend to not like 'labels'. So, we will just let it be as is.

Everyone was pretty impressed with the drop, and no one seemed fired up to run it. Darin ferried across the river above the drop. He came back with an even more certain decision not to run it. I, however, was not convinced, and ferried over there myself. Standing from a different viewpoint than I had ever seen, enabled to see the waterfall in a different light. The chaos of whitewater tumulting down the lip actually looked appealing to me, and I decided to run it. I threw my paddle off the waterfall into the pool below to Jason Craig. Hand-paddles would be my weapon of choice for this encounter.

This would be the largest drop I had ever run, and it was a first descent on something that many other elite kayakers wanted no part of. My adrenaline was pumping, but I felt confident that I could make the move. I also felt confident in the crew, should my attempt turn sour, and force some sort of physical damage. After visualizing my line many times, I got in my ultra-light, super-padded, kayak. Splashed some water in my face, put my hand-paddles on, and after a few last-minute prayers, I entered the raging river.

Approaching the lip, I felt extremely confident, guiding my kayak exactly where I wanted to be, far right. I tried not to give any attention to Robby manning a GoPro camera, and focused with all my heart and mind. As I started to fall, I literally Charged into the overhead curler with the intentions of punching through it. Not much can be remembered in those brief moments between the lip and landing, but I remember getting slammed to the deck of my boat, and feeling myself floating in the pool upside down. I knew immediately I was alright and rolled up. The energy was flowing through me like a conductor to a nuclear plant.
Stellar photo by Darin Mcquoid.

Cheers and high fives ensued. Quickly, after discussing to everyone I was fine, even though they heard a loud noise once I disappeared behind the curtain, we began contemplating the lower falls. Its amazing how energy spreads. I could sense that everyone was fired up just from watching me run the upper falls. Taylor quickly decided to run the lower falls. He gave it a good go, but came back with tales of a rocky landing, as we already knew. I can't remember exactly how it went down.

I just remember talking to Jason before he entered the pool above the drop. I felt slightly inclined to give him beta on the current pushing hard left at the lip, which is where you don't want to get pushed. But, I felt that Darin had probably given him enough advice and that he didn't need anymore. Jason Charged the lip confidently, but got pushed left. He landed on the slightly submerged rock directly under his butt, and immediately swam out of his kayak. The blood curtailing scream he let out gave us all the indicator that something definitely wasn't right.

Taylor was first on the scene, and pulled Jason out of the water, as he wasn't capable himself. We all made our way across the walled in min-gorge that exists at the base of the falls. Gareth Tate, a Winderness Medicine Instructor, began diagnosing Jason's injuries. Unfortunately, Jason also forgot to close the relief zipper on his Kokatat dry-suit. Creating a fish-tank of cold river water in his pants. We cut the booties and drained the water, but he was still shivering to the point of hypothermia. We all began removing what warm layers we had to create a blanket to try and keep him warm.

Cody Howard hit his SPOT device, notifying local emergency medical crews of our need. A helicopter began circling above, but couldn't land due to bad weather and lack of landing spots. Finally, rescue crews arrived on the opposite side of the river, and we ferried a body board to where Jason was. We very carefully placed Jason on the body board and began slowly Z-dragging him up the canyon wall. It was a very tense situation, as every movement was inflicting excruciating pain on Jason.

Nonetheless, Jason was handling it like a weathered old navy seal or something. Pretending that the pain wasn't affecting too much, he quickly agreed to the idea of using a boogie-board to ferry him across to the rescue team. Darin lied on top of Jason on the boogie-board to ensure he wouldn't flip in the turbulent current. Sure enough, the current tried to flip them, and Darin used his playboatinng training to lean downstream and keep them upright. Not more than 5 seconds after getting Jason across the river to the rescue team, darkness ensued. We couldn't have made it any closer to the line.

Jason was taken to the Marysville hospital where it was confirmed that his Spleen had been shattered and separated his legs from his hips. Nerve damage was also done, but the doctors said we did a fantastic job of keeping his body stable during the evacuation. A tragic incident for sure, but it looks like Jason is going to have a great recovery, and he is already kayaking again as I write this more that 6 months since it happened. Just a prime example of the danger involved with running large-marginale waterfalls. Much respect goes to Jason and his family for keeping a positive outlook during these troubling times.

Cody put up a sweet video from the days. Its on You will have to find it there. Its under Cali First D's.

Until next time, keep the Charge alive!

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