Jul 31, 2011
The headwaters of the North Fork of The American River drain the backside of Squaw Valley and the surrounding peaks. The river cuts through a beautiful, challenging, and isolated canyon dubbed the Royal Gorge.
In the late 90s, the Driftwood Productions Crew made the first descent of this incredible river, and was amazed at the abundance of waterfalls on the scenic run. The five biggest waterfalls in the gorge, in order of appearance, are: Upper Heath (~45 feet), Lower Heath (~55 feet), Rattlesnake (~55 feet), Scott’s (two stacked drops about ~50 feet each), and Wabena (~70 feet). Upper Heath, Rattlesnake, and Scott’s were each run on the first descent trip.
Kayaking the Royal Gorge is normally a three-day mission, with paddlers stowing basic camping necessities in the back of their kayaks. For those unfamiliar with this style of boating, it is comparable to backpacking except you’re paddling through class V whitewater instead of hiking along a trail. On the first day of the trip paddlers negotiate the Heath Springs Gorge, then often camp above Rattlesnake Falls. On the second day you paddle down below Scott’s Drop and Wabena Falls, and try to get as far downstream as possible. What remains on the third and final day is paddling out Generation and Giant Gap-two old classics, but a long stretch of river that feels relatively tame after what you’ve just been through.
Our trip followed the above itinerary, putting on the river at The Cedars, mid-morning on the 13th of July. Our truckload of Matt Baker, Rush Sturges, Ben Marr, Ben Brown, and myself, joined the Bomb Flow crew of Evan Garcia, Fred Norquist, The Seiler Bros, Ryan Lucas, Shannon Carroll, and Katie Scott. About a mile into the run, Robby Hogg hopped on with us after the other two members of his group were forced to hike out.
By about noon our motley crew of 12 was gathered above the impressive Heath Springs Gorge. This stunning gorge begins with a fun sliding, curvy entrance rapid, which leads directly into the 45-foot Upper Heath Falls. Only a short pool separates Upper Heath Falls from its larger sibling downstream. Lower Heath Falls drops into a large cauldron backed up by another short waterfall. All this leads into several fully walled-in rapids, which round out the Heath Springs Gorge in dramatic fashion.
Several members of our group, including myself, were packing cameras, and the media frenzy began at Heath Gorge. I filmed a few runs before paddling Upper Heath. Feeling jovial at the lip, I threw a quick ‘brown claw,’ then proceeded to go ‘over the bars’ for what was still a very soft landing. Our group regathered above Lower Heath for a scout of the 55-footer.
Lower Heath Falls is typically run on far river right through a narrow channel of water. In the walled-in pool below the falls there is a cave on river left that can be problematic to swimmers or kayakers unable to paddle out of it. The cave gets especially bad at high water, but was not too much of an issue on our trip.
Evan Garcia and I were ready to probe, and opted to paddle one after another down the falls. I went first and was happy to enjoy a very soft landing. The right side of the falls actually reconnects with a sloping shelf partway down, which sets your angle nicely for impact. I rolled up in the cave, repositioned my elbow pads, then paddled out to safety.
After watching Evan have a smooth line, I boofed my way out of the pool’s exit drop to film the rest of the crew from below. Eight more paddlers ran the drop with mostly successful lines. One broken paddle, one imploded skirt, and one more short cave stint were the only issues we had; overall, a very successful send considering ten people paddled off a somewhat tricky 55 ft waterfall.
After grouping back up below the falls, we entered the final stretch of Heath Springs Gorge and made one slippery portage right above the mandatory, no-scout exit drop. This sweet final flume of a rapid is completely walled in and is unscoutable and unportagable once you’re in the gorge. Adding to the beauty of the place, Heath Springs cascades into the canyon on river-left in the middle of this drop.(You can scout and/or portage the gorge if you get out at the falls and hike around the rim.)
After everyone finished negotiating the slippery portage and final rapid we proceeded to bomb our way through many quality rapids, and down to the portage above the bridge. This portage does have a very marginal line, and would be a sweet waterfall if it weren’t for the rock in its landing. Maybe someday the rock will wash away, or maybe someone will just send the drop anyway.
Below this portage there is a very fun 10 ft auto-boof drop, which some of us ran. The best part of running this drop may be that you get to run a sweet narrow gorge just above camp. Matt Baker was standing on the footbridge taking pictures when we got there; he’d hiked in along the Palisades Creek trail to spend the night with us and photograph Rattlesnake Falls.
The water level in the gorge is highest in the evening, and I was ready to fire off “The Rattler” that night before camping. As it turned out, most of our group felt the same, and we capped off our day with 8 clean runs down this beautiful 55-foot waterfall. Rattlesnake has an excellent rolling lip, but does have some tricky currents in its entrance. Most of our group opted to skip the entrance by sliding over a rock shelf into a small river-left eddy, then ferrying into the current and off the drop. Katie Scott and I both opted to run the entrance, which probably isn’t any harder than the ferry approach, and we both had perfect lines.
After everyone had finished running the drop, we all walked the short distance up to camp buzzing over the amazing day of kayaking we’d just had. Benny Marr declared it his favorite day of kayaking ever, and I was inclined to agree with him. We enjoyed the rest of the evening hanging out around a fire in our scenic campsite.
After about as good of a night’s sleep as you can get on a thermarest, we began day two with several more runs over Rattlesnake. Jared and Evan, who’d both run it the night before, hiked up and ran it a second time. Shannon was pushed too far left from the entrance and swam after her skirt imploded, but she was determined to have a good line, and she bravely hiked up and ran it a second time having a clean line out of the eddy.
One of my goals for the trip was to attempt to run all five of the major drops on the river. Evan Garcia was the first to accomplish this feat the year before, and he had inspired me and several others to think about it. He proudly dubbed the accomplishment, “The Royal Flush,” a perfectly suitable name. I began day two happy to have already run the first three big drops, but knowing full well that the remaining two drops were the most serious of the five.
Scott’s Drop would be the first major challenge of the day, and probably the most demanding waterfall on the whole run. Scott’s Drop is a two-tiered waterfall falling about 100 feet in total. The first drop is around 45-50 feet tall, with a very tricky lead in and a questionable landing. By itself, the first drop of Scott’s is more challenging than Upper Heath, Lower Heath, and Rattlesnake. The second tier of Scott’s begins immediately below the very short pool of the first drop’s landing zone. The second drop starts with a sloping 10-footer into a river-wide hole backed up by the protruding left wall, which sends the channel 90 degrees to the right and off the final 40-foot drop. The current over the final waterfall is pushing hard into the river-right wall of the second drop, which has led to some serious injuries.
The general line over Scott’s Drop is to make it down the first drop intact, then run the middle 10-footer far right but driving back left to stay away from the wall at the bottom. The drop earns its namesake from Scott Lindgren, who made the first descent of the waterfall in an Eskimo Diablo during the first descent of the Royal Gorge. The drop is so stout that it was passed over for 8 eight years until 2006 when it was seconded by Charlie Center, then run again two days later by Pat Keller. The thought of running Scott’s Drop weighed on my mind as I began paddling downstream from our camp on day two.
There are several fun rapids and drops in the short stretch between Rattlesnake and Scott’s Drop, including the fun “Perfect Twenty Gorge.” This short gorge begins with a nice lead-in rapid, and ends with a perfectly clean 20-foot waterfall. After a few more quality drops we arrived at the lip of Scott’s.
We all got out to scout and several people made the quick decision to portage. The view looking down from the lip of the cascade is awesome and frightening at the same time. The drop has a definite line, but it is certainly a thin one, and there are a lot of things that could go wrong. The rugged canyon walls eliminate the option of setting safety below the first tier, so once you enter, you’re committed to running out the second drop on your own. To top it off you’re in the wilderness, miles away from any roads or hospitals.
When Scott Lindgren first ran this drop he merely scouted it from the lip, unconcerned with the bottom of the second drop. He saw a line, committed to it, and styled it. As I scouted it from above and then from the side, I also saw a line, but was still undecided. Once I’ve decided to run a big drop, I normally prefer to go first and end the pre-run anxiety period early. At this drop, I was happy to hear Rush declare he was ready to go first; seeing another run would help me make up my mind.
We all set up our cameras and prepared for Rush’s descent. After one final inspection of the lip, Rush got into his boat to paddle over the most spectacular waterfall in California. Rush hit the curler at the lip holding a left stroke and for a moment it looked like he was going to be flipped and land upside down on his head. At the last second he was able to pull out an enormous boof, which sent his boat flying completely past the base of the falls. After a hard impact, Rush was in the current heading straight into the final drop. He boofed into the entrance just a little too far left and got briefly hung up on the wall. This spun him around and sent him into the final falls backwards, but safely on the river-left side and away from the river-right wall. Rush’s boat spun around mid-air off the final drop in a back “freewheel,” landing him on his side and upright. Joyous cheers erupted from the sidelines, and we were all stoked that Rush had successfully made it through the drop.
Shortly after Rush’s run, Evan geared up for his second descent of the drop. Evan had the more traditional melt through the curler line, and surfaced in the small pool/eddy at the base of the falls on the right. After a brief moment of hesitation Evan’s boat began drifting backwards down a small stream of water exiting below this pool and into the lower falls. Evan quickly halted his backwards progress and pulled himself back upstream and onto a small dry ledge. While his boat was briefly settled on the ledge he adjusted his elbow pads, checked his GoPro, and took a deep breath. He then pushed off into the second drop and stomped it. It takes a lot of courage to run Scott’s Drop, and even more to come back for a second helping; I suspect Evan may still not yet be finished with this one.
Watching Evan successfully melt the top drop gave me confidence in my line. I planned to take a left stroke into the curler then brace into it with my right blade, roll into a right tuck, and melt. In the eddy above the drop I turned on my GoPro, gave the customary quick remarks to it, briefly stretched, then was ready to go. I peeled out and hit the line off the top drop exactly how I had planned. I enjoyed a very soft landing and melted deep. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I resurfaced with my skirt and paddle intact in the eddy below the falls. I quickly paddled out into the current feeding into the second drop, and entered right where I wanted to be. I felt like I hit the line just as planned, but was still pushed back closer to the right wall at the bottom than I had hoped to be. Fortunately, I stayed just off of the wall, and enjoyed another very soft landing over the final drop, coming out upright and cheering.
The euphoria you experience after successfully completing a drop as stout and intimidating as Scott’s is amazing. There was a celebratory mood in the pool below, which only increased after Ryan made the day’s final run down the beast. Ryan melted through the first drop, then nailed the line on the second drop having perhaps the best overall line of the day. We all gathered on a rock below to eat some lunch and bask in the beauty of our surroundings.
After enjoying the rest of the moment, we took off downstream towards our last challenge, Wabena Falls. En route we encountered a stout, manky, but runnable ramp drop. Most portaged right, I portaged left, and Jared fired straight off the drop, nailing the tight landing. Below this we enjoyed tandem runs down the split 15-footer; the Seiler bros, and the ladies had the best timing.
Wabena Falls is the tallest single drop on the Royal Gorge, with an estimated height of 70 feet. The drop was first run in 2002 by Ben Stookesberry, then seconded in 2006 by Rush Sturges. In the fashion of our descent thus far, nine brave paddlers hucked themselves off the drop like lemmings. Evan, Rush, Shannon, myself, Benny, Ryan, Graham, Jared, then Katie. It was a very fun but strange feeling to be putting in above a 70-foot waterfall, have three people already at the bottom, and have five people right behind me getting in their kayaks. I rolled off the lip just as I’d hoped, tossed my paddle, then tucked forwards in a diving position. This all felt great, but my boat still became slightly off-kilter at the bottom and I landed somewhat on my side. The spine rattling impact knocked me partway out of my kayak and left me a bit dazed. I managed to get my knees back under the thigh braces and attempted one “hands roll,” then ejected from my waterlogged kayak. While floating next to my boat I enjoyed the cool water and hoped it was rinsing off the poison oak encountered during the scout.
Wabena dished out several other big hits amongst the group, causing sore bodies and bruised egos, but we were still proud of the day’s sending. The water approaching the lip of Wabena rolls nicely at first, but then bounces over a shelf which fans the flow out. This reduces the aeration in the landing zone, and makes for a somewhat unpredictable lip. To run Wabena, more water is definitely better; it dished out the biggest hits (by far) of all the drops on the run to me and most of our group.
A few more tough drops awaited us below Wabena, but the river character quickly mellowed. Due to the time we’d spent at each major drop, it was getting late and we were all tired. We stopped at a great flat camp upstream of the commonly portaged (but runnable) drops just above the start of Generation Gap. That evening at camp our group nurse, Shannon, pulled out a bottle of muscle relaxers, pain relievers, and anti-inflammatory drugs. The trip had certainly taken its toll on our group, and we all lined up like junkies at a methadone clinic.
The next day we had to paddle out the 27 miles of Generation and Giant Gap before we arrived at the cold beers waiting with Matt and our truck. The entire run was incredible, and I’m excited to get back in there next year. The peak flow was 819 cfs on the day we put on, and this peak dropped about 50 cfs each day of our trip, to a peak of 718 cfs on the day we took out. This flow was plenty for every drop except Wabena, which could have used more water. Ideally I’d want this river as high as possible, while still low enough to paddle out of the cave below Lower Heath.
It is certainly an amazing run worthy of being explored by anyone capable. If you are a strong class V paddler, but don’t desire the big waterfalls, the trip is definitely still worthwhile. Issues with the landowners at the put-in have arisen in the past, but we were happy to have very friendly and pleasant experiences with the few we encountered. It is important to be courteous and respectful to anyone you meet here, and promote a positive image of kayaking. Using a shuttle driver to avoid leaving a car at the put-in is also recommended.
I also want to give mention to a remarkable trip that occurred shortly before ours. The Swiss family of Felix, Lars, and Sven Lammler ran all five major drops in only six hours, and on their first trip through the Royal Gorge. Their feat is amazing on many levels and the trip will surely go down as a historic send.
Thanks for reading. Check out my Royal Gorge Royal Flush video for more action. Also, expect another blog post soon with an account of the Lammler family’s California trip!
All photos by Robby Hogg and Rush Sturges.