Written by Chris Shackleton
Four of us ran the Calaveras, from New Hogan down to Milton Rd in Jenny Lind, on Mar 12, 2000. Initially the flow was 1000 cfs, which we thought was optimal. During the run, the flow dropped to 600 cfs which I definitely thought was below optimal, but others in the group thought it was "okay". I imagine flows up to at least 1500 cfs would be fine on this run.
The top section of the run started with a great number of oak trees growing in the middle of the river, though little dead wood was floating about. This was really odd, but still clean - there wasn't a bunch of that willow-brush that one would have expected. This section contained rapids that were technically easy (class II and III), but nevertheless potentially hazardous since it contained many must-make moves paddling in and around full-sized oak trees and ducking under branches. None of us had any problems making the tree moves, but we paid careful attention while making them. The channels were just wide enough and clear enough - we had only to enter in the right place each time, and did. Of course, this was seven years ago, the situation could be completely different by now.
It may sound from the above description as if the river at this flow (1000 cfs) was "into the trees" and therefore too high, but it really wasn't so. This situation was unique - the trees I'm talking about were growing in the middle of the river bed, not at the edge. Our evaluation was that these fully grown oaks had been able to establish themselves here because the dam had been releasing only fish flows for a very long time.
After a mile or two, the run makes a distinct character transition. The trees thinned out, the river bed opened up, and the gradient increased. The rapids were many, mostly Class III and IV, clean, and well-defined. The initial 1000 cfs filled the channel nicely, while the 600 cfs we had after lunch really didn't.
The biggest rapid on the run came after lunch, a V-, which two of us ran and the other two walked. This is a funky rapid (at ~700 cfs and falling), which you'd want to scout carefully before running. It's an easy portage if you choose that option. Our group ran everything else on the run.
We all had a good time, though not such an outstanding time we've been rushing to go back. Overall I'd say this is a run well worth doing if you're in the area, if only for the experience - this had a different character from anything else I can remember running. I'd suggest solid Class IV or better paddling skills, with precise boat control and a high tolerance for trees ...
The biggest current issue may be access. Put-in shouldn't be a problem but take-out can be. Three of us tried running the Calaveras last year (2006) but ran into an aggressive landowner, who did everything he could (including firing a shotgun in the general direction of Brian) to persuade us that taking out in Jenny Lind was a really bad idea. We figured that even if we did find a take-out where we wouldn't get shot at, our shuttle vehicle would likely get trashed. We considered taking out several miles downstream, where the natives would hopefully be less rude, but it was getting late so we bagged it.
Written by Bill Tuthill
The Calaveras (Skulls) river was so named, twice, when explorers in the 1830s found skulls and human bones along the river. These were the remains of a native Mi-wuk uprising against Spanish missionaries and soldiers. Indeed the rock outcroppings along this stretch afford many good hiding places.
As an inflatable kayak run at 300 CFS, this is a semi classic. My friend, a good guy with a GPS, had coordinates of the many class 4 rapids, along with hints on how to run. This made life easy for me, not having to scout much. I neglected to count, but it seems like there were over a dozen rapids too steep to see the bottom, and just as many class 2-3 rapids with visible routes.
In a wet year, irrigation releases from New Hogan reservoir (completed 1963) persist well into the summer, so this is a great alternative when natural-flow rivers get too low. In the lowest foothills, it is only a short drive from population centers. Temperature along the river is much cooler than in nearby meadows, and much of the run is shaded by riverside vegetation. Water is cool and mostly clear, though foam forms in eddies.
Put in at the upstream parking lot near the gravel pit below the dam. A weir under the first bridge is best run close to the leftmost submerged concrete pier. Significant rapids start to appear after about .9 mile. The class 5 rapid, Little Lumsden, appears about halfway at 38° 7' 23.556" 120° 50' 10.464" and is avoidable with an easy boat drag on the left side. Good rapids continue. After a tight two-channel drop near Plymouth Rock mine, with old dirt road slanting down the right bank, gradient eases. Take out on the right upstream of the new Milton Road bridge, to avoid landowner conflict at the old Jenny Lind bridge.