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North Fork Mokelumne Adventure

Written by Reid Kingsbury

Dave Greenwood is my original river running buddy.   He is also the BLM river ranger for the Merced River.   So when he wanted to do the Devil's Nose run of the North Fork Mokelumne River in my 10.5 foot Wing raft, I was all over it.   Dave wears a green uniform, drives a government truck, and has a badge.   Maybe this is why I feel safe with him.   And besides, I always want to use that nifty little boat; it needs legitimate wear and tear.   It is a crime for it to be rolled up in the garage.   Dave invited a fellow boater, Gary Hasenstab, who wanted to row his 13 foot boat.   The guidebook described the Devil's Nose Run as class IV, which gets a little pushy in the last mile or so - perhaps one or two Class V drops.   I will go with Dave.   Little did we know what we were getting into.

It was a blue-bird day on Wednesday, June 15, 2005.   I mean gorgeous.   Leaving Sacramento early and meeting Dave and Gary at the take-out at Tiger Creek, arriving within two minutes of each other, left the feeling that everything was coming together.   There is a PG&E powerhouse there with marked parking set aside for the sole use of recreational boaters.   How cool is that?   The PG&E people were friendly.   One female PG&E worker at the powerhouse reported that she just read the gage, and the flow on the North Fork Mokelumne was 3400 cfs.   "That's kind-of high, isn't it Dave?"  "Well, yes it is, but maybe some of the holes in the gorge will wash out," said Dave.   "Yeah Baby!"  We kept that positive vibe flowing.   Dave had done this run several years ago in a kayak.   I trusted him, and he trusted me.   I reassured Gary that we were in this together as I could sense some foreboding on his part.

Off we went to the put-in.   On the way, the following discourse occurred: "So Dave, what was Mokelumne Falls like?"  To which Dave replied "Well, it seems to me that we didn't even do Mokelumne Falls.   That is below the take out."  "Really?" I thought.   "On the contrary, It seems to me that the write-up on this run said different," said I.   But why argue; Dave had already run it, I trusted him, after all, he has a uniform, a badge, and a government truck.   And we always hope for the best -- such is our outlook on life.   "You know there is a diversion dam at the end of this run." I offered.   "Yeah, and we take out just above it." replied Dave.   "So Mokelumne falls is below the diversion damn?" I asked.   "I think maybe." said Dave.   "At least that is what I remember."  Hmm.   OK.   I didn't worry too much as I knew that once were got to the gorge we were going to be proceeding with caution anyway.   And either Dave will be right, or the guidebook and I will: the river shall educate.

At the put-in the river looked beautiful, inviting, pristine, with fresh ozone emanating from its bubbling depths.   Everything continued to come together as planned.   We ate a quick lunch and rigged the boats.   "Don we now our gay rafting apparel, and launch?" I asked.   "Why yes indeed" sayeth Dave.   Dave and I led the way, with Gary following in his oar boat.   Around the first bend the excitement began in earnest, with nearly continuous class IV rapids, which lasted for several miles.   Given the continuous rapids, the strong, pushy flow, the huge waves interspersed with big holes, there is no doubt that parts of this upper 2 mile section borders on class IV+.

In the first two miles we were making constant moves, crashing through breaking waves.   Fun was being had by all.   There were a few narrow misses.   One hole threw Dave and me right out of the boat.   As I floated up I saw my paddle two yards away and I grabbed it.   With my "red badge of courage" safely in hand I went for the boat and got right back in.   "Good job keeping your paddle!" exclaimed Dave.   "Oh hell yes I have my paddle! did you keep yours?"  "Rightchere." said Dave, lifting it up with a grin.   Dave and I have this thing about hanging onto your paddle when you get flushed, left over from our macho guide school days.   The truth is that I never can hold onto that damn thing.   When my head goes underwater my hands flail.   Hanging onto a paddle in those circumstances is just plain contrary to all of my survival instincts.   The downside is that you look stupid when you get back in the boat with no paddle.   But I am used to looking stupid.

But on this occasion, I was one of the few, the chosen, and with paddle in hand, I got back in the boat.   We are a good team, Dave and I, and our confidence grew.   Soon, the action became less intense and the river slowed to nearly continuous class III.   There were several miles of Class III rapids at this flow.   However, as we made more and more miles, it seemed that rapids were gradually growing in difficulty.   Contrary to low water reports, there was no boring Class II or III water.   Rather, it seemed like continuous gradient, moving water.   Two thirds of the way through this slower section we were back in definite Class IV territory.   It was pure, absolute fun.

"The Selway River in Idaho has nothing on this stretch of river." I offered.   "I agree" said Dave, "it reminds me of Moose Creek, (a large tributary of the Selway)."  At 3400 cfs things were cranking along through this 9 mile section of what was supposed to be slower water.   At the end of it there was no let up; the river flowed like a freight train, and we were making good time.   Soon, we were on the lookout for the gorge, because we knew that there would be two miles with a few class V drops.   But we continued to mis-identify the beginning of the gorge because things had progressed in difficulty to the point where it became "no-shit-sherlock boating" - my phrase, which means, you better put an oar in the water and give yourself a 51% chance of making something good happen.

"Is this the beginning of the gorge?" we asked.   The walls weren't that high, but things had been mighty consequential for awhile with sets of large, sticky holes and exploding waves.   The river was knocking us left and right.   We were on our toes, eddying out where feasible.   Unbeknownst to us, Gary had come out of his boat once, and gotten back in without mishap.   To my delight, Gary was doing well in his boat, coming through all the nasty drops intact.   Here and there I had seen him stick a few times, get surfed, and do what was necessary to escape carnage.   The case was the same for Dave and me; in the last few miles we had to be together or else.   "You guys are doing great!" Gary yelled as he approached us.   "No, you are man!"  Such was the self-congratulatory banter on the river that day.   But as the walls steepened, the river steepened, and there could no longer be any doubt about it.   We were in a gorge and things were getting serious.   This was now survival boating.   Let us now proceed with caution and scout.

We pulled over to scout the first set.   It was a long moderate bend to the right with a dropping straightaway.   Problem was, Gary was on the other side of the river, and there was little opportunity for him to cross over to scout with us.   At this spot the river drowned any verbal communication.   This was a true class V rapid, as there were three large drops in a row, each with a boat flipping hole, over a stretch of 250 yards, culminating in the third drop which was the largest river-wide hole of the three.   There was a little spot in the middle of the hole that looked like the wake just behind a Mercury engine pushing a speedboat, where maybe, just maybe, you could get a boost from the little jet, and sneak through.   We discoursed, gathered courage, and agreed to run the first two drops on the right, skirting the worst of the first two holes, and then move to the center and punch over the Mercury spout with a full head of steam.

Just then, Gary, on Dave's directive, decides to ferry across the river.   His ferry fails, the current has him, and he now has inadvertently taken the lead through the rapids, coming across the river from the other side.   We had no choice but to follow, closely, for safety.   Pure adrenaline coursed though our veins.   The first two drops went well, which is to say we made them.   Then, to our horror, Gary's boat went to the right side of the third large hole, sideways and over, and it wasn't going any further.   We saw that tell-tale bottom of his boat quivering in the grips of a massive hole, and felt that awful feeling of dread as we headed over the top of it.   This is going to be nasty.   Struggling to move left, we executed a right turn, dropped in, and the next thing I remember was my feet coming free of the footcups amidst gushing white bubbles and the sound of an angry underwater river.   I felt the lower current grab and pull me free of the hole, for which I was grateful.   I then came face to face for a split second with a brown rock (the bottom?) and was yanked back and upward into the white unknown.   The water was so aerated that there was no flotation.   I made an internal gulp, and adjusted my mind for the discomfort of a long underwater swim.   Swim? - well hell.   My body was a turd which had been flushed by supernatural forces, and which now could not make up its mind whether to float or sink.   As the seconds passed I became a fetus in amniotic fluid.   Then I came up with my eyes at water level, with no chance to breathe, and sunk into the next wave.   Finally, air at last.   Bubbly air, which is better than no air.   Another 50 yards was the next set of rapids, and there, fifteen feet ahead of me was my paddle.   The urge came upon me: "Get your paddle Reid!   Don't be a dork!"  Ignoring the diminishing distance, I swam for my paddle.   Gripping same, I turned back to see Dave, paddle in hand, who had already made it to the shore on river left.   Oh how I envied him his shoredom.   "Swim for your life" Dave yelled.   And I did.   I used that panic energy and swam.   "Swim for your life" -- that became my mantra.   As river left approached the water was moving swiftly and everywhere were willows, and small logs, and large sticks, and all kinds of crap that I could get stuck in.   But I made it, the river coughing me up on a rock while I coughed river out of my lungs.

Dave was upriver on river left.   As soon as I pulled myself out of water I heard him yell "Reid, when our boat comes free we have to swim to it!"  Just then the boat came free.   Dave jumped in to meet it.   But I didn't.   There was just no way.   I was still too spun.   I needed to breathe for awhile.   I watched in amazement as Dave climbed up and onto, and spread out over the small upturned boat.   In this pathetic position the current propelled him inexorably toward the next rapid.   Then, to my utter amazement, he flipped the boat over mid stream, and pulled himself in it.   That Dave is a stud, I thought to myself, he deserves his uniform and badge and even his government truck, and I should have swum out there with him, as he would have done for me.   Dave dropped out of sight with his one paddle, his one raft, his one butt stretched out and leaning over the bough, paddling frantically.   I'm sorry Dave.   I would have liked to have swum to you, but I just couldn't.   Overcome with guilt, I tried to run after him, but there was no running on this riverbank.   So I hurriedly walked after Dave, on rubber legs, for 150 yards until the sides of the gorge became impassible at waterline.   The river became another long, continuous, gnarly class IV+ rapid.   No Dave to be seen.

I turned around and headed back to see what became of Gary.   When I got back to him he was across on river right, 50 yards down from his boat, holding one oar.   His boat, all 13 feet of it, was still recirculating in the hole.   It had now been in that hole for at least 10 minutes.   Each time it looked like it would break free it would hesitate and slide right back in.   Then, to my astonishment, that boat all but disappeared underwater.   Then it bubbled back up and began the whole process all over again.   Finally the river had had its fun and it released that boat like a bored mountain lion might release a skimpy little wood duck.   The raft floated upside down to river left; it looked confused.   It was preceded by a loose oar.   My choices were plain: it was either save the boat or save the oar, and I elected to save the boat.   I dove in, grabbed a D-ring, and pulled it to shore.   Then I struggled like hell to flip it over.   All of the gear save the frame had been stripped clean.

I sat down for several minutes contemplating the mess we were in, and what I might do about it.   Gary announced that he was done rafting and began walking down on river right.   His side of the gorge was less steep and seemed more amenable to a hike out.   But I was on river left, the steep side.   And I needed to find Dave.   So, "think like Dave," I thought to myself.   What would Dave do if the situation were reversed?   An internal voice replied: "Dave would have dove back in the water and helped Dave flip the boat and paddle the next rapid, and you didn't do that, you chickenshit bastard.   So now you are here and Dave is god knows where.   So dammit, go find Dave."  I climbed straight up the sides of the gorge, higher and higher, through jungles of poison oak.   Presently I came across a crude deer trail which traversed the steep hillside and then disappeared, over and up a log, through more poison oak.   The deer trail reappeared here and there.   I went 600 yards up, down and across ravines, still more mangroves of poison oak and bay, through spider webs and dead branches, and gained altitude over the large rock buttress which came down steeply and formed the impassible bank of river left.   Then I made my way down.   Poison oak everywhere.   I prayed for mercy and understanding to the god of poison oak.   Please forgive me thy beautiful shrub, for I do not tread on thee lightly.

Coming down I spied Gary on river right sitting on a rock with his oar.   "Where is Dave?   Do you see Dave?"  He was pointing at something but I could not see what.   Gary did not understand my sign language, nor I his.   I got down to the river, gathered some more courage, and "swam for my life" to the other side of the river, floating right up to Gary, who pulled me out.   Then I looked directly across the river and there was my little boat, turned upright, and tied up.   Dave had gone for me, and I for Dave, and we passed each other amidst the jungles of poison oak.   And now I had to swim back across that river and go back the way I came.   Damn!   So I went upriver, dove in, and swam for my life for the other side again.   On the way back to Gary's boat I blew my whistle every 10 seconds until I heard Dave's whistle in reply.   He was at Gary's boat.   He was OK.   He complimented me on thinking to use the whistle.   "That's what it is for, and I should have remembered to use mine."  Do you have your paddle?" I asked.   "Rightchere" said Dave, "along with throwbag."

Gary's boat had no oars.   Dave and I rigged the frame back preparatory for an R-2 trip down to my boat, through the second three-drop staircase rapid.   This rapid was solid class IV+, holes here and there, culminating in an angry, but skirtable reversal at the bottom.   Dave had already done it solo.   I took comfort in that.   We took the inside edge, stayed left, and avoided catastrophe.   R-2ing that 13 foot boat took a lot of energy.

We survived to arrive at my little boat and the decision was made to deflate it, strap it in Gary's boat, cross the river, pick up Gary, and continue.   That took time.   We then crossed the river where I had swam twice, and picked up Gary.   Gary was spent.   "This Class V boating is too much for me," he volunteered.   He had not the energy to scout the next rapid, so Dave and I did.   The third three-drop staircase.   Definitely class IV+, maybe V.   Three large drops.   We started right, ran the first two drops, and then crossed over to river left and scooched by the last drop.   With great effort we made it, and managed to eddy out on river left, exhausted.

"But what is this up ahead?   What the hell is that?"  "That, my friend, is Mokelumne Falls at 3400 cfs!"  "I knew you were full of shit Dave, I just didn't tell you."  Dave readily admitted error.   "Well, I guess we did run than rapid, but at considerably lower water."  Things had changed.   We walked as far down river left as we could go, and what we saw amazed us.   This was by far the most god awful rapid.   Five hundred yards of churning whitewater.   Three distinct drops.   Three distinct boat eating holes, the last of which was river wide and would be sure to flip anything that came its way, if the first two did not.   And if one of those first holes did, you would take the nastiest swim of your life.   You would have to be prepared to swim 400 yards, without breathing, through pure white foaming water, and through Mokelumne Falls.   "I don't want to do that" said Gary.   "I don't either." said me.   And down there somewhere is a diversion dam which we could not see due to the flailing waters.   There is a sign across the river.   "That's the take-out" said Dave.   It was about 700 yards away.   But what are we to do?   We cannot line a raft on river left, nor probably on river right.   The river goes right up to the walls and there is no purchase on which to stand.   What are our other options?   "We could ghost boat them through," suggested Dave.   "You mean launch them unmanned through that maelstrom?"  I asked.   "That ain't right."  Finally the decision was agreed on.   We will stow the boats and walk out, coming back later at lower water to finish the run.   I hear tell that this has occurred to other people who find themselves in situations like this.

So, we carried my boat, rolled up, thirty yards up under a tree, amidst the poison oak, and covered it with sticks and logs.   Then we deflated Gary's boat, hid the pump nearby, and started walking.   Up and up through the poison oak, over and over through the slippery jungle.   Way up high now we looked down on Mokelumne Falls, that last drop.   It looked just as bad from high up.   Once past the rapid we made our way down to the river.   The sign said something to the effect of "Get your ass out of the river now or you are going to die in a diversion dam downstream".   But we had to cross.   We stood hesitantly at rivers edge until Gary led the way.   Gary dove in, I dove, then Dave dove.   We swam like hell, and arrived on the opposite shore whereupon we stumbled down the nice little path to the PG&E station.   There a PG&E employee arrived to check on things and asked us what happened.   "The river ate our lunch, and we just walked through 2 miles of poison oak."  I said.   Could we beg some soap from you.   He gave us a jar of dial soap from the bathroom and directed us to a hose to wash off the Rhus Toxicondendron.   We stripped and took turns washing ourselves.   We were naked, wet, cold, with bashed shins, dispossessed of our boats, paddles, oars, and pump.   We were ecstatically happy.   Gary's wife was at the put in.   We told her we would be back by 5:00 pm.   We arrived at 10:30.

Over the next several days a ring of large blistering poison oak appeared on each of my ankles, as though I had been shackled with red hot irons.   The oily poison had run down my wetsuit and collected in my socks, and stopped there by my river shoes.   I neglected to wear neoprene socks, and I was now going to pay for that oversight.   A little duct tape around the ankles would have prevented it also.   Eight days later, with bandaged, oozing ankles, we returned to retrieve my boat and Gary's.   I was joined by John Duncan of Duncan's Automotive.   John fixes my Bronco for me; he loves a good adventure, and he wanted to see just exactly what kind of a mess I had gotten myself into.   The river had fallen to 800 cfs during a cold spell, but was now back up to 2500 cfs.   I dropped off Dave and Kyle Ehrkilla who kayaked down from the put in, and drove to the take out.   Then, taking every conceivable poison oak precaution, John and I hiked up on river right until we were across the river from where our boats were.   There was poison oak everywhere on this side as well.   It was unavoidable.   Scouting that last rapid from river right, I could see that there is now a doable line if one were to bounce off river right and tuck in wherever feasible.   This line wasn't there at 3400 cfs.   At 2500 cfs one might even slip by Mokelumne Falls, and if not, that maw can be easily lined.   Dave and Kyle had to inflate the 13 foot raft, and then stow my 10 foot raft and each of their kayaks on the 13 footer.   Then, they had to cross the river R-2ing that heavy mess.   We had a line across the river for added safety in case their ferry failed.   It did not.   We then lined that cargo vessel through the last rapid, through the diversion dam on river right, and took out just underneath the power station.   This made the take-out a breeze.   We washed with Technu and headed to dinner.   What a wonderful feeling to get my little boat back, rolled up in the garage, awaiting the next adventure.

This story is copyright 2005 by Reid Kingsbury.