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North Fork Willow Creek - An Adventure

Written by Paul Martzen

On Sunday Apr 24, 2005, I had a Big Adventure, in both the positive and negative sense.

It was intended to be a great day of kayaking on the NF Willow Creek (Madera County), a classic small steep creek just south of Yosemite.   I was in on the 2nd descent several years ago, but had only talked about it since.   This year for the first time in several years NF Willow had dependable flows in the boatable range.   Dan Hogg and Daniel Lundberg believed my frequent recommendations and wanted to paddle it.   They both had Sunday available.

However Dan had committed himself to helping Todd Smilanich load a moving van at his house in Yosemite Lakes Park.   Todd was moving to Idaho and leaving Sunday evening.   Dan expected to be finished by 2 or 3 PM.   Hmmmm.

In the interests of being nice and perhaps speeding up the process, Daniel and I also drove up to help.   But speeding up the process is a relative thing.   We were a help, so instead of the moving van being loaded by say 6 or 8 PM, we had it loaded at 3:30 PM.

Finally!   Off the three of us went to Bass Lake and on up Beasore Rd. to Chilkoot Campground.   Changed into paddling clothes, transfered boats and headed the 4 miles to Grey Mt. Campground and NF Willow Creek.

I thought we put in around 4 PM, but the picture I took of Dan and Daniel by the campground sign with snow in the background says, "5:01 PM".   You get some sense about where this is going?   Oh, the creek is about 300 feet per mile, so we are looking at say, 900 to 1000 feet of drop over the 3 mile run.   But do we worry?

Speaking of snow at the put-in, naturally means that the water is very cold.   Dan and I both wear gloves, but Daniel's hands are painfully cold.   I am pleased that I have nice thick gloves and that I am also trying out a new neoprene cap.   The cap really helps keep my head warm, but it slowly keeps creeping over my eyes.   Probably cause my helmet is a bit loose.   I have a hard time pulling the cap back into place wearing my thick gloves.

The flow was about 75 cfs.   Scratchy in the shallows, but a perfect level for the big stuff and for most everything else.   We have a great time.   The first section of bedrock slides and ledges are bigger and harder to see than I remembered, but we boat scout anyway.   Then there is a ways of mellow meandering to the big falls.   I have pictures of Dan Hogg running the falls at 5:37 PM.   Dan has a good run, but his boat makes a huge smacking sound when it hits the ledge 1/3 of the way down the final falls.   Daniel and I had already portaged so it had no influence on our decision.

The run is amazing and beautiful!   Definitely more serious than Brush Creek at the Kern.   We do a bunch of tight twisty steep slaloms and a bit of mellow scratching along in shallows between several amazing and very big slides and flumes.   We do portage logs in several spots and sneak around other logs.

It was a log and my sneaky tendency that about killed me.   Well, not really the log itself, but something unexpected after I screwed up with a log.   There was a log jam and we were about to portage when I thought I saw a sneak line.   I followed a shallow scrape over the right end of the logs into a clean eddy 4 feet below.   This put me below the main log jam, but there was another log running parallel to the channel blocking my route back out into the main channel.   I could have considered portaging from there, but there was some space underneath this last log.   I thought I could maybe fit, but the current was awkward right under the log, pushing to the downstream end of the log rather than perpendicular to it.   I tried going under anyway, stuck, lost any momentum and had to struggle my way under.   I made it, but not before the current pushed my upstream edge under.   I know I am in trouble and I hang onto the logs as best I can trying to finish getting out from under the main log and get my boat back up level.   My paddle of course has slipped down into the water between my boat and the log jam.   It is very tiring, trying to hold on against the current and wondering how to grab my paddle before it goes downstream without me.   The smart thing to do at this point is to hang on and scream at Dan and Daniel to come save my rear.

Instead, I grab for the paddle, and get it as I roll upside down.   The paddle is total screw ball in my grip, but I flail off a roll attempt and fail.   I try to set up again, but I am not calm.   I smack some rocks and try rolling off the rocks and almost might have made it but the current is pretty strong and I get dragged over them, losing the paddle in the process.   I go for the grab loop to bail out.   I can't feel it.   I am wearing thick gloves cause the water is really cold, and I can't feel a thing up there.   Now I am really afraid.   I can't see a thing either.   It is late and the water is dark, but maybe the cap is over my eyes as well.   I push against the kayak, but the skirt is too strong.   I can't get out.   Thank God, I am dragging over rocks again and I am clutching at them, hoping to go over one shallow enough to stop myself and roll up.   I catch one and stop, using all of my energy.   The rock is too deep for me to roll up, but I can hang on with both arms and by extending them, I can actually raise the boat and my head up enough to breath.   Barely.   I am gasping and my mouth is right at water level.   The effort is incredible.   It takes everything I have to keep my head up a little and hang onto the rock.   The current is relentless and drains my energy quickly.   I want to try for the grab loop again, hoping that I can feel it, but I know that I can not hang on to the rock with only one hand.   I am praying, "Get to me guys.   Get to me.   Get to me, please!"   (Dan is sprinting downstream over a nasty obstacle course of rocks and logs.)

I lose my grip and I am moving downstream again.   I reach for the grab loop.   Nothing, nothing, nothing!   I push against the cockpit with all of my remaining might, pushing out with my hips, trying to force my knees out to break the sprayskirt seal.   Nothing works and I don't have much more in me.   I wash over more rocks.   "Thank you God that it is shallow."   I feel them washing past underneath me.   Then one brushes my chest and I clutch it.   I stop.   I can raise up again and breath a little.   I am so tired.   I hope I can hold on.   I don't know what is downstream.   I know I won't live if I keep going.   I hear Dan calling to me.   It gives me hope.   I will hang on as long as I can.   I hope I am not in the middle or on the other side from him.   I hope he can reach me.   I keep hearing him and I hang on.   I feel him grab the boat and start moving it.   My cap is over my eyes and I can't see anything.   Dan slowly rolls me over.   It feels like a great effort.   I hope he can hold on to me against the current.   I lay on the back deck, my arms laying out on either side.   I can not help at all, but between gasps I plead with him to pull the sprayskirt.   He tries but he can't in the awkward position.   Dan says there is an eddy that he can get me into.   I can't see, but I feel the movement while I breath, short little gasping breaths.   I feel myself pulled up onto shore.   I am so tired that I can not move.   I can't help at all.

Pretty soon I hear Daniel.   They pull the cap off of my eyes, but I just close them, too tired to look at anything.   I lie where they pulled me up, on my back in the boat, arms out on either side.   After a while I want to sit up and get out of the boat, but I can't.   They sit me up and I sit for awhile, breathing and talking a little.   We see my paddle in an eddy 30 feet upstream and Daniel gets it.   Eventually, I want to get out of the boat, but I can't.   I keep resting, then ask Daniel for help.   He pulls me up enough that I can sit on the back deck and pull my legs out.   I rest that way for another while and then they helped me to my feet.   I stagger to a comfortable looking layer of driftwood, where I lay back down and go to sleep.

When I came to, Dan and Daniel were discussing whether to hike out.   It would have been the smart thing to do, but I was suffering from oxygen deprivation, so I don't know why they were asking me!   Something about being the expert kayaker, I guess.

We decided to continue a ways.   Silly.   I portaged a short distance, then got back in my boat and paddled.   We came to another big drop and all portaged.   My energy was coming back.   I scouted the first two drops after the portage and directed both Dan and Daniel into poor lines.   I portaged.   We boated a short ways further to another scout or portage, when it became obvious even to us that the light was going away.   It was time to hike up to the road.   We had just wanted to make it harder on ourselves by dropping another 60 feet in elevation and finding the steepest hill to climb up.

The first 100 feet or so up the hill was very steep dirt with brush, leafless thankfully but thick in spots.   Dan and I roped our boats up this section, while Daniel used a long sling to pull his up short distances.   Above that the slope eased somewhat and we started carrying the boats.   The light was almost gone though and we quickly made a decision to leave the boats tied to a tree and hike up without them.   That was a wise move.   Also a wise move by Dan to bring a flashlight.   It was a wise move to bring Dan, as he had matches, stove and bivvy sack as well as first aid kit.   We headed up the hill, staying on a semi-distinct shoulder or ridge.   There was enough starlight to sort of make our way with Dan's flashlight showing the awkward spots.   The route was fairly open for the most part, but with a lot of downed logs and branches.   We started off with Dan in the middle, Daniel in the lead and me bringing up the rear.   We made steady progress as the terrain was not difficult.   It was still uphill and tiring though.

We rested once on a log and found an orange newt laying next to us.   It was a nice pleasure looking him over.   After the rest, Daniel and I took the lead with Dan and the flashlight in the rear.   I liked depending on my night vision and using the flashlight only for certain decision spots.   We hit the road in about 25 minutes from the time we left the boats.   Of course it probably took us 30 minutes at least to get the boats up the first 100 feet.

Once at the road we walked 1.1 miles back to Dan's truck and warmth.   We were hot on the hike up the hill, but we steadily cooled off while hiking the road.   There was no wind, but movement of cold air.   We were all getting cold by the time we reached the car around 9:30 PM.   That was much better than the midnight I was expecting.

We went back up and got the boats Monday afternoon/evening.   Ten minute hike down the hill to find the boats.   Thirty five minutes back up the hill with the boats to the car.   We were panting though.   My arms and shoulders were really sore for days from my few minutes of underwater panic.


  1. Boat with good partners.   Dan saved my life, no doubt.
  2. When you see someone in trouble, get moving on it immediately.   Don't wait for them to ask for help.   They might not be that bright and you may not have that much time.
  3. Make sure you can pull your sprayskirt underwater with gloves in a panic.   I will add stuff to my grab loop so it is unmistakable to find.   Probably an additional loop of stiff cord strung through a small whiffle ball.   I may also move or add a grab-loop just to the side where it is much easier to pull the sprayskirt off.   Test out your sprayskirt to see if you can break the seal with your knees or hips.
  4. For me it is clear that my underwater composure has deteriorated much faster than my paddling skill.   My composure and rolling ability is no longer sufficient to deal with some of the rivers that I still like to boat or with some of the situations that I still find myself in.   I either have to practice to regain that composure or continue backing off to safer rivers.
  5. Don't start down NF Willow Creek at 5 in the evening.   It may only be 3 miles, but it is an all day affair, with lots of scouting and portaging.   It took us 2 or 3 hours to go only one mile.
  6. Keep a positive attitude.   Despite my and our hardship, we really enjoyed the canyon, the company and even the hiking.
This story is copyright 2005 by Paul Martzen.