Tuesday, June 06, 2006
greetings friends of sagehen creek and extreme sportspeople,
i have just returned from what appears to be, (until declared otherwise), the successful first descent of the wild and scenic sagehen creek, 12 miles north of truckee california. previously thought unrunnable, this unique river has finally been tamed.
today i found myself, for the thousandth time, eyeballing the creek as it flowed behind my non-ramshackle cabin in the heart of the field station. but today was different, for you see, out of the other eye i noticed that i had my kayak right here in town, atop my crappy car. it seemed destiny was taunting me...it was now or never, or later...i went for it.
i put in at ARC headquarters, leo's lounge, much to the disbelief of at least one local scientist. the first 1/8 mile was treacherous...one fallen log after another, making it in fact impossible to even put in. i walked this section, making sure to memorize the lines for any future high-water descents. finally as i arrived just upstream of upper camp, i was able to set sail, so to speak, and commence the on-water portion of my journey.
a few must-make eddies and log-portages later the first major obstacle of the day came into view, "fish-house falls". a post-modern concrete and steel monster spanning the width of the entire river, i had but three choices. left, middle, or center. surprisingly, there was a small crowd of locals partying atop the structure, and it was only my will to impress that kept me in my boat for this one. i opted for the left channel, and, ducking under the steel latticework, hit the middle of the flume at breakneck speed and made the 18 inch drop into a frothing 4 inch wave which nearly stopped me dead in my tracks. the crowd went bananas.
i continued on around the bend, negotiating the 3 foot wide riverbed using a variety of techniques, including grass-pulling, log-limbo, and sheer determination. soon i came upon a horizon line, with a fine mist of foam arising from beyond. this was "the fesus freefall". just upstream of the fesus freefall was the gauging station, where i read the level to be an astonishing 2.60, a flow that had always been considered both too high and too low to be runnable. making a mental note of the level, i took a few furious strokes to get up some speed and launched myself over the 22 inch cataract. i made it, and let out a holler of joy to wake the sleeping scientists just a few hundred yards away.
thinking i had conquered the worst of the rapids i might face on this day, i floated along happily for the next 200 feet, until i came around a snag-lined bend to a shocking sight. the water slammed into a grass lined wall, folding in on itself and banking left into a 3 inch high v-wave which led directly into a 2 foot wide rock that would have been a guaranteed wrap, had i been in a 3 foot long raft. luckily i wasn't, so i kept going, and scraping both bank and rock, i barely made it through and into the calm 1 foot deep pool below. this rapid i would christen "gurecki's nightmare".
knowing that i had limited daylight, i continued to forge ahead, stopping only several dozen times to portage logs, hoist myself over grassy dead-ends, and wash the spiders from my hair. for several quarter miles i fought my way through upper, middle, and lower "insane beaver rapids". thankfully, i eventually made it to "comstock corner" where to my delight i recognized the perfectly level hand cut stumps that had no doubt been left behind by some gold rush era boaters. it was good to see the signs of an older generation's wisdom...a wisdom which properly cleared the river of these kayak-halting fallen trees.
the picnic didn't last too long however. nearing the final 1/2 mile i was once again pummeled by 2 foot wide twisting turning rapids, including "the moab mosh-pit", "toe bone", "rock me amadeus", "black rabbit disaster", and "derelicte". and the worst was still to come. but first i would have to squeeze through the 12 foot wide, 6 foot high "tunnel of love", a psychedelic spiraling steel cylinder laid directly in the river's path. after emerging unscathed i was faced with still more portages, all while the sun continued to disappear behind carpenter ridge, and i grew more nervous that my adventure might not reach it's conclusion before darkness fell. this creek never let up!
soon i heard the occaisional hum of vehicles on highway 89 and i knew i'd make it. just one more heart-stopping man-made bone-crusher between me and freedom..."the double barrell b.b. gun". when i saw it, i was speechless. two 4 foot by 4 foot squares of concrete disappearing under a highway where 20 ton 18 wheelers rolled overhead every 15 minutes or so...with just enough current to ensure that, if lucky, i might make it to the light at the end of the tunnel. using my best gondolier style i pole vaulted myself over the dual fallen logs which guarded the entrance to the b.b. gun, and smoothly slid into the right barrell, like a bullet into the chamber. just as i was about to congratulate myself for making it to the end, my reverie was interrupted by the nowhere near deafening flutter of 8-12 rabies-crazed cliff swallows swarming around my head. i thanked my lucky stars that i was wearing my helmet, and seconds later i emerged victorious on the east side of highway 89 where my battery depleted car awaited me.
after hailing the 4th or 5th passerby to give my chariot the jump-start it so desperately desired, i dipped into the creek for a final joyous rinsing off of spiders, mosquitos, mud and branches, and headed home where i was greeted by a mob of celebrants so elated they had already commenced their sleeping in my honor. it was truly a voyage to remember and i would heartily recommend it to anyone who loves to portage.
RUN AT A GLANCE
Run: Upper Middle Sagehen Creek
Put In: Leo's Lounge
Take Out: Highway 89
Length: 2.5 miles
Avg. Gradient: 38 inches/mile
Difficulty: Class III (with class V on-river bushwacking)
Number of Rapids: 45
Number of Portages: 117
-Colin Carpenter, Sagehen Creek Field Station ARC Program Instructor