Since the advent of adventure whitewater kayaking, California has been a world-renowned destination. Unlike the West Coast of New Zealand where many of our rivers are rain dependent, California is reliant on a good snow pack.
In 2011 I was fortunate to spend 3 months paddling the majority of the classic High sierra runs in a year with a record 250% snow pack. In the 5 years since that time, Cali has experienced a state of drought with 20% snowpacks and many of the reservoirs drying up completely. “Back in 11” has become a term fondly thrown around as many of Cali’s top rivers have not been at a paddle-able flow since. That was until this year where a solid snowpack has brought life back to the high sierra rivers. So after plans fell through for an expedition to Madagascar – Cali became the obvious choice – I was heading back to the promised land!
Blessed with an abundance of easily accessible rivers, an amazing summer climate, strong paddling community and more recently the growing US economy it is no wonder why California has remained on everyone’s paddling hit list. California covers all genres of whitewater from the super classic class III-IV sections of the South Fork of the American, the stout class V single days trips such as Big Kimshew, Yuba Gap and East Kaweah but it is the ‘High-Sierra MultiDay’ trips that distinguish California from any other paddling destination in the world.
Planning a paddling trip to California is simple, purchase a ticket to San Francisco, pack your paddling and camping gear and go. When applying through the “Visa waiver programme” you have up to three months to explore and experience one of the most amazing paddling destinations on the globe.
The truly local kayaking community of California is spread right across the state itself, though much of it is centered along Highway 80, in Sacramento, Auburn and Truckee. These towns are central to all the classic kayaking runs and hot-spots but also offer employment opportunities away from the river.
It doesn’t matter what paddling community you become apart of, logistics in California are pretty simple. Due to the snowmelt nature of California’s rivers there is a variable ‘order’ in which different sections of rivers come into manageable paddling flows. After consulting the online flow charts at www.dreamflows.com, rally a crew and go. For most runs you will need to set a shuttle, which is often long and confusing but with resources such as ‘The Bible’ (The Best Whitewater in California, by Lars Holbeck & Chuck Stanley) and darinmcquoid.com you can locate take-outs and put-ins easily. With daily blue skies, classic whitewater and temperatures between 24-30 degrees everyday it is no wonder why the High-Sierra multi-day runs have the reputation they do.
California has numerous such multi-day kayaking trips, such as the South Merced, Royal Gorge, Dinkey Creek, Fantasy Falls, Upper Cherry, Devils Post-Pile, Middle Kings and more. These runs range from 2-5 days and require a bit more planning than a single-day kayaking trip. In 2011 I was lucky enough to “tick off” all the high Sierra classics. But with a shortened travel window this time I had to be content with a trip down South Merced, Royal Gorge, Fantasy Falls and a couple of laps on Dinkey creek.
This year I spent the majority of my time paddling with young Californian chargers Carson Lindsay, Johny Chase and Evan Moore. Despite many of the kayaking runs being in their own backyards this would be the year they would be able to stop watching others’ footage from 2011 and experience these amazing rivers for themselves.
The first multi-day we were able to paddle was the spectacular Royal Gorge. Expectations are always running high when preparing for any big mission. This said a three day trip down California’s classic “Royal Gorge” run however is one that raises the bar that little bit higher. Unlike most class V creeks, where the whitewater provides the first rush, on a Royal Gorge trip the adrenalin is pumping as soon as you step out of the car. The reason for this is due to access issues and hostile land owners who have previously prevented teams putting on this class V-V+ run.
Luckily we were able to enlist the services of Carson’s father who lives in nearby Truckee who could drive us to the put in and distract the landowners for long enough to allow us to get on the river and make a quick getaway. Known for its five big waterfalls, this 3 day run often intimidates people as it is definitely a ‘go big or go home’ style of run. That being said, there is still plenty of quality ‘in-between’ whitewater and spectacular wilderness camping on offer. In my opinion the Royal gorge is one of the most picturesque rivers in the world and any trip where safe passage is granted will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
After this is Dinkey Creek, which is a kayakers theme park! Granite slides and waterfalls, all pool-drop and open to set safety and recover from carnage means this run is able to be experienced by many crews that are only just starting to enter the class 5 realm.
‘Fantasy Falls’ section of the North Fork Mokelumne River is exactly that, and probably some of the hardest and most amazing whitewater on offer in California, or the world for that matter. Huge, complex, technical, intimidating rapids and waterfalls with classic riverside “flintstones” style camping make Fantasy a run that will give kayakers wet dreams. This season I was also lucky enough to venture down to Kernville – The hometown of Evan and Johny. Despite not normally featuring on a kayakers radar this year high water levels had pushed the Kern into the spotlight and these boys were eager to show me what their backyard had to offer! After 5 days of jaw dropping moments completing multiple runs of this thundering monster I will be back… The Kern definitely delivered.
California as a paddling destination really has it all. San Francisco and Los Angeles are two major airports in terms of world travel, and therefore flights are affordable and getting a kayak there is usually no problem. The Cali paddling community is unreal, with the true locals, Southeastern invaders and international community all paddling consistently throughout the calendar year. All this is set in a spectacular ‘Granite Wonderland’ that sees more sunshine than I thought possible. If you haven’t been yet, put it on your bucket list and get there…I can assure you, you wont be disappointed.
ABOVE: Edward Muggeridge, Heath 1 , Royal Gorge RIGHT: The boys before camp, Fantasy Falls
PREVIOUS PAGE: Evan Moore, Big Boys Pants, Fantasy falls ABOVE: Camping on Dinkey creek RIGHT: Nourea Newman,Rattlesnake falls, Royal Gorge