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Trip Report: Middle Fork of the Feather

Tom from Clavey did a 3 day run on the Middle Feather. This is a recap of the trip written by Robyn Suddeth. For more photos of the trip go to Clavey’s Photo Gallery.

I had already made other plans for the weekend.My bags were packed and carpool was set for a beginner’s kayaking school on the Kern River, and I was even getting a great deal on the class (i.e. free).But when Scott A called up and said, “We’re trying to put together a Middle Feather trip for this weekend… you in?”I really only hesitated about a minute before replying, “100 Percent, I’m definitely in.”

I had been curious about the Middle Feather for a long time.It’s hard not to be when Holbeck and Stanley describe it as the “Best Multi-day Wilderness Run in California” and “one of the most beautiful rivers in California”, and rumor on the street is it’s “as hard as Cherry Creek, and totally committing.”For me, that last statement means: “An adventure!”My mom still asks me, whenever I go on a trip like this, why I am at all inclined to think they are fun.I tell her: “It makes life more interesting.” Truthfully, I think these kinds of trips bring out the best in a lot of us.

Either way, I was very, very excited.By Friday morning, we had a fantastic rag-tag group of eleven people – the best of the skilled, brave, and/or crazy – committed and meeting in Chico that night.

The dinner and breakfast in Chico before the trip were veritable feasts – we knew we were going to have to pack pretty light.Luckily we had a shuttle set up for us, so all we had to do after breakfast was load up Tom’s Clavey van and Scott’s truck, and get ourselves to put-in.

Like a lot of these committing Class V runs seem to do, the Middle Feather flowed wide and calm for the first few miles downstream of put-in, inducing a state of lackadaisical relaxation before shocking us right back into alert attention.The first Class V we got to was a long, fast-moving wave train that led directly into one of the more horrific looking boulder jumbles I’ve ever seen.There was a potential, very small airplane-turn line through there, but we decided instead to purposefully eddy out on the left at the bottom of the wave train, hump our boat over a few inconvenient rocks, and run a much kinder drop on the left side below the eddy.

The rest of the day had some big rapids in store for us, and as a paddler in the lead boat we caught a fair share of eddies that would have much better suited a small kayak, but nothing “as hard as Cherry Creek” had appeared quite yet.One of the last rapids of the day caught all of us by surprise; after the river seemed to mellow out and leave its first canyon, a sharp, riffled bend led into an abrupt horizon line.Adam, Kevin and I managed to catch a small eddy on the right and Kevin and I grasped on to the willows for dear life as Adam climbed out to scout, but the next two rafts came barreling down fairly quickly, and had to run based on Adam’s shouts and hand signals from shore.Luckily Adam, Scott and Jordan (the guides) all seemed adept at understanding each other’s arm-waving, and everyone had a good run.

Soon after we found camp – an old miner’s spot that, while a bit trashed, had a bunch of flat, wonderfully grassy camps amidst shady oak trees.It was a great spot.Some of the guys tromped off to fish while the rest of us began warming up by the fire and a few kind individuals took on dinner.Biggest catch of the evening was a whopping 7 inches long, but it sure tasted good with the thermos of whiskey being passed around.

On Day 2, we got our first taste of truly big, Class V rapids.Shortly after leaving camp, we found ourselves in “Franklin Canyon”, whose first Class V is Franklin Falls.The Cassidy Calhoun book writes this rapid up as a recommended portage for rafts, but it looked run-able.One raft in our group decided to push their boat, while the other two ran.Turned out to be a great line right down the middle of the falls.

The walls of Franklin canyon are steep and wooded, every once in a while allowing a glimpse of snow-capped mountains peaking above the river’s enclosing ridgelines.Side streams and creeks tumbled down through the trees and into the canyon so often that I eventually realized it was not all that exciting for the other two people in the boat if I pointed each of them out.I was lucky to have any time to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, though.There was no shortage of horizons, and we found ourselves constantly paddling back and forth across the lip of a big drop, trying to boat scout as many rapids as possible.(I even had to embarrass myself the next morning and request that we forward-paddle some more that day to give my back-paddling muscles a little bit of a break.)

The biggest adventure of the day, and in fact the trip, came at the end of day 2.We reached the obvious and most-often used campsite, where the Pacific Crest trail crosses the river, at about 5 pm.This footbridge and campsite signify the beginning of Devil’s Canyon- the third and most committing gorge of the trip.But a certain participant (to remain anonymous) had a vague memory of a “really awesome ledge camp” somewhere downstream.“How far downstream?” we asked, to which we received the answer “Not sure… but within a few miles I think.”Hmmm… it had taken us about 10 hours already that day to go about the same amount of miles, so “a few miles” was not insignificant.

However, we knew we had a pretty decent portage to deal with the next day, so the closer we could get to take-out that night, the better.We stalled out in the eddy for a few minutes, pondering our little predicament.Finally, Colin said, “I’m up for pushing on.”And that was that; the decision was made.We peeled out of the eddy and pushed on into Devil’s Canyon.

Literally about a quarter of a mile downstream, all indication of potential camping spots completely disappeared from our sights.The canyon walls changed from forest to granite, and became disconcertingly steep.Just as the light in the canyon took on the low purple hue of early evening (quite a wonderful time of day to be relaxing on a beach, really, rather than paddling through cold and extremely challenging whitewater), we happened upon some of the biggest rapids we would encounter in the entire trip.

Very aware of our waning daylight, we began pushing ourselves more than we would under “normal” circumstances. Adam (and by necessity myself and Kevin as his faithful paddlers) led the trip as if we were in a kayak rather than a 14 foot raft.The thing about a raft is that it cannot really catch tiny eddies in the middle of rapids as deftly as its smaller plastic cousins.Translation: if you drop into something without seeing the bottom, you are almost certainly committed to the entire rapid no matter what you find below that entrance.

It was exciting to say the least; heart-pounding like almost no other hour of paddling I’ve ever done.(Maybe comparable to the first time I ever went down Cherry Creek, which for comparison, was also the first time I had ever experienced Class V whitewater.)I don’t even know how many rapids we pushed through in that hour and a half.I do, however, remember the scariest one.The washout for this rapid was so far below and downstream of us that we felt that we really couldn’t get away with just scouting from our boat.Kevin and I held on to the raft as Adam began climbing over the boulders on river right to get a look.The other two rafts eddied out upstream, and Jordan walked down river-left from a ridge about 40 feet above the water’s edge.Neither he nor Adam were able to get to a place where they could really see the middle part of the rapid.

Here is what we knew: 1) The bottom was clean; 2) There was definitely at least a kayak line because there was no reported portage in this section in any of the write-ups; 3) There was only one drop wide enough for a raft to fit through at the top of the rapid; 4) We were cold; 5) There was no where in the immediate vicinity to camp, aside from our rafts.

Here is what we didn’t know: 1) What the middle of the rapid, from the very top of the entrance drop to about 15 longitudinal and probably also 15 vertical feet downstream, looked like.

We decided to give it a go.After I kicked my back foot underneath the thwart about ten times to be sure I was really in there, we began paddling out into the current, and over to the entrance drop on river left.Amazingly, the drop was very clean, and fun.Adam had to ask for some quick back-paddling to stay off a boulder directly below the first drop, but otherwise it was no bigger than you’re every day, no big deal, Class V rapid.The exhilaration of making it through was amazing!

Luckily, we spotted a very tiny beach about 15 minutes downstream from there, and made the executive decision that this was “Ledge Camp”.Everyone was pretty happy to have found any flat ground at all, and dinner that night tasted just as good as the feast we had before we left Chico, even if it was just river fajitas.(The next day we found out exactly where those ledges really were – 7 miles from the Pacific Crest Trail, RIGHT above portage.And, there happened to be a smaller portage just around the corner from our beach, so we were very lucky to have stopped when we did!)

Day 3 afforded us a little more time to appreciate the splendor of Devil’s canyon in full daylight.Waterfalls dropped from granite cliffs and painted stripes of green algae against canyon walls.Deep pools shone their true blue-green against the light-colored rocks, and dark forests still covered the hillsides beyond the canyon.I would say that the Middle Feather truly gets better and better with each day, surprising you with its ability to do so.

Due to our little adventure the night before, we reached portage with plenty of time, and were able to have a nice relaxing lunch at the bottom.The write-ups all call the portage “strenuous” and some even go so far as to say “heinous”.As much as I would love to be able to disagree, I cannot.It truly is heinous.The trail is narrow, high above the river, dusty, and looooong.We had to completely de-rig the boats, carry each one sideways along the sketchy trail, and then go back for all the gear.However, three days on that river are completely worth the effort!

After portage there is a last stretch of really big rapids, ending with “Grand Finale” just a mile above take-out.Helicopter, a mandatory Class V, is an intimidating bend in the river with three significant-looking holes but with a lot of gradient and water flushing through.Everyone had great runs in there, although Mike had forgotten to close a certain key zipper on his drysuit after a mid-scouting pee break, which was apparently quite a shock in the final hole.There were a few high-water type maneuvers in the last Class V section as well, forcing us to run from one side of the river to the other and back again to avoid a few scary-looking holes.And that last rapid is truly a “Grand Finale,” not just named such because of its location.

By take-out I was probably more sore than I had ever been before, but happily so.I am in complete agreement with Holbeck and Stanley that the Middle Feather is, in fact, the best wilderness run in California.It is truly continuous Class IV-V in the heart of its canyons, and incredibly scenic.If given the chance, I think all of us would have gone right back up to put-in and started the trip all over again.Wouldn’t change a thing… except maybe to find those mysterious ledges just a “few” miles downstream of the entrance to Devil’s Canyon…

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