Ultimate Descents

From source to sea on California’s rivers
By Haven Livingston

Galen Licht descends the South Yuba River. Photo by DarinMcQuoid

This year, two groups have embarked on ambitious journeys to travel the length of 17 California rivers from their headwaters to the sea. For one group the journey is about sharing adventure and pioneering the exploration of their own backyard rivers. For the other, the focus is to connect people with their water source, and understand river systems as a whole.

Few rivers are known or understood in their entirety. It is human nature to only see what’s in front of us and forget that the up and downstream waters are a connected continuous body, veritable veins of the landscape. Luckily, it’s also human nature to explore and share our findings. Explore Six Rivers and Rivers for Change are two groups that hope people will benefit from their explorations, whether it’s by expanding recreational opportunities or learning how to keep our water clean.

Explore Six Rivers
Bound by the Oregon border in the north and Mendocino County to the south, Six Rivers National Forest is a long narrow band of forest from which six rivers spring. The Smith, Klamath, Trinity, Van Duzen, Eel and Mad are rivers that world class kayaker Paul Gamache came to know when his boy scout troop took kayak and canoe trips in the region. When he moved to Arcata for college, his passion for whitewater was fed by working as a rafting guide and kayaking every spare moment. Gamache has traveled to various countries, guiding and kayaking white water rivers, but he returned to the northwest corner of California to pursue Explore Six Rivers, a project he calls, “A fun challenge in my own back yard.”

The Six Rivers region is a paddler’s paradise, yet there is limited information on many parts of these rivers. Having exhausted the popular whitewater runs, the urge hit Gamache to read deeper into each of the six rivers’ stories and float with them on their entire journey from mountain top to ocean.
The Van Duzen and Mad Rivers had never been run from source to sea, it was unclear if the Smith River had been paddled entirely, and many gaps existed on the other rivers where people had either tried and failed, or simply never attempted to paddle. A person could spend a lifetime on this project, but for energetic Gamache, 27, paddling all six rivers in about four months added an extra challenge to the goal.

Paul Gamache on the Eel River. Photo: Dan-Menten

Gamache gathered a core team of paddlers and kicked off Explore Six Rivers on Valentine’s Day by paddling a first descent on the 15 mile Bloody Run on the Van Duzen River. The run takes its name from the legacy of Native American slaughter in the area. It had been previously attempted, but never completed. Their goal of a one day trip pushed into two and presented an exhausting cycle of paddling tight, boulder choked passages and portaging steep, poison oak covered banks that initiated the group into the hardships that lay ahead.

The team has also faced inward journeys along the way that forced them to confront the most debilitating of emotions, fear. Team paddler Wes Schrecongost recalled their trip to the upper South Fork Smith River that started with an eight mile trek through the snow with their kayaks. Once on the steep narrow creek, Schrecongost found himself wondering if he would make it out alive. “There was rarely access to get out and scout ahead,” Schrecongost said. “Each blind corner held potential for a death trapping log or drop off.”

The most frightening moment for Schrecongost was flipping upside-down while trying to avoid being pinned on a rock and not being able to re-right because his paddle had broken. Exiting his kayak upside-down and underwater, he was immediately swept into a violent pin ball machine of rapids and rocks. Knowing he was the last in paddler in the group he worried no one would be able to come back to help him. He escaped with severe bruises and other minor injuries.

Will Parham ducks old growth redwood on the Upper Smith River-Photo: Dan Menten

“I was pushed to my limits on that run,” Schrecongost said, “but throughout this project we’ve discovered beautiful gorges and world class waves in areas previously deemed as ‘not worthy’ by paddlers only looking for the hardest runs. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Kayaker and videographer, Will Parham will be producing a film this summer highlighting both the quality whitewater and the unique landscape of the area. Parham said, “We get to spend so much time in this place that most people will never see. I want to share that with more than just the kayaking community.” Kayaker Dan Menten is using the knowledge gained by taking part in the project to fill in the blanks in a book he is writing for the region, Nu Skool Guide to Northern California Whitewater, due out this fall.

According to Gamache, one of the greatest discoveries they made was finding the perfect water level to turn the two day class V run on the Grand Canyon of the Mad River into an excellent trip worth repeating. Attempts by three previous parties had been abandoned from water levels too high or low. Gamache said, “If you take people’s word for what’s out there and don’t do it yourself, you could be missing out on the best parts. There were about 12 runs that I would call my favorite.”

The group welcomes anyone to join in for the final section of the Mad River into the ocean near Arcata this summer.

Portage on Bloody Run section of Van Duzen River. Photo: Dan Menten

Paul Gamache scouts goat on Van Duzen River. Photo by Wes Schrecongost

Eel River meets the ocean. Photo: Paul Gamache

Explore Six Rivers team below the Goat Rock run of the Van Duzen River. Photo: Wes Schrecongost

Rivers for Change: 12 Rivers in 2012

At only four months old, Danielle Katz floated down the Stanislaus River just before it was dammed, at six months old she went down the Rogue River. Since her water borne beginnings, her life has been intertwined with rivers and the people who live intimately with them. “Rivers are home to me.” Katz explains. After a 14 week paddle trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the realization of how disconnected people are from their water source hit home. From town to town, she found that people had no relationship with the up and downstream communities, even though their actions affected each other directly.

Danielle Katz and John Dye on Englebright Reservoire. Photo: Darin_McQuoid

Back home in California, Katz started the nonprofit organization Rivers for Change in fall of 2011 in partnership with John Dye. Long time paddler, Dye, had been interested in conservation, but hadn’t made any effort to take action until 2007 when a farmer tried to prevent his access to a river he wanted to paddle, turning Dye into an active conservationist.
The 12 Rivers in 2012 campaign is a project of Rivers for Change. Its purpose is to engage communities in watershed stewardship and conservation. In the course of traveling the entirety of 12 California rivers during 2012 they are aiming to bring communities closer to understanding their river’s story and encouraging people to make the connection between their tap water and the watershed around them.

“We really want to inspire people to take positive action in protecting and in some cases, restoring their backyard watersheds” Katz said. “In other cases, the water coming from a tap in southern California may have originated hundreds of miles away in northern California. It’s tricky to get people to understand and care about something so far away.”
Rivers for Change is not only about paddling and people. Roger Luckenbach is on board as a scientific advisor overseeing the science side of project development. Paddlers have teamed up with scientists and will be collecting algae samples, making geo tagged photo documentation and taking part in habitat assessment at designated points along their journeys. This is a special opportunity for scientists to collect data from a wide range of rivers and places they would never be able to get to so quickly or without kayaking skills.

To involve the public, Rivers for Change is developing programs such as Youth Stewardship and Community Conservation and Stewardship to bring people in contact with their watershed. They plan to expand classroom visits as part of the program along with getting people out on the rivers to experience them first hand. On each of the 12 rivers, a community paddle day is planned and posted on the Rivers for Change website calendar.

The 12 rivers were selected to represent a range of sizes, geographic location and degree of natural flow. “We want people to understand that rivers are a continuum and you can’t just look at one location of a river and know if it’s a healthy system,” Dye said. Rivers for Change has partnered with local conservation groups in each watershed to help bridge the events and education to the communities.

Though the ideal mode of transport for descending the rivers is by kayak, this year’s low precipitation levels make that challenging. Dye said the group is ready to travel by whatever human powered means possible, including mountain biking or backpacking.

Two core groups of paddlers are dividing the river miles between them. The Headwaters Team is led by Kōkatat ambassador and 2010 and 2011 Santa Cruz Surf Kayaking Men’s Champion, Galen Licht. He is accompanied by premier whitewater expedition photographer/kayaker Darin McQuoid and kayaker Seth Dow. This team will tackle the difficult class IV and V upper reaches of whitewater on each river. The Mainstream Team led by Katz and Dye will paddle the remainder of each river to the sea. Explore Six Rivers and 12 Rivers may join forces to cover the miles of the Klamath River, the one river the two groups have in common. Gamache’s group would be considered an honorary satellite team.

Licht will be paddling the entire Merced and said he sees this project as a unique opportunity to see the changes along a river course from the mountains, through reservoirs and dams out into the valleys. “It’s one thing to know about river diversions,” Licht said, “but to be on a huge river and then see it reduced to nothing but a bare channel is something shocking.”

Galen and Darin at the South Yuba River. Photo: Laura Ferrell

Darin McQuoid on the South Yuba. Photo: LauraFerrell

Yuba River below Englebright Dam. Photo: Darin McQuoid

Kayakers on the Englebright Reservoire. Photo: Darin McQuoid


Take Me to the River …
Intellectually understanding the connectivity of a river truly manifests when there is a physical connection between you and the water. Both of these projects shed light on what’s happening on California’s rivers, but ultimately, it’s about getting out there, getting your feet wet and seeing it for yourself.

Drop Me in the Water …
To learn more about these projects and follow them on their journeys, visit them on Facebook at Explore Six Rivers and Rivers for Change.
Updates and the date for the final paddle on the Mad River will be posted on exploresixrivers.com.
Join Rivers for Change at their fundraisers: June 3rd paddle/BBQ in Sausalito or July in Oakland. Get more info and sign up to paddle as a team member at riversforchange.org.
To learn more about what’s happening on rivers near you and around the country visit the American Rivers website americanrivers.org.

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