Upriver Paddlers in Sea Kayaks Spawn New Sport

By Pete Gauvin

Photo by Pete Gauvin.

Garth Schmeck showing good form in swift water.

We park at the put-in on the Sacramento River near downtown Redding and unload our river craft, two slick Brit-style composite sea kayaks owned by Garth Schmeck, patriarch of the local paddle club and shop, Penguin Paddlers.

Living at the forehead of the Central Valley, four-plus highway hours from the coast, Garth keeps his fitness and rough-water touring skills honed on the swift green water and Class II riffles of the lower Sacramento between Shasta Dam and Red Bluff.

But not by paddling the path of least resistance – i.e. downstream. No, he routinely heads up river, for miles and miles, digging in through fleet current, small rapids and over rocky shelves, until fatigue, lunch or an insurmountable dam turns him back to his put-in. There, he hops in his vehicle and off he goes, no shuttle required. And that, as any river paddler knows, is a beautiful thing. Shuttles are the bane of the whitewater world, an impediment to frequent solo trips, and a stinky, time-consuming waist of gas and daylight … albeit, a necessary evil.

I’m keen on no shuttle. Plus, as a whitewater boater who usually paddles bathtub-sized Tupperware on turbulent rivers and saves long boats for lake, bay and ocean paddling, I’m curious to see how well a 17-foot sea kayak can progress up river against a current that averages some five miles an hour, or more.

Garth and I will have company on our upstream adventure: the Sacramento’s fall salmon run has just begun. The clearest evidence of that are the numerous river dories floating by with intense-looking fishermen modeling shirts with a dizzying array of pockets.

Garth slips into his white Valley Nordkapp – aka “Norman” – and out into the current. This is one of the most popular expedition boats of all time for ocean explorers. To see one headed upstream in the middle of the Sacramento Valley strikes me as an inventive cross-over adaptation, like beach volleyball in Cleveland. But it has parallels to the natural world: Just as salmon are sea-going fish that migrate to the river, sea kayaks aren’t restricted to salt water.

I carefully fold myself into the cockpit of Garth’s other boat as if I’m boarding fine china. This is his pride and joy, a brand-new $4000 Kevlar-carbon P&H Quest LV with not a scratch on it. This is Garth’s alter-ego boat: It sports a gold-hued paint job that is beautiful in a shimmering Hollywood sort of way. For the station-wagon sensibilities of the stereotypical touring paddler, it might be a little too flash. But in Redding, with the kayak-mad, Baby-Boomer groupies from his growing club and shop, Garth can claim a bit of a rock-star paddler status. Knowingly, he calls this boat “Elvis.”

Since the two of us have never paddled together before, I hope to demonstrate that his apparent trust in my boat-handling skills is not misplaced. I also hope to make “Elvis” perform like the young, handsome Elvis, not the ‘70s-era caricature stuffed into a white leather jumpsuit.

Sticking as close to the bank as possible, we sneak upriver along dense riparian foliage fragrant with rotting blackberries. Even here, the current is appreciably strong. My hibernating muscles send notice that this could be more of a physical test than expected.

We head for a channel where an upstream pond drops through a constriction formed by an island, creating a couple decent waves that look like good surfing for our British-born touring boats. Garth smoothly ferries across the current to an eddy, and paddles out on to the wave, holding his position with ease.

Eager to show-off my surfing skills, I follow. Edging into the flow, I feel the current lock on to my bow and rudely shove me sideways. I try to correct with a sweep stroke on one side and a shoulder-wrenching stern rudder on the other, but a 17-foot boat is not so easily persuaded once rushing current has caught you at the knees. I’m flushed downstream, throwing ungainly braces to keep from turning turtle.

As I pull up to him in the eddy, Garth is chuckling. He smiles and repeats his earlier advice, knowing that it might sink in better this time: “Keep your bow pointed into the current.” Yeah, I think, like a compass needle points north.

Lesson No. 1: What would be a shallow entry-angle in a rockered seven-foot river kayak is too aggressive when you’re in a sea kayak with a bow extending seven feet beyond your toes.

Slowly I get the feel for it, but I’m still paddling a bit herky-jerky, chopping my stroke up with over-frequent braces. Elvis and I – we’re squabbling. Meanwhile, Garth displays the fluidity of an experienced upriver paddler, comfortable in his craft, working with what the river presents. I aspire to emulate him, immediately. But I’m enjoying the challenge, the puzzle of river and boat, the urban riparian scenery and the vigorous workout.

On we head, upriver. Jumping out into fast-flowing green current to negotiate obstacles, my paddling muscles heat up like a cyclist’s quads at the head of a 30 mph pace line – except when I glance at shore the scenery is changing in slow motion, frame by frame, or not at all. So I grit my teeth and dig down a little deeper to grab more water with more frequency. Inching ahead, I feel a subtle change in the current, and then it relents. Just enough.

This is how progress is made; in steady crawls punctuated by short bursts. You either quickly learn to use the river features to your advantage, or you burn up and turn downstream.

Garth demonstrates a technique for stepping the boat up over a submerged rock or shoal, similar to bunny hopping a mountain bike over a log. With deft boat handling and a bit of determination and grit, it’s astounding the obstacles these craft can negotiate.

If flatwater paddling is the equivalent of road biking, and whitewater paddling is more akin to mountain biking, upriver paddling might be the waterborne counterpart of cyclocross. In addition to the Sacramento River, there are other rivers in Northern California that would be good streams for upriver paddling in sea kayaks. The lower American River through Sacramento comes to mind, as do many coast range rivers, such as the Eel and the Russian, although they are generally not as swift.

As we push upstream past guide-piloted river boats, the fishermen with the multi-pocket shirts cast quizzical looks our way. We nod and say hello, but they seem to be saying, “Who are these yahoos upsetting the natural order of the universe? We’re out here to chase fish and they’re paddling with them.”

We paddle under Redding’s newest, proudest landmark, the Sundial Bridge, where a few span strollers look at us as if we were driving the wrong way on the freeway. We skirt a long shoal and then head right up turbulent, shallow water. I glimpse a few red-snouted salmon finning up the shallows with us. Occasionally, one leaps out of the water.

Soon were at Keswick Dam, four or five hard-won miles from our put-in, and it’s time to ride the magic carpet back. After a couple hours of strenuous paddling, I’m ready to go with the flow.