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Stepping up to Giant Gap, a classic whitewater gem
By Haven Livingston
Three years ago a friend introduced me to Giant Gap, a well known class IV+ whitewater run on the North Fork American river that is accessed from Highway 80. We were on our way back from a week-long river trip and decided to pull over for lunch.
“This is Giant Gap you know,” he said as I picked through leftover cheese and crackers. In hushed tones he described the miles of glorious whitewater that churned far below, out of sight from our lookout. I sat back on the tailgate and listened. In his mind Giant Gap was the perfect transition between the gnar-hard class V Generation Gap upstream and the easier intermediate class IV Chamberlain run downstream. As a rookie kayaker I wondered if I would ever have the nerve and skill to tackle such a remote testpiece.
After three years of steady progress as a kayaker, I began to think I might be ready to step up to the plate and give Giant Gap a try. Flows on the North Fork American have been holding steady this winter, rolling with the snow melt in our mid-winter warmth. Giant Gap was setting up to be perfect for my mid-winter birthday weekend.
Not wanting to spend my birthday in high anxiety mode, I decided it was best to do the run the day before my birthday, that way I could spend my actual birthday in the exhausted warm after-glow of whatever beat-down or glory was to come.
Giant Gap begins near Alta with a mile or so hike down to the river, most of which the kayaks can thankfully be dragged down. Our little team of four set off and dropped into an emerald swimming hole at the put in. The water is icy cold and the deep canyon gets only spotty sun.
The run starts with some fun warm up rapids and then passes through a narrow constriction of massive rock walls marking the start of the more serious rapids. A hike out from the river isn’t impossible, but is completely unreasonable. The steep canyon walls feel miles high from river level and hiding under the forest canopy is a carpet of poison oak.
The first rapid of consequence in Giant Gap is called Grater and yes, it grated me. I was pretty clear on the path I needed to take through the shallow boulder field, but there was no bank to scout from and the entrance was blind so I was going on my imagination’s version of a teammate’s description. The description included a part about “you can go right or left around the rock below the curling entrance chute.” My choice to go right wasn’t getting me there fast enough and in a last ditch effort I did what all well trained paddlers do–paddle like hell to get over whatever you can’t avoid. And, as occasionally happens, I just slammed right into the rock and the force of the water at my stern pushed my boat down into a groove where I promptly popped out of my boat when I felt water piling onto me. From there my boat and I pin balled down the rest of the rapid.
No big deal. A little banged up, but damn!, it feels a lot colder than it should and that cold is migrating down my legs and creeping up my belly. Scrambling up the rocky bank I feel the ice bath flush into the booties of my dry suit and I look down to see the last three inches of my drop seat zipper open. Then comes that sinking feeling when your anger boils at having failed yourself and you can picture how the rest of the day is going to be based on your one, tiny, rookie mistake.
Strip and wring out #1.
Knowing we were only three miles into a 14.5 mile run, my options were few. Leaving the river wasn’t one of them. Even if it was, I really wanted to see the rest of the run. Sitting my wet ass back into the cockpit, I was a little unsure if I was now over amped or overwhelmed. Would I charge ahead with false confidence or would I be a freaked out deer in the headlights? Turns out I was a little over confident, the cold having numbed too much of my necessary fear.
Some fear is a good thing. It keeps me diligent. I thought I knew how to manage fear after two decades of climbing, but it turns out that there are really different kinds of fear depending on what you’re actually afraid of. My fear in climbing was mostly a fear of failure. My primary fear in kayaking is of direct bodily harm. The speed of kayaking forces you to deal with your fear before you get to the river, because once you’re on, the focus must be proactive in facing what you are falling into, not fearfully reactive.
Teeth chattering, we come upon Locomotive rapid. You know how trains are; they look innocuous and nostalgic from the front but are enormous beasts viewed from the side. It felt completely manageable approaching the smooth horizon line until a little eddy current spun my nose and I had no choice but to go off this six foot drop caboose first into a well-storied recirculating hole. My crew sat audience to the series of super awesome moves I made next: Back loop, front loop, cartwheel, side surf, window shade, eject button.
The G forces were enough to push more water out of my clothes and down into my booties.
Strip and wring out #2.
As any great crew should do, they all made the excuse of wanting to eat lunch anyway and enjoyed the thin warmth of winter sunshine while I stood shivering in my underwear, slapping my wet tights against rocks cursing my own stupidity.
Fear is exhausting, but eventually it wears itself out. You just can’t continue to be scared indefinitely. I’m not saying I breezed the rest of the run, but I was pretty certain I had already dealt with the worst of my day. Mile after mile of continuous rapids I forced myself to smile until I didn’t have to force it anymore. It didn’t take long once I found the balance between alertness and confidence. Fear didn’t leave me completely, but I was able to convert what had been a burning lump of coal in my stomach into the fuel for strength and calm.
At the class V Dominator rapid I took a nice walk down river right to release the remaining edge off my day and watched my buddies run the maze of cascading whitewater.
When I started kayaking I watched videos of friends on gnarly runs with complicated, steep and dangerous rapids. I wanted to be like them because the ride can be so viscerally thrilling and the places they go are some of the most beautiful in the world.
In 2014 I paddled over 100 days. I pounded out the mileage trying to engrain in myself something that comes naturally to gifted and long-time paddlers – balance. In 2015 I paddled nearly 70 days with a focus on specific techniques – boofing, bracing, leading and reading the water with a wider scope of view.
With a little distance from the starting line I can look back now and actually see a progression. Along the way it has felt like I’ve been moving behind the curve. At times it’s been impossible for me to not hold a yard stick up to other paddler’s progress and feel like I’m falling behind. But this isn’t their game and nobody has my exact set of circumstances. Beating someone else to the next run has never been my end goal. Bridging the gap between dreams and reality is what I care about.
It wasn’t entirely pretty, but I successfully paddled Giant Gap. It’s both an accomplishment and a stepping stone. It’s a reward for what I’ve worked for and a reminder that far off dreams get closer day by day. What sounded light years away three years ago at that lunch break overlooking the Gap is now an experience I can build from as I reach toward my next kayaking dream.
Get Your Wet Willies
Not everyone wants to devote years of practice just to go down a beautiful reach of river. Even fewer people are cool with being rolled upside-down while attached to a kayak from the waist down. However, there plenty who love to frolic in rivers and don’t mind a little adrenaline pumping rush now and then. For those waterdogs there is rafting!
While there are no commercially run rafting trips down Giant Gap, many outfitters run Chamberlains just downstream. The reach is shorter than the Gap, but still packs in big rapids, glittering scenery, and a remote feeling – all while floating down emerald clear waters.
To prepare for such an adventure:
Go rafting. Chamberlains isn’t for beginners, so get an introduction to whitewater rafting on other runs first. Look to the South Fork American, Kings, Kern, and Merced Rivers for good places to get a feel for the sport.
Be flexible. Most spring runs are fed by snow melt and the window of time they run varies on how much snow is on the mountains and how fast temperatures rise. If it gets hot fast, flows can quickly overstep their safe levels. Plan for a back-up weekend.
Layer up. Outfitters typically supply wetsuits, but have extra base layers on hand just in case. Adding a merino wool or synthetic long sleeve top under a farmer john wetsuit and a neoprene skull cap can make the difference between a shivering day and one of the best days on the water ever. Stick with lace up tennis shoes for foot protection; adding neoprene socks will keep your toes extra happy. Even if the days are warm, the water will be chilly!
Ditch the selfie. Don’t miss a second of action because you are distracted by your camera settings. Check with the outfitter to make sure they’ll have a photographer out ahead then leave the fussing to them, allowing yourself to fully immerse in the experience. Face it; they’re going to take better photographs anyway. Sign up and go! A limited number of companies are licensed to run trips on Chamberlains, and they offer a variety of packages from a short day brown bag lunch to multi-day multi river extravaganzas. Check out theamericanriver.com to pick your own adventure and reserve early!