By Haven Livingston
California is flowing with water – whitewater paddlers rejoice! Now the big question is: what should you paddle this spring and summer? We caught up with three experts to help answer this all-important question.
CAUTION: Winter storms have changed many runs, and spring and summer flows will be bigger and colder than in years past. Use extreme caution when choosing a run, dress for immersion, and go with someone who knows the run at current flows. Above all, know your limits.
Northern California with Dan Menten
Dan Menten started whitewater kayaking 25 years ago on Idaho’s Payette River. After getting his start in slalom racing he moved west and has spent the past 17 years exploring NorCal’s secret wonderland of whitewater. Never underestimate Menten. He’s an underdog who shows up at downriver races having never seen the run and then dominates.
Winter Highlight: First Descent on Hulls Creek
During the shortest days of the year I did a two-day first descent trip with Alex Herr on Hulls Creek. It’s about eight miles on the creek and another eight on the North Fork of the Eel River near Covelo. It’s steep and bouldery with some class V and some portages. About midway the Creek dropped into a shady and menacing looking gorge. We saw a green grassy hillside in the sun off to one side and decided to portage. A small game trail eventually turned into a road and got us around the gorge before dark. As it was, the water had been so high that all the driftwood was wet and it took quite a while to start a fire. The gorge can probably be run, but as we looked back we felt we made the right decision at the right time. Moral of the story: if the grass looks green and the gorge is gnarly, take a hike. –Dan Menten
NorCal RiversSouth Fork Trinity River The Classic (class IV) and the Overnighter (class III-IV) with a few portages. These are spectacular places where nobody goes and the camping is out-of-this-world beautiful.
South Fork of the Salmon River Class III and class IV-V runs on the same section of river. The Cal Salmon drains the highest peaks in the Trinity Alps so it runs a little bit longer into the summer season.
Middle Fork of the Eel River Black Butte River to Dos Rios (class II-III with class IV+ Coal mine falls that can be portaged). Killer side hikes and mind blowing scenery on 32 miles of river draining from the Yolla Bolly mountains.
Central California with Melissa DeMarie
Melissa DeMarie came to kayaking 13 years ago and immersed herself into the sport full force. She has skipped around the world as a raft guide, safety kayaker, kayak instructor and whitewater photographer in over eight countries. If there’s anything she loves more than playing on the water, it’s encouraging more women to get outside and play too. She currently lives near Auburn, though trips with her company, California Women’s Watersport Collective, keep her on the go and exploring new places.
Winter Highlight: Local Run at Gargantuan Flows
When you’ve paddled, guided, and taught on a river for years you think you know it. This winter I got to experience my home river, the South Fork American, with a flow of 28,000cfs (normal summer flows are 1,300cfs). It felt like a completely different river.
Normally you orient yourself with houses up on the hillside, but at that flow they’re at eye level. It was amazing being completely disoriented on a river I know so well. You expect rapids to be bigger, but I saw features that I never even expected could exist in sections that are normally pools.
I was a little nervous at first, with all the big logs, but it was a lot of fun.
– Melissa DeMarie
Top Picks: CenCal Rivers
North Fork American Shirt Tail (Yankee Jim Bridge to Ponderosa) – class II+. Elements of solitude and scenery are stunning for this step up for beginners.
Middle Fork Yuba River Below Our House Dam (class III-IV) Some paddlers have waited years for a day when this is running and they don’t have to work. It’s that rare. But when water pours over the dam, it’s a fast and fun ride and always feels like a special treat.
Canyon Creek Arctic Mine (class IV++) is for the experts in the crowd. Once you start this run it’s full-on with continuous rapid running. Though this run is relatively short, there are many rapids. You can hike up to the last gorge from take out to get an idea of what you’re in for before you start.
Southern California with Darin McQuoid
Darin McQuoid cut his teeth in the rivers of the Klamath and Siskiyou mountains and quickly started exploring the world from a kayak. He has somewhere between three and 30 first descents to his name, but is too humble to pin down a number. With over 100 days of class V paddling per year, he is arguably the most active class V paddler in the state. He currently resides in Three Rivers where he is also a professional photographer at Kaweah Studios.
Winter Highlight: Uncovering the Obscure
I had a personal first descent down a section of the middle Kaweah River below Hospital Rock Run and a section of the Fresno River.
The Fresno is not often done; it’s pretty obscure because it rarely flows, but with the ground saturated it stayed in long enough. It’s not a classic because it’s a river of two characters: class IV or V+. The scenery is nice, as are most of the rapids. It would be a challenging river for a group of class IV paddles to figure out, yet it doesn’t have the class V most paddlers of that ilk would prefer. It was an adventure well worth doing, yet something that we will not be repeating too soon.
— Darin McQuoid
Top Picks: SoCal Rivers
Brush Creek This run hasn’t flowed in years, but now it’s back. It could run into May if we’re lucky. Check out the Brush Creek race April 21 as part of the Kern River Festival.
Kern River North Fork Kern has sections from class II+ to V. Kern River Festival (April 21-23) kicks off the season that SoCal has been waiting for. Paddling and rafting on the Kern will be hopping through the summer season.
Kaweah River Boundary (class IV) and Town (class III-IV) runs are a staple for paddlers heading to the lovely town of Three Rivers. Easy shuttles and classic rapids make these a must-do in springtime.