Canyoneering the South Fork of the Feather River

Words by Leonie Sherman • Photos by Rick Ianiello

Team Canyon, from right to left, Rick Ianiello, Amanda Guenther, Leonie Sherman, Cristina Hugi.

Team Canyon, from right to left, Rick Ianiello, Amanda Guenther, Leonie Sherman, Cristina Hugi.

I shivered in my wetsuit and hesitated at the edge of a 25-foot cliff. Rick had already jumped, Cristina had rappelled, and Amanda was waiting for me to make my decision. Rick and Cristina’s bright helmets bobbed in an emerald pool fifty feet from the churning mess of white water I was preparing to leap into. The deafening roar of the Feather River filled my head. A slick sheen of water coursed beneath my feet over gleaming granite. The sticky rubber on my trail shoes had lost its grip after marinating  in frigid water for over an hour and the mandatory running start looked dicey.

My best friend Dianne’s favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quotation popped into my head and I heard her telling me, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I shrieked and jumped.

That wasn’t the first scary thing I did that day, or anywhere close to the last. In fact, all I did for eleven hours while canyoneering the run called Log Rides on the South Fork of the Feather River was make scary decisions. Can I leap onto that boulder without fracturing my ankle? Is that pool deep enough for me to jump off this cliff? Will hundreds of cubic feet of waterfall dumping directly onto my head affect my ability to rappel safely? Can I slide down that chute or is there a rocky lip obscured by froth, waiting to inflict grave bodily harm? What’s the best way to down climb this chimney in a wetsuit with a bulky pack?

I had no idea what to expect when I joined three friends for a day of western Sierra canyoneering. I just knew I loved them and they told hilarious stories about their adventures in neoprene.

“All I need is a wetsuit, a helmet, a harness, water and some food, right?” I asked, while stuffing those items into a dry bag at the campground. We piled into a dusty Subaru at 7am and picked our way up a rock strewn dirt road. After less than a mile, two neon cones straddled a four-foot bright orange sign reading “Road Closed.” We laughed, swerved to avoid the obstacles and continued seven bone-jarring miles up the uneven track. Twenty minutes on a faint trail across rotten logs through thorny underbrush brought us to the edge of the river.

Everyone slithered into two layers of black rubber. The temperature on land might reach 95 degrees that day but we wouldn’t break a sweat. Amanda and Rick, who had descended hundreds of canyons, adjusted thick webbing harnesses featuring rubber butt padding. They fingered spiky rappel devices with multiple arms. Cris and I glanced at our flimsy rock climbing gear and shrugged.  We all fastened helmets and stepped into the river.

Usually when I’m dealing with boulder hopping on a river, I try to keep my socks dry. I discarded a lifetime’s worth of training and plunged into the frigid sweeping current. Sloshing into a deep pool, I lost my footing and swam clumsily with a partially inflated wet pack. On the far side I fumbled with slick rock as I tried to hoist myself onto a sunny slab. Laughter echoed off the steep canyon sides as I reveled in the joy of being an amphibious creature and becoming one with the wide open gently descending river. Soon the canyon steepened and the real fun began.

Turns out canyoneering the dramatic water of the western Sierra means running down a river, bouncing off rocks like a deranged pinball, sliding down chutes, traversing slippery logs, boulder hopping, down climbing, jumping off cliffs and rappelling down waterfalls. This is the most demanding relentless workout I’ve ever experienced, like navigating an endless steep talus field, partially submerged in frigid water, while being chased by a roaring  bear. Muscles I’d never even thought about were sore for days afterwards. It’s also the most fun I can imagine. I wanted to do it all day long, every day.

We passed through walls of sculpted granite and gardens of oddly stacked boulders worn smooth by the river. Moss clung to cliffs beside waterfalls and pools of jade water the size of baseball diamonds stretched before us. We gawked at ribbon-like waterfalls, twin waterfalls, wide waterfalls, short waterfalls and marveled at how few humans had ever seen the inner reaches of this river. Slick slides and chutes beckoned, creeks tripped down entrancing rock steps. There was so much to look at but no time to stop and stare; the threat of impending darkness dictated a frantic pace.

The roar of the river is deafening and constant, a freight train of sound, an avalanche of noise, a helicopter hovering in your brain. The thunder of water and the endless rumble scrambles any coherent thoughts. Conversation is clipped and infrequent. Everyone carries whistles to alert team members if there’s an accident, and signal when you’re off rappel.

Rick demonstrated a meat anchor by crawling into a hole scooped out of a boulder, wrapping the rope around himself and letting us rappel off him down a treacherous short section. He and Amanda leapt and down-climbed with the grace of gazelles while Cristina and I struggled to trust our feet and stumbled like drunken teens. I lost two ATC devices in ten minutes. Both Amanda and Rick had extras; I guess dropping a critical piece of equipment into the rushing river is a common mistake for newbies.

We convened on a sunny slab to share lunch. Apples, peanut butter, cheese, crackers and chocolate made the rounds. We laughed at how hard it is to stay hydrated when you’re immersed in freezing water. We hadn’t stopped moving for about five hours, so after eating, I stretched out for a lunch-time snooze. Rick and Amanda looked horrified.

“We don’t want to do this in the dark,” Rick reminded me.

“C’mon, let’s go!” Amanda crowed, slinging on her pack and barreling down the river.

The first few hours in the river were pure full body bliss. The last four hours were pure full body exhaustion. All summer I’ve been testing what I can handle after a brush with breast cancer seven months ago; my stamina has suffered. I found my limits on the South Fork of the Feather River, and pushed right on through. I had no choice. I couldn’t stop or bail; the only was out was through. Every moment I hesitated or dragged my feet meant a greater chance my friends would get caught out in the dark. Canyoneering is a team sport.

As the foliage along the banks lit up with the setting sun, Rick pointed to a distant forested blue ridge that intersected the hillside ahead. “That’s where we get out,” he  informed the group.

I lifted my sagging head and sighed. “So we still have quite a ways to go.”

Cristina turned to me with an angelic smile. “It will go quicker if you have a good attitude.”

She’s right, of course. I arrived at the campground three hours later with a smile on my face.

Author Leonie Sherman on a natural water slide.

Author Leonie Sherman on a natural water slide.

The gang bounding down the river.

The gang bounding down the river.

Amanda Guenther rappelling down a mossy waterfall.

Amanda Guenther rappelling down a mossy waterfall.