Feather River image

Four days of trepidation, intoxication and red meat on the Middle Fork Feather

Story and photos by Pete Gauvin

Greg Speicher watches as C-1 paddler Norwood Scott runs a rapid in Devil’s Canyon.

We are dragging Tecate. There is so much beer in the raft – as well as a cooler of frozen red meat and bacon – on our first day on the Middle Fork of the Feather River that the back end keeps hanging up on shallow rapid entrances.

It is a handicap we might do without, but not really. It’s Greg’s Bachelor Party and there are seven kayakers and three of us in the raft. We need that beer – as well as an auxiliary supply of whiskey, rum and red wine – to lube the wheels of collective male revelry for the next three nights. It’s also welcome in easing the nerves of Middle Fork virgins like myself and Greg’s brother, Jeff Speicher, from Colorado.

Luckily, for us and our oarsman/commando “guide” Roman Nelson, the first day is the easiest, relatively, so we’re told. I use quotations here, because Roman, like his two apprehensive bow paddlers, has never been down this classic 32-mile stretch of Class V running deep in the bedrock cleavage of the Northern Sierra.

Shouldn’t a “guide,” after all, know what’s around the next bend? Greg, who’s paddled the Middle Fork several times and regularly paddles Class V, recommends Roman. “He’s a better rafter than a kayaker,” he says.

This ringing endorsement is dubious comfort for two neo-rafters. Jeff and I just met the night before when Greg and I picked him up at the Reno airport. A financial advisor in Durango with a wife and daughter and another kid on the way, Jeff and I are instant partners in Class V anxiety. Years before he was a competitive rodeo kayaker, but recently he has spent far too much time in a desk chair to feel comfortable committing to a kayak seat on the Middle Feather.

Experts Only?!

The Middle Feather is widely regarded as the best multi-day river trip in California and one of the most difficult. Protected since 1968 as one of six original rivers of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, it is the only fork of the Feather that runs free above the slackwater of Lake Oroville.

“None but teams of experts should attempt the Middle Fork gorge,” warns the guidebook California Whitewater by Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun. Descriptions like this put me on the kayak-versus-raft bubble, as well. I’m a competent whitewater kayaker, but an occasional one, not an ardent boater with miles of sustained Class V under my dry top. Potentially getting in over my head on a multi-day run seems like a bad idea, not too mention a bachelor party bummer should I get rattled or worse. I don’t want to chance becoming an unfortunate headline, a sad footnote in the marital union of Wendy Sue Lautner and Greg Speicher.

This, and the fact that Jeff’s trip is hinging on the availability of another rafter, makes backing out hard and the decision to raft easy, even though I have major reservations about taking on an intense wilderness river in a craft that to my inexperienced eyes looks to be a flexy rubberized ejection vessel. And as any kayaker knows, swimming is bad.

As we float down the first few miles of Class III and IV rapids, Roman addresses this concern. “When I say, ‘Get down!’ get all the way down on the floor on your knees. And keep paddling! STAY IN THE BOAT!”

Rubber Needle

The real kayakers, a talented, experienced collection of boaters most of whom are Middle Fork veterans, serve as our probes. But kayak cowboys do not always pick the best lines down boulder-strewn mazes for 14-foot inflatable wagon loads. We know this but it is quickly reinforced by experience.

Although our raft rig is a bit portly, we do have the equivalent of “four-wheel drive,” as Roman puts it, with him at the oars and Jeff and I as bow paddlers, allowing for maximal mobility. We just have to learn to use it, and quickly.

Where the kayakers often thread lines in an enviably direct and effortless fashion, maneuvering the raft seemingly requires a thousand more strokes, a heart-pounding blend of frenzied back paddling and ferrying and draw strokes, often to set up a last-second raft rotation by one of Roman’s oars to squeeze through a constriction without broaching … and then maybe we’re down to our knees in the bow diggin’ like escaped convicts to punch a hole. It’s exhausting, and of course, exhilarating.

By the time we reach a pool at the bottom, or often sooner, Jeff and I are completely gassed. Neither of us had a clue as to how physically demanding paddling a raft would be. My previous raft experience was more than a decade ago and mostly on Class III water. Since I started kayaking, I’d often jokingly derided rafts as cattle boats. Now, my preconceived notions have been reduced to hamburger, along with my arms. And we’ve got days to go and tougher rapids ahead.

Load Consumption

Which brings me back to all that beer. The plan is that by the time we hit the increasingly difficult chokepoints of Franklin Canyon and Devil’s Canyon, our burdensome beer ballast will be greatly reduced, making the raft much lighter and more maneuverable.

The first night, at Horseshoe Bend, an emerald-green elbow in the river 10 miles down from put-in, we make a conscious effort to quaff a literal boat load of beer, or at least reduce it by half. No problemo! A pile of crushed cans the next morning is testament that all stepped up to the Tecate challenge. The equivalent of an anchor has been lifted in 12-ounce increments.

Unfortunately, perhaps, for Jeff and I, our buzz is long gone by morning and the internal butterflies swarm as we load the raft and don our river armor for Day Two. We will have to face walled-in Franklin Canyon, where the river turns solid Class V and drops 140 feet per mile, with the knife-edged nerves of sobriety.

Dump Truck

With each rapid run, our comfort and competence level increases. We’re making good progress and getting pretty impressed with ourselves. But the river is about to humble us and remind us how quickly it can buck you and your overblown confidence. Near the end of a lengthy, turbulent rapid, we miss our last move and get pushed sideways up a large boulder in the middle of the current. “High side left, high side left!” Roman screams.

But it’s too late for me. I’m on the right side, the low side. My feet slide right out of the foot cups and I’m in the water in a split second, worried that I might be pinned against the very same rock that the boat is stuck on. Instead I go under it. I’m relieved to quickly see daylight and get flushed into a pool. Jeff gets spit out too, but out the other side of the rock.

I thought surely the raft would flip, but Roman manages to keep it right side up, stay in the boat and pivot off the rock. Quickly back in the raft in the pool below, Jeff and I are relieved but a bit rattled by how quickly things went south. “That’s what we call a dump truck,” says Roman. “When all the passengers go overboard and the guide stays in the boat.” We’re all thankful and thirsty when we reach a large sunny and sandy camping beach not too far down. Time to loosen up and let the party begin.

Strippers and Flesh

The running joke since the put-in has been when, where and how the strippers will arrive. Some claim they will be kayaking in and catching up to us tonight, purporting to have found that seemingly rare combo – strippers who are also Class V kayakers, or vice versa. The other tale is that they are going to hike down to the river where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses and join us there.

On the beach, the party ringleaders are quickly in motion. Paddles are stuck in the sand in a circle surrounding a spare oar – the dancer’s pole. Playboy centerfolds are taped to the paddles. Rapid inebriation is taking place. The remaining beer is being polished off. A kayaker who swam downs his bootie beer. A couple Kiwi paddlers happen onto the party a bit shocked by the turn their wilderness trip has taken, but happy to share some cold beer and witness a crazy American bachelor party.

Stiffer booze begin making the rounds. None more so than a pitcher of mudslide, which is about to wipe out the guest of honor. But not before he’s blindfolded, forced to wear a skirt and bra and other humiliating garb, and do a jig while hanging on the spare oar. The hazing is in full force. There will be no strippers, other than Greg himself.

There is plenty of flesh, however. When he finishes tormenting the debilitated bachelor boy with sizzlin’ dry ice cocktails and other concoctions, ace paddler/campfire griller Aaron Stabel begins churning out a parade of red meat for the crowd of ball-scratching carnivores – tri tip, carne asada, flank steak, sausages, even marinated lamb. It’s a diet at once satisfying and somewhat disgusting … but we don’t want the meat to go bad so Aaron keeps cooking and we keep eating. After a recovery snooze, even Greg is back at the fire, and he’s wearing his party shirt. Animal.

Steppin’ It Up

Strong coffee and a plunge in the river help take care of the morning cobwebs. But the butterflies are back. Today we finish Franklin Canyon and camp near the entrance of Devil’s Canyon. Silence drapes over the raft as we contemplate what’s around each bend, what’s over each horizon line.

We scout diligently and portage the worst. We’re now a more intuitive smooth-shifting 4×4, impressing the kayak posse with our ability to stick difficult must-make lines. At mile 26, in the lower chamber of Franklin Canyon, we all get out to scout a thundering plunge, a rapid called, appropriately enough, Eat the Meat, a large and chunky drop with a huge hole at the bottom. Having had our fill the night before, we all decide to skip this one.

Everyone except Greg. He walks back up and slides into his Fluid creekboat. I hold my breath; Greg has shown a propensity for getting stuck in holes. He runs the drop bearing left and, after some momentary stickiness, rides a lateral wave out, styling it. The night before he lost his guts and now he’s showing who has the most.

Seeing this, Aaron considers walking his boat back up to run it. “That’s bad karma,” warns Norwood Scott, C-1 paddler extraordinaire. “Once you hike your boat down you shouldn’t second guess your decision.” Not wanting to court a bad-karma beatdown, we all abide by Norwood’s river credo. Jeff and I are happy to. And besides, Greg deserves his very own slab of prime-rib mettle. We make camp soon after, before entering Devil’s Canyon, where camping spots are slim. The beer is long gone and provisions are thinning. We still have a load of bacon, though. The challenge of cooking it without starting a grease fire is the night’s entertainment.

The Finale

Devil’s Canyon is a granite gorge with walls rising a couple thousand feet above a river choked with massive boulders. We only have five miles to go, but they’re tough miles, including a .3-mile mandatory portage and a couple big rapids you cannot walk. It’s our last day, but this knowledge keeps our testicles in our throats and our survivor’s elation in check. We knock out some serious rapids and arrive at the big portage, a long, jumbled, multi-tiered rapid that ends with a drop over Granite Dome Falls. Roman de-rigs the raft and everyone assists in the gear hauling. The raft is left inflated, turned on its side, and carried in centipede fashion along the steep, cliff-side footpath.

As we’re enjoying a well-deserved lunch atop a house-sized boulder, a team of six other kayakers appear, scouting the portage rapid. It’s the missing second half of the bachelor party that we expected would catch up with us on the second night. They give up contemplation of running the dangerous maze of boulders and drops, depriving us of our front-row seats to potential carnage, and are soon hiking down to meet us.

Our colorful kayak brigade has swelled to a baker’s dozen. There are only a few miles to go to take-out, but there’s still plenty of meat left, including two notorious Class V’s: Helicopter, a must-run, and Grand Finale. Scouting Helicopter, we watch as a couple kayakers get tossed and flushed out upside down, unharmed. In the raft, under the capable hands of its now river-hardened crew, it’s no big deal. We run it clean. Broad smiles of relief and elation appear. Grand Finale also roughs up some kayakers, but once again we run it without drama. In the pool below, a leftover Nalgene bottle of Maker’s Mark Kentucky whisky makes the rounds.

Less than a mile later we pull out at the Milsap Bar bridge. We peel down to shorts and sandals and crack beers and jokes, bathe in warm sunlight and the glow that comes from completing an epic trip, a once in a lifetime trip for some of us … provided that Greg never has another bachelor party. Good luck Greg and Wendy!