Kayaking the Chili Bar Run on the South Fork of the American River
I always visit with friends in the Bay area before and after trips to Asia, but this time I had to abandon my friends shortly after arriving in San Francisco. I borrowed a car and drove to the American River east of Sacramento.
This 2 day layover kayaking excursion will have to tide me over for a few weeks here in the middle of prime boating season. I definitely won't be kayaking in China. I won't be in the western regions which have better whitewater, plus it can be risky to stick a toe into most Chinese rivers, let alone submerge your head. Even in remote areas, the pollution can be obscene.
I did some preliminary research to determine that the South Fork of the American River was the best option for good water flow during this period. Also, before I departed Colorado, I found a Lotus, California kayak shop called "The River Store" where I had a Dagger G-Ride reserved and waiting for me. This red demo G-Ride was a 6.2 just like the Orange one I paddle back home in Colorado. I brought my trusted Waterstick Zen paddle and other gear with me on the plane.
At The River Store I met two other paddlers looking for someone to go with them down the Chili Bar run. Also local paddler Ryan, who worked in the store, only works in the mornings and late afternoons as people head to and return from the river. He always tries to find someone to paddle with during the middle of the day.
I was happy to wait a few minutes for him to get off work so we could accompany an experienced local kayaker down the Chili Bar run for the first time.
Right after the wrapped raft incident, one in our group ran into trouble of his own in Meatgrinder. He was flipped and had to swim. A blade was broken off his paddle and during the swim he cut a gash in one of his hands.
The swim and broken paddle created a "critical decision moment" concerning how to proceed.
The wrong decision was made.
But first I must start by saying quite simply that our now injured paddler did not seem prepared to paddle down this run. His skills were questionable and his outfitting was definitely not appropriate. It also came to light that he didn't really have a reliable combat roll.
He could be forgiven for not knowing that a cheap paddle might break so easily. We all marveled at his paddle's incredibly cheap construction. It's weak assembly method was visible to the eye after the break.
It is more difficult to forgive him for paddling barefoot. His barefoot status soon became a significant issue.
At this point, the injured paddler had two options.
1. A long barefoot hike out with his kayak to get back to the put in. It would not be fun but he could do it. His only injury so far is a cut on one hand.
2. He could try to continue on with a single blade.
Number 2 does not seem very reasonable to me.
We are now past Meatgrinder Rapid, which is one of the gnarliest sections of the run. And it is true he can take out of the river just before the final and most noteworthy big rapid called Troublemaker, but there is a long way to go with many big rapids still to come.
Proceeding with a single bladed paddle seems problematic at the very least.
He assures us that he has significant canoe experience and that he can make it down fine with a single blade. His decision to continue on with us is accepted with reservations that should have been vocalized more forcefully.
As soon as we enter the very next rapid, Racehorse Bend, I can tell it will flip him. I am having to use serious concentration to navigate it myself with 2 blades. Even if he was an experienced canoeist, he is not in the right sitting position to use a single bladed paddle effectively. (Click here to view a Savage Snow journal entry that discusses how kayaks are converted for single blade paddle use.)
I purposely put my boat relatively close to him to be there for his inevitable swim. He does indeed swim again. This time during the swim a boulder impact slices open the back of a heel on one of his unprotected feet. Our paddlling partner now has a second and more serious injury to deal with.
We are now even deeper into the run. Walking back up to the put in would still be closer than walking to the takeout. But with his new foot injury, walking is no longer an option. It is undeniably apparent to all now, including the injured paddler, that he is not going to be able to get his boat down with a single blade.
We consider our options and Ryan makes a noble gesture. He agrees to give his paddle to the injured boater and try to paddle down with the broken paddle himself. Ryan is definitely the more skilled paddler in our group and just as significantly, he knows this river run extremely well.
Obviously the priority of the run has evolved into getting the injured paddler out as quickly as possible now. Ryan is able to keep his boat oriented well enough to bob through the rapids, but with very limited control.
Ryan did get flipped during the run after he traded for the broken paddle. He executed a combat roll successfully with the broken and unfamiliar staff. Since he was changing grips and hand positions constantly trying to put the paddle on the side of the boat needed to stay upright, Ryan said he didn't immediately know which hand had the blade side of the paddle when he was upside down.
I will always be impressed when I remember how he handled this situation.
Later Ryan told me he may have spent as many as 100 hours practicing kayak rolls in his parents' swimming pool. He can name an impressive collection of roll technique variations that he can perform competently, on BOTH sides.
I hope I never am in the position of paddling with a broken paddle, but for this reason and so many other possible scenarios, learning how to roll competently on both sides seems to me to be a mandatory skill objective for anyone who boats in rapids above Class 2. Also, this event illustrates the value of at least one person in a group carrying a breakdown backup paddle in their boat.
The South Fork is dam released and the river is still running high by the time we reach Troublemaker Rapid. The flow usually slows down at some point in the afternoon when the electric company cuts the water back.
Troublemaker was quite swirly at this level and even though we scouted it, my focus was too much on the large drops, and I did not sufficiently evaluate the current bouncing off a rock wall at the first turn. My river reading skills still have quite a bit of room for improvement.
I was flipped by the ricocheting side current. I did not roll up quickly enough before beginning a multiple drop scenario upside down. At the bottom of one of the drops, an underwater boulder impacted my still injured upper right shoulder, in the exact same spot as my Royal Gorge Sledgehammer Rapid hit.
I eventually rolled up after the long and painful underwater tour, but enough is enough...
I will definitely be buying a PFD with more upper back and shoulder protection.
As I look back on the problems that were encountered with the injured paddler at the beginning of the run, it is easy to blame the other boater.
* Maybe he was not quite ready for this run.
* Maybe his equipment was not adequate.
* And HE DEFINITELY SHOULD HAVE BEEN WEARING FOOT PROTECTION!
What if I had a breakdown collapsible backup paddle in my boat?
After his first swim and broken paddle incident in Meatgrinder, I could have offered him a replacement paddle.
And we may have not only finished the run without a more serious second injury to the paddler, but we could have paused along the way and I could have sampled the South Fork's play features.
I could have spent a few moments surfing the Maya wave and playing in the First Threat playhole, instead of spending the the whole run trying to get an injured paddler off the American River.
Instead of blaming the other paddler who probably didn't know any better,
it is more appropriate to blame myself for not being better prepared.
SOUTH FORK AMERICAN RIVER - BOATING RESOURCES & INFORMATION
The River Store (A great little shop serving the American River paddling community.)
American River - 1. Rapid Descriptions & Photos (Detailed rapid descriptions along with photos.)
American River - 2. Rapid Descriptions & Map (This county link seems to duplicate copyrighted descriptions from site above, presumably with permission, but presents them in a more streamlined fashion. No photos on this page, but the streamlined presentation and nice map illustration make it worth visiting as well.)
American River - 3. Rapid Descriptions Alternate (Yet another detailed information page, covering slightly different details of the run than the previous two links. Photos and a different map are also viewable on this page.)
White Water Cafe (Restaurant at Troublemaker Rapid)
American River Resort (Campground at Troublemaker Rapid)
Coloma Valley (Regional Information)
Click Paddle Day 41 for more pictures and video from the Chili Bar run.
This time I got to play in the features, plus I ran the more difficult
Double Trouble Chute instead of Troublemaker Rapid on Day 41.
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