First of all I need to preface this post with this: This run is entirely not worth doing. If you plan your life around making the 4-5 day window, you are a total loser. It is saturated with people, the hike in is brutal, the whitewater is overrated, the scenery is mundane and the camping is marginal at best.
With that out of the way, here is my outlook on Upper Cherry Creek...
You can't really describe this run; you can only experience it. The secret is out - Upper Cherry Creek is the crowned jewel of California kayaking. It has everything: A true wilderness experience, jaw dropping scenery and as for the whitewater - well, you've seen the pictures and videos. The downside is that there is going to be increased usage on this run, most likely to the point that exceeds what the area can handle. Some might point out that blogs like this only endanger this run (and others) even more - and they have a point. On the upside, there are several defense mechanisms built-in to Upper Cherry Creek. First is the hike; 10+ miles with a boat and all your gear on your back is part of the limiting factor (boat draggers will be black listed). Second is the whitewater; while some might argue you can turn this into a class IV+ run, the creek itself will limit the number of people that attempt it. Finally, the flow window is so short and relatively unpredictable, that only a dedicated few will be able to catch it at the right time.
The following account is obscenely long and will be fairly uninteresting for most folks. But when you finish a run like this you find yourself talking about in incessantly to anyone that will listen. So to spare folks that torture, I decided to write it all down; allowing you to skim, skip and ignore whatever you choose. If you are looking for detailed info on the hike, the run or flows, it's all buried in here somewhere. If you are interested in tales of carnage and terror, those are there as well. You'll even find some candid thoughts on fear and how special it is to overnight in the Sierra from someone who has been paddling for over 25 years. Enjoy.
The first half hour or so was uphill; enough to make me wonder how my couch-conditioning program was going to work out for me. Soon enough, though, the trail leveled off and more or less remained cross country for the rest of the way. The hike had pretty much everything you could ask for; stream crossings, mosquitoes, sub-alpine lakes, mosquitoes, scenic overlooks and mosquitoes. Actually it was not that bad thanks to the invention of Deet.
All in all I would say we actually spent a little under 6 hours hiking, about 30 minutes on provisional safety meetings, 30 minutes resting, eating and getting water, 15 minutes wandering around at the standard getting lost spot and another 20 minutes while I ran back and got the water bottle I left at the creek crossing at the standard getting lost spot. By safety meeting math, that got us to the river in just under 7 hours from the start of the hike. By the way, just before Styx pass, don't go to the cabin - stay right along the creek. If you asked me what the hike was like, I guess I would say it is pretty much what you would expect an 10+ mile hike with your boat and gear to be like...
The final 20 minute descent to the river is gratifying, exciting and welcome all at the same time. Kind of like the bottom part of an icecream cone with all the good stuff melted down in it - kind of...
The Creek - Day 1
When we got to the creek, the main question in everyone's mind was "is it still too high?" Certainly it didn't appear to be - calm crystal clear pools can be very deceiving though. I went for a quick swim and sat at the river's edge and soaked in the beauty for a while as we regrouped and relaxed after a solid day's effort.
After a while, the desire to get in our boats got the best of us and we headed down to the put-in slide. A quick scout revealed a great sequence of slides and drops into yet another amazing pool. We hopped back in our boats and it was all smiles down to the pool. Jacub, who had gotten off a high water UCC portage fest a few days earlier mentioned that it seemed like the water had not dropped much. This did not bode well for the rest of the creek, but man, it was a good level for the put-in slide...
After a lap down, we decided to set up camp. There were plenty of places to choose from, and after we settled on one, we went back up for more laps on the slide. A nice dinner of mac and cheese and sausage topped of the evening - even the mosquitoes couldn't put a damper on the night.
At this point there were two realistic possibilities; one was that Jake decided to stop and camp along the hike somewhere, the other was that he got lost and made the wrong turn into the gorge. The wrong turn has probably been done by many groups (including Tim on his first time in). It consists of getting lost at the standard getting lost spot, then plunging off into the canyon about 2 miles downstream of the standard put-in. Apparently sketchy down-climbing around cliffs is one good indicator that you have made a wrong turn...
As 10 am turned to noon, it appeared the later option was the most likely. We decided the best course of action would be to stay put (it seemed the water was still on the high side); even if we got started by 2 pm we would easily get down to Cherry Bomb Gorge before dark. As we chilled out on the rocks, basking in the surprisingly pleasant July sun, we finally heard some shouts. Looking up across the river we saw Jake walking upstream at river level with his boat on his back. After a few hoots and hollers of excitement at finally having our crew together, we got the story. Sure enough, Jake made a wrong turn, ended up downstream a couple of miles, hiked upstream for a while with all his gear, then decided to stash his gear and hike upstream with just his boat. To add to the confusion, he had hiked up earlier sans gear (to within 50 yards of where we were no sitting) and saw a group of 3 paddlers headed down. Having waved to them and having them wave back, he began dashing back to his boat only to find out after the fact that they were not us (we were happily doing laps on the put-in slide). Finally, after somewhere around 11 hours of hiking and a couple of hours of sleep, Jake, finally found us and we were on our way!
Below the put-in slide, there is a long series of easy granite slides with some of the most spectacular scenery I've come across. I have to say that even at high water, some of these slides were pretty rough; I've heard that at "ideal" flows, it is a bit of a drag (pun intended). After that you get to a rocky section with a few distinct drops, then back to more slide like action. Everything was going well until somewhere in the middle of the slide sequence, Jakub snapped a paddle. We busted out one of our breakdowns (now we were down to one) and cut the broken paddle into pieces to be packed out. After that it was back to more action...
Soon we came to the first real gorge - I believe it is called the class IV gorge. Jacub had been in at high water a few days earlier and said it was pretty busy, so we decided to give it a quick scout. Plus the extra time gave Jake a minute to rest his eyes while we scrambled down the granite to check out what was ahead. As indicated by it's name, this gorge is not very complicated, the only real issue is the exit rapid called West Coast Gorilla, which I think is bit more intimidating than its East Coast counterpart...
From the original scout on river right, the drop looked pretty sketch - dropping into a small channel with pretty substantial piton potential in a pothole on the right. After running the gorge and checking out the drop from the left it seemed a bit more manageable. Jake had run it before, so he acted as probe using the far left line to clear the piton, albeit with a bit of action against the right wall in that general vicinity.
Jazzed, we headed downstream into the second gorge (maybe this one is the class IV gorge?). There is a fun boof on the entry then a tricky one where you have to boof and drive right to avoid a bit of mank against the wall on the left.
After that there were a couple of slides then a nice area just above Cherry Bomb Gorge where we decided to camp. This brings up another fact about UCC; there are so many great camps that I think it can handle a large number of folks. The main concern is to make sure that you use proper etiquette when setting up and breaking down camp. Don't trash the place, don't poop next to the river and don't burn anything down - words to live by...
Once you commit to entering the gorge, there are only two options. One is to run it, the second is to back out at the lip of Cherry Bomb Falls and head up a sketch crack back to safety - but in reality once you drop in, you're in. The lead-in rapids in the gorge are pretty darned good - one we walked around since it seemed a bit dodgy and we were were more focused on what lay ahead. Once you finish these, there is a huge pool - the calm before the storm.
The first time you paddle up to the jumble of rocks above Cherry Bomb falls, it's a religious experience. The towering granite walls, the crystal clear water, the not-so-distant roar of whitewater echoing through the canyon. This is the holy-land of kayaking and one might argue that once you pass through, you will never be the same. I wonder if meeting the Pope would make me have to poop in my pants...
Once you get to the lip of Cherry Bomb Falls, you get to stare down the barrel of the gun. The line is pretty basic; drive left and hold your angle avoid surfing the weir and regroup for the next sequence. We decided to run it in groups of two; Jake and Jacub, followed by Tim and me.
Jake went first, opting to go right of the lead in rock (which was actually quite a bit underwater) driving hard left. He hit is line, but the approach left him almost sideways on landing. Since the water was pretty high, the boil coming off the wall caught his downstream edge and he flipped as he entered the weir. After a quick roll, he was upright but in the dreaded weir-surf pointed to the right (the least desirable direction). Jake is bomber and we were pretty sure he was going to work out of it, but it was still a disconcerting position for us (and him) to be in. Helpless, Tim and I signaled for Jacub to wait - the last thing you need is two in the hole. We sat there and watched and encouraged Jake to surf it out. I'd give it a good 30 seconds of quality time before Jake worked his way out - to cheers from the crew. Jacub now had the green-light and tried the line to the left of the entry rock. This line seemed much more controlled and he pretty much nailed it, brushing up against the bottom corner of the wall slightly as he dropped through the weir. Sweet; two down safely, two to go.
It was time for Tim and myself to go. Now those of you that paddle with me might notice a little ritual I do before I run anything of difficulty. First, I find some dirt and rub down my paddle and hands; that's because somewhere in my lineage is there is a race of prodigious grease producing ability. If I did not constantly rub down my paddle, it would simply fly out of my hands every now and then. The other thing I do is splash water in my eyes; you see I wear contacts and this seems to be the best way to prime them so they don't swim around in my eyes, or even worse fall out. Well my ritual was cut short due to the fact that I could not find any sand - the whole gorge seemed to be stripped clean. Tim was clearly ready to go, so I skipped this step and went on to splash my eyes and get ready to go. Next time I intend to carry a pouch of sand with me into Cherry Bomb Gorge...
The plan was for me to go first, then Tim. We both decided to take the line to the left of the entry rock, driving a little left to keep off the wall at the bottom. I headed into the drop with left angle, once my stern cleared the rock I took a good right stroke - a little excited I probably pushed too hard and felt my boat start to spin left a little too much. No problem, I will just throw in a little correction stroke on the left - as I did, my dirty little ancestry kicked in and the paddle completely turned in my hands. Not good. As my boat continued to spin left, the only thing I could do was try to re-grip my paddle, relax and do the classic reverse boof. Yep, I was pretty much backwards by the time I went over the drop. You know how time can slow down right, well everything kind of came to a stop as I flew off the drop and I thought to myself, in a surprisingly calm manner: "Just Ride it out". I guess the kayaking Gods were feeling generous that day; I skied the autoboof, landing backwards but perfectly balanced, and just paddled away from the wall and through the weir. In the eddy below I saw Jacub laughing hysterically, Jake congratulated me on my line (having only seen me go through the weir he had no idea how bad I pooched it). Moments later Tim flew off the drop, facing in the desired direction and having little trouble with the wall or the weir, and we were all ready to negotiate the remainder of the gorge.
We were all extremely stoked until Jake pointed out the obvious - "we're not done yet!". The next few drops are pretty straight-forward; left, left, middle. Then a little break before the final right, middle, left. We eddied out and I looked up at our planned safety spot. As we sat there, Jacub grinned and peeled out - making it over the first drop, fighting left through the second and finding the slot to the left of the choke-stone. "Weren't we going to set safety here?" I asked, noticing how hard he had to struggle to get left. Tim kind of shrugged and charged off with a similar result to Jacub. I guess not, I shrugged to myself. Jake looked at me and I gave him the nod - off he went. Perhaps he was a little too far center or perhaps it was because Jake is just a big guy, but his boat went deep in the hole in the first drop, back-endering a bit and pushing him back to the right. Unable to fight left through the next drop he basically dropped over the middle dead sideways. At this point, Jake began his second surf of the gorge. Thinking that now would have been a good time to have that rope, I scrambled out of my boat in the tiny eddy and began trying to figure a route up. It was clear that I had to get the boat up to a pothole on the right and then traverse across a crack downstream to get into position. Knowing in the back of my head that the clock was ticking, I decided to grab the bow of my boat in one hand and try to pull myself up via a small crack with the other hand. This proved to be a serious miscalculation with a loaded boat. Straining, I pulled myself halfway up but could get no farther; the boat was pulling me back into the river. There weren't too many options now, one was to let go of the boat, the other was let it drag me back down to the water. Losing the boat would have not done Jake or myself any good since the rope was still in it, so I decided to try a controlled slide back towards the water. Thinking how bad it would suck to end up swimming the rapid that Jake was now stuck in, I clung to what little bits of rock I could until I was able to get back to a somewhat stable position back where I started. Pissed at myself for taking as much time as I was, I grabbed the rope, clipped it to the bow and climbed up to the pothole where I pulled my boat up and scrambled across the rocks to see what the status was. This whole process probably took over a minute and I was extremely relieved to see Jake still in his boat and in once piece in the pool below the drop. Apparently after repeated, and unsuccessful, attempts to surf out the desired left side, Jake had to finally surf out the sievy looking right side. I'm still not real sure how he did this, but he said it kind of flushed him under the overhanging rock.
So there I was, sketched out from almost falling in the river, out of breath and not at all pysched to run the next drop. By this point in time Tim had done a similar rock scramble up from below. About 50 feet separated us and I asked if it looked like I could make it to where he was standing. He gave me a two word reply: "Must Run!", and I turned back towards my boat and began getting in.
Sometimes when you are running class V you have no choice but to just settle down and get your shit together. This was one of those times. I seal launched into the eddy, sat there for a minute and took some deep breaths, conjured a mental image of the line and I was off. Nice boof on the right, controlled through the middle then a flurry of strokes to get left before a sweet boof to the left and around the Chokestone. Pheww!
At this point with everyone safely through Cherry Bomb Gorge it was all smiles - feeling stoked and relieved at the same time, we pulled up on the rock in the center of the next drop and seal launched into the last drop of the gorge proper. Taking a minute to rest and regroup, we recounted our individual adventures to each other before turning our attention downstream.
The remaining slides and falls into Flintstone Camp are just loads of fun - starting with the jedi slide, followed by a series of fun tea-cups.
For the next 8 hours or so we chilled, did the occasional lap down the series of waterfalls above camp and enjoyed being in the heart of Upper Cherry Creek. I have to say, that the dichotomy between being utterly overwhelmed with adrenaline one minute and being so completely relaxed hanging out by the pools the next is hard to describe. I have to say that that was probably one of my top 10 days on the river in my life - even though we only made it about a mile and a half...
We also ventured downstream to look at the drops below camp - groove tube, perfect twenty and double pothole. We actually got to catch a couple of the Colorado boys running double pothole. I had no idea the lead in to that drop was so ugly, but I figured we would figure it all out tomorrow.
After getting back to camp, we saw some folks hiking down the opposite side of the river with their gear - leaving the kayaks behind to go-light into the gorge the following day. This seems like a good way to do it on some levels; if something goes wrong in the gorge you dealing with unloaded boats - something that would have really helped me in trying to get out to get a rope to Jake. On the other hand, once you get used to paddling a loaded boat it has its advantages - you can punch almost any hole and the added gear seems to add stability. The final advantage to doing the gorge with gear is you don't have to carry it all around the gorge...
That night we cooked up some gargantuan meals. I had evidently packed enough food for about eight days on the river; which was good since some other were starting to run low. By the time is was all said and done I think a packed out a single bag of couscous and an extra power bar or two. I had a great night's sleep under the stars and felt about as content as I had felt in a long time.
The Creek - Day 4
The next day we woke up and had a leisurely breakfast. The word was that we had some of the biggest drops still ahead of us, but plenty of time to do it. The water had dropped again - it was looking like those folks who were waiting for the fourth of July weekend were going to luck out with "optimal" flows.
We set off downriver, looking back one last time at Flintstone camp with Cherry Bomb Gorge in the distance. Around the corner was one little drop before we came to the Groove Tube, Perfect 20 and double pothole. Jake had had his fill of excitement the day before and elected to meet us at the bottom of double pothole.
Jacub busted out the video camera while Tim and I ran through. The groove tube is a cool 8 foot slot through what looks like a total maelstrom. The line is clean though and both Tim and I emerged unscathed. The Perfect 20 is all of 20 feet and lands in nice cauldron with potential problems on the left side if you were to end up there. You can run the left line and hit a flake partway down; the result is a drier landing, but potential for back compression if you land too flat. The other option is to take it down the right side and tuck straight in. At this point I must admit I'm no expert at running waterfalls; the tuck is not something I encounterd often in my days racing and most of the rivers I run these days don't have clean 20+ footers. Anyway, after a brief lesson from Tim, I floated off the lip of Perfect 20, tucked, hit, resurfaced, sweet. I couldn't resist sneaking a peak as I landed; the results was feeling like I had been slapped around a bit, but I think I kind of liked it.
Jacub followed soon after electing to take the left line, hitting the flake about halfway down. The result was a flat landing - luckily the water was high enough to make it soft (also Jacub is young and compressible).
On to Double Pothole. We got to the entry and scouted; the entry line the Colorado boys had taken on the right the afternoon before was not an option anymore. The water had dropped enough that the flake they had gotten their bow over was not very enticing any longer. Staring at the uglyness that is the lead-in to Double Pothole was discouraging. You've seen the video of the drop - it is super sweet looking. What you don't see is the rock jumble above where all the water slams into a giant boulder. At high really high water you can paddle up against the right wall and clear the boulder, then scramble left to the takeoff point. At lower water you can portage around the left side and put-in right next to the boulder and ferry above it. At medium high water neither of those options seemed all that legit.
After staring at our options for a minute we decided that we might be able to use a pothole right at the lip to put-in, but it would require some teamwork. With one person lowering a boat down into the pothole and one person holding the boat in position, the third person could get in their boat. At this point the paddler would need a push upstream to give them enough time to turn the boat down and head off the lip. This wouldn't leave much room for error, but it seemed like the best plan of attack.
After a brief discussion, we all agreed. The last step involved various 5-8 rock smeering routs to get everyone in place. After almost falling in and swimming the last part of Cherry Bomb Gorge, I had no interest in falling in and swimming Double Pothole - despite my 5-10 savants, my confidence in my rock climbing ability had seriously diminished in the past 24 hours. Jacob and Tim did most of the work while I clung to whatever little holds I could find to get in place. With Jacub going first, Tim in the assist position and me operating the rope, we were able to put successfully put our plan into action.
Tim was next, now with me in the assist position. Once there, I realized that there was a lot of responsibility in the assists position. You didn't want to be the guy that screwed up the push, resulting in a beat-down of your friend. At the same time, it was all fairly straight-forward. Tim nodded that he was ready and I pushed him up and out into the current. A quick turning stroke and a couple of forward strokes to get speed and he was off. I never got to see anyone land their lines, but by Jake's reaction downstream everything seemed fine. Finally it was my turn. Jacub had climbed back up to assist me - a quick push, a quick turn and I was flying off the lip. Being so close to the drop, you couldn't really get much speed; the result was that it was hard to land high and dry, instead the bow scooped a little and I received a little face-shot before exiting the drop cleanly at the bottom. From there, both Tim and Jacub decided the quickest way down was to just jump into the pool; Jacub electing the take the forward flip route...
Right after Double Pothole the hits just keep on going; another nice sequence of tea-cup drops followed by Kiwi in a Pocket and Dead Bear Falls. At these flows the Tea-cups were pretty juicy but fun - I would say that with much higher flows they would become pretty intimidating. We ran groups of two through that section and regrouped above Kiwi in a Pocket.
Having filled my adrenaline box for the week with whitewater and rock scrambling, I really had no desire to run Kiwi or Dead Bear. Both drops involved 20+ footers with cave rescue potential. Plus, having run everything else to that point I figured I should leave something to the imagination. Jake and Tim and I set safety and filmed while Jacub dropped into Kiwi - good line. Then Jake and I watched as Jacub and Tim fired up Dead Bear using the lead-in and seal-launch options respectively. The seal-launch provides very little time to line up the drop; in fact you really are just seal launching into the free-fall. Tim's just kind of kept going left after he hit the water, resulting in about a 45 degree angle on the landing. It looked a bit awkward, but he came up smiling...
At this point you begin to notice the character of the river changing dramatically. The river starts to meander through trees and past beaches. The next mile would actually be the worlds best inner-tube run; dangling your feet in the water, looking up at the granite walls, sipping on a margarita out of a nalgene bottle - truly spectacular scenery.
Jake Happy to be UCC'n
After a while, West Cherry comes in on the right and things start to pick back up again. There are lots of drops, but since we were moving quickly, they kind of run together in my mind. There is one good sized drop that I recall and one drop that we portaged (although it looked to be runnable). There was definitely some fun stuff near the end of the first gorge and a fun slide just before the last gorge.
The last gorge has several drops of debatable quality. The highlight being the Nozzle - a pinch drop with a bit of a recirculating eddy on the bottom left.
The Nozzle - Next Stop Cherry LakeFrom there it is on to the lake. After a short paddle across the lake and a not so short hike up the hill we were back to our shuttle vehicle. Stoked, tired and extremely happy, we celebrated our memorable trip with warm beer and high fives. After headed back to get the car it was off to Buck Meadows for a 49'er burger; which on that day was quite possibly the tastiest burger I've ever had.
After four days of some of the best whitewater and most amazing scenery I've ever come across, it was time to go home. I can't say I was ready to leave, but I can't really say I was ready for more either. I had an overwhelming sense of bliss as I drove over Tioga Pass and back down 395 and the Fourth-of-July fireworks in Independence capped off my journey. It's funny how sometimes you need some periods of insanity just to help keep you sane.
For future reference, here are some of the guages of potential relevance during the time we were on the water.