It started off well, then it went south quickly, then it got better, then it got rough again. I'm not talking about the river, I am talking about everything before we got to the river. I left Kernville on Friday of Memorial Day weekend. To avoid traffic and enjoy the drive, I took the east side up to Tahoe where I was going to Meet Gareth Tate and some others who were up for a Fantasy adventure. During the drive past Lone Pine I quickly realized that not hiking into Middle Kings was a very good call. Even though the water was dropping towards the magical 1500 cfs at Rogers Crossing, it was just a mirage; there was still a ton of snow on Whitney and Bishop Pass and I begrudgingly conceded that Fantasy Falls was the right call. The drive was superb with majestic Sierra views and some excellent AM radio to accompany me.
|Looking up at the Alabama Hills and Sierra|
Arriving in Tahoe in time for a beer or two and a frozen pizza, Gareth mentioned that L.J. Groth (one of the purported members of our crew) had some friends playing in a band that night. Not wanting to already get the rep of ditching a crew-member, I agreed to head out. I am pretty sure that I was not aware that we were going to a Casino. I know I was not aware that we would be driving for some ungodly amount of time to get there. I damn sure know that I was not planning on staying out past 2 am. I'm too old for that and I probably told Gareth something to that effect once or twice that night. On top of that, the folks that knew Fantasy and were going to boat with us moved their trip forward a day, so we lost our guides. No big deal, I guess, Gareth and L.J. had done the run before and we should be able to work it out.
The next day (minus the first couple of hours) was a good day. We hooked up for some bike riding with Scott Lindgren and crew for a ride on Mardis. Way above my head in terms of gap jumps, but good times nonetheless. A margarita and some tacos were in order and we were able to ply some info about the run from Scott. Right, Left, Right were apparently the best portage options. We didn't exactly figure out where though...
Sunday was a great day. We loaded up with LJ and got in sweet ride in South Tahoe somewhere, then it was off to South Silver where we met up with Derek Beitler. On the way we got some beta from Darin McQuoid; something about wood in Rifleman's (wherever that is) and verification of a right portage and a left portage (no mention of another right portage though). Something about the fact that we would probably portage Jedi Mind melt and that the gorge after the Untouchables goes better than it looks. I wrote everything down on a yellow post-it, but when we got word that Chris Korbulic was rolling into town and would join us we were stoked; he probably knows the run as good as anybody, so we had our guide back! We got a sweet camp on Icehouse reservoir even though it was memorial day weekend; things were looking up...
|L.J. Groth sliding the entry to South Silver|
Gareth Tate show the way on Sky Scraper
The next day we woke up to the realization that we still had quite a bit of shuttling to do; apparently the put in is not on hwy 88, it is actually on 4. Go figure. At least we knew where take out was, Salt Springs Reservoir; now we just needed to find it. We also found out that Chris et al would not be joining us today either, but would put on the next day and probably catch us before too long. Word was that the first day was not too long and that we wanted to put in late anyway to try and catch higher water. Then the plan, I guess, was to just work through the second day until the cavalry came.
|A look at the North Fork Mokelumne above Salt Springs Reservoir. Put in, in case you didn't know, is in the lower right corner where the "Alpine State Hwy" aka 4, goes over the river.|
I say we headed downstream; actually we went about a half a mile and ran into the famous Fantasy Mank. Now, I am pretty comfortable with boulder gardens and rapids that others generally call "mank", but with lowish water and group that had not done much boating together before, it was clear we were not going to make a lot of headway on this section. Here was lesson number 1 for the trip; when someone tells you to put on the river late and bomb down to camp number one on Fantasy Falls you should a) ignore them and put on early or b) make sure they are there to lead you down or c) put on late then go ahead and hike the "Mile of Mank". Having missed options a and b, we decided that this section was not worth the time we were going to spend on it. We found the trail on river right and followed over a small saddle. It soon made it back down to the river where we put on again.
|You know you have portaged correctly when you find a sign...|
Photo Credit: Gareth Tate; well at least his camera
Once on the water again we were able to make some time; if memory serves, there were some fairly straightforward rapids and some mileage eating scenic meadows. Soon, however you start to see some of the character of Fantasy Falls as you begin to enter some granite mini-gorges.
|First of many scenic meadows|
|Derek in the first Mini-gorge|
|Camp 1; a little earlier than anticipated|
Day 2Normally Day 2 would start you out in the thick of things, but we hadn't gotten there yet. However, it didn't take long before we started hitting the start of the real Class V on Fantasy. There was one larger drop that was pretty memorable, then it started to gorge up into a series of class V rapids, one of which had a bit of a tricky fold into a hole. There were not a lot of clean lines here...
Soon we were at the "watermelon seed drop". Due to the fact that our water level was on the low side to begin with and now, we were running this in the morning on the low side of the diurnal, it looked a little tight. We weighed our options for a few minutes until Derek decided that he would much rather run than portage. He probed with LJ close on his heels; the result was good, so Gareth and I soon followed.
A fun slide section leads into a larger roosting slide with a bit of a hole at the bottom. At higher water it seems that it would be easy to stay up on the left shelf, but at our flows it dried out a bit and it looked like you were likely to fall off the shelf part way down. I took a good look and decided that it was still fine and lead the way. There was a little bit of a hit coming off the shelf, but still good to go. Gareth fired off soon after
This is followed quickly by Big Boy Pants; one of the better rapid names I have heard. Again, at these flows it was a bit bouncy but still fun and certainly picturesque.
|LJ Putting on his Pants|
|A little break from the action|
|G.T. on the Mushroom Drop|
To be honest, there is a lot of whitewater on the second day; and for us, a fair bit of portaging. I suppose we could blame it on the water levels or the fact that we just didn't know the river, but I think the reality is that this is just a very hard day on the water and if you want to run it all, you really need to be in the right mind set. We certainly ran our fair share, but in the interest of time, the cameras got pulled out less and less...
|Gareth and Derek checking out the reason for portaging the Jedi Mind-Melt Gorge|
G - "This is the good to go Gorge".
Me - "No, I'm pretty sure this is the good to go Portage. LJ, what do you remember"
LJ - "I'm not really sure, man."
Me - "Dammit!"
Fairly convinced that I was right, I made them both walk up the right bank to see if the recognized anything. There was a lot of hemming and hawing, but no real conclusions. We did see the backside of the ski resort, which meant that we had cell phone coverage (Gareth did remember that much). As we sat around in the waning light, Gareth busted out his phone to call for beta. The whole thing was pretty surreal. Four guys on a granite slab with kayaks lounging while we made a call to someone who could give us directions. We sat there for a while waiting...
Me - "Well, what's the verdict. It's getting late, we need to get moving"
G - "I don't know yet, I'm checking my e-mail"
Me - "Dammit!"
This is one of the reasons why I love paddling with Gareth. My personality can become fairly obsessive at times, and while I like to think I can roll with it from time to time, it is not my strength; Gareth is an expert at rolling with it. For that matter, Derek and LJ are pretty advanced when it comes to that department as well. I think on high Sierra multi-days you probably want more Gareths than Erics. But you should probably still have an Eric or two around just to keep things moving...
Long story short, it was the good to go portage, and we soon got things going in the right direction again. It turns out that we were about 100 yards away from where someone on Gareth's previous trip had fallen down a cliff and broken his ankle, prompting a heli-evac.
|This is what I think of your portaging...|
It was getting dark now; luckily during the portage I had eyed a little platform above the river that looked like a good campsite. We called it a day; apparently many others do the same here since the campsite had a nice fire ring and a spectacular view of the valley. Tired and wired after a long day of boating we had some of the best dehydrated potatoes and salmon you'll find anywhere in the Markleeville area.
|Camp #2 on day #3|
|Obligatory shot for future Jet Boil sponsorship|
I have broached this topic before, but the mental side of class V paddling is interesting. Let me take this rapid as an example. When I first looked at it, everything seemed straight forward and I was ready to jump on the water and get going. As everyone else lingered to scout it, I came back to look at it again, partly because I was waiting for them to set up safety, but partly to see if there was anything I missed. Derek threw a piece of wood into the backwash of the hole and it quickly got sucked back into the drop and disappeared. Not seeing it resurface, we started talking about the line again. Perhaps a full 2 minutes later, the stick popped up again. We looked at each other uncomfortably. This was clearly a nasty little hydraulic. Still, I was sure it was no problem to clear it with a boof off the left edge. Should I run a drop that I know I can run but has severe consequences? Or should I just carry around it; there was sure to be plenty more fun down the road. The confidence I had was severely shaken, but this drop was only four, maybe five feet. There were many conversations in my head as I walked up to get my boat, which I had left on the bank above the drop the night before, then loaded that morning in anticipation of running the drop. The bottom line was that I trusted myself to run the drop, and if something happened, I trusted my crew would be able to help me. I picked up the boat and walked it down to the water and put on.
I was right, there would be many more drops that day, many that were much bigger and harder than this one; but this was, by far, the most uncomfortable I felt on the whole trip. I ran it without incident, but I'm still not exactly sure why it felt so weird. In hind-sight, I'm still not sure whether or not I should have run it. In some ways, the relief of making it through without a problem might have given me confidence, which ended up allowing me to run some of the bigger drops further down the run. But at the same time, you are always told to listen to your gut on the river, and I am still not sure exactly what my gut was trying to tell me. I guess the bottom line is that, even after 30 years of kayaking, I am still trying to figure it all out.
|Trying to start the day off right (or, in this case, left)|
|The moment of truth...|
So, in case you were coming here to look for footage of the untouchables, you are in the wrong place. We walked that gorge. I gave the gorge after it a good look, but I think more water would make it more appealing. The fan was not much of a fan and contact on the rock on the right looked probable. Nobody else was really interested either, so we took a pass this time.
After this, things mellow out a bit. Read and run class IV is what is on the menu for brunch until you get to the namesake of the run. Fantasy Falls proper is about as scenic a place as you will find
|This is Fantasy|
|Gareth living the dream|
|Derek in the midst|
|"Oh no, my stocks are not doing so well!"|
|Leaving the dream land|
|"What am I getting myself into..."|
|The Author heading into the Island Drop|
|Boss, the Plane! Fantasy Island|
|See you on the other side...|
Well, there were two parts to running Island Drop. First, was that I was super glad I did. It was awesome. Second, I now had an excuse for not running The Thing. I could sit there happily holding the video camera while everyone else got pummeled. People could ask me how my run was and I could be like "Nah, I wasn't feeling it. I just ran Island Drop and thought I would call it a day." They could say I was a puss, but I could live with myself.
We pulled up to the scout the drop that is quickly becoming a part of California lore. I crested the granite knob that hides the beast from view and was immediately taken aback by how big it actually is. Part of you knows that things are always bigger than they look on video, but it almost defies physics how this small amount of water can create such enormous features. For damned sure, I was not running this.
We admired the rapid for a little bit and Gareth started looking around to see who the first victim for his video camera was going to be. Before I could even bow out, LJ said "I'll run it". If nothing else, we now had a show to watch...
In hind sight, LJ was the perfect probe. Some folks might flail a few panicked strokes here and there and make it look like a struggle. To my recollection, of the few strokes LJ took, most of them were back strokes at the lip to line himself up for the drop. Needless to say, he made it look good. Really good.
|Keep in mind, this is only half of it...|
|LJ cleans it|
My mind was starting to swing from the "no way in hell" camp to the "I suppose I could get pummeled and survive" camp. Gareth looked at me and I could tell he didn't want to wait for me to hem and haw on this one. He handed me the camera and ran to the top. I should have known there was going to be problems when a few minutes later he poked his head back over the rocks to look at his line again. Somewhere out there there is a nice video of this run. I don't know if Gareth is ever going to release it though. It went something like this:
Entry far left. Peton. Surf across the biggest wave in the Sierra. Bounce off the far river right boulder. Surf across the second biggest wave in the Sierra. Spin around backwards. Drop, with no speed, into The Thing. Instigate Surf. Instigate ejection procedure. Watch helplessly as safety takes pictures of you while your boat washes around the corner and goes downstream.
|Gareth setting up for the perfect surf|
|50% of the time every time|
By the time I packed all the camera gear away and got my boat down to the bottom of the drop, Gareth appeared again on the bank. In no uncertain terms, he told me that I needed to get back up to the top and run the drop. I know he just wanted to see me swim, but after the show he put on, I couldn't really not run the drop. Besides, after watching them, I did want to run it. Add to that the fact that my odds were now, scientifically, back to 50/50.
To make a long story short, I was not as graceful as LJ, and not as exciting as Gareth. In true slalom paddler fashion, I caught an eddy about half way through the rapid on the left. It is actually a nice way to run it if you can get out of the eddy and get your momentum going back to the left again. While styling it would be preferable, I was happy to get through with my boat still attached to my body.
We regrouped in the giant pool below the drop and relived our triumphs and tribulations. Lingering for a little bit before rounding the corner, we got going again. There were still a few more drops before the lake, some of which were well below the high water line of the lake. As we ran out the final gradient into the still waters below it was quite the stark contrast. Unlike Upper Cherry, where the log jam prevents you from paddling from the mayhem to tranquility, Fantasy Falls allows you to make that transition.
|Gareth finishes off the run|
|The End, or is it...|
|Looking at the headwaters of the Moke|
We finally pulled into the put-in after hours and finished off the evening watching highlights of the trip in Gareth's van. Passing out in the dirt in a kayaking/booze haze seemed the perfect way to end the trip. Oh yeah, and Chris, I hope you like the reading material we left you...