No Going Home on California’s North Fork American?

“I’m sorry,” read the text. “I just don’t feel comfortable with you joining us. We don’t know your skills.”

I re-read the message denying my application to join a weekend run on the class IV Chamberlain section of the North Fork American. My shoulders slumped and I sniffed under my arm. Was it me? Did I smell funkier than other boaters?

And what about my skills? I’d met the texting paddler, Maria, at a warm-up weekend on class II Cache Creek earlier that spring. Not to toot my own horn, but I thought my skills matched up just fine with their group.

One of their other North Fork paddlers about my age had thrown down a pretty cool rock splat, so I’d taken up the challenge and nailed my own in the same spot. I found out downstream that he’d only accidently hit the rock. We had a good-spirited laugh about it, and spent the rest of the day lining up boofs on the fun ledgy run. I thought I was an automatic invite for his group’s class IV season.

Speaking of blowing into brass instruments—could it be my breath? I huffed into my open palm. A hint of IPA, a smidge of garlic, and something tangy, like cilantro mixed with bruised pride.

The old bridge at Iowa Hill put-in for the North Fork American River.

It was late-June of the epic 2017 Sierra whitewater season, and things hadn’t gone as hoped. After quitting my teaching job in December, I’d taken an extended road trip across the West, including a few months in California after moving away 11 years ago. I’d see old friends, run rivers of my youth, and catch some new personal firsts. But magazine and book work kept me busier than planned, including taking me to Utah (I know, rough, right?) where I survived Cataract Canyon at 35k and floated instant classic Muddy Creek. Now I was back in CA for a final week and North Fork flows were dropping. First world paddler problems, sure, but still a bummer.

For months, I’d reached out for paddling partners, but many old friends had moved away—economic refugees of high-cost California. Those who stayed were busy with jobs and families, or they seemed a bit hesitant at paddling highwater runs after years of low-volume bump-and-grind. In March, I was graciously invited by Greg, a transplanted Ozarks friend, to the Kings River. But the group democratically canceled due to rain. Um, rain? We’re already in the water, people! I wondered if the real fear was a potential high-water spike.

Then, in April, I’d tossed out the idea of a reunion run at our old stomping ground, the South Fork American. My buddy Sanch—an understandably cautious and responsible family man, these days—responded that we should each toss out our cut-off levels. I said, 6000 cfs. He said, 2000. So, we diverted to the awesome East Fork Carson and had a blast. But now, months later, I was starting to feel a bit frustrated with the prevailing reticence. How could I go home if no one would open the door and let me in?

Like a Bond villain, I rubbed my hands together while considering all the possible responses to Maria’s uninviting text. Using colorful language, I could list the comparable and harder rivers I’d done since moving away. In individual texts. At one-hour intervals. Until I was either a) reinvited or b) threatened with a restraining order.

Entering Slaughter’s Sluice

Instead, I went to the South Fork. I needed to quit sulking and step it out by either joining strangers or gathering courage for a highwater solo. I took my mountain bike for a morning ride up from Skunk Hollow on the new (to me) South Fork American River Trail. Riding along a terrace, I saw familiar waves rising and falling through the hard-rock gorge for the first-time in a decade. At Cronan Ranch, I zipped along the trail Sanch and I once hiked out after trying to kayak down at fish flows. I detoured to the old company lunch spot on Bacchi land where us dirt bags flirted with paying customer’s daughters. I saw the iconic lollipop tree rising in the distance. It was nice to be back.

In the parking lot, I shrugged off a few cold shoulders and bought passage on the shuttle. While loading, a friendly woman about twenty years my senior suggested I join her. Jill was the lone kayaker on a raft trip, and she was nervous having not paddled the level—5500 cfs—in a dozen or so years. It didn’t help that at put-in, there was an official going from group to group, interrogating.

“It’s a high flow today. Just want to make sure you should be out here?”

Should you be out here? I considered saying. This isn’t Turnback Canyon. It’s still class III, dude.

Instead, I just smiled and nodded. Now, I understand the importance of caution during a highwater year, but judging from the equipment present—dry-tops, oar frames, and more sunscreen than an all-inclusive resort—these weren’t yahoos but experienced paddlers. Perhaps a little rusty and appropriately apprehensive. I’m not certain psyching them out was the right approach. One group re-rolled their raft and drove home.

On a Saturday in late June—a time that I recall the river being one long line of rafts and kayaks stretching up and down river—we practically had the South Fork to ourselves. Sure, the level was a bit rowdy, especially in the wave trains of the Haystacks. But all of us, kayaks and rafts, hit everything straight down the middle, giggling like school kids. Great run, no issues.

At take-out, I sent a friendly reply text to Maria. I understood they’d had many low-water years, and I was having a hard time working my way back into the paddling scene. Chamberlain was a serious run, but within my abilities. I’d done it many times over a decade before.

Within an hour, Maria replied: “Sounds like you know the run better than us 😉 You should come!”

We put on the next morning. But something nagged at me as I readied my boat riverside by the old Iowa Hill bridge. I felt a bit dishonest through omission. Thing is, I did know Chamberlain very well, and I definitely felt qualified to kayak it. But back in the old days, I was primarily a raft guide. A back injury at the end of my first season guiding and kayaking—a ruptured disc—had caused nasty sciatic pain when I crammed into a kayak. Thus, for four years in my early 20s, I preferred the upright position of guiding, rowing, or R2ing. I’d been through Chamberlain probably 30 times, but I never actually kayaked it. This would be a personal first—after a long 16-year wait. But all the jittery vibes I was getting on my home turf had me worried if I came clean, I’d get the door slammed shut again. I’d just have to hope for good lines and keep my own jitters a secret.

Chamberlain Falls

I started out near the back, but after Airplane Turn, I inched toward the front. I boofed the entrance to Slaughter’s Sluice, eddy hopped with the others toward the falls. I passed the nemesis rock I once hit broadside while guiding a raft. A commercial crew—who had lied about previous paddling experience—froze up and stopped paddling.

That crazy story? I went through all five stages of grief trying to get the raft around that rock. First, I denied it was happening and didn’t square the bow. Then I shouted angrily. Then, I tried to bargain with them—for the love of god, guys, please look forward and paddle. Gonna say depression set in when I called the high-side? And as we clambered up the tube, I accepted my first commercial wrap had finally happened—until boat #2 impacted and turned my first wrap into my first flip.

It was a cluster from there. Swimmers getting pulled from the water. Me on top of an upside down raft. Sanch hurling a paddle to me from thirty feet, like an Olympic javelin toss. Me catching it like Excalibur and chasing a passenger over the falls. No one got a tip that day.

I believe we used to call this one Grand Slalom, while some raft guides called it Rip, Wrap, and Flip.

But over a decade later, I felt a little more confident once I kayaked past my nemesis rock. I dropped Chamberlain first and set up for pics. Felt ever better leading through Bogus, and then I followed Maria through Staircase. We surfed waves and holes. Laughed and chatted like old friends, talked about future trips together.

At take-out, I met up with Greg, my transplanted Ozark friend. He had opted to join a much larger group and run the class II float from Shirttail down to Lake Clementine. Him and the others asked how it went. When I shared our success, they said they wished they’d come along.

Now, my qualifiers. First, I love floating and I would never belittle the activity. Many of my favorite runs are on step-it-down rivers that I do regularly. I wrote a whole guidebook about floating in the Ozarks. And I am all for safety in paddling—I think many of my boating buddies would agree, I am normally pretty cautious about stepping up to hard runs.

But, at the same time, as committed paddlers we often benefit from seeking a balance between easier and harder runs. If we never do harder runs, but we’re capable, we’re missing out on some amazing opportunities. If we psych ourselves out, or let those milling around the put-in convince us we shouldn’t be there, we will soon slip in our abilities. If we don’t challenge ourselves, push ourselves, grow our skills—especially during drier years in a place like California—then when flows kick back in during a highwater year, we won’t be ready, physically or mentally for the season to come. Eventually, no one will be paddling some of our finest runs, and that’s a shame. Sometimes, we need to shake off the jitters and give things a chance. Wear a wetsuit or drysuit on the South Fork at highwater. If you swim, keep your chin high and swim to shore. Get back in your boat and try again. Practice your roll in Folsom Lake—it’s piss warm down there. Rinse, rinse, and repeat until a) you have an ear infection, or b) you feel comfortable enough to step up to something harder. Yes, there are hazards in paddling—at every water level—and we can mitigate those hazards through improving our skills and frequent practice.

Over beers at take-out, I pulled Greg aside to share what I’d kept to myself all day.

“That was my first kayak run on Chamberlain,” I said. “I hope to come back next season. You should run it if you feel comfortable.”

“I think I might,” said Greg, raising his eyebrows. “But first run? Really. How did it feel?”

“It felt good,” I said. “It felt like coming home.”

The scout at Bogus Thunder, the old hangout spot.