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Until a few days ago I was probably the only person living west of the Mississippi that hadn’t been to Yosemite National Park. Not that I haven’t had interest. It’s 12 hours of driving — one way — to get there from here, and not only do you pass through or near some other amazing places en route, but you drive all that way to find that tens of thousands of others have beaten you there and are currently clogging up the roads and trails, dropping kleenex and candy wrappers and swinging selfie sticks while elbowing each other out of the way. On each previous opportunity I’d had, I’d always gotten sidetracked en route — and hadn’t really felt like I was missing all that much in the grand scheme.

Then a few years ago American Whitewater was able to convince the NPS that paddling a few previously closed streams within the park would be a good idea. Two paid-to-do-it kayakers nabbed the first descent, narrowly avoiding getting pipped by two badass working stiffs whom schlepped in IK’s days later. Both of their trip reports had me salivating on my keyboard and starting to noodle on the details necessary to get there with water.

“Well, this has to be the best possible way to see Yosemite Valley for the first time.”

Through the late spring and early summer I’d pull up the gauge every few days, looking for the flows to have dipped below 300 so that we could all scramble to take the time off on short notice. Big snows last winter kept flows high much longer than expected, forcing all of us to continually readjust our schedules as summer progressed. The window didn’t finally open until early August. No other way to get this one: When the flows come right you just have to drop everything and go. Ultimately an expected larger crew was whittled down by circumstance to just Jeff Creamer, Tom Diegel, and myself. Strong company. We hiked from Tuolumne Meadows along Rafferty Creek, up gentle grades over Vogelsang and then parallel to Fletcher Creek, taking the time to ogle porphyry and pyrite, learning from Jeff about emissables and precipitates, camping at a slab encircled lake after about 11 miles, then descending 3 miles to Merced Lake the next morning.

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Mistakes were made.

We’d used beta from the aforementioned two crews to determine that we probably wanted 250cfs and dropping for our first time in. Arriving at the first long slide it looked good to go — but for a meaty hole where the slide became pool. The longer I looked the less I liked the hole, forcing me to look yet longer for ways of creating lateral momentum — in hopes of catching less of the hole — on the slide. Thing is, I don’t have much experience with slides, and I just couldn’t see how I was going to be able to move laterally in 2 inches of water that wanted to push me straight. And fast. Fresh off their descent of Upper Cherry, both Tom and Jeff declared this one good to go and Tom quickly hiked back up to probe it. I set up a camera to capture the upper 2/3 of the slide then pulled out my rope and stood next to the hole.

Tom came rocketing down, hooting and yipping as he did, then plowed into the hole and got surfed over into a terminal pocket. I hit Tom with a bag at least 3 times but he was so focused on bracing to stay upright that he was only able to lay hands to rope once. And then — gah –the rope wasn’t quite long enough for me to hit him and move downstream to create the right angle of pull. After almost ten minutes of riding the chaotic boil Tom was finally extracted courtesy of quick thinking and even quicker moving by Jeff, whom ran back up to his boat to fetch his rope, ran back down, swam across the eddy below, then delicately plastered himself to the slippery sloped granite and bagged Tom out.

Jeff and I exchanged a glance that said we were portaging that one.

A tiny bit of III-ish boogie brought us to the next horizon line — a 6′ ledge leading immediately into a series of three slides terminating in what looked to be exceptionally sticky holes. After 20 minutes of scouting Jeff was feeling the pull, and his confidence had me thinking that I’d probably give it a go, too. As I walked back up he came over the ledge, slipped into the slide, then — from my perspective — failed to start driving left while the water was still deep enough. He hit the first hole dead center and hung on a brace for a long moment before the hydraulic extracted him from his boat and his paddle from his hands, sending Tom running downstream and wading ~waist deep to grab the paddle before it hit the next slide. Jeff self-rescued and caught his breath while I watched his boat ghost surf for almost 10 minutes.

While Jeff swam across and pulled his boat out of the pocket it had slotted into, Tom and I exchanged a glance that said we were portaging that one.

More fun III-IV boogie brought us to a horizon line over which one couldn’t help but to notice the tops of some very tall trees. I expected to peek over and see an enormous, chaotic boulder pile with water crashing through it, but a quick scout showed that it went. Or that it at least might. The harder we looked — scouting from both sides of the river as well as walking right down the middle of the slab, with froth slipping past our feet. The more it seemed the safest middle-left line was going to be really, really hard to line up. I reminded myself that I’d come here to see some of Yosemite’s backcountry and paddle some fun (key word) slides, then broke it to the boys that although it was my turn to probe, I just wasn’t feeling it. I shouldered my boat down the granite sidewalk, grabbed my camera, then walked about halfway back up and waited.

Tom portaged the top, messy ledge and then got in his boat at the lip of the slide. I was at least as curious as I bet he was as to how he could get the right amount of momentum going to avoid the mid-river island without getting pushed so far left that he ended up in the now-ubiquitous sticky hole. My answer came milliseconds after he pushed off and got moving, as the current spun him 180* and it became obvious that he didn’t have any real directional control. He straightened things out just in time then bounced and skipped through the rooster tail, over the island, then plopped onto the rock shelf that we’d all agreed was the one place we didn’t want to end up. Tom hit the first eddy and then shrugged his shoulders up at us, clearly happy to be down safe but (I guessed) wondering why things were so much pushier than we’d expected.

Jeff walked his boat down to put in next to me.

Again we relaxed with some III-IV boogie, including some smaller slides, before eddying out at a footbridge that marked the entrance to the Echo Gorge. We walked down the slab to scout, noting immediately that the view downstream included stacked, powerful holes hemmed in by steep, polished granite. While Jeff and Tom debated specific line choice at each successive horizon line, I noted that it would be very difficult to set effective safety and even more difficult to get out of the gorge beyond a few drops in. Committing.

While Jeff swam across and pulled his boat out of the pocket it had slotted into, Tom and I exchanged a glance that said we were portaging that one.

We salivated over the teacup drops and recoiled from the powerful holes. What was going on? Had we overestimated our abilities? To this point of the day the trail had been right there — providing easy scouting as well as psychological comfort. But here the trail pulled away from the river and climbed high above — the tilted, polished streamside simply having no way to hold it. We scrambled down, down, down, each handful of steps closer bringing into focus the steepest, most powerful rapids we’d yet seen. Jeff noted that the deeper we dropped into this gorge the harder the rapids became. Easy choice for me: I hiked back up, waded into the river to cool down, then started the roughly mile-long portage.

Jeff and Tom caught and passed me mid-portage. When next we met they were scouting the last few rapids of the gorge before it opened up adjacent to Bunnell Point. The afternoon was far advanced and as-yet we hadn’t really paddled any of the slides successfully, and I began to wonder if Jeff and Tom were bummed at having come so far to walk so much. We clambered and scrambled looking for some quality but found instead a lot of messy, manky, junky boulder gardens. Eventually we’d put in at the bottom of those, immediately reaching a horizon line bathed in welcoming sunlight that seemed to fairly scream out “Here’s the one!” Jeff hopped out for a look and immediately thrust both arms into the air as if to say “Yes! Finally!” But mere seconds later his arms fell to his sides in defeat, as the beautiful slide he stared longingly at terminated into a powerful pocket hole backed immediately up by a boulder. Portage.

Eventually we had to find a campsite, and chose to ferry across and park ourselves at the lip of the Bunnell Cascade. The holes at the base of it looked mean, but — we reasoned — maybe they’d look different in the morning.

Campfire cooking — brats, grilled sandwiches, soups, and a chocolatey dessert — ended a challenging yet oddly rewarding day in a stunning place. Transcontinental aircraft streamed between us and the milky way as we drifted off.

Up at first light I looked hard at Bunnell from above, next to, and below, and concluded that only the hero line was good to go. Peel out of a tiny eddy at the lip, pivot to match the current while trying to gain a head of steam, boof 10′ into a rooster tail and onto a postage stamp sized landing — or land on rock if you miss — and then try to keep it upright while accelerating at mach chicken and hope (for what else could you do?!) that you split the holes at the bottom.

We all walked.

Thus followed a few miles of meandering through the burned Lost Valley, then 3 distinct, fun boulder drops before we arrived at the biggest slide of the trip. Walking down the river left slab I became conscious that the water was doing better than 30mph next to me, and that the whole slab tilted left, pulling the water (and, um, us) inexorably toward a few fangs of rock projecting into the current near the bottom. They looked like they’d rip your block off. Oh yeah — and all ending in another powerful hole. Some water was moving through this one, but the length and drop of this slide just seemed too much to me — especially given that I hadn’t yet paddled anything even a fraction as big. We scouted for over 30 minutes before the others turned and reminded me that it was my turn to probe. Gulp.

The closer we drifted to Half Dome and Liberty Cap the more smiles, waves, and quizzical looks we received.

We walked back up as a unit, debating possible river-right eddies from which we might be able to get started and which, ideally, wouldn’t allow us to make it all the way left before the bottom. In the end I just couldn’t convince myself that I’d have enough directional control in 2″ of water doing 30+, so I apologized to the boys, grabbed my boat, then walked down.

Ultimately Jeff committed and greased it, followed shortly by Tom, both of whom were ebullient in the celebration pool at the bottom. I gathered camera gear and walked down to my boat, telling myself that if either of them got out for a second lap that I’d head up and run it. Neither did, so we headed downstream into Little Yosemite Valley.

We’d expected to see piles of hikers throughout the trip but they hadn’t really materialized until now. The closer we drifted to Half Dome and Liberty Cap the more smiles, waves, and quizzical looks we received. At one bend of the river with steep walls framing Half Dome Jeff turned to me and asked, “You’ve really never been here before?”

“Nope.”

“Well, this has to be the best possible way to see Yosemite Valley for the first time.”

Indeed.

Within a certain proximity to Nevada Falls it becomes illegal to proceed by boat, so we packed up and entered the conga line of the trail. Although our big packs made us conspicuous among the unladen day hikers, Tom and I quickly noted that Jeff, with his one-piece paddle unable to be stashed, was getting a lot more attention and questions from John Q. I took an extra moment to frame a shot on more than one occasion, knowing that in so doing I’d be able to dodge a few more innocuous, inane, and always well-meaning questions, and also that Jeff would have to field them. That’s what friends are for, right?

As we descended we discussed why the flows had seemed pushier, more powerful than expected given the beta we’d received. Had we indeed just overestimated ourselves? It’d be ~5 days til we’d get a solid answer: The ~220 cfs we thought we were paddling on had turned out to be 340, courtesy of the gauge not having been recently calibrated. That’s a big difference. Upon learning that we had a lot more water than desired we immediately began discussing heading back. TBD, that.

The ensuing 4 mile descent into the valley proper featured crowded trail, not as many selfie sticks as I’d expected (but more than a lifetime supply), stunning views, and culminated in an incredible traffic knot into which we had no choice but to merge. As expected.

Logistics are complicated on this one. This is a good start. Permits mandatory and challenging to get. Bear barrels required. Do your due diligence.

Thanks to American Whitewater for their advocacy in general, and specifically for working to make paddling legal in one more of our national parks.

Thanks to Jeff and Tom for being such solid partners.

Thanks to Alpacka Raft for making the most badass backcountry boats on the planet.

Read more from Curiak (and order some hand built wheels) at Lacemine29.


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