Deer Creek
( The Ishi Wilderness Run )

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In April 2003 we took our annual California Spring Break trip, which ended up spanning five major river basins: The American, The Yuba, The Sacramento, The Trinity, and the Salmon.
We paddled a wide variety of rivers and creeks, met some great folks, and had a great time. At the end of the trip we had: Two broken boats, one broken paddle, and two swims out of burly hydraulics.
This time around I was accompanied by: Pete Giordano (Portland), Dan 'The Man' Coyle (Corvallis), Josh Knapp and Gabe Flock (Eugene).

One of the most enjoyable things about a trip down Deer Creek is the way you descend through several distinct ecosystems, each with its own distinct geological flavor. At the put-in you are dwarfed by towering ponderosa pines that dominate the rugged, mountainous terrain, filling the air with a subtle, relaxing scent. This couldn't be more different than the take-out, which is reached after traversing the broad Sacramento river valley, better known for it's cattle than whitewater. Along the way the creek cuts drops over three thousand feet through 35 miles of pristine forested canyons.. runs like this help me remember why I enjoy this sport so much.

This was my second trip down this section in as many years; I was the only person in our group who had done the run before, and everyone was pretty excited by the opportunity to finally paddle this section.

We had driven up from the Yuba drainage the night before we put in, and we opted to camp at the put-in bridge. This proved to be something of a mistake: Every two hours a semi would blow by piloted by a suicidally sleep-deprived driver, almost miss the corner, and then correct with a bellowing Jake Brake which rattled my teeth and crushed any hope of restful sleep. This went on all night long...

We rolled out of our bags the next morning feeling surprisingly well-rested in spite of the truck fly-bys all night; we spent the next couple of hours sorting through our various piles of gear, trying to decide what we just couldn't do without for the next couple of days. This time around I went high-tech, with an OR gore-tex bivy and technical REI bag; this couldn't have contrasted more with the broad array of tarps, bits of plastic, and unidentifiable frayed widgets that were being shoved into a few of the other boats. Of course, in the event of a lost boat I was going to be out quite a chunk of change, vs. losing some unwanted paraphernalia off the back shelf in the garage.. Hmmm.. I think I just figured out what I'll take on my next overnight trip!

We put on and cruised downstream, pretty uneventful as usual until the portage around the Fishladder Falls. Getting to this spot early and portaging in the cool morning air was definitely a good call; it made life so much easier than the first time around.

From near to far: Gabe Flock, Josh Knapp, and Pete Giordano in the gorge below the portage.

Below the portage we cruised down the creek pretty rapidly, only pausing in the pools in some of the gorges to gawk at the amazing scenery in some of the gorges. Part of the reason for our pace was the rapidly deteriorating weather situation; the clouds were starting to loom on the horizon and we were a little concerned about camping in rain.

Soon we reached the crux gorge, which is known to local paddlers as 'Bandito Caņon'. This section is about fourteen miles downstream from the put-in. This section is unmistakable from above as wildly sculpted lava walls soar overhead and an ancient footbridge links the walls above. The first rapid in this gorge is a mandatory scout. Here boulders choked the flow down to a very narrow channel which careens through some surprisingly powerful holes and past a few undercuts. The main hazard here is wood; if you chose to boat-scout this section and ran into a mess of wood, your chances of survival would be just about nil. That said, it is pretty easy to get out on the right and scramble up onto the mammoth boulders to peer down into the gorge; a few seconds spent here could save you a lot of grief.

The author follows Gabe Flock into Bandito Caņon.
Photo by Pete Giordano

At the end of this narrow entrance rapid the creek flexes it's muscles and funnels down into a narrow, blind drop with a powerful hole and long runout below. I bombed over this drop first, shot out looking at the sky, and quickly scrambled out to shoot photos...

Pete Giordano gets a bit of a surprise in the exit drop from the first rapid in Bandito Caņon..

Below the first rapid is a second difficult drop known as 'Coffin Trough'. Here the creek splits at a midstream boulder, with equally difficult lines down the left or right side. Dan went first, bombing over the right side without much difficulty, but everyone else chose to go left, which involved a boof on the far left followed by a wild S-turn slalom to the right and then down the middle..

Pete has a perfect line through the Coffin Trough while Gabe watches from below. This drop is tough, requiring a strong move back to the middle below the drop Pete is boofing.

Dan The Man Coyle lines up on a biggest hole on Deer Creek (excluding Fishladder Falls, of course)

Below Bandito Caņon the creek settles into a steady rhythm of class III and IV drops, with an occasional IV+ to spice things up. Somewhere in here we camped, and it was a very nice spot. After hiking around a bit, I walked up a small side creek and discovered a secret camp spot used by hikers. There was a huge overhanging wall with a 20 foot falls trickling down overhead and a wide, flat, sandy spot that could probably accommodate about ten people comfortably! We had already set up camp, but this would be a great place to go if the weather turned sour on you..

Our campsite.

The next morning we cruised down through some splashy class II-III stuff, then we reached the Ishi Falls section, which I had totally forgotten about. We boat-scouted this entire section, which has some meaty, blind drops but nothing too hard. At one point I committed to a blind boulder garden and as I went bombing down alarm bells started going off in my head, and I scrambled into a micro-eddy at the lip of a the big drop at the bottom. Gabe blew past me, and I peeled out behind him to clear the eddy for the next sucker coming down; Gabe and I approached the lip and it dropped in a mess of boulders with no clean line (we had portaged this drop my first trip down.. DOH!) Gabe launched off the left and I flew off the right; he crashed into a boulder and I pinned end-to-end between two large boulders with the water coming down on me from above; once I felt the pin set I rocked violently back and forth as boaters started to crash down all around me (it was raining kayaks) as the rest of the group careened down through the drop and tried not to wipe me out. Finally I popped free, rolled ( I think ) and continued downstream..

Below the Ishi Falls section the rapids gradually mellowed as we approached the final gorge. This bottom section has the best scenery but the most mellow whitewater. Somewhere in here Pete and I found a raft frame solidly pinned on a large midstream boulder, and we decided to rescue it while the others continued downstream. After about twenty minutes of ropework and hauling we freed the frame and hauled it up onto the bank so the owners can come back and get it if they want. We found the raft downstream too, but it was shredded beyond repair..

Doing our good deed for the day: Pete climbs down after carrying the raft frame up to a visible spot above the high-water mark so the owners can reclaim it if they wish..

Pete cruises down the wonderfully scenic final canyon section before the flats on Deer Creek.

A note on flows: Do NOT run Deer Creek under 600 cfs on the internet gauge. The final six miles of the creek is flat, meandering class I-II with lots of gravel bars that would be pure misery below 600!