Mill Creek

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Mill Creek lies directly north of Deer Creek on the rugged flanks of Mount Lassen in Northern California.
This run is thirty miles long, class V, and very remote. Both creeks are great fun, but I must say Mill Creek made a much bigger impression on me in almost every way. The Stanley/Holbeck guidebook for California uses words like 'Fabulous' to describe this creek, and I agree with that assessment.
This is definitely one of the best creeks I have ever paddled.

We ran Mill Creek on the fourth day of our Spring 2002 California Creekin' trip. Day one had been Jenny Creek, day two and three Deer Creek, and we planned to spend the following two days on Mill. I had conferred with Bill Tuthill, the webmaster of California Creekin', so we knew that Mill would be running. Bill said that Deer usually only runs a few weeks out of year, but that Mill gets much more of a snowmelt event and usually has more water. Considering that we had had between 300-400 cfs on Deer, we knew Mill would be at an excellent flow!

After taking off of Deer Creek we drove north to figure out the shuttle for Mill Creek. Our original plan was to hide some equipment on Ponderosa Way, (a long dirt road that snakes across the uppermost stretches of Deer and Mill Creek) However, we ended up on the 'bad' part of Ponderosa Way, and ended up having to drive across a creek and do some other kind of sketchy driving up a road of very poor quality. Finally we got oriented and dumped our gear, and then figured out a back way on paved roads to avoid the creek-crossing/sketchy bit and we headed back down in to the Sacramento Valley. After an hour or so, we arrived in Los Molinos, a sleepy little town that Mill Creek flows through. I was a little worried about leaving my car for a couple of days next to highway 99, so we talked a local businessman into letting us leave my car in his parking lot (very cool of him..)

The drive back to the put-in for Mill took over an hour, much of which was on Pondersosa way. This section of Ponderosa was very narrow, with some steep sections and huge drop-offs on one side. Finally, well after dark, we arrived at the put-in. Of course, we immediately grabbed the flashlights and jogged out to the bridge to check the flow, and we were not disappointed! At first it seemed high because the water was chalky, but later we found out that is volcanic ash from Mount Lassen. Either way, we had more water than in Deer, and we estimated the flow at around 400-500 cfs. We crashed out in the van that night, psyched to be paddling what was reputed to be a harder version of Deer Creek.

The next morning we rose early, and started packing our boats for an overnighter. Once again I packed two days worth of my old tried-and-true Chips Ahoy! and Powerbars, while John lugged out his enormous cooler and began sorting through an impressive array of assorted fresh fruits and cheeses, various drinks, bagels, a wide assortment of crackers and breads, and a Pumpkin pie.

Finally we were ready and we lugged our gear-laden boats down to the creek. The difference in flows was immediately apparent, and I decided we were going to have a very good time! There were lots of fun surf waves, a couple of holes, and a couple of small rapids right away to warm up on.
That said, there is very little real warm-up on Mill Creek. About a quarter mile downstream was the first blind drop, which turned out to be fun, narrow drop into a hole. Below here was a long boulder garden with some big holes, and then the creek started rolling along and we had our hands full with one sweet drop after another. We were moving very fast, boat-scouting almost everything, and generally having a great time!

This is what Mill was like for the first few miles: One steep boulder garden after another, with short, moving pools in between. Here John emerges from one fun drop and gets ready for another..

At one point I pulled into an eddy with Jesse and he said breathlessly: "This may be the best run I have ever done!" Of course, I had to temper my agreement with the fact that the Clear Fork and Little White are of course better, but Mill was definitely an outstanding run. I don't really know how fast we were moving, but we estimated between two and four miles an hour. Somewhere along the way we briefly discussed the possibility of completing the run in one day, but we didn't plan on doing so, as we had thirty miles to paddle with heavy boats.

Jesse, in the midst of another sweet boulder garden downstream. The vast majority of rapids on Mill were long, clean boulder gardens with large holes and fun lines.

Soon the creek started to toughen up a bit and our pace slowed. Soon we entered the first of several gorges on this run, and the scenery was breathtaking. There were a couple of large undercuts in the first difficult section, and one drop and John and I both portaged, but Jesse ran. This drop started with fast, pushy water, leading up to a log, which blocked most of the flow. Below the log, the creek rushed down and crashed into and through an evil-looking boulder sieve. Only Jesse ran the bottom part of this drop, flipping against the boulder sieve but flushing out. After John and I finished portaging, Jesse hiked up and ran it again, cleaning it the second time around..

Jesse runs the nasty boulder sieve drop for a second time, while John stands by with a rope. Just below him the flow crashes into (and through) the large boulder fence visible in the photo.

Below the sieve were more tough drops, and Jesse probed them all. He had been paddling very strongly the whole trip, and today was no exception.

Jesse probes a drop the guides refer to as 'Kitchen Sink' due to it's deep, powerful hydraulic which is backed up by boulders just downstream.

Soon the walls rose overhead and we reached very large horizon line with a large, moving pool above it. "Is this a waterfall?" I wondered out loud as we got out to scout. It sure looked like it from above! We got out on the left to scout, and it was definitely the biggest drop so far. Below us the creek narrowed down and dove between narrow walls through two large holes, the first of which looked like a keeper. Downstream the walls rose overhead as the creek entered what appeared to be the most serious gorge we had yet encountered. We scouted the main drop, and saw that there was sort of a boof on the left, avoiding the meat of the hole (where most of the current was going) on the right. "I think I'll try for the right side." Jesse said with a grin.
"I need to work on my hole-punching."
While John and I considered this, Jesse headed back up to his boat and lined up above the drop while we set up a couple of ropes, one above the huge main hole and one downstream. Sure enough, Jesse lined up on the far right side and ran the first hole right down the gut, disappearing briefly in the foam ("Uh oh..." I thought..) then he surfaced downstream, spun around backwards, and ran the rest of the drop looking over his shoulder.

I hiked back upstream and spent way too long looking deep into that hole, psyching myself out. Finally I joined John in the easy portage on the left, leaving that drop for another day...

Jesse probes a big drop in one of the gorges.

Below the first big drop, there were several more tough ones. Just downstream was a steep drop that slammed into a wall on the left and then turned 90 degrees and flushed over a large boulder downstream. Jesse and I scouted on the left, while John scouted on the right and decided to portage. After scoping out the line I decided to probe this one. I lined up and charged down into the drop, piling into the wall and flipping just it. Of course, this meant I took a painful hit on the submerged boulder just downstream, which left a bruise on my shoulder for two weeks afterwards. Even after watching me roll up (obviously in pain) below the drop, Jesse decided to run the drop anyway. As I watched, careened down into the wall, emerging upside down with a new gash in his helmet..

The author probes a drop downstream and gets ready to take a beating...

That's me, upside down, getting hammered against a submerged boulder while John looks on.
This one hurt.

Below this drop the rapids eased but the scenery stayed awe-inspiring, with many incredibly cool gorges, some of which were less than six feet wide! Some of these very narrow sections had fun class III and IV drops ripping through them, which made the thrill factor very high even through the rapids were not very difficult..

John, in the middle of one of the very narrow gorges on Mill Creek. These narrow sections were great fun, but you had to be careful about getting your paddle wedged in some of the drops in there..

Below the narrow sections the creek widened, but the scenery was still impressive as the creek eased to class III and the rapids became smaller and more playful. Soon the walls started to tower overhead again, and we reached the only mandatory portage on Mill Creek, Dead Man's Narrows. This spot is impossible to miss as the walls start to tower ever higher and the creek disappears into an ominous-looking jumble of huge boulders. Jesse and John scouted this drop and Jesse considered running it, but we were pressed for time and wanted to get off the creek before dark. We opted to portage on the right, but once we did we saw that the left side would have been easier if we had stopped a little higher..

John, scouting the top part of Dead Man's Narrows

Immediately below the Narrows was a sizable drop, which we scouted on the left. It looked like the rapid dropped down into another tight gorge, but we couldn't quite see what was down there. Jesse went first and disappeared from sight as I went back up to get into my boat..

Jesse probes the drop below the Narrows

I went next and had a clean run, cutting right at the bottom to avoid some barely submerged boulders on the left. Soon I was sitting in the gorge below with Jesse, waiting for John to come down. A minute or so went by and then I saw John's boat coming down, upside down. "Oh Shit!" I yelled. and then, a second later: "He's swimming!" as John appeared, out of his boat. As we watched helplessly, the powerful current swept John down into the boulders on the left, where he tumbled violently over them. His boat pinned briefly in the same spot, then popped loose. Soon he flushed down to where we could reach him, and we managed to climb up onto the gorge wall and empty his boat.

Later John told us what happened. He had been pushed into the overhanging/undercut left wall (see photo above) when he came down, and the current had wedged him under there. He had been unable to free himself, so he pulled and his boat popped free just as he came out of it. We were a little worried because John had taken such a big hit and one of his legs was a little messed up, but he soon shook it off and we headed off down the creek.

At this point we had made a conscious decision to run the creek in one day. We estimated we had about five or six miles to go, and the sun was just starting to drop over the horizon. We sprinted off into the unknown as darkness fell...

John, barely visible in the middle of the creek, races against the darkness. We had about four miles to go at this point..

Once below the gorge there was a sizable low head dam that both John and Jesse ran but I portaged on the left side. Below the dam we ran out of light, and I broke out the headlamp as it became totally dark. Soon we neared the outskirts of Los Molinos and we caused quite a ruckus as the local residents came out onto their porches overlooking the creek and gaped at the paddlers with the beam of light cruising past in the inky darkness.

After few more corners we reached the highway 99 bridge. We were all pretty tired, especially because our boats had been fully loaded with gear for an overnighter! We had paddled thirty miles in about ten hours, which was a pretty good rate considering the overall difficulty of the whitewater.

Of course, our trip wasn't over yet! While John and Jesse waited at the bridge, I jogged a half mile into town to where we had left the car. From there we drove north into Red Bluff, where we considered getting a hotel room. After an unpleasant encounter with another sleazy hotel owner we decided to head for the mountains and try to get to the van. The drive back up into the mountains was exhausting, and I was having difficulty staying awake. By the time we got back to the van it was very late, and we decided to drive up out of the canyon in order to get a head start on the next day's driving. Jesse soon left us far behind, careening up the narrow, precipitous road in his westfalia van like he was being chased by the devil himself, reaching the top a good ten minutes before John and I.

We crashed out for the night on the canyon rim, and the next day we headed north-west, into the Trinity drainage. We still had three days of paddling left, and there were still plenty of adventure left on this trip. Our plan for the following day was the Upper South Fork of the Trinity (Klondike Mine Run), but that's another story..