So we decided to run Yellowjacket Creek.
As we were driving to the take-out, one of the guys in our group noticed a house out in the middle of a field. Problem was, the field was actually a small lake. "Hmmmm...I wonder if the water is gonna be a little high today?" This observation combined with high freezing levels and heavy rain all night, all morning, and throughout the day, no doubt contributed to the kinetic carnage energy building in the creek...er, river.
As we pulled up to the take-out (which is at water level), the first thing that stood out was the grey/white silty color of the water. The water could be three inches deep, and there's no way you would know unless you poked it with a paddle (or your head). Think "muddy, floody, swollen river" but because this is fed from snowmelt, it's "grey/white, silty, and stompin'." One guy in our group who had paddled Yellowjacket before noted that it was definitely higher than when he had been there last, but that it still looked doable. Hey...sometimes higher is better! Undaunted, we got ready, loaded our boats onto one truck, then squeezed the five of us into the cab of the pickup like we were about to make a mad dash for the border.
Bennett's guidebook describes the put-in for Yellowjacket as class five...I'll vouch for that as will the four other paddlers who descended close to a thousand vertical feet into the bottom of the canyon that Yellowjacket Creek flows through. Irony would later rear it's ugly head...as we were sliding down the VERY steep, muddy, and thickly forested canyon walls to find some water, we joked about how much it would really suck if the take-out were like this. I can't get ahead of myself here though...that will come later. It's worth mentioning that all of the paddlers on this trip have paddled burly class five water and that I had the least experience with class five.
The American Whitewater description of Yellowjacket states that, "The higher limit of flows is unverified so use caution as once you descend into the canyon you are committed to the run." We were about to experience the "higher limit of flows" for Yellowjacket. The Bennett guidebook rating of IV+ wouldn't apply today...we were class five bound...and in one hell of a hurry to get there. We were now standing on the edge of Yellowjacket, muddy and hot from the descent into the canyon, definitely a class V put-in. We stood there for a few minutes, stretching, making sure the breakdown paddles, pin kits, med kits, video camera ;-), etc. were all secured.
As I was eating my excessively delicious yogurt dipped power bar, I made a comment to the effect of, "This looks like it might get a bit pushy in places today." I got a response in the form of a grunt of agreement from the paddler next to me. In a few minutes, we were all in the water and ferried across the river to an eddy on the river right side. The paddler who had done Yellowjacket before peeled out first and I swept. The river immediately dropped around a blind right hand turn into the first rapid, a IV with big reaction waves and some sizeable holes...so much for a warm up. I hit an "eddy" which was more akin to a boil line on the river left side in the middle of the drop. I yelled to one of the other paddlers in our group that, "Boy, it just really sorta starts...doesn't it!" At the bottom of that drop, we all "eddied" out on river right in a small area of slow-moving water.
There was another big horizon line around a blind right hand bend in the river. We were cliffed in now with NO scouting or portaging options aside from boat scouting and practicing the Zen art of "read and run." Looking at this next horizon line, what stood out was the big house sized boulder on river left with a HUGE log jam built up against it. About a third or half of the flow went right into this log jam with the remaining water bending down to the right and dropping out of sight. The first paddler peels out and immediately gets pushed out to the middle left of the river...the whole time he's motoring, trying to move hard right and away from the log jam. He drops over the first horizon line and the second paddler peels out, knowing that he's got to paddle harder to stay right. He manages a middle-right line over the first horizon line and the third paddler peels out with a similar clean line over the first drop. As the fourth paddler peels out we hear two sharp whistle blasts...he catches a surging eddy up against the river right cliff just above the lip of the first horizon.
I managed to get into a small eddy about half the size of my boat and claw my way up onto the bank of the river. I see that the fourth paddler is stuck in "brace-city" just trying to stay upright in the surging eddy. I make it about ten feet down the river bank before it completely cliffs out, but I'm still a good sixty feet from the fourth paddler, who is stuck in the surging eddy at the lip of the drop. He manages to hang out for about a minute...no more whistle blasts...so with no reasonable options, he just peels out and goes for it.
By the time he peels out, I'm back in my boat and out in the flow...charging down the right side and into a drop called 'The Meteorite'. This rapid is a series of river wide ledges that develop into very sticky holes at this flow. I notice that the first paddler down is standing on a small gravel bar in the middle of the river and is signaling that I should run middle on the final and largest ledge...this as the fourth paddler is getting his surf on in that same hole, but on far river right. He finally flushes just as I get a good boof off the undercut ledge that forms the last hole. The fourth paddler and I run our boats up onto the gravel bar that the first paddler is standing on... without his boat or paddle.
About a hundred yards down stream we notice that the third paddler has wrangled his boat into an eddy and up onto a small ledge on the side of the river. After some creative wading, swimming, and assistance from the fourth paddler, we get boat and swimmer re-acquainted and pull the first breakdown paddle out. Paddler #1 got stuck in a hole just above the big log jam with a smaller log jam making up the river left side of the hole. His options were move river left into log jam...or river right into the meat of the hole. He was trying to move into the meat of the hole for all he was worth so that when he swam he would have a better chance at getting flushed around the monster log jam below him. Finally he pulled and swam his ass off to avoid the log jam, got flushed around it, and climbed up onto his little gravel bar...just a little shaken and a bit banged up from swimming over two more big ledge drops into holes.
Once the four of us are in the eddy where the boat was corralled, I ask where the second paddler is and get: "he chased after the lost paddle." The fourth paddler and I decide that we should continue on to find the second paddler while the other two get the boat drained and the breakdown put together. The decision is agreed upon, so he and I peel out...I'm in front and he's on my heels. As soon as we round an immediate blind right bend, we see...a big horizon line. We quickly catch a small flowing "eddy" on river left. The fourth paddler hops out of his boat and asks if I'm getting out. I say, "No, just let me know if it's something worth looking at." Well, the river gets completely cliffed in again at this point, so he does some creative scrambling to the top of this outcropping and takes a good long look. After about a minute of him moving to different vantage points and continually shaking his head I decide that it's probably worth looking at, so I get out of my boat.
I think I said that for about the next two minutes. Alright, four parts to this drop. Top drop has a six foot ledge that drops onto a shallow ledge on far left. Far right is pretty much a terminal hole. Middle has a curling, surging, breaking lateral wave that dumps right into a big ledge hole which is immediately followed by another ledge hole which is quickly followed by the BIGGEST, most uniform, riverwide, cliffed out on both sides, HOLE I've never not wanted to paddle into. We decide we should wait for paddler #1 and #3 to get here so they don't run this blind... still no sign of paddler #2.
After a few minutes they eddy out and join us on the bank trying to scout this marginally scoutable and absolutely unportageable series of holes that put the word "STOMPIN'" to shame. Well, no choice but to run it...so we better break out the video camera for this one! Oh, by the way, by the time you hit the second hole in this drop, the bottom half is completely cliffed in and continues to be cliffed in for about a hundred feet after the bottom hole...THERE IS NO WAY TO SET SAFTEY..
I get in my boat first and slide into the eddy. Paddler #4 asks if I want him to follow me..."Yeah, please follow me." I wait for him to get into the eddy and I peel out. I motor to the middle looking for my landmark to slide down the lateral wave and punch the first hole. First thing I notice as I approach the horizon line is that the river is hauling ass at this point...but I'm right where I want to be...slide down the lateral wave and punch the first hole. I keep motoring, trying not to lose too much momentum and I hit the second hole which really slows me down and the reaction wave behind it flips me. I snap off a quick roll realizing that I'm now backwards moving into the final MONSTER hole. I spin myself quickly and line up on the far river left wall for what looks like a big boof over the hole and into the eddy. To my disbelief, I'm right on line and as I approach the final horizon line, I see what we couldn't see from our poor scouting point...this hole is BAD...BIGGER than HUGE and BAD.
I throw a big right boof stroke for all I am worth...but it might as well have been a back stroke. You know the feeling when you hit a big hole and it feels like you hit a brick wall? Well this felt like someone was driving a brick wall 30 mph at me when I dropped into this hole. It felt like I pitoned something, but I didn't hit anything. Not only did I lose all forward momentum, but was going backwards and sideways into the middle of the river at Mach two. I was getting my rodeo creekin' on...this is becoming a bad habit for me. I managed to stay upright most of the time, got shaded a few times, couple of creekwheels, etc. The whole time I'm in the hole I'm being pushed farther to river right, where there is a tree pinned at a fifty degree angle at the lip of the ledge and against the far right wall.
I intermittently catch glimpses of this tree...which is beginning to concern me. Finally, I stabilize in the hole just long enough to realize that I'm upright, pointing upriver, and I'm in the bottom of a huge hole getting shoved into a tree...BAD. I take the opportunity and take a big lefty stroke and shove myself into the downflow which effectively pops me out of the hole backwards...about three feet from getting shoved into the tree. I roll up just in time to see paddler #4 drop into the hole far left and get shot far right and after a couple of shades, get flushed out. By the time he's out, I'm about a hundred feet below the hole in a small eddy just as paddler #1 drops into the far left of the hole.
His boat disappears for a split second and then gets shot completely out of the water into a backloop down into the hole...which immediately pulls him into the middle of the river. He proceeds to get pummeled, pretty significantly I might add. After hanging in for a long while, without a breath, his boat completely disappears for about a three count. It resurfaces and begins cartwheeling violently...then paddler #1 pops up about twenty feet out from the drop at the edge of the boil line. Paddler #4 paddles up to him and pulls him close to the river right wall where I have a rope ready. Paddler #1 gets out of the water, boat still in the hole, breakdown paddle nowhere to be seen. Paddler #2 is still nowhere to be seen.
At this point we are "very concerned." Paddler #3 just witnessed three ass-whoopings and a swim from his vantage point upstream. I signal to him that I've got a rope ready in case he swims and he gives the thumbs up (he had been filming our ass-whoopings). He really doesn't have a choice... so he peels out and runs a clean line through the top three holes, boofs hard left AND...mystery moves in the hole and pops up in the middle of the river in a huge stern squirt and gets shot out of the hole. We're talking some serious down time!
Still no sign of paddler #2...very worried at this point, but hey, we're moving as fast as safely possible here. Paddler #1's boat gets flushed out of the hole by this point (after spending about 3-5 minutes getting pummelled in the hole) and paddler #4 tries for all he's worth to round it up. Problem is, the "pool" below this monster hole is moving VERY swiftly into another horizon line that is a mirror image of the one we just ran with another monster, unscoutable hole at the bottom. Needless to say, Paddler #1's boat cruises past and it disappears into the holes below us.
Carnage count: Two paddles lost, one boat lost, three swims, one paddler unaccounted for.
Total distance paddled: One mile.
Now, paddlers #4 and #3 are standing on a small ledge under a forty foot cliff on river left while paddler #1 and myself are on river right. Paddler #1 has no option but to hike, actually more like climb, out at this point. He knows that there is a road to McCoy Creek which flows in just upriver from where we are, and that he can get out on that road. About now someone starts blasting on a whistle and no one can figure out who it is. After a moment of confusion, we realize that it's coming from the top of the cliff above paddlers 3 & 4 on river left. It's paddler # 2!!! He's okay, but has a story of his own. He yells down that he lost his boat and needs to hike out.
I paddle over to river left and those of us who still have all of our gear have a little pow-wow. One mile into the trip... two swims, two lost boats, two lost paddles, and it gets worse. Paddler #2 swam in the same monster hole that we got whooped in, but he got WORKED. According to him, he came out of his boat after hanging in for what seemed like forever. Well, when he came out of his boat he got stuck in the rinse cycle with no good air in his lungs. He stopped counting when he got pulled back into the hole the third time. He says that the last time he got pulled in he was completely out of air...completely. Balled up as tight as he could manage, he says he got pushed DEEP and popped up in a feeder eddy going back into the hole. He managed to swim like he was possessed and clawed his way onto a ledge where he began coughing up water. He managed to get his paddle back but his boat was impossible to reach or push to an eddy...he was by himself.
So to finish this novel, the three of us decided that we had all of our gear still, today's tally "river vs. kayakers" was definitely not in our favor, none of us (who still had boats) knew the rest of the river, there was no way to portage the next drop, we didn't know if there was a better place to get out, and we had a guaranteed path of egress where we were with paddler #2 on top of the cliff with a rope. The decision was to call it a day and begin the hike/climb out of the canyon. We lined the remaining boats and paddles up the cliff and then climbed out of the bottom of the canyon while paddler #1 began the hike to the road that goes to McCoy Creek (there was NO safe way to get him across to our side of the river).
Here's the ironic part. We joked about how much it would suck if the take-out was the same as the put-in...well it was, except that it sucked ass even harder than we had joked about. It was about a thousand vertical feet up, no trail, random dead ends because of small cliffs, big old dead trees that needed to be climbed over, blah, blah, blah. We finally got out and paddler #4 and myself ran to the truck at the put-in and drove back to pick up the other two paddlers...arriving at the take-out just as paddler #1 was getting his dry clothes on.
Rough day, bummer about the gear, but the point is that everyone came out okay after a couple of VERY close calls. Take your own lessons from this TR, we all did. Yellowjacket Creek above 1000 cfs is class V. Paddler #2 nearly drowned, we lost two boats, two paddles, and each got to get a little rodeo creekin' practice in that day. Beatings taken, lessons learned, paddle safe, have fun, and ALWAYS look out for each other...even if you're paddling class II water. Water is water when it gets in your lungs. By the way, a recon trip to Yellowjacket is planned in the next few days to look for the lost boats and paddles. The levels have dropped, we'll see what happens. SYOTR.. safe and sound!
A toast...to rodeo creekin'!
Not that I'm paddler number one or want to be, and not that Scott is paddler number two or wants to be; but we did find my boat and Scott's boat yesterday on the recovery mission. One mile downstream both boats where caught in the same log jam. For unbelievable added luck my paddle was sitting directly on top of the jam. We hiked them back to the road and then completed the run. Definately a mellow run at the lower flows, but it stomps at high water. My boat seems to have developed a hole on its swim, so I'll be looking for a cheap Huck or Java.