Big Kimshew Creek

By Jesse Coombs, all photos © Darin McQuoid, Jefferson State Creeking

Class: V - V+
Location: California Sierras
Season: Spring snowmelt
Gradient: 270 fpm average, maxes out at 600 fpm in the steepest sections.
Character: A classic California steep creek in a granite-lined canyon featuring waterfalls and ledges of all shapes and sizes.
Length: Six to eight miles, depending on where you put in.

Copyright © 2008, Jesse Coombs, Darin McQuoid, and Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of Jesse Coombs, Darin McQuoid, and the Oregon Kayaking webmaster.

Big Kimshew creek is one of the best single-day class five runs in California, but it is very difficult to catch with water. There are various reasons for this, but the main problem is that the road is usually blocked by snow during spring runoff. Even the locals feel lucky to get on this one every few years, so I feel very fortunate to have run it at all. During the Spring of 2008 we were sitting on a huge snowpack and there was plenty of water everywhere. Ben and I were on the film tour for Hotel Charley 3, and we found out through Taylor Robertson that the road to Big Kimshew was plowed and open because of some logging going on in the area.

When the road to Big Kimshew is open word spreads fast, so our group size grew pretty quickly. On this trip we had ten paddlers, including: Taylor, Devin Knight, Ryan Knight, Pedro Olivia from Brazil, Chris Korbulic and Chris Gabrielli out of Oregon, Johno from New Zealand, Darin McQuoid, Ben Stookesberry, and myself. I had been dreaming about hitting the California Classics for many years, and Big Kimshew is arguably one of the best one day runs in the state.

As we were driving to the put in I could sense a nervous energy in myself and a healthy respect for the creek. Obviously that was a good thing, as Big Kimshew deserves consideration and respect from every paddler who is thinking about running it.

We met up at the creek in four cars and consolidated for the shuttle. After dropping off Taylor's small pickup, Ryan's Outback, and Chris's full size truck at the take out we piled up everyone's gear on Devin's full size diesel pickup with tubular work rack. This was no small feat as we had to fit ten boats, ten sets of gear and ten guys in one truck. That meant six boats on top, two boats tied to the sides and two boats in the bed. We then packed six guys in the cab and four guys in the back.

Cramming ten boats, ten sets of gear, and ten guys into one truck.. Not a simple undertaking.

After driving forty-five minutes up to the put in, we were more than ready for the short hike down to the creek. We decided that ten was too many for such a steep creek, so we split into two smaller groups. We also decided to shorten the run by a little by putting in at the island portage rapid. This meant that we skipped a mile of warm up boogie water and went right to six miles of the goods.

The author, all smiles above the put-in for Big Kimshew.

Below the portage we headed into some amazing rapids. I was quickly introduced to the fact that if you have a good line on Big Kimshew you will be rewarded, but if you have a bad line you will pay the price. This creek cannot be described as forgiving. Missed lines on Big Kimshew mean bad hole workings, pins, hard landings and broken paddles.

I got spun sideways in one unnamed rapid and the strength of the water pushed me onto another rock several feet downstream. As I flipped towards the boulder I pushed my paddle and hands toward the rock, used a hand brace to finish the maneuver, and recovered my orientation as I finished the drop. Lesson learned. You must stay on line on this creek or things can go wrong in a hurry.

Looking downstream at some typical 'mellow' rapids between the big drops on Big Kimshew.

Early on is a rapid called LJ's. LJ's is a very cool and busy rapid that starts with a folding slot entrance where you have to keep your braces going and speed up. From there you punch a small hole and then a larger sticky hole. Taylor went first and greased it. Ben went next and had a good line until he got flipped in a sticky hole partway down. He hit a quick roll as he was just past the hole and lined up for the slide below. Darin when next and got flipped in the sticky hole and worked there. He was doing a good job of fighting through it and it looked like he was about to get out, but then it pulled him back in. I went running over to help him because I was concerned that he might swim. But he just kept working at it, and eventually found a soft spot in the hole as he got flipped and escaped the grip of the hole. He hit a quick roll and headed for the slide below.

Chris Gabrielli did not like the results of the hole and decided to walk it. I thought that if I worked to keep up my speed and pulled through the hole I would get through it. I headed into the folding top and did a good job of working through this section, but I was completely blinded by the whitewater and was going on feel alone at this point. I hit a hole and greased right through it. In my head I thought: "Wow, that bottom hole was a lot easier to punch than I thought." And then I got a bit concerned that maybe I wasn't through the sticky hole yet. I was right, because then I hit the sticky hole and immediately got back-endered as well. I hit a quick roll and was glad to see I wasn't in the hole as I headed off to the slide right below. Big Kimshew has many holes like this that require you to hit them with speed and keep paddling hard or pay the price.

When we got to the bigger drops Darin headed off with his camera for the best photo angle. Darin did this on pretty much every rapid, and I can't explain clearly enough how much I appreciate Darin. He is as motivated to paddle as anyone out there. He takes amazing photos and always has his camera out to capture the best images. He is better than anyone I know at being responsive to requests for photos and making them available for sale. And he is one of the nicest and most positive guys I know on the creek. Darin is truly a great person and a great friend. We soon came to a 20 foot falls that was too sweet. The move here is it to get up on the right and then separate from the falls. Too fun! We all had good lines and enjoyed the big time fun Big Kimshew has to offer those willing to test their skills.

The author lifts off at the sweet twenty footer.

Taylor Robertson runs the twenty footer

The next big drop is Big Kimshew Falls, an amazing fifty-foot slide falls that is as smooth as butter with the right line. Luckily I had Taylor telling me the lines, and he knows them better than anyone. After showing us the line he got in his boat and ran it perfectly. Chris Gabrielli was ready to go next and had a great line also. He entered the bottom of the falls steeper than Taylor, and the result was spectacular. While Taylor's line was a quick entrance into the pool and resurface, Chris Gabrielli plugged it more and resurfaced two boat-lengths downstream in the pool upright and shedding the water he had been pushing fifteen feet below the surface. Pretty cool!

With two good lines before me and a clear understanding of the line I headed off to recheck my entrance. I double-checked the landmarks I would use to enter the falls correctly, got in my boat and headed for the lip. I hit the line exactly as I wanted and was rewarded with a great falls and soft landing. Too good.

The author runs Big Kimshew Falls

Darin went next, and unfortunately experienced one of the biggest downsides of paddling in a large group.

Have you ever played the telephone game? The idea is to tell someone a phrase, and they tell it to someone else and so on. When you get four or five people deep into this the phrase invariably gets changed and shortened. Taylor told Chris Gabrielli and myself the line directly, so we knew exactly what to do. Darin heard the line second hand from someone else, and all he heard was to keep his nose up. Therefore he ran the falls too far right and had to do some quick adjustments to keep his boat straight for the entry.

The fun does not stop there as there are a lot of great slides and drops, all of which would have big time names on most creeks.

Serious gradient!
Chris Gabrielli, Taylor Robertson, and the author below Big Kimshew Falls.

Next up is a big slide, then just downstream is a big horizon line marking Triple Drop, which is quite beefy! Most people do not run this one, and even those that run it don't run it very often because of the severe consequences. Taylor said he has run it twice, luckily with good results both times.

Ben Stookesberry and crew running the slides above Triple Drop.

The line at Triple Drop is to get left and stay left. You first take a green flake at the top and drop into a folding seam on the right. Next you head over the second ledge where the water truly gets thrashy with boils. Taylor said this is usually where you stop seeing the paddler. Finally you head over the third ledge, hoping to resurface on the left where the creek exits. The key here is staying left at the bottom. If you don't get left, you get pulled into a recirculating eddy on the right that is impossible to exit and feeds back into the falls. This eddy is known as the 'Penalty Box' and it is a bad place to be. Most of the group wasn't feeling like running this drop, with the exception of Ben and Chris Korbulic.

As Ben got ready to go, I portaged and went across the creek to film. Devin also portaged and set up safety at the Penalty Box in case someone ended up in there. Once everyone was set, Ben went first and made it look too easy. That is what happens when someone runs something really well.. they just make it look easy..

Ben Stookesberry fires up Triple Drop, one of the most consequential rapids on Big Kimshew.
The Penalty Box is visible at the bottom of the drop on creek-right.

After watching Ben probe the big one, Chris Korbulic gives it one last look..

Chris went next and started great. But in the second drop his nose got turned sideways and he went off the third ledge a bit sideways. I thought he was going to be fine, but he got kicked to the right and ended up in the penalty box. Luckily Devin was there and is VERY experienced in situations like this. Devin knows that you don't throw someone a rope until they are asking for it, so he stayed calm and waited. Throwing a rope at a paddler who is still fighting the hole and not ready for it can make a bad situation much worse!

Chris Korbulic enters Triple Drop

Chris took a couple trips around the Penalty Box, getting pulled toward the falls and back away from it again. After two trips in this very unfriendly circuit, Chris looked to Devin for the rope. Devin handed him the rope and then hunkered down to help him. The hard thing about holding a rope in a kayak is that it wants to pull you over, especially in a place full of crazy currents and boils like the Penalty Box.

Chris did an amazing job of pulling himself toward Devin and keeping is boat upright. It looked many times like he was going to tip over completely. Chris got himself to shore with the rope and stepped out of his boat. The team gathered up Chris' paddle and boat in the pool below and we all hiked to the portage spot to continue down the creek.

Chris gets a helping hand from Devin as he climbs out of his boat in the 'Penalty Box' below Triple Drop.

Chris looks back up at Triple Drop and talks it over with Devin.

Again there were a lot of great slides and falls before our next big feature.

The author runs a typical Big Kimshew read-and-run drop.

Frenchy's Falls was a much-anticipated drop downstream of Triple Drop. This drop is named for a paddler who missed the eddy at the top and dropped over the falls into the wall on the right. He hit the wall at the bottom resulting in a serious head injury and helivac out of the canyon.

Ben had run Frenchy's the previous day, and both Scott Ligare and him had hard landings off this forty-foot falls running it on the left. If you run it a bit too far left you catch an auto-boof flake that sends you flat into the green water. The other concern about this falls is that the right side falls toward a wall.

Therefore, like every other line on Big Kimshew, if you hit the thin line you get a great soft drop, and if you don't you will probably get hurt. One interesting thing about Big Kimshew falls and Frenchies falls is that you don't need to take any strokes at the lip. You just get yourself to the right spot and let the creek do the rest. Taylor went first, had a perfect line, and resurfaced perfectly. Devin went next, also had the perfect line and made it look great.

Devin Knight drops Frenchy's.

Chris Gabrielli and I were both on the fence about running it. Chris decided to head for the portage, and after looking at two good lines I decided to give it a go. I did the seal launch into the pool below and made the mistake of launching straight ahead. It is best to drop into the pool with some right angle, but with my straight angle I went right into the down stream current.

The preferred way to enter the falls is from the right eddy above the falls. After catching the right eddy you head to the left side of the falls without being too far left. Once I was in the current I decided to head straight for the falls. The good news was that I didn't spend much time thinking about this forty-foot falls. The bad news was that I didn't have the right to left momentum to help me get left. I entered the falls more on the right which is closer to the falls. I adjusted in the air a bit by rotating slightly to my left and tucking on my deck. I landed nicely in the pool below upright and headed left toward the others. Darin when next, hit the line perfectly and we all headed down stream with big smiles.

After some more great drops and a quick portage we were at the final falls. This is a great drop run on the left and we had just finished Big Kimshew!

Devin Knight runs the last drop on Big Kimshew as the sun drops below the canyon wall.

Chris Gabrielli runs the last drop, zoomed out..

It was a great day with thankfully only a little carnage. That said, the team was definitely feeling the bumps and bruises of a creek that leaves its mark on you. I am really glad to have done Big Kimshew, it is one of those creeks I hold at a high level of anticipation, excitement and respect. Truly a great run and a great bunch of friends!

Here's the flow and shuttle beta from Darin McQuoid of Jefferson State Creeking and a few other sources: Drive to the confluence of the West Branch and Big Kimshew ( near Stirling City ). Backtrack to Reston road ( which doesn't have a sign, but is near where the take out road comes back up to the paved road, turn right ), then follow Reston and 200R as far as possible. See the maps below for more detailed directions.

Runs during the peak of snowmelt in May.

Big Kimshew is located in the Northern Sierras, Feather River drainage, showing by the blue pointer below. This map image is from Google Maps.

A zoomed-out terrain map, showing the put in and take out relative to Stirling City. This map image is from Google Maps.

The put in for Big Kimshew, note the direction to Stirling City on the bottom left side of the map.
Once Retson Road starts climbing, you can go right along the ridgeline above the creek or left around Concow Road. This map image is from Google Maps.

The take out for Big Kimshew, where the creek joins the West Fork Feather. The key turn onto Retson Road is marked here ( Retson comes just after the take out road comes up to the paved road ). Stirling City is just north of this map snapshot. This map image is from Google Maps.