No, I’m not the troublemaker here. But the infamous rapid on the South Fork American River certainly lives up to its name — a swerving Class IV with a powerful diagonal wave threatening to flip any boat that goes over it, a swift-moving hole, and a big drop next to Gunsight Rock (unless you’re able to ferry across the hole past Gunsight Rock into smoother waters).
All of this means nothing to a non-paddler, and is much more exciting explained in pictures anyway!
A couple weeks ago, the hubby and I made a trip up to the American River for a whitewater fix. Our local river, the Kern, was bone dry this season due to low snowfall, and we wanted to get our kayaks in the water at least a few more times before retiring them to the garage until next season.
The South Fork American River runs all summer long when other rivers are dry, since its flows are controlled by dam release. That meant at the end of June, the water was flowing at a very fun 1,600 cfs — plenty of water for navigating its thrilling rapids.
Last year, we did the Gorge Run (also known as the Lower), a 13-mile stretch of Class III rapids. Not only did we convince all our friends to do it with us, but they’d only taken an intro to kayaking class the day before. They all rocked it — the class and the Gorge. (As for me, I met a rock or two on the way down…)
This year, we decided to do the Chili Bar Run (also known as the Upper), which is shorter but also a bit harder. (Even though the Lower has much more ominous-sounding rapids with names like Satan’s Cesspool, Son of Satan, Deadman’s Drop, and Hospital Bar.) The Chili Bar Run is home to Troublemaker, an S-turn rapid that rafters don’t even blink at but kayakers scout and sometimes even portage (a boating term for pulling over, taking out, and carrying your boat past the rapid, skipping it entirely).
I ran into a bit of trouble on the Chili Bar, and it wasn’t even on Troublemaker. Early in the run (as in only one mile in!), a lateral wave flipped my kayak on the Racehorse Bend rapid. I swam for a good portion of that rapid and ended up taking a gash to my shin. It literally knocked the wind out of me but I managed to pull myself up on a boulder, blood dripping down my shin and leg throbbing in pain.
The injury didn’t even look that bad, but felt a hundred times worse. I was pretty sure I’d bruised my shin bone, and I sat on the riverbank for at least 20 minutes, trying to get my head together. After all, I was only at mile one out of eight!
Racehorse Bend is notorious for being a bad place to swim, and probably the worst on the entire 20-mile stretch of the South Fork. It’s shallow, full of sharp rocks and sideways-churning waves, and continues for quite a ways (it felt nearly as long as the previous rapid, Meatgrinder, which runs for a quarter-mile).
Luckily, the next mile or two was relatively mellow and I managed to get myself together enough to run the rest of the Class III rapids smoothly.
Toward the end of the Chili Bar, we could just feel the intensity of Troublemaker ahead… not to mention it’s practically a carnival, with photographers perched on the rocks for opportune moments (ahem, flips), innertubers from the neighboring campground lolling lazily in the eddies, and kayakers and rafters parked on the side, waiting for a show.
Will and I pulled our boats onto the bank and hiked along a small path for a better view of the rapid. We watched a few boats blaze through and strategized our plan of action.
From what we saw, the rafts simply powered through the rapid, while the kayaks eddied out before ferrying across the currents and gliding past Gunsight Rock, avoiding the big drop to the left of it. So, that was our Plan A. But in the back of my mind, I had a Plan B in place just in case I couldn’t eddy out or ferry across fast enough, and had to face the falls head-on.
I wanted to go first so that my butterflies wouldn’t get the best of me. As I made my way closer to the rapid, all I could think about was paddling for my life so that my kayak wouldn’t get sucked in and under by the swirling currents.
I swiftly paddled through the seam (a change in the current where a visible line is moving between the faster forward current and the slower backward current) but underestimated its force. The current pulled me into the eddy and spit me back out in seconds, sending my kayak into the froth at full throttle. (Do you see how nervous that girl behind me looked?!)
I didn’t even have time to think about ferrying across the rapid, and an inflatable kayak isn’t made for such nimble maneuvering.
Once I realized Plan B was immediately in effect, I found myself laughing out loud — whether it was out of nervousness or bravado, I couldn’t be sure. My kayak was heading straight toward the falls, perfectly aligned between two big boulders, and I gave it my all. My only thought was making it through the rapid without flipping, because a river patrol guy had told me that morning that you definitely did not want to go through Troublemaker upside-down.
With a few deep power strokes, I charged the drop head-on… and screamed. (Will told me later that he’d heard my scream all the way upriver where he was waiting his turn!)
As soon as I felt my kayak slightly airborne, I made a few more power strokes and blasted past the falls, over the hole, and through the churning whitewater.
I emerged on the other side to people hootin’ and hollerin’, with a huge grin on my face. Class IV whaaaat? Troublemaker who? Psh, I eat that up for breakfast.
(And just for fun, one of the photographers caught this action sequence of me in the rapid, which I turned into a time-lapse.)