Tuolumne/Stanislaus Rivers trip report, October 23-24


October 23-24, 2010


Joan and Bob decided to reschedule the trip to an earlier date so that the weather would be better and there would be more light and to avoid daylight savings issues. So the trip went forward on October 23rd and 24th.

It was a small group of 14 and the weather was threatening but those 14 are the diehards of POST, Don and Karen, Kit and Charlie, Jan L. Eric R. Vince and Shauna, Pat and Eileen, and just to round things off our friends from Australia, Sherman and Tallulah. Then Bob and Joan made 14.

Another change to the plan was the campground. Turlock Lake SRA has changed its fee structure to $30 per campsite including 1 car. An extra Car is an additional $10 (1 extra per site) and then all other cars are $20. Since this is usually a car intensive trip, the cost of the campsites and parking was going to cruise past the $200 mark and Joan and Bob thought that was outrageous and shopped around for another campground. They found McHenry campground near Oakdale. Don’t bother to Google it, you won’t find it. It is part of a string of campgrounds along the Stanislaus called the String of Pearls. They are boat access only and even though we weren’t actually boating into the campground we were boating on the Stan so we qualified for a big site not too far from the parking lot. When Bob registered for the site they told him that it had been used for camping less than five times in the last season!!! Note: I would guess that the lack of advertising and Google presence might be a significant contributor to this becoming an underused resource.

There was lots of space in an area that had once been a walnut grove and there were also giant eucalyptus trees. We had the campground to ourselves. On the way to camp in the POST van we experienced a little bit of rain but by the time we got to McHenry it had stopped. We set up our tents and the kitchen tarps and headed off to the put in at Knight’s Ferry. I guess the worst thing I could say about the site was the ground was covered in walnuts and undermined with gopher holes and tunnels. Which isn’t a real complaint, trust me on that. It was easy enough to clear the nuts from where I wanted to put my tent. I also set up a square tarp overlapping my vestibule so we would have a dry place to  put our boating gear and wet clothes when we got back to camp in the evening.

There weren’t any showers (unless you count an outdoor cold water rinse near the parking lot) but in the bathrooms there was a little treat: Hot air blowers. I don’t know if you have come across the new generation of hot air hand driers but they blow with enough force to knock down small children. The water blows off instead of evaporating. Hummm, I thought, Interesting. Never one to limit my use of a thing if I can find another unintended use for it, I opened my rain coveralls and blew the interior dry and warm, the hot air billowed out the pants all the way to the floor. Later Eric mentioned that he used it to dry his tooth brush.

Obedient Rain

Weather was an interesting subject for all concerned. The weather reports gave us a 40% chance of rain during the day and a 75% chance on Saturday night, but the temperatures were comfortably high all through the weekend. Every time we got in the van there was a brief sprinkle but when we were on the river it was dry. On Saturday night when we got to camp it started to rain pretty hard but there was plenty of room under the various rain tarps so the kitchen crew was able to fix dinner (excellent, excellent food, Bob and Joan!) and the rest of us either sat at a dry picnic table or in the ring of chairs set up under a third tarp. After dinner and clean up, we had dry clothes and water-proof tents to snuggle up in when the sky fell in torrents.

During the night there was a crash of pots from the kitchen. I suspected raccoons. I am the kind of person who will lay in bed waiting for the next crash for hours. Each little thump or whisper will announce destruction in camp so I surrendered early and pulled on my rain gear (second set) and went out to investigate. The kitchen tarp had filled with water and collapsed under the weight. I pulled the tarp over the stove and other equipment and went to our tent. I took off my wet gear under the “vestibule” of my tent but it was quite a struggle, especially the rain pants because I couldn’t straighten my legs. I settled on pulling them down around my knees, opening the door so I could sit on my mattress and leaving my legs and sandals in the vestibule. To keep my sleeping bag and jammies dry I left all the wet stuff in the vestibule. All the while I was imagining what I would be doing on a wilderness trip with only one set of dry fleece jammies and rain gear. In the morning the rain had stopped and we had pancakes and sausage and other goodies before we broke camp.

The wind on the other hand never let up. It was roaring through the walnut and eucalyptus trees sounding like a runaway train on a long down hill grade.

After the constant rain Saturday night and the even louder wind in camp Sunday morning the thought of driving to the Tuolumne which had lower flows and a wider flood plain and an unpracticed take-out further downstream from the usual spot, I suggested to Joan that I wouldn’t object to doing the Stan again. She took it to the rest of the breakfast eaters and it was voted down but later re-emerged as a done deal.

On the river it was howling high above the water in the tops of the trees but it didn’t seem to reach the boats! There were occasional gusts that you could see ruffling the water as they rushed at you, but they always seemed to dissipate before they knocked you over. It was noisy but didn’t slow us down one iota and the sky was dry except for occasional individual drops of rain. I mean you could probably count how many drops came down while we were on the water.

So Sunday, we went back to the Stan so that Sherman and Charlie could flip their boat in Russian rapid.

Going back to Saturday at the put in; we were pleased to see that the Stan was running about 3 feet higher than what we are used to.

According to the gauge at Orange Blossom it was running at 1150 cfs on Saturday, spiked up to 1175 at midnight and then took a plunge to 1100 by noon on Sunday. Normal flow is about 350 cfs. That meant Russian Rapid was likely to be washed out into a long wave train and not too difficult.

My partner was Tallulah, our friend from Australia, and Charlie was paddling with Sherman, her father. The last time Tallulah had paddled was when she and I paddled the Smith River in July of 2006, I don’t remember when Sherman paddled last, but I am pretty sure it was before that. Tallulah and I did a few practice ferries and peel outs and it all came back to her, her strokes were strong and effective. I chortled at her that we were going to have lots of fun. We headed downstream. The original plan was to meet Bob at the ledge at the top of Russian Rapid, where he would help pull the boats out of the way so everyone could scout the rapid. But, as the ledge at the top of the rapid was under water, Bob struggled back upstream to meet us at the top of the portage trail which was running at about 100 cfs. Yep, the river was flowing down the path deep enough to paddle the boats except when the brush got too catchy.

Charlie and Sherman took the portage and Tallulah and I took the rapid. It was so much larger than I have ever seen it. Whoopee! We paddled down the left, through a nice chute, back paddled to the right to line up another chute, then aimed very close to an overhanging willow branch on the left, and then hit the big wave at enough angle to test my brace and lean, but not so much as to flip us. Then we plowed through the wave train which was surprisingly powerful with up and down as well as lots of swirlies that threatened our balance. Bob had suggested taking a shot at the eddy on the left, where the portage trail ended, but we were long past it by the time we stopped struggling with the wave train so we pulled out on the right, next to Don and Karen. Then we watched the other boats come down. No one flipped. Some people were able to catch the left side eddy others came to our side, the voyageurs straggled to the end of the portage, their boats full of small brush and leaves.

It took a while to regroup on the shore for lunch because the wave train pretty effectively separated the two beaches. Jon D. had elected to paddle his IK solo so his partner could walk the portage (I swear he was almost airborne when he hit the wave train) but he ended up on the wrong side of the river from his partner and lost a lot of ground ferrying over to join her. There was lots of hand waving and shouting over the roar of the water but eventually we were all on the same side where we ate lunch and watched the river. No one elected to carry their boat back up the right-hand shore to run it again. Perhaps people were thinking that they didn’t want to risk a swim when the weather was so threatening.

After lunch we toddled off down the river at a fast clip. Tallulah and I were near the front so we got to see a giant Blue Heron taking off like a B-52 and a quick view of an otter in a pool. We collected some trash from the shore and coasted at what seemed like 20 mph compared to our normal 3 mph. We arrived at the Horseshoe Bend stretch break at about 1:20 PM so Bob volunteered to take the shuttle vehicle to Orange Blossom Bridge so we could go the extra 3 miles past Horseshoe Bend.

Then we returned to camp via some interesting wanderings in Oakdale, where the street signs leading back to camp didn’t match what they said when we left in the morning.(IE Santa Fe turned into First Street without our noticing it on the way out, when we came to First St on the way back, it was new territory to us. We drove another two blocks and came to turn left on Santa Fe, which dead-ended about three blocks off the main drag. We circled around the block, passed another car from our group which was headed in the opposite direction and indulged in a bit of Keystone Kops until we figured out the First Street/Santa Fe kafuffle.)

On Sunday we arrived at Knight’s Ferry, loaded the boats and paddled down to Russian Rapid. The flow was ever so slightly lower than Saturday so that when Tallulah and I hit the diagonal wave it was steeper and thinner. We shipped a lot of water  from the bow, then took on more water as we wobbled through the rest of the wave train. Just as we cleared the wave train, whistles went up and we looked back to see Charlie and Sherman swimming through the big wave and get doused a few times as they swam the wave train. Sherman did not look happy. We were so full of water that we were unable to help with the rescue. Multiple small boats rushed to the rescue and Sherman and Charlie got pushed into a beachless eddy below the lunch spot, the flipped boat had cracked into something hard on the way down and above the water line the stern was crunched. We will need a work party to fix that one.

We regrouped on a gravel bar downstream of Russian Rapid and everyone clustered around Sherman, handing him dry clothes and fussing and pretty much forcing him  to strip off his wet top layer and put on some dry clothes. He protested that he wasn’t cold but more cautious heads prevailed and he looked a lot more comfortable after he changed. Charlie did his own striptease without so much attention.

We motored down the river at what seemed like a faster pace than Saturday’s run. Saw some goats who had denuded the shore near their yard.

We arrived at Orange Blossom just in time for the rain to start as we finished loading the van and trailer. Unfortunately I missed some of the goodbye hugs because I was in the bathroom changing into dry clothes when the other vehicles left.

I wanted to give Bob an especially big hug for providing such a great feast for us all and all his trip preparations, finding such a great campground and organizing the herd of cats called POST.

The drive home in the heavy rain was quite a thrill. It was pretty dry by the time we arrived at the POST storage facility in Oakland, where we unloaded some gear and the trailer. We returned to El Cerrito to pick up our cars and that was that!

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