EEL, SOUTH FORK February 18-20, 2011

Near Garberville, CA

Sunshine & Rain…bows

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by Eric Rasmussen
Usually, this President’s Day trip is soggy. “Cold and wet” is the enticing description on the POST schedule – can’t fault this club for false advertising. With such offerings is it surprising that our membership isn’t mushrooming? Yet three new members came on this outing. In his “is there room?” e-mail David S. wrote “I have no aversion to being cold and wet.” It makes me proud that people apply for our trips as though interviewing for the Marines, or Lewis & Clarke’s Corps of Discovery. And for this trip, coming as it did after the wettest and coldest week of the season, signing up was a true act of courage, or something less commendable that we winter paddlers have in abundance.

If you’re reading this and thinking what fools we are, you’re not alone. On our way up, shortly after Vince and I merged back on 101 in Santa Rosa with David just into the back seat, David watched another driver pass us. The driver looked at the two canoes on the rack, at the stormy sky above, at us, and then crossed himself.

As it turned out, the weathermen (NOAA) who convinced Don and I to not cancel this trip were right. It was sunny on Saturday – part of the way up and on the Eel. But not back home in the Bay Area! Yep, all you wusses who didn’t dare to join us: we paddled in sunshine. Even while the rain was falling on us we saw sunshine. And rainbows – the end of one was right at Tooby Park, our Saturday take out. Guess we know who Gods chosen people really are.

When Vince, David and I reached the Richardson Grove State Park campground, just south of Garberville and the Benbow Inn, cars and trucks under canoes were on both sides of the drive. Don and Karen, Bob and Joan, Pat and Eileen, Jim and Barbara were already there. It was about 10:45 – 11 was the designated arrival time. Ours, the kitchen site, number 48, already had the stove and several boxes on the table and a tarp stretched tautly over it. We pulled in, unloaded, and started setting up our tents. It was clear and dry now, but “cold and wet” were expected. Several people asked if anybody else was due. Yes, Alan and Kate. No, they hadn’t called to cancel. And soon they arrived.

In short order all vehicles and boats were at the campground beach and we prepared to send all drivers on the shuttle to Tooby Park. We all scanned the river. It was bigger and faster than we’d ever seen it. How amazing that only a week or two before, people worried we couldn’t paddle because there was too little water – only about 200cfs (cubic feet per second). Now we were looking at 15 times that much. Don decided that on this trip we wouldn’t do our usual Leggett run which has the class II rapids and at this heavy flow would be dangerous, especially for our new members. So we’d keep to Class I. But even this concerned me, for my partner David not only hadn’t paddled for decades; he outweighs me by eighty pounds. I had some troubling thoughts about what might happen if David, already making the bow a pivot point with his size, used his strength inaccurately. I’d decided that we needed to get to know each other as paddlers – before we met up with a fallen tree or brushy turn.

So using the shuttle time as a warm-up period we got into the boat and paddled upstream in the near eddy. No doubt about David’s strength. Our big Dagger Legend moved smoothly, even if the bow was much closer to the water than the stern. We also successfully back-paddled, a useful skill when trying to avoid obstacles). And then, remembering my original POST classes on Lafayette reservoir, I asked David to do sweeps and draws to help us do circles with the big boat. Now confident that we could do basic maneuvers, I steered our canoe out into the current and found that we could ferry well, easily holding our position on the river while going back and forth across it. Great! We were warmed up, and happily headed downstream after leader Bob.

It was now after noon, but true to tradition, no lunches had been eaten. I was ready for mine, though, and watched with some dismay as Bob continued to lead us through turn after turn. I’d hoped two bends in the river would be enough but no doubt he was waiting for a beach with an actual eddy to safely pull into. Only a few stomach grumbles later he found it. Ahh.

There were two expected excitements before the Tooby take-out. The first was “low bridge”, a cement roadway that at low flows clears the river by a couple of feet. Last year Carol surveyed it and led us under the far right side. Nobody expected such clearance this year, and, sure enough, a lone paddle would have snagged on the roof of the bridge. So Bob led us to land on a gravel bar in the middle of the river, and from there we teamed up to lift and carry all boats across the bridge.

When we got in sight of the historic Benbow Inn, Don & Karen announced that they were going to take out. Don was experiencing the vertigo that sometimes afflicts him. We all helped move their boats to a safe place above the beach, and encouraged them to enjoy some drinks in the bar. We also promised to swing by and pick them up on our way back to camp.

Then came the dam at Benbow. This is a real dam – a substantial cement wedge that spans the river to create a reservoir for the lodge. In its center is a closable opening about 15 feet across. In the summer this is filled with timbers, but in this season the opening is clear. On most trips we simply paddle through it, but on Saturday Bob waved us to take out on the far left. We all eagerly climbed up on the dam and walked to the edge of the gap – and gasped. The entire 3000 cfs was crashing through that narrow gap. It wasn’t quiet, and it wasn’t smooth. Just below the opening was a monstrous wave.

“I’d run it if it was 20 degrees warmer,” declared one smart paddler. Yes, it looked like fun. Chances of tipping were about 100%, but there wasn’t a boulder garden to bang through below. What there was though, was very cold water, and very little daylight left. Instant and persisting “wet & cold” would be the reward for that passage. Nobody took it.

Instead we all worked together to lower ourselves and our boats down the short but steep left front of the dam, then lined the boats through the big, powerful eddy to rejoin the river 50 or so yards downstream. The operation was time-consuming, but successfully safe. Once again POST practices insured that our risks were calculated and carefully taken.

Some rain fell Saturday afternoon, but often sun could be seen even during the rain. There was one section where we were paddling toward the sun as steady rain fell. Every drop was backlit and glistened. It was like paddling into a downpour of pearls. But softer.

Near Tooby the precipitation gave us two more treats. The peaks visible in the distance were covered with snow. And just ahead, a rainbow arched overhead. As we passed under the bridge just before the takeout, the rainbow touched down – just beyond the park. Taking out was our pot of gold.

Since most of us had put up our tents before paddling, once back at camp there was an immediate interest in food. Fortunately Bob & Joan had each made and brought a lovely multi-layered dip. These became the center of the conviviality that is only possible when you and your few companions are alone in the midst of a great forest, and have just exchanged cold and wet river clothes for warm, dry and loose-fitting garb.

After a shortish while, the happy, relaxing campers realized that if they wanted a main course, they’d have to work for it. The organizer(whose name and mine are the same) of this trip, unlike Bob and Joan, is not especially well-organized, and is relieved if he can simply get to the campground with all the ingredients for the meals. Turning those raw materials into cuisine is up to the diners themselves. And, tho by the time it was ready, they themselves were nearly undone, the volunteers succeeded. And declared their work delicious. The sautéed chicken in sauce on brown rice and big green salad hit our spots.

Next day the organizer decided that the best route to take, since the dangerous, fun Leggett run was out, was the scenic choice – the world famous Avenue of the Giants. This promised adventure, too – right from the start, since nobody knew exactly where to put-in. Or take out. Though he needed to return, and therefore not paddle, on Sunday, Don offered to do the shuttle. And help determine the necessary ins and outs. He got us started at the upper end of Phillipsville, from a private beach that the owner leaves open for public access. Then he went with the drivers who parked their cars at a day use park just beyond Myers Flat. When all returned in Don’s car, the day’s paddling began.

Not too far along we came upon a freshly sheared left bank. Overhanging the vertical brown wall were the roots of still standing redwoods. And laying in the river were dozens of fallen, but still green trees. A number of other redwoods had been carried off by the high water and we saw them snagged near the shore in several places downriver.

One of these large trees somehow got anchored well out in the river and David and I paid it a visit. I write this not to tell you how fascinating it is to touch the entire length of a redwood without climbing, but to warn you not to be as stupid as me. This tree was, of course, a strainer, one of the most dangerous threats to paddlers. Unlike a boulder that often forces the water to act like a cushion paddlers and prevent impact, this pinned tree did not stop the water from passing through its branches. Fortunately, it was positioned mostly parallel to the current, not across it, so our active paddling allowed us to stay along its edge, and we weren’t forced to save ourselves by climbing onto the tree and getting rescued. We got past without even taking in any water, but the incident frightened me, and demonstrated that strainers aren’t only in brushy banks. Next mid-river tree I see, I’ll not wait to touch it, before paddling hard on a course that clears it.

Apart from this near misadventure, the paddle was lovely, with the forest thick on either side. The weather was less attractive. Mostly gray. A last bright spot was at the take-out. A ranger arrived shortly after we did. Had we broken some rule? No, the officer only asked if we enjoyed our day and if we’d seen any snags or other risks to boaters. Mostly, he seemed glad to see that somebody was actually out here in this great park, enjoying themselves. Yep, that’s what we do.
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