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Ty and I were on the road to Outdoor Retailer and had just spent 2 ½ hours at an Arizona/Utah border station - we didn’t have a US DOT # for our vehicle, let alone that number posted in a visible spot on our truck. It was hot and we were tired. We were granted permission by the agents to continue down the road, and as we left their office, he pointed us to the nearest reservoir – 3 miles up the road. We got a solid paddle in shortly after and then again at dusk. In surfing terms, EVENING GLASS-OFF. But we weren’t surfing, we were deep in the heart of land-locked Utah. Sometime between that double paddle session, Ty Zulim had suggested the idea of a self-sustained, multi-day expedition. It sounded interesting and I wanted to be a part of it. ** The next several months, the idea was brought up sporadically. It always sounded like a great idea to me and I was always interested in the “exploring new frontiers”-side of SUP. From the time the idea was first brought up to the time we actually started our adventure, Ty and I had given, maybe, 5 or 6 SERIOUS hours of thought and preparation to this excursion. In hindsight, we could have easily used another 15-20 hours of prepping. We had asked a few of our friends their thoughts of where to go if we were to do such an adventure. Mike Mowrey put us in touch with Kurt Wrenner who had recently kayaked down the Sacramento River. He provided a brief outline of his 110-mile trip via email that we used as a trip outline. Ty and I decided we would leave Friday, Oct 17th early morning from Redding, CA and be at the Mason Bridge State Park at noon on Sunday, Oct 19th. We thought we could paddle 85 miles in just over two days.
We took our 12’1 Lairds over to Paddle Power in Newport Beach, CA, where Jim Smiley outfitted our boards with a bungy and tie-down system and loaned us a few dry bags. He styled us out as we talked story and threw back a beer or three.
Ty packed his bags in Huntington Beach and we headed up to Santa Cruz with boards in tow. On the way up the coast we managed to score some pretty fun waves at C street – dawn patrol. I picked up a couple pieces of clothing and some gear from my house in Santa Cruz and we continued north to Redding. We arrived in Redding around 10 pm, packed our dry bags, epoxied handles into 4 new paddles and mentally prepared for what lay ahead by watching The Life Aquatic.
Friday morning, we woke up early, enthusiastic and nervous at the same time. We unloaded the boards and gear next to the water’s edge on a “Recovery Only” boat ramp and parked the car in an abandoned office parking lot across the street.
We strapped down our gear, paddles, and life vests. Threw on our Camelbacks and sunscreen. Strapped leashes around ankles. Grabbed our paddles. (I’m starting to think I’m Rambo, amped up, ready to venture into deep into the heart of the jungle ready to fend off any and all attacks). We stepped onto our boards and the Maiden Voyage had begun… We didn’t prepare much. Not enough at all. Neither of us checked the flow charts. I didn’t really know what that was before someone mentioned it ON the river. We didn’t have a compass or even a map – just a blurry black and white 16-page printout of a Google Earth search, an open mind and a heart for adventure. As we got into the main part of the river, the water was 3 feet deep and the water was moving pretty swift. The “conditions” remained this way for the first 40 minutes of the trip. I was amazed at how fast we were moving atop the water. Riverbed consisting of rocks, branches, dirt and who knows what else raced underneath at what seemed to be Mach 11. We had gone under a bridge, and past a few office buildings. I was sort of racing down the river as Ty was being a bit more cautious. All of a sudden, the water had gone real shallow – as in, 6 inches shallow. My board was perpendicular with the direction I was going and as I had just started to think I was Mr. Hot Stuff cause I was barreling down the river SIDEWAYS. I slammed face first, into the riverbed. I had put my hand out to save my fall and as I sat back up and looked at my hand, there was something that just wasn’t right about it. My pinky was pointing in its own direction – about 90 degrees off of where my other fingers were pointing. It took me a few seconds to compute this picture internally.
I hopped back on my board, adjusted the grip on my paddle (How I held onto it still puzzles me) and started down the river again – at a much slower pace. When I gripped the shaft of my paddle with my left hand, I could feel my pinky touching about an inch and a half lower than where it should be touching. I shuddered. I’m not good with blood and guts and weird bodily-harm stuff. Ty had seen my wipeout from several yards back and asked if anything was wrong. To me, it was one of those surreal moments. I held my hand up in the air, my pinky sort of hanging off to the side as if rebelling from my other fingers. Ty made some sort of “Ew, gross” comment. Ty wanted me to wait for him to catch up to me before I tried to fix my hand. He wanted to document my mangled hand with our camera. I couldn’t do it. I had to fix my hand. It was starting to creep me out. I had to fix my hand – Quick. After failing miserably at putting my pinky back into place – TWICE – I finally managed to connect it to the rest of my hand. Apparently one crack would only fix it to the tune of 45 degrees, it needed TWO cracks. I taped my pinky to my ring finger, ate a pain pill or two and we continued down the river after a very brief discussion of cutting our trip short.
We started our adventure around 10am and arrived at the first town highlighted on Wrenner’s email – Anderson, about two and a half hours later. Multi-million dollar estates, herrings, a fishing boat or two and 3 foot long salmon jumping out of the water and swimming underneath highlighted the first 13 miles of the trip. We pulled off the river and onto somebody’s private dock to eat lunch – sardines and crackers. Continuing down the river, we were just starting to figure it out. At least I was. Ty’s more cautious approach seemed to be the way. Approaching the swifter-moving parts of the river with a more cautious approach and preparing lines earlier in your routes. I was starting to become less gun-shy a few hours after my spill. It was odd to me how few people we encountered on the river. There weren’t as many people on the river as I thought there would be even though it was abundant with fish. Huge fish. Why weren’t there more fishermen on the river I wondered? I had asked a kayaker that passed us sometime in the afternoon where he thought we were. “I was hoping you could tell me,” he chuckled as he paddled off. Ty and I were amazed at how fast we would move over the water, especially when it didn’t feel that way at times. Whenever you could see the bottom of the river, you got a feeling of how fast you were moving. Before our trip, a BLM website read “The Sacramento River could be deceptively swift”. That was very true. Rocks would wiz underneath. Branches. Garbage. Tires. We were paddling more to steer down the river and set up a run more than to move forward. The exact opposite of paddling in open water or lakes like we were accustomed to.
We learned early in the trip that it was best to power through the rapids instead of taking them slower. Easy to write about, not so easy to do when 3-4 foot troughs, currents from all directions, and vortexs are working to knock you off your board in 7 mph waters with a 7 inch fin and 60 lbs of gear strapped to your nose. We would fall at times and others we’d successfully conquer the rapids. Sometimes we’d laugh because it wasn’t as hard as we’d initially think it to be and other times we’d laugh because of a major wipeout one or both of us had. These swift moving waters would often funnel into deep, wide channels. Farm land would pass by. Industrial areas would pass by. Bridges would pass overhead. Cliffs would pass by. Beautiful residential areas with huge riverfront properties would pass by. The scenery was amazing. And it changed constantly. We really lucked out with the weather. Sunny, mid – 70’s and it was late October. It couldn’t have been better. Not too hot, not too cold. We Our Kaenon’s gave our eyes relief from the sun but also gave us a better perspective into the water and spared us a couple extra seconds to dodge whatever object was jetting out of the riverbed and lurking just under the water’s surface.
It was starting to get dark and we’d put in 9 hours of paddling the first day. We were tired, famished and light was running out. Our water already had. We pulled over at a boat ramp, just past a bridge. Our surroundings seemed empty and we didn’t think anyone would bother us. A recent fire had cleared out some nice camping area above the boat ramp, so we pulled off river bank and docked our boards.
We unpacked our stuff and set up camp for the night. I pumped fresh water and Ty put his entire chef skill-set on display as he prepared the night’s feast: ramen and crackers. We ate like kings and polished the main course off with a few cookies and some soy milk. Day 1 was in the books. A little over a day to go. We had no idea where we were, how far we’d paddled or how far we had left. There was a constant sense of uncertainty throughout the trip for me and it was ever so strong as I lay under the stars in my bag the first night. Instead of counting sheep, I wondered what adventures day 2 would bring… ** Day 2 came quick when we were awoken by gunshots from duck hunters nearby. Instant Oatmeal for breakfast. Mmmmmmm. As we packed up camp, I noticed a gentleman across the river unloading his boat into the water. He sped by and greeted us with a wave. We started down the river and came to a sort of stagnant area. Hundreds of thousands of billions of bugs littered the air as we paddled through. The man in the boat that sped by earlier had just cast his fishing line in the water. He hadn’t had any luck yet. We asked him how far from Red Bluff we were. He said 5 to 6 miles. He sounded unsure. We paddled onward.
After a long period of time where we hadn’t seen a soul, a family descended from a steep hill to water’s edge. They asked what we were doing and “What do you call THAT?” We explained what THAT was and told them where we were coming from. The lady told us to be careful of CHINA FALLS. She said we should wear
lifejackets and probably not go down that section of the river. She also suggested we talk to the people at the general store just down the river and across the upcoming bridge.
We passed under the bridge and pulled off the river. We started our brief trek to the general store to find out more about China Rapids. I must admit, I was a bit nervous. What was China Rapids? How long was the run? Was it really THAT gnarly? Would this be our last hurrah? A few locals hung outside River Bend Bridge Market, drinking coffee, inspecting a Harley Davidson parked nearby and talking story. We went inside and asked the lady behind the counter, Rita, about China Rapids. We filled her in as to where we started our journey and where we wanted to end up. She said China Rapids wasn’t all it was talked up to be. Rita mentioned they take Boy Scouts down the stretch in canoes and that, yes, it could be dangerous at times. This time of year was manageable for us. She pulled out a map that wasn’t very detailed and showed us where we were and where China Rapids was. Then she told us a story that made us second guess the rest of our trip… Rita exclaimed, “China Rapids is dangerous because the water moves extremely fast in a mile stretch. Not to mention the shallow waters, its narrow width and the exposed lava rock all around.” As she was explaining this, I thought we had seen some stretches like this already up the river, so no sweat, right? Then she dropped the bomb: “About a year ago, a guy died descending China Rapids.” Our eyes opened a bit wider and Rita know had our full attention if she didn’t already.
“He fell off his craft, was pulled down by the undertow and they still haven’t found his body” “STILL?!?” I interrupted. “Still,” she continued. “…a year later. It might even be a few more years before they find him.” Ty and I looked at each other, pie-eyed. “But you two have nothing to worry about. This guy didn’t know what he was doing. He was standing on his craft, dicking around.” Oh crap! “He wasn’t wearing a life jacket, either” Oh shit! Ty and I looked at each other, speechless while she’s telling us this story. Standing up? – check. No life jacket? – check. Dicking around, not knowing what we’re doing? – double check. Had she seen us coming down the river? Was this some sort of mean joke? Wait a minute! Were we on hidden camera??? We bought some food and ate outside. For all we knew (especially after her “encouraging words”) this could be our last meal. Ever. We took a picture outside her shop and then again on the bridge. We figured these might be the last pictures ever documented of us.
We walked back across the bridge with a little less confidence than we had crossed with earlier and back down to our boards and gear. As we were putting our life jackets and leashes on, trying to pump some confidence into each other, the same fisherman we had seen earlier in the morning, twice, pulled up to the ramp. We asked him his opinion and he gave us some encouragement. Unlike earlier in the morning, he seemed to have a better sense of direction, our location and what China Rapids had to offer. We thanked him and set off down the river, toward the now legendary stretch of the Sacramento River they call China Rapids. We didn’t say much as we paddled. With the myth of China Rapids so strong and hanging over us, did we need to? What were we getting ourselves into???
** Sure enough, China Rapids offered everything the stories said it would – fast moving water, exposed lava rock, shallow waters, swirling, whirlpools that didn’t hesitate to spin your board sideways and narrow passageways. I went first and Ty followed several yards behind. The one tip everyone left us with was to stay in the middle of the river. And that’s what I did. My paddle was constantly in the water, either dragging or stroking to keep my board moving forward in as straight a direction as possible. We didn’t take the rapids at a slow pace, but a more
aggressive pace. Our gear would get submerged for a moment or two as we punched through troughs and rode out wicked currents. A hectic 20 minute combination of paddling, balance and testing your coordination and it all came to an end. When I got to calm waters, I pulled off to the side to wait for Ty who pulled over right after. I suggested we take a picture because we survived. We also cracked into the tall boy Coors Lights we picked up at the market. For some reason, the beer tasted amazing.
After our celebratory beverage and a brief rest, we packed up and continued down the river. China Rapids seemed to be the last of the critical stretches of river we would encounter on our trip. Fittingly so. We wouldn’t see many more class I and II rapids beyond that point. ** We entered a stretch of the river that ran straight through _insert canyon name here_ canyon. We could see 4 or 5 miles straight ahead. The canyon was 100 yards wide and lined with trees and brush – not much else. We were paddling straight in to 15-20 mph headwinds. It was a brutal stretch of paddling that lasted around 2 -3 hours as the winds just never seemed to let up and give us a break. We hugged the edge of the water as that seemed to be where it was moving the fastest.
Halfway through the canyon, we tried to stop at someone’s private dock and take a break from the brutal headwinds. I had come up on the dock rather quick and as I was stepping off the board I fell into the water. One of my hands (my good hand) was clenching part of the dock with all my might while one leg was somehow clinging to my board. My other limbs dangled in the water. Maybe this wasn’t the ideal rest stop. I let go of the dock and climbed back on my board to continue down the river. Ty finally stopped laughing at me. As dusk was starting to set in, we entered Red Bluff. More civilization. I-5 traffic zoomed overhead as we passed under a few bridges. People that were in an RV park along the water’s edge stopped to stare at us as if we were three-headed aliens. A group of young children ran along the riverbank as we paddled by complimenting us on our “boats” and asked us how we made them. Just past the city, we came to the _insert dam name here_ Dam. Luckily, it was open and we didn’t have to get out of the water and carry boards and gear around it. We passed right through and open channel of the dam. As we continued paddling, the sun was setting and it was becoming apparent that finding a place to pull over and camped for the night was going to be hard. We strapped some headlamps on before the sun fully set, turned them on and continued down the river. Without sunlight, the nuances of the river became magnified and a whole new skill set had to be used. Anticipation was a major skill we had to utilize. The headlamps helped somewhat but we knew we had to pull over soon to set up camp or who knows what would happen.
Beautiful homes lined the river to our left and nothing but rocks on the right – a less than ideal camping spot. Fatigue and a lack of visibility beyond 5 feet helped us decide once we had gotten out of sight of the houses, we would pull off to the side and camp.
We lucked out in finding a patch of sand just beyond the rocks big enough to lay our tarp down and two sleeping bags. We set up camp. Ramen and crackers for dinner again and it was one of the better meals I’ve had in my lifetime. We checked our directions to find that we were around 70 miles from our starting point. Wow. From talking with the various people we met along the river, they never really made it sound like we had gone that far. But then again, my body sure was telling me I had paddled about 70 miles. Before turning in for the night, we called our friend, Rob Lentz, who was going to pick us up the next day. We weren’t sure if we were going to have cell service before we got the phone out of the dry bag… And I must say I’ve never been so relieved to have one bar of reception. We told him we were on track for him to pick us up at noon the next day. Day 2 ended much like Day 1 did, under the stars. Only this time, I had an idea of how far we were from our final destination – 12 – 17 miles. ** We woke up early Sunday morning and packed up camp once again. My body was completely sore. Every joint in my body was achy. I wasn’t as mentally sharp this morning like I was the previous. Ty and I were both a bit slower to break down camp this morning.
Breakfast consisted of a granola bar while paddling down the river. There was a sense of excitement and urgency as we paddled to get to point B. We didn’t see too many people along the way as we paddled, and the land that we paddled past was barren, for the most part. One older gentleman came out from his house when he
saw us approaching on the river to ask us what we were doing. We informed him and asked him where Mason Bridge State Park was. He said we were really close, about 3 miles away. Man, was that music to our ears. Ty vouched for the gentleman, assuring me that he definitely knew what he was talking about because, “he lived on the river.”
I was sure we had paddled 3 miles about 6 times and we still hadn’t seen a freaking bridge. Finally, some duck hunters that were just finishing up their morning hunt had informed us we were about 10 miles out. Ty’s affirmation turned out to be more wishful thinking than anything. My body was tired and aching and I know Ty was feeling the same. We continued paddling, heads down, not saying much. We both had the same goal in mind - to complete our journey, get some real food in our system and get some much-needed rest. As we paddled, fish still raced beneath us. Countless fish.
As we rounded what turned out to be the final bend, our bridge came into view. Paddling became a bit more consistent for the two of us as we arrived at the boat dock, just passed the bridge at 12:13pm. I let out a loud hoot of approval as I stepped off my board and threw down my paddle.
We had done it. 85 miles in just over two days. It was quite the adventure and I was glad to be a part of it. It felt good to be on dry land, even if the river felt like it was still racing beneath my feet - it was quite an odd sensation. We called Rob and unloaded our gear. It didn’t take us long to start brainstorming where and when our next expedition would take place.