Feather River Canyon, Middle Fork—Milsap Bar to Bald Rock Trail
August 20-24, 1994
I. Monday morning, August 22
I haven’t seen the face of a watch since we left Oroville a day and a half ago. We tubed more than a mile down the river today, beginning about ten a.m. The backs of my legs are freckled and dry. My shins are banged up, turning black and yellow. My knees are skinned and the back of my neck aches. But it is sublimely beautiful here and I have come to know many river rocks personally. We saw three or four brown water snakes and many hunting dragonflies, and two Merganser ducks. We’re spending the nights on great granite monuments—I can’t think of a more appropriate word—“sculpture” doesn’t communicate their grandeur, although it does their infinitely varied and finely shaped forms. All of the rock in this first leg of our journey is grayish, with some jadeite-green here and there, and a few flashing pieces of what looks like white marble. Water has sculpted the granite. During the raging Spring rains, the river rises twenty-five feet above where we are sleeping; we can see the water lines stained into the rock. Our perch tonight is quarry-like with deep carved pools so dark you cannot see the bottom.
Our leader Scott Willson, Clyde Willson’s son, bounds over the rocks like a mountain goat and swims like an otter. Now in his thirties, he has been returning to this fork of the river with family and friends since he was a boy. It is his special place but it’s clear he doesn’t take it for granted: he has great respect for the river’s power and doesn’t let us take risks. At the group meeting before the trip he showed us slides of previous trips and warned gravely that it would be strenuous, and any of us who felt like it might be too much should back out. I alone expressed doubts. The slide show made me wonder if I could do it. The rocks to be navigated and the turbulence of the water looked daunting. Besides, I was coming down with a cold. Potter and I were to be married in a month and a half and I didn’t want to rough it, even for a few days. Potter too, under deadline pressures, was vacillating, but I could tell he really wanted to go. So when Scott encouraged me, saying “I’ll help whenever you need it,” and Clyde added “We all will,” I decided I would take the risk.
Although we’ve now been on the river nearly two days I haven’t lost my anxiety. Around each bend lies a greater challenge. At night, anticipating the next day, and many times as we make our way downriver, I feel an amorphous dread. Today, besides being banged about by rocks because my legs drag behind my inflated truck-tube craft, I became truly frightened as we set out overland. We were on a boulder field next to the river because the water was too swift and rocky. Generally, without a pack I am fairly spry, but the boulders we had to clamber over were huge; a good many required leaps and hops, and it’s hard to feel confidence in one’s balance with an ungainly tire pack and wet sandals.
As we started off Scott said, “Anyone who needs me to carry their pack, just say,” and I decided to take him up on it. I was midway up one rock and about to jump to another. The heavy tube on my back was tilting and in my imagination I saw the fall waiting for me, head squashed like a cantaloupe. Scott appeared, nimbly hopping boulders in his bare feet. Perched above me, seeming to hang in space, he lifted my pack as easily as a rubber ducky and off he bounded, calling me to follow. I followed, adrenalin pumping. When I reached the riverbank I sat waiting for the others. The rocks would smash us to smithereens but oh, how lovely they were to look at! After awhile Ann Delk came into view, looking very tired—her pack is one of the heaviest. Eventually everyone arrived safely, and we had a leisurely float through large pools, lolling until the waters began to run faster, and Scott started off again. One by one—Potter usually last because he likes to set his own pace—we jumped onto the tubes chest-first, wriggling forward as much as possible so our appendages wouldn’t drag over the rocks.
Everyone has a different way of rigging his or her tube. Potter made his into an armchair with a big balancing crosspiece of driftwood against which he leans. On land it’s bulky and because the pack doesn’t tuck down in the center, it’s hard to carry on his back, but it’s graceful in the water. There were scoffers about this mode of transportation, but Potter’s knees are free of scrapes tonight. He floats backwards down the river doing a frog kick, or when facing forward a paddleboat kick.
Peter Benko, who is a tennis pro, made a bright pink woven triangular seat for his pack to ride on. He strung it deftly, like a tennis racquet. One of the vanguard, Peter rides high up on his tube belly down, legs bent like a flexed frog. He often stands guard, warning those who come later that an impassable area is ahead.
The bruise on my left shin looks like a ripe egg, swollen, yellow, red and green. Today I saw a scuttling caddis fly. When they shed their skin the shell stays attached to the rock. I’ve been shedding skin on rocks too.
Our packs are rubber and supposed to be waterproof, but some got soaked through the first afternoon near Milsap Bar, where the river was the calmest. Andrew Chacon, who is applying to medical schools, slept in a wet down bag. Potter’s and mine remained dry. We camped on a long boulder next to the river, burrowing into shallow recesses carved over the millennia. Scott gave Potter and me his sleeping site because it was wide enough for two, and swam with his gear across the river to a sandy beach. Next to camp a black and white-striped garter snake lay in repose and then slowly slithered through the leafy mulch. I had no idea that garter snakes came in black and white but Clyde, the biology professor, assured me they do.
When we had first entered the river at Milsap Bar, near a state park some six miles north of Oroville, we were quite a sight. Families camped on the rocky banks watched us curiously. We were eight fully-clothed and shod men and women on truck tubes with backpacks lashed inside. Stepping into the river, we took breaths against what we thought would be the cold, but in fact the temperature was quite pleasant. As we floated under the Milsap Bar bridge, getting used to the feel of our tubes, we waved, and the onlookers called well wishes. Our descent into the canyon began. We floated lazily along except for an occasional snag on a stick, or an errant bungee cord that had to be refastened. However, after only 20 minutes we found that several packs had taken in water, and so we camped on a ledge just out of sight of the bridge and the campers.
As we claimed our sleeping spots, changed into dry clothes and pulled out three camp stoves, Clyde and Scott stripped to the buff and Delk doffed her top. Two fishermen nearby, plumbing the pool for trout, looked a bit taken aback. I felt a flutter of unease. I didn’t want to strip, and was relieved that it was purely optional. Clyde told us we would see people only the next day, if then, and afterwards we would likely be alone on the river. Potter assembled his fishing rod and walked down the river to try out new flies that he’d purchased in an Oroville hunting store.
In Oroville, a rather inhospitable town, we bought a cooking kit since we were short a couple of pots, then drove out to Oroville Dam, which is vast and rather bleak. The water line along the parched hills was low, much lower than 1986, when I was last there. No foliage seems to grow on the banks. A vulture circled overhead.
There is no actual sign of the Feather River as it empties into this dam, but Clyde showed us where the middle fork enters. He explained that we wouldn’t be tubing all the way to the dam, because a tube would get lost in this huge slow-moving slough. We would be leaving the river well beforehand. How sad to see this dam, this amputation and cauterization of the lower limb of a wild river.
What we would experience in the next days would be a journey into primeval California, although without grizzly bears (the last one was killed in 1922 hereabouts) and no spawning salmon because they cannot swim past the dam. Yes, the Feather has been amputated, but where we’re going it is still wild and free and unbroken.
Our second night’s rock bed, isolated and deeply quiet but for the rushing of the river, and more beautiful than Saturday’s by far, was less hospitable. The reason: a leak in my ThermaRest, discovered after a restless night. The advantage of not sleeping well is that one is awake to the changing night sky. Cassiopeia appeared. I saw the constellations moving, the moon (three-quarters size) drift overhead very late and shine like a blessing on Peter, who was sleeping in the most open place. These rocks are covered with water in the Spring but I feel sure that Ishi’s people, the Yahi, spent time here in the summer and camped and fished. We have seen no other humanoid since before midday yesterday.
We ate Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese for breakfast Monday morning. Very good steak, remarked Peter: “Half Spam and half Alpo.”
Potter is fishing. Yesterday he caught an undersize trout and threw it back. Ann says the coffee tastes nothing like coffee, but Potter’s packages of cappuccino have flavor. Scott makes tea with leaves from the spicebush. Clyde demonstrated the culinary delight of live ants. Kai Brown, Peter, Scott and Potter tried the delicacy while I took the animal rights position that ants don’t deserve to be interrupted in the midst of their work to be eaten for someone’s diversion. Potter compared the flavor to almond paste.
Clyde and Scott are nude most of the time, Delk partly so. She is suffering from hives on her arms, legs and belly, but takes it in stride. She is experienced at kayaking and exploring. Peter is the elegant one—washed his hair in the river last night. Andrew, while shooting a little falls last night, cut a deep gash in his finger, but it’s almost healed. Potter has rigged my tube like his. I’m going now to practice using it. My shins are less swollen, thanks to Delk’s antibiotic ointment. She is prepared for any contingency. She is just as happy to be “Delk” as “Ann.” I go back and forth between the two.
IV. Tuesday, August 23
So much has happened that it has been difficult to write. The river is magnificent, wild, scenic, and frightening. I love its roar and sometimes I’ve had the treat of hearing two distinct roars, one from one current midstream, the other from a current nearer to me. Stereo river. Layers of rushing sounds.
Our one-and-a-half miles yesterday and maybe a mile today were hard going. We had to hike over large boulders, and the tubes plus packs are heavy and hard to balance. There were several scary parts for me, but always help was forthcoming. Once I panicked when a current, diving under a huge stone, pulled me downwards; I felt as though the hand of death was reaching for me. Potter, floating nearby, came to my rescue. Another place I sailed on ahead after a minor triumph (a triumph is when I rush down a runnel without tipping over), and suddenly was thrown off the top of my tube and dunked. By day’s end I had become timid.
Soon courage returned. We camped around four p.m. and off we went on swimming and scrambling trip downriver—Delk, Scott, Peter, Kai, and I. After a few bends and some rock leaping, we swam across the river to a little waterfall that tumbled warm down a cliff. I’ve learned to swim with socks and sandals. The socks protect my legs from scrapes and the shoes help with footing in shallow waters and guard against sharp river-bottom rocks.
When Scott gave the Talley-ho! signal, intending to continue downriver further, Kai, Delk and I decided to return, Kai because he didn’t have his glasses. On the way back we encountered Potter, who had hiked opposite us on the cliff. As soon as Kai retrieved his glasses, he took off to rejoin Scott and Peter. Ann, Potter and I found the others sleeping in the shade of a rock the size of a house. We raked beds for ourselves in a pebble field. I then bathed in a stone tub the river had handily carved right next to shore. The first spot I chose was preempted by a brown water snake slithering out of the water to get warm. As I approached, washcloth and biodegradable soap in hand, the snake rose up and stuck out its pink forked tongue. I expected it to swim away but it did not. I knelt to regard it and it held its ground, head arched. Finally, realizing I was in its sunning spot, I moved away. Out it came then, leaving only the tip of its tail submerged. If water snakes don’t come out of the water periodically to warm up, they will die.
At night we ate a good meal of turkey tetrazzini, hung the food over a high branch, and sat by a bonfire built in one of the white granite oval sinks at our campsite. It puzzles me that we have seen no animal bigger than a duck. Where are the bobcats and mountain lions? The black bears? Just as well.
I went to bed while the fire was still blazing. Found out in the morning that when the others were ready to turn in they had a hard time putting it out. They ended up dunking some of the burning logs in the river. They were nervous because of the fires that have been burning out of control in California forests this season.
Opposite us is a breathtakingly steep, exfoliating mountain. It plunges right into the river. Our isolation is profound. Each place we sleep is more beautiful than the last. In the night we were able to see a bowl of sky overhead and moon glow on the upper band of forest near the sky. It seemed that there were tiers of forest and the sky seemed to have flipped over. I could not make out the constellations but imagined I saw an upside down twisted Big Dipper.
The next morning as we started off, we spied a large turd on a rock in the middle of the river, big enough to be human but more likely badger. It looked belligerent right out there in the open.
Yesterday I floated on a chair-like contraption rigged for me by Potter, but today I prefer the other rigging, because hefting the pack is easier that way, and we’re out of the water more than in it. I don’t find myself bothered as much by the inevitable scrapes.
We played this morning in several places with slippery, easily negotiable rapids. We even body surfed! What a pleasure. You lie on your back, legs straight out in front, hands and feet pointed downward, and sloooosh!! The counter-current pulls you right back to start the whole delightful process over again.
Potter has become intrepid. He scopes out a place, and then decides what route he wants to take. We all did “Potter’s Portage” (Delk’s term) this morning, a fun run where he had decided it could be done by staying left, and it could. We also went through a sluice that went right, left, right, very fast, and the openings were not wide, so several of us fell off our tubes and took water ballast into our packs. Ann went first or second and then took photos of the rest of us as we swept through.
Today we hiked over a lot of rocks and found deer bones. Then we reached a place we’d been led to anticipate—a deep, swift pool surrounded by huge boulders, with two separate racing currents and a falls just out of sight below. Scott hovered near while we lowered ourselves to the launching rock and made the swim. It was no more than twenty or thirty feet across, but one had to swim strongly against the pull of the currents. Some took the hard way, swimming while pushing their packs (Potter, Delk, Scott), but I opted not to, as did Peter, Clyde and Kai. Scottie swam our tubes and packs across. It was a grind even without the tubes. Once through the first current, one could rest briefly in a quiet twelve inches of water, then it was into the second current and a sharp shaft of mortal fear hurling through my gut. If the current had swept me away, I would have been tossed over a waterfall. That was what we were trying to avoid.
After we all crossed and were sitting exhausted on shore, thinking about our narrow escapes, Scott got back in the water and swam to the middle of the channel and stood nonchalantly there. Potter swam out and stood with him. Turned out the water was lower this year than usual, and a rock that Scott knew about but we couldn’t see provided their safe perch. Scott might have let us know, but I guess it was more fun to let the most timorous among us (me) experience mortal dread.
Thick spider webs are strung between the rocks. They live over the water: insouciant spiders. We try to avoid harming their webs. One went into attack stance when Potter approached. She hunched back and tilted her body menacingly.
We sheltered in the shade of an overhanging rock to eat lunch, sardines in tomato sauce, dry pears and a bite or two of Power Bar. The pears, which were on sale at REI for a nickel a bag and look like crumbled Styrofoam, have turned out to be a great hit: pure pear sugar. They melt in the mouth.
After lunch Potter went off to look for an easy way down to the river, and a bunch of us climbed down to caves under the waterfall we had just avoided with our mighty swim. No ropes, just companions helping one another. As usual, I was Cucamonga, slow and cautious, my fear of heights making me unwilling to climb the highest boulder to look over the edge. Other nameless fears kept me from trekking under the waterfall. But from my safe perch I delighted in the others’ explorations.
Scottie has seemingly endless strength and energy, and boundless optimism. He appears over rocks like Puck, part sprite, part satyr, naked and gleaming, to encourage, help or lead us on into a dicey situation with a smile.
Andrew has been dubbed “River Rat” and “the new generation of river trip leader.” He rock climbs well, even with a big pack. He often goes down the river second or first. There’s a steadiness about him. Quietly, he’ll just go for it.
Clyde, the oldest, the “grain of sand around whom the rest of us form,” as Kai puts it, moves at his own pace, somewhat slower, respectful of the river, not taking risks, sturdy, helpful and delighting in his son’s accomplishments, indeed in all our accomplishments. We are here because of Clyde. Andrew, Peter and Kai have been his assistants at Laney College. Potter studied with him. Ann is a scientist too and a former colleague and long-time friend. And I know him through Potter and through the Oakland Museum, where I work and where Clyde trained docent classes years ago. He goes in the buff, perfectly at ease. I thought the nudity would bother me, but it doesn't.
Delk is fearless, and skilled at tubing. She attempts the hardest runs and often is the only one besides Scott who makes it through without a spill. She is the shortest, so climbing over large boulders with a pack is very difficult, but most of the time she manages it. She says she aches all over and she has a big purple bruise on her buttocks—she doesn’t know when it happened.
We’re all bruised—legs, shins and knees especially, except Potter and Scott. The others are talking about how it will be a relief to be off the river and hiking up the two-and-a-half-hour trail. I’m thinking it’ll be a relief to be at the top of that hike.
The hardest part today came after our caving expedition. Climbing down a steep cliff was the only safe way back into the river. I was truly vexed. Each time we went through a new difficult place I naively expected it to be the last, but the journey just kept getting harder. Delk talked me through the down climb, and Potter took care of my pack. I haven’t down climbed since my six months rock climbing when I was 35—and I was scared. What a relief to drop the last few feet into calm water!
Gratefully, I swam out to Andrew, who was treading water and holding onto my tube as well as his. Then another tube floated to us, and we pushed them all back to the rest of the group, and then floated awhile. After consultation with Scott, Potter paddled to a spillway near the cliff and proceeded to bodysurf down a good-sized runnel. He disappeared underwater for long moments and popped up mid-pool just as my heart took up residence in my throat.
IX. Tuesday evening, August 23
We can see smoke above us on the ridge unfurling from somewhere over the top of Bald Rock. Some smoke hovers further down the canyon. Andrew is collecting dead wood for a bonfire. I ask him to consider making a small fire so we can be sure it’s out tonight before we go to sleep. It seems to be teasing the Fire Gods to be making a fire when the forest is burning somewhere. He continues throwing down wood, but later I look over and he’s not making a fire after all.
Now there is no fresh smoke in the sky, so if there was a forest fire it’s out or the wind has shifted. Clyde and I talked about relative states of alarm. Many things alarm me, I remind myself, from smoke in the sky to the pull of a current to not having a place to relieve myself.
The trek today was rough but well worth it, because this new camping place is absolutely lovely. There’s a giant boulder under which we rested this afternoon, and all around there is splendid granite with shapely sinkholes of all shapes and sizes where we have made our beds. Kai came back to carry my pack the last fifty yards over boulders to our camp. A biker and runner, he has done relatively little tubing since the second day, when he banged up his knees. The river makes him nervous. He’d rather trek overland, which is actually a more strenuous way of getting from one place to another. Often Clyde goes along with him. I like to hop boulders in my bare feet but not when I’m carrying the pack. I fear the weight and bulk of it will pull me over. Kai is remarkably sure-footed. There is a meditative quality about him.
On our trek yesterday, Scott discovered a little cache of Army rations—applesauce, beef stew, instant coffee, matches, Cremora, sugar, even a Wet’n’Dry, all in aluminum foil pouches. After we camped we all tried the food, spooning it out and passing it around. It was delicious.
It was only about four p.m. so several team members left to go exploring. Potter shot a little rapid next to camp, was thrown off his tube and dunked. His sunglasses and hat floated away. The hat was recovered, but the glasses are gone, a sacrifice to the River God. In the shade of a big overhang I rigged up my tube like a sofa and dozed for a while, grateful to have so soft a bed. Peter lounged in his tube reading. After awhile I got up to look around. Stones have scoured the sinkholes that pock our campsite. The swirling action of turbulent water tumbles them around. The holes are so many wonderful shapes and varying depths.
For supper we had egg noodle lasagna with sauce, to which we added freeze-dried black beans and chili. We have ideas about what ought to be packed “next time.” We eat sparsely; have no alcohol and almost no coffee with us. The list of “next times” includes Wyler’s lemonade mix, nonfat milk, sugar, more freeze-dried vegetables especially potatoes, more cheese (anything with cheese rates praise), skinny noodles (instant ramen has gone over big), lemons, garlic (we brought a few cloves and wish we had more), Gatorade or similar electrolyte-laced dry drink mix, good instant coffee, dry creamer, turkey jerky, pistachios (Peter brought some and we coated a sink hole with shells our second night out), dried apricots. No sweet-and-sour dinner: we had tons of it and it took too long to cook and was nauseating!
For dessert tonight, Delk cooked apple muffin cake mix. It called for some sort of baking contraption which we didn’t have, so we improvised, creating a double boiler. The result looked and tasted like steamed cookie dough and I couldn’t stomach it, but the men ate it up. The recipe required a rack on which one is supposed to lay the plastic bags of batter in boiling water so they don’t take in moisture. Naturally our process gorged the mix with moisture.
Now it’s about six-thirty, still very light, and Clyde and Ann are working on Clyde’s punctured tube, done in by a bungee hook today. She figured out how to disassemble the tire valve with her Swiss Army Knife tweezers in order to patch it, and then blew it up manually because we forgot to bring a pump. She is excellent at making the best of a difficult situation. Clyde says he doesn’t need his tube, that his pack with air trapped inside is all the flotation device he needs, but Ann is interested in meeting the challenge of pump-less repair, so Clyde’s stuck with his tube. Bungee cords are essential to secure our packs on the tubes—one in front, one behind, maybe another around the middle—but the bungee hooks have to be directed away from the tender rubber of the tubes. The tube air valves are also sharp. Potter’s and my air valves wear custom-made “condoms” so they don’t poke us, constructed out of foam and tape the night before we left.
I’m sitting at the very edge of the river, water rushing by inches from my toes. The rock slopes to the water like parts of a body—an arm there, feet, thighs, a lap—while the river vaults submerged rocks, creating white-capped wavelets and whirlpools. Everywhere there are large rocks of the most beautiful shapes, no one the same, and some, as earlier today during our float, are three stories high. The water is blue-green and the submerged rocks and pebbles, covered with algae, are a shadowy yellow color. Sometimes the water’s green, sometimes almost black, and the stark white of turbulence bubbles and tiny white caps is striking.
I’m keenly aware of it being our last night on the river. I love the silence, though actually, it is never silent, but this is no noise like the noise we’re used to. It is lulling, the sound of rushing water. It is River Song. We are alone on this stretch, so very lucky to be here, to experience the river’s wildness and these incredible rock formations. The Feather River was designated a Wild and Scenic River some years ago so it cannot be dammed or diverted—and not many people will come here because it is so difficult to navigate. It’s a “5” for kayakers, which is very tough, and no river rafts could make it through without an enormous amount of portage, because so many stretches are narrow. Even the piece of driftwood on Potter’s chair contraption juts out a bit too far for some sluices.
Peter is quite brave and goes down many chutes others avoid, and is cheerful when he capsizes, and as all the men he’s very helpful with packs and very sure-footed. Right now Kai is out on the rocks looking around for a good passageway. While cycling three years ago, in 1991, he slammed into a car door that suddenly opened in his path and was severely injured. He is almost healed but still working on strengthening his right arm, which was useless for months after the accident. He seems embarrassed by his fear of the rushing water while shrugging off his courage on shoreline rocks that others dread. We all choose our risks.
Scott made spicebush tea (calycanthus occidentalis, family Calycanthaceae) and we drank it as the sun set tonight.
XI. Wednesday early morning, August 24
Last night the moon was a shelled-egg shape through a black lace mantilla of oak tree branches. At the top of the exfoliating cliff there was a cupola that looked like an upside-down tin cup. I kept expecting to glance up there and see Ishi looking down at us.
I dreamed I went to a reunion at the College of Pacific (where I spent my first two years of college) and Edward Matsuwana was the keynote speaker. He looked like Nelson Mandela, but taller. After his talk I found him in the crowd and he greeted me by name: “Abby!” We embraced and I burst into tears. I did not want to let go of him. His aide came up saying his plane back to Africa would be leaving soon, and he said, “Cancel my ticket.” I knew Ed in 1959-60 when we were both active with the YMCA-YWCA group at C.O.P. He was a student from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. How strange to dream of him on the Feather River.
The first sound I heard this morning was a Canyon Wren with its sweet descending scale. The wind blew over us all night and still blows, but the sky is brightening and it’s clear, as it has been every morning. We haven’t seen a cloud since we came onto the river Saturday. There are many oak trees in the canyon, also incense cedars, pines, poison oak. And animals: bats, water snakes, brown trout, and various insects. Clyde showed us the fine squiggly etchings of a wood worm.
Everyone is greeting the morning. Scott and Potter are making “tuna surprise” (the surprise is a touch of garlic); Ann has risen and is packing her things; Peter is abed reading a Star Trek novel; Andrew is raising his head doubtfully from his sleeping bag; Clyde is beginning to stir; only Kai is asleep.
After tuna surprise we start off clambering over boulders, then float downriver for tiny stretches through some fast water, and again take to the rocks. The river is even less passable now. I feel a little ill. The first two days of the trip I was constipated and now the food is flowing through me like water through the riverbed.
We are becoming skilled at making our way onto shores and banks. The algae and moss on rocks make footing precarious. At one particularly hard juncture I found a convenient shelf to stand on, and was able to tell the others. We all communicate to each other—“Try this way”—looking out for each other’s safety. It’s wonderful to be with such a compatible and supportive group.
The tube Delk patched is holding up fine. But she had a fall by the side of the river when she slipped on a rock, and it looked like a bad fall. I gasped and called for help, but her tube had cushioned her fall, and she got up saying “I’m fine, I’m not hurt.” She had another close call earlier in the trip when she tubed over a little falls and got pulled under, sucked down and then pushed up, banging her head on a rock before being spewed out into a lower pool. We all saw it. The tube could have been caught between rocks underwater, trapping her, but mercifully that didn’t happen. She took it all in stride, as usual.
Andrew has become very interested in the flecks of gold he finds in the river. He has a hard-rubber miner’s pan someone found upriver and has been panning for the last two days. Potter found a few large flakes floating in the river. The gold bonanza in the Sierran foothills ran out a century ago, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t still small amounts to be found.
It occurs to me today that no one in our group sings. I haven’t heard a human song or whistle since we started, perhaps because we are all so intent on making our way safely, perhaps because the river sings so loudly. It’s difficult to remember when something happened because the days slip into one another. Kai says we’re as immersed in the experience as we are in the river. It’s hard to sort out incidents because every moment is intensely lived, smelled, heard, sighted.
In the late morning we swam around a chute to a thirty-foot falls and pulled ourselves onto the last expansive, steep rock shelf of the trip. I’ve become comfortable with avoiding the swiftest currents and getting where I want to go by aiming high above where I want to end up. As I reached the rock shelf after swimming the river’s width, backpack slung over one shoulder, to stand with the others, Peter teased, “All right! She’s got it now!”
We peered over the falls below and took photos. Scott leapt up a cliff high above to find the bat caves he knew were there. The rock is punched through with lip-like openings, and a tiny bat appeared from a cleft, startling Peter, who had joined Scott. I turned back to the river. We seemed to be perched on the sliding edge of the world.
Strange, how long it took to make our way around a few bends of the river. Our last float below the falls took half an hour. We tubed, hiked, paddled, tossed off a few more boulders, and then suddenly, shockingly, our time on the river was over.
It was nearing eleven a.m. when we prepared for the hike up the canyon on Bald Rock Trail. There were many things to do. We stashed our tubes in a cave above the high-water line, except Potter and one of the others, who felt the tubes should be carried out. Delk advised me to wet a scarf and shirt and pack them into plastic bags so that when it got too hot in the middle of the day we could put on something cool. At river’s edge we filtered water for our canteens and water bottles. The sun smeared heat into our skin and hair.
To begin the climb to the trail, we had to hoist ourselves onto a rock ledge and navigate a little cliff. When we made it up, Scott, Peter and Kai had disappeared, and we weren’t sure which way to go. We saw a downhill trail and elected to go that way, but when Clyde came into view he explained we had to go up a steep incline first. I kvetched and cursed but there was nothing to do but to do it, and then we passed through a narrow cleft in the rocks, so narrow our packs scraped the sides. It was like a birth canal—the river had pushed us out. We were facing a 1,500-1,800-ft. climb.
Ann broke off two long twigs of bay laurel for us to use as flywhisks, and we started off, but immediately my vision blurred and I was faced with the onset of a migraine. I had had very little to eat and not much sleep, but still, I thought, how weird that this has “waited” until we’re on a trail, no longer on a cliff or the river or in a treacherous passage. I sat down with eyes closed as Delk, Clyde and Potter, concerned, stayed with me. Two aspirin from Clyde’s backpack pharmacy and silence helped. The river already seemed far away. For twenty minutes behind closed eyes I saw my vision dance and splinter in darkness, and slowly the bright splinters worked their way to the periphery and were gone.
Feeling weak, I started off slowly as Potter took my pack ahead. We trudged along, at one point straight up thirty-two stairs. This was the only time I heard Ann complain—the stairs were grueling because they were so steep. After awhile we reached a long series of gradually rising switchbacks. I held a chain link fence that had been constructed after an avalanche, finding it comforting to hold on to something; and looked down to see the thin water snake of the river swim away below us.
We rested, resumed, rested. Sometimes Potter took my pack ahead, or Clyde’s—he is so strong. Delk even took my pack part of the time. I dawdled, overheated. But there was no reason to sprint, after all: we figured it would take the men ahead of us a certain amount of time to drive the car we had parked at the top of Bald Rock Trail on Saturday to fetch the other cars parked upriver at Milsap Bar.
We didn’t pass another soul all the way to the top. When Delk and I were almost there, Kai and Peter came towards us, greeted us and asked if we wanted help. They took our packs. Kai had made it in a phenomenal fifty-five minutes, followed by Scott, Andrew and Peter in an hour and twenty minutes. Our foursome took nearly four hours because I was so slow; but for me, the long transition was welcome in a way, for it prolonged the quiet. In the parking lot we guzzled water and then, hugging each other, divided up for the drive home. All my thoughts were on the huge hamburger I would eat in Oroville. Others planned to gorge on root beer floats and salty fries and fresh lettuce.
We saw ourselves in the glass for the first time in days. We were dirty, disheveled, tired, proud and devoid of vanity. After the meal we piled back into our vehicles and endured the long, hot drive back through the Sacramento Valley to the Bay Area. We passed the Nut Tree in Vacaville and crossed the Martinez Bridge. We could smell the Shell refinery. But in my ears I still heard river music.
For the River Rats: Peter Benko, Kai Brown, Andrew Chacon, Ann Delk, Clyde Willson, Scott Willson and Potter Wickware.