Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Lower New River Gorge

After being denied from a 1st Descent on the Klamath drainage due to snow, Paul Gamache and Ben Hawthorne headed to the Lower New River Gorge. Ben had paddled the Lower New before around 900 CFS, this was Paul’s first time down.
We arrived at the Panther Flat put-in around noon and discovered the river to be higher than the “normal” run-able flows.

Paul Gamache @ Put-in.

We estimated the flow was at least 1,500-1,800 CFS but no more than 2,000 CFS. Most of the easy warm-up miles were now class III wave trains with pushy eddies. By the time we arrived at the first class IV we discovered we were indeed embarking on a high water descent. We ended up portaging most of the class IV’s, now class V’s with severe consequences, due to the normal lines containing enormous backed-up recirculating holes.

Ended up portaging this rapid due to the backed-up hole and consequences of a swim.

Any sneak lines were a mess of rock jumbles and would have been more of a rock bashing then fun. After portaging many of the rapids below Byoff Road we continued downriver towards the mile and a half class V gorge for which the Lower New is famous.

Downriver of rapid pictured above.

Upon reaching the regularly portaged rapid we quickly portaged around on river left and were faced with another challenge.

Normal Portage rapid at High Water.

Usually the rapid below the portage is an unportagable unscoutable rapid, which is run on river left. However, not sure of the flow and unable to scout we attempted to hike up and around the rapid since the size of the hole on the other side of the drop may have been enormous due to the high water. With our boats we climbed the cliff on river left in an attempted to gain access below the blind rapid. We quickly discovered that regaining access to the river would have involved descending a near vertical cliff. The time was now around 3:30 and dark would be upon us in little more than an hour and a half. Ultimately, we decided it would be much faster climbing the cliff without boats. Stashing the boats against trees we both knew chances of finding, let alone wanting to hike back in were very slim.

Leaving the boats not sure if we'd ever see them again.

Not soon after leaving the boats a dry bag clipped to Paul’s lifejacket managed to unclip itself and began bouncing down the cliff. Not wanting to climb down to get the bag we continued on, resulting in a loss of duct tape and our only first aid kit. We made good time hiking without the boats and approached the confluence of the New and Trinity just as dusk set in. Our elevation was equal to that of the 299 on the other side of the Trinity, roughly 1,000’ above the river. We reassessed our situation. On our right was a sheer cliff leading back down into the New’s confluence with the Trinity. Ahead of us was cliffs leading down to Burnt Ranch Gorge. To the left was a long 6-mile hike along cliffs to the nearest bridge at Cedar flat. Consequently, we had no other choice than to endure an unplanned night along the cliffs of Burnt Ranch. Temps were already in the 40’s and the only gear we had was a half bottle of water, beef jerky, and wet kayaking gear. A fire was not possible due to the danger of scaling the cliffs at night looking for dry wood, that and we didn’t have a lighter or matches with us. Ben quickly decided due to previous experience on an unplanned campout along Upper Goose creek that the best thing for him to do was to ring out all of his layers in an attempt to dry some of his gear before night came. Worried of hypothermia Ben rang out the only gear he had; a drytop with a blown neck gasket, 3 layers of fleece, and his mom’s exercise pants, which was his only warmth for his bottom half. As night fell upon us the temperature quickly dropped and we found ourselves shivering uncontrollably. We did what proud men would do and cuddled for warmth. As we cuddled we laughed at the situation we had gotten ourselves into. We could see cars going by but for us they were as far away as the moon. During the night temperatures continued to drop and at one point snow began to fall. As we cuddled for warmth our bodies would quickly loose temperature and we would have to stand and jog in place on the side of the cliff in an attempt to re-warm ourselves. Usually this resulted in uncontrollable full body shivers that warmed us more than the jogging did. Sometime during the night, Paul in attempt to improve the camping situation along the cliff moved a rock he was sitting on. Apparently, this rock was the stabilization point for the rock pile we were leaning against. As one rock moved so did another. Immediately after the first rock movement Paul and Ben lunged out of the way as a 60-80 lb boulder rolled down where they were sitting. After chundering the heavy rock down the cliff the two went back to cuddling weary of more rocks falling on their heads. Around three or four in the morning another element of weather hit us, this time in the form of a temporary rain shower. The night passed gruelingly slow and neither one of us slept for than an hour or two total. At the first hint of light we began to piece our plan together. We knew the New had to have dropped somewhat overnight and hoped it was at more of a controllable flow. About 20 minutes after first light we left and headed back up the New River to locate our boats. Not wanting to pass the boats the duo tried to retrace their steps along the cliffs. After about 45 minutes of hiking we came across the drybag, which Paul had lost the evening before. From there we were able to position ourselves in relation to the boats and not long after saw them resting on the side of the cliff about 50 yards uphill.

A needle in a haystack...if you look closely you can see the boats near the center of the picture.

Once back at the boats we descended back down the cliff into the gorge where we had first hiked out. In doing so we took a quick scout of the unportageable rapid and determined we could run the drop on river right now that we knew what the other side of the drop looked like. We now had two options; put back on and commit to the gorge uncertain of what the remaining rapids would look like or hike our way back up the new with boats and takeout at Byoff Road. Since hiking out would have absolutely horrendous we decided to put back on and descend through the gorge. Ben went first through the unportagable rapid and disappeared boofing over the lip. All Paul could see was Ben disappearing over the edge and after 10-15 seconds reappear a distance below the rapid attempting to roll. Ben later said that he went over the drop and flipped. He then rolled up and was then flipped over again in a series of holes below the drop. As Paul sat by himself he had no choice but to flow Ben’s line through the drop. As he put on his sprayskirt he fought off nerves not really sure of what the drop would entail after seeing his buddy having somewhat difficulty a distance below the drop. As Paul boofed the lip he was flipped on a curler coming off the right wall. Instantly hitting his head on a rock, luckily he suffered little more than a bump on his forehead. Rolling up he paddled over to meet Ben in the eddy.

View of unportagable rapid from below. The river right line which we ran is usually unrunnable at lower flows.

The two were now committed to the gorge. The continuous nature of the high water descent resulted in almost no slack water between the continuous Class V rapids making up the final mile and a half into the Trinity. The danger of having only two people with outside temps in the 40’s and water temp near or below that resulted in any swim being extremely life threatening. As the two battled their way down the gorge the makeup of the rapids consisted of large pushy holes almost everywhere with little time to eddy out before entering into the next rapid. At one point the pair reached one of the larger rapids, which had a V-shaped hole leading into an exploding whitewater rapid which had several very large intimating holes. Confident he could make it through the rapid without swimming Paul went first. He fought his way through the rapid to stay online running the right side of the drop. Upon entering the middle of the rapid where the largest of the holes was he was thrown like a top into the air and managed to straighten out just in time to hit the bottom hole marking the end of the rapid. As he hit the hole at the bottom he flipped and rolled up just in time to paddle his way over to a small micro eddy on river right barely avoiding entering the next rapid. As he sat in the eddy he was unable to see Ben’s whereabouts and after a considerable amount of time he became worried of what had become of him. Eventually, Ben appeared and caught the eddy that Paul was in. Ben had managed to find a seal launch on river left along the rocks and avoided running the V+ rapid that Paul had fought through. The pair now sat in a micro eddy on river right unable to scout the next rapid due to the sheer vertical cliffs. An eddy existed on river left and Paul attempted to paddle across the fast moving river to catch the eddy but was unable. He was now headed blindly into the next rapid. He quickly found a line through the holes on river left and made his way down to the rapid below. Ben followed and met Paul in the eddy. After running an easy class IV they eddied out once again on river left above the 10’ ledge drop, which is usually a fun clean drop. The rapid now appeared to be a mess of whitewater with the boof line over the 10’ turning into a nasty recirculating hole.

10' ledge rapid looking pretty ugly.

An easy portage existed on river left so the team opted to walk around and put back in, having only the confluence rapid left to paddle. Paul had heard from Ben Wartburg earlier that week that this section is usually extremely fun class IV(+). Again at the flow we had, the nature of the final rapids was class V with churning holes and ugly eddy lines. Ben went first and probed the final rapids. The 2nd to last drop was run on river right and was a large tongue of water with a curling hole on the left side. Running the tongue the pair continued down the New and hit hole after hole until the final drop into the Trinity, which in itself contained a river wide hole that spit you into the high water of the Trinity. Exhausted and relieved to be through the gorge Paul and Ben paddled towards Gray’s falls thankful that neither one of them had gotten beat by any holes or much worse, taken a swim.

Gray's Falls


Flow: (III-IV+): 500-1,000 CFS
(IV-V): 800-1,200 CFS

Put-in: Panther Creek (1,110 ft)
To reach put-in drive along 299 from Arcata until you reach the town of Hawkins Bar. Just before the Simon Legrees Bar there will be a road on the left leading towards the town of Denny. Drive 14 miles along this road until you see a small dirt road on your right leading down towards the river.

Take-out: Use either Gray's Falls or Hawkins Bar Bridge.