With a summer such as this one every day encouraged a new story making it difficult to pick a place to begin. I jumped at every opportunity that came my way, with each endeavor being more personally monumental than the last. It started this spring, teaching swiftwater rescue in torrential down pours. The precipitation proved to be the precursor to record high water during the summer months. I kayaked the biggest and most difficult runs of my life, managed a commercial whitewater rafting outfit and in my spare time got down 9 personal first decents plus went on many other adventures. While there were many goods, such as canyoneering Dinkey Creek, the few bads such as dealing with the loss of two good friends plus my grandmother gave me a reality check regarding life and the sport of kayaking.
Flash back to April: Spring is winding down and the smell of high water is in the air. All over the Sierra Mountains are reports of record snowpack and waters on the rise. Sasha and I packed up the family- two dogs, a truck, the WhiteWaterAssault Vehicle and a trailer. We are heading to the Kern River for the third season and are excited for the new experiences and all the potential opportunity of the snowpack.
My season really took off with “a bang,” ie: the Brush Creek Race. A few friends, who also happen to be fellow Kokatat Ambassadors/Team Members, came down to Kern River Festival for a boatload of fun including the race and the opportunity to run Upper Brush the day after the race. The tone was certainly set for the season.
Understanding the astronomical tone to the big summer, I took off in search of more water. I went on trips to the Upper and Lower South Fork Kaweah, Lower North Fork Kaweah, Middle Tule, East Fork Kaweah, South Fork of the Middle Tule (also known as the Nelson Branch of the Tule), as well as making it into Dinkey Creek, twice. I got on the Forks of the Kern, which was well over 4,000 CFS, making it a personal record-high. I threw relaxation to the wolves determined to take advantage of every bit of spare time I could rummage up while managing Kern River Tours.
I learned so much this season, it’s been incredible pushing myself to the limit of my abilities. Dinkey was in full force this year. A friend showed interest in going and we decided to go for it. The water was higher than expected and we made the poor decision of jumping the portage instead of rappelling. This decision cost me my equipment. There is now a lot of focus driven towards this particular portage because of my own carnage being in such close proximity to a fatality in the rapid just below.
Daniele Tira lost his life by being sucked into the rapid just below the portage, which has a tremendous amount of water flowing into a sieve. My partner and I hiked down to where his equipment eddied out and made plans for evacuation. We knew a helicopter was in the area looking for Daniele and we were hoping to make contact with it in the event it flew down the canyon again.
Around dusk another group of boaters showed up and after explaining our situation, they decided to camp with us for the evening offering up food, clothing and everything else they had. I will never forget their selflessness and am very grateful to them.
After a mildly uncomfortable night next to the fire we all woke up and devised a plan. We decided that the group would paddle out the rest of the way and contact the Sheriff helicopter to schedule a pickup. My new friends graciously escorted my partner out and I prepared to await help on my granite perch between two beautiful 20+ foot waterfalls – not the worst place to spend a few days, I suppose.
Just as they were packing up their boats we heard the buzzing of the helicopter looking for Daniele. Once we got the attention of the pilot, he swooped in low dropping a small canister with some yellow caution tape attached to it. Inside was a note that read if you have an emergency, everyone sit down. Once everyone was sitting, he flew away briefly and returned minutes later dropping his partner off on our granite slab camp. I explained myself to the man who was relieved to know there was no life-threatening emergency – having dealt with Daniele’s death the day prior.
The helicopter swooped back to pick me up. I had to leave everything minus the gear I was wearing, on a granite slab in the middle of nowhere. We flew down the entire canyon and arrived at Balch camp in less than 10 minutes. The aerial view allowed me to look at the very dense forest that we were surrounded by.
The pilot dropped me off one block from my take-out vehicle. I drove into Fresno in order to grab a bite to eat and some cold beer for the others at the take out. When I arrived back at the take-out I was surprised to find my friend Dylan Nichols with three other boaters. It was Felix, Sven and Lars Lammler. They put on that morning and were already at the take-out. They had passed our group and told me to expect them within the next couple hours. Dylan and the Lammlers took off quickly as they were only in California for a bit and they were ready to move on to set even more records throughout the west coast. I waited about an hour until the crew arrived from a long and demanding day on the water. I could not thank them enough for escorting my boating partner down the river or for their incredible selflessness the night before.
We parted ways as a busy weekend was in store at work. Looking back, I realize there are a lot of things I would do differently. I can now use this experience as a learning tool- even though it brings a small amount of embarrassment and humility. I now know the severe importance that is: go with larger groups, go with someone that knows the run, and take your time- if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, rest. These things help maintain a positive mental capacity, assisting in the making of good choices. And as Geoff Calhoun put it while we were perched on our granite slab camp, always plan for the worst but hope for the best.
After such an event, I found it a little difficult to move forward. I vowed that I would hike in and retrieve my brightly colored, expensive litter from that beautiful granite slab in the middle of nowhere. About a month after the first trip, I put together a crew for a canyoneering/gear retrieval mission. I knew it was going to be a huge undertaking with the Manzanita being so thick. As it turned out, the Manzanita was so thick in spots we had to crawl on our hands and knees. Things got even more difficult as the poison oak filled the void that was our path.
The team rallied together and drove to the put in on a Monday evening. After getting turned around a few times trying to find Ross Crossing, we arrived at the put in around 4 AM on Tuesday. We power napped for two hours before busting out the hike to the creek. We made really good time, reaching, what in my mind, was the crux of the run before lunchtime. Starting at the Willie Kern drop and ending somewhere around the Good Morning Slide, one of the steepest and most gorged out areas of our trip, we had to climb creatively. We were jumping, rappelling when needed and were able to negotiate the area in good time.
At this point we were nearing my equipment. When we finally arrived I came to find I was missing one bag entirely, another bag was ripped open and only one remained intact. Regardless I was excited to be reunited with a lot of the things I thought I had lost. The excitement levels were lowered a bit when I picked up my newly weighted pack; this was going to be a long haul out. Dave Osada and myself decided to wait it out and finish our hike in the morning after stumbling over uneven ground, doing numerous creek crossings and being cliffed out in the dark. While the three others in our group were a ways ahead of us making it out in the daylight. We awoke in the morning to find that we were only ¼ mile from the take-out.
I returned to the Kern River for one evening to pack up and drive straight to Nevada City where I met up with Sasha for a night before running off on another adventure: teaching a rescue course geared towards kayakers. The course was fantastic; I love teaching, and I always feel as though I end up learning just as much as the students do. This class was followed by three more days of technical rope rescue. We ran through rope systems including complex mechanical advantage, high-lines with midpoint drops, vertical extraction and haul techniques; I love working with ropes and learning as much as I can in that department of rescue. It is always a phenomenal experience to work beside firemen, sheriffs, military personnel and the many other folks dedicated to safety.
In light of recent experiences I have been pondering many questions. How do I help promote the education of rescue and safe boating? How can I personally impact the future of whitewater accidents? While my boating experiences have been the best times of my life, I hope that by sharing my story it makes people realize the seriousness of whitewater. Receiving the most safety education you can will only help yourself and others. It promotes smart decisions in critical moments. Teaching Swiftwater Rescue is my way of giving back. No one is invincible to the consequences of Class V whitewater. But being able to paddle Class V is equally humbling as it is rewarding and constantly reminds me to never take a minute’s time for granted. Allen Satcher and Daniele Tira, you will be missed and always remembered. We will continue to boat for the same reason you did, for the love of the water.
Please enjoy this video of my summer.