I hiked into Giant Gap for my first time with a healthy mix of caution and excitement in my blood. I'd recently sold a boat from my fleet to a fellow who was looking for a replacement kayak, as his identical kayak had been destroyed just a few weeks earlier during a high water attempt on this run. The logical part of my brain knew that flows were lower, I'd been paddling well this year, and I was paddling with a strong partner. Another part of me kept remembering his tale of hiking out, members of their group hiking in opposite directions, unable or unwilling to risk crossing the river to hike out together. The hike out sounded grim, up an incredibly steep ravine through brush and poison oak. He'd lost his boat downstream, and another member of his group had abandoned his, favoring a hellacious hike over continuing paddling. Mostly, I was excited. I'd paddled the lower section of the North Fork American, a fun Class III-IV, many times. It's a gorgeous run, and I'd heard the higher stretches of river were even prettier, with harder, steeper rapids, and many more rapids to enjoy. Feeling good about my paddling this year, I had Giant Gap on my hit list. I'd heard 900 cubic feet per second (CFS) was a good flow, so I was a little surprised when Albert called and said 'Geoff, the gap is at 1300, let's go!' but I tossed my boat in the truck and drove to Albert's anyway. Driving east on I-80, you'd hardly think of wilderness runs, but shortly after pulling off the freeway, you're bouncing down a dirt road through amazing pine forests, and it starts looking more and more like wilderness. At the trailhead, the views are almost overwhelming. In front of you is a deep canyon, and both sides are steep, forested hills, you can easily imagine yourself much much deeper in the mountains. As I load my gear into a small daypack, I carefully itemize the items I'll carry. Spare paddle, first-aid kit, extra warm clothes, filtered water bottle. On a map I'm only 60 miles from the state capitol, but in terms of being prepared, I might as well be 300. Or 600. Not quite paddling in the interior of Alaska, but help or exit would be a long time away if problems arose that we couldn't handle. We are a team of two. I've never done the run before. Albert has, but not in many years. The flow is still on the higher side, higher than he's seen before. We both know that paddling in a group of two reduces our options and back-ups if something goes wrong, and we talk about this. I've paddled with Albert a fair bit over the last six months, and we normally paddle pretty all out. Boat scout, not much stopping, and paddle, don't float the flat spots. I've set several personal speed records with Albert. But we've talked, and we both agree we need to play it safe. We'll be scouting and looking at things today. Albert's wife drops us off, we shoulder our boats, and start the steep hike down to the river. The steep trail reminds us of the terrain we're heading into. It's gorgeous, and though my shoulder aches a bit, I reach the river in about 50 minutes. We know we've got a long way to go, so we dress quickly and slide into the sparkling clear water. Euchre Bar has a small bridge crossing the river, and it's the last sign of development we'll see for 14 miles. Not much warm up, and we head into the first walled gorge, filled with fun Class IV rapids. Even these need some attention. Albert and I are working well together, as a team. We're boat scouting these drops, and I'm feeling pretty good. It's steep and gorgeous. We stop in a few pools, but mostly we're cruising. Fun paddling, and we move quickly downstream. The water is high, even the class IV rapids feel pretty solid, and I can't help but remember the quote from the guidebook, in describing miles 2.5 to 5.5 ' Giant Gap. Here the river has cut a narrow chasm between spectacular 2000-foot walls. There are several Class V rapids in this stretch. Even experts should make their first trips at flows below 1000 CFS; above that level, the pools between drops are so swift that rescue is very difficult. Scout at every opportunity. ' Cassady & Calhoun, California Whitewater 1990 Before long we're in Giant Gap. At points, I wished that the paddling was easier, so I could better appreciate the amazing scenery. Instead, I'm pretty focused on the river. Albert and I are working well together, at times we both scout, but we also do a lot of single person scouts, which in hard water like this require a lot of trust and confidence in your partner. There are plenty of unnamed rapids that on most runs would be the most memorable part of the river. We run the Class V 'Nutcracker' without scouting, which is an eye-opener, followed quickly by 'Locomotive Falls.' At Locomotive there is an abandoned orange kayak to serve as a nice reminder to not get overconfident. I look around as we scout, sheer walls of rock overhang slightly, and the tops of the gorge are somewhere 2000 feet above us. I shudder at the thought of hiking out here. But we're both paddling well, and the rapids pass without much incident, although that's not to imply that they are trivial. Several have critical lines, many have serious consequences. The horizon lines are amazing, a line across the river, and the next thing you see are the tops of trees, trees that are only a few hundred feet downsteam, but you're looking at their tops. Before long, we're scouting 'Dominator,' where we decide to take our only portage for the day. There is a line, but it's tight and the consequences of not making it look severe. As we pop our skirts back on, Albert confidently announces 'well, that was Dominator, the last big rapid until the very end'. I know we've only covered 5 of the 14 miles, and I'm a bit disappointed that the hard paddling is over. The gorge is opening up a bit, and I ready myself for the paddle out. We haven't gone far when I hear the roar of a rapid. We see a pretty strong horizon line, some huge boulders, and an obvious, big rapid. With no obvious line, we hop out and scout. It's solidly in the IV-V range. We run it, and in the eddy below, Albert announces, 'Hmmm. That must have been the last big one. I don't remember anything like that below Dominator.' We round another corner, and are greeted again with a similar view. Another scout, another solid rapid, and I look at Albert a bit dubiously when he announces 'Okay, that must have been the last big one.' I can't remember how many times this is repeated, but it's enough that before long, Albert and I are joking about it. At each new horizon line, I'd ask Albert, 'Is THIS the last big rapid'' and Albert would respond, 'The 34th last big rapid.' For 6 miles or so you get into easier terrain, though some rapids would still clock in as Class IV. Albert is a former race kayaker,fit, and I'm tired from playboating a bunch the day before. He pulls ahead, and I occasionally catch a glimpse of his helmet in the distance. The paddling is easier, and I got lulled into that groove of just paddling down the river. The last rapid catches me by surprise. I'd seen Albert paddle into it, but hadn't seen where he went. I'm tired, and not really thinking. I charge right in. As I get into the boulder-choked rapid, I realize I've made a mistake. I catch an eddy behind a rock, and start trying to evaluate where I am. Below me is a big rock fence. There is water flowing through it, but it's impossible to see what's on the other side. A cleaner line exists far to the left, but I've missed it, and there's no way to get back there. I'm alone, and my heart is pumping. I look for an escape. I ferry across to another eddy. It puts me further from the clean line, but it gives me a better view. I see a line through the rock fence, cross my fingers and take it. It was an educated guess, but I still feel lucky that it worked. Albert's wife is relieved to see us. We're a bit late for our optimistic meet time, and she was getting worried. We drive to a Chinese restaurant. My legs are sore from the hike in, my back and shoulders sore from the previous days of paddling. The padded bench at our table looks like a good nap spot, but I'm riding high. Amazing paddling, incredible views in a wilderness canyon, only an hour drive from my house. I feel privileged to be a paddler.
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