The Middle Fork of the Feather is described in the classic CA paddling guidebook as “This is it! The Middle Fork of the Feather River is the best wilderness self-support trip in California.” It is one of the original “Wild and Scenic ” designated rivers. Class V and 3 days. I’d seen photos, and read other trip reports. I was excited to give it a go. Flows looked good, and the plan was Memorial Day weekend.
A few days before, my neuropathy was acting up, making my foot numb, and I fell in the house, tweaking my back. I spent Thursday lying on my back, taking muscle relaxers and a pain killer. I was strongly considering bailing on the whole idea. Friday I felt marginally better, and after working and getting some other stuff done, I made the decision late in the day that I was going. Packed, went to the store, and was on my way. It was an all night drive, with a few cat naps and lots of coffee along the way, but I made it to takeout on time. Then we waited for our whole crew to show up. There were 9 of us, a big crew for such a river, but all experienced, strong paddlers. Myself, Kat, Alex, Bryant, Matt, Corey, Taylor, Lynn, Willis. A long shuttle and packing put us on the river well after lunch, and Day 1 was over fairly quickly. It was mostly straightforward Class IV, with a few harder rapids in there. We had some excitement, several swims, and late in the day I came round a corner and dropped a small drop into a big hole, no big deal except another paddler was getting worked in the hole at the time. Luckily I didn’t get clobbered, nor did I clobber him, but it was close. I made it through the hole OK, but he was still stuck. Still stuck. Wow. That sucks. After a heroic effort, he finally swam from his boat, and the group got him and his gear into a close eddy. He was exhausted and a little dazed from swallowing water. While he recuperated, Corey was checking out the area, and since it was a nice camp, we decided to spend night one there. People did some fishing, but no keepers. We ate and laughed and had a good time. It was nice.
Day 2 – After a fairly relaxed breakfast, we were moving down the river. I can’t remember all the rapids, let’s just say there were lots, and many were hard. I ran a triple set of drops, and got stuck in a munchy hole at the bottom, I fought and fought, but my back was screaming in agony, and I found myself swimming. I was in pain, and that pain would last the rest of the run.
It wasn’t all hammerings though, there were tons of fun and challenging rapids, with some easy boofs and cool drops. Super good paddling, and amazing scenery, with crystal clear water. And a phenomenal crew of paddlers to enjoy it with. Simply amazing. After a full day of paddling, we stopped for another pretty camp. Shout out to the new Trader Joe’s precooked Jambalaya. Awesome camp food. That night a harmonica was brought out, and drums were improvised for some music around the fire. Good times.
Day 3 – We were behind schedule, and had a tough, full day ahead of us. My back was hurting, and I was a bit shaken from swimming. I wasn’t paddling my best, and knew it. I was determined to keep moving and not hold the group up too much, so I resolved to make the run/portage decision quickly, and do my best to keep moving down river. We all ran some hard rapids, some fun rapids, and a few members of our group ran nearly everything. We had a couple swims. As the day wore on, my back was hurting and I was getting tired. I’d portaged more than I normally would have, and was finding myself intimidated. My back? Swims? Not enough hard paddling this year? Just an “off” weekend? Most likely some combination of all of the above. But we were still making our way downriver, and there were some really cool rapids in there.
We got to Helicopter, and got out to scout. Class V and a portage would be near impossible. It was getting late in the day, and we still had some ground to cover. I got out. It looked big and pushy and scary. Willis fired it up, and ran a clean line. He was followed by Matt. I looked at it with a feeling of dread in my stomach. But I knew staring at it wouldn’t make it easier or less scary, so I got in my boat and peeled out. I dropped in. Paddling and trying to stay on line. Shit, I’m backwards. Now I’ve flipped. Two solid knocks to the head and back. Ow. I try and roll, and fail. Another knock to the head. One of these was hard enough to crack my carbon fiber helmet. I don’t know where I am, and I’m getting twisted out of the boat. Although I’d intentionally bailed out of my boat on another swim on the run, this one twisted me out without me meaning too. I was getting pummeled on the back deck, and my knee popped out and went through my deck. I was swimming again. Some downtime in the water below the drop, and I was thrilled to see Taylor’s boat approach me….
Put back in my boat. I’m in pain. I’m unhappy. I’m tired. We paddled down.
A big portage for everyone at “grand Slalom.”
It’s getting late, the light is starting to wane. Corey and Bryant call a group meeting and we discuss camping an extra night. “Tired paddlers” is mentioned, and I know I am one of the folks they are worried about. Not the only one, but definitely one of them. I tell the group I want off the river, and we press on. I’m supposed to be in Utah the next day. Corey thinks we won’t make it.
Some easier rapids, the group is hammering hard. Everything we can do to keep moving efficiently down river. More rapids. It’s getting dark. We paddle on. The bats are out, flickering in the dusk in front of me, hunting above the river. It’s getting really dark. I watch the steep shores for a place we could camp. Bryant is a few hundred feet ahead, and let’s out a whelp of joy. “The Bridge!”
We hoot and holler. Hugs and high fives. We’ve all had an amazing weekend, and we celebrate.
A late, long shuttle, and I start towards Utah. I call Kim, and she’s relieved to hear my voice. I’m relieved to hear hers. I don’t make it far that night, and sleep outside Reno. By 4 pm I’m in Salt Lake , ready for my next adventure…