Sespe Creek – Class V – 3 Days – 31 Miles Wilderness run.

(Pictures below)

My friend Alex asked me this week about Sespe Creek.  He wrote:
“How difficult is it really?”

My Response:
“How hard?  Very.   How Scary?  Very.”

I could end this report there, but it wouldn’t be very interesting.    Sespe Creek is an infrequently run creek in Southern California, it starts in the mountains above Ojai, CA, and ends in the town of Philmore, just outside of Ventura.   It drops for 31 miles through a deep and remote canyon, with the only signs of man being LAX-bound planes heading for LA.  More below….


The last few weeks have been  tough.   Just one week before, I was in Texas for my grandfather’s funeral.  Work has been tough, with some changes that have caused tons of extra work.   It’s been tough.   Kim and I were planning a relaxing weekend at home, and I was working on the Friday.    Then an email popped up in my email box, “Last minute Sespe Creek run this weekend. ”

My heart started beating a little faster.  My palms got a little damp.   I sent Kim an email. “Want to go visit your mom this weekend?”   I had work to finish.  I hadn’t packed.  It made no sense.   Really, none.   But I’d wanted to do this creek for a long time, and I knew that an adventure would be good for my soul.  Kim booked a ticket home from LA to Sacramento for Sunday evening, and I emailed Geno.  I was in.

I got online, to do a few minutes research.  Not much information out there.  Reports of the run varied from 1.5 days to 4, and difficulty from “Not bad” to “wow, hard.  Bring ropes for the portages.”   Ropes?  Wow.

It was well after 8 pm before we left home that friday.  Late for starting a drive to LA.  I’d packed in a hurry, and still hadn’t gone grocery shopping.   We took my truck, so Kim couldn’t help drive.  It was a  long night, and we got to Kim’s mom after 2 am.  Less than 3 hours later, I was up and back in my truck.  I stopped at a Ralphs for groceries, and a WalMart to buy a disposable camera.  I’d forgotten my digital, but didn’t want the trip to go unrecorded.

8 am.  I meet Geno and Jake for the first time, and we drive about an hour to the put-in.  We pack our boats with camping gear and food, and shoulder the heavy loads for the short hike to the creek.  Putting in, the creek is shallow and rocky.   The first 1/2 half of the creek is pretty easy, mostly slowed by the shallow water.  We bump our way down.  I think I hit more rocks than I’ve ever hit.

Towards the end of the day, we start getting into steeper stuff.  The canyon deepens, and the boulders in the river get bigger.   It’s getting harder.   It’s gorgeous.

It’s getting late, and we’ve made the decision to look for camp.    I’m pretty tired, and not used to paddling a loaded boat. I paddle into an eddy, and try to peel out around a rock fence.   Damn.  I miss the line and get pushed into the rock fence.  I’m broached, with the bottom of my boat pushed against the rock and the force of the water pinning me there.  My head is above water, and I’m stable, but I can’t free myself.   As I try to dislodge myself, I flip and wash off the rock.   As I slide over the drop, my paddle is ripped from my hand.  Damn.  Damn.   I pop my skirt and drag my boat to shore.  Geno and Jake look for my paddle, but there is no sign.  Once the boat is stable, I head back up to the pin spot to look for my paddle.  Couldn’t find it.  No sign anywhere. While I searched, Geno noticed that there was a good campsite there, so we started setting up to camp.   At least 20-30 minutes after I swam, I went back down near my boat to get some gear out.  As I’m looking for the gear, I hear the distinct “THWOCK” of a paddle against a rock.  I look to the river, half expecting to see paddlers.  Instead, it’s my paddle.  I yell with suprise, and head to the river to capture it.   It must have been caught in the spot that pulled it out my hand, and worked it’s way lose.  Luckily it happened when I was there, or I may never have seen it again.

Camp was nice.  We had a nice fire, and talked about life and politics.  We’d not all met before, but got along well.


Day 2 – What is there to say really?  It was gorgeous.   It was hard.   The rapids were hard, with sometimes severe looking consequences for being wrong.  Geno and Jake did an awesome job scouting and boat scouting, which was very appreciated.  It was still slow going.  The rapids stacked together in a sea of huge boulders.  Portages were difficult, though we didn’t ever need ropes.  Hard and hard and hard, it was a long a tiring day.  I rolled a couple times, and took some hits in the shallow water.

I saw a condor, which was a thrill.   California Condors are VERY rare, and I’d never seen one before. That was pretty cool.

And then there were more hard rapids.  Hard to see, hard to run.  And more.

We’d hoped to do the run in 2 days, but it became clear that wasn’t going to happen.  Around 4:30, I was feeling pretty beat, and we decided to look for camp.   And it happened again.  I missed a line, hit some rocks, took a pounding, and got pushed against a rock.  Scared, I bailed out fo my boat and swam.  I haven’t swum in a long, long time, and 2 swims in 2 days. Ouch.  No fun.    My boat went into the seived out Class V below, and I was wondering if I’d be hiking out.   Jake yells that he can see it, and I take off down the banks.   Eventually, there it was, going round and round an eddy, just below a waterwall and above a big undercut rock.  I carefully jump into the corner of the eddy and hope it comes close enough to grab.  It does, and I hold it until Geno gets there.  He helps me pull it out of the river, and then helps me climb out.  Lucky.

Remarkably, I’ve managed to again swim near an attractive camp, so we set up.   The night was little warmer, and I was asleep pretty early.


Day 3 – We wake, and pack our boats.   We try and figure out where we are, but with only rocks, side creeks and trees to guide us, it’s tough to know how much further we have. We continue down river, but it’s relentless.  Each turn reveals another section of river clogged with house size boulders and no signs of letting up.   We have a long portage sometime this day, along with some of the river’s most fun rapids.   The purple rocks are gorgeous.   Tough, slow going.

Eventually, we round a corner, and there is a sign of a dirt road.   Towers appear high on the ridge.  It’s our first sign of civilization, and I’ll admit I was happy.   A few more tough rapids remain, but eventually we see houses.   It’s over, and we’ve made it.   It’s a long feeling paddle through Class II water to the car, and by the time we get there, I hardly feel like moving my arms.

Great trip, great river.   Great company.

Adventure is good for the soul, and I came back feeling renewed and ready for another week.

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Mokracek

    Great to read your account of your trip. I did a trip in 1992 another in 1996 and a raft descent a few years ago. I love that canyon.

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