California 2013

California 2013

Bristol Canoe club’s trip to California, May 2013

Rich Puttock, Rich RJ, Conor O’Neill, Lisa Gunton, Nick Wainwright, James (Badger) Hammonds, Lisa Fitzsimons, Mike Millington, Tim Johnson


I have put a “Quick set” of photos (61 photos) here:

If you want the full experience, the full set (288 photos) are here:

Day 0, Fri 17th May

Lisa and I drove down to stay overnight at Lisa F’s house in Hampshire. We discovered our first bit of gossip for the trip when we met her new bloke, Paul. Lisa’s local pub is in the Good Beer Guide…

Day 1, Sat 18th May

Heathrow worked OK, not too much faff. Lisa F managed to get herself upgraded to Upper Class. Lucky for some. She didn’t get the rest of us upgraded, though. Our plane is delayed 40 minutes after we’re loaded due to ‘staff shortages in Air Traffic Control’! Rich P drinks the plane out of beer (but it’s only Heineken, anyway). When we arrived in San Francisco, 1 hour queue for immigration, then (dodgy) Conor was taken to a side room for another two hours of waiting until they finally decided to let him through; no explanation given for the delay. Tim meets us at the airport. Nick discovers that he’s not allowed to drive the hire cars because his UK driving licence is 18 months out of date. Lisa and RJ book two huge SUVs, they look massive (though by the end of the fortnight, we’ve filled them with so much junk they now feel small). The plan is to drive an hour to Fairfield, then eat / drink in a brew-pub, the Blue Frog brewery. However, it seems to have closed its restaurant, so we end up eating in a neighbouring Mexican restaurant. First proof that Rich P can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. Also we discovered that walking back the few hundred yards to the motel is not good – the roads are not designed for pedestrians.

Day 2, Sun 19th May

Our first experience of a Denny’s for breakfast. One of the locals tells us that the great thing about the British is that we say ‘wanker’ a lot. Too much food is ordered (this will become a recurring theme). We drive to the South Fork of the American at Lotus, to paddle the gorge section; great trip. Afterwards, we pop into the kayak shop in Coloma, we don’t buy anything, but Nick is recognised by Justin, who runs the bar next door, and who was our guide when we paddled in Nepal in 2007. We were therefore forced to have a beer with him, and thus started the trend. Drove to Placerville next, got to the Placerville Brewing Company quite late, but sufficient time to eat and drink. Rich P is now partially forgiven.

River: South Fork of the American, Gorge section. 11 miles, Grade 3+, 1400cfs (43cms) (med). Hot and sunny.

Day 3, Mon 20th May

Drove back to the Chilli Bar section of the South Fork of the American. River is significantly higher than yesterday, good medium level. Great fun, bigger volume than we’re used to. Drove to Sonora afterwards, historic old town, and found a motel. Walked into town, but not many restaurants, managed a beer in a Mexican restaurant and then food and more beer in the Diamondback Grill. Jet-lag is kicking in, some of us went to bed at 9:30, others had more beers in the other motel room.

River: South Fork of the American, Chilli Bar section. 8 miles, Grade 3+, 2500cfs (78cms) (med). Hot and sunny.

Day 4, Tue 21st May

Drive to Merced river via the entrance to Yosemite National Park. Merced was low, but most of us paddled it. Problem finding the get-out, so Lisa F told us that ‘I’ve only seen grade 3+ from here downwards’. Significant grade 4 on the next bend (not quite visible from the road)! Drive back via Yosemite to have a quick look for those (Rich P and RJ) who seemed to think that paddling is more important than walking in Yosemite (planned for a couple of days later). Drove down a long dirt track to the get-in for the Tuolumne – Lisa G says this was like driving in Nepal. Camped here by the get-in, luxury BBQ, far too much food (as usual), and all the rest of the food, including the large cool-box, had to be hauled up into the trees to be bear-safe. Tim worries us all about poison oak.

River: Merced, Red Bud picnic area downwards. 9 miles, Grade 4-, 1100cfs (34cms) (low). Hot and sunny.

Day 5, Wed 22nd May

Faff in the morning, taking down tents. Tim cooked bacon and eggs. Wait two hours for the shuttle. Lisa F has decided not to run this. A random bloke (Dan) asks us if he can join us, and we reluctantly agree (worried he might be a muppet). It turns out that he’s very good! Tuolumne is a long, committing, hard trip (18 miles, grade 4). It is bigger volume than we expect, and lots of hard rapids at the start. Nick swims twice in the first mile, decides to abandon. Luckily we find Lisa F walking on path near river, so she helps him and boat back to car. Worries about clambering around in the poison ivy! We take 2.5 hours to get to major grade 5 rapid at mile 5, which everyone portages. Everone is cold because we underestimated the wind, and didn’t put our dry-suits on. The river is great, intimidating, intense, but feels never ending. Dan has more boat rescue practice. We finish after 6 hours at approx 4:45, very tired. Find a basic motel in Groveland with a ‘mobile home’ for all 8 of us, and just get to a pizza place before they close.

River: Tuolumne, Meral’s pool to Ward’s Ferry bridge. 18 miles, Grade 4+, 2000cfs (62cms) low/med, Sunny but windy.

Day 6, Thu 23rd May

Cooked the left-over breakfast in the mobile home. Tim heads back to SF to pick up Mike from the airport. Rich and Rich drive south to the Kaweah, and do a ‘bandit run’ (told off for being on private land). The rest of us head to Yosemite, do the obligitory view from the road tunnel, then park in the valley and walk up to the top of Nevada Falls (2000ft ascent). Lovely sunny day, some breeze. Even on a week-day in May, Yosemite is quite busy. Afterwards, we drove south to Visalia (just south of Fresno) to another brew-pub for Rich P. This is a good one. Rich P gets very drunk and insults the waiter…

River: Kaweah. Not sure of levels, etc. This might be wrong:

Walk: Yosemite Valley to top of Nevada Falls. 7 miles, 2000ft of ascent.

Day 7, Fri 24th May

Drove along a very windy road around a reservoir to the Kings river. Passed a poor cow which had become stuck in a cattle grid; some police already there to help, but likely to be using a gun. I was still knackered, so I offered to drive shuttle, and took some photos, others had a good day on the river. Lisa F reminds herself that she can roll. The Kings is described as high volume, training for Grand Canyon, but was in fact quite low. After the river, we drove north again to Stockton, where we met Tim again, now with Mike (armless) in tow; Mike had dislocated his shoulder just three weeks before, and he wasn’t even allowed to drive shuttle for us. We spent the evening in Valley Brewery in Stockton, not one of the bext.

River: Kings river. 9 miles, Grade 3, 1500cfs (46cms) (low). Hot and sunny.

Day 8, Sat 25th May

Drove to the Mokelumne. Some confusion about whether this was a quick grade 2-3 section, or a quick grade 3-4 section. Eventually settled that there are in fact two nearby sections, the easier ‘Electra Run’ grade 2-3 on the main Mokelumne, and the Tiger Creek run on the North Fork of the Mokelumne. We all ran the Electra Run, quite similar to the Dart loop, but better and sunnier. Mike met us at the get-out, raving about Romans (something to do with the book he was reading). We then drove to the North Fork. This is a committing gorge, still sunny, but would be difficult to walk out. 5 of us decided to paddle, including me. Fantastic river, similar to the Upper Dart, but sunnier (and quicker). Rich and RJ liked it so much, they went back to paddle it again, and happened to meet Dan again, so they paddled down with him. Afterwards, we drove to Woodland (near Sacramento), while some failed to get to REI shop in Sacramento for cheap kit buying (it closed just as they got there). Walked the length of the high-street to the Black Dragon Brewery, to discover that it was a real brewery but didn’t really sell food. Beer was drunk, and some more too, and take-way pizza and other junk food purchased on the way home, amid grumbling.

River: Mokelumne (main). 3 miles, Grade 2-3, 900cfs (28cms) (med). Hot and sunny.

River: Mokelumne (North fork), from Tiger Creek dam. 3 miles, Grade 4, 725cfs (22cms) (low). Hot and sunny.

Day 9. Sun 26th May

Huge breakfast in cafe in Woodland. 3 pancakes nearly killed RJ and Nick, neither able to finish them. We drove a long way north to Redding. Found the get-out for Clear Creek; this is a road bridge about 100m above river level. It turns out that there is a better get-out a mile or so downstream. Tried to drive up a dirt track to the get-in, but there was no way that Tim’s Golf could make the rough road, and possibly not even our SUVs. We all decided to abandon the paddling attempt for the day, otherwise we would be risking a very late finish. Went more leisurely (the long way around) to inspect the get-in (for next day), then walked up to ‘Whiskeytown falls’ (named after old historic village). Found a hotel in Redding; ate in a steak restaurant after a minor rebellion about brew-pubs. [ It turns out that the only brew-pub candidates were closed on Sunday evening anyway!]. It was Mike’s birthday, so we got the staff to sing to him, and a diner on a neighbouring table bought him a whisky! More beer afterwards at hotel.

Day 10. Mon 27th May

Its a bank-holiday (Memorial Day). Its raining. Crap breakfast at hotel. We drive to Clear Creek. Lisa F has hurt her back again, so is not paddling, and will keep Mike company. Its ironic to be getting changed in the rain – like a British river. Certainly dry-suits today. The river is great; grade 3, with some awkward portages around tricky grade 4s, and one grade 5. A swim from Lisa G, which created some nicely coloured bruises on her shoulder. We meet Mike and Lisa at the get-out, they haven’t steamed the van up too much! Back to same hotel in Redding (the only time we stayed two nights in the same place), dinner in a Chinese restaurant, then lots of beer in a pub called the Ale House, with about 20 beers on draught. By this time, most of us are wishing that all these microbrew beers would be closer to 4% than then 8% or 9% (or higher) that they actually are!

River: Clear Creek. 8 miles, Grade 3,4(5), 210cfs (6cms) (low). Grey, raining.

Day 11. Tue 28th May

Drove to the McCloud. Long car shuttle. We all watch as Rich P, RJ, and Badger do the 10ft waterfall at the start. This river starts very small, is added to considerably by cold springs bubbling out of the banks, has a great continuous grade 3+ section, then a 3 mile flat paddle out on a lake. The first mile or so was agony; very boney, pushing off the rocks all the time. After that it was fantastic. The first grade 3+ took us all by surprise, and Lisa F did a marvellous roll half-way down the long rapid. Towards the end, the river goes through a private estate of the (very rich) Hearst family, with some tacky fake-historical but very expensive houses. The paddle out is tedious… Lisa G gained a ‘technical swim’ when failing to get in her boat after a food stop. We then drove (north again) to Yreka. Dinner in an Italian restaurant, where they chased us down the street after we’d turned around because of the ‘closed’ sign on the door. A hardy few then managed another beer in a great, but unnamed, bar, which had 15 or so microbrew beers on draught.

River: McCloud. 10 miles, Grade 3+, 725cfs (22cms) (low). Cloudy, warm.

Day 12. Wed 29th May

Good breakfast in proper diner in Yreka. Drove north, then west along the Klamath valley. Doing the Ike’s section (lower down), by this time its a big-volume river. Some confusion about the three ‘big’ rapids, but we managed them all. Not many towns around here, but we found a motel in a tiny town called Hoopa (population 625), in the Hoopa Indian reservation. We were advised that food was available in the casino (!), but it was a crap burger/pizza bar. We bought chicken and salad and beer at the supermarket instead. Badger won 5 dollars in the casino.

River: Klamath (Ike’s section). 5 miles, Grade 3+(4), 4300cfs (134cms) (low/med). Hot and sunny. Section below this:

Day 13. Thu 30th May

Breakfast in a tiny diner by the fuel station in Hoopa. Actually, the inside was better than the outside. They don’t get many visitors there – they asked us if they could put our picture in their local paper! Rich P, RJ, and Tim headed off to paddle the Salmon (grade 4-5), the rest of us needed a rest day. We found a ranger station, and they advised a suitable walk where the car took us most of the way up to the top of the mountain; we walked the last 500ft or so for spectacular views at the top at a fire look-out station. We inspected a few bits of the Trinity river, found a nice cafe near the next day’s get-out, and found a motel in Weaverville for the evening. The intrepid three paddlers eventually rejoined us after a hard 5 hours on the river, but ‘no epics’. (Tim may have disagreed). We went to a recommended restaurant (La Grange) which was excellent, and also sold beer which wasn’t 10%. More beer was drunk back at the motel afterwards.

River: Cal Salmon. 10 miles, Grade 4(5) 1200cfs (37cms) (med). Sunny, warm.

Day 14. Fri 31st May

Woken by a pick-up running its engine for 10 mins outside our motel rooms at 5am. Tim headed home so that he could see his boys in a school show that evening, the rest of us headed to the Trinity at Pigeon Point. We have been assured that this is a nice grade 3 wind-down. The sun is out, all looks good. The river is perhaps a little higher than we’re expecting. It turns out that these grade 3 rapids, at this volume, were quite pushy. A few swims ensued. RJ’s judgement failed him slightly when he directed Lisa and Badger straight into a huge hole, not ‘a haystack’ (afterwards, we realised that this rapid was actually called ‘Hells Hole’). And, on the same hole, RJ actually got his head wet and rolled!. However, we all enjoyed it, and when we saw Mike at the cafe at the take out, we were very pleased to have run the river. Then a long drive back down to San Francisco, to get to the Golden Gate Bridge before sunset. We just made this, so we do have the obligatory photos of the bridge. Back to Tim’s flat, meal in local Italian restaurant, and we’re all too knackered for more than one beer before we go to bed.

River: Trinity (Pigeon Point). 5 miles, Grade 2/3(3+), 1850cfs (57cms) (med). Hot and sunny.

Day 15. Sat 1st June

Tim has previously noted that four of us, plus himself, are polo paddlers, so has organised an ‘international’ match against his local club, at their marvellous training centre of Shoreline Lake, Mountain View. We’re not sure how good they are, but suffice to say, they are better than the Bristol Team. Tim starts to understand this when his initial attempts to so some training during the warm up session fail miserably. However, the sun is out, the geese are flying around. The ball flies repeatedly into the back of the next, but unfortunately always at the wrong end. There are multiple ‘halves’ of 10 minutes each, and eventually two of the local squad are pulled in to help, which finally gains a goal for the Bristol team. Honour is restored. Nick pretended to be a sports journalist. The day rounds off with a second attempt to buy stuff at the local REI shop, then lunch, then some plane-spotting while walking along the side of the bay (we saw our Virgin Jumbo land, then an A380 take off). Finally we head back to the airport. We manage to lock the keys in one rental car just as we gave it back, but (so far) they don’t seem to have made a fuss. Lisa F didn’t get upgraded on the way home, but we all agreed that she and Rich P made a wonderful couple as they checked in together.

Day 16. Sun 2nd June

What day is it? Jet lag. Got home from Heathrow around 6pm.


Very many thanks to Tim for being our local ‘fixer’ and helping us all. Also, many thanks to the youngsters RJ and Badger for putting up with all the rest of us oldies. Average age was over 40.

River info

Dreamflows Website ( gives detailed info about all rivers, so we know in advance where the water is. This year (2013) was low snow-fall, so fairly dry by the end of May. This meant we had limited choice of rivers to paddle, and those which we did paddle were generally low-ish. This turned out to be ‘a good thing’ for most of us, given that we had done almost zero warm-up in the grotty British winter.
CA Creeks website gives write-ups of each river: We printed out most of the relevant pages of this in advance, which really helps when trying to read river descriptions while travelling.
We also used the Lars & Holbeck guidebook, and the Cassady guidebook.

Travel info

California is big. We spent a lot of time driving. We got a good rental deal from Alamo via We booked SUVs, but when we arrived they didn’t have roof-rails, so upgraded to bigger SUVs, which we needed. We took some roof bars and jubilee clips, which worked well. Uprights would have made it much easier to load the boats.
We stayed in motels most of the time, with just one night camping. With 9 people, we got two 4-person rooms, and rotated though floor-space.
Most motels included free WiFi.
We flew with Virgin Atlantic. You can take the kayaks for free, as a piece of sporting equipment. The logistics worked well, though the service wasn’t quite up to the standard I hoped (grotty food, problems with video).