Kayaking Upper Cherry Creek

Whitewater horizon lines and granite in the High Sierra

High Sierras Kayaking

The pristine granite of the Sierra Nevada Mountains formed deep underground more than 100 million years ago.  As the massif slowly lifted, glacial erosion scrubbed away the softer layers above to expose the radical granite domes and peaks within.  Each winter, coastal storms blanket the Sierras with dense and often incredibly deep snow.  In the spring, kayakers and river enthusiasts rejoice as the liquid potential melts out of this snowpack and rushes down the smooth, featured granite to create a whitewater paradise.  As the summer heats up and the snow melts further back, kayakers move from the lowland rivers progressively inland and up to the rivers and creeks in the alpine environment.  Some of the last snowmelt runs of the season in the High Sierras are the steepest, most committing, and wildest, and each has a relatively small runnable window during the ebb from raging spring flood to summer trickle.

We snuck away from busy lives to do some kayaking in the High Sierra of California a few weeks ago.  My old friend Jason Schutz swung through Salt Lake to pick me up, and after a bit of time modifying boat carry-packs in the Black Diamond sew lab and rounding up provisions in town, we jumped in the car and headed West.

Our hope was to run the Middle Fork of the Kings River, but the melt-water torrent had not yet subsided to manageable flows for this run.  Instead, we got word that Upper Cherry Creek flows were just dropping down in to range.  We ran in to the Sacramento crew at Cherry Lake, who confirmed this and planned to head in the next day.  By the time we packed up and hiked to the put-in the level would be perfect.

From the trailhead we had a half bar of cell phone service, and were able to get in touch with Brian Fletcher and Aaron Johnson, who were just getting off the North Fork San Joaquin and planning to stock up on food and then catch us on the trail.  Schutzy is a family man and I live in the desert of Utah now, so we were both coming ‘off-the-couch’ and we were glad to be teaming up with partners as solid as these two.

Shouldered up at the trailhead

After a restless night of sleep and some last-minute rigging in the morning, we shouldered our boats and started up the trail.  5 days worth of food, paddling gear and camping equipment put our loaded boats at close to 90 pounds, but at least they were awkward and un-wieldy to carry!

Hiking in to Upper Cherry Creek

We staggered off in the growing heat, focusing on efficiency as we slowly ticked off the eleven-mile approach.  A particular highlight came during the last few miles, just as we had crested the ridge and were beginning our final descent to the river, when we entered the wind-sheltered ‘mosquito alley’ and had no choice but to kick it into high gear or get sucked dry by relentless swarms of the little vampires.  Finally we made it to the river, with just enough energy remaining to wash off the day and collapse into a bug-bivy for the night.

The next morning we stretched out our crooked and compressed spines over coffee, listening to the distant rumble and pondering what lay downstream.  We kitted up and climbed in to our kayaks, and within two minutes of paddling found ourselves in an eddy above the first rumbling, frothing horizon line.  Rapids!  The scout revealed that the intro drop was a long, steep, 4-tiered slide with kickers and consequential holes.. it was going to be a long trip.  Fortunately after the ‘warm up’ rapid followed a mile or two of easy class IV moves, so we had a chance to work out the nerves and the kinks and soon we were feeling the flow.

Schutzy sub’d out in the bedrock

By the end of the day we were stomping our lines and getting used to the nature of the steep, clean, bed-rock rapids.

That night in our polished granite camp by the river we had beans, rice, and meat from a can cooked over the fire.  Then we disappeared into dreamless sleep under clear star-lit skies to the sound of the rapids below.


Granite camping on Upper Cherry Creek

The following day the action picked up and we were quickly gorged-in completely, with the smooth granite walls rising directly from the river on both sides.  Scouting rapids from the shore was reminiscent of LCC slab climbing, and was often more sketchy than boat-scouting while bobbing around on the lip of the drop below.  But the whitewater was clean and we were working together to run through with minimal scouting.

Soon we came around a bend and realized that we were in the pool above the iconic and heavily anticipated ‘Cherry Bomb Falls’ – a sloping 40 foot slide-to-kicker with little margin for error and extreme consequences.  This drop is perched at the top of a long and completely committed gorge with a string of waterfalls, slides, and holes.  The lead-in to the Bomb contains the best flow level reference for Upper Cherry Creek, and the fully submerged ‘gauge’ rock meant that the water was, indeed, high.  We stood in awe, throwing logs into the massive churning ledge-hole named ‘the Weir’ that backs up the falls and watching to see how they fared.  One log after another was swallowed, thrown through a bunch of cartwheels, and eventually pushed to the left side of the hole where it flushed out against the wall.

Since we did not know the line sequence for the string of drops in the gorge below the falls, we decided to hike around and have a look.  It was a mile or more before we had a view of the entire gorge, and we took our time to memorize the line sequence through the series of rapids.

Scouting from below

As we walked back up to the boats above the falls only Brian and AJ were ‘feeling it’, so together the two of them fired up the Cherry Bomb and disappeared over horizon lines into the distance of the gorge below.

AJ dropping

Aaron Johnson dropping the falls, with Brian Fletcher waiting in the gorge below

Meanwhile Jason and I had the pleasure of hiking our loaded boats up and around the gorge and down to camp.

Dropping through the Groove Tube

We spent the night at the massive crystalline pool immediately below the gorge.  Schutzy and I ran some evening laps on the camp-side teacups, the Groove Tube, and the Perfect Twenty-footer, quietly wishing that we had been feeling strong enough to run the falls earlier in the day.

Perfect Twenty

Fortunately the next morning everyone was still thinking about the rapids above, and we all decided to head back up for another round.  We emptied all the food and gear from our boats, and hiked them several miles up for an additional warm-up before arriving once again at Cherry Bomb Falls.  This time all four of us sent the Cherry Bomb, with just a bit of surfing in ‘the Weir’ in our unloaded boats, but after working to the left she released..

Dropping the Cherry Bomb with the Weir hole below

Looking up at the Cherry Bomb from inside the gorge

Just downstream in the meat of the gorge, AJ drifted into a sleeper hole that would not let go.  He surfed long enough to try every possible escape seam and freestyle maneuver, then popped his skirt and swam while he still had breath and strength remaining.  With little available safety in the turbulent water of the sheer-walled gorge, AJ was clinging to the rock with one hand and his boat with the other and it seemed that we were in a bad spot.  Just then Fletcher came around the corner and pulled out some Jedi moves: he found a quick stopper placement to anchor himself to the rock, roped AJ and his boat over to his side, drained the boat and helped AJ back in, and snapped together a break-down paddle to send AJ on his way.  We ran the rest of slides and waterfalls of the gorge in ‘Blue Angel’ style – tight formation, full speed, and no stopping – and in a splash we were back down at the pool packing up camp with smiles all around.

Schutzy packing up camp beside the teacups

AJ soon found his redemption as he and Fletcher stomped the waterfall sequence of the Lower Pots, and shortly thereafter cleaned the left line on Dead Bear Falls.

AJ cleaning the left line on Dead Bear Falls

That night in camp, our provisions were running low and we made the decision to flush out to the car the next day.  The next morning back on the water, Upper Cherry Creek joined the confluence with West Cherry Creek, and together the flow nearly doubled and made for a nice change in the style of the water.

Schutzy below the confluence

The run ended with four final, beautiful drops draining right in to Cherry Lake.  At that point, all that stood between us and the warm PBR’s waiting in the car was a paddle across the lake and a 2-mile jog back up to the trailhead.

Upper Cherry Creek stands out as one of the highlights of my paddling career.  With stunning scenery, perfect camping, difficult and technical (yet very clean) whitewater, and a high degree of isolation and exposure, this run is truly a gem.

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