(anatomy of an epic)

First published in Playboating Magazine.

"Come on, let's get moving again".

Simon's famously loud voice gave me a rude awakening. I sat up with a start, and tried to focus my foggy brain. I knew I'd only been catnapping for a few minutes, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out where I was. I was wearing paddling gear, my boat was at my side; obviously I was on a river somewhere! I glanced across the valley. Smooth granite cliffs striped with vertical wet smears, extending right down to the river itself where I could make out sharp angular boulders and some pretty lively looking white water, even from this far up. Cracks and faults in the cliffs perfectly matched up with the lines of the boulders below, a leviathan Lego set. I had a brief flashback of being met at San Francisco Airport by Chris, previous day; of course, I was in California! This opened the floodgates and my temporary amnesia swept away. We were five keen UK boaters on the South Fork of the Yuba River, enjoying blindingly good creek boating and gob smacking scenery. It didn't all quite add up though. What were we doing clinging to sparse undergrowth a hundred feet above the Yuba? More importantly, what on earth were we doing there in the middle of the night?

Culture shock. We'd been led to believe that the sun always shone in California, and that the entire population lived on beaches and wore red swimsuits. Instead, we found ourselves camped way out in Bigfoot country, watching rain leak through our tents and pondering what exactly it is that bears do in the woods. The few locals out there were something else; we'd even met a time traveller from the 1849 Rush. His breath reeking of moonshine, he'd mumbled through his grimy beard and floppy hat brim about, "Gold in them thar hills". Our assumption that he was a random loony was dashed when he fumbled around in his dungarees and produced an impressive hoard of the real thing, yellow and glittering.

To the river. The annoying rain had at least brought the South Yuba up nicely, and we knew we'd made a good pick as the car park was full of boaters from across the State. We made leisurely use of the toilets; 15 minutes lost. We strolled a mile downstream to locate the gauge (and failed); 30 minutes lost. Perusing the guidebook, we decided it would be nice to add a couple more sections to the difficult middle section; an easier section above, another hard section below; another 15 minutes lost in discussion. We ran the shuttle; an hour lost. At the time, these figures were meaningless. We had no idea then, just how much we'd need this time later

Creeking on the Yuba.

We finally launched off. The first section began badly, when Jay noted that he'd forgotten his hip pads - after half a mile. As he clambered off upstream there was much rolling of eyes and a bit of muttering. We weren't too fussed though, not even by the fact that we still had fifteen miles to cover. We span around bored in an eddy for half an hour, waiting for him to re-appear. Finally reunited, we blasted through the section down to Purden's bridge, finding nothing particularly challenging. In fact, three weeks later, I recall nothing whatsoever about this section. I do recall the following sections.

Passing Purden's bridge into the second and hardest section, we were passed by a local group in creek boats, some of whom we recognised from glossy magazines! We don't usually drag our feet on rivers, it was a real novelty to be over taken. One of them lingered long enough to tell us why they had their skates on; the day was moving on and this was a tough section. This helpful observation passed right over our heads, as we were engrossed in the boating. Ooh yes, it was sweet. Straight from the bridge the Yuba went into overdrive, with endless cool drops and a whole flapping flock of feathery flying boofs for our Java creek boats to devour. There was a fair bit of gnarl to keep a check on; the rapids surged around unweathered boulders, complete with lethal siphons lurking beneath. It was pushy, and we were spending a lot of time on the bank. I rolled up punch-drunk at the bottom of one rapid, to find my paddle cracked, helmet scratched and spraydeck ripped. But no complaints, we were having fun. This was precisely what we'd flown 6000 miles for, and to top it allthe sun had finally come out.

A job lot of spanking steep Grade 5, one or two more portages than we'd like to own up to, and we found ourselves at the Highway 49 takeout bridge. We took time out for backslaps, whoops and a heap of mutual appreciation. The other group were just leaving the car park, but acknowledged our safe finish with a thumbs up. One teeny weeny problem. We weren't finished.

Top notch boating on the Yuba.

Shortly into the final section, we found ourselves on a long portage past a chewy boulder choke. The sun had disappeared, and Chris checked his watch.
"It's 4.30, but we've still got two hours until dark; we'd better blast it". Seven miles of alleged Grade 4-5 didn't bother me, for one. I'd been told, someplace sometime, that all US guidebooks grossly over graded everything and felt we were looking at an easy paddle-out. The guidebook had been spot on for the previous sections; this didn't cloud my simple thinking. All of us began to make excuses for the following rapids, which were certainly chunky;
"This is the steepest part of the section, it'd flatten off soon".
"We've certainly covered six of the seven miles by now."
"We must have run the second portage already, just not noticed it."
"We don't have any emergency gear, so this can't be an emergency."

The big hand and little hand read 6.30; sundown! The notion that we were in a dangerous situation finally penetrated our Neanderthal skulls. Instead of galvanising ourselves into some kind of dynamic unified action, we practically stagnated to a halt. We were dog-tired, and the fading light was telling our body clocks to wind down, chill out, take a break, dude. Inspections became farcical; one person would hop ashore as per usual. The others would wait anxiously to hear the route to follow. Hearing no quick decision from the bank, everybody else would climb out too. Squinting downstream trying to figure out which dark bits were shadows and which were evil munching horizon lines, everybody understood why guidance had not been forthcoming. Eventually, somebody would break the inertia and return to their boat to test a potential route out. If Probe #1 was not completed destroyed, in due course another paddler would reluctantly try their luck at that line too, whilst others watched on the bank. I once heard that if you halved the length of every footstep you took, you'd never ever reach the far side of the room. As we plodded on downstream at Faff Factor 9, this seemed oddly relevant.

The last of the light was leaving. Something snapped in me and I decided to do away with wussy inspecting. I sprinted to the front and hammered down everything blind, never looking back over my shoulder in case someone tried to persuade me that running Grade 4-5 blind in the dusk might not actually be the sharpest of plans. Somehow I managed to fluke this without getting unduly nailed; my kamikaze impulse coincided with a mellower mile. I allowed myself to hope that we might just finish this river beforenope, darkness arrived. It was getting cold.

We regrouped, and argued over what, if anything, plan B might be. Chris spoke rare words of wisdom.
"It's not going to get any darker."
"Your point is?"
"Slow down. We can get away with this by paddling the flat and portaging the drops, if we are just careful."
This approach seemed to work. The Yuba was going though a pool-drop phase, and we grunted around roaring unseen drops lugging our boats on our shoulders over huge boulders. Paddling the flat was harder than it sounded; we discovered that we could only find each other by spinning our paddles to reflect the moon's light. We only had half a moon to work by, but did we ever appreciate it.

I rounded a corner looking for the two paddlers ahead of me. I didn't spot them climbing ashore in an eddy, and hurtled on downstream. Oops. The river narrowed down to a sluice, and I found myself skirting the biggest holes we'd seen on the Yuba yet. At least, that's what I assume the lighter shadows were. I back looped off the lip of one hole, and rolled up in a big pool below, wide-eyed and freaked. Behind me, the upturned hulls of Jay's and Andy's boats reflected the moonlight rather well. The boats were on top of each other, were they swimming? Praise be! They both rolled up safe and well, but we were all in agreement now. Stuff this paddling lark.

The walkout was a horror. We had to abandon our precious plastic toys tied to a tree as the climbing was nasty, nasty, nasty. Simon was the leading light here, dashing with infeasible energy up and down the gorge walls (in shorts!) on a pathfinder mission, whilst we didn't huddle close together for warmth. Also, we specifically didn't agree never to tell anyone else that we'd huddled together for warmth. The breakthrough emerged when we teetered along a mountain goat ledge past crags which had made a dawn appreciation of the Yuba seem darned likely. A mere several hours more of stumbling over rocks at the water's edge, and we saw headlights...the road! On the stroke of midnight, we finally reached the car and concluded our thirteen-hour seminar on the importance of respect for the Yuba. We changed in absolute silencethe US boaters were sleeping in the next vehicle. No way we could handle the embarrassment of explaining ourselves to them.

"Epics happen to other folk". That statement pretty much sums up our attitude prior to the night of 25th March. We'd each spent over a decade wasting significant chunks of our lives on bumpy rivers. Most of us had paddled on six continents and made first descents. Not to mention that there were enough BCU badges between us to bury a Cub Scout! No 'hero boaters' in our group where skill was concerned; but we did feel that we could get on a river without Tracey Island needing to be alerted. The Yuba kicked our pretensions away rather rudely. One lesson was painfully obvious; no amount of experience or expertise can overcome dumb stupidity. Sitting in a 24/7 Diner at 3 am, we were too shell-shocked to eat. Chastened with hard-won wisdom, we were all agreed on the real moral of this story...
"Did the Yuba ever rock, or what?"

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Many thanks to Perception Kayaks for continuing support.

Many more photos from our trip.