It’s my favorite time of year in the Pacific Northwest. The leaves of autumn have fallen, and the mosses and ferns that lay dormant on tree-trunks throughout summer spring to life as a new season of epiphytic foliage joins the conifers for winter. They pitch the Coast Range and lowlands of the Western Cascades of Oregon headlong into their second, fluorescent green, growing seasons. The rains that began in October have grown more frequent, swelling the rivers to bank-full.
Soon, after the New Year, we’ll again be spoiled for choices of rivers to run, save for those that are too high, or inconveniently remote for the short northern days. Snow has also come to the high country and although mild in comparison to my winters spent in Montana, New Hampshire, or the upper-midwest of my youth, the need for pogies has me dreaming of summer-time California lovin.
This past September, I rallied 7 hours south with my pal Zach Levine to check out an event I’d been hearing about for years as a celebration of California granite. Made possible by the work of American Whitewater, base flows of 550 cfs are maintained nearly year-round for paddlers on the North Fork Feather. A few times a summer PG&E sends 1100 cfs downstream for a little extra kick. Feather Festival, organized by Chico Paddleheads, is one of those reliably high-flow weekends.
As Zach and I rolled down pitch-black Highway 70 that parallels the river late Friday night, we had no idea what the locals considered a festival in this relatively remote corner of Northern California. But as we approached the unfortunately named “Injun Jim Campground” at the put-in for the Tobin section, it became pretty clear what we were in for. Dirtbags of all shapes and sizes lined every turnout for several miles leading to the campground. You had your standard Subaru Outback Dirtbags with headlights glimmering from inside the folded down back seats. The hatchback Dirtbags with their tents or hammocks strung out beside their too-small rigs and the king-cab Dirtbags with their decked out camper shells. Most impressive was a strong showing of Vandemonium Dirtbags in all manner of boxed-auto and boxed-wine glory. Sprinters, Vanagons, Previas, and Aerostars were all gloriously represented. Once we turned into the campground where our pals from Bend and Eugene had saved us a space, we knew this was going to be a real party.
Photo: April McEwan
The next morning we woke to the hiss of stoves for morning coffee, and the faint thumps of reggae, Dubstep, and The Grateful Dead occasionally synchronizing between dozens of Dirtbag boomboxes (car stereo, door ajar), amid literally hundreds of kayakers stirring to life. I had never seen so many Dirtbags in one place!
In the days that followed, we experienced the best of what the kayaking community has to offer: Dance parties, pancake breakfasts, tent cities, questionably safe mega shuttles and truck-bed rides, starlight skies, warm sun, fellowship with boaters from all over the country, races, elbow rubbing with YouTube heros and lap after lap on perhaps the most fun stretch of river I’ve paddled this year. All set among a quintessential California granite playground of house sized cement-grey boulders and warm water… drytops superfluous.
We lapped the Tobin section (V), the Lobin section (IV), and even took a spin on the class III Rock Creek section, where the organizers of a slalom race were none too happy with our blithe ignorance of the officiality of the race we’d unknowingly interrupted… and continued to delay with numerous blown gates and exuberant attainment attempts.
By the end of day-one I’d already had enough of stumbling over the words “Tobin” and “Lobin” but not nearly enough of the boofs and slots the eponymous stretches of whitewater offered. I decided, rather easily, while drying in the sun at the Lobin takeout after our first top-to-bottom run, that as long as I lived within a day’s drive, I’d be back for this every year. It’s that good.
We spent two days among an extended family, most of whom I’ll never know more about than I need to. We’re all paddlers, and that’s good enough. I got to know some by name, some by smile, some by boat color, and others just by smell. Typical.
Saturday night they held an awards ceremony for the winners of the race, and some familiar names were honored with shots of cheap whiskey and the endearing hoots of unsurprised, but endearingly supportive brothers and sisters.
Photo: April McEwan
Hours later I fell asleep under a clear sky to the sound of a stiff Sierra wind onomatopoeia’ing its way through pines of sugar and Coulter. On the drive back north to Oregon, we crossed over Grizzly Creek, the first descent of which would be probed by Rush Sturges, Erik Boomer, Will Pruett, Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry as part of an American Whitewater flow study just a few weeks later. We passed through groves of prune and almond (pronounced “amon” by the polite waitress in Los Molinos), and watched the landscape change crossing the Trinity, Klamath, Rogue, and Umpqua as we drove back into autumn.
Now with both versions of that season well behind me, and my fleece union suit drying next to pounds of neoprene, I stare down as the only parts of my body that might remain tan until June type this reflection of warmer waters. Because while this is my favorite season in this enchanted corner of the upper-left we call the PNWet, I enjoy imagining that never-ending boofs among sunbaked granite is no further away than a drive south to summer.
YouTube link: https://youtu.be/hHAt4Dueyd8