Lower Carbon River Gorge
Class V-, 80fpm, 430cfs
April 6, 2002
Eric Schertzl, Eric Sparwasser, John Easton, Charlie ?, Shawn ?, Ben, Jason
Author: Eric Schertzl
Charlie entering the "classic" canyon.
I met Ben on a trip down the MF Nooksack in the winter of ‘02. It’s kinda difficult to hook up with boaters here in Washington State, so I was pleasantly surprised to find some new, adventurous boaters, willing to run some of the areas more difficult runs. The Cascade Classics Crew takes their climbing/skiing approach to the rivers; that is……."skip the easy stuff and go right to the gnar". Their early kayaking trip reports will testify to some hard lessons learned, and some long days. All and all, their learning curve has been quite steep. I was pleased to see how quickly their boating skills improved in the short time that I knew them. It’s obvious that they can handle themselves in the climbing realm (which is a big bonus in boating, and something I lack). This would prove useful for getting us on The Carbon.
I had seen The Carbon River description in the guidebook and reveled in its alluring steep canyon walls. I considered it to be something of a novelty because "word on the street" was that no one was running it much anymore. This due to the fact that the run is Class V, it is remote with huge steep walls, and that it has a terminal hole in Rick’s Slide that is considered somewhat of a death-trap. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me to find out that The Cascade Classics Crew loves this kind of challenge. Their scouting efforts (listed in the previous Carbon trip reports) allowed us "mortals" to get on one of Washington’s "classic" runs. I must say their scouting efforts were heroic (in my mind). The Carbon is NOT an easy river to scout, PERIOD. I was scheduled to go with the CC crew on the first full run of The Carbon, which included the upper canyon & running Rick’s Slide. I remember playing "phone tag" with the CC crew and (somehow) not being able to. Bottom line……I hadn’t boated in three weeks, and I wasn’t about to run The Carbon that day. I think I had to "clean the grout in my shower". After reading the trip report, I’m not sure how I feel after missing out.
They had however, found a way to run the Carbon, without having to run the upper canyon, therefore avoiding the nastiest rapids. Their assessment of the lower run was Class IV-V, which sounded good to me. This also included the most impressive canyon section. I’m in……….
Word soon got out, and next thing you know we have 7 eager boaters, only two CCs which had ever done the run before, and the group as a whole wasn’t the most experienced. Kind of a nerve-racking recipe.
The only way to gain access to the lower section (and avoid the death-traps) was to rappel into the canyon some 100 feet or so, to a shore big enough to handle people and equipment. Sounded exciting to me. I had no experience in rappelling, but felt confident in letting Ben show me the ropes (pun alert). Ben and Jason had earlier found a spot that they were confident, was good to rappel into. The goal was to access the river just above the 14’ waterfall pictured in their previous trip reports. Having looked at the picture and talked to some local "old-school" boaters who had run The Carbon before, I was down with running the drop. We’ve got a plan.
When Ben asked me to write the trip report for this run, I heartily agreed. His only stipulation was that I not use profanity. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem except I CANNOT think of any other way to describe the #@!%-ing schwack we were led on to find the access point. There’s an old road that runs along the top of the canyon from the bridge. From the bridge, we accessed the road and walked down-river thinking about the rapids we were passing, all the while trusting that Ben and Jason wouldn’t put in above Rick’s Slide, but still being able to run the 14-footer (it’s a short distance after Rick’s). After a ½ mile or so, Ben felt confident that where we were should get us what we were looking for. The scramble down to the rim of the canyon was a couple hundred feet through thick over-grown brush. No trails, just schwackin’. We peered over the edge and realized that we were a bit too far down-river (I’m not sure our rope was long enough to get us down at that point either). The choices were to climb back up to the trail and re-access or just schwack along the rim until we found what we were looking for…..should’ve gone for the first choice. About two hours later (lugging 50+ pounds of equipment each), we found the spot we were looking for. By now everyone was sweaty, tired, and there was a sense of mutiny in the air. Were these trip leaders worthy? Should we overthrow and abort? (Of course not, but it makes for good writing). We could see that we were just above the 14-footer, and that there was a large clear area to get everyone and their equipment to. We had found a gully that made for a rather short rappel (50-60 ft.?). It took some time and effort, but eventually we got everyone and their equipment riverside. All this took 2-3 hours and a good portion of my water supply. I hadn’t taken a stroke yet………
Ben rappelling into the canyon above the 14-footer.
I forgave the scouting mishap as the alternative was running Rick’s. Here we are above the 14-footer, which everyone was so confident in running; the whole reason we schwacked as much as we did. After a long hard look by everyone, no one could muster up the courage to run it (it just didn’t look friendly, and we had a lot of river to run). I’m pictured peering into the 14 footer (I’m thinking "I hope no one remembers how much trash I talked about running that"). Everyone chooses to seal launch into the pool below. Right as I launched, I ended up getting pushed into a slightly undercut wall, flipping, missing a roll, and heading down-river upside down. I made my next roll and got myself to safety. Kind of a sketchy start to my day (I blame it on the "schwack"). You can feel that this river means business, and there’s no place for error. (not horribly deadly, but huge in-escapable cliff walls………you best have yo’ game on). I regain my confidence, everyone gets ready, and the group shoves off.
Eric scouting the 14-footer.
There are two or three fairly difficult Class IV rapids to start off with. Basically just "make your move" rapids, with a few "hole punchings". Some get flipped and recover (me for one). John hasn’t seemed to find his stroke yet, takes some less than desirable lines, and gets munched in a hole or two. One that I thought was going to have serious results. John swims and recovers but gives the thumbs up as he has done a thorough job of scouting the bottom for rocks, under-cuts, and trees. He would later find his stroke. Everyone else makes it through the first few drops decently. Charlie has a bit of a task on his hands as he has brought his playboat. He has to wrestle his boat a bit, but does well. I can’t say it’s the best call I’ve seen, but I give him credit for getting through The Carbon in a slicey playboat (Montreal thing?).
John upside-down in the pull-hole.
Ben in the most difficult boulder garden above the second canyon.
Charlie finishes the most difficult boulder garden above the second Canyon.
We then approach a rapid that leads into the "classic" canyon section. This is the section pictured in Bennett’s book, and is pictured on Ben & The Hummel’s first trip report. Everyone gets out and scouts above on river left. You are unable to scout the whole rapid due to the walls closing in, but basically, it looks like "stay right, punch a few holes, stay right of rootwad in center of river, & punch a few more holes/hydraulics". You’re then into one of the most impressive canyons going……..probably the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Photographers set up, and people start going. There’s an obvious advantage of going later in the group; you get to see what NOT to do. Everyone was going right of the rootwad in the center of the rapid and having a bit of trouble. Ben is pictured just above the hole on the right side of the rootwad. Seems that there's a quite large hole spanning the right side of the river. Most people have some trouble but fight through. I watch as Shawn enters the hole and starts hucking ends in his Micro. After a good long battle, mother river decides to let him go. Next is me. I hit the hole head on and am immediately sucked back into it. After one good spanking, I’m let go and released backwards. I finally regain control mid-way into the canyon. Eric (the videographer) goes last and chooses to go left of the rootwad. He avoids the hole & doesn’t even get his hair wet (note to self……left of the rootwad next time). Everyone makes it through and we stare in amazement at this place we are at. We take our time, soaking in the beauty. We pass on pictures this time, as it is a very difficult task, (no eddies, no shoreline, just 300 foot sheer walls rising out of the moving water).
Ben entering the second canyon.
Ben about to discover the hole.
We cruise the boogie water down until we reach a 4’ ledge drop. There is a right and left chute. The left is lesser of the two evils. It looks fairly straight forward, but does have a strange "crease" in the current. Everyone is able to scout on river right and set up for photos and video. One after another the boaters begin to plunge. Everyone seems to be getting flipped by this "crease" and has somewhat of a battle with the hole (which is right next to a cliff wall). Jason is pictured right in the "crease". I’m shooting pictures, trying for "near last to go" (are you starting to see a trend here?), and learning lessons with everyone’s mishaps. Most people get out of the hole after a short battle…….until Ben and John’s turn. John managed to get sucked into the hole and hucks ends multiple times. He escapes temporarily, but forgets to paddle out, and is slowly sucked back into the hole for another round of beatings. He eventually works his way out and gets himself to the side of the river to regain his composure. Beyond this is where he finds his stroke. The rest of his day goes smooth. Ben drops in and gets twisted by the "crease". He is sucked back into the hole where he begins to throw ends and bash rocks. He attempts rolls on both sides, gets out, gets sucked back in, rolls on both sides, & gets out (finally). As he slowly drifts away from this hole, gathering his wits (and his breath), his frustration culminates in giving the hole the finger, and the crowd a smile. A classic moment caught on video. One that I remember laughing quite hard at. Charlie takes a different high line and gets through pretty well. I (Mr. Goes Last) am able to ride the high side of the crease and get through smoothly. Shawn actually goes last and gets through smooth as well.
Jason running the 4-foot ledge.
We continue to the next rapid deserving of a scout. We scout river left. There are basically two moves. The first drop looked like it had a good boof flake dead center, but had some branches sticking in it from a river-wide log that spanned above it. The only clean line was a funky chute on river right. I think that chute gave everybody trouble. It either pushed you right, or spun you around, either of which didn’t give you an optimal set-up for punching this monster hole at the bottom. The right-side line had some strange currents. Charlie is shown getting tossed by the funky currents on this right side. The gobbler hole waits below. This hole would prove quite entertaining. I think everyone but John & myself took their turn in that hole. If I remember correctly, Ben’s took the cake (and I had a great view). Charlie put on a good showing as well. The picture shows me deep in that beast, but I was (miraculously) able to claw out unscathed.
Charlie getting tossed above the big hole.
Eric in the big hole.
Ben about to get working in the big hole.
The next rapid of significance would prove to be the most demanding (in my mind). It was a complex boulder garden with three or four lines that needed to be made…..not much room for error. This one caused my pucker factor to shoot up a bit. We spent a long time scouting and debating. Shawn decides to probe (thank you Shawn). This rapid would actually prove to be fairly clean if all lines were made. The last drop on this rapid seemed to have a pretty sticky looking hole and some rocks to navigate around. Hhhmmmm…….right or left? Shawn bombs down and hits everything cleanly. He’s thinking right on the last drop and the results are pictured here. Everyone else tries the left. I remember Jason’s run; he is whooping at the tops of his lungs as he runs the drops………something about "I’M GONNA RUN THIS ##$&*$ THING, LOOKOUT!" I gotta chuckle. He gets a bit of a spanking in the hole at the bottom. John runs it pretty clean. Ben runs one of the worst lines possible on this rapid (sorry Ben). I’ve watched the video from that run and it’s something like; gets flipped in first drop, has trouble rolling, rolls up backwards, runs the crux backwards, then gets flipped onto the rocks at the bottom where he battles the hole and eventually claws out…….carnage is great, thanks Ben. Eric tries to out-do Ben by almost going into a log-strainer. I almost dropped the video camera to spring into rescue mode. Eric gets out and scraps his way down. I ended up getting the shot! My run is pretty un-eventful (in typical "goes last" fashion).
Shawn in the middle of the large boulder garden.
Shawn at the end of the large boulder garden.
Jason in the middle of the large boulder garden.
Eric trying to decide which way to go.
Ben at the end of the large boulder garden.
We shove off and do a little scraping down some bony drops. Eric actually pins and has to swim. Thankfully we had enough people to keep that event to a minimum. I guess there is some safety in numbers.
The last significant drop is another 3-4 foot ledge with two options. A cleaner left side that has a more difficult lead-in, or a twisty center chute along side a large boulder. It’s a mixed bag of choices but everyone gets through cleanly (I heard rumors of Charlie swaping some ends). The picture shows Charlie in rodeo mode.
Shawn running the final ledge.
The final ledge running Charlie.
We are told that we’re through the hard stuff, and that it’s II-III boogie water to the take-out. This stretch lasted a couple miles and is what Ben and Jason hiked up to scout. Once again heroic effort!
The paddle out consists of stories, laughter, and tales of carnage gone not-so-bad. The day started early in the morning and ended in pitch black night. Any more trouble and we would have run out of daylight. The take-out isn’t the most scenic place I’ve been (unless you like sewage dump smell, trash, discarded porno-mags, and shell casings). It’s too bad how some people treat mutha nature. There’s a lot of rubbish in the river as well. I plan on getting on this run again, but probably not until next winter. In the meantime, maybe we’ll have an earthquake/flood event and Rick’s Slide will become Class II? Look for some great carnage video from this run in the up-coming, untitled film by local vidoegrapher/editor Eric Sparwasser.