Sunday morning had a special feel to it when I awoke. This was a day of transition. Our focus so far had been on the wedding and group activities. Now we would venture on our own path and begin our California exploration.
Lance and Jacinda (the newlyweds) had planned for the group to gather for brunch, followed by a leisurely drive around Lake Tahoe and then onward to Reno. We would follow them for a portion of the drive around the lake, and would then separate and head to our reserved campsite. Brunch was decided to be at the Harrah's buffet, located on the top floor of the casino. We checked out of our hotel and drove the three blocks to the casino. The view was spectacular there, with a full vista of the lake and surrounding mountains from all of the windows. The food was less than stellar, as I've come to expect at buffets. Since the cost was $20 a head, everyone made sure to fill up on the endless supply of snow crab legs.
Afterward, we began our caravan of vehicles heading north along the California lakeside. Kat and I were only able to make one viewpoint stop before getting completely swamped out by the tourists all on their way home. We gave our quick goodbyes knowing we'd see the honored guests the following day at the river and continued north to I-80.
We ended up taking a back road I had found to our campsite just outside of Foresthill. We had some difficulty finding the road at first, as the directions and highway signs were a bit misleading. With some help from a gas station, we found ourselves on the right road and judging by the printed directions were feeling confident we'd find the campsite with no problems.
Iowa Hill Road was an adventure all on it's own. Within a minute or two we found ourselves on a narrow, one-lane road that pointed directly down. Blind corners were at every other turn, and the turnouts were big enough for half a vehicle (when we actually saw any). The only thing that kept us from turning around was that the road itself was paved (only recently we found out later), and turning around was actually rarely an option. When we reached the bottom of the ravine, we crossed the North Fork American river, and immediately began climbing again. For another 20 minutes we dealt with the same conditions, except now climbing up the hill, expecting some asshat in a jeep to come flying around a blind corner at any moment. When at last the road began to level, a sign declaring we had reached Iowa Hill limits left us breathing in relief. All too soon, I'm afraid. The town was two run down buildings across from each other: on one side was what appeared to be the town hall, though it was dark and run-down, and the other side had an obvious tavern with haf the towns population sitting out front. As soon as we drove past they all started hollering and yelling. Before we could look at each other and say "What the..." a barking dog barreled out of the saloon and started chasing us. I turned to Kat and said "Go! Go!" not wanting to have any reason to stick around this place any longer. We soon outran the dog and left Iowa Hill in our dust.
After surviving the attempted siege on our camp by mosquitoes, we went to bed to prepare for an early morning. We met Lance and Jacinda shortly before 8am the next morning in Foresthill to raft the Middle Fork of the American River. Kat and I were pleased to see her planning the trip on a Monday had paid off. Only 3 others had signed up for the day and the 4 of us would be in a raft by ourselves. From the get-go we all played the part of the first time newbie, and asked some of our favorite questions from customers in our years of guiding:
"How cold is the water?"
"Are we going to get wet?"
"Are there rocks in the river?"
"What if I fall out?"
We had everybody convinced we had never rafted before, right up to the point were we put our paddles in the water. The guide called for a stroked, and like a machine the four of us did a powerful synchronized stroke. It was almost laughable when the guide remarked, "Um, that was a pretty good stroke." We spilled the beans at that point and had a great time sharing stories and comparing notes as commercial rafters.
This river has some amazing features. The rapids are primarily pool-drop, so there were several ledge drops of about 3-8 feet followed by big pools of flat water behind. Almost every rapid we ran was easy to read from the water and understand the line. A couple drops had some hidden rocks or obstacles that we were glad to have a knowledgeable guide on. The biggest two rapids of the day were Tunnel Chute and Ruck-A-Chucky.
Tunnel Chute is a man-made rapid from the Gold Rush days. Miners used explosives to blow out the rock wall and divert the river flow as they found the currents were powerful enough to erode the soft rock, but not the gold it contained. Tunnel Chute is a strong chute of water that pushes up against the rock wall on the side of the river, then elbows back to the center with a 6' drop which submarines the raft (similar to Husum falls on the White Salmon). When you surface, the boat is still in a chute with water cascading over the left wall. The boat then slowly meanders into a 100yd tunnel, with the roar of the rapid behind you. It was an unforgettable spot.
After a long flat section (with lots of paddling and no rapids), the river comes to a massive drop. Ruck-A-Chucky falls is a mandatory portage for commercial rafters, but I have seen experts run it on youtube. Our guides had us walk around the bank while they floated the boats through the drop. One guide would push the boats through, and the other would catch up and tie them off at the bottom of the rapid. On both occasions, the raft ended up stuck before they reached the bottom, and the guide had to dive off a semi truck sized boulder and swim to the raft to recover. We were pretty impressed with the operation.
We had a great day with AO Rafting, and their guides were very professional and fun (Thanks Ryan and Adam!). We'd tell them about our drive on Iowa Hill Road, and they mentioned we were lucky not to have stopped in town. Apparently the residents do not have mail, phone or electricity and prefer to keep to themselves and leave the world outside alone. After hearnig that, I realized my gut reaction of thinking this is where rednecks like those in "Deliverance" come from wasn't too far off. We said our goodbyes to Lance and Jacinda and headed back to camp to fend off the mosquitoes and prepare for the following day's beer drinking marathon.
Up next - Brewery Tour Extravaganza!
Edit: Bonus video scouting Ruck-A-Chucky Falls