The big decision this week was where to go... Within a few days Royal Gorge, Dinkey Creek, the South Merced, Devil’s Canyon and Bald Rock Canyon had all come in. For our group of seven: Daan, Shannon, Matt, Lou, Tyler, Gordy and myself – Royal Gorge was on. We shanghai-ed a driver (Ryan), a wagon that could fit all (Mum) and we were off.
Mum, in all her glory
Some major fluffing around, a few wrong turns, some 4WD action, lots of snow (for July), an empty gas tank and one big truck to hitch a ride with meant that we were finally at the river and starting to paddle at 5.30pm. Royal Gorge is a three day wilderness trip up high on the North Fork of the American. Royal Gorge itself is 16 miles (two days) and then a long paddle out on Generation Gap and Giant Gap (26 miles on day three). 5.30pm was less than ideal for a start on day one.
Hitching a ride down the last five miles (Pic: Tyler Fox GoPro)
The latest Bromance... Matty and Shan (Pic: Tyler Fox GoPro)
The locals kindly reminded us that the first five miles would be through private property so we would not be able to stop until after then. Some fun rapids, an induction into Royal Gorge portaging and fading daylight saw us ignore the plentiful “No Tresspassing” signs and pitch an incognito camp about three miles in.
Daan checking out some early Royal action, late on day one
Sweet campsite on the first night
ShanDog chilling out
We woke early, planning for a big day to catch up on what we should have paddled the first day. Daan’s night of sickness didn’t help so much, so it was around 9am by the time we got on the water. The next part had some cool rapids through a couple of mini gorges before we got to Heath Springs (about four miles in). This is the home of Heath One (clean 40 foot drop) into a short pool then straight into Heath Two (60 foot drop). It’s a spectacular place.
Shan on the Breakfast Drop
Looking at, and into Heath One (Pic: Tyler Fox GoPro)
A bunch of the team fired Heath One, resulting in a couple of clean lines, one skirt implosion, two broken paddles and one swim. Matt’s swim wasn’t so bad (he got to the side pretty quick). The problem was that we didn’t manage to rescue his boat or paddle before they disappeared over the horizon line of Heath Two (there is still debate whether the paddle was in two parts or one, video footage suggests still in one piece). Sure enough his boat ended up in the massive and severely undercut cave on river left. The pool and cave at the bottom of Heath Two are completely walled in except for a decent drop exiting the pool. You can drop into there and then paddle out… Or you end up abseiling in.
Tyler Fox givin' her on Heath One
Matt Coles on Heath One, before things got exciting
Looking into Heath Two... The cave is on river left, out of sight
We set up a solid anchor in a massive crack on river left, using six of our seven throwbags and almost every biner and prussick on hand. Matt abseiled 60 feet down, clipped a line onto his boat and then prussicked back up. The boat got hauled up and around, and two hours later Matt and his Pitonicon were reunited.
Boat retrieval: Matt scenic-ascending out of Heath Two
So now, around 12.30pm and having lost a bit of our ‘flow’ we started walking around Crux Gorge, below Heath Two. We were certainly thinking about the fact that it was lunchtime on day two and we were still technically paddling day one of Royal Gorge. On a steep descent back to the river, I slipped and didn’t let go of my boat fast enough. There was some forward flipping action down a reasonably steep rocky bank before finally coming to a fortunate stop. One seriously sprained ankle and a smashed elbow, thanks.
So on my bum, with Lou helping out and the boys shuttling boats around, we all made it back to river level. The in-between paddling of the “big drops” is mostly Class IV – IV+ boogie with a few bigger drops scattered in there. We had some nice boulder gardens and drops down to Rattlensnake - the end of day one for most, but for us 3.30pm on day two.
Lou firing it up on day two
The rest of the afternoon passed pretty quickly, mostly because people were starting to get tired with scouting, portaging and carrying my boat (because I really couldn’t). We passed Scott’s Drop (a milestone) and started portaging Wabena about 6.45pm. A steep, below average, rocky, vicious manzanita and poison oak-infested portage that seemed worse than it probably actually was. We were tired.
We camped up on a beach below Wabena, happy to have a fire and looking forward to food and rest. Before long we heard a helicopter, which proceeded to circle us super low and numerous times before finally landing on the beach across from us. As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones to have an adventure that day. The chopper was on the hunt for Heath Springs to heli-evac out a guy who had broken his back earlier that day.
The rescue chopper that wasn't for us
Another early start and we were on the water again. Getting my foot into my boat was a mission, as was the ensuing pain. The paddling seemed to mellow a little and we felt like we were making good time. We had left a vehicle at the trail between Generation Gap and Giant Gap, in case we wanted to get out early (it was also so we could potentially finish Royal Gorge early and get to Dinkey Creek). The day dragged on and on, as did the miles of paddling. At best, we estimated that we would have had perhap four miles left of Royal Gorge and then 12 miles on Generation Gap. Turned out to be the longest '16' miles, ever.
By 4pm we were starting to think we had missed the trail, which would mean paddling Giant Gap (14 more miles) that evening with pretty much no food, but half a bottle of Jagermeister. We weren’t really looking forward to a potential night out either. But as things would have it we paddled a rapid that did a 90 degree bend, followed soon by a small tributary on river right and a footbridge across the river. 5.30pm and we had made the trail. Just 2000 feet of vertical gain and two miles of steep switchbacks between us and the end of Royal. Tired, broken, sick, injured, hungry and thirsty it took the better part of 2 ½ hours before we all met at the top, shuttle done and with chips, beer and Gatorade… Happy to be done.
Matt and Lu celebrating
Royally bitten on the hike out