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The Mystery of the Middle Fork -- Part II

Trailhead Tales by Jim Broshears
ur return to the Middle Fork of Feather River would take place in August of 2012. Having nearly 10 months to plan the next exploration, we, of course, waited until the last minute decide our course of action. Our previous excursions told us that moving on land along the river was slow and sometimes dangerous and that in order to cover more ground we’d need to use the river itself as a means of transportation. By this I mean swimming or wading across the river to avoid steep ledges and impassable boulders.

Anyone who has fished, hunted or hiked in steep canyons knows that it is inherently difficult and dangerous. There are so many ways that things can go wrong, you really need to be motivated to be there. Even the smallest mistake can have serious consequences. The rocks are often slippery and unstable and a simple twisted ankle becomes a major problem. It is in this setting that each decision must be made, each risk evaluated and each consequence considered. I’m not saying that you are always consciously thinking about every move you make. Experience and intuition take over as you move in a kind of rhythm based on years of trial and error in similar situations. The are however places where more a conscious decision making process takes place. In these places, careful consideration is required before moving forward.

Man standing next to Middle Fork Feather River Trailhead Pacific Crest trail sign

Bruce at the Trailhead

Based on all of that and our planning and experience, we considered a couple of options. We could try a shuttle by leaving a vehicle at a location on the river downstream, spending a night on the river, then finishing our trip at our vehicle location, then shuttling back to where we started. This choice would require a huge leap of faith that we could cover the distance from put-in to shuttle in two days.The second choice would be another out and back to see how far we could travel by hiking and swimming.
scenic view of tree filled valley with feather River rushing down stream

Looking at our first 1/4 mile from the PCT Bridge

We opted for the second choice and as it turned out, made the right decision. We finally decided to once again head in on the PCT from the Middle Fork Trailhead. A word of warning to those wanting to use this trailhead. It is not easy to find. Heading out from Little Grass Valley Reservoir there are a couple of signs that point in the general direction but none of them help you navigate the myriad of roads and forks that lead you to this site. This required some pretty good map reading skills and careful attention to distances traveled between forks in the road. During our first trip we kept a log of mileages to every intersection and detailed each turn. This combined with a fairly good sense of direction and a lot of back road experience helped us find the trailhead.

Blue cargo carrier back pack

We set up camp at the trailhead ready for an early start for a two day adventure on the river. In order to be prepared to swim with our gear we were using two 70 liter Boundary Packs from Seal Line. They are essentially a dry bags that are also a backpacks. This would allow us to carry overnight gear without worrying about getting everything wet during the river crossings and swims.

We set out early and headed down the PCT to the bridge at Butte Bar. We decided to set up camp at Butte Bar and return to camp by evening. The items we left at camp greatly reduced the weight in our packs as we traversed the rough rocky terrain and river crossings. This was a fortuitous decision. Getting downstream from the bridge required either a tricky swim or an up and over to get past the ridge just below the bridge. We chose the up and over and it was immediately apparent that hauling packs while crawling and sliding our way over the small ridge and down the steep canyon to river increased the difficulty exponentially.

The 20 minutes it took to go over the ridge and back to the river gained us about 200 yards of river travel was an indication of things to come.

For the next hundred yards moving along the edge of the river was fairly easy. In our preparations for trip we had done extensive map reading and route planning using as many sources as possible. We consulted topographic maps, Google Earth, PCT guides in order to find the best way to cover ground.

rocky terrain in valley of feather River

Rocky Terrain – Slow going

One of the maps showed a trail on the north side of the river that would take us downstream and bypass the ground we had covered on our previous trips. If the trail panned out, we could save some time and potentially cover more river. Unfortunately trail on maps do not always equate to trails in the real world. We were able to find the trail as indicated about 1/8th of a mile downstream from the bridge. It started out about 50 feet above the river and gradually gained elevation allowing us to cross the first transverse ridge with little difficulty. From there it started to get dicey. The trail became less distinct and we were once again faced with crossing open and exposed scree fields. Worst of all, it was eating up our time. Each scree crossing required some soul searching as the degree of risk got greater and greater. At some point we were faced with a choice, work our way down a very steep and loose hillside, or backtrack and try to move closer to the water. Discretion being the better part of valor, we headed back knowing that all of the time we had spent getting that far was now lost.

Rocky banks along rushing Feather River

Rapids and steep rocks make for tricky hiking

It was now time to commit to the river. At the next ridge we would look for a place to cross or an opportunity to swim down the river. As we reached the ridge that had stopped our travel the previous year we finally made the leap and got wet. Swimming with a dry bag has both pros and cons. On the plus side you can carry your gear and keep it dry and the bags floatation serves as a safety device. On the other hand, you can’t swim very quickly while pushing or dragging a bag of ballast and air. The use of throw bags proved to be a great tool. Throw bags are bags full of a small diameter rope or cord that are used in water rescue. Since it is safer not to go into the water and risk being drowned by the victim, this tool lets you throw the rope to the victim and haul them to shore.

We found that one person could swim across, then use the throw bag to get the rope across and pull the other person and the dry bags to the opposite side. This technique was invaluable on our return trip upstream reducing the amount of energy required to swim against the current and covering more ground in a shorter period of time.

The energy spent in this type of travel needs to be addressed. Spending a day hiking over boulders and climbing up and down the hillside is tiring enough, throw in some swimming and you have a potentially exhausting experience. As the day wore on we had to factor in not only distance to return to the camp, but the energy required to do it.

By lunch we had traveled about 3/8ths of a mile largely due to backtrack earlier in the day. We had lunch at the mouth of Dogwood Creek. Since we thought that Dogwood Creek might harbor our hidden canyon and proceeded to head up the small stream to check it out. What we found was truly amazing. The creek proved to be a series of small waterfalls connected by small pools of crystal clear and very cold water.

«Typical Indian Rubarb - From Yosemite Hikes.com

Our greatest discovery of the trip was a small glade full of Indian Rhubarb,also known as Umbrella Plant scientific name Darmera Peltata. We have always called them Elephant Ear because of the shape of the leaf. They grow in streamside environments in Oregon and California and are typically about 2-3 feet tall with a leaf or frond about 18” to 2 feet across. They add to fall colors by turning yellow, red and orange with 10-15 leaves per plant cluster. What we found was remarkably different, and like many outsized claims, we can’t prove it. What we saw were plants that stood 6-8’ tall with leaves 3-4 feet in diameter. It was like something out of Jurassic Park. We took many great photos of this incredible phenomenon but, the proverbial “but”, we have no evidence.. Before descending back to the river the camera fell into the water and our evidence was destroyed. Digital cameras are great things but they really don’t like getting wet. We did think to take the cameras card out of the camera attempting to preserve at least the photos but (again with the “but”) I managed to lose the card before we made it back.

It was time to return to our journey and make some decisions. We could continue downstream but at some point we would need to head back to camp. The river immediately below Dogwood Creek is a big bowl shaped pool that has been mined for years using a drop bucket. The sides of this hole are steep requiring our longest swim of the day. Since most of swims up to now had been short we had not really realized how cold the water really was. Every entry was bracing but this prolonged swim resulted in some numb body parts and a bit of warming in the sun was required before moving downstream. After the big swim we were immediately faced with another swim and were starting to realize how much harder it was going to be to get back upstream.

After completing one more crossing we knew it was time to head back. It was a tough decision because we felt like we might be getting close and really wanted to see what was around the next bend of the river.

A full day of river travel was taking it’s toll and all of the swims on the way back were against the current. In spite of that, knowing our return route made it a much quicker return trip. By the time we reached camp we were tired and ready for a hot meal and a shot of Crown Royal.

We had learned a great deal but still came up short of our destination. That night at camp we began planning the next trip.

See what happens next in Part #3 coming soon to MyOutdoorBuddy.com..

Jim Broshears was born and raised in Northern California and has enjoyed the great outdoors in the State of Jefferson for over 50 years. Jim worked as a firefighter for 35 years and currently owns and manages Trailhead Adventures, an outdoor outfitter store in Paradise CA. Helping others enjoy the beauty of our amazing area is his passion. Jim co-manages a blog, hikingcampingstuff.com that is dedicated to providing information about hiking and backpacking gear, local adventures and tips on outdoor safety and survival.

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