The McCloud River lies northward near Mt. Shasta, where it runs parallel to the Sacramento River and ultimately joins with the Pit River after a few pauses for reservoirs. It’s mostly spring-fed, and thus… freakin cold. Initially, flows are low, resulting in the worst boat drag you’ll ever have the displeasure of paddling, but each subsequent mountain spring increases the flow – and color – of the course. There are two falls, both runnable but dependent on flows. The upper falls is something gnarly… I believe it is 40 feet in height. Basically, I won’t even consider how to run it because it’s far beyond my capability. But the lower falls is a much tamer ~15 foot fall. Unfortunately, it was too low for me to feel confident to run it… this time. The lead in to the lower is tricky at the low levels we paddled. You must run left to avoid the undercut wall on the right side, but too far left puts you on a lava ledge. So… yeah. At low levels that requires some snazzy paddle work. At high levels, I’d bet it’s super straightforward. Anyways… the first stretch of the course above the the first spring is a PAIN… a hellish and endless boulder drag. With water, the rapids would be AWESOME technical chutes, some with some nice gradient. But at our flows… it was an awkward boat hump fest (my abs were so not happy), and I felt like a fatass when I could not boof one particular ledge (I like to argue that I float low, maxed out in the weight class for my Jefe Chico, in reality… I’m probably a fatass). If you choose to run the Falls, it adds more to the boat hump rock jumble fest. Otherwise, you can put in below if you follow a dirt road for a while.
The put in past the falls is scenic. I’ve spent a significant chunk of time trying to identify the foliage (yeah, I’m that kind of geek), but to no avail. Regardless of species, wherever there is soil, there is something growing (mostly large stalks with wide, expansive leaves and lush grasses). The river is narrow here, and numerous volcanic rocks break the smooth surface. Massive blue-green conifers cage the canyon from sight. Forward progression is slow here as boats drag and bump off of a maze of rocks. As I mentioned earlier, with enough water these rapids could be very fun, though I’d warrant to guess that these rocks rarely see themselves submerged. Some spots have a decent gradient, and again with wishful thinking, could be awesome boofs… with more water. More than once I found myself pinned sideways, struggling to keep my head upright and cursing my lackadaisical approach. It’d be easy to push off the bottom though, barring any serious pins. Eventually, what sounds like a massive rapid approaching reveals itself to be a mountain spring bursting straight from the earth. Two more springs of this nature feed the river. Here, the water becomes electric blue and crystal clear. Near the shore, candy apple green plants strike an incredible contrast in the water, and where the water is calm the bottom is visible in perfect detail. At this point, the springs make the course runnable, fast, and painfully cold.
The McCloud is continuous whitewater. Seriously… it doesn’t stop but a handful of times. If you swim, you are high risk for hypothermia and a rough ride until you find a rare eddy. A friend told me she swam for 20 minutes once. Near Big Springs you will find riverwide trees. All the trees can be ran to right, where a narrow passage allows you to paddle under them (one, you must lay flat), and perhaps at higher flows you can paddle over parts. The two most significant rapids exist here, and each are guarded by or ended with a tree. These rapids are solid class III, probably bigger at higher water levels, and house large boulders and holes. They open up wide, and are truly incredible and a lot of fun. Splashes of ice keep your senses on edge while your eyes scan crystal white holes tinted with turquoise for a significant distance. They have a respectable growl.
Water ouzel, varied thrush, and Stellar’s jay dart everywhere amongst the brush along the river. The ouzel seem perfectly at home here, completely unphased by the fast and powerful rapids. These are fascinating songbirds. They walk the bottoms of rivers, searching for food, and they prefer to do so in swift and powerful currents. They use their wings as rudders and swim upstream. They have an awkward nervous shuffle, an incredible song that sounds completely fluid and sings over any rapid, and fly like a runaway toy rubber band plane. High above the smaller birds, we were graced with a bald eagle, who flew alongside us briefly before he took off to this lofty kingdom. And in the calm waters a family of five otters bobbed curiously nearby. The McCloud is wild!
As the river starts to calm, a cement bridge crosses the river and marks the appearance of the famous Hearst estate. These houses look like they belonged in Candyland or some mystical fairytale place. No one lives in them, though the Hearst family still owns them and I would guess they visit them. There are no rapids of significance as you paddle alongside the gorgeous architecture so take the chance to relax and enjoy the scenery, and the family takes pride in keeping the river clear and free of debris here, so you won’t find anything in your way.
Takeout involves a three mile paddle on flatwater. Stay near the sides and cut every corner to ease your travels. Work towards the right, as there are a few branches on the lake that will take you the completely wrong direction. There is a dirt road on the right bank, follow that. Enjoy McCloud Reservoir’s clarity: you can see large fish all the way to the bottom.
After shivering for a while at the takeout of the McCloud, we continued our journey to the Pit. I had the pleasure of running it last year, and took the effort to document it a little better on a raft. This year, I was kayaking it! Damn! The Pit River is pushy and wild and so much fun in a kayak! I had a hard time getting where I needed to be on a few of the rapids, but even in those situations I made my way out. Just like last year, there were people everywhere. One of the early rapids involves a left entrance, hugging the left bank, and a center exit. I made it left initially. Then ended up way too far right and found myself blazing the most technical line I have ever ran in my short kayaking career. Others immediately followed.
Take my advice: have a strong brace, this river will beat the crap out of you if you’re upside down! I added quite a few more stark scars to my helmet, and had the most epic roll of my life. After swimming one rapid, I was pissed to find myself upside down again. I was forced backward, face exposed, legs pulled from the thigh hooks and skirt half popped. I was furious. I refused to swim again. As I felt water pour into my boat, I shoved my legs back into the hooks and forced a violent roll. I was quite proud of myself, and I didn’t swim any other rapids after the one.
The falls were a hoot, as always. I was in no place ready to run the big line, so I opted for the 20 foot slide. At the crest of the plunge, I was feeling pretty fabulous, and initiated war mode in which I reportedly “could be heard hollering the whole way down.” I was so fabulous and so giddy that I forgot to posture myself, and impact cracked every vertebrae in my spine. It felt good… for a second.
After the falls there’s a few more significant rapids, but the most technical are above the falls. Willow Choke still scares me half to death, simply for the strainers!