If you’re anything like me, you probably have an insatiable urge to explore and take daring, though seemingly irrational, risks. Hiking a flooding river canyon is not a reckless choice, but a calculated chance. And so the story goes…
The North Fork American River gains its volume from the union of the Middle Fork at the canyon confluence. Here, the murky aquamarine waters of the upper North Fork join with the red water of the Middle Fork and swirl to a smooth, milky brown. At times of normal flow rates, the water reaches 2,000-8,000 cfs, but at times of high water and flooding, the canyon can be unpredictable, frequently seeing flows of 15,000 in the winter. This storm brought the water to 20,000 cfs.
At Tamaroo Bar, also known as the Gay Wave when the water brings this surf spectacular into play – aptly named for the notorious nudist beach shortly upstream – kayakers gathered to set the record for running the course at the highest flows it’s ever been paddled. A mate called me up to ask if I cared to join him, but I declined, intimidated by the threat of big water, flood-level eddies, and log debris, and promised to hike down to the wave and photograph and video the crew for funsies.
Take the Robie Point Trail in the Auburn State Recreation Area to reach Tamaroo Bar. After crossing a creek (if heading from the Confluence side to the Auburn side) take the first left trail after passing a cement abutment that was once part of the old Mountain Quarry Railroad system. This trail is a steep, continuous, downward gradient… you better have good hiking shoes!
At the bottom of the descent, the river lapped at the trail’s edges, covering it in parts. I chose to scramble up the steep bank and parallel the trail, knowing that Tamaroo Bar was just around the corner. This arduous crawl left the banks collapsing from my weight on the saturated soil as the river fully engulfed the trail below and continued to rise… it was a one way hike. Continuing upward, I found myself stranded and tired on a very steep cliff about 200 feet above my friends surfing at the wave. I hollered and waved, but they neither heard nor saw me hidden in the brush. And at that point, I realized I was in a serious predicament. Alone and stuck, watching the river rise further – I later learned it had doubled to nearly 40,000 cfs – I was at risk of hypothermia or potential drowning. Above me loomed the steepest walls of the canyon and the only way out. I would take them, but I had to prepare for the risk of a slip and long tumble into the icy waters below. For the sake of comforting friends as well as for my own dark humor, I made a last will and testament.
Grudgingly staring upwards before my first step out, a kayaker burst out of the bramble, asking how to get out and where I came. I was relieved for human company. “Up and out is the only way, and we can’t go back the way I came.” It was obvious that he doubted me, and he forced himself in the lead, making strange directional choices and leading us up and down, before I finally insisted that we head up and right. Shortly after my executive decision we stumbled on the Western States Trail where we half collapsed and caught our breath. He let me lead from that point. We had scaled nearly 500 vertical feat, the poor man carrying his kayak strapped to his back. Eventually, the trail lead us to our car and I gave the man a chewy bar and brought him to drinking water. I was relieved, and exhausted.