A class V+ wilderness adventure in the heart of California
By Joe Bousquin
February 16, 2004
The only word I can use to describe how I felt on the way to Big Kimshew Creek is "gripped." I'd heard too many stories of the multiple 60-foot waterfalls, the hard portages
and the dicey helivac that happened in this gorge a few years back.
Now, in the afterlife - that is, my life AFTER Kimshew Creek - all I can say is this run will give you a different fix on reality, an altered perception of what "BIG" is, and
the pleasant, intoxicating knowledge of what it's like to go where rainbows are born.
In other words, Kimshew is the SH*T! This run is better than South Silver and Bridge Creek COMBINED (A-List Members KNOW how I feel about those runs). Kimshew's added
challenge is its 7-plus miles in length, making it a true Class V+ wilderness adventure. Looking on our maps and guesstimating, my friend Kenny Gould and I ventured that the thing
drops on average 300 feet per mile. The section in the gorge, though, must be significantly steeper than that.
I got the call Thursday afternoon from "Kimshew" Kenny, telling me that Friday would be THE day for Dewin' some Shewin'. After listening to him describe the run for
the past several weeks, I didn't know whether I should feel relief or despair. Surely, running it would put an end to all the horrible visions I'd created in my mind
- not to mention Kenny's incessant chattering about this creek. (He's got a right to talk: he's now run it four times). On the other hand, the price of exorcising
those demons would be seeing the real thing for myself.
After the usual logistics loco, Steve Schamber and I arrived around 1 a.m. at the take-out near Stirling City where Big Kimshew dumps into the West Branch of the Feather.
(You'll need a map to find it -- start out from Paradise on Rt. 191.) I couldn't see it, but the roar of the water and Kenny's assurances were all the affirmation I
needed; there was enough water to make a run. With Erik Bell already camped at the put-in as well, our group was complete.
When Kenny woke me shortly after 7 o'clock the next morning, the first thing I saw was the final falls on the Kimshew, the beautiful, curtain of green that is the last 20'
balcony drop on the run before it joins the West Branch. After seeing this view, no kayaker who suffers from BDL, or Big Drop Lust, would be able to resist.
On my map, the road that goes up to the put-in is called Reston Road, but I didn't see any street signs. Once you rejoin the pavement from the dirt road out of the
take-out, make an immediate U-Turn onto the other dirt road to your right. We followed this a long way, veering to the right after the bridge over the West Branch,
and started to hike down when we saw snow. Use a good map to make sure you know where you are.
It took us less than a half hour to hike to the river, and when we got there, it had that eerie flatness of a river that's about to drop off the side of the world.
From my guess, I'd say there was 200 cfs in the creek, if that, and we could have used 100 more. (At this level, the rock visible in the take-out drop on river
left was showing about three feet high.) We put on between 10:30 and 11 o'clock.
The river starts off through classic Sierra granite, and you boogie through some boulders and one mini slide before coming to a thumb-rock boof drop that marks the
true beginning of the run. Boof right to avoid the wall on the left.
After this, we came to our first portage, which was marked by a huge boulder in mid-stream that split the currents into a sieve on the left and a mini gorgette on
the right. Kenny says the right channel has been run with some excitement, and it looked a shame that it was too low for the entrance drop to be negotiated cleanly
Below this, we saw our first true falls: a 30-foot boof slide that's the reward for negotiating the somewhat tricky entrance. Entering left, we made our way right
to launch off the flake that sails you over the drop. Smiles all around after this. Below here, there was a funky rapid that dropped into the narrowest of granite
slots above a second, six foot drop that had to be boofed left to avoid pitoning. Both Erik and I went into the slot and got flipped by the "wall current," rolling
up in time to make the move at the bottom. Kenny bobbled through the slot upright and hit the bottom clean.
An easier, but similar slot rapid follows and is run on river right. Hang on and DON'T flip. It looked shallow.
This section was followed by more nice boogie water and several slides that would have had some serious holes had there been more water. I won't blame Kenny for the
serious hole that I did find in an otherwise unremarkable spot; I saw him roll after going through it and charged anyway.
I became part of an endless spin cycle in a very boxed-in slot on river left that would spit me out when I flipped, only to suck me back in when I tried to role
upright. The thing was only about three feet high, but near perfectly enclosed. After three or four revolutions of this, and losing grip of my paddle, I wet-exited
in the otherwise calm waters downstream and saw Kenny smirking my way. I guess they don't call him Crazy Kenny for nothing. Erik and Steve saw my line and scooted
over the damp rock on river right.
After one more series of slides, we stopped for lunch, maybe a little less than halfway through the run. This is where the heart of the falls section begins, and it
begins with a bang.
The first big falls is every bit of 50 feet, and while not truly vertical, it's close enough to it. It drops straight into a red-walled gorge that quickly dumps over
a tricky, 20-foot falls less than 100 yards downstream. After setting a very tenuous safety where Steve clung to the river right wall while holding a rope, Kenny
dropped the monster with style, entering on the spout and finishing straight off the final boof.
He had warned both Erik and I about landing on our sides off the drop, but that didn't prevent either of us from doing so. Afterwards, we reflected on the fact that
both of us had the same thought right at the lip of the falls: what have I just gotten myself into? As for myself, I know this is the biggest drop I've ever run for
the amount of time I had to think about falling on the way down. I entered the spout aimed the tiniest bit right, to avoid the hole on the left.
At first, I thought the falls was one drop interrupted slightly by a pad that launched you off the whole thing, but I quickly found out that there was a third drop
within the drop. I think it was this hidden drop that cocked me right and caused me to land on my side - I've still got the bolt marks from my bulkhead in my right shin
to prove it. Curiously, Erik got cocked the other way. In any case, the falls was not as straightforward as it looked.
But it did drop you into a gorge that was unmistakably distinct from the top of the run. It's from this pool that you can see the river start dropping out of sight,
straight down into what seems like an endless basement of granite, winding its way away from the sun and into the shadows toward the West Feather.
The walls of this gorge and the slippery rock made it extremely difficult to scout the next drop. There was little space to get out in the eddy on river left, and
even less space on which to deposit your kayak while looking at the drop. I wrestled with the boats and clung to the wall while Kenny and Erik precariously scouted
the nasty 20-footer below -- it had a piton on the left and a munchy, backed-up hole on river right. But the portage down the slimy, slippery wall on river left didn't
look very easy, either. Meanwhile, Steve, who had stood safety for us on the big drop above, was still on the other side of the river.