Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Six Rivers Expedition-Eel River Dos Rios to Fortuna

Will Parham, Wes Schrecongost, Victoria Anweiler, Dan Menten and Paul Gamache
Photo: Toni Morzenti
This was an epic paddling trip thought up on a whim by the six rivers team.  Originally the plan was a 2-day trip from Alderpoint to Fortuna, which we thought would be a bit low, and a long two-day.  Somehow the go-getting attitude of the crew took over and we decided hell, while we’re add it why don’t we just add another day and 47 miles of whitewater and do the Dos Rios to Alderpoint section as well.  It certainly simplified our shuttle logistics and with enough water we thought it would be doable.  Fortuitously, a much-needed storm delivered a modest amount of precipitation that was followed by several days of beautiful forecasted sunshine and the plan seemed to be manifesting.  Joined by two friends, Arcata whitewater enthusiast Victoria Anweiler and Idaho/Humboldt wave shredder Will Parham we were also graced by Wes Schrek and the presence of the Six River’s Expeditions #1 sponsor Toni Morzenti who found time to drop off the adventuresome crew at Dos Rios. 

 Meeting at the crack of dawn 5:30 we did the normal stumble around loading gear in the dark routine before loading into Wes’ truck for the 2:30 hour drive through Eureka, down to Fortuna then along the Eel River all the way to Garberville, and finally Laytonville before we turned onto highway 162 towards Covelo and shortly thereafter we arrived to our put-in at Dos Rios.  While we gathered our gear a friendly local came down to chit-chat with his more than friendly dog.  The old-timer told us that it had been an amazingly dry year and that up until a couple of days ago “the water had been running crystal clear” he then continued “you shoulda been here last year there was tons of water “ I looked over to see the dog humping on Toni’s leg who disapproved.  The old man continued “them rafters who come here in May are gonna be pushing their boats across the riffles”.  I looked down and noticed the dog sitting inside of my kayak, that I happened to be trying to pack.  Eventually the old man and the dog left us to our devices.  Paul and I were both paddling old Wave Sport Lazer’s, which we quickly realized were not good boats for overnight trips as they were extremely difficult to pack.  After some struggling to fit our ‘essentials’ we still had gear strewn about.  Luckily Will and Victoria were rocking Sea Kayaks and we found some extra space in the cargo hatches for the overflowing food and gear.  We took a group pic and said goodbye to our #1 sponsor before heading towards the river.

We elected to put-in downstream of the confluence, which is not a good river access.  Well it’s alright for kayaks but rafts need to use a river access upstream of the middle fork confluence where a much better access exists.  We walked our way along the railroad tracks and then down the hillside to about 4,000 cfs on the Eel River.  The very first rapid had an amazing wave and the pace of the river continued swiftly as we found ourselves in the classic whitewater section with a healthy flow.  Will and Victoria both represented by paddling sea kayaks, which took a little bit of adjusting since they aren’t quite as maneuverable in the rapids.  Our estimated put-on time was 10 o clock, and we were happy to find beautiful sunny skies and a healthy current to carry us along.  We had no idea how long the 100 mile, 3-day trip would take us and were fearful of falling behind schedule so we approached the river with a touch of haste.  

We definitely took time to marvel at the wondrous railroad ruins that lay spread throughout the canyon.  The recently controversial and now-defunct Northwestern Pacific Railroad line runs through the Eel River Canyon.  It is mind boggling to stare at the many failures along these tracks where active earth flows have caused slumping, landslides have blocked tunnels and taken out the tracks, and culverts have been washed from their places.  It is equally mind boggling to consider some of the locations of train wreckage such as boxcars and flatcars that have managed to work their way far from the railroad tracks where they came.  The massive power that the river has to transport enormous chunks of steel such as these, and pile boulders upon them ten feet high, is a testament to the power of water and Mother Nature.  The railroad line was built during the early 1900’s and stopped running following the high water year of 1997 when most of the wreckage occurred.  Consider it recent history.  Here Victoria passes an old Boiler Car.

The railroad line has been described as looking like a "roller coaster in places.

Photo: Wes Schrecongost
Talk of trying to re-open this railroad line can be thought of as nothing more than a pipe-dream, however somehow the pipe-dream has stayed alive.  Considering the amount of wreckage and sustained damage to the tracks from 15 years of neglect coupled with the lack of Old-Growth redwood forests to clearcut (they've all been cut or protected) its time to let it go.  Rant: As much intrinsic historic value as these train tracks have (little to none) I think of them as nothing more than litter.  Only in America can wealthy corporations build a rail-line to exploit natural resources and then abandon them completely once the resources have been exploited, with no repercussions or responsibility like picking up their garbage.  

Photo: Wes Schrecongost

 We hastily continued downstream although the pace of the river had slackened somewhat.  On the right bank we encountered several families of wild boars with litters of baby boars running amok upon the hillsides.  Eventually Spyrock came into view and we decided to take a short break to admire its beauty.

 Unique Eel River Metamorphics

After our break, the best section of the run ensued.  From Spyrock down past the North Fork of the Eel confluence 10 miles further, the pace picks up with more gradient, boulders and of course, excellent play spots.

Just another unnamed wave-hole

 The crew was thoroughly enjoying themselves as the miles were coming easily and the weather and scenery was beautiful.  We eventually took another short break at the North Fork Confluence before continuing downstream.  At these higher flows the current really does carry you quickly and before we knew it we were arriving at the Island Mountain Falls section.  We routed our way into the rapid which has two parts, it starts with a tricky ledge drop, then you find a good slot where the river enters a boulder fence.  We all had good lines and were soon passing beneath the train bridge before the notorious railroad tunnel. 

The river then makes a gigantic oxbow bend before returning to the train tracks.  This section is very beautiful and has some excellent camping opportunities; a couple of fun rapids lie in the oxbow as well.  After 5 miles you return to the tracks at the opposite end of the train tunnel, which is your signal that Kekawaka falls is ahead.  This is another standout rapid that stuck in my memory and wasn’t quite as big as my previous trip but it still packed a whallop! 

We continued to charge downstream through more fun water and I suddenly realized how much excellent whitewater this section truly has.  Although it gradually lets up towards the end of the run there are still fun rapids with character and good playspots to keep you on your toes.  At this point we had covered almost 40 miles and decided we’d made enough progress to camp for the night.  A nice beach then presented itself to us with abundant dry wood, a small creek, and a guarantee of afternoon and morning light and we decided to call it a day. 

Photo: Wes Schrecongost

High fives for all, we’d kicked some serious ass.  Although we were concerned that the dropping water levels following the storm might make for some difficult flatwater ahead, we had already taken a big chunk out of our goal and felt good. 

We awoke the following morning to a hanging fog and all stayed in our bags for awhile since we were tired from the previous day’s early start.  The water level had definitely dropped overnight causing gravel bars to appear where water had flowed the previous night.  After stoking our fire the sun finally broke through the clouds bringing its motivating warmth.  Soon thereafter we were packed up and launching for another long day on the water. 

After a short while on the water we passed the second major train bridge indicating that we were nearing Alderpoint and once again I would be paddling on new water. 

The section between Alderpoint and Fort Seward proved to be mostly flat, however it is here that the Eel River makes a major transition.  Up to this point oak woodlands and enormous grassy hillsides have primarily dominated the scenery. Downstream of Alderpoint the Eel River works its way into a lusher coastal climate.  The forests get thicker as a result.  The river also cuts through a beautiful rock gorge in here with an amazing looking campsite that we all felt would have been ideal….for next time! 

The view from sik Camp

As mentioned there were really no rapids between A.P. and Fort Seward but the amazing quality of the river kept the crew’s spirits high and before we knew it we’d passed beneath another bridge and we were stoked to be covering ground.  Due to the dropping water levels we hoped to keep our progress and make our final day on the water an easy one, rather than a death-slog.  Downstream from Fort Seward the river enters another beautiful roadless section. 

After passing the confluence of Dobbyn Creek on river right, which looked inviting, we arrived at the confluence of a beautiful tributary on the right and decided to take a lunchbreak.  We completed the lunchbreak with an excellent side-hike up the creek that comes in here. 

Photo: Wes Schrecongost
Somewhere after lunch the flatwater started getting a little intense for the boys in the Lazer’s.  We couldn’t really feel our legs due to the awkward old school outfitting forcing our circulation to a halt.  Eventually we saw what looked like a mirage but was really another person..and a dog.  It was the first human encounter we’d had since put-in.  After eddying out the friendly local, who was eager to chitchat with us, had to restrain his gigantic German Shephard puppy as we tried to have a conversation.  The dog barked on and tugged at the leash as I asked him our location.  “You’re in Eel Rock” he said, and then the dog barked and tugged at the leash some more.  This was getting old and I’m sure his arm was tiring so continued downstream through more amazing roadless scenery. 

Eventually we paddled through an amazing canyon stretch that lies in here. 

Good crews come together

The canyon downstream of Eel Rock was high quality and we were lovin' it

The fading daylight and beautiful scenery urged us to camp here as we were quickly approaching highway 101 and the South Fork Eel Confluence downstream.  We had a hard time picking our ultimate campsite but eventually scored a nice gravelly bar with wood, creek, and promise of morning light.  Another beautiful day on the water was celebrated around the caveman T.V. like a happy Neanderthal family.

Foggy morning at camp 2 in the dampness of Humboldt County's coastal climate

Photo: Wes Schrecongost
We woke on day 3 to a dewey fog reminding us we were close to the coastal dampness.  The sun rose and quickly burned through the clouds again and before long we were packed up and on the water for the final leg of our journey.  The water level had dropped again, but only slightly and we were excited to see more Redwood scenery as we were looking forward to passing some old-growth groves downstream from Highway 101 and the South Fork Eel confluence.  In the midst of our morning haze we reached the small town of McCann and encountered an especially dangerous low water bridge situated at an angle to the current that required ducking.  Too much more water would make this a potential deathtrap.  This was our sign of civilization and we quickly arrived to the confluence of the South Fork downstream.  There was lots of flatwater paddling to be had and we each had our own way of dealing with it:  Victoria would sing to her favorite poppy 90’s tunes, I whistled to the chirping birds, Wes was taking pictures, Paul was paddling as hard as he could about ½ mile ahead of us or more, and Will was trying to keep up with the crew about ½ mile behind.  Anyways, we had done it!  We made it to the South Fork confluence where the towering redwoods of Founders Grove and the Avenue of the Giants greeted us like a welcoming party. 

The pace of the Eel continued along with a very steady current like it had all along since Alderpoint.  Despite the lack of rapids we were finding it surprisingly easy to cover miles and contribute it mainly to the flow.  Downstream from the S.F. confluence the Eel flows around the base of several gigantic sandstone rock outcrops along the right bank called High Rock. 

The scenery is incredible in here and we were all enjoying ourselves thoroughly.  Will inspects the spectacle.    

We still had miles to cover however, and put our heads down, skipping lunch in hopes of feasting at the Eel River Brewing Company where we had arranged to have our shuttle vehicle dropped off.  But it was too soon to start thinking about burgers and Beer, because we hadn’t even reached Rio Dell yet.  Several miles downstream we passed through Holmes with the confluence of Larabee Creek on river right, which was flowing nicely.  Just downstream is another low-water bridge that was barely submerged at our level and could pose a serious hazard at slightly lower water levels.  Its good to know this is here and be heads up about it and you’ll be safe. Eventually the grassy Bear River ridge came into view and then the next thing you know…we were passing the Scotia Mill and nearing the Scotia Bluffs.

The River flows around the base of the Scotia Bluffs which were known as one of the most treacherous spots along the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad line.  Apparently the track was so unstable through here that trains passing by had to slow down to 10-mph. maximum so as not to cause damage to the wooden track supports. 

Photo: Wes Schrecongost
The Eel continues downstream with its characteristic swift current towards the Van Duzen confluence, at this point the channel is so big that the river flows in a very straight line, reflecting its high water personality.  Downstream from Rio Dell the canyon walls quickly back off as you enter the grassy plains of the Eel River Delta.  Before we knew it we passed the Van Duzen confluence and could see the houses of Fortuna in the distance.  It is Duck-Hunting season however, and we were greeted back to civilization with the repetitive blast of shotgun-fire coming from the left bank.  Unable to see the gunman we were all feeling wary and happy when we arrived to the Fortuna River Lodge.  Celebration was had at the Brewery, and more plans were hatched for the oncoming storms.   The Eel River had an amazing character that exceeded all our expectations and surprised us with its undeniable quality.  I recommend this splendid river that has many roadless miles of scenic water to be enjoyed.
Caution: the Eel River is notorious for strong afternoon winds that blow upstream and hamper downstream progress.  For this reason I recommend slightly higher water levels or early starts to increase the pleasure of your experience.


  1. Nice to see the my lazer on the water! I think it's been at least five years.... Maybe Dan will have some competition for the Cal Salmon race with more long boats around.

    1. Well she did make it down Burnt Ranch, piloted by Scott Ligare during the Cali Burn-fest. But still has to be the prettiest lookin' kayak around! Paul G. is paddling pretty strong, if we can convince him there may just be a race. Kyle Hull will be around, but I'm looking to re-establish my racing supremacy. We need more strong challengers...that means you J.Patt, Taylor, and Charlie!

  2. Great photos, Dan, and an interesting write-up. I felt like I was traveling along with you.

    1. Thanks Mom, I love you and you are always with me.

  3. Nice job Dan, Paul and team!! Loving your adventures in our kick ass 6 rivers backyard!!

  4. I just made the run from Holmes flat to scotia in a 10ft sit on top kayak. Beautiful scenery, but I would have enjoyed it a bit more if I had had sunny skies like in your photos. Saw some river otters and lots of waterfowl. Last time, I saw a harbor seal a half mile upstream from fernbridge!

  5. A question really, about another part of the Eel. Canoeing the S Fork from Garberville or Redway down to Fortuna. Don't mind a little dragging. Can't go until late June. Does anybody do this?

    1. I do that area. Usually upstream from there. Very low. Just for scenery. And you will drag significantly. But I will be in area in late June myself. Hit me up if ur looking for a paddling partner.

  6. Thank you for the input. We have gone from Alder Point to Weott 3 times. 2 1/2 days but were looking for a longer canoe trip. Too shallow for canoes further down?