Summer is not San Francisco’s best time of year.
The heat of the Central Valley sucks in air from the Pacific, cooled by the California Current coming down from the Arctic, and we end off stuck in a bank of fog. So when Tessa read an article in 7x7 Magazine about a place to go tubing on the Sacramento River, we jumped at the chance and rallied a group of twelve for a weekend of fun in the sun.
We drove up to Chico on Friday night after work and met up for drinks at a bar with a terrace. It was such a nice change to be outside at night, wearing only a t-shirt. A nice long evening in a beer garden is one of the things I miss the most from English summers.
The following morning we left our hotel and drove to Scotty’s Landing to rent the tubes. Scotty’s would be our exit point and where we would have lunch. Or so we thought.
We loaded up 4 of the cars with tubes, leaving Glen’s to ferry the drivers back to the start when we were done, and drove North to the launch point at Woodson Bridge.
This is where alarm bells should have been ringing. The drive was 19-miles and about 30-minutes long. Even if the river went 5 miles per hour, that would still be a 4-hour float... 7x7 had said 2-hours. But with the exuberance brought on by being with a group of friends in the summer warmth, we rationalized away any doubts brought on by the drive time. “The route was a dog-leg, right?”
We started floating. Beer and dry bags tied to our tubes with paracord.
The Sacramento River is much wider than other places we’d rafted. On most sections we lazily drifted along at between 1 and 3 mph, according to the GPS. We joined up in big flotillas; sipped on beer; laughed and joked; and took swims in the 55F water—a little cold to spend a long time in, but fine when in the tube with the air temp in the 90s.
Occasionally the river would become shallower and faster. It wouldn’t look like much, but the power was deceiving. The sheer weight of water made it nearly impossible to stand, and certainly impossible to stop once you got moving.
We hit one such section as I was floating backwards near the front of the group. I was greeted with a blow to the kidneys as I hit a submerged log. I yelled at the others to watch out, but it was too late.
Emil had been towing a cooler of beer on a rope. Brilliant idea... up to this point. The rope snagged on a log, Emil tipped out, struggled to hold on for a moment, and then went floating down stream leaving his tube and the cooler stuck in the middle of the rapids.
Brad, Jeff, Tessa and I managed to make it to the right-hand shore, while the others floated out of the rapids and landed down stream. Glen rescued a cold and fatigued Emil and managed to make it to shore 10-minutes further down.
Back by the rapids we were figuring out how to rescue the tube—and the cooler. We didn’t want to abandon the tube; with water in the 50s anyone without some form of raft would risk going into hypothermia within an hour or so. We needed to rescue it.
While Brad waded out, I ran upstream, hoping to get a better angle in the fast moving river. I dropped in and swam hard at a 45-degree angle against the current. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually I was close, but not quite close enough. I managed to grab hold of another semi-submerged tree 10ft down stream from the tube; clambered on top of it; and balancing precariously, caught my breath.
When I was no longer panting, I stood up and dove off in a desperate attempt to beat the current. To no avail. After about 20-seconds of swimming all out, I was washed downstream and swam, dejectedly, back to shore.
Brad and Jeff had walked further upstream and made their attempt. Brad got there first. Then Jeff joined him.
Watching from the bank a good 50 yards away we could see them struggling to release the rope. They would pull themselves up the rope, fighting against the weight of the current, only to be pushed back to the tube, torrents of water pouring over their heads. After 5 valiant minutes Jeff dropped off, exhausted, leaving Brad holding on.
I ran up the bank for a second attempt, this time with my trusty Gerber knife in the pocket of my board shorts. No shoes this time, which made the run painful, but made the swim easier. I dropped in higher. Again, swimming against the current, trying to make as much horizontal progress as possible so that I could target the tube from above. This time I made it and Brad helped me get a hold on the tube. I hauled myself up on the rope, flipped open the knife, and cut through the rope. We didn’t budge. I reached up again and cut the other side. The tube released and the cool bag popped to the surface. Brad and I floated out of the rapids and regrouped with everyone.
With the excitement over we took stock of our status. It was getting on for 3-hours since we set sail and the GPS was showing we were but a quarter of the way to our destination. There weren’t any roads near the river for several miles, so there was nothing we could do but continue to float down stream and hope the river got faster. It didn’t
As the day drew on we were gradually getting colder; more and more sunburnt; and concern was starting to float above the earlier exuberance. We landed a couple of times to reconnoiter the shore, but only found dirt tracks and miles of farm land.
After another 2 hours or so we were in a fast section of the river, when we spotted two jetties with paths leading up to houses. We were going too fast and scooted past, along a 15-ft high bank carved by the flow. Above the bank we could also see a road sign and a parked car, so we made a quick judgement call to paddle for shore as soon as we could.
We all made it to the bottom of a rocky bank, and scrambled over barbed wire and poison oak into someone's backyard.
I was expecting to be yelled at, to have dogs set upon us, to be chased off by a shotgun, or worse. This was rural-America after all. Surely liberal city-slickers like us would not be welcome here.
Instead we were greeted by a bemused but friendly bee keeper who offered to give our 4-drivers a ride back to the cars while his wife fed everyone else cheese and crackers on the deck.
It turned out we were still about 12-miles from Scotty’s and the roads were very quiet. So had we not chanced upon this house the story may have gone on for much longer.
Quite serendipitous, but weirdly anti-climatic.
We were back at the hotel within the hour. Then after showering, exhausted, hungry and sunburned, we headed out for dinner. A burger and beer never tasted so good.
With hindsight the day turned out to be a pretty fun adventure—you couldn’t have planned it this way. Like many of our best adventures, misfortune wrecked our plans and we were forced to improvise.
I suppose misadventures make the best stories...
Like the time we had to abseil 7-pitches to get out of Yosemite, or when we went on a 6-hour hike in Pasadena with barely any water and met that rattle-snake, or the time the helicopter pilot had to guide us around cliffs and crevasses to get us to the bottom, or the time the speed-boat ran out of gas and Erin nearly missed her flight...