Tuolumne and Stanislaus River Trip Report
By Kit Hewitt
October 20-21, 2012
Trip Leader and Chefs: Bob and Joan
Tuolumne River – La Grange to Turlock Lake campground
and Stanislaus River – Knights Ferry to Orange Blossom Bridge
Flows: Tuolumne 1000cfs? Stan 800 cfs? Higher than normal anyway.
Weather: Perfect; warm enough to peel off some layers, cool enough to be comfortable. Night time temp: needed hat, but sleeping bag open, no rain fly. 1/4 moon but plenty bright for a night time walk to the lake.
So we were 14 boats. Tandem pairs were: Kit and Don, Vince and Shauna, Eric F. and Amy S., Roy and Sally, Jim and Barbara, and Kate and Alan. Soloists were (doesn’t this sound something like a musical review, “now we have Ginger Baker, on drums”) –OK, soloists: Charlie, Alice, Bob, Joan, Eileen, Jan L., Carol, and Thad. 14 is a lot of boats we looked like confetti scattered on the wide water.
To back up a little, Karen had to back out at the last minute due to recovering from an illness and she just didn’t think she would be happy so I got to paddle with Don. What fun! Don is so easy to paddle with, he does all the thinking and all I have to do is paddle. Since I have developed a habit of using my body to pull the boat and it is hard to regulate my speed, I am either going strong or resting, looking around, taking pictures. Don keeps things on track.
Going back to the backup. Karen is OK, nothing serious. Charlie, Alice and I arrived at the Schmidt Lane rendezvous a little early and transferred our gear to the van and trailer. Then the others arrived and we were 8. The van hiccupped a few times as we started towards the freeway but once we were on the freeway it was smooth going. Alice napped and I had an animated conversation with Eric and Amy until my neck developed a crick and I couldn’t sit twisted around to the back seat any longer.
We arrived at Turlock Lake campground, signed in with the camp host and some people put up their tents, others just left a pile of gear in likely spots near the kitchen. Everyone hugged old friends and new friends, lots of, “How are you’s” and “What’s up’s?” and rushing to get into vehicles and then boats at the put in at La Grange. They have improved the put-in a bit and without checking, it looks like there is road access to the beach. there were definitely tire tracks and the right turn above the bridge looked like it might actually be doable in a car. But we were in a hurry so we just went through the gate next to the bridge and hauled everything to the beach below the bridge. Nothing was forgotten. We circled up and Joan hosted the introductions, gave the safety talk and we got on the water.
I have never seen the Tuolumne this high. You could see daisies 18 inches below the surface flattened to rocks by the current, yellow petals still streaming out, the fuzzy leaves shining and silvery.
The two spots where the river squeezes through a tight web of trees was easy to negotiate at this flow. There were some downed trees along the way, one that could have been a killer since it showed up around a right turn, a blind corner near where the big cliffs drop to the river on the left. If one was on the right at the beginning of the turn one had enough time to keep right to avoid the strainer but if one had thought that the main current was OK one might be too far left to avoid it. As it was Bob pulled over as soon as he saw it and called a stretch break on the peninsula made by the bend and while we stretched (and someone found a pile of owl feathers) we took a look at the fallen tree.
The big pools had enough current so that even the solos made progress without much struggle. Despite a break at the bridge access where Hwy 132 crosses the river and a long lunch stop a mile or so below that and the rest stop at the strainer we arrived in camp at 2:15.
This gave me time to set up my tent in a little patch of sun and change into my dry clothes. After a few minutes in the chair circle attempting to comprehend what was being said to me I went back to my tent and took a nap. I woke to the voice of the camp host trying to squeeze every nickel out of our multi-vehicle, multi-campsite, multi-payer situation. He was kind of loud; I guess too many people try to rip campgrounds off so the hosts expect to be hasseled and cheated and so they start throwing their authority around with big gestures and loud voices. Joan was the perfect polite foil to this near-bullying and eventually he even had to refund $10.
Bob and Joan provided a wonderful dinner of bow-tie pasta under chicken cacciatore, bread, a big salad, and nicely steamed vegetables. Dessert was a choice of chocolate or carrot-cake cupcakes and ice cream. I think Roy and Vince were responsible for the ice cream, but I am not sure; they wandered out of camp at some point with Roy looking for his keys and Vince looking for his wallet. Ice cream appeared. You connect the dots.
As soon as it was dark, Amy, Barbara, Sally, Eileen and I went for a walk by moonlight. The moon was bright enough that we could see well enough without flash lights but when we were under the trees it was inky dark and scary. I led the way around the campground circle, then up the hill to the highway and took a left. About 100 yards down the road there was the Turlock Lake Ranger Station on the right and we took the road straight out to the dam on Turlock Lake. I always like this walk, especially when there is enough moonlight to go without flashlights. The lake is not natural, a recreational reservoir and backup water supply for Modesto, so it has a wide bathtub ring that shows white in the moonlight. The water is black but there are sparkles across it from distant lights. I think I even heard a boat engine out there in the dark. The hills supporting the reservoir are very flat, barely high enough to encapsulate the large lake. There aren’t many trees except for some patches of looming blackness that sound like the roaring of trains (eucalyptus). And stars. Lots of them. This is a time when I wish for a switch to turn the moon off for a few minutes so we could really examine the stars. We chatted about places we’ve been and would like to go and about our lives away from the river. I felt happy.
There was a big fire going in camp when we got back and I stayed for a few minutes but it had been a long day so I went to bed. I didn’t have any trouble sleeping once I figured out the perfect configuration of mattress, fleece jammies and sleeping bag, pillows, blankie and hat. The stocking hat serves a double function of blacking out the moon and fire light as well as keeping my head warm.
Bob and Joan made a huge and wonderful breakfast. Bob sets the bar high. We had scrambled eggs with onion and bell pepper, sausage patties, and pancakes. Charlie made coffee on a separate table with some help from Don. We were on the road by nine.
The van decided to misbehave with increasingly rougher pickup out of stop signs and up hills. It sounded like someone was pounding on the transmission with a very large hammer. It was a little scary crossing Hwy 120 into Knight’s Ferry because the engine was incapable of more than 1 mph as we crossed the busy highway. We made it. Whew.
The Stan was running high, too. Not quite as high as the Tuolumne but still high enough that Russian Rapid piled into large waves at the bottom but the drama was mostly washed out. There was some partner switching done at the top so that those who didn’t want to run the rapid gave their seats to those who wanted to do it twice. There were small eddies for Vince and Eric to play in as they came down, and some boats got airborne on the big wave. No one was interested in hauling their boat up the trail to run it again. Bob and Joan wanted to serve lunch at the boat-in camp at Horseshoe Bend park, so we didn’t linger at Russian very long. Of course I took a billion pictures of people charging through the waves using my continuous shooting feature on my new camera in hopes of catching someone flipping, but I was disappointed; just big smiles and a few “game faces.”
Downstream of Russian, that tricky spot, where the river turns left, was washed out but the current still wanted to push you into the brush when the river took the right turn.
Don and I were lead boat this time so we got to see several salmon and blue heron. We speculated on the low number of salmon, figuring that it was too early in the season for the run. This trip was scheduled almost a full month earlier than in the past so hopefully that explains it.
We watched a screaming loud “Murder of Crows” chase an owl back and forth along the river. It all happened in slow motion as the crows made a tremendous racket circling and diving and the owl tried to shake them off in the trees. But the crows were persistent and the owl still hadn’t shaken them off by the time we drifted out of sight. We also took the opportunity to pick some wild grapes which are a lot of seed and not much fruit but they were sweet and fragrant with a hint blackberry, still young, but not very promising.
We stopped at Horseshoe Bend boat-in campground and Bob and Joan set up lunch on the picnic table. Shrimp and crab salad with pasta rolled up in flour tortillas. Yum.
The sign said 4 miles to Orange Blossom Bridge take out and we did that in a little bit over an hour including a couple of breaks. Dona nd I switched partners with Roy and Sally so Roy could try out Don’s Esquif. I stayed in the bow. We came to a sign saying Main Channel to the left and Honolulu Bar river access to the right. I was pretty sure we stayed in the main channel but had an insecure moment when someone questioned the route. the bridge at Blossom Road appeared and we scrambled up the boat ramp to the parking lot and waited for the shuttle while the sky clouded up and cooled off.
Now for the grim part: the van was struggling. It would still go but Don started avoiding full stops because the van was bucking so hard that it was questionable that we could make it across an intersection. We were lucky that there wasn’t much traffic or stop lights between Orange Blossom and El Cerrito, it felt like something serious was going to break every time it bucked. Those of us who get chatty when nervous, chatted, and those who get quiet, got quiet. Some people went to sleep. We made an emergency pit stop and prayed that the van would start again. It did. We got over the Altamont Pass and the pass between Dublin and Castro Valley (does it have a name?) and breathed easier. We pulled into Schmidt Lane in El Cerrito while there was still light out. Whew.
The romance of leaving each other to go home was totally sucked out of the situation by our worries about the van and we all said goodbye, gave a wave and went our separate ways.
Its not a great way to end a fabulous trip but it didn’t overshadow what a great time we all had. Or at least I had a great time and I am pretty sure every one else did, too. Thank you Bob and Joan! See you next year.