NAVARRO RIVER Trip Report
March 18-19, 2017
By Karen J.
Imagine soft misty-blue water with sediment still settling, the plonk-plink of dripping foliage, the rich green of happy moss, the damp cool clean air, a beautiful gravel bar, and a 16-foot class 3 scramble from parked vehicles to get down to river-level. The Hendy Woods Bridge put-in. We normally put in at the day use area inside the park, but it was closed; not just gated-closed, but impassible-closed. The recent storms/floods caused damage that has not been repaired. It would have been a long, long carry. The bridge was bad, but better.
The intrepid but crazy group of 7 people with three boats met at 10:00 AM. When Don and Karen arrived (early), Kate and Alan already had their boat and most of their gear down at the water, as did Eric , girlfriend Julie, and son Arvid. Once all gear was loaded and the car-shuttle to Dimmick campground completed, we set off.
The river was running a little under 400 cfs; the weather prediction was 50% chance of rain Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Skies felt grey and watchful, giving that eerie sensation a downpour was imminent. However, the temperature was mild. I love paddling in the rain; hearing the drops rustle in the foliage and plop onto the water surface, watching drip-rings spread, and feeling a sense of joy that exists nowhere else. But keep in mind a 50% chance of rain predicts that 50% of the forecast area would receive measurable precipitation. Rain may have fallen elsewhere in the area, but all we got the entire weekend was about 60 droplets each. It felt like rain, but none materialized.
The Navarro this year is a new river. The good news is last year’s downed trees are gone, cleared out by earlier high water. The bad news is there are lots of creatively-placed new downed trees for your boating pleasure, and the channels, such as they are, are much more intricately arranged. The tree-and-brush lined but relatively entrenched channels are gone; the new channels often cut through the well-grown willows that lined the old channels. Channel-finding was difficult in places. We went over, under and around channel-blocking tree trunks. We bushwhacked with boats, dragging through dense heavy willow-stems that did NOT want to bend. We maneuvered around very tight turns while the current shoved us toward strainers, rocks, logs, and undercut banks. Progress was slow and channels, if they existed at all, were narrow. One interesting obstacle was a narrow spot with a ninety-degree turn and a log laying diagonally above the top part of the bend and sinking mid-channel into the lower part of the bend. The current wanted boats to be pushed under the log (minimal clearance) and trapped in debris on the far side. It was possible with clean entry, good angle and bow-paddler muscle to skirt the log to the inside. Unfortunately, Kate and Alan weren’t set up properly and washed under the log still upright, then got caught on the far side. They discussed the situation briefly, then with some struggle pried themselves off the obstruction and floated downstream where they eddied out. It was a nasty spot; both kept their heads, kept their balance, and kept working until they escaped. Kate was shaking, but never lost it. We were impressed.
Eric’s girlfriend Julie is great. She’s not an experienced paddler, but she’s strong, willing, and upbeat. Eric needed her help to navigate the tight channels, not to mention the non-channels. Arvid, a third-grader now, took turns with Julie paddling bow. Arvid was also the group’s motivated campfire-maker in camp, which turned out to be rather important to some other boaters.
Our usual sandy camping ground was washed out; we didn’t want to set up tents on large cobbles. Since the bulk of the sand along the Navarro has evidently left for the sea, we searched for somewhere with, hopefully, gravel or smaller rocks. Don found a nice spot just downstream on the left, with an overhanging tree branch perfect for the kitchen tarp, flat areas, and a ground surface reminiscent of concrete with small rocks jutting out. We set up camp, ate a Don-cooked dinner of rice and chicken curry, then sat by the fire watching the river and drinking wine, tea or hot chocolate as the light faded. Chocolate and cookies to finish off the meal. It was wonderful.
As we watched, and the grey deepened into night, two solo sit-on-top kayakers, man and woman, came around the bend and pulled up at the beach.
The man, Matt, asked “How far is it before we hit civilization?”
Don: “There is no civilization along the rest of this river.”
Matt: “Anywhere we can get to the road?”
Don: “The nearest take-out is nine miles.”
The woman, also named Karen, sat in her kayak gazing at the fire with intense and wistful longing. (This could get confusing. From here on, the kayaker-Karen will be referred to as Karen, the other will be called Karen J.)
Matt: “How far is it to the coast? We have a car staged at the coast.”
Don: “Seventeen miles.”
Karen sat in her kayak gazing at the fire. Craving the fire.
Matt: “Well, then we’ll paddle out to the nearest take-out and spend the night there, then I’ll paddle the rest of the way to the coast tomorrow.”
We all sat there thinking they were going to die.
Matt and Karen had started in Booneville that morning, and planned to reach the coast by dark. They had no idea what they were getting into and were completely unprepared. No extra clothing, no lifejackets. They had water and one flashlight and no dry clothes. It was a surprisingly mild night, but with the cloud cover it was black dark; navigation on the river would be difficult and dangerous. Rain was forecast.
Kate spoke up. “You can’t go. It’s not safe. You need to say with us tonight.” Kate kept insisting they stay. The rest of us joined her. Not that we had any idea how we could manage, but anything was better than that black river.
Karen, still sitting in her kayak, spoke quietly to Matt. “You’re not going to make me leave, are you?”
They climbed out of their boats and up to the fire. Both were soaking wet. Karen was wearing a dripping cotton sweatshirt and shivering. Karen Jarrell’s mommy-nature instantly kicked in; she dragged Karen behind the tent and got her into all of Karen J.’s spare clothes; Karen J. even sacrificed her down jacket. Julie donated socks and Teva’s. Meanwhile, Eric had outfitted Matt with dry clothing. The next order of business was food. There was no dinner left other than dessert sweets, but Kate and Allen brought out their yummy good cookies, and others contributed lunch leftovers; Matt and Karen had a decent if strange dinner, then joined us at the fire with hot cocoa.
At bedtime, The Jarrells donated their tatami mats and a pillow to the Matt-and-Karen cause, Kate and Alan contributed two blankets, and Eric et al contributed their tent footprint as a groundcloth and a completely-zipped-open down sleeping bag. Amazing what we came up with. Then off we went to bed.
The following morning, Matt and Karen were necessarily up early, since we’d built their bed under the kitchen tarp in case of rain. Breakfast was hot oatmeal with nuts and fruit, and lots of hot coffee and hot chocolate. Hot is so wonderful on a cool morning. (Brief pause while the author recalls that first sip of sweet hot coffee and how luxurious it feels going down the throat.)
As we were packing, Matt and Karen tried to return the borrowed clothing. Since NOTHING they owned was even remotely dry and much of it was dripping and covered with sand, this effort was refused. As a matter of fact, Karen acquired a waterproof shell and rain pants when Karen J. changed into her dry suit. Karen J. can be quite insistent, even pushy at times, and wasn’t taking no for an answer.
The second day, our group of now 5 boats headed downstream. We asked… well actually, Karen J. demanded… that Matt and Karen follow the lead boat, paying attention to both boat placement and angle when entering drops or tight turns. They were perfect. Part way down, Karen was heard laughing with joy – “It’s so beautiful here, I love this!”
Our most interesting obstacle the second day was a cluster of three freshly-fallen redwoods blocking the twelve-foot channel, the bottom edge of the upstream tree sitting barely under the waterline. No good way around to the left; heavy brush and a steep bank with nowhere to stand. No way around to the right; tree-roots and a vertical bank blocked the way. Fortunately, there was little current on the right edge of the channel, so Don and Karen J. leaned their canoe gunnel against the three-foot diameter log and scrambled up and over. On the far side of the first log, the two smaller logs formed a lovely, stable dock just above water level. The Jarrells dragged their fully-loaded boat over the logs and back into the water; Karen J. tied it up while Don steadied Matt’s boat. Matt and Don pulled boats over while Karen J. helped the paddlers. People clamber out, boat is pulled over and steadied in the water, people climb back in and paddle to the nearby gravel bar. Easy. But don’t think this was the only obstacle; it’s just there were so many. And we were getting better at them.
The Dimmick take-out still had the nasty bank, but was much easier overall than in prior years. The high water on the North Fork of the Navarro, which joins the main Navarro just upstream of Dimmick campground, deposited a nice gravel bar at the take-out, so all boats could beach and unload easily. There was a downed tree at the top of the bank, but it was easy to go around. Everyone, including our guests, carried boats and schlepped gear.
Then hiked out to the road, around the ‘Campsite Closed’ barrier, and into cars to run a double car shuttle. Matt and Karen J. took Don’s Highlander to the coast so Matt could bring back his truck. Eric took Alan back to the put-in and retrieved Alan’s car. Everyone else prepared boats for transport and loaded gear. Matt and Karen J. were the first back; Matt jumped out to shift the barrier aside that partially blocked the entrance, whereapon the barrier collapsed into 3 or4 pieces. It had been propped together like a house of cards and was now laying in the middle of the road completely flattened. Matt moved the rightmost piece or two so the cars could get in. And on to loading.
During the high water of a few weeks ago, the North Fork of the Navarro had obviously swept enthusiastically through the campground. Karen J. headed for the nearest bathroom, though Don said it was likely locked. Karen J. still doesn’t know if the door was locked or not; the debris pile in front of the door prevented her from ever reaching it. She instead used a sunlit green clearing amidst soft leaf litter and the delicate, gleaming new leaves of poison oak.
Our unexpected guests Matt and Karen were awesome the entire time they were with us. They jumped right into the group, never whined, helped with everything, fun to be around. They’re strong, bright, articulate, and full of life. GREAT people. Arvid is likely to miss Matt; they had fun together. Karen J. already misses Karen; she felt like a friend. All of us hope they’ll paddle with us on other trips and bring their friends.
Many thanks to Don Jarrell for planning the trip, packing all the equipment, buying the food, preparing the meals, and leading on the river. Don, you are totally awesome. (OK, I’m biased, I’m his wife, but he’s still totally awesome.)
I feel sorry for all of you who didn’t make this trip. I’ve never been as proud to be a part of this group as I was this weekend. The culture of caring, supportiveness, happiness and adventure is so special. There was enough adventure and misery-quotient to make a memorable trip. And Lord, it’s so beautiful out on the water, even when we share it with brush thickets and downed trees.
Hope to see you on the river soon!