July 1, 1984 River Runner – By David M. Bolling
The local folks upstream in Cedar Flat, Del Loma and Big Bar get suddenly serious when you talk about taking rafts into the Gorge.
And if you’re a compulsive river-reader, you’ll run your eye up and down the visible stretches of that jumble of rock and water, noting the impossibly narrow chutes, the foaming holes and the strategically-placed wrap rocks, and you’ll not your head and scratch your chin and finally say to yourself with absolute conviction, “Nope, that sucker’s suicide. It can’t be run.”
And you’ll be very nearly right.
The canyon is called Burnt Ranch Gorge, an eight mile stretch of the otherwise just lively and lovely Trinity River, and for years the only people who took rafts into it emerged at the bottom dead. Upstream the Trinity is a Class III jewel wandering through one of the prettier river canyons in California. But at Burnt Ranch the walls close in to form a mountain crevice so narrow, steep and choked with boulders that the only argument about it’s difficulty revolves around whether it is Class V or VI.
The issue is academic to most people. Certainly the two men who took a small raft one recent spring into the bowels of the Gorge appreciated the difficulty, if not the danger. Their bodies, discovered downstream, added a pall to the river’s formidable reputation.
Dick Schwind’s well-worn guide book to west coast rivers proclaims Burnt Range Gorge “not recommended for boating.”
Schwind nevertheless kayaked the Gorge in 1970, portaging repeatedly, and carrying pitons and climbing rope stashed in his boat, fearing the need for a vertical carry around some of the less runnable rapids.
Other expert kayakers have followed but most still carry at least once or twice and until the summer of 1983 the consensus was clear: You don’t do Burnt Ranch Gorge in a raft – only in a kayak, and then only if you’re nuts.
Enter Bill McGinnis, outfitter and author, who with his fearless (or foolish) head guide Jim Cassady, has pioneered numerous first-run raft descents.
McGinnis and Cassady thought maybe the Gorge could accommodate well-trained crews in small, agile paddle boats. Rafting skill would be important, but so would a balance between abject terror of the Burnt Ranch rapids and confidence that river running skills have advanced to a new plateau.
There’s no question the limits of river running have been extended, the ante’s been upped and the definition of a runnable river sounds different today than it did a decade ago. What, after all, is a Class VI rapid? Is it something guaranteed to kill you, like Ishi Pishi Falls on the Klamath? Or just something that will scare you blind, like Lava Falls or Crystal on the Colorado?
Rafting Burnt Ranch Gorge defines the question further, if not the answer, and McGinnis’ successful exploratory there proved that the right people, with the right equipment, can extend themselves into new realms of whitewater rafting.
To run the Gorge you put in beneath the Cedar Flat Bridge in a pool of calm, emerald green water, bordered by a soft sandy beach. It is a deceptively tranquil beginning.
The first mile meanders through gentle rapids in a broad gravel bed as the river flows toward China Gulch, a massive scar on the southern flank of the canyon wall. Chinese gold miners were buried there in the nineteenth century when part of the mountain fell into the river.
Beyond the gulch the river begins to gather its fluid force and the water moves faster toward a Class IV rock garden that would scare you were it not for the more frightening dragon’s mouth lurking 100 yards downstream, a slit in the side of the mountain where the river disappears into darkness.
The entry rapid nailed a McGinnis raft in 1983 wrapping the one oar-powered supply boat to a midstream rock like a slice of salami around a hunk of mozzarella. It took half an hour to free the raft and by the time the group was reassembled all were in a proper state of apprehension for the real rapids ahead.
Burnt Ranch Gorge drops between 60 and 100 feet per mile and the descent begins with a bang. You don’t so much float through the Gorge as drop into it. Once past this narrow slit in the canyon wall, the Trinity takes you to a river-wide obstacle, a neatly arranged row of truck-sized boulders with one narrow chute in the middle leading over a 10-foot waterfall.
The drop is clean and the pool below it calm with the silence and presence of a gothic cathedral. Sheer rock climbs skyward 2000 feet enclosing the river in a stony embrace. McGinnis calls the entry rapid Pearly Gates. It fits.
What follows is some of the most heavenly whitewater ever caressed by a raft. Through a continuous succession of pools and drops, the Trinity alternates between peaceful calm and sudden, furious descent. Scouting is mandatory at virtually every rapid and some require so much attention that the eight mile trip can easily stretch to two days.
Water level dictates different strategies and the need for fluid logistics. Burnt Ranch rapids typically squeeze the river through channels tighter than a small raft is wide, over drops that lead directly to wrap rocks, and through great gaping holes that suck boats down and fill them fast.
It is possible to take a 12-foot paddle raft through this maelstrom without a single portage. But every single move must be planned in advance and a second’s hesitation, or a couple of half-hearted paddle strokes, could spell disaster.
In Burnt Ranch Gorge you don’t just run over waterfalls, you navigate down them. There are times when it is necessary to move a boat sideways with draw strokes while dropping down the face of a falls. One rapid requires that you enter it backward with an upstream ferry angle in order to paddle furiously across the current to reach a narrow gap between two rocks, not quite as wide as the boat, and the only path through the rapid.
All this is awe-inspiring, but it still doesn’t prepare you for the sight of Burnt Ranch Falls, a succession of three waterfalls that shatter the river into a rolling seething frenzy.
Those of us who saw it for the first time in 1983 watched the river churn itself into spuming foam in the evening twilight and couldn’t imagine a way through. We had the evening to contemplate the prospect of doom before running the falls the next morning.
The first drop, which some call Jaws, funnels you through a crack between two gaping canine molars as big as summer cabins, then down over a 15 foot falls into an angry hole at the base of an undercut rock. The entry isn’t quite wide enough for a raft and you have to raise a tube to slip through without sticking.
But that part is easy. Below is the heart of Burnt Ranch Falls, a staggered series of Class V drops which gather foam and fury as they carry you toward an ugly mid-stream truck-sized boulder. Entry is everything, but once you’re committed the rest is up to the river. It is not, somehow, as impossible as it seems, but the worst is still ahead.
The lower falls is a fast hundred yards below, where the river squeezes through a jumble of giant blocks before cascading into a rapidly narrowing chute which collides at the bottom with the undercut canyon wall. To enter this madness boats must bump and grind over a narrow rocky channel, then drop eight feet over a waterfall into the top of the rapid. From there the current carries you through a succession of violent holes until it collides with two large, barely submerged, totally unavoidable rocks.
More than any other rapid in the Gorge, kayakers portage the lower falls. But that is not a reasonable option for rafts.
There is no pretty or precise way to run the falls. It doesn’t matter that rafts routinely spin, wheel, waffle, twist, crash and almost burn; it matters only that at the bottom they are right side up with a full crew. This is not a place to swim.
Below the falls Burnt Ranch Gorge offers a parade of solid Class IV and V rapids with one once-unrunnable whopper, Gray’s Falls, at the end. Along the way is every imaginable combination of water and rock, the enduring beauty of a pristine gorge decorated with lacy waterfalls and green grottoes of fern where beaver and otter prowl the banks.
There aren’t many places in the world like Burnt Ranch Gorge and not many people will ever intimately experience it. That is part of its charm. The odds of meeting anyone else along the way, save the anglers who congregate at the falls, are slim.
But the elite nature of this river run imposes some special requirements. Burnt Ranch Gorge is no place for macho boatmen with more bravado than brains. To run it successfully in rafts requires great skill, careful preparation, the right equipment and a certain amount of luck.
For those few with the ability and experience to run Burnt Ranch Gorge, the risks are reasonable and the rewards wondrous.
David M. Bolling is a newspaper editor and accomplished boater living in Santa Rosa, Calif. © 1984 River Runner.