Kayaking is a ton of fun, but for some reason we do not get out on the water as often as we would like. What better way to spend the 4th of July weekend than to combine our love of paddling and exploration on a 4 day river float.
With the current drought our choices were limited but the Klamath River sounded like a great idea. There are some class II and III rapids but long stretches allow for sitting back, relaxing, and letting the river do the work. We planned an 84-mile float from Iron Gate Dam to Happy Camp using CA Creeks as our guide. Most of our planned route was inside Klamath National Forest.
Our boats are not whitewater kayaks by any means. Luke and I are the proud owners of Wilderness Systems Tsunamis; the 125 and 120, respectively. At 12.5 and 12 feet, these are great all-around touring boats. We felt confident in our ability to run the river successfully with a few portages, but we made sure to have all our safety equipment just in case (helmet, rope, life vests, 10 essentials).
Day 1: 20 miles, put-in – Iron Gate Dam
We camped at the Curley Jack campground outside Happy Camp ($15/night for camping) and left our car in the long-term parking lot. An hour and a half drive later, we arrived at our put-in and left the other car in a turnout by the Iron Gate Hatchery.
The area just below the Iron Gate Dam attracts many rafters and other leisurely boaters since it is so calm. We went 20 miles our first day with no problem. Well, with the exception of Luke flipping his boat and banging up his knees.
One of the great aspects of being on the water in these remote areas is the wildlife. I have never seen so many turtles. Their little heads were sticking out of the water all along the shore. We also saw osprey; they were perched on their nests, flying above us, and even diving into the river just in front of us. Great Blue Herons lined the shorelines like ancient guardians of the wilderness. Another main attraction was the two Bald Eagles. We were told that there are 40-50 breeding pairs in the area.
Day 2: 25 miles, Class II and III rapids
Our second day was a little more exciting. Miles 20-45 have a few Class II rapids as well as the Class III Schoolhouse and Honolulu Rapids which we chose to walk around. We camped on an island near mile 45.
Day 3: 20 miles, many Class II and III rapids
The 3rd day was to be the most difficult with several Class II and Class III rapids. However, the river is currently at its lower runnable limit so we managed to paddle through several rapids we planned on bypassing. The thought that kept us going was that from mile 70 it would be smooth sailing through our take-out at mile 84.
We were almost scott-free when Luke decided to fall out of his kayak just before Otter’s Playpen at mile 65. He wasn’t even going through a rapid at the time. As the current dragged us downstream, I knew I had no choice but to run the rapid. I made it though and pulled my kayak ashore. As I turned around, I saw Luke’s paddle float by. Then his kayak. With panic setting in, I turned to see Luke standing on a rock outcropping in the middle of the rapid. He was screaming at me to go after the kayak!
The Rescue Mission
He later recollected, “Knowing I wasn’t going to get to shore in time, I kept my feet in front of me and tried using the kayak as a bit of a shield. The strategy worked as I managed to stop myself on a rock island in the middle of the rapid. With adrenaline pumping, I climbed up the large boulder and tried to hang on to my kayak, with my precious camera gear, but the current was too strong. It was either me or the boat, and I had to let go.”
I didn’t go after the kayak; instead, I went after Luke. He had signaled that he needed rope so I grabbed my throw-rope and ran along the shore towards him. After tying off the rope it took several attempts to toss it to him. I braced myself as Luke jumped into the Playpen holding onto the rope for dear life.
He was able to make it to shore. Once we were both safe, the thought of his kayak, camera gear, and camping equipment began to haunt us. It had all floated downriver. Would it join the mountain of garbage in the ocean? Would insurance cover the loss?
“I was a bit frantic about the loss of my brand new camera and all our camping gear, but I was happy that I made it out alive and not even hurt. Sharon kept me calm and collected and focused.”
The insurance claim would have to wait. For now, we had to find a way to reach Hwy 96. The sun was starting to set and we were wet. Our sleeping bags and dry clothes were downriver. All of my gear and the remaining kayak needed to be dragged up the embankment. Luckily, just after reaching the road, Forest Service employees drove by and I was able to wave them down. They called Officer White to the scene so we could load everything into his truck and be taken back to our car.
“Do you guys ever recover kayaks?” Luke asked, trying to figure out the chances of getting our gear back. “We do all the time. One of my primary jobs is recovering the bodies that typically accompany them.” Officer White responded.
A Shocking Recovery
As we were packing up, an SUV stopped and the men inside asked if we lost a kayak.
YES! We had! What luck! Kris and his family from the Thompson Creek Lodge had found Luke’s kayak about 1.5 miles downstream and they were looking for us. Kris and his female friend, Lona, were driving back from a day of rafting, when she noticed a kayak without the owner floating down the river. Kris fetched his kayak and paddled to grab not only the kayak but also the paddle. He then paddled back upriver towing all the gear. Truly amazing. We are so grateful!
“As I approached the kayak, I saw something floating next to it. I thought it was going to be a body. I really didn’t want that today. Luckily it wasn’t a body.” Kris told us.
We spent the night at the resort; our nerves were too shaken to return to the river. A return visit will be needed to finish the run, especially since Officer White told us the final stretch is the prettiest bit of the river.
We owe so much gratitude to the visiting Forest Rangers, Officer White of the Klamath National Forest, and the gang at Thompson Creek Resort. What could have been a terrible weekend turned into a great memory and an exiting story.