The Benny Hill theme tune blared in my head as I frantically threw things into my Palm Mega Holdall, cramming the extra bits and bobs into my paddle bag and scrambling for the airport. Dane had called to say that a cold snap had brought the legendary Royal Gorge into prime flows. He said he was dropping in that next day and it was probably going to be a short window but there was a chance to get it if I moved fast.
I slept in the airport and spent thirty minutes complimenting the check-in staff but still had to pay the overweight luggage fee. My bank balance breathed a sigh of relief that they didn’t notice my foot propping up my bag or my extra hand luggage. Got off the plane, got on the subway through neighbourhoods in the Bay Area that made Warrington look like an oasis, got on a greyhound bus and met up with Dane in Sacremento.
Got a quick warmup lap on the lovely Golden Gate section and then that was it, we where buying snacks in the supermarket and preparing for a huge day ahead. Dane was concerned the level was going to drop overnight and so we committed to a one day smash and grab down forty-five miles of river with some big waterfalls along the way.
Jet lag for once was on my side and I woke up an hour ahead of schedule at five am, stretched, visualised and drank a bucket of coffee with Dane when he woke up. Trevor Tahnhoff dropped us off at the top of the river, going over the hike out routes for us if things didn’t go to plan. I listened politely but I had no intention of letting things not go perfectly, it had been too long and too many years dreaming of this piece of river. I couldn’t wait to kayak down all of it!
The river starts as a tight creek with lots of tight boogie and a couple of quick rock pile portages before the gorge really begins at the beautiful Heath One waterfall. As the smallest waterfall of the run it is still a forty foot turning line in front of a rock wall, but pretty friendly. I took a surprising hit in the landing and was frustrated at taking an impact this early in the day but brushed it off quickly because Heath Two lies just down stream.
Dane had already told me a story of his trip a few days earlier where a kayaker from another group had become stuck in the cave on river left. It sounded like a rubbish experience with a lot of time for the kayaker in the cave, concern, confusion, a snapped rope during the rescue and a hike out of the gorge to Trevor’s house. Pretty sobering stuff to think about before dropping in, but I was confident I could avoid it. I took the classic right line and landed vertical and tucked, as I was resurfacing and rolling I felt my nose swing left vaguely in the direction of the cave. I immediately switched to a back stroke mid roll to turn and pull myself away from the wall and it worked! I think a lot of people underestimate what a good base freestyle gives you for sending waterfalls and hard rapids … the ability to orientate yourself at all times and have a bulletproof roll are strong skills to have for any type of kayaking.
Some tight rapids and turns and a portage around the Joker brought us to the lip of Rattlesnake a beautiful fifty foot waterfall. Not much to say about this one, simple, beautiful, peaceful free falling into a big pool.
The landscape changed dramatically from the smooth beautiful rocks around Rattlesnake to rough jagged formations as we came around the corner to Scott’s Drop. This is a big, gnarly, complex double drop that Scott Lindgren took the first descent of in 1996. That descent was so very far ahead of it’s time and this waterfall remains a pinnacle of the sport. The new school line of leaning away from the curler demands the confidence to let the kayak settle and hold the edge and angle off the waterfall. Otherwise you will probably invert onto your opposite edge as you land. The ability to land well and quickly hit the line on the second part of the drop is also essential. To put a piece of river like this together is pretty special.
I really thought I would be more nervous for this waterfall but I wasn’t. I was just so happy to finally be above this thing in my kayak, I couldn’t do anything but smile and wait for Dane’s drone to come flying up, which was the signal that I could go. Kayaking a waterfall like this it’s all about trusting yourself and your experience and not over thinking it. The brain has to react so quickly, you don’t want to waste any time with consciously thinking about what to do, you just need to do it. That can happen with various tasks but I find when your skill level matches the right level of challenge your able to slip into a state of focus where time stands still and the answers come to you almost at the same time as the challenge presents itself. Even though you’re not necessarily aware of either. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named that that the ‘flow state’. I will at some point write about that mind state and kayaking but for now I will tell you that I hit what was close to my dream line of Scott’s Drop. I just didn’t take into account that you don’t necessarily feel things in your dreams. I knew it would be a big impact because I wanted to fly off the lip and to pancake the landing. I don’t do this sort of line often these days, in the interest of kayaking forever, but the fourteen-year-old Bren envisaged doing that and I had to send it. If you’re not living your adult life in a way to satisfy your inner child what are you doing with yourself?
The Royal Flush is an impressive feat. To kayak all five of the big waterfalls in the Royal Gorge requires a certain type of person, skill and tenacity. The fifth waterfall was just downstream a big reconnecting eighty-footer called Wabina. I learned so much about dealing with reconnects from the Demshitz crew when I was young and have hit my fair share of them in seasons past that I feel weirdly confident. Dane gave me some advice based off lines he had done and seen and I actually ended up going against my initial thought of what line to take. I normally never go against that first line that speaks to me but I trust Dane absolutely and I took his advice and drove hard left. I skimmed over the reconnect, disconnected and tucked up, thankfully not taking a hit and resurfacing upright and that was it. A Royal Flush.
When I was younger that was something I wanted so badly, but being older I can honestly say achieving a Royal Flush didn’t mean much to me. I just found all of the waterfalls beautiful, had the confidence and backing from one of my best friends and it all came together for a beautiful day on the water.
The paddle out is incredible, thirty-five miles from the bottom of the last big waterfall comes an endless series of class three moves (and some flat water). Anyone that doesn’t appreciate that paddle out has never done a hot, miserable hike-out with a heavy kayak or is just plain ungrateful (or never grew up kayaking in England). Though I do have to say at one point I thought we must surely have been finished and Dane told me there was still over an hour to go … I hoped he was wrong, that we had missed the takeout and would soon find ourselves kayaking into the ocean where I could take a nap on the beach. Eleven hours and forty-five miles after starting our descent we reached the bridge and Dane’s truck and called it a day.
All the thanks in the world to Dane for the lap. Dane selflessly set safety, filmed and supported me for that descent. Which is what being friends and kayaking is all about. Having each others backs, navigating your way down the Earth’s veins and supporting each other in the pursuit of your dreams. Looking forward to repaying the favour with helping him out with a sick day on the water!
Also a big thanks to Trevor Tahnhoff and Issac Hull for helping with the shuttle!
Hope everyone reading this gets some great days out on the water with their friends this summer! Bren
All photos by Dane Jackson, asides from my selfies.