River of Death

On July 28, 1996, I was preparing to leave my office in San Francisco for a promotion in New York. Four of my office mates decided to throw me a going away party in the form of an eighteen mile kayak trip down the Cache Creek in Northern California. Cache Creek is a whitewater river with class II and III rapids. The trip was simple enough consisting of an overnight campout in the box canyon while kayaking down the creek. We would leave my vehicle at the take-out at a commercial access road and would leave another at the put-in.

We met at work in San Francisco on Saturday morning and convoyed in two vehicles. My pickup truck carried the kayaks. We dropped my truck off at the take-out at the Commercial Access Road and exchanged boats and gear into the other vehicle. We met at the put-in at the North Fork off highway 20. We realized we forgot matches, so Brad and I went to a nearby seedy looking biker bar. It was so dark inside it took a couple minutes to let your eyes adjust to it. We got some matches and had a quick beer.

I knew we were in trouble when one of the seasoned kayakers Harry unloaded his Klepper tandem sea kayak. He swore up and down that it was adequate for whitewater kayaking. I was doubtful when I looked at the seventeen foot fiberglass tandem kayak made for the ocean. Harry immediately started overloading the kayak with three kayakers and supplies. The boat could barely float it was so overloaded. It reminded me of the nursery rhyme, Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub. The kayak bow deck was strapped down with a cooler, backpacks, and an army duffle bag.

I said, “Harry, your boat is a tandem boat designed for two and can’t safely carry a third boater.”

He said, “I knew that.”

I assisted Harry with repacking the gear strapped down on the front bow of his boat. The guys drew straws to see who would stay. Pat volunteered John to stay. John was more than happy to skip the kayak down the creek and become our transport driver. John headed out to camp at the Yolo County Park along the creek a mile past the takeout. He would meet us and transport us back to the put-in spot where our vehicles were parked. We got a late 3pm start. Pat and I were in single kayaks with Harry and Brad in the tandem. I had some misgivings about leaving so late on the river.

Within the first fifteen minutes Harry and Brad were out of their boat and into the water. They flipped their kayak on the very first class two rapid. Harry did not seem able to steer his boat properly, so every rapid took them out as the boat would enter the rapid sideways ensuring a capsize situation. Every time they flipped it resulted in an underwater exit because with the two paddlers in the water. Pat got tossed out at Big Rock and lost his paddle. I tried to assist Pat, but that caused me to go down the Big Rock Rapid backwards. I flipped by boat, but was able to recover. Big Rock wiped out Brad and Harry in the tandem kayak. They wrapped and bent the fiberglass behemoth kayak around the Big Rock that the rapid is named for. The unnatural bending of the fiberglass boat into a u-shape pretzel caused a hole in the fuselage.

Pat cursed and shook his arms towards the sky yelling, “This is a river of death.”

Brad and Harry just said they’d had enough and wanted to hike out and abandon the boat and gear. I told the guys that I would kayak down to John’s location at the campground and bring back help. I kayaked for another hour before it got dark and I got taken out by a low lying tree, a “strainer.” It was scary getting sucked out of my boat and holding onto the partially submerged tree for dear life. All my camping gear was sucked out of the boat and into the darkness. I recovered my boat and paddle and rested on the shore. I decided to hike out of the box canyon.

I got out of the creek and left my kayak on the shore of Wilson Valley and hiked up Round Mountain. I climbed eighteen hundred feet through nine foot high scrub brush which cut my arms and legs. I hiked for several hours in pitch darkness without a flashlight. I hiked to the top of the mountain which just showed more mountains, so I returned to creek. I must have hiked three or four miles. I took at least one good fall on my knees climbing the sharp pitched rock scree piles. The scree was sharp and unforgiving as it dug into my right knee.

I returned to my kayak and made camp. I used my kayak as a windbreak and blew up the two air mattresses that did not get sucked out of the boat. I used one air mattress as a blanket and one as a bed and went to sleep. It got cold about 2am and woke me up. I stuffed my personal floatation device with dried grass for insulation per my survival training. I got several hours of fitful sleep. I lost my canteen, so I was dehydrated. I thought of making a lean-to, but I was too tired. I lost my survival bag with water treatment tablets, matches, and a knife. I thought if I had the survival bag I would have a nice fire. I treated my cuts and scrapes with the creek water.           

I woke up at 6am to a short rain shower. I packed up and started kayaking. I kayaked until 10am when I spotted a dirt road commercial river guides use. I stopped and saw Pat paddle by before he spotted me and stopped.

Pat said, “Harry’s boat was shot so he and Brad decided to hike out.”

Pat and I kayaked another ten miles to the take-out. John was waiting for us at the county campground. It was great to see him. He said we looked rough. John fed and watered us. I was dehydrated and hungry. I had not eaten since breakfast the day before. Pat was a little crabby. So we loaded up and waiting at the commercial access road for Harry and Brad. We waited for several hours with no luck. So, we went into town for cold drinks and to check on my truck. The truck was gone. Harry knew where the spare key was.  He had not tried to beep us on his pager that he left with us.

I called home from a pay phone and my wife said Harry telephoned to say my truck broke down in Fairfield. Harry and Brad hiked out, found my truck, and left. The truck overheated from a busted radiator hose, so they had it towed to a service station and caught a cab back to the city. I tracked down my truck and drove it back to the city and got the radiator hose replaced. I thought about kayaking down the creek and salvaging Harry’s kayak, but never did.