Eastside Surprises on California’s East Fork Carson

“Road Closed.” We parked in front of the barriers at the junction of Highways 4 and 89. Below, the East Fork Carson rushed cold and silty away from snowy peaks of the Eastern Sierras. Spotting the put-in near a primitive campsite, we hopped into my truck and bounced down an eroded dirt “road.”

It was early April and the melt had begun. My college buddy Sanch and I had come for a self-support overnight on an infrequently run classic. One of the biggest snow-packs in history was blowing up challenging favorites. But, for our little reunion, we were seeking an early-season warm-up.

After nearly a decade away, I’d reconnected with Sanch. He’d spent the past few years on dry land raising two young kids with his wife. He tossed out far-afield low-volume creeks as consecutive day options, which meant more time clutching steering wheels than paddles. Then I suggested we rethink our approach. The East Fork Carson, with hot spring camping, 19 miles of remote Class II, and additional Class III upstream, was an ideal option to step it down and ease into the upcoming epic season. But its remote location tends to keep it flowing under the horizon of most Nor Cal paddlers.

I spent an hour cramming my Pyranha Fusion full of way too much gear plus just the right amount of beer—or vice versa. Meanwhile, Sanch tossed a few drybags onto his ducky and sat back to watch my efforts. We were starting about 3.5 miles upstream of the classic put-in—as far as the roads allow in early spring. This lent our trip the exciting buzz of an easy expedition on some new water.

Moving my truck back up to the road, the brief apprehension of break-ins that sometimes accompany overnight runs made me pause. Using some leftover gear and canvas tarps, I hastily built the semblance of a sleeping body on the platform inside my camper-shell. I placed my hat at the “head” and considered completing my ruse with a fictional note on the dashboard. Something like: “Hey, Pete. Glad you made it. Jed’s asleep in the back. I wasn’t tired so went up the road for a little target practice. Back soon.” Then I promptly forgot while grabbing my sunscreen.

Soon we were off—zipping into eddies and boat scouting down continuous but forgiving boogie water between occasional Class III rapids. I’d been out of my boat for months and the extra weight made me feel a stroke behind. When Sanch lined up his camera, I called for a boof. Next, I misfired my bow by a good two feet and smacked the rock with my stern. Sadly, a water droplet rendered the ridiculous image un-viewable.

The biggest surprise with the East Fork Carson is the deep volcanic canyons and mountain desert scenery. It feels like a region more belonging to New Mexico or Texas Hill Country than the California-Nevada border. This upper section did not disappoint. The extra miles flew past and we were soon paddling into the cave below the classic put-in at Hangman’s Bridge. The curious name references the nearby site of some vigilante justice allegedly committed in the name of fiscal responsibility.

In 1874, a jealous husband shot a rival at his saloon in Silver Mountain—using a county judge’s forgotten gun. After officials were unable to obtain an unbiased jury, the suspect was transferred to Mono County for trial. But the shooter was kidnapped mid-transit by an armed mob and hung by the neck from the old bridge. The motive of these thrifty vigilantes, supposedly, was to spare the cash-strapped country the costly expense of a jury trial. Historical documents do not offer any specific dollar amount in savings.

Downstream from the bridge, the gradient slackens slightly, but continues to offer up continuous riffles and frequent boulder gardens or C-turn rapids. We played the holes, floated while catching up on years’ worth of news, and stopped for a gravel-bar beer. About eight miles down the classic section, we swept around a sharp bend past a hot-spring tub. In the first campsite was our next surprise. A catarafting couple who were friends with Sanch. Under some pines, they had set-up an appetizer bar that could compete with a farmer’s market. They invited us over, suggested we stay for the night.

Charlie walked us downstream to look at Sidewinder rapid. Not what we expected. High flows during February made major alterations. It was still Class III, but boulders had congested the formerly-preferred left channel into a pair of steep chutes. Meanwhile, erosion had gutted the once-shallow right channel into an abrupt ledge cut into sharp rocks. Charlie reiterated his camping invitation. Given the situation, we selflessly agreed to stay. We’d forgo our dehydrated dinner plans and help our cataraft compatriots reduce their abundant food stores before tomorrow’s descent.

That night, we walked a dirt road for a mile through a shadowy cactus landscape. The main hot spring tumbles down a gully, fills a rock-work tub, and drops over a cliff into the river. Steam rose into the starlit sky as we laughed until well past midnight.

The next morning, we took turns with runs and pics. I dropped the left channel. Having emptied my bow to share all its 12-ounce ballast, I didn’t have my finest line. A bit groggy and well back-on-my-heels, I plunged off the boof and stern squirted through the rapid.

“That actually looked cool,” said Sanch. “Did you mean to do that?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, taking the camera. “I stern squirt all newly formed rapids to probe depth.” I walked off, pretending to be fascinated by a very photogenic Canada goose.

When the cataraft descended, Charlie and Liz received stern notice of the sharpness of the new right channel. A slight grazing of their front tube cut a gash longer than a two-hour delay. They bid us farewell as they went into day-camp for a full repair plus lunch akin to a French bistro.

For us, the East Fork gorge continued to rise, as we crossed from California to Nevada. We played every feature, tried to make the final miles last. We explored an old rock structure that had been supplemented by recent visitors. And we chatted about the glorious college boating days—realizing we’d been a bit over-focused on hard whitewater—rarely giving pleasant surprises like the East Fork Carson a chance. We agreed more multiday trips, regardless of difficulty, should lie ahead.

But first, we spilled from the gorge into Nevada flatlands. At the takeout, Sanch’s minivan had survived the night–in the same lot where several years ago a boater’s vehicle was burned to ashes. On the beach, we met a friendly retired couple recently relocated nearby. They queried about the character and logistics of our run and expressed surprise there was such a classic lapping in sight of their backdoor. They decided to paddle it themselves someday.

Sanch and I drove into the mountains, past the creek-like West Fork, through Markleeville, to the top of the road. My truck was intact–canvas-and-hat “Jed” slept undisturbed in back. A final good sign after another great run.

Photos by Sanch & Bez

Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters for C&K, a paddling series about “stepping down” the intensity and “stepping out” the experience. He also authors Bull on Tap for Bull: Men’s Fiction, a series of satirical reviews of “shitty” beer, which are linked to on his website mikebezemek.com. The guidebook Paddling the Ozarks, for Falcon Guides, is now available.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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