Braving the Truckee River rapids
Another Steve Kyle Adventure
STEVE KYLE and his pontoon boat, Mr. Sky.
(Bill's note: Steve Kyle is my friend, fishing buddy and frequent correspondent. He also spends more time fishing that anybody I know. Recently, he made his second descent of the Truckee River on his pontoon boat, "Mr. Sky." Here is his account of that adventure.)
I have fished the Truckee River since I was a kid. Over 40+ years of stomping around with most of my efforts focused on fishing the river that runs between Tahoe City to just a few miles east of the town of Truckee. It wasn't until Holly and I bought a small vacation cabin in the area that I began exploring other parts of the river found in the deep canyons below town where it runs towards the Nevada state line. It's in this section that the river begins its raucous way down the steep eastern side of the Sierras, alternating between a gently flowing watercourse to turbulent white water passages compressed between narrow canyon walls that offer up Class 5 rapids that can make you wish you'd brought a change of underwear.
Not knowing any of this until I started poking around in the canyons, I soon found out that trying to hike into this portion of the Truckee River was not an easy task. More than a few of my early solo explorations ended with me returning home with torn waders caused by crazy, semi controlled free-falls down the steep scree fields that flank the river, broken rods, lost gear, dodging numerous 100 car freight trains or soaking wet from slipping on one of the gazillion snot-like slippery boulders that range in size from bowling balls to VW's. After one of these soakings, I had to drive back to the house completely naked as everything I had was soaked. It wasn't until driving by a school play yard and saw a county sheriff's car drive by going in the opposite direction that I realized I could be in some deep dodo if I got pulled over. Anyway, it didn't take long to figure out that wading from hole to hole on this part of the river was a real ass buster and if I wanted to hook any of the big fish that were said to hang out in these waters, I had to find a better way to access this section of river or I would never see my 69th birthday.
Enter "Mr. Sky", my favorite new toy. Named after my really good fishing buddy, Schuyler Parsons, who recently passed away, Mr. Sky is a manly sized 9' long pontoon boat that the manufacturer boast of being "capable of taking Class 3 rapids without a care and giving you access to those hidden pools that are loaded with trout." "Cool," I said, "I'm all in."
Last month, Carrie Roche and Art Hau grabbed a pair of pontoon boats from behind Leland Ranch and joined me to float and fish these unexplored canyons of the lower Truckee River. Doing a little pre-float research, I found out about the rapids that needed careful attention with one being a "big mutha" (aka - BM) Class 5 that I was told to avoid at all costs. Without a clear idea of just where the "BM" was located but assured by a local rafter that our boats would be "just fine" for everything except the BM, we drove to the put-in spot and, without a care in the world, were shortly rowing our way merrily down the river humming little ditties like, "here a fish, there a fish, everywhere a fish fish" and "row, row, row your boat gently down the stream."
Things were looking good for the first quarter mile or so but it wasn't long before my inexperience as an oarsman and complete ignorance of how to pick a line through rock garden rapids found me sliding stern down and sideways into a large boulder where in a blink of an eye, the lower oar popped out of the lock, tons of upstream water pressure began pushing the leeward pontoon under the rock and the upstream pontoon was completely out of the water and pointing skyward. Yikes! Art and Carrie, who were about 40 yards behind, immediately pulled themselves towards the river bank to watch how this mishap was to play out. Why Mr. Sky didn't flip over and toss me and all of my gear into the water is still a mystery, but the gods were smiling at me that day and I was soon below the rock garden and rowing like crazy to shore. "Holy smokes, that was a wild ride!" I thought to myself and then realized that I had left my life jacket in the back of my car. In fact, all of us had left our life jackets in the car which is really, really dumb since we were all wearing chest high waders which, if you fall in and under, have the bad habit of filling up with water and dragging you down to the bottom. Not good.
After some regrouping and a few self-depreciating remarks about my helmsmanship of Mr. Sky, we relaunched and cautiously headed downstream, paying less attention to the fishing now but more focusing on trying to keep ourselves in our boats as we negotiated our way through the next set of rapids. After a few successful mild whitewater runs, we were again masters of the universe, filled with the Zen-like peace one gets when gliding down a beautiful freestone river, fully absorbed into the drop-dead gorgeous mountain scenery and being confident that we had it "all under control."
A couple of miles down stream, I stopped to fish a particularly juicy piece of water while Art and Carrie rowed off downstream and around the next bend to look for some juicy water of their own. Having no grabs, I jumped back into Mr. Sky to follow them around the bend and it was then that I noticed the noise....noise that could easily be confused for a 747 jumbo jet taking off. Knowing the odds on finding an international airport on the Truckee River were remote, I nudged Mr. Sky around the bend to see what was up, only to see Art and Carrie yelling and waving like crazy for me to row over and join them on the opposite bank, all the while pointing at what now looked like the "big mutha." What we were now looking at was a roaring maelstrom with huge submerged boulders buried under tons of whitewater coursing over, under and through a confusion of back eddies and whirlpool like confusion that dropped 20' into another set of rapids which were waiting just a hundred yards below. It was dangerous and scary as hell and the chances of all three of us successfully floating through without life jackets or mishap, were zero and none.
"What to do, what to do?" we asked ourselves. There was no easy escape. We obviously couldn't row back up stream, the steep cliff and scree field directly behind us made pulling the boats up and out possible only if we had winches or sherpas or both to help which left the last resort...hauling all of our gear and each boat down a side channel choked with brambles and high willows and then over a small mountain of boulders that eventually led us down to a calm back eddy created by a house sized boulder that was midway in the river. So off we went, two guys and one boat at a time -- pulling, grunting, sweating and cursing our way up, over and down to the lower water while Carrie hauled oars, rods and all the other gear we had on board. It took for ever, or so it seemed but we did it. The next question was what to do next? Do we haul all of this stuff another hundred yards down stream over the same kind of terrain to clear the next set of rapids or chance going over them without really knowing what was on the other side of this next obstacle? It was clear that if we decided to put the boats back in the water, the heavy current would make it impossible to do anything but float through the next rapids since there would be no way to pull out of the current.
After all of this hauling of boats and gear, we were wiped out and the thought of portaging this same gear 100 yards down river was just plain depressing. Being the only living brain donor in the group, it was decided that I would go first and if successful, give the OK sign and they would follow. With my testicles, toes, fingers and eyes crossed, I eased Mr. Sky into the current and ZAP!, I was gone like a shot....flying down river, shore line pine trees going by like highway fence posts and headed towards what looked like the largest infinity pool in the world. All I saw was lots of whitewater in front and nothing behind but with no time to ponder any of this and my eyes getting bigger by the second, I went over the edge and strait down, burying the pointy ends of the pontoons into and under a 4' wall of water that was directly below and in front of me. "HOLY -----!" I yelled just as the boat popped out of the back side and went gently floating around a bend. That was my time to look for a change of underwear.
Art and Carrie had do idea if I made it out safely until I had floated far enough down river for them to even see me but just before I disappeared around the next bend, I waved the OK signal for them to follow. It didn't take long for their huge screams to tell me that they had just gone over the edge and in a few short minutes they too drifted safely around the bend and joined me. We were safe.
Happy but exhausted and with occasional back and forth testimonials of " did you see how big that blah, blah blah was," we rowed these three sturdy little boats towards our cars with few bites and no fish to report but a lot smarter at the end of this day than we were when we started.