February 3, 2016
I saw that the gages were all going mad overnight between the thaw and the rain, so before I got out of bed I texted Scott to see what was up.
Hey, it’s James, do we know if Beaver Meadow is in?
I’m sure it’s running but I couldn’t find anyone to paddle it with so I’m doing Chautauqua instead. I hope to hit it around 3 pm. Have you ran it before? It’s running V high not a good idea for first time.
Around 3 I got this disheartening text
We’re just hitting cat up at three now.
The Cattaraugus is a great local class 2+/3- at ordinary levels that bumps up to 3+/4- at high water. It was at high water, but it had been up plenty in the past few weeks and I just wasn’t feeling it enough to take the day off from work for it, as strange as it felt to skip a six-foot day.
At 3:45 my phone rang. It was Jonathan Ortiz, a phenomenal semi-pro paddler from Rochester, about an hour away and about the same distance from Beaver Meadow Creek. “What up homie? I’m thinking of hitting Beaver Meadow. You down?”
I knew that it would take about an hour to load up my boat and drive to the takeout. From there, we could maybe stage shuttle and get to the river in as little as 15 minutes or so, for a 5:00 launch time. I reminded him that while I felt ready for the river, Scott had backed down from taking me down it for fear that the level was too high. “Do you feel comfortable enough taking me down for my first time, while chasing daylight?” He didn’t see a problem so we agreed to meet at the river.
I arrived at the takeout first, right on time at 20 to 5. The waterfall was visibly running with plenty of water and I didn’t see any exposed rock above or below it. To be clear, when I say “the waterfall” I’m not implying that there’s any shortage of waterfalls on this creek, but there’s only one two-tiered drop visible from the street. Jonathan was nowhere to be seen, but as I was scouting, the third paddler, Parker Czerniak, pulled up. Time was ticking. I called Ortiz and he said he was 5 minutes out. 4:50, still no sign of him. It was 5:00 when he arrived at the takeout, and I was the only one dressed. I strapped all three boats to the roof of my car while the other two got dressed, and when the last drysuit was zipped we piled in and bolted to the start. It was 5:15 when we began the hike, and in a few minutes we were at the traditional put-in site where we discovered a downed tree creating a riverwide strainer. Hiking down a bit from that we saw two more, putting on after the second strainer and boofing a partly submerged portion of the third. We came to the first big drop and got out to scout, to discover the top blocked by another riverwide strainer. We debated for a while over whether the second tier of the ledge could be run before ultimately all deciding to hike it and seal launch downstream.
Beaver Meadow Creek is a low-volume steep creek. There’s a decent number of waterfalls, by which I mean sheer vertical drops with a curtain, four or more feet. The main attraction is Angel Falls, a four-tier drop totaling around 30 feet. When we approached the lip of the first drop, a mandatory scout, darkness was already presenting a visibility issue, both for the paddlers and for our GoPro cameras. The status lights of the cameras, which are of constant brightness day or night, served as a reference point as our eyes adjusted to the darkness; the brighter the red blinking lights, the darker we knew that it was, and it was only a matter of time before our eyes could no longer keep up. At this point, the lights were starting to look bright.
Ortiz ran first, letting me watch (and film) to get the line. The top tier is a 12 foot boof onto a shallow ledge at river left, or a six foot boof onto an even shallower ledge followed by a second six-foot tier on the right. We all chose the right line, because as awesome as the left looked, the shallow ledge meant near certain damage to boat and back. Besides, the final drop is another 10+ footer into a bit of a pool. So right line it is.
I hit hard at the first tier, and harder at the second. I am not sure, looking back, whether one of these was the drop that cracked my boat, but I hit almost vertically a few times and the hits were hard. Reviewing the GoPro footage, though, my lines were clean so I’m not entirely sure where the boat cracked. After Angel there is some class 2 boogie water, a few slide drops, and a 10 foot or so pool drop waterfall into the eddy above Mosh Pit.
Mosh Pit is one of those rapids that makes the whole thing worthwhile. I imagine that it’s a breathtaking sight to come around the corner and see the series of ledge drops and reaction waves lined up – but I’m limited to imagination as I haven’t actually seen the run. As we prepared for this rapid, the last of the daylight faded away and we were running in full darkness. And to add to the blindness, only Ortiz got out to scout – to check for downed trees, which weren’t in the way, as far as could be seen anyway. I asked him for the line. “Stay left in the current.” I wasn’t sure whether that meant “stay at the left edge of the main channel” or “stay river left where the main current is.” I shouted back, “I’ll follow you.”
That’s when I discovered the extent of water in my boat. I had felt a bit of sloshing at this point, and even in my drysuit my legs felt a bit wet. But I wasn’t sure of the extent of it until I felt the boat’s hesitation to ferry. Getting into the flow meant ferrying upstream just a bit down from the curtains of the previous waterfall, a hole I didn’t want to get too close to. Put simply, my boat wasn’t behaving properly. The ferry was sluggish and when it came time that I had to turn I wasn’t far enough toward river left, and then the turn itself went slow. I wasn’t in full control. I entered the rapid too far right but there was nothing to be done. I let the current drag me through, reaction wave after reaction wave. I did my best to stay upright and to push forward to blast through the few big holes that came in the middle. One knocked a contact lens off center, taking away what little vision I had. A few blinks later I was back to dim visibility, using the flashing red light on Jonathan’s GoPro as my lighthouse. Just head toward that light, generally, and I should be okay. Only my boat was losing speed, and maybe sinking a little. Parker passed me as I kept slowing down in the holes while he was sensibly maintaining speed. After the second bend in the river, they were gone.
I caught up briefly in the mild doldrum between Mosh Pit and the waterfalls in town, the finale. I was within shouting distance of the others, and shouted out that my boat was filling with water. “Do you want to stop and empty it?” No way, I said, observing that at this point the banks were too steep to climb out, and worrying that if I got out I might not be able to get back in. At some point my hand came out of a pogie and wouldn’t go back in, so I had cold to contend with. Light came back into the world as we entered the town of Java, where the river winds behind a few houses and businesses before plunging under a bridge for the final pitch-dark stretch to the takeout. A small ledge drop snuck up on me ahead of where I’d been warned to stay left for the first big drop, then center for the second… I strayed a bit too far left and slammed into a rock wall, with the inertia of not just myself and my boat but an extra hundred or two pounds of water creating a free surface effect inside. The boat crashed against the wall pinning the paddle between the two, and my left hand didn’t quite back off fast enough to avoid the impact. It felt like a bone may have shattered, but again there was nothing to do besides loosen my grip and stay with it. Every move took twice the effort, I hit bottom in every shallow spot, and every ferry was in slow motion as once again I lost sight of the others. Stay left at the first big drop… is this big? No that was just three feet, couldn’t have been it. Here it is, a big boulder that I can plainly see I want to be left of. Boof, turn, ferry. I may have made the center, but I may have been a bit left of where I should be. Boofing is hopeless when your boat weighs more than you. I hit the bottom of the last waterfall hard, again in sudden darkness passing under the bridge. But that was the end of the meat.
I paddled through a quarter mile of flat water, nearly missing the slow downstream turn to the takeout as the creek bed widened and the current slowed to nothing. I was exhausted from ferrying my heavily loaded boat and my left hand was swelling and inflamed with pain. I couldn’t see it to determine whether it was red or purple, but I knew I’d rather avoid using it. I hopped out of my boat and rolled sideways into the shallow bank. Standing up in the waist-high freezing water felt strangely satisfying. I tried to lift my boat to slide onto the bank without luck; I had to roll it sideways to start dumping water before I could even lift an end on to the bank. It was as flooded as if I’d taken a swim, even though I miraculously hadn’t. I popped open the drain plug and watched the boat happily relieve itself as I dragged it slowly up the hill, daintily carrying my paddle in the curled fingers of my swelling left hand while dragging the gradually lightening boat up the hill with my right. By the time I got to the road Parker had his headlights on, in which I could examine the damage. The base of my thumb was swollen to half again its usual size, but it was red, not black or blue, a welcome sign that there was probably no fracture. The boat, on the other hand, was most definitely fractured, but not nearly as bad as I feared; near the centerline by the foot block I found a 6 inch split, which we deemed weldable. This was the first time I had this boat out on big water and I fear it may not get another chance.
And that was the run. Beaver Meadow Creek, the elusive local legend, after dark, half swamped and half blind.
It doesn’t get any better than this.