By Joe Jackson
Over 400 whitewater boaters crawled out of remote creeks, deep canyons, and office spaces to converge on an abandoned Forest Service campsite, Sept. 23-25, in the California’s High Sierra to celebrate—heartily—the American Whitewater-negotiated release of the North Fork of the Feather River. The Chico Paddleheads club organized the 21st annual Feather River Festival and donated all proceeds to American Whitewater as a thank you for the release. While the festival has organically grown from a small informal gathering of boaters to the largest whitewater event on the West Coast (going by numbers of actual paddlers), the feel has not shifted. Aside from food and beer, the event remains free and the focus remains on the celebration of whitewater.
One easy answer for the event’s growth is its location. The epicenter of the event was an abandoned schoolhouse about an hour outside of Chico, Calif., that rested next to a campsite that the Forest Service gave up on after a flood.
“The great thing about an abandoned campsite is that we weren’t bound to the rules of two persons per campsite,” said Roland McNutt, event co-organizer, overall slalom winner, and founder of the Chico Paddleheads. “Forest Service does come check it out. They are always happy with the stewardship.”
The site is centrally located to stretches of the Feather River that appeal to boaters from all ends of the ability spectrum. The riverside campground is also the takeout for the family-friendly Class II-III stretch, and serves as the put-in for the three-mile, stacked-up Class V Tobin run. (The takeout for Tobin is the put-in for the Class IV Lowbin run.)
The slalom race and informal Tobin downriver race drew current whitewater gods as well as living legends. Reno’s boating “Godfather,” Charlie Albright, took the ‘glass boat division of the slalom race on Saturday morning. The 59-year-old celebrated in the evening by donning a Santa Claus outfit asking fellow revelers if they had been naughty or nice. If the answer was nice, Albright gave the partier a mint; if the answer was naughty, a huge hug. “I always make it out to this event,” said Albright while putting in for the Lowbin run on Sunday morning. “I will still say this is my favorite drainage.”
Liquidlogic and Kokatat rep Taylor Roberston won the challenging Stand Up Paddleboard division of the slalom race, then took the overall best time of the 36 boaters who participated in the Class V Tobin downriver race. After getting back to the campsite, the Chico local quickly re-strung his Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster and played a three-and-a-half-hour set with his band as the main entertainment for the evening. “It was a lot of work, but it’s absolutely worth it,” said Roberston, 33. “This [event] is really one-of-a-kind and creates a sense of community.”
This feeling of community certainly made the event special—as did the keen reminder that there is still high-quality whitewater boating to be had regardless of season. Much of this is thanks to releases specifically negotiated by AW.
Don’t be dismayed if you missed this release, though, there will be one more North Fork Feather release the third week in October. There will be releases on the waterfall-riddled Classic IV-V South Fork Feather—outside of Oroville, Calif.—starting Oct. 3 and running all the way to Oct. 28. Just outside of Redding, Calif., is the Pit River, which offers everything from playful Class II to a clean 25-footer. The Pit will have releases on the first and third weekends of October. Get on it if you can, because things really die in November.
There’s still a solid month in the Sierra to be had, so don’t hang up those sprayskirts yet. Visit AW’s scheduled release page to stay up on the awesome boating opportunities this fall in the Sierras as well as back east.