Strange Days: Paddling in Flood and Fire
Riding end-days floods in Boulder and the Southeast, plus the Yosemite fire
By Eugene Buchanan
French soothsayer Nostradamus would have had a heyday this year. After an otherwise ho-hum summer, paddlers across the country were greeted by a rash of freakish, end-of-the-times weather that, in many cases, made survival a higher priority than paddling. But paddlers will be paddlers, and a few got after it anyway.
On September 9 and the seven days that followed, a staggering 21 inches of rain pummeled Boulder County, Colorado. The 1,000-year rain event brought the most severe flooding ever recorded in Central Colorado, stranding thousands and forcing thousands more from their homes. Three-time World Cup K-1 slalom champion Scott Shipley was one of them. He rushed home from the World Championships in Prague (where the racecourse had been devastated by record European floods earlier in the spring) to help his family evacuate their home near the flooding St. Vrain River near Lyons. “I would’ve never guessed this sort of thing could have happened here,” says Shipley, who, after settling his family, hightailed it to a business meeting in Idaho wearing only his kayaking gear and no suit. “I could’ve paddled from my house out of town, but they wouldn’t have let me back in,” Shipley says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Despite warnings from officials to stay out of the water, others, including local kayakers Forrest Noble and Will Grubb, tested the record flows on Boulder Creek, which crested at 5,100 cfs on Sept 12—completely obliterating the previous high-water mark for the day of just 144 cfs. “It was fast and the high water cleared up the usual manky rock,” says Grubb, a former international C-1 and K-1 slalom racer.
Normally dry Arizona didn’t escape Mother Nature’s mood swing either. In July, 7.6 inches of rain hit Flagstaff, just one one-hundredth of an inch shy of the record. By late August, the ground was saturated, causing almost every new drop of precipitation to flow into area rivers. High on paddlers’ lists was nearby Oak Creek. “It never runs from summer rain,” says local kayaker Tyler Williams. “Before this year, I’d paddled it once during September in 15 years. But it was in for four days straight.” Another two-day spike occurred on the seldom-run Agua Fria. The Salt and Verde came up, and the Gila hit over 30,000 cfs in the Arizona Box. Throw in floods in the Grand Canyon this summer—the Little Colorado and Kanab Creek both spiked at 9,000 cfs, and Havasu Creek reportedly reached 20,000 cfs—and you almost have to wonder if that guy babbling on about the end-times might actually be onto something.
In late August, the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park scorched more than 370 square miles, shutting down the last two weeks of the rafting season on the Tuolumne and Cherry Creek. No one was closer to the action at its start than the staff of All-Outdoors, who was hosting an outfitters’ conference on a three-day Tuolumne trip. “By Monday, when we were supposed to put in, the fire had jumped to the put-in at Meral’s Pool and was flying up the canyon on the southern side,” says All-Outdoors’ Scott Armstrong. Instead, knowing that fellow outfitter Sierra Mac was right in its path, Armstrong and others helped evacuate people and gear before the fire came through. “It was cool because all the outfitters banded together to help another outfitter,” says Armstrong, adding that the Tuolumne should recover for the 2014 paddling season.
On May 5, on top of a big rain season already, a deluge brought Tennessee’s Ocoee River up to 10,000 cfs, 8,000 more than the standard release. On hand to run it were Joe Gudger and Jordan Sherman, who had already bagged seldom-run Goforth Creek. “Everything was saturated, primed and ready to go,” Gudger says. “We were blown away when we got there. Water was filling the parking lot and running down the put-in ramp.” While they ran the railing-lined ramp, the scariest part, he says, was the new rapids. “We judged them as best we could, boat-scouting, but you couldn’t guess which rapids would be huge and which would flush out,” he says. “Some we expected to be huge weren’t bad while places we expected to be flat had massive waves. It definitely had some kick behind it,” he said—though not enough to keep them from a second lap.
While heavy rains continued all summer, in July another particularly strong deluge dumped four inches on the Cumberland Plateau, skyrocketing local runs yet again. While creekers had a heyday, so did playboaters like Nick Troutman and Clay Wright, who took advantage of all-time conditions on the Caney Fork. “The barbeque pit at the put-in was sticking up like an island,” says Wright. “The river was twice its normal width. After wading through trees we found a beautiful wave-hole, pulled out our playboats and ripped the best wave I’ve ever surfed in Tennesse