The Cali Burn Fest
Three C&K staffers come back burnt
Words: Joe Carberry
Photography: Robert Zaleski & Brandon Gonski
Somewhere among the empty Gatorade bottles, bad man jokes and the hum of the open freeway, you realize it’s less about where you’re going than who you’re going there with. That revelation strikes me the third time Canoe and Kayak Art Director Robert Zeleski and I try to save the world in conversation. We’re so focused on the subject–and trying to keep our eyes open–that we don’t notice the dark highway wrap around the mountain outside of Redding, Calif., the Subaru screaming around the corner loaded with four kayaks and every other piece of camping gear imaginable.
“Sorry, where were we?” Robert asks casually after unwinding the wheel. Our intern, Brandon Gonski, passed out in the back, doesn’t budge.
It takes easy conversation to make it 11 hours, 53 minutes and 12 seconds on the open road. We decided sometime the week before, in the middle of shipping another magazine to print, that it’d be a good idea to drive the 600-odd miles from San Clemente–between L.A. and San Diego–to the Cali Burn Festival on the Trinity River’s Burnt Ranch Gorge. We bust out of the office on a Thursday afternoon, and after suffering through a blustery night’s sleep somewhere off the highway in the Trinity National Forest (where we’re jostled awake for good by a Forest Service work crew cleaning up an old burn) we end up in Arcata on Friday morning, gateway to the Pacific Northwest and only 110 miles south of Oregon.
The Cali Burn Festival consists of a surf contest in Westhaven on Friday and a river race Saturday in the gorge. Calling it a festival is stretching it. More like a gathering of like-minded homies looking to rip it up before winter sets in. Just our style. We geared up and paddled out into the Pacific, the wind whipping off the lips of the waves with gale force. But the surf was primo, the expression session going off like beads at Mardi Gras.
Boise, Idaho’s Will Parham shredded, throwing pan ams, back stabs and the occasional airscrew.
“We’re just out here to have a good time,” organizer Paul Gamache told me before our epic drive. “We may not even name winners.” We will. Parham goes big. So did the party. If there’s one thing a bunch of college students, dirtbag boaters and dreadlocked hippies can do, it’s throw a shindig. Gamache rounded up enough beer to keep everyone happy the entire weekend. And hungover.
Race day at the Burnt Ranch put-in looked something like the day after a wedding, when everyone has finished their respective “walks of shame,” cleared their eyes and found a way to move forward. We collected our bibs and walked down to the put-in. Gonski and I are running the river for the first time and discussing “stragedy.” “Just follow whoever’s in front of you and make your move at the end,” I advise…
Zaleski would meet us at Rapid Number Two to shoot photos. The Burnt Ranch Gorge is a classic. Even at 450 cfs, the rapids are clean and poofy, like skiing a good powder run, and the racecourse is ideal with Class III-IV, finishing off with the Class IV+ Number Two, a ten-foot drop into a bubbling cauldron followed by a nice, flat swimming hole. The Gorge’s premiere rapids are tagged in numerals. Number Three, about 200 yards downstream from the finish line, is the run’s only Class V drop at that level.
A longhaired safety boater lights a round of firecrackers and the race is on. Fifteen boaters grapple for position through a shallow rapid at the start. We split into two groups, Gonski in the front pack, me in the second. Pumping hard, I stride up behind one competitor, a Russian, surf his wake and glide by. I do this three more times before another boater goes over a drop backwards, gets stuck in a hole and then barrel rolls over me as I punch through. At this point, we’re right above the finish line. I yield so the guy who just emerged from the beat-down can show me the line. That’s what I call strategy.
Meanwhile, Gonski has battled his way though most of the first pack but is beaten by Charlie Center, Rush Sturges and Alex Wolfgram. After the race all the competitors gather at the finish to watch more boaters come through, the long-haired safety kayaker gets worked in the hole and the entire crowd rushes to the banks, yelling in anticipation of a swim like a bunch of dudes at a bachelor party about to watch their bro get a lap dance. The chundering continues but he holds on to get roped out, still in his boat. Someone runs the hole upside down, swimming into the pool on the other side.
This is what I love about boating: The competition is fun but it’s an afterthought. It’s running drops blind, spending the day in a deep gorge and laughing at a good spankin’ with friends while lounging on a warm slab of granite.
I definitely couldn’t get caught up in my placing. I finished somewhere between seven and 11. The intern would work me later in a keg stand contest too, lasting longer in the vertical position and sucking more beer than I could. Humbling? Yes, but the kid deserved a moral boost after slaving away in our offices the past month. My ego was a good sacrifice.
The party is hosted at a backwoods cabin, where everyone camps and makes rowdy after the day. Gamache organized the event in benefit of the Sun Catchers Project, a non-profit run by Rita Riewerts that builds solar ovens for impoverished villages in developing countries.
Passion like this is everywhere. There’s Huckinhuge.com’s Cody Howard, who has stuck so much gnar lately—including the Stikine—that his new movie, The Risen Sun, is one of the most anticipated releases this year. Unfortunately, he’s being shipped back to Iraq on Wednesday, having been recalled into military service. “I don’t know if I’ll get the movie out,” he says. “It’s tough because we were on such a great roll.”
There’s talk of a Colombia expedition from Tyler Bradt; Sturges is wondering if there’s any place left for the whitewater filmmaker; and Center won’t get out of my ear about how he wants more whitewater coverage in Canoe and Kayak.
We drag out of camp early Sunday morning, Gonski and I bombing Burnt Ranch one more glorious time as Zaleski grabs breakfast. Eleven and a half hard road hours later we’re back in San Clemente. The intern and the art director are passed out. I’m trying to figure out where my wallet is and if I stuffed all my boating gear in during the mayhem. Yes, it has been a good trip.
To donate to Sun Catchers
1. Charlie Center
2. Rush Sturges +:15
3. Alex Wolfgram +:25
4. Brandon Gonski +:27
5. Will Parham
6. Ben Wartburg
7. Ian McClaren
8. Orion Merrideth +:51
9. Joe Carberry
10. Seth Naman
11. Diane Gaydos
12. Peter Malkin
13. Mike Lee
14. Davey O’Hare
15. Megan Harpham +2:01
Thanks to Canoe &Kayak magazine, CKS, Kokatat, Farmer John Garden Supply, Etna Brewing Company and American Whitewater.