Bald Rock Canyon on California’s Middle Fork of the Feather had always been on Gavin Rieser’s list. In March of 2015 when he couldn’t find anyone to paddle it with him, he embarked on a solo mission that turned out to be life changing. We sat down with Gavin to talk about it.
C&K:Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where and how did you get into kayaking, and how long have you been paddling?
Gavin Rieser: When people ask me how long I've been paddling, I usually tell them, "I took my first whitewater trip at the age of two." Both of my parents worked as whitewater guides for ARTA in the 1970s. They started RCWC (River City Whitewater Club) as a nonprofit whitewater club in the 80s. When my mom got pregnant with me, she continued boating for a while and my dad semi-joked about suspending a cradle inside a generator box to bring me along on his Class IV adventures. Naturally, they introduced me to rivers at an early age.
Eventually, my folks settled in Sacramento, where they raised me and my younger sister. I think my first time in a kayak was sitting on my dad's spray skirt of his old holoform kayak with my hands on the middle of the paddle as we cruised around some eddies of the lower American River in Sacramento. I rowed (a raft) down my first Class II at age 6 on the Middle Fork Salmon (Idaho) and learned to roll a kayak at age 7, but didn't get out frequently enough to advance significantly. Early on, I found myself fascinated any time I was near water, even if it was just a small creek or gutter. One of my biggest passions growing up was throwing various floating items into turbulent water — mini waterfalls were a favorite — and watching said item make its way downstream.
Growing up in the city, though, without a lot of excess income, made it difficult to get out to rivers often. Even still, my parents managed to take our family on many river adventures (often multi-day trips when we could) where I was able to get some occasional time in IKs (inflatable kayaks). It wasn't until about 9 years ago at the age of 20 or so that I got more serious with my boating, and I've been going at it ever since (or as much as I could between school and work). Currently I am back in Sacramento after earning a BS in molecular biology. Luckily, I'm now old enough to drive so I can get away to the plentiful kayaking destinations in the near vicinity!
In the video you mentioned that while paddling Bald Rock Canyon you felt it would turn out to be one of the best days of your life. In retrospect, was it and if so, what were some of the reasons?
It absolutely was. I would say even more so than my solo trip down Upper Cherry Creek later that spring. It's hard to even put it to words… The best I can say is that, after watching perfect flows on this run for a couple months each year for several years in a row and not finding a crew to paddle it with, I was beyond excited to be down there and experiencing it. It was also very liberating to be doing this run, and to be doing it by myself. I'd done a few solo trips before, but they'd been on easier runs that I'd already paddled many times and was quite confident on. Doing a new run with difficult whitewater in a remote canyon by myself… It was scary as hell when I started, but it was also personally empowering. I'd dreamt of this run for years and I was just so excited to be there. Plus the quality of the rapids and the gorgeous scenery was to die for (which I thankfully managed to avoid).
Do you have a boating philosophy?
From the beginning, my parents taught me to have fun, but above all: respect the water. When something went wrong, they would say something like, "What did the river teach you?" or, as Spiderman's uncle said, "With great power comes great responsibility" (a dad favorite to be sure). For me, this includes respect for moving water, the river environment, and the ethic of mutual support and safety. I learned that the humility, reverence, and respect when engaging a river's power establish a deeper relationship than merely "conquering" rapids or "proving" one's boating prowess. When you lose respect for the river, the river will try to teach you a lesson. If you don't listen, it will teach you a stronger lesson. Never fight the river. It will win.
Do you have any plans to run Bald Rock again, and if so, would you go solo or with others?
My plan is to never run a river solo. When you boat with friends, you are generally more safe with other people to watch your back, you have other people to share the driving and gas money, people to chat with (and tell you either "You're crazy!" or "Where do you want me to set safety?" when you give the thumbs up for a big stout rapid), and other vehicles to help set shuttle.. For example, running the shuttle for Bald Rock Canyon is a bit of a pain when you're solo. It's about a 16-mile bike ride with approximately 3,000 feet of vertical climb in the first 7 miles (but then mostly downhill the last 9 miles). Thankfully, some friendly locals saved me from having to experience the solo bike shuttle.
That being said, since I didn't get the opportunity to do my solo bike shuttle, so a "redemption" run to do it completely self-sufficient occasionally plays in the back of my mind. There is something to be said about the soul-searching one does on such a solo journey. While in all likeliness I may never attempt this river again by myself, it is a journey I'll never forget and never regret.
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