I'm writing this - in fair detail - because it was my first time on the land side of a river emergency. Food for thought.

And we all like to hear a good boating story with a happy ending.

My story

Dec 30th, 9 pm. We were on highway 49 north of Nevada City. Foul pitch black night, hammering rain and wind, dodging mudslides and flooding (the road was later closed). Tony stationed in the passenger seat, with laptop, gps, flashlights, big boots, just in case. What were we doing out on such an evil night....

At 8:30 that morning, I'd gotten a call from Amy and Eric, excellent boaters from Washington state, down for New Years. They were probably going to do the Middle Fork Yuba with a friend from Petaluma, did I want to come along?

I'd never been on this river, I knew almost nothing about it. From what I could recall hearing - It doesn't run often. It has a small river bed. I thought I remembered access issues and not so friendly landowners. And a friend had almost died on it in a wrapped boat. Looking out at the weather, I decided the most adventure I was up for that day was starting a fire in my wood stove. We arranged to meet for dinner, Amy would call me from her cell phone when they got off the river.

The rain pounded down all day. At about 5 pm, I thought – they'll be off the river by now, I should hear from them soon. At 6 pm, I called Amy's cell phone and got her phone mail. I spent some time thinking about how long it takes to organize gear and run a challenging shuttle. Then I looked at the gauge – the river had doubled in volume since they put on. And then I started thinking about the issues of calling in Search and Rescue. I wasn't even entirely sure they had ended up on the MF. At 6:30 pm I started calling friends to find out more about the river, try to figure out what section they might have been on, and to get advice. I'd never been in this position before. I didn't even know which authorities to notify if it came to that. I got some advice to just sit tight, see if they showed up in the morning, S&R wouldn't be able to do anything that night anyway.

Except for Tony, who called me back and said – I think they would have been doing the Our House Dam to 49 section. You need to go see if their take-out vehicle is there; I'll go with you.

Even in a car on paved road, it was a scary night to be out. I shivered at the thought of – wherever they were – what they were experiencing. It was a long drive, I had plenty of time to think about the situation.
1) I *knew* there was a problem. Even if Amy's cell phone had conked out, she would have found a pay phone to let me know they were ok.
2) I didn't know for certain they were on the MF Yuba. Tony was right, we needed to see if there was a take-out vehicle there.
3) Amy is a professional river guide, I would trust her in any river situation. She would have emergency gear with her. When I last saw Eric he was a new but talented boater (on the Grand Canyon he rescued 3 runaway rafts at the top of Upset Rapid by putting one of the lines into his mouth and paddling his kayak into the last chance eddy). I didn't know anything about the Petaluma friend.
4) Amy and Eric didn't know the river. I didn't know about the Petaluma friend.
5) Mobilizing S&R might be expensive, it's a fine line to walk between calling them unnecessarily, and calling them too late.
6) Should I let Amy's Mom know what was going on? Emphatically no–she would freak and, on the East Coast, there was nothing she could do that I wasn't already doing.

We pulled into the Oregon Creek campground. No car in the upper parking lot. Then, in the lower, a truck with a camper shell. Shining a light inside the back, a kayak. Dry clothes piled on the seats in the cab. CA plates on the truck – the Petaluma friend's? A mere 10 feet below, Oregon Creek creating a maelstrom in the trees.

We talked about looking for the put-in vehicle, a difficult undertaking on a steep dirt road in the dark, with mudslides, flooding, and possibly downed trees, and decided there was no point. There was definitely a boating group on the river who hadn't made it to take-out. Time to call in the Cavalry.

It was about 9:30 when we reached the fire station in Nevada City. A final call to Amy's cell phone, no answer, so in we went. We spent an hour talking to S&R, giving them as much information as we could. Pretty cool that they use Dreamflows to check river levels.

The MF Yuba is an interesting case: There are S&R plans for the North and South Forks of the Yuba, but not the Middle. This section of river is a bureaucratic nightmare – river left is in Nevada County, the first three miles of river right are in Sierra County, the rest of river right in Yuba County – all three counties needed to be notified and involved.

But nothing could be done till dawn. Then, as we were leaving the station – a big grin on a guy on a phone – they'd been found. I can't describe how happy I was to give five exhausted kayakers a warm dry place to sleep that night.

Their story

They joined up with two other kayakers that day, one of whom knew the run. But at a lower volume. The river was high but doable. They scouted a lot. No carnage. But they ran out of daylight. At 4:45, they saw a dirt road and decided to get off the river. Hearing their description of how, completely blind in the rain and dark, they managed to follow the road using their paddles, walking right into (encouragingly) the occasional gate, wandering off into a dead-end and arduously retracing, how in perfect dark the eyes generate flashes of light like mirages in the desert – it is an amazing story and amazing that they were able to find their way out. They carried their boats as far as they could (a good thing, the river came up to a horrific 10k). Finally after hours of hiking, they quite suddenly arrived at a house – ironically the home of the head of Search and Rescue for Nevada County.


The MF5 (photo by Amy or Eric)

From Amy

Lessons learned:
-ALWAYS pack a head lamp - even if you think you're doing a quickie nobrainer "play" run. It was so dark during much of the hike out that we'd lose our kayaks if we'd set them down and took two steps away (we eventually abandoned them but retrieved them the next day). I literally didn't know we were at a gate until I banged right into it. So that's what it's like to be blind...
-Be wary of trip (and rapid) descriptions from folks that haven't been paddling harder stuff for that long - or have never had to "lead" before (the one in our group that had paddled the run before)
-When things are already high and the forecast is calling for 5 inches more of rain - think twice before putting on. Though the level was completely appropriate for when we put on, we lost a ton of time because we had to scout EVERYthing due to the lack of boat scoutable eddies above every drop (washed out or filled with standing trees) and also were extremely wary of an impending "mandatory portage" that we ended up not getting to because we hiked out first. The river probably doubled in flow while we were on it - from 1k to 2k. That night it got over 10k.
-Oh yes - put-on early when you're doing a new run - we put on at 12:45 - even if you're advised that the run's not supposed to be that hard. This run is apparently extremely hard to catch at a high enough level. Thus, we weren't too concerned about it, especially because a member of our group ran in last spring and said they scouted only the portage drop and they had several class 3 paddlers who did fine. This was definitely NOT class 3...It was class 4 and given the circumstances and few eddies, approaching class 5.

That fact that we "stumbled" upon the house of the guy that was head of Search and Rescue for the county was incredible. Especially after we learned later that the area is riddled with dangerous meth houses. It was pure coincidence that he radioed in after his girlfriend gave me a ride to my car (down a very precarious road to the put-in with 4 new barely passable land slides across it) and the folks Barbara was talking to heard his message while they were still at the firehouse/sheriff in Nevada City.

We were also incredibly lucky to have seen the road we hiked out on. It was pure coincidence that we'd stopped at that spot and one of our group noticed it. We surely would have spent the night out otherwise. We did have several emergency blankets, matches, candles, first-aid kits, extra food, and the rest (umm...except for flash lights...), but it would have been NO fun and hypothermia would have been a reality.

- - -

I would add to what Amy wrote - it's never a bad idea to let someone on land know exactly what run you're doing.

Final comments - from Search and Rescue

A few days later I ran into an acquaintance, Ken Lee, who is on the S&R team. I asked him some questions I had been too busy to ask in the heat of the moment. He gave the following recommendations (some of which may only apply to Nevada County):
- There's no fee for Search and Rescue - call as soon as you think there's a problem. Better sooner than later, because situations can deteriorate quickly.
- Call the Sheriff. Calls to 911 get routed through Sacramento. Calls to the NC fire department get routed back to the Sheriff. Tony and I were lucky in that Mike Stewart, who teaches swiftwater rescue, was at the firestation when we dropped in.
- If you're doing something other than a familiar run at familiar flows, leave notes in the put-in and take-out vehicles detailing put-in, put-in time, take-out, and expected take-out time.
- Oh, and always bring that headlamp, whatever you're doing.