Running the Shasta River Canyon
There are accounts of adventures in this world finished by people of exceptional skill and vision, treks of harrowing danger and triumphant successes. Adventures that could only be conquered by a select few, and pressing said few mightily. This is not one of those accounts.
There are also accounts of adventures in this world done by people of perhaps, in the best possible light, slightly better than average skill and vision, with very moderate levels of danger, doing something that easily could have been done by many other people…if they could only be bothered to do it. Oh, and also a nice hot shower and cold beer at the conclusion of said trip. This IS one of those accounts.
So, perhaps just a bit of backstory.
In 1996 I started guiding whitewater canoe trips. I was 14 years old and not terribly bright. Today, I am no longer 14. The principle river I guided on is the Klamath River, and in order to get there, we always drove down highway 263, which travels through the Shasta River Canyon, at the bottom of which is (obviously) the Shasta River. And every…single…time I drove down that road I would look down into that canyon and think about running that river.
The other rivers in the Klamath River basin are all fairly well-known, and frequently run. The CAL Salmon, The Trinity, The Scott, and of course the Upper, Middle, and Lower Klamath. The Shasta? Not so much.
The main issue is that the Shasta River is much more like a creek than a river, and usually only has sufficient water to run it for a few weeks out of the year, in either midwinter or early spring. For one reason or another, the Shasta and I were never present at the same time. So all I had was the knowledge that it had been done in the late 80’s by Bill Cross, co-author of Western Whitewater, who had merely commented that it was a class III+ river…and that was pretty much it. (Readers of this should not in any way interpret this as my disparaging that un-paralleled work in any way, shape, or form) Repeated and frequent scouring of the internet gave me very little additional information…which is more of less why I’m writing this account of the river and posting it here. The internet frequently feeds me old threads of Cboats.net when I ask it questions about canoeing, much of it very useful, so I thought I’d leave this here for anyone in the future who might want to know about this little run. So, while I scoured the internet for information on multiple occasions and got almost zilch, hopefully the next person will find this thread, and at least some of their questions will be answered.
In any case, I decided that this year, a year with good water in CA, was going to be the year. I managed to convince a friend, JR, to come along and make sure I didn’t do anything too stupid...or if I did, at least be present to record it for a future ‘how not to do it’ manual. We did decide that since very, very few people have ever run this river (Bill Cross is the only other person I know for certain to have done it, he took his 10’ SOTAR R2, presumably he had another person with him but I don’t know who) that we would take it upon ourselves in our modesty to name any major rapids we found, and produce this very loose and informal guide to the canyon.
JR and I pre-scouted as much of the river as we could from the highway and an old dirt road that follows the river for part of the canyon on the opposite side, and determined that there was enough water on Friday. The internet informed us Saturday morning that the flow remained essentially the same as Friday (170-180 CFS) so we decided to go for it. In retrospect, the river is perfectly runnable at this level, and could be done if it were even a touch lower…but I think that 200-250 cfs would be the premium level.
Neil Rucker, the grandfather of canoeing in Northern California, decided not to accompany us into the canyon, but very kindly agreed to drop us off at the put in and follow us from the highway as much as possible and pick us up at the finish. Now that’s first class shuttle service! So we loaded our two much-abused and well-trained Circa 1988 Dagger Encores and headed out. Naturally, we each thought the other would bring a go-pro to record the event, so we wound up with no go-pros and only a few pictures of the canyon. Typical of us.
THE PUT IN
The canyon quite literally begins at the exact same place that highway 263 crosses the Shasta River. There is a turn-out on the west side of the highway, on the left side if you’re going north and obviously the right side going south, that is big enough to park 2 vehicles. It is only accessible if you’re going south, so if you come at it from the north you’ll need to go past it and turn around to come back. From the turn-out there is a side-hill trail that leads out a couple hundred yards to a point with very easy access. The trail is so-so, you wouldn’t want to slide down the hill as it’s some distance to the bottom, steep and rocky, but provided you stay on the trail it’s a pretty easy walk down to the river. This put-in is considered quite primitive out west, but in the southeast it would be considered to be pretty normal. We did find two other put-ins just upstream from this, and while they are much easier to access and will allow you to run all of the entry rapid, they both require entering private property. JR and I were unable to contact the owners and as such decided not to trespass.
Once we’d actually gotten on the river, warmed up in the first eddy as much as we could, and then headed down it really felt good, and I was pretty sure there was plenty of water, even in the places I hadn’t been able to see during our primitive pre-scout. Call it a feeling. I was surprised at the speed of this river. Even in the places were the water is technically flat, it is still moving very fast. I estimate the entire trip is close to 10 miles (river miles, it’s 6.8 highway miles) it took us a little less than 4 hours to run all of it, without being in any particular hurry. That’s pretty quick for a low-volume river. Most of the + signs we added to the ratings are because most of these rapids are long, fast, and shallow. If you eat it at the top of one the resulting swim will likely be unpleasant for both body and boat. This is a great run for experienced Intermediate to advanced paddlers, but not so great for beginners.
The rapids we found are as follows:
THE GREAT WALL III+
There is a rock wall, varying from 6-12 feet in height that follows for a couple hundred yards along the river bank next to the opening rapid of the Shasta River Canyon. I have no idea what purpose this wall served, but it’s cool to look at. The put-in allows you to access the rapid at its half-way point. The hardest moves happen up above the put-in, but the remainder is still a very fun boulder-dodge. Like most of the larger rapids on the Shasta, Great Wall is well-over a hundred yards in length, with several different sections and multiple channels cut into the bedrock. Follow the water.
There is an old dam stretching partway across the river at the top, though there is a large opening in the center. I suspect this was built to channel water to run a water-wheel during the gold-rush days. It’s been non-functional for (at a glance) decades. At higher water, you’d likely have some pretty serious holes at river-right and left that you’d want to avoid. At this level, good eddy at river left below the drop, then ferry over to run river right-channel.
This rapid directly follows Hoover. JR opined that one would really have to ‘dodge n’ dart’ to get through this one clean at this level. Car guys will get this. The rest of you will just have to read about cars if you’re interested in getting this. We actually lined our boats around the crux part of this. It was runnable, but at this level it was risking a level of boat-abuse that we just didn’t want to deal with. Royalex these days is a finite resource. This was the only place we had to actually get out of our canoes. With another few inches of water, this rapid would really be a blast. Best route seemed to be on far river-right.
While we were scouting from the road, we saw a long, S-turn rapid of a hundred-plus yards. The shape of the rapid (from above) looked like a hook. ‘We should call that one Hook,’ I said…then added in my best Deadpool impersonation, ‘No, Captain Hook’. ‘That’s fine’, JR replied, ‘but if we name a rapid Captain Hook then we’ve got to name another one just upstream from it ‘Crocodile’. Crocodile was easily our favorite rapid. The lead-in is a boulder dodge of perhaps 100 yards, then allowing you to set up for the final drop. It looks like the best place is at center, but there’s a rock hiding in there. Best route (after splitting two rocks at the top) is right-center. Good recovery below, which we thankfully didn’t need. Showing that fate has his or her ways, there is rock at bottom river left that looks rather like a crocodile head. The next two major rapids are found after running several minor drops, they’ll be fairly obvious when you arrive.
TWIST AND SHOUT III
A long S-turn type rapid. JR named this one because there’s a twist in the river, and he was forced to utter some unprintable phrases when he got stuck on the rock at the bottom. Oh, that’s right, I’m supposed to tell you there’s a rock in the middle of the river at the bottom of this one.
CAPTAIN HOOK III
A rapid remarkably similar to twist and shout, though a bit longer and the crux move at the bottom is a bit easier to see coming. Lots of fun. Don’t swim here. Would not be fun.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE III
Look for a large bridge over a gully on river right. The bridge is part of highway 263, and it lets you know that you’re approaching the top of Choose your own Adventure. This is another long, ‘follow the water’ type rapid. Multiple ledges, channels cut into the bedrock, and lots of rocks to dodge. My advice about not swimming remains the same. At the very bottom of this rapid the river splits. DO NOT GO RIGHT. River-right is a slough of sorts leading to some sort of old mill/generator/dam/something or other. If you go right you’ll have to paddle all the way back to the top. If you can’t get back you’ll have to drag your boat through some truly awful blackberry brambles and lots of other unpleasant nature to get back to the river-left channel. I’m including a picture of the pretty man-made waterfall that marks the end of the river-right channel a couple hundred yards below the fork.
One thing that makes this river interesting is its lack of visibility. There are thick tule patches along the banks that sometimes almost make tunnels, making it almost impossible to see. This, along with the aforementioned speed of the river, and its bendy nature, makes this section a lot of fun, though I must admit it also made me listen really hard for what might be coming next. After choose your own adventure the canyon starts to open up a bit and isn’t as steep, so I thought the river might be just about done with any big rapids, but I was wrong. After going under the green bridge, (it’s at least 300 feet above the river level, the suspension work is very intricate and really quite amazing to see) you round a point and find another long class III rapid.
Three small drops in rapid succession. Finding the open channels requires lots of right to left movement. Following Staircase I really thought we would be done with any large drops, but I was wrong again.
SAILOR POINT RAPID (AKA ROB’S PET ROCK) III
My performance here was more or less inexcusable. The river begins a long, slow curve to the right with the highway 300 feet above following it along. I’d looked down into this stretch of river more times than I can count, and I’d never noticed anything…except there’s a small bit of river you can’t see from above very easily. I was just cruising along and suddenly noticed a blind corner, the river picking up a lot of speed and narrowing. I didn’t do the logical thing and stop to get out and look, instead I just cruised around the corner like an idiot. There’s a pretty good rapid in here, and there’s a big rock in the middle of it, and another one behind it. I thought I’d chosen my line well but I hit that second rock really hard. Hard enough to tear me loose from my straps and put a crease in the side of my boat that ain’t gonna buff out. Embarassing, to say the least. JR noted the consequences of my line and chose a different one…he didn’t hit a rock. He was also nice enough to stop mentioning my poor choice of line and the crease in the side of my boat after the 44th or 45th time. The point of land that this rapid is adjacent to is already known as ‘Sailor Point’, but JR wants to call the rapid, Rob’s Pet Rock. I vetoed this on the basis that it’s just too egotistical to name a rapid after oneself.
HUDSON RAPID III
After Sailor Point the river flattens out for a bit, and then begins to pick up speed as you approach another blind corner. You’ll be able to see another bridge crossing the river, which is the final time highway 263 crosses the Shasta. This time, I was not caught unawares and approached with caution. There is another long rock-dodge rapid here. One particular rock in the center is difficult to maneuver around, and JR and I both tagged it, though nothing like as hard as my little incident at Sailor Point. After this rapid there are some homes along the river left bank, which are all on a paved road in the middle of nowhere called Hudson Street.
FOREST CIRCUS FISH TRAP
After Hudson Street there is only a quarter mile or so of river left before the Shasta joins the Klamath. However, this is the one place on the canyon where there is a lot of the sort of trash one usually expects on small rivers and creeks, which had been mostly absent on the rest of the run. There are the remnants of a fence stretching across the river, no wire that we could see, but the steel fence posts are still there. Very easy to miss them, but you want to be aware of them. Just down from this a bit is a Forest Circus fish-counting station. Stretching across the river are some vertical steel I-beams, set about 4 feet apart and extending around 18” out of the water. Again, easy to miss, but you want to be aware of them. I suspect this structure is used at low summer levels to block off the entire river…except for the bit that goes through the fish counting station. The Circus is using this to count the salmon and steelhead that head up the Shasta to spawn every fall. If you choose to take a small raft though this run, you likely won’t fit between the hazards as easy as our canoes or some kayaks will. You may have to drag your boat 10 feet to get around, but better than a punctured tube.
THE TAKE OUT (SNAG HOLE)
Just after the fish counting station the Shasta joins the Klamath River. I cannot deny feeling pretty darn great when we blasted out of the canyon and joined the Klamath…which feels like the Nile after spending 4 hours on the Shasta. A half-mile downstream from us is a river access known to locals as ‘Snag Hole’. It’s unmarked BLM land, but easy to see from the road. Locals use it launch drift boats so you can practically back your truck up into the water to load your boats…you know…if you’re feeling extra lazy. There is one class II rapid just above Snag Hole known as ‘THE WEIR’, best route is on river right.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND WILDLIFE
Obviously we didn’t name every single rapid we encountered on this run. The constant fast pace of this canyon means we skipped naming countless class II rapids, long busy stretches of class II rock dodging, and numerous smaller drops. This river was a lot of fun, which I was very glad of. In the back of my mind was the very definite concern that this river, this thing that I’d always been interested in doing, would totally suck. It would be brushy, logs would be strung across the river, it would be shallow to the point of being unrunnable, it would just be an awful day full of dragging canoes, getting carved up by blackberry brambles, and cursing. I’m happy to report that this is far from what we encountered. While this will never go down as an undiscovered wonderland, it’s a perfectly entertaining trip, and like I said, I think with about 200-250 cfs, as opposed to the 175 that we ran it, it would be about perfect. Water levels are guessing games at the best of times, I think some of the rapids that were fun at low water would get easier and boring at higher water (500 cfs and up)…although Great Wall, Hoover, Mopar, and Crocodile are in narrow places with significant gradient, and I think won’t wash out easily. Crocodile, in particular, looks like it would be impressive at high flows. And, of course, we would have been better served if we’d been paddling a pair of Covert 10.5’s or Millbrook 20/20’s…or anything shorter than our 13 foot Encores, but we had to run what we brung.
The overall scenery is high desert, lots of juniper and pine trees, steep and rugged canyon walls, and quite a lot of wildlife.
I have no idea how many turtles I saw on this day, but certainly more than 100. I’ve never been on a river with so many turtles. There would be a half dozen to a dozen sunning on every rock or log sticking out of the river they could cling to. I’m not a turtle enthusiast, but it was interesting to see so many.
I saw a lot of western oriole nests hanging from tree branches above the river. Due to water levels and oriole migration times, it’s unlikely you’ll be on the river at the same time the orioles are present, but their hanging nests are still interesting to see.
There are a pair of nesting peregrine falcons in this canyon. This is common local knowledge, and although we didn’t see them on this particular day, it’s something worth watching out for.
We saw 5 different species of migratory duck and a lot of Canada Geese on this trip. The thick tules along the river’s edge would sometimes mean that the geese wouldn’t see us and fly until we were five or ten feet away. Seeing a pair of honkers come blowing out of the weeds right at your elbow will get your attention.
And, of course, we saw several of the ubiquitous local deer, a beaver and lots of beaver sign, and plenty of other small critters besides.
Although this canyon is literal minutes off of I-5, almost all the land surrounding it is privately owned, so you won’t find a lot of people cluttering it up. We saw exactly 1 person the entire day, who was parked at the end of Hudson Street watching the water. So even though it is right in civilization’s back pocket, it’s a great place to get away from it. So, the next time you’re in Northern CA or Southern Oregon and the water levels aren’t right for the rivers you planned, maybe check the flow of the Shasta, and spend a half-day down there in the canyon. We sure had fun with it.
Thanks again to my friend JR, for accompanying me on this trip and letting me cross it off my bucket list.
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Canoeing isn't a sport...its an art. Unfortunately, I am not exactly Michelangelo.