Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tunnel Chute Rapid vs Gear Boats

Last summer, brought copious rafting adventures my way. A late June South Silver run with some of the W.E.T. River Trips crew was definitely a highpoint; the bedrock slides and pour-overs surpassed all expectations and left me itching to get back there for some more teacups. In another instance, I was lucky enough to have a chance to run the bulk of the lower class 4 section of the Middle Fork American at a healthy fish flow. The 350cfs experience— complete with a California sunset— was a high point in my time on the Middle Fork American River.

While moments like these are personally significant, I was also able to take part in some pioneering raft lines last summer as well. On the Middle Fork American the infamous Tunnel Chute is an ever-changing rapid.

Rarely run in the rivers early commercial history, the rapid has become a staple of the Middle Fork over the years. Recently, Middle Fork legends such as Mack have pushed the evolution of Tunnel Chute even further by running the once class VI “left” line in paddle boats. Since the high water in 2006, the left line at the Chute has become more class 4+ ish, eroding into a fun, super-steep, 20-yard slide that kicks off a six-footer at the bottom into the pool. While still consequential, this line has been run successfully by many paddle boats.

So what’s next?

I have always been a little anxious about running Tunnel Chute in a gear boat because it is kind of like driving a bus on skies down a snow hill. You have lots of momentum, no turning, and no breaks. To say the least, the Chute has caused problems for guides in the past.

So this year I thought about stepping it up a notch and going where (to my knowledge) no one had gone before in a gear boat, and headed over to the left line of the Chute. I had done my homework, and knew more or less what to expect, the entry move, and what the locked-in downhill slide felt like. In July I made my 1st D in an oarboat and had great success.

Probably the hardest part of the rapid is the entry where there are a few guard rocks that could cause problems if the bumped you in a wrong direction. Other than these few rocks, once you make the squeeze into the top of the slide, the boat gets right into the rapid and its over before you know it.

As an added bonus, the heft of a loaded gear boat usually sends you fairly deep on the landing as well.

Probably the most hazardous aspect of the rapid in an oar frame is watching your oars in the tight river channel, but this is really no different than the normal “right” line at Tunnel Chute. Needless to say the left chute goes. I had the satisfaction of running the left a few more times last summer with similar success;— a highlight run occurring during another outfitter's scout of the Chute. Since last summer, the only other person I have ever heard of attempting the oar-frame descent, is the world renowned Wolf, who had a successful run in August. I think the more water the better for this line. When the gauge got down to 11.4, it becomes pretty boney.

Tunnel Chute rapidIn the future, it could be possible that the Chute’s left line becomes more commonly run for both paddle boats and gear boats. I look at it somewhat like the “fish ladder” skirt of Rainy Falls on the Rogue River. While I could be the first to run in a gear boat, I don’'t think I will be the last.

Post by: "Little Alex" from University of California at Berkeley:: UCB
Big thanks to Hotshot Imaging in Coloma, California for this series of photographs of W.E.T. River Trips through Tunnel Chute rapid on the Middle Fork American River.
Also, big thanks to Bill Tuttle and his awesome website at CACreeks.com! He's got a blow by blow description of all the runs in California.

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