Monday, April 21, 2014

Kayakers find purple paradise on American North Fork

It's a long walk to the waterline, and well worth it -- at least, on the way down
Just can’t get any better, we agreed as we paddled back toward Rattlesnake Bar on the North Fork of the American River. An ideal Easter Sunday kayak trip just above Folsom Lake. Perfect weather. Waves of purple lupine carpeting the hillsides. Sparkling, clear water. Nope, can’t get any better than this.

Then we heard rushing water and turned up Mormon Ravine to find the very picture of spring in Northern California. Meadows funneled into mini-rapids gushing into a secluded

Paddling past meadows of purple in Easter-color kayaks, above, and natural stonework, below

little bay. Okay, now for sure it can’t get better. But a pair of geese popped their heads out of the lush grass. And behind them came a pile of Easter fuzzball hatchlings. Stop already, it just can’t get better than this.

Call it “Waterfalls and Wildflowers” part 2. If you can get to this part of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area in the next few weeks before the end of spring rain and lupine reign, then check it out. But bring a kayak cart, because it’s a long walk down to the water. And an even longer walk back up to the parking lot.

Several of us have lived in the area for many years and couldn’t believe we hadn’t been here before.  It’s a beautiful drive over to the water once you escape I-80 (see “Launch Lines”) with fields of grazing horses and wild poppies. The narrow, two-lane road slows you down and into the right frame of mind for what lies ahead.

Lupine run across the hillsides, above, and trickle down to the waterline

Sure the water is low, but all the better to ogle the jagged granite scenery that sets off the soft purple brushstrokes against the red clay on the hillsides. It’s as if Monet met Ansel Adams in Georgia redneck country. Oddly awesome, ruggedly delicate scenery.

We paddled upstream about three miles from the Rattlesnake Bar launch until we hit the first rapids in a rocky gorge.
 An ideal landing spot for picnicking, picture-taking and rock-skipping. Just above our rest area and hard up against a massive boulder, the rapids swirled and twirled in about 12 feet of clear water. It was a good place to knock some rust off those swift water paddling skills, but deceptively tricky – not all that rough at the surface, but a funnel of swirling, bubbling chaos just below.

Bubbling chaos just below the hull
 On the way back, we marveled at some strange rock formations – above and below the waterline -- including one outcropping that prompted several wisecracks, with the emphasis on crack. You could say it was the perfect butt for a geology joke.

Sunlight illuminates modern art slab just below the waterline.... 
...and the butt of several jokes
Rattlesnake Bar State Park in Newcastle is part of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. (Go east on I-80 to the Penryn Road (112) exit, turn right on Penryn Road, left on King Road, left on Auburn-Folsom Road, then right on Newcastle Road (watch for park sign) and Rattlesnake Road. There's a paved parking lot and pit toilets at the end of the road. 
The toughest part of the trip is the last one-quarter mile, because the gate is locked and there's a long, long concrete ramp down to what would be the waterline in a semi-normal water year. But in this case, another 75 yards or so to the launch. So If you've never thought you needed to buy a kayak cart, it might be time to reconsider.

(One more thing: when you get to the waterline, there's are piles of small driftwood and the water is kind of muddy, so you can't judge the depth. Facing the water, walk to the left side to launch -- because on the right, there's a chest-deep hole just a couple of feet out from shore.)
Canada geese, hatchlings on an Easter stroll in high grass...and in water

Our roundtrip paddle was about 7 miles (including walk from parking lot to shore, don't laugh,  it's a hike) and took about four hours, including a leisurely lunch break and rock-skipping competition. 

NorCal Yak pal Dale, who organized this trip, was consensus rock-skipping champ and would surely become a prime summer Olympic contender if we could get rid of one of those silly sports like badminton. Really, swatting a funny thingabob over a net is nothing compared to tossing a rock that skips across a river 17 times, hops up on the opposite shore, rickochets off a rock and then flips back into the water. Distance, degree of difficulty, it's all there. Gold medal!
© 2014 Glenn Brank