Thursday, November 20, 2014

Kayaking paradise found, then nearly lost to fire

Before the fire, a typical view of Slab Creek Reservoir along the south shoreline
There are many kayaking venues in Northern California with spectacular scenery, but perhaps only one where the view floats back and forth in time, right before a paddler's eyes. That would be Slab Creek Reservoir, near the El Dorado County town of Camino.

Slab Creek paddlers follow a green shoreline of timber that's stood untouched for perhaps a century. But only a few yards away on the opposite shore, deep scars run down the
mountainside from an epic forest fire that scorched the Sierra just this fall.  It's a before-and-after panorama that is both incredible and unsettling.

After the fire, a swath of Slab Creek forestland burned on the north side (photo courtesy Paul K. Redd)
Today, the north side of Slab Creek offers glimpses of the devastating King Fire that destroyed thousands of acres of El Dorado National Forest. On the south side of this thin

granite gash of a lake, the forest looks just as it did before the infamous blaze. Hundreds of area residents are grateful for that, and for the firefighters who saved their homes.

A sign of the times near the reservoir
Only 48 hours after our first Slab Creek kayaking trip in September, an arsonist struck in nearby Pollock Pines. The resulting blaze roared through drought-stricken timberland for a month and took its toll on such kayaking areas as Union Valley, Hell Hole and Stumpy Meadows reservoirs. Toward the end of the long battle, backfires brought the inferno down the American River gorge to Slab Creek Reservoir.

Let’s first turn back the clock to that sunny, smoke-free day in September. Our biggest worry that morning was getting to the bottom of the canyon slowly – as opposed to a fast and fatal route. It’s a steep, rough, one-lane path without guardrails. Credit my NorCal Yak pal Dale Bates and his four-wheel-drive truck for getting us there and back up the canyon in one piece. (VIDEO)

At lakeside, we were warmly welcomed by a swarm of thirsty mosquitoes, found barely enough room to turn the truck around, much less any outhouses. No matter, this turned out to be one fine paddle, though it is not recommended for novice paddlers or the unprepared. (“Launch lines” below includes important info on future road access.)

It's difficult to tell where tree and rock meet water, and vice versa, on a surreal paddle (photo above by Dale Bates)
I’m not a Hobbit groupie, but Slab Creek struck me as the kind of place that J.R.R. Tolkien must have visualized as Middle-Earth. No slick Hollywood special effects here. It’s part Norse fjord, part rugged wilderness, and all very mystically surreal.

Steep and narrow canyon walls drop out of the sky and plunge nearly straight down into forboding depths of still water. The quiet surface reflects hundreds of feet of granite

Granite streaked with veins of quartz along the steep shoreline 

streaked by stark-white quartz veins. If that were not enough, the granite is carved into giant slabs, precariously balanced atop and beside each other like humongous dominoes. Some looked as if they could fall at any moment and sink a kayak in one big “plop.”
Then there was the eerie quiet. Could it really be only a few miles away – albeit steep and rough miles – to the noisy, crowded pie and cider stands of Apple Hill? It didn’t seem possible. But on our weekday paddle, we had the entire lake – almost five miles from launching near the dam up to the first rapids on the South Fork of the American River – all to ourselves.
Arriving at the reservoir's namesake 

Didn’t see or hear another soul on the return trip, either.

Paddling Slab Creek makes you feel as if you’ve been completely cut off from civilization, and perhaps thrown back a few thousand years to boot. Guess it was those geological murals that loomed above our heads, reflected across our bows and then faded into the cold depths.

The lake is so full of sharp twists and blind turns that paddling distance seems much farther than it actually is. And around every turn lies a potential surprise, or a story all its own. 
The hidden "green grotto" sheltered by a curtain of limbs and leaves (photo by Dale Bates)
At one point, we heard a faint gurgling sound behind a curtain of tree limbs that hung over the water. The “curtain” obscured a green wall of ferns and moss fed by mist that dripped from some unseen source above. The tiny cove barely accommodated one kayak at a time, and seemed most suitable as magical hideaway for Tolkien elves or water sprites. (VIDEO)
Jumble of rusty cables and rails was a mystery -- at first
At another point along the shoreline, Dale spotted what appeared to be a pile of iron junk nestled on the hillside and overgrown by small trees. Wheels and cables – it looked as if it might have once been part of a miniature railroad.

He later solved the riddle with a bit of online research that took us back in time with the area's once-thriving lumber industry. This first-hand YouTube account by a local resident recalls a ride with his mother where “I hung on for dear life.” (VIDEO)

Of course, only a few days after our paddle, Slab Creek suffered a close brush with a fiery fate. When the ashes cooled, NorCal Yak pal Paul K. Redd, who probably knows Slab Creek better than any other local paddler, went back to survey the damage and shared this report on the SacYakker kayak club site:

“Overall, we were relieved,” said Paul. “Slab Creek Reservoir is still a beautiful place to paddle. South shore is still undamaged lush forests. North shore is a mixed bag. There are untouched areas, mostly mixed areas, and some really burned areas. The total destruction is 

Fire damage proved to be far worse only a mile or so above the head of Slab Creek Reservoir
mostly on the steeper slopes, with some ridge tops completely blow-torched. As always, Slab Creek Reservoir delivers awesome rock formations and reflective, glassy water. This is still my favorite paddle within one hour (drive from Sacramento)."


Here's another account of Slab Creek paddling that includes road directions, but heed the future access changes detailed below. 

Slab Creek dam was built by the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District (SMUD) to generate power, and while the lake is open for public recreation, it is not for the casual visitor. There are no toilet facilities and barely enough room for three or four vehicles to park at the lower launch near the dam. An automatic road gate closes from sundown to sunrise.

SMUD tells NorCal Yak that this "lower launch" (western) road will be closed for about six months beginning sometime next year. The plan is to improve access at the "upper launch" area before the lower road closes. To find out more in coming months, click on "Road Activity & Work Log" at the SMUD Web site. Kayakers may also call the SMUD Iowa Hill Station at (916) 732-6822 or email before they make the trek up to Camino.

Beach head at the upper end of Slab Creek Reservoir, where access improvements are planned
(As long as the "lower launch" stays open, I recommend against driving this route if your vehicle has low ground clearance or poor brakes. No joke.)
Other precautions also apply. The most helpful tips I've read came from Paul Redd, who has generously shared his experience with NorCal Yak and paddler community.  Paul’s commentary at the Dreamflows Web site should be reviewed carefully prior to any first-time paddle on Slab Creek.

Updated info and photos on Slab Creek are available online at the SacYakkers and Sacramento Paddle Pushers kayak clubs. Join these clubs through their Meetup sites. When it comes to remote paddling, joining an experienced group is always a good idea. Slab Creek’s water is cold and take-out points few and far between for the four-plus mile length of the lake. This is not a good place to be stranded.

Won't hear the ocean if you put one up to your ear
There are other potential risks as well. Everyone who is drawn to remote areas may not share a kayaker’s environmental sensibilities.

When we arrived at the beach head where the South Fork of the American enters the reservoir, we found remnants of a veritable shooting range – broken clay pigeons, shotgun shell casings, and a few assault rifle shells, too. Nothing wrong with folks expressing their Second Amendment rights. Just sayin’….

© Glenn Brank 2014