Alta Journal is pleased to present a six-part original series by author and Alta contributor Robert Roper. This is the tale of five men who—over six snowy days—retraced a 34-mile portion of the 1833 Walker expedition, specifically its route over the Sierra Nevada, the first east-west crossing by non-Native people. Day 5 begins with the Alta team on the western side of the Sierra Nevada and facing what they’ve been dreading since they began this journey: a raging, whitewater river.
May 1, North Fork of the Mokelumne River. When I was first learning about the Mokelumne, trying to get information about the North Fork, I emailed a guy named Mike Wier, a media person with CalTrout. Wier had grown up nearby and knew the river intimately. He wrote back, “Typically the Mokelumne is starting to get big in April. And cold. Peak run off is typically middle of May. That is when kayakers from all over the world descend there to run the famous Fantasy Falls run. It is swift and that river is no joke. I got swept out trying to cross on foot one time and almost went over the waterfall at Blue Hole. That was in the late fall and it was still going strong.”
There were no gauges on the upper river, providing information on water flow. PG&E and the rangers had told me as much. According to Wier, the local people “just kind of have a feel for when it’s going to be a peak flow based on snow pack. I spend a lot of time out around the back of Salt Springs [Reservoir] but I’ve only hiked up the canyon a couple times.” A couple of times in 30 years.
What else did I know about the mad, bad, and dangerous Mokelumne? That I wanted to come back and fish it sometime and—this was unexpected—that it is the principal source of drinking water for the East Bay, where I’ve lived for half a century. I have been drinking the turbulent danger water all this time. Minerals it carries are in my bones and in my children’s bones. If I go into the kitchen right now and turn on the tap, I will be looking at it. Tastes pretty good, for kitchen water.
Trudging upriver early next morning, all of us, I think, mentally loaded for bear, we came upon two kayaks cached in a shallow cave. One was in good shape; the other’s hull was broken. Something bad had happened here to somebody; maybe somebody had not only wrecked an expensive kayak but had needed help getting out, his or her partner having to abandon the run, too. I imagined them having a tough time getting to the far side of the river, then limping up out of the canyon. They had not been back to claim the barely hidden intact boat with its $900 paddle. Maybe the whole memory of the place was just too much.
We were still out of sight of the river, tramping up behind some headlands. But you know, eventually, you have to do the thing, face the elephant itself. Parker turned us down to the river, and now we could see it through the trees, a super-fast stream at peak or near-peak flow. No mighty Mississippi, miles across, but one of those famous Sierra jewels, those streams that made the state what it was in the old days, yielding up tons of gold, then allowed to lapse back into a semi-pristine condition, still delivering liquid treasure in seasonal abundance. And this one, the Mokelumne, was especially pretty, a see-through green color, rushing on dementedly through the forest.
Just across from us—if all our map-making and CalTopo plotting had been of use—was the mouth of Jackson Canyon. We were now back in step with Walker, who had been right here, getting ready for his own crossing, on October 26, 1833. I wasn’t thinking of this, though—of that historic juncture. I was poleaxed, as were we all, I think, by what I was seeing in front of me, by what was right there. I am referring to the tree—the gigantic pine tree, probably a ponderosa—that lay astonishingly across the river, positioned exactly where we were hoping to cross. It had no sign on it that said “Miraculous tree bridge, you lucky devils, sent from up above,” but that was what it was, an actual miraculous bridge, about 80 feet long and solid-looking. The trunk was as wide as a sidewalk. The tree appeared to have fallen pretty recently, perhaps just a day or two ago, to judge by its still-green canopy. Fallen just for us? And right here, where we, all along, had been aiming to come and, thus, were likely to find it?
Whoops of disbelief, of crazed celebration. Cries of “My God!,” “Jesus!,” and other things. Parker kept shaking his head, and now he accused me of having prayed for this to happen so that we wouldn’t have to use the packraft.
I had been praying; it’s true. The whole enterprise had seemed to be coming down to an embarrassing failure to get 50 feet across a mountain stream. People who have faced such streams would understand that failure, but still, it would be a kind of failure. And I had been praying because I was afraid of drowning, to be truthful. Over the months I had read up on Sierra river-crossing accidents, many of them fatal; the wise heads always said to back off if it looked bad, and rivers like the Mokelumne in spate were the very definition of bad.
Navon was the first to go over. He waltzed across in about 10 seconds. The massive tree did not budge; it was as solidly fixed as a highway bridge. We took many pictures and had a rest break on the other side, laughing and putting on sunscreen. Then we saddled up and headed up Jackson Canyon, over granite ledges and soon into a lot more snow.•
Unlike previous Alta Serials, whose installments were published weekly, all episodes of “Surviving the Sierra” are available at the same time for a binge-reading experience. Visit altaonline.com/serials to read previous serials, and sign up here for email notifications about upcoming Alta Serials.