I recently realized the memory was getting cloudy as I half-heartedly recounted the story of Jake, his interesting tattoo, and backwoods winter whitewater raftin’ that was once my go-to anecdote. This story exposes both my wild-sportsman and outrageous prankster sides, as well as my humanity — and it was becoming a bit opaque.
You can find my lame attempt at the start of this story on the internet$, Raging River – 3 men enter, and it’s not worth clicking on (despite the PV earning me millionths of thents!). In theory I gave it this sensationalized 3 men enter title because I was going to turn the story into something else. Something with death and violence and perhaps one character would come out of the closet. In actuality, the real characters and weird things that happened make the story good enough as non-fiction.
Now that I’ve built it ITBTS (impossibly-too-big-to-succeed), let’s continue…. The alps, deep Northern California, chilly February, 3 friends, a cab-over-camper, some serious parallels to what you might expect to find in rural Arkansas, West Virginia, or Kurdistan. We did a bunch of rafting in my friend E’s “pea,” a small-yet-mighty 4 person raft.
E is a rafting obsessive; spending his summers between law school livin’ out of his van, rafting the froth¹ and buying a bunch of gear, including this pea. He spent 10 summers outside of Salida, Colorado at a couple of different rafting companies that run the Arkansas river, and now lives outside Denver. I’m convinced that if he could find a decent woman to live in his van with him, he’d probably have foregone the whole law thing and just stayed livin’ down by the river. Why some good woman simply won’t MOVE INTO HIS VAN!!! is something I still can’t figure out.
The Trinity Alps are a part (the “alp-iest” part) of the Shasta/Cascade region, and was once a burgeoning logging and mining area. In the summer it’s a place with gorgeous mountain vistas and Northern California weekend-vacationers. But in February it had kind of a Deer Hunter-esque vibe going on, in both the landscape and people we met. The logging was drying up and there just didn’t seem to be much of anything going on and a generally depressive outlook for the future.
The alps really are beautiful, like the rural Pennsylvania of Deer Hunter; with sweeping canyons, giant trees, bald eagles, and probably a whole bunch of meth. We were having a very hard time tracking down someone to shuttle us between our latest put-in spot and where we wanted to take-out, despite our very generous offer of 30 bucks. I say that in all sincerity regarding the 30 bucks.
This place is economically depressed² — and the thought of making a cool $30 for a mere 4 hours of time, seemed like a deal not to be missed. We had been in one area for 2 days and had a great time, once that hard initial lesson was learned that this was NOT A F*CKING PLEASURE CRUISE!!!! and that we were going to have to “DIGGIT-IN!!!!” if we wanted to avoid not-dying on the river.
Perhaps this was the hardest lesson for me as someone who had spent the weeks leading up to the trip envisioning more of a beer-float than “core” rafting down class IV rapids on a tiny boat. After 2 days of shuttling and hitch-hiking back to the truck relatively easily, E decided we needed more of a challenge.
Even though the put-in at our desired location was only about 30 miles away as the crow flys, it was going to take us about 3 hours on the backcountry roads available us (logging roads the locals refer to as “beer-drinker roads”). Once there, we would have to line up someone to shuttle us between the put in and take out. Unlike our previous location that made it easy to hitchhike when we were done because it followed a road, this new section E wanted us to hit was in an isolated canyon.
As you might imagine in 2005, none of us had web-enabled phones, so we were doing this the old fashioned-way, by “guestimating” times, locations, and durations and relaying that to our prospective drivers. Coupling this with the generous monetary offer as well as the ability to hang out with some out-of-towner’s crazy enough to go rafting in the winter got us some pretty strange looks. It was a pretty tough sell.
The first prospects we encountered were in historic Weaverville, California. This was about halfway between our first location and where E estimated the best put-in spot would be (which I think he just triangulatedly guessed “looked cool” somewhere on the river). We came upon a watering hole and set about trying to line up a ride.
The bar at the luxurious Sawmill Restaurant had only men for patrons. Men who wore dirty trucker hats to shade their eyes, not to seem fashionable (please remember in 2005, trucker hats were still quite fashionable, yes, I was dressed exactly like the patrons of this bar). They had worked long hours hauling logs in their big rigs, looked tired, and genuinely annoyed that someone was talking to them. Especially since that someone was drinking a Martini. In immediate hindsight (like, the second the order came from my lips) the Martini was a mistake. One from which we would not recover.
Most simply turned away hastily when I approached them, and many looked at me like my face had just decided to sprout another nose or perhaps some genitals. So we weren’t getting any takers on our offer, but we were given a lead.
A nice man that only half-heartedly tried to turn around when I approached him (in hindsight the martini seemed like a poor drink choice if I was trying to seem relatable, but I did manage to take my ascot off). He let me know that Hayfork was our best bet, because people were “real desperate” there.
After being pointed in the direction of the safest route (that also happened to be a good “beer-drinkers road” as long as we avoided the blind corners with big rigs barreling around them), we bid them adieu (I believe I may have actually said that and eXcaped before 3 or 4 of them could punch me in the face).
An hour or so later we arrived in Hayfork and went to the only bar in town, Brews n’ Screws. When we opened the door, our heart sank as there were exactly 2 other patrons, a couple playing pool in the corner. We struck up a conversation with the bartender that went something like this.
Me: “Hey man, how’s it going?”
Bartender: “Good, what’ll you have?”
Me: “Mart….uh, Budweiser! (yelled that bit a bit)”
I was getting smarter. After a little idle chit chat, we went in for the kill.
E: “Do you know anyone that could give us a quick shuttle tomorrow? It’d probably be 2 or 3 hours or so and we’ll gladly pay $30.”
Bartender: “SH*T, If I didn’t have to work tomorrow, I’d do it!! Let me make some calls!!”
He called probably 4 or 5 of his friends and couldn’t get a hold of anyone. He was genuinely excited about the life-changing nature of this opportunity. Having struck out again, we dejectedly talked to him about what other rafting alternatives we might have, which amounted to none.
He didn’t think anyone even went in the river anymore. He told us a bit about himself, including how he had served in our military:
Bartender: “Yeah, I was in ‘Nam.”
Me: “Oh wow, that must have been hard.”
Bartender: “Yeah, it was pretty intense.”
Me: “Where were you fighting?”
Me: “Oh, I didn’t realize they fought the Vietnam war on American soil.”
Bartender: “Well, I fixed radio towers. Good drugs though, too good.”
Me: “That must have been pretty traumatic”
Bartender: “War makes people do crazy $hit man.”
During this time, all 3 of us started looking more closely at the man and appeared-to-be-pregnant woman playing pool and drinking beers in the other corner of the bar. Perhaps they wanted to take us up on this amazing opportunity³? To be continued….¹ I made that “froth” phrase up, but see it as a “riding the pow” snow-sport-equivalent in rafting ² Although in 2005 these same economically depressed people probably could have bought a million dollar home with no money down or proof of income, but this is not the forum for that!! ³ I started telling this story again recently because I was on a road trip. It’s an anecdote in weirdness from the 2nd most bizarre road trip I’ve ever taken. It was slightly less surreal than my drive across Southern Africa with my brother in 2001 — where we met a diamond-runner, and gave a lost boy from Sudan a ride across Botswana (you can read about that experience at Roadtrippin’ with a Lost Boy of Sudan).
Tagged: backpacking, cab-over camper, car camping, humboldt, idiot adventures, northern california, river rafting, travelogue, Trinity Alps, Trinity River, Trinity River Rafting, weaverville, whiskeytown national recreation area