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Rotator Cuff: Waterfall or Drop?

This is not the first time I’ve flipped a boat, but it is certainly the best photo evidence.

Photo: Classic scenery on Fordyce

Fordyce is a 12 mile day. Probably the biggest and longest 10 miles of whitewater that has ever existed in my little boating world. Maybe even longer than the Crooked River, which is an 18 mile day. Thanks to Nathan for the Canoe/Jetboat shuttle across the 2 mile lake paddle out at the end. We got to see this beautiful area of the world at the end of September this year during the American Whitewater scheduled release. How did we get here? Well it is in the Sierras somewhere in the Tahoe National Forest northwest of Truckee, but that’s not what I mean. I mean why am I trying to run waterfalls in a raft? Honestly, it’s just not graceful, stylish, steezy or easy. Not like the Red Bull helmet wearing kayakers who pierce the backwash perfectly tucked, leaving no splash behind, like an Olympic diver. Not like Carson, who can boof an IK. Rafts are a little more precarious.

Photo: Carson boofs Locomotive 2

No, in a raft going over anything steep is what Bill, Creature Craft put in and take out documentary film maker, just calls a “plop and drop.” I’m not interested in plop and drop, I want to run rapids where style and skill can converge with perfect flows for a clean line. I love a tough challenge that seems insurmountable, an unknown to explore, and a little bit of suffering and fear. I also don’t want to injure myself. I keep telling everyone I am not interested in running waterfalls; and I’m not. But I am. I have a solution to this hypocrisy. I’m not interested in running waterfalls, but I do want to run tall drops. Ok so what is the difference?

Photo: Huck in an R1

My R2 paddling style is typically to stay in the locked in lower leg and seat position and continue paddling when going over drops in order to maintain angle control mid feature and to pull out of the hydraulic at the bottom upon landing. Every time I assume the “hold on, lean back” position, something goes wrong. The first time I took our Hyside paddle cat over Husum, I tucked forward instinctually and we landed it. The second time, I had watched video of other paddlers and decided I should lean back after the boof stroke. My right hand position was pounded for a split second under the veil and I was slurped out of the back of the raft, feet flying into the air. It didn’t seem like conventional wisdom had worked for me and I became shy of trying again without a solid plan and technique.


Photo: Adam in an R1 below Where's Barry

In a situation where the raft is actually in free fall, over vertical, disconnected from the water, or taking an extremely violent hit at the bottom, there doesn’t seem to be much to do besides hold on and lean back. Let’s call that a waterfall. For waterfalls, R2 teams will typically “hold on” or get down and hold on instead of continuing to paddle. How do we know when to plop and drop versus paddle through? The difference between a drop, a slide, and a waterfall can be thought of as a continuum. The graph I’m mentally plotting has steepness and heigh factored in on the Y axis and the paddler’s drop style along the X. But this continuum is subjective. I see intermediate boaters get down and hold on all the time in class III. For myself, the most important question I’m going to ask is,” am I holding on or am I paddling?” I can’t do both. If paddling through it seems like a good idea, then I want to run it. If the consensus is “hold on” then it’s a waterfall in my opinion, and I’m less inclined to try it. Everyone has to draw that line somewhere. I guess that makes me a control freak.

Photo: setting safety for Just a Big IV

Fordyce Creek is one of those runs that is really just a perfect epic for an expert kayaker…and kind of ridiculous for a raft. Which is what makes it exciting! Also we came into it expecting to portage several of the more ridiculous rapids. A lot of the Sierras have these really large dramatic looking granite dome slide features compared to my home runs in the Siskiyous, which tend to be more metamorphic rock in tight forested canyons chocked full of boulders. I don't know where to draw the line between a drop and a waterfall on these large scale granite features in the Sierras, after being constantly surprised by how well they “go.” It takes a while to get used to different geology.

Photo: Rotator Cuff "Hold On" technique

We are scouting and my paddle partner is hesitant to run the waterfall. I’m feeling optimistic about it so I start referring to it as a drop. We did what we now call the pinecone test, which is where you throw a pine cone into the recirc at the base of the drop and see how long it stays under for and where it pops up. At Rotator Cuff Rapid, the pine cone test came back with results of mildly concerning time spent underwater, but no apparent danger. The recovery zone below this drop looked fairly manageable and we already had people downstream as safety, so we went ahead and fired it up.

Photo: Rotator Cuff gets more vertical at the bottom

The “send it” mentality here is not taken as lightly as it sounds. The entire run consists of features like this one and that is what we came here to do. We have been building up to this run for a few years, practicing on sections like 49 to B and Giant Gap. We evaluated if we were able to swim and self rescue from this spot and discussed the potential for shoulder injury. The rapid is named Rotator Cuff after all.

Photo: There is a 12 foot boat in the backwash


We decide to run it, but should we get down and hold or should we stay locked in the paddler's position, actively paddling through the feature? We decided to hold on. Which I guess means it was a waterfall. My bad. But the result is that we were not digging or bracing at the bottom as the raft resurfaced. This is the first time I have flipped the AIRE Sabertooth. We completely submerged first.

Photo: The boat is no longer strait

The hydraulic at the base of Rotator Cuff is not that even, the right half of it has an underwater boil and the left half of it is aerated and less active. So once completely submerged, I think the raft hit the boil and that caused the bow to shoot upwards abruptly. The current coming off of the ramp behind us pushed down on the rear tips of the tubes, exacerbating the problem. Very quickly I am completely airborne about 5 ft above the water. I still have my legs locked in and am crouched and ready in the position we'd landed in. I waited until we were completely inverted and I was about to land on Carson before I put an arm out to break my fall. In hindsight, reaching an arm out is probably not a smart move. I would imagine that's how people break their arms. Instinct. We landed upside down in the safety eddy, pretty much on shore and I came up laughing because of how ridiculously close I came to landing on Carson.

Photo: I'll try to avoid reaching my arm out next time

Next time I’m on Fordyce, I’m going to try paddling through this drop. I’ll report back and let you know how it goes. Let's say, just in theory, that I was going to run waterfalls. I think a tool I could add to my setup is a pair of thwart handles. In watching other folks' Hold On technique, it looks like the grab handles in the middle can help prevent the high side person from pulling the boat over by the perimeter line, a maneuver that I think of as closing the coffin. I've avoided the thwart grab handle in the past because I don't like to let go of the T grip end of my paddle. I'm also not a fan of the whole idea of Hold On as a technique since my paddle affords me so much additional control and stability. I do think there comes a point somewhere on that Y axis of waterfall height or impact that paddling through is no longer a viable option. I'll try to stick below that height.

Photo: we are upside down, not that surprising I guess

I also worry about a grab handle behind the paddler creating the potential for shoulder dislocation or injury if the paddler's momentum is allowed to carry forward at the bottom of the drop. The way the Sabertooth is set up, the paddler's front leg is braced against the front thwart in a foot cup, which helps prevent being thrown forward. At some point, transitioning out of the backwash, we need to move from a Lean Back position to a hinged forward position to dig for a forward stroke. I haven't figured out the timing on this. For a boof stroke, the lean back comes before the stroke, at the lip. I'm back in the neutral position by the time we land a boof. With a taller drop that I'm going to Hold On for, like we did here on Rotator Cuff, I think we missed our window of opportunity to grab a stroke while we were underwater in the backwash. Those paddles being put to their intended use, along with a little right angle at the bottom of Rotator Cuff, are ideas I'm going to try next time.

Photo: Yep that's a waterfall. Split Falls.

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