The morning of our third day dawned clear and beautiful. I lay in my bag, watching sunlight glint off a 747 on the approach route to Los Angeles International Airport, and realized that this was the only indication we were anywhere near one of the world's largest cities. We hadn't seen a soul once we were downstream of Hot Springs Creek, and wouldn't until just upstream of Fillmore. It is small wonder that this was the last stronghold of the near-extinct California Condor.
Just across the creek was a small hot spring, in which I had a good soak before realizing it was littered with tar balls. They looked like black pearls, reflecting the morning light. Remarkably, I didn't get any tar on myself; that would come later in the day.
We boated down through some excellent rapids, and several portages, and finally reached the Tar Creek confluence. Tar Creek is a remarkable sight. Natural asphalt deposits line the banks, formed by tar that has mixed with sand and baked in the sun. Thick oil and tar balls bob down the creek, and petroleum stains the cliffs where it seeps out of the canyon walls. If this mess was manmade, there would be a tremendous outcry. As it is natural, it adds yet another interesting twist to the trip.
Not far below Tar Creek the beautiful purple rock beds seen earlier in the trip reappear, this time at river level. (Geologically speaking, since the rock strata in this area dip to the south at a steeper angle than the river gradient, you ascend the stratigraphic column as you descend the river). Tremendous boulders have calved off of the cliffs like icebergs, and completely choke the canyon. They're 30 to 40 feet high, and sometimes 80 or more feet across, but numbers do not convey the immensity of these boulders. They are as big as houses, and there are multitudes of them. These are the Sequoias of the boulder world. I've been down Kings Canyon and looked at the Cataracts of the Kern, and these famous, boulder choked gorges are put to shame by Sespe Creek.
Boating in this section is out of the question; although it does contain runnable drops, scouting from either the `shore' or from your boat is almost impossible; the boulders only offer tiny glimpses of the creek. Big sieves are visible in a fair percentage of these glimpses.
Progressing through this maze is the crux of the trip, and redefines the concept of portaging. We spent several hours dragging our boats over, under, and through this half-mile boulder field. Rock climbing experience was very useful to effect some of the required slab and chimney moves. While most of the climbing was done in free-solo mode, there was one long chimney traverse in which I had to resort to aid climbing, using my kayak as a bridge. More than once the boats were also jammed vertically and used as ladders. This was also a great opportunity for all of us to get liberal amounts of petroleum smeared on our gear and bodies as we wrestled with our tarry boats and waded through pools shimmering with purple and blue oil films. The feeling of accomplishment - and exhaustion - was tremendous as we approached the end of the portage.
While we did most of our portaging on river left, towards the bottom of this section the cliff walls closed in and we performed a nerve-racking ferry to river right, where the portage continued for a bit more. It was at this point we realized there was no way we could cover the remaining distance to Devil's Gate before dark. Some fun Class III-IV, punctuated by a few short portages followed, before we set up camp for the night on a small sandbar. Dinner was easy: powerbars, soup, and whatever else we could find in the bottom of our drybags.
We got an early start on our `bonus' day, ate light breakfasts (easy to do when you're low on food), and rapidly paddled through some fun Class III/IV before hitting any portages. The canyon started opening up, and we all relaxed a bit, knowing it was just a short distance to the mouth of the canyon. This proved to be a mistake. We scouted a difficult drop with a questionable runout, and a combination of fatigue, hunger, and the need to finish the run convinced us it was runnable. Patrick, in his usual role as our fearless probe, got hammered in the hole below the drop and then suffered the only swim of the trip, scrabbling to shore just above a blind corner. Keith and I rapidly changed our minds about running the rapid; what was one more portage in the scheme of things?
This final portion of the canyon also includes several very enjoyable, long Class IV rapids, interspersed with pools. The signs of civilization become numerous: graffiti on the river rocks, and telephone lines, road cuts, and oil tanks high on the hills. A pair of Class V ledge drops are present here, both of which can be easily portaged on river left. I regretted running the second of these drops after flipping and receiving a painful blow to my shoulder.
The gradient tapers off dramatically below this last pair of drops, to less than 50 feet per mile. One or two Class IV rapids are followed by a 5 mile, Class II-III float through fragrant orange groves.
We were just above our takeout when the Ventura County Sheriff's helicopter circled overhead and touched down on a gravel bar. We beached our boats to talk with them. Keith's fiancee had called them after a sleepless night. The SAR crew radioed our status back to base, then took off in a shower of spray and river sand.
Not long after, having cleaned most of the tar off ourselves with paint thinner, and calling home to let everyone know we were OK, we sat down to eat the biggest pizza we'd ever seen. A good end to an excellent trip. We all agreed that we would do the run again - after we had some time to forget about the portages.
In summary, I'd say that Sespe Creek is one of the finest tests
of wilderness skills I've experienced. While the actual boating
is seldom harder than solid Class IV, it is absolutely essential
to know your abilities. I elected to portage several rapids that
I would have run in less committing circumstances. Also, excellent
fitness is required to survive the `portagefest'. Otherwise you
may be tempted to run something that you shouldn't - as we were.
Last, make sure to allot enough time for the trip, at least three
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