Darin McQuoid Blog Reviews Tutorials River Directory

Bald Rock Canyon of the Middle Fork Feather River V-V+

“Bald Rock Canyon is one of the most spectacular canyons in California.” This bold statement is the first sentence about Bald Rock Canyon in The Best Whitewater in California. Yet for some reason Bald Rock has always been passed up for other runs in the area, but with a skimpy 37% snow pack in the north Sierras, Bald Rock was the only epic run flowing in California on a beautiful April Monday.

Looking upstream from Milsap Bar in Feather River country, a beautiful, rugged area with profuse amounts of poison oak.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Big plans were made for the weekend, but with bad weather and dropping flows motivation disappeared despite my best efforts to get people on the water. Except a group of Eugene boaters who gave me a call while in route to Bald Rock at 10:30 on a rainy Saturday morning. I lost motivation thinking about a late start, rising flows, portaging Atom Bomb in the rain and the fact that none in the group had done Bald Rock before. Kurt Sable and I had been talking about running Bald Rock on Monday, and with a forecast of 70 degrees and sunshine it was a lot easier to turn down Saturdays rain mission.

Kurt Sable and I met up in Chico at 8:00 and headed out through Oroville to a take-out I can’t even come close to remembering where it was. Take-out options aren’t great for Bald Rock, one requires a 10+ mile paddle out to Bidwell Bar Bridge, the second is a three mile paddle out followed by a very steep half mile scramble to a road, then a mile of hiking on a road with a slight incline. Option three is the best if possible, have a friend with a boat, or pay someone at the marina to pick you up at a set time. Although not paddling out would take away from the full on “mission” style aspect of Bald Rock, I wouldn't complain. Kurt and I went for option two, but it has some setbacks of its own. This take-out lies out at the end of a myriad of dirt roads, and once had a land owner who was very friendly to boaters but has since passed on. The current owners are not friendly towards boaters, but are also rarely there so we risked it.

Milsap bar is a kayaking epicenter, serving as the put-in for Bald Rock, take-out for Devil’s Canyon of the Middle Fork, Little North Fork Feather and South Branch Feather. Milsap is also the epic center for crazy back wood folks, and vehicular break-ins are appallingly common. In light of this Kurt opted to hire a local shuttle driver to take care of shuttle services down to Milsap Bar for us. 

The Middle Fork Feather has a few constants; spectacular scenery, large granite rapids, and wild inaccuracies of the Milsap gauge. The riverbed at Milsap is wide and full of moderate sized boulders that shift every season, changing flow relations on the stick gauge and making the online gauge inaccurate. When the guidebook was written, 6.7’ was roughly 1,500cfs. Kurt and I put in at 6.9’ and 850 on the online gauge. Right away we were surprised by how juicy and filled in everything was. His previous high run was at 7’1” and flows seemed very similar. I know if it was 850 in there I wouldn’t ever go in over 1000. Years later I stand corrected, as the run was very fun at 1,100 in 2013. I can't say whether that is due to gauge or comfort level changes.

The river is fairly open below Milsap bar and we wandered through pleasant class II and III warm up rapids, and about a mile into the run these quickly increased to class IV and V rapids. After being surprised at how large an early rapid was we scouted this drop because at certain flows the hole can be hard to avoid.

Kurt Sable leading the way into Bald Rock Canyon.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Below this rapid we did a quick portage around a constricted bedrock rapid and ran several boulder gardens and then low angle bedrock slides. The low angles slides were great fun if you knew where you wanted to go, but a lot of them resembled low head dams with wide, uniform recirculating holes that would be unpleasant to wander into.

Lt. Dangle

Taylor Robertson, Jason Craig and Stephen Wright in the slides.

 Right at the end of these slides we came upon a massive horizon line filled with gigantic boulders.

The rapid above Atom Bomb Falls.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Rok Sribar runs the last rapid before the Atom Bomb portage.

We ran this one on the right of three doors and then caught an eddy on the right to begin our portage. High flows make the rocks in Atom Bomb move every few years, and it has changed a lot since the first descent. We were able to pass boats and climb down to the eddy for the ferry, no rope work needed. This was the moment I had been fearing the most all trip, the dreaded “death ferry”. Paddling across I found it wasn’t too bad, granted you are riding a thin line between the 10’ ledge in front of you and sieve mess behind, but all the same if you are capable of doing Bald Rock you won’t find it too hard. Just don’t blow this ferry, or the chances are it will all be over. What used to be a sketchy eddy above a sieve at the end of the ferry is now a nice friendly eddy that’s easy to get out in.

Kurt getting started on the second part of the portage around Atom Bomb.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Atom Bomb is nestled in a gigantic granite gorge and one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Kurt and I relaxed, ate lunch and wandered around checking out the scenery after getting our boats to the end of the portage.

Big rocks are all over Atom Bomb.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Lunch time!

This is looking back upstream at the final of three drops that compose Atom Bomb Falls, and if you are thinking about it, these are the clean ones.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Personally I had imagined Atom Bomb to be the climax of the run, but in reality I found it’s really just the end of the warm up. Upstream everything is IV-V, but downstream gradient picks up into long somewhat continuous boulder gardens requiring expert eddy hopping above massive sieves or holes. Knowing the lines or scouting is key in here, aggressive boat scouting may be temping but it would be very easy to end up in a sieve. Eventually at the end of one of the many boulder gardens we caught an eddy at the lip of a huge horizon line, the famous Curtain Falls. Curtain Falls is an amazing sight, not many rivers drop straight over river wide thirty footers.

There are a couple different lines that can be run on Curtain, but the standard is driving right off a nice somewhat auto boofing flake. (It doesn’t land you too flat though.) I initially looked at a long green tongue down the middle into the heart of the chaos at the bottom of the falls, but Kurt mentioned occasional carnage on this line and described the standard line that is always carnage free if run correctly. I hopped in my boat and paddled out to an eddy beneath a rock in the middle of the river. I hoped to exit the eddy on the left, charging right across the left sliding water on lip, getting to the right and straightening out at the end. Exiting the eddy I knew I had underestimated the flow pushing left, and too soon I was on the sliding entrance driving hard right and barely making my initially planned line down the tongue, plugging and resurfacing downstream.

Here is Kurt Sable demonstrating the ideal line on Curtain Falls in Bald Rock Canyon.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

It’s absurdly beautiful down here, and speaking of beauty this is Kurt styling Curtain Falls.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Curtain Falls viewed from high on river right.

Not even fifty yards below Curtain Falls is Super Slide, a ten foot low angle slide into a gigantic hole. The standard line is driving far left or right to avoid the hole.

Kurt breezes down the left line of super slide.
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Jason Craig runs right.

I was feeling fired up after Curtain Falls and decided to plug the big hole down the middle. I eddy hopped as high upstream as possible and gathered as much speed as I could, driving all the way into the heart of the hole, right where the two laterals met. I submerged, felt my boat stall a second and resurfaced on the other side of the pile with a big grin on my face.

Taylor Robertson above Three Doors.

Taylor Robertson in mix of three doors.

Only another fifty yards downstream we were out on the right bank scouting a massive, rapid named "Three Doors". The move was punching a lateral and moving left across a jet of water that pushed to the right, sliding a rock shelf on the left and avoiding an interesting looking hole, finally landing in an eddy and scouting the second half of a rapid. I was feeling good after the previous two rapids and probed down this one, but started off with too much left angle and when I hit the lateral my bow quickly deflected me to the left putting me in a side surf. I knew the lateral released off to the right, so I wasn’t too worried about getting out, but I also knew flushing out the right would make it very hard to get left again. I surfed my way out and started driving left to get onto the shallow rock slide, barely got on the right edge of it and slowly slide down it and because of the right slope, back over to the right at the bottom of the rock ledge and into the funky hole. Thankfully the funky hole let me through unscathed, but I had already missed the eddy on the left. Downstream was some class IV and then a gigantic hole that used to have a sneak on the left. I hoped it was still there and caught the slack water right above left side of the hole. Dropping left over a four foot ledge I hoped to see a nice ramp to get past the hole, but instead found a ledge hole which instantly rear endered me back into the massive hole. I tucked up awaiting a beat down, and my waiting was not in vain. I felt water ripping me all over, threw a quick roll and found myself so deep in the trough that I could barely see, proceeded to continue my beat down with many ends and another roll, window-shaded again in the chaos and considered the possibility of swimming. Eventually I found paddle purchase again, rolled up and got a breath and prepared to swim. Chaos grabbed me once again and I was upside down, getting pulled all over, but I decided to hang on just a little longer, and a few seconds later I felt the turbulent water slow down as I flushed out of the hole, glad to be in my boat and breathing.

After doing a little research I found that this hole is responsible for one blown ear drum and several heinous beat downs. Generally people don’t get stuck in it, but it’s a roll of the dice and some of us are just lucky. Kurt flew through it with no problems and we quickly made our way downstream to portage “Four Deaths”, a rapid that didn’t look nice at all with the healthy flows. The bottom hole never really looks good, but flushes well. The main hazards can be avoided by doing a partial portage on the left and seal launching in.

Taylor Robertson finishing Four Deaths.

Will Pruett, Four Deaths and canyon views.

More large horizon lines continued for the next mile with one more portaged mixed in, until eventually we could look back upstream and see Bald Rock Dome, and the rapids eased to IV and easy Vs again. Kurt and I enjoyed the scenery, making good time down to Lake Oroville.

At Lake Oroville quite a view waits, Feather Falls. Feather Falls is a massive waterfall on Fall River, which loses all its gradient over this seven hundred foot waterfall.

The view of Feather Falls while getting ready to paddle out.

Kurt and I had high hopes of catching a boat ride out, and after half a mile of lake paddling we saw one in the distance and put the heat on, only to see the boat turn around and head off when we were within a quarter mile. We put out heads to the grind stone and finished the paddle out, eventually making it to a small creek that marked the end of the paddle out and beginning of our uphill slog.

Four portages, uncountable rapids and one amazing day found us back at my truck with dusk starting to set in. Bald Rock Canyon is a beautiful place with fantastic scenery and good whitewater. I thought Bald Rock was very comparable to Golden Gate in hardness, although Bald Rock seemed to have more large holes and sieves, Golden Gate seemed a bit more continuous in overall character. It may not have the highest gradient out there, but Bald Rock makes the most of it with its pool drop nature, you can’t see the bottom of the majority of rapids. The downside to Bald Rock is the long shuttle on a rough dirt road, and ever changing take out situation. Wether you paddle three miles to the hard to find mile hike out, paddle all eleven miles across the lake, or hire a boat. None are easy. Every time I do this run I have to look back and thank Kurt Sable for taking me down my first time.

Bald Rock Take Out on Google Maps

For a little tidbit of history, Bald Rock Canyon is the only reason the Middle Feather is still wild and scenic. Railroad engineers once proposed a route through the Middle Fork but were denied by Bald Rock Canyon.

The shuttle and an excellent story of the first descent is in The Best Whitewater in California, a must own if you’re paddling in California.
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...