Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Eel River Mountains to Sea - Day 5

Whitewater the Dilapidated Eel River Railroad

Day 5 - We awoke at our camp at the confluence of the main and north fork Eel to sunshine!!!  After enjoying the previous day of exhilarating whitewater and a relaxing afternoon and evening on the beach, we feel ready for whatever lies downstream.  We know that the toughest rapids of the Dos Rios to Alderpoint stretch are coming up.  They are class III, but we are expecting powerful hydraulics caused by the high water.

We start the day immediately with some fun rapids.  The river is still flowing very fast.  We estimate it to be in the 12,000 cfs range.  The water is quite squirrelly at this flow with boiling eddylines that grab at our kayaks and try to spin us about.

The country is fairly open.  The gradient of the river is not very steep but the current is fast for several miles.  Then around one bend, things drastically change.  The river constricts between some boulders, and we seem to be entering a steeper gorge section.  We suspect that we are at Island Mountain Falls and get out to take a look.

This was one of the most fascinating scouts that I have ever done.  I guess because I am continually amazed at all of the abandoned infrastructure, machinery, and rail cars of the Eel River Railroad.

The railroad through the Eel River Canyon was opened in 1914 to transport logging and mining materials and passengers between the San Francisco Bay Area and Eureka.  Since opening, the unstable soils and floods of the Eel River have wreaked havoc on the railroad infrastructure.  A continuous battle ensued between man and nature to keep the 95 miles of tracks and 30 tunnels clear.

The Eel River Valley has the highest erosion rate in North America.  The employees of the railroad were constantly working to clear the track, rebuild the tracks, remove debris from the tunnels and repair cave-ins.

Traveling down the Eel River, catastrophic devastation is evident everywhere.  Derailed cars lie on their sides on the steep banks of the river and in the bed of the river.  The ground has eroded out from under the tracks leaving the tracks suspended in the air and washed into the river.  From the river, most of the tunnels appear to be caved in or blocked by landslides.  Part of the wonder is the way that nature is working to reclaim the terrain.



In 1997 the railroad was abandoned.  Some of the Eel River Railroad employees now work for the Skunk Train in Fort Bragg and Willits.  It is fun listening to tales of their adventures on the Eel River Railroad.

We hiked along the railroad tracks to the bridge that crosses over the river and the entrance to the mile long tunnel that goes under Island Mountain.  It is called Island Mountain because the river circles around the mountain almost 300 degrees.  Standing on the bridge we are well over 100 feet above the river.  It is amazing to think that in December 1964 the river flooded over this bridge and into the tunnel.  During this Pineapple Express Storm, the river was flowing at 936,000 cfs.

At Island Mountain, we hiked along the railroad tracks.  From above we could see the line that we needed to paddle through Island Mountain Falls.  The water was definitely moving fast but the line looked fairly straight forward.

Our run through Island Mountain Falls was fun and exhilarating.  The line was straight forward but the hydraulics that we were paddling beside were HUGE.

On down the river we traveled.

The current was fast and we were enjoying the sights when suddenly the topography on the banks of the river got steep and lined with boulders.  The river was constricting, and we saw a horizon line - Kekawaka Falls.

Kekawaka Falls is a river wide hole (hydraulic).  The reversal was so powerful that I cleared it but it sucked me back in.  I dropped my edge and capsized but it flushed me out and I rolled up.

After Kekawaka Falls, the river valley started to open up and so did the skies.  We continued down river past Alderpoint which is the regular take out for multi day trips on the Eel.  We started scouting for a campsite but with the high water, they were hard to find.  We finally settled on a spot near Cain Creek Crossing where the golden spike was driven in to the rail line in 1914 to celebrate the opening of the Eel River Railroad.  The railroad was closed that same day due to a landslide.

At our camp, we prepared for the upcoming days of flat water - including paddling through the giant redwoods trees of Avenue of the Giants.



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