Monday, May 15, 2023

The Eel River

Are you curious about the Eel River?

In recent years, we have been getting more and more inquiries about kayaking, rafting, and canoeing on the Eel River.  It has been exciting to see more boaters on the Eel.  It is almost as exciting as seeing other wildlife along the river.  Perhaps some of the recent interest has to do with publicity and planning of The Great Redwood Trail.

Trestle and Tunnel at Island Mountain on the proposed Great Redwood Trail.

Yesterday, I was kayaking the Outlet Creek Run on the Eel with our local crew and we were chatting about the misinformation out there about the Eel.  We are stoked to see other boaters and want them to enjoy the Eel.  However, there seems to be a bit of misinformation out there so I was inspired to write this post and plan to follow up with YouTube Videos and informational posts on the Eel to help people plan and enjoy the Mighty Eel River and hopefully avoid misadventures.

Bear print in the sand on the Eel River.

Four key things to know about the Eel -

1. It is AWESOME!

2. Figuring out the flow is the greatest challenge.

3. The Eel has some amazing whitewater and is often underrated in guidebooks and write-ups.

4. Shuttle and parking information for multi-day trips.

The Eel River is AWESOME!

The Eel River is the 3rd largest watershed in California.  It has 4 main forks and the character of the river varies greatly depending upon the section and depending upon the flow (discussed further in section 2).  My two favorite aspects of the Eel are the whitewater and the wilderness.  The Eel has options for mellow and scenic float trips or exhilarating and potentially challenging whitewater trips.  Jeff and I just completed a 70 mile self-support whitewater kayak trip from Dos Rios to Dyerville.  We have numerous trips on the Eel under our skirts including a 169 mile Source to Sea Run.

Kayak camping at a creek along the Eel River.

Flows on the Eel River

Everyone agrees that the greatest challenge of running the Eel River is the flow.  Having flow, knowing what the flow is, and predicting the flow.  

Below Dos Rios there is a train engine in the water that is only visible at lower flows

Traditionally the flow of the Eel River is rain-fed so it is a rainy season run.  Predictors are not very accurate.  The first couple of rains of the year are not usually worth getting excited about.  The water quality is not good and the ground is not saturated.  As the rainy season progresses and the ground becomes more saturated, the forecast models are a little more accurate.

When there is a good snow pack in Mendocino National Forest, we can usually count on a longer season for the Middle Fork Eel and the Main below Dos Rios.  This year is one of those good snow pack years.  I expect the Middle Fork and Main Fork runs below Dos Rios to be good through Memorial Day and possibly into June.  It is hard to predict though not knowing how fast the snow is going to melt and run off.  Last month, we hit a heat wave that triggered a large snow melt run-off.  It tapered off but seems to be picking up again.

Snow on Sanhedrin Mountain above the Main Fork Eel.

We are also seeing more flow on the river above the confluence with the Middle Fork (Pillsbury Run, Hearst Run, and Outlet Creek Run.  This is because PG&E has decided not to put the upper level boards up on the Scotts Dam and any snow melt that is coming into Lake Pillsbury is flowing into the Main Fork of the Eel River.

Whitewater kayakers choosing their line on the Split Rock Rapid.

Whitewater on the Eel

The local whitewater kayakers agree that many of the write-ups (online and in books) tend to underrate the whitewater of the Eel - in particular the 3 main runs on the main fork.  The runnable flows of the Eel  River is large dependent upon the skill level of the paddlers.  As the water level and flow increase so does the potential difficulty of the river on each of the stretches.  It is very fun to run the Eel at different levels - it is almost like running a different river.

Liquid Fusion Kayaking's Jeff Laxier in his happy place - running the Eel River.

Here is American Whitewater's Safety Code.  This is a good resource for river runners.  Reading the descriptions of the river ratings for each of the classes makes me wonder why the authors rated the runs as Class II.  Here is American Whitewater's Description of Class III -

Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. 

According to the description, most of the whitewater sections on the Main Eel are Class III.

Local Eel River Boater Paul Futscher riding down the Eel.

The Hearst Run is primarily Class II with a couple of Class III rapids.  One of the challenges of the Heart Run is that it is 18 miles of wilderness.  Once you put on, there is no easy getting off.  Winter days when the flow is good are often chilly and gets dark early.  As the water flows increase so does the difficulty.  It is a gorgeous narrow gorge that gets quite squirrelly as the flows increase.   It is similar to the boils of Mule Creek Canyon on the Rogue River.  Here is a link to what is currently the most accurate description of the Hearst Run.  Here is a link to a new gage at Hearst. 

Entering Shotgun Rapid aka Ramsing Corner on the Hearst section of the Eel River.

The Outlet Run is the 7 mile stretch of the main for Eel that runs along Highway 162.  The put in is at the confluence of the Eel with Outlet Creek.  The take-out is just above Dos Rios.  Old-time boaters used to call it Chili Bar of the North because is comparable to the Chili Bar Run on the South Fork of the American River.  It is a fun class III whitewater run at flows from 2.5 feet to 5 feet (500ish to 2500ish cubic feet per second - cfs).  For details on the run, check out this write-up.  

The Final Drop on the Outlet Run of the Eel changed in 2019 high water event.

There is a new gage on the Eel near Hearst.  We have found the gage to be correlated to the spray painted gage on the bridge at the put-in for the Outlet Run.  Here is a link to the Dreamflows Hearst Gage.

Spray painted gage on the bridge at the confluence with Outlet Creek.

The Dos Rios to Alderpoint Run - 45 mile multi day.  The character of this run is quite different from low flows (below 4000 cfs) and high flows (above 8,000 cfs).  At the lower end, it is a fun run with many class II and a couple of class III rapids.  On the lower flows, you have time to see and make your moves.  At higher flows, the river has very squirrels eddy lines, whirlpools, and large boils.  It is similar to big volume river running like the Grand Canyon.

Big water wave train on the Eel River at Rapid 201.

One of the fascinating features of the Dos Rios to Alderpoint Run is the remnants of the Eel River Railroad.  The Eel River Canyon has the highest erosion rate in the United States and plagued the railroad from its early days until its final run in 1997.  Talk of reopening the railroad line or even creating a trail seems pretty far out there when you see how untamed the Eel River Canyon is.

Another railroad car off the rails and on the bank of the Eel River.

Here is a Dos Rios to Alderpoint to a writeup.  In this write-up, the photos are definitely from a low flow run. The river is quite different as the flows get higher.  I am working on a YouTube Video from our most recent run which was in the 8000-9000 range.  I also am thinking of writing a more comprehensive description and guide to the run.  Please let me know if you have any input to share.

Blue sky peaking through on our campsite on the Eel River.

4.  Shuttles and Parking.  Below are 3 options for shuttle drivers.  If you decide to run your own shuttle, we do not recommend parking overnight along Highway 162 or in the Alderpoint area. 

Black Butte Ranch

Donna - (707) 613-1292 (text)

Zak - (707) 391-2008 

Are you still Eel - Curious? 

If so, I have started reviewing footage from our trips this spring and am working on putting together some videos for YouTube.  Be sure to subscribe to the Liquid Fusion Kayak YouTube Channel to learn and see more of the Eel.

Also, please let me know if there are any topics you would like for me to write about regarding the Eel River.  I am going to create a special page on my Woman on Water Blog for the Eel River to share trip reports and stories and information.

Hiking along the rails on the proposed Great Redwood Trail.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent essay, Cate! Where is Split Rock rapid? That's also the name of the NF gorge between Mina and the main Eel.