Pit River


Flat Water on the Pit River

Looks Flat and Peaceful

Actually it is Pit Falls on the Pit #1 Bypass Reach of the Pit River, east of Burney, California (north of Lassen National Park). This is a rare opportunity for you to push your boat (minus you, preferably) over a 20 foot waterfall, collect it at the bottom, and lower it another 10 feet over the second part of the drop. More on this later…   

Class II Rapids on the Pit River

The Pit#1 Bypass Reach is normally dewatered by PG&E operations, but due to the efforts of American Whitewater (AW), water is restored to this reach 3 (THREE) weekends each year in June, July, and August. We decided to sample this reported Class IV- run with one portage at Pit Falls. We, being Lacey and I in our small cats and our friend from Ashland in his slightly larger cat. We met up at the BLM Pit River campground, which also serves as the take-out for this run and the put-in for a short Class II stretch downstream.   

Luckily for us, Dave Steindorf of AW was camped there as well and intended to run his raft down on Saturday. Since he is a veteran of this run in both rafts and kayaks, we were fortunate to have him lead us down this stretch for our first time. One access point currently is at the bridge just south of Fall River Mills and involves a portageable weir and 3 miles of flatwater. We put in at the Big Eddy Estates, avoiding the flatwater ahead of the good stuff. All of us were on our best behavior as this put-in is on a private easement. There was a sign there indicating that for 2010 this arrangement could change. AW has been working with PG&E to provide an alternate access point, but to date, there is none.   

The whole run is relatively unique in that the rapids are formed where volcanic ledges have been cut by the river. Also, having only minimal flows most of the year allows lots of vegetation to grow in the channel. The upper two miles or so (above Pit Falls) is very interesting Class III+ to IV whitewater, weaving through a variety of reed-lined channels and over sharp (literally) ledges. It was great having Dave in the lead as he seemed to know which channels were clear, something that was NOT obvious from the river. Some of the other choices ended in steep boulder-choked drops that would have been nearly impassable or had trees across them. Not a place you wanted to end up accidentally. Escpecially with Pit Falls lurking downstream.   

Pit Falls

Pit Falls

Pit Falls is magnificent. A river wide volcanic ledge where the river has cut many channels over this 30 foot drop. Choose the wrong one and you’re toast. We opted to portage along the right, pushing the boats over a 20 foot slide into a shallow pool at the bottom. Sounds easy, right? WRONG. Getting the boats to the slide involves sliding them over and through the reeds along the bank. In several places there are DEEP channels that have been cut and lead to nasty places on the falls. We used the boats to “ladder” across a particularly bad channel just to reach the point where we could shove the boats out into the current for the slide. A missed step here and you would go down the WRONG side of the slide and be seriously injured or killed.   

Ghost Boating Slide at Pit Falls

Ghost Boating Slide at Pit Falls

We managed to get the raft and one cat down the right side of the slide, while the other two cats decided (on their own) to run the wrong side. As is often the case, the empty boats made it fine. If people had been on them, the outcome could have been disasterous. Yes, the slide has been run by kayakers and paddle boats, but the prudent thing to do is portage. We then lowered the boats over the last 10 foot ledge to the main river below. Expert kayakers are routinely running the 20 foot slide on river right and a harder 30 foot plunge to the left.   

Below the falls, are a few more miles of good Class III-III+ whitewater with multiple drops on left-hand bends, where the run is usually to the left as well. Except now there is a tree across the left channel in one of them…Take out at the BLM park below the Pit #1 Powerhouse channel. It is best to use the far right channel at the last drop to drop into the eddy. Too far left and you may get swept downstream into the Class II section for another hours river time. The class II section retains some of the “flavor” of the upper section in a user friendly environment. It is much more pool and drop with lots of flatwater. A few channels to choose from and an easy take-out at the Highway 299 bridge.   

Class II on the Pit River

Class II on the Pit River

Overall, this run is very fun, with the portage at the falls being a bit sketchy. It is probably better suited to skilled kayakers than rafters. Dave and his raft got stuck quite a few times, but the cats had better runs as they were much lighter and more maneuverable. Our small, narrow cats were an advantage as there are several “chutes” to negotiate where wider boats have more difficulty. Our friend’s wider cat perched on several rocks that we were able to slip between with our narrower boats. This is definitely a Class IV- run; fun and technically challenging. If you are not ready for the Chamberlain Falls run on the NF American or the Lumsden run on the Tuolumne, then you may not be ready for this one. The falls are a thrill to be sure and beautiful to view.   

Keep posted on what is happening on the Pit and when the releases will occur in 2010 by checking in on the American Whitewater website. This is a great organization and the main reason why we now have recreational releases on the Pit, NF Feather, NF Mokelumne, etc. Become a member and support a worthwhile cause!

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