Rapid Musings: Tunnel Chute
There are many things guides think before dropping into a rapid: Are you set up, did you tell your crew where to swim if they fall out, and is there beer in the fridge back at the guide house to celebrate or forget whatever happens next?
Dropping into Tunnel Chute on the Middle Fork American River is no different, though your incipient lack of beer is a remote satellite to your universal concerns. Not even the staggering view of Tahoe National Forest or the glassy green tongue spilling into the Class IV wave, Last Chance, offer respite because this wave is exactly its name—your last chance to consider those concerns. After that, you have two choices: eddy out to the left, or charge into the chute.
A bit of background: The rivers of California’s Sierra Foothills have been ravaged by gold mining, both marring and giving life to their rapids. In 1889, miners blasted a mountain ridge along the Middle Fork American River to redirect water flow and more easily collect gold from the riverbed. This was the birth of notorious Tunnel Chute, a whitewater behemoth.
Now, here you are again, in the back of your boat, paddling into Last Chance.
“Forward two,” you shout.
The boat crashes through the foaming mouth and you find yourself in a vacuum, in which there is only water. Pond to the left. Chute to the right.
“Right back! All forward,” your voice echoes into the stars watching over your beer.
Your boat slides into swirling water that slows you down and allows you to set the angle into more waves leading to a blind left turn and 35 feet of elevation loss.
You speak into the roar, “Get down!”
Your crew scrambles to get their butts on the floor of the boat and their paddles in the air. Water engulfs the boat as you pass the frothing gate to the left that nearly a year ago left you upside down and curled, fetal, shooting out of a fire hose gasping for life. Today, though, your boat gains entry without such a toll into the 18-foot-wide rapid. Cliff to one side. Waterfalls to the other. You anchor your paddle and aim downstream. You know touching a wall is disaster.
Floating over bladed teeth and long-drowned sluice boxes, you are awash with the sensation of breaking through the final drop and succeeding wave. Your boat, filled to spilling with people soup, heated by adrenaline and weak bladders, drifts into the tunnel, through millions of years of geologic history and a brief, dynamitic moment.
Even at the end of the day, you find your crew gossiping with giddy enthusiasm about Tunnel Chute.
“O.M.G,” one says.
“Really though,” calls out another.
“Best day ever,” they all agree.
You hear these voices muted—yourself lost in musings of a simple rapid with endless possibilities to wonder. You wake up in the guide house, to the cracking of your last beer, in the hands of someone else.
Note: In the winter of 2016/2017 the entrance to Tunnel Chute was altered by high water, making it a Class V rapid.