Tales from California: The Ring of Fire

Andy on the Burnt Ranch section of the Trinity
Great expression Andy!


“I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
and the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.”

– Jonny Cash

Earlier in the week I explained to the others that the best way to get down a river without worrying about it is to give it a sound track to distract you from the “fear”. This led to me spending a lot of time on the water providing a soundtrack for everyone else.

Of course Starship, Queen and Right Said Fred aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, we were in the USA and they don’t really drink tea there!

My other theory is that if I know the general grading of the river I’d rather assess thing as we go along rather than memorise the guidebook. A quick scan of the synopsis to make sure there isn’t any major problems and that things are easily portaged is usually enough to make me happy. In this case I let the others read it and assure me that the guide said everything was easily portaged on the left bank.

Anyway I should have known things were going to go wrong when we got on the Burnt Ranch section of the Trinity River and the only song that was stuck in my head was ‘Ring of Fire’. Not that I’ve got anything against Jonny Cash, in fact I quite like him. But it has to be said it’s not the most uplifting of songs.

Still things started off well. Eddying out to find a Bald Eagle watching you from six foot away is pretty cool. The Golden Eagles further down were sweet as well.

The river was quite laid back at this point but it quickly started to grow some teeth as we progressed. Luckily Mark has an excellent eye for lines and so we were happy to let him do most of our scouting which meant we weren’t making bad time.

Then we reached the crux. Burnt Ranch Falls.

Burt Ranch was different, obviously trickier than everything that had come before. Scouting was done and we successfully negotiated the first two rapids. We stopped in between drops two and three whilst Mark looked for a line, pretty soon he was signalling us down to an eddy just above the last rapid so we could get out and inspect.

Ol and I made it to the eddy and got out of our boats to take a look at what was coming up. As we sauntered up the bank Liz headed towards the eddy, caught an edge and was over. Things moved quickly here Liz was soon swimming, her roll failing her. Ol quickly threw a line to her but she didn’t see it and as quick as that she, and her boat, was over the edge and down the drop.

Mark quickly leapt into his boat and was running the drop after her, after he went over the horizon line I couldn’t see what happened to him.

By this point I was trying to make my way along the bank to see if I could get to a useful position. The rock was treacherously slippery. Granite covered with what seemed to be very fine silt. As I struggled along Dave quickly caught up with me and we proceeded at an incredibly slow pace, at times needing to use slings, ropes and each other to climb up and down the large rock formations.

All this time ‘Ring of Fire’ was echoing around my head.

Eventually we got to a vantage point where we could see Liz sitting on a rock on the bank further down the river. Thankfully she signalled that she was alright.

Again we started the treacherous scramble back to our boats. With Claire, Andy and Ol’s help with a handy rope we got back stopping to look at the rapid Liz and Mark had just run; it was big.

I’ll remind you of the fact earlier that I had been told that the guidebook mentioned everything was easily portaged. Well there was no way we were going to try and carry our boats over the route we had just been down. Dave tried to find a path out of the gorge to the road above, but to no avail.

Reluctantly we started looking for lines through the rapid. Jonny Cash continued what seemed like his tenth encore in my head. And we continued to look for lines.

Despite Ol admitting that he had seen Mark get back looped running the drop we eventually decided we had to run the guts of the thing.

Andy, Ol, Dave and Claire went first. I counted to twenty and followed.

“I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down…”

I rolled up in some incredibly boily, surging water. Then I rolled up again and again. I stabilised myself and realised that I was in an eddy just to the base of the hole beneath the main drop. I tried to paddle out several times and realised it was a fruitless effort. The eddy was re-circulating too much. My only option was to paddle back into the hole. So I did.

I tried to roll to no effect. I was being tossed around all over the place so I pulled my deck. I could see the surface but couldn’t reach it. Bizarrely all I could hear was Jonny’s voice.

“and the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns”

Eventually I broke surface gasping for air some way down stream. Thankfully the rapid was followed by a large flat pool so I floated on my back for a few minutes trying to regain my strength before swimming to the bank.

Looking around I could see the others, Dave was also out of his boat and Mark was taking photos of my predicament whilst the others collected my kit up!

Later the stories came out. Andy seemingly made it though fine, Ol got pushed along the wall beyond the re-circulating eddy but was fine. Claire and Dave found the same eddy as me and both went back into the hole, of the two of them only Claire came out in her boat. Mark had been back looped but rolled up safely and managed to get Liz to the bank as well as collecting her kit!

Liz it seemed had flushed through and seemingly had an easier time that the rest of us!

After the hour or so we’d spent at Burnt Ranch Falls we still had two or three left to paddle, Jonny stayed with me for a the rest of the river seemingly taunting me. But despite this the river didn’t hold any more surprises for us.

Six hours after we started we emerged from the river. Tired and slightly more wary of what California might hold for us during the rest of the trip.

I checked the guide book later. It definitely says the rapid can be portaged.

Despite the fact that this story sounds like a nightmare after a couple of days I found myself keen to go back and try myself against Burnt Ranch falls again. I’m not sure that’s a sane reaction and I didn’t get the chance but I do know I won’t be taking Jonny with me. Now where’s my Belinda Carlisle CD?


Other people’s accounts of this experience can be found HERE.

There is a guide to the river HERE. We think we ran it at about 1400 CFS.

4 thoughts on “Tales from California: The Ring of Fire

  1. Ace article! If I ever get Nick Cave on a river, I’ll know to get off. But I’d like to point out that my roll didn’t fail me; my mind was the problem!

    Billy Idol got me down the Morriston, which was nice. But the whole way down the Toulumne, all I had was a line from Northern Exposure:

    “Hello, boys. I am Carl Jung, and while I know much about the collective unconscious, I don’t know how to drive! Arrrrggggggggh!”


  2. Brilliant post. Your sound tracks made the paddling much more fun although the sentiment of ‘Morning has broken’ didn’t really fit with having to roll on the first two rapids of the Tuolumne. I was in no doubts that the day had started by that stage!

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