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Solo Kayak Trip Report: Waters High, River Closed!

I set out on 4.19.11 for a three or four day solo trip with the Merced River confluence as the ultimate destination. I did not make any firm plans other than to go as far as possible, camp where it seemed safe, and keep my iPhone dry in case I got lost or needed support (Thank you Sarah for your flexible shuttle support). The river flow gauge read 6,850 cfs at the Lost Lake Park when I left on Tuesday morning, showing substantial flood releases from Millerton. I paddled hard from sunrise to sunset, slept 12 hours each night, and enjoyed the rare view of a completely inundated river channel. The trip went as follows:

Day 1: Palm Ave in Fresno to Mendota Pool – 47 miles in 9 hours.
Day 2: Mendota Pool to the Merced Wildlife Refuge – 43.7 miles in 11 hours.
Day 3: Stopped unexpectedly at diversion near Sandy Mush Rd. – 5.2 miles 2 hours.

I used a 10’ Pelican Castaway sit-on-top kayak for my trip. I really enjoy the small sit-on-tops for their ease of motion in the water. Try to balance your loads between the front and back storage compartments to make for better maneuverability, and be sure to use water-tight drybags because water gets in through the seals.

This is the Hwy 99 bridge. Flows from Palm Ave. to Skaggs Bridge Park were a bit dangerous and I would not recommend anyone without advanced boating experience to get on the river, especially in a canoe.  There were many willow thickets with debris piled up that can suck you into their vortices. I had to make quite a few mad dashes in my kayak to avoid the obstacles. Watch out for the whirpools and upwellings created by these thickets, even a small upwelling can throw you over board if you are not prepared.

Can anyone tell me what this is?


Right away it became evident to me that we need better protection for the river bluff.  If left unchecked private landowners seem to think they can do whatever they want to the native vegetation.  Is this true? I have a feeling that this is due to a lack of riparian monitoring by State agencies.

The river parks were all flooded creating an strange ghost town feel. Because of the early season and flood flows, I was the only boater on the water, and only saw two fisherman at Mendota pool recreating on the San Joaquin.

 On the river stretches near Kerman, which were typically dry before the San Joaquin River Restoration Program began releasing water, the flows reach bank-to-bank or levee-to-levee. Historically the leveed stretches would stretch out over vast areas creating a floodplain. The restoration program is exploring opportunities for floodplain recovery, until then the river will simply follow the canal-like channel. Without expanded floodplains there is not much opportunity for re-establishing a riparian forest here.

Nice Lupine flowers submerged near Shields Ave.

This is the first diversion structure sending water from the river down the Chowchilla Flood Bypass. Here boaters have to portage (drag) boats over the dam to continue downstream. Most of the flows were diverted from the river channel because flood flows from the Kings River of approx. 3,000 cfs were entering Mendota Pool downstream.


Old cars left to rot. Historic scenery or simply trash?  What are your thoughts?

Cloudy scenery at Mendota Pool (Photoshop modified using high color saturation for dramatic effect).

River was moving too fast for river cleanup. I tried to rescue this stranded fellow to no avail. He didn’t look too worried.


Great Blue Heron Nests on treetops. A baby owl (?) in a bare tree. It was hard getting bird pictures this trip because I was paddling too hard and they all heard me coming. Floating at river's pace allows for much more bird watching opportunities.


Day 2 was 'The Day of the Hawks'. This guy was mad and made several diving swoops within paddle’s reach of my head. After scaring 10 hawks out of a dead tree, they circled overhead for a minute; one targeted my boat and hit the bullseye right between my legs. Nice shot! I rarely see hawks travel in a pack like that, scary.


Grazing the river banks strips all vegetation. This surely can’t be legal? What about water quality, erosion, loss of native plant species, increased invasive plant species, etc.? I wasn’t too happy about getting my kayak stuck on a goat fence near Firebaugh, this is supposed to be public property.


Check out the transformation at Hwy 152.


This is the Eastside Bypass where the full flows of the river are diverted into a broad flood channel.  Within a half-an-hour of entering this channel, 20 mph evening winds kicked up making for a very exciting paddle through little waves and whitecaps.  What a workout, whew.


By evening I reached the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Nothing but water and inundated willow forests as far as I could see in all directions. Felt like I entered an eerie post-climate-change waterworld, strange creature sounds everywhere as the sun set. Camping on the levees that enclose this reserve is not allowed so I recommend bringing a hammock and mosquito spray, mooring to a mature willow, and sleeping over the water. Please someone let me know where some good camping is on this river! I didn’t find one official campsite in nearly 100 miles.

Rainbow over Merced National Wildlife Refuge Rainbow at Merced National Wildlife Refuge in morning

Woke up to a spectacular sunrise with a rainbow, the moon, wildlife, and sun together. What a way to start the day.


I guess it was too good to last. It turns out the flows were redirected from the Eastside Bypass to the Grasslands diversion. The landowners met me at the diversion and ordered me to leave. They contend that the river and levees at this point are all on private property and that access is prohibited.  It must be nice having full access to a Public Trust Resource without the public, State, or federal agencies around as a watchdog. I believe State recreational boating codes do allow navigation in these channels, but this is a debate for another day – I didn’t feel like an altercation and didn’t want to tumble down the 4ft drop on the spillway because my rig was not completely watertight. I soaked my iPod in Mendota Pool and couldn’t afford any more digital equipment losses this trip. I will try this again and hopefully complete my journey to the Delta this year.  Please join me!

Chris Acree

Executive Director,

Revive the San Joaquin


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