Deer Creek
( Ishi Creek )

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Deer Creek is a grand adventure, consisting of forty miles of sustained class IV and V whitewater in an ultra-remote wilderness setting. Deer bisects the Ishi Wilderness area in Northern California, and the scenery on this run is spectacular.

Many consider this creek to be one of the premier wilderness self-support runs in the Western United States, and I would have to agree with that assessment. Deer Creek is usually done in two or three days, more if you wish to explore the caves and ancient Indian villages hidden along the way.

You will never forget your first run down this creek; it is truly a wonderful, thrilling, altogether fulfilling experience!

The wilderness surrounding Deer Creek is also the source of one of the great stories of American Anthropology. In 1911, the last known surviving Yahi Indian walked out of the Deer Creek wilderness and into his place in history. The man, who was dubbed 'Ishi' (which means "Man" in the Yahi language) had lived in caves near Deer Creek undetected for most of his life, until he wandered out into the world. Up to that point, it was assumed that the Yahi had been annihilated by settlers and other tribes, so his appearance shocked the world.

Ishi lived out his life at the University of California until his death from tuberculosis on March 25th, 1916. To this day, some actually call Deer Creek "Ishi Creek", and the surrounding area the Ishi Wilderness.

We ran Deer Creek on the second day of our epic Spring 2002 California Creekin' trip. On the previous day we had run Jenny Creek, which was about five hours north-west of the Ishi wilderness area. We drove down immediately after taking off of Jenny, and didn't get into Red Bluff (California) until around 11 p.m. After paddling all day and driving well into the night we were too tired to push on towards the mountains, so we decided to sleep in Red Bluff.

John Whaley and Jesse Coombs opted to crash out in Jesse's Westfalia van in the Wal-Mart parking lot, while I opted for a hotel and a shower. Needless to say, I picked poorly and ended up in a horrible dive on the south side of Red Bluff. I fell asleep hoping the cockroaches wouldn't run off with my gear in the night, or that I wouldn't catch some funky disease from the sheets...

The next morning when I arrived at the Wal-Mart parking lot, Jesse and John were still asleep. It was very early, so I decided to start packing for our self-support run down Deer. I took my time, and just as I had everything out and laid out on my car and boat, the devil himself arrived with a roar. He was in one of those little mini-sweeper trucks that cleans up parking lots, and when he saw all of my gear lying out (camera equipment, clothes, food) and made a beeline for me, blowing dust and debris all over my gear. I could almost hear him screeching like a madman as he drove in ever-tighter circles around my car, creating a tiny tornado while I scrambled to cover everything up. When I finally got everything into my car with a frustrated curse, he pulled over on the far side of the parking lot and got out to smoke a cigarette.

About this time John stumbled out of the van, blinking and muttering about all the noise. "You won't believe this." I said. "I'm out here getting terrorized by that guy over there in his crappy little truck..."
John grumbled some more and climbed back in the van, and then I made a tactical mistake: I pulled my gear out of my car again. Just as I started loading my boat I heard a terrible roar as the sweeper fired up his truck and headed straight for me. "You gotta be kidding me.." I muttered in disbelief as he bore down on me like the wrath of god. Once again I was enveloped in a cloud of dust, and once again I scrambled to get my stuff back in my car before it got covered with dirt and debris.

By now John and Jesse wide awake, and gaping in disbelief while the sweeper relentlessly strafed my car. At this point I had two choices: Go to jail for murder, or move my car. Against my better judgment I moved my car, and then he swooped onto John and Jesse. John yelled defiantly and hurled a yogurt container into the parking lot, and immediately the little truck swerved and homed in on the hapless container, sucking it up with a hungry roar.

By this time I was safely on the other side of the parking lot, and now it was my turn to watch in disbelief as the sweeper zoomed around Jesse's van, churning up a furious plume of dust. Soon he stopped again, and Jesse and John pounced. Before the sweeper could react they fired up the van and started circling him, honking their horn and yelling at the top of their lungs.

"I can't believe this." I thought... "I woke up in a Dukes of Hazzard episode..."

Soon enough we were outside of Red Bluff and headed towards the mountains, avoiding parking lots at all cost. We found the take-out for Deer Creek, but I was a little nervous about leaving my car in such an exposed spot for an extended period. There weren't any parking lots nearby, so I was mostly worried about vandalism or theft. After milling about for awhile we spotted a house nearby and Jesse suggested we talk to the landowner about access. The guy was really nice, but he has had problems with paddlers in the past. He said they have cut his fences, and also trespassed upstream on his neighbor's property. (The lower 10 or 15 miles of Deer is on private property, and all of the landowners have had negative experiences with paddlers.)

We were a little dismayed, but after some conversation the owner let us park on his property. He said if you park by the bridge the sheriff will tow you, which only leaves the bridge over highway 99 (miles downstream) as the other take out option. We were lucky, and a little goodwill went a long way in this case.

Soon enough we were headed east again, and finally we arrived at the creek. The flow at the put-in looked good (300-400 cfs) and we were psyched to get on the creek. After lazing around in the sun for awhile, we finally put on around 10 a.m., and we drifted off into the unknown.

The guidebook talked about how Deer Creek was rare because it had almost thirty miles of sustained quality whitewater, and we were not disappointed. The first five miles was very fun, with continuous class III-IV boulder gardens and very nice scenery. Soon we caught an eddy above an ominous looking horizon line and got out on the right to scout.

It was a waterfall, and it looked pretty tough. The lead-in was nice, but it looked hard to stay on line over the final drop, which plunged about 15 feet into a horrendous hydraulic backed up by a wall just downstream. None of us seriously considered it, and we found a nice path about forty feet up the right side bank that made portaging easy.

John and Jesse contemplate the only mandatory portage on Deer Creek.
The guides call this drop 'Fishladder Falls'.

There was a very nice gorge below the falls (pictured above) and then some nice ledges and tight boulder gardens.

Jesse runs a boulder garden downstream of Fishladder Falls

John runs a fun drop downstream..

We had heard that the scenery on Deer was spectacular, and we were not disappointed. Somewhere below the falls we ran into a group of Tahoe-area boaters taking a siesta on a beach, and they gave us some beta on a great campsite downstream. We moved quickly, and by nightfall we had reached the campsite above the first gorge. This spot is easy to find as there is an ancient wooden bridge spanning the gorge. There were excellent grassy campsites up on the left and right wall, and we settled in for the night full of anticipation for the day ahead. The temperatures hovered in the 60's all night, so we awoke the next morning refreshed and ready to go.

After a hearty breakfast of Chips Ahoy! and powerbars, we hit the creek. We didn't know it, but we were right above the toughest part of the run. Soon the walls started to tower overhead and the rapids started liven up a bit.

John and Jesse on the morning of day two, just above the first real gorge section..

The boulders were massive in this section, and the water tore down through them, pushing us around a bit with a few undercuts and holes to keep us guessing as we cruised downstream.

Jesse enters the first gorge.

After some fun drops we arrived at the most difficult rapid so far. Here the water divided around a boulder, dropping a total of about ten feet before piling into another boulder at the bottom. John and I scouted while Jesse waited in the pool above. While I yelled verbal instructions (which mainly consisted of BOOF HARD!!) Jesse lined up and cleaned the drop, clearing the first part without a wobble and flipping below where the water piled up on the boulder. The photo below doesn't do this drop justice in terms of scale, but you get the idea..

Jesse gets ready to launch off the first part of a drop the guides refer to as 'Coffin Trough'.

Below Coffin Trough was a burly rapid John and I both portaged. Here the creek roars down a chute into a huge creek-wide hole. While John and I set up safety, Jesse the drop right down through the middle of the hole. Much to our surprise, he surfaced below the drop and cruised effortlessly downstream with a smile. I didn't shoot any photos of this drop because we were more focused on safety, but it was probably the most consequential runnable rapid on the creek in my opinion. (excluding Fishladder falls)

Below here were more fun drops, including a few named in the guides: Antepenultimate, Penultimate, and Ultimate.

John, approaches the final hole in 'Antepenultimate' while Jesse looks on.

Soon the creek mellowed, and we wondered if we were done with the fun stuff. The scenery was still really good, but the whitewater was less interesting than in the upper gorges. We had also begun to descend into the valley, and the geology started to gradually change, with a darker, almost black rock forming some of the drops. Just when we thought it was all over, we were confronted with a large horizon line, which turned out to be Ishi Falls. At this point we were focused on moving downstream, so we moved quickly through this drop and more like it downstream. Interestingly, some of the largest rapids on the creek were in this lower section, which surprised all of us after being lulled by the easy middle section. The boulders were huge, and they formed very steep, fun drops with nice holes and interesting lines.

By dusk on the second day we were starting to enter the valley, so we made a conscious decision to stop and camp while the scenery was still nice. We had paddled over 20 miles that day, but we weren't sure if we could make it to the take-out bridge before dark. Besides, the canyon was so scenic we decided to relax and quit early...

The next morning we moved down the creek in a very focused manner, and we paddled the final five or six miles in about two hours.

Jesse cruises down through the last part of the gorge below where we camped on the second night.

We got to the car pretty early, and immediately loaded the boats, left a note thanking Fred, and headed back up into the mountains to set shuttle on nearby Mill Creek. The Mill Creek shuttle turned into a semi-debacle, but that's another story. All of that aside, Mill Creek (which is thirty miles long, class V wilderness self-support) turned out to be even better than Deer Creek in almost every way!

The fact that these two classic wilderness self-support runs are so close together and run in the spring when the weather is warm is something of a minor miracle in my opinion...

For more photos and descriptions of Deer Creek and many other California runs, go to
Bill Tuthill's superb website: California Creekin'