Pyramid Run on Middle Piru by Paul Macey
The Pyramid Run on Piru Creek is approximately three miles of whitewater below Pyramid Dam to Frenchman’s Flat. On December 19 and 20, 2019, a group of 10 paddlers ran Pyramid at 300 and 200 cfs, respectively, as part of a flow study required for the relicensing of the South SWP Hydroelectric Project. The results of this flow study will contribute to efforts to secure future scheduled flows for this reach. The study’s original focus was Middle Piru Creek from Frenchman’s Flat through the Wild and Scenic section to Lake Piru. But American Whitewater, the National Park Service and local paddlers including Rick Norman thought it worth checking out the short section below the dam too. There was a belief it might have some good class 2-3 whitewater we could use for teaching beginners and intermediate paddlers. There were several agencies involved, but from the perspective of the paddlers this meant we had water, road access and shuttle drivers, and some surveys to fill out.
Despite being only 3 miles long, this section has several distinct way points, including Locations 1 through 6 as marked on this map developed by the project team.
Just below the bottom of the dam is Pyramid Pool (no boaters allowed), and 50 meters downstream is what some paddlers used as their top put-in, easily and safely accessed from a right-bank fishing trail, that is generally not accessible to kayakers. 200 meters beyond is the Pyramid Dam Bridge, with the “official” access point down the rocks river right (Location 1). Adit Bridge and causeway (Arizona crossing) follows at about 1.5 miles (Location 2). Red Gauge Drop is at just under 2 miles (Location 3), with another access point a quarter mile or less downstream (Location 4). Here you find an easy trail down from the road, leading to the bottom of what we call” Rebar Alley,” where just above lie remnants of the reinforced concrete that once lined (or armored) the riverbed. The Old Highway 99 Bridge(Location 5) is about 2.5 miles from start. About a quarter-mile beyond lies the top of Frenchman’s Flat, with the bottom (takeout) at just over 3 miles (Location 6). Including the top put-in, that’s 7 access points in 3 miles.
Study Day One: Thursday, December 19, 2019 - 300 cfs
We decided to start with a warm-up section. Nine of us put in at the Old Highway 99 Bridge (Location 5) around 9:30 a.m., with 300 cfs in the channel. There had been two days of ramp-up, so the riverbed was reasonably saturated and partially cleared of debris. Indeed, the first surprise was how much the channel had cleared out —Anthea Raymond and I had walked the entire creek bed at low flows before the release — and how clean and nice the Class II features were.We jumped on a few at a time (3-4 paddlers was the maximum for the top feature), and spread out.
There were two surf waves available near the put-in just above the bridge. The top one was accessible from eddies both right and left, with some brush river right. Just below was a second surf wave that was small but fun, and could be surfed after an attainment on river right. Some of us could have spent an hour on those top features.
A short distance downstream, under the bridge, we also had plenty of room to gather and try out a few eddy turns. Overall, we spent a good hour under the bridge, and came away satisfied with its teaching potential. We even had someone demonstrate that you could swim there and recover without problems, as there is a 25-yard long pool downstream of the bridge.
Just beyond the bridge the large eddies disappeared. It became difficult to see the whole group, let alone fit everyone in one eddy, so we strung out in a line of paddlers following each other carefully. (We’d gone over paddle and whistle signals so we could communicate when out of sight, although we’d need to make an adjustment to those shortly!)
The entrance to this next section was tule grass flattened by the higher water, and was quite pretty. Turning the corner, the river split. I took a right channel that quickly became messy, and I signaled the group to stop. After a little bit of boat/brush scouting, the left channel looked cleaner so we signaled the group to go that way. A continuous stretch followed, which was reasonably clear with class II+ rapids around rocks and small eddies on the side. Fun, but not much room for nine people! We came upon a slightly larger drop marked by a boulder in the middle of the current. After scouting from land, the left channel looked best.
I told the next three people where to go, and they passed on the signal upstream. However, passing a signal upstream along nine paddlers worked out about as clearly as you’d expect. We also had agreed a single whistle meant “go” or “come on down.” I whistled, and everyone came down at once. Also, one person did not see the left channel, and was followed by four others into the right channel instead. Three flips and two swims later we decided to amend our single whistle signal to mean ONE person come at a time, not everyone all at once! However, everyone was fine, and we carried on through the easy (and pretty) narrow tule grass channels to the takeout.
After a quick bite, we headed to the Pyramid Dam Bridge (Location 1) for a full run.
From the bridge, we could see below the hardest rapid on the run we now call “Chase the Dog.” It has a fairly long entrance and finishes with a drop. The drop must go pretty deep as there was aerated water below it for a long way downstream. At 300 cfs, with a few logs in the main flow, it was probably a IV+ rapid. With no logs and 200 cfs it would be class IV. We also scouted upstream of the bridge, and found a nice class III-ish rapid with quite a few branches to dodge. Chris Mattox and I decided to put in just above here. There’s easy access via a fishing trail river right from the turnaround above the bridge. This took us to just below Pyramid Pool, the splash pool at the bottom of the dam. At 300 cfs, the put-in reminded me of a full spring creek, with rocks covered and continuous rapids for a short stretch – super fun! We headed down, and quickly got to flatter water, with a couple of minor rapids. Just above the bridge, weaving through rocks (and branches) was a lot of fun. We eddied out at the top of Chase the Dog, then headed down. Its right turn into a clean boof over the final drop was made all the more fun by the cheering hordes on the bank.
Paddlers Donette Dunaway, Jose Magana, and Ray Fields joined us here. A large pool gives decent access from the road, though requiring a climb down some boulders and loose soil. This is still the best option as upstream right by the bridge the bank is very loose and would make an awkward put-in.
The stretch from Pyramid Dam Bridge to the Adit Bridge (Location 2) was mostly clear of brush, and had some nice, short class III-IV little drops. (Chris added: With a cohesive group of five, there were plenty of eddies to gather and boat scout as needed, even at 300 cfs.)
Mostly the rapids were small and creeky, though there was one section with a couple of larger boulders and a house-size boulder, where we went right.
About 200 meters after this rocky rapid, we portaged around a large log that crossed the river. It was clearly visible from a flat section 50 meters upstream, and there was an easy portage on the left, and easy put-in on a slab just below the log. The eddies above the log were small and sketchy, so we planned and did get out early.
(The next day at 200 cfs, some people managed to paddle under the log on the left – although we did get two boats pinned there along with a couple of swims!)
After the log, several flat sections interspersed with short easier rapids took us to the Adit Bridge where the road passes over the bridge under water Arizona crossing-style.
We elected to go under the bridge on the middle right, which had a pretty clean entrance despite its low height.
From there, we ducked left, ran a short rapid, then portaged around another branch across the river. This branch could easily wash out, so with luck it will be gone in the future. At 200 cfs some folks went right over it, but we climbed into a parallel channel and relaunched.
A little class II rapid followed, then it was pretty mellow to the so-called Red Gauge Drop.
Red Gauge can be seen from the road. And from the river, it’s pretty obvious when it’s coming up: the ridge comes down on the left, there’s flat water to a horizon line, and you can hear sound and spray from the drop. A thermometer-style gauge on the right bank marks a good spot to take out and scout or portage.
Some people ran the drop center, and others down a slab on the left. Both lines were pretty straightforward, although the slab allows more room for error. We knew from hiking the riverbed earlier there was nothing unsafe in the drop. Helpfully, paddler and scout Rick Norman had cut out the piece of rebar sticking up in the middle of that slab. We think hidden pieces of rebar could remain in the pool, so it’s a good place to be conservative.
Immediately after the Red Gauge Drop comes what we’re calling Rebar Alley, which makes a lot of sense after a walk down the right bank of this section. For starters the chutes immediately below the Red Gauge pool hide nasty rebar under or at water level at 300 cfs. (Seeing this at 200 cfs the next day we realized it could be easily avoided.) From small drop right or left, a long flat section leads to a river-wide mess of logs and branches. This can be pushed through left or right, especially at the lower flow. Immediately following is another rapid formed by piled-up concrete slabs. Rick Norman also trimmed rebar here. But the collapsed concrete structure has trapped three large branches that clogged our path.
The next day, the expert boaters group paddled this section at 200 cfs safely; with some brush clearing it could be completely fine for most. But on this day, we decided to walk past the mess. We carried our boats to the road and entered back down a fishing trail (Location 4) about 220 yards below the Red Gauge Drop.
Four other paddlers joined us there: Rick Norman, Melody Dunwoody, Magno Escobar, and Anthea Raymond.(Anthea and Magno had hoped to meet us at Location 2, but found the put-in there complicated since the river-right side of the Adit bridge is submerged at 300 cfs.) Several large eddies made putting on here no problem, with time to warm up as the river meandered through some pretty trees and a few easy, short rapids at Location 4. Probably around 300 meters from the put-in, the river steepened and went into a continuous class III section we’re calling “Fast and Furious.”
There were a few tight eddies, but not much space for the nine of us! We did have one swim, which went on for a while and involved getting caught up in logs that accumulated at a couple of points. That swim made it pretty clear this was not going to be a beginner run. However, it was super fun class III! The rapid then led into the class II teaching section under the bridge. We carried on uneventfully to the Frenchman’s Flat takeout.
A quick change, then we filled out our surveys. Then beer.
Study Day Two: Friday, December 20, 200cfs
We repeated the sections we’d ran at 300 cfs, with American Whitewater’s Theresa Simsiman replacing Melanie. We also had more people run the upper sections, adding Jose on Chase, and Anthea, Theresa, and Magno at the Pyramid Dam Bridge. Eric Giddens also joined us on the run through Location 4; he had tested it earlier in the day with some of the expert boaters from the Middle Piru Flow Study crew. The rapids above Location 1 were noticeably calmer and less interesting at 200 cfs. Chase the Dog had little power in the water, so even with a new tree in our way it felt easier than at 300 cfs. Still fun, just not as good.
Moving down the section — at what had been our first portage on Thursday — Eric showed us how to paddle under the log.
He made it look easy, but Jose managed to get his boat pinned, which led to Magno crashing onto it and getting his boat pinned too -- both swam. But the water was deep and the runout gentle. So for those in their boats it was more entertaining than scary. Other lines on the run were essentially the same as at 300, although Eric did paddle the entire Rebar Alley section. Overall, the class II-Ill rapids were no easier at 200. In fact, I would say 300 is smoother overall as you hit fewer rocks. That said, 200 was still fun.
Ray Fields made an excellent video of his experience that captures the Pyramid Run’s full range: https://vimeo.com/386984970
Potential Teaching Locations
1. Highway Bridge Put In (Location 5)
The bridge is just over a half-mile walk from the gate at Frenchman’s Flat. There is easy access river left on the upstream side of the bridge, where a trail leads to the top of a short class II rapid. The top feature has a little surf wave and eddies on either side, and can handle 3 or 4 paddlers. We could surf the wave pretty easily, do crosses, and get back to the eddies without being washed downstream.
It’s a good teaching spot for intermediate paddlers, and a reasonable beginning surf wave. Right below there’s another nice little wave that’s a lot of fun and easy to stay on. Without too much effort, we could get back onto the wave on river right, so this is another fun little playspot. Nothing retentive, mostly just surfing.
As the rapid turns the corner, there are eddies either side that would let a group practice without going downstream, so again a good teaching spot for 3 people. The rapid ends under the bridge, where there is a large eddy on the left with room for 10 or so paddlers.
This would be a reasonably good place to start complete beginners on eddy turns, assuming they had an hour on flatwater under their belt. The eddy has a wide, diffuse eddy line, and the runout is flat. As with this whole run, there is vegetation on the side in the water, but it’s still a quick and easy rescue.
For beginners, there is a progression to a smaller right-side eddy formed by the bridge pylon; this has a sharp but gentle eddy line.
A further progression is another eddy above the pylon on the right.
There is faster current and it’s a great spot for introducing S-turns and faster eddy lines. There is an even faster eddy line at the top left, making for another progression. A couple of places had a few smaller pieces of vegetation that got in the way; these might get washed out in higher flows. All in all this is a great teaching spot for beginner-intermediate paddlers.
We tested this area again at 200 cfs on Friday, December 20. The features at 200 cfs were similar to 300cfs, but not as crisp or deep. Both waves were still surfable, all eddies were there, but it was a slog to attain back to the second wave. The upper rapids were noticeably shallower at 200, but under the bridge was still deep. So for teaching, 200 still works but 300 is better.
2. Highway Bridge to top of Frenchman’s Flat
This section is not suitable for teaching or beginners. It has basically a long continuous class II-III rapid in the middle of brush, with specific, narrow channels to take, and some to avoid. If there was a massive flood that cleared brush from the entire river channel (which happens periodically), it may become safe for new class III paddlers to go down this section
3. Frenchman’s Flat: Top to bottom (200 meters)
A micro Class I river trip can be made from the very top of Frenchman’s Flat to the bottom. From the far upstream end of the Frenchman’s Flat area, there is an easy 100 meter walk to a put-in with a calm eddy on the left (4-5 paddlers). The current is slow, beyond the busier rapids above. At one point a rock on the right forms an easy eddy, which could be used for ferry glide practice. Below the current flows calmly through flattened tule grass, with a clear path through the main current. It’s quite pretty, and could be a nice introduction to a “river trip.” The run finishes with several more easy eddies.This section is similar at 200 and 300 cfs.
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