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Sespe River | Southern California

Written By: Kyle Feldman

Paddling the Sespe was one of those once in a lifetime trips where the stars align and the pieces fall in place for a truly magical experience. A warm winter storm had ripped through Southern California depositing fresh rain on already saturated soil. We had pieced together a top-notch team with members from as far away as Santa Barbara and Washington state.

Photo | Scott Ligare

Photo | Scott Ligare

Cold clear weather followed and greeted us with a sub-freezing night camping at the put-in in Rose Valley. That night cold pierced through my sleeping bag and stirred my already pondering mind. None of us knew exactly what lay ahead in the thirty miles of wilderness between us and the suburban streets of SoCal.

Photo | Scott Ligare

Photo | Scott Ligare

In the morning we broke camp and embarked. The Sespe slowly gathers steam as it descends from Rose Valley carving a distinctive U shape around the ever-present massive of the Topatopa mountains. As we battled willows stripped bare from the intense flooding of the past few days we started to understand the power and dynamic nature of this wild river canyon. Willows gave way to splashy rapids in meandering among old and gnarled cottonwood trees. The incredible and intense beauty of a transformed desert canyon transfixed the eye, but the rapids kept us on our toes.

Photo | Scott Ligare

Photo | Scott Ligare

We stopped at a boulder bar and scrambled up the canyon walls. A faint trail through the ghostly figures of Yucca flowers led up a steep ravine. The scent of sulfur floated on the air and we knew we were close to our goal, a secluded hot-spring bounding forth from a travertine face. Further down, we enjoyed camp amongst the majesty of the canyon and soft bubble of the river.

Photo | Scott Ligare

Photo | Scott Ligare

The next day was lower water which was a blessing as we rounded the infamous turn in the canyon. Here the creek takes a more direct route cutting straight through the uplifted layers of the Topatopa mountains and the river tears its way through the conglomerate and sandstone formations of the Sespe. Splashy rapids turned into increasingly long and complex boulder gardens. In between all these, we found a few true bedrock gems. With tar creek in the background, we started to see conspicuous tells of the life captured in these layers. Black balls stained dry tops and kayaks as we rocketed down through the canyon. The steepness of the canyon and size of the boulders eventually forced us out of our boats. The river had disappeared in and amongst the rocks. Underground channels drained out of bottomless eddies and we were forced high on the rocks with ropes. A quarter-mile took a few hours and we finally made camp for the night.

Photo | Scott Ligare

Photo | Scott Ligare

The morning light showed us that our efforts would soon be rewarded as the canyon opened up into the most technical and spectacular whitewater of the trip. We dodged amongst sandstone boulders of odd and incredible shapes and sizes until an obvious cleft in the rock left in no doubt we were about to reach Devil’s Gate. Luckily for the team, this rapid in some ways was straight forward (take the farthest left left line) and we were soon floating down bumpy shoals into the town of Fillmore. Stumbling out of the creek (now more of a drainage ditch) into a perfectly manicured public playground we stood there in awe and clearly out of place to the Southern Californians going about their normal day to day lives.

Photo | Scott Ligare

In that moment, we knew that we had the incredible experience of exploring one of the true California wildernesses and a trip that we would not soon forget. If you have the skills and willingness to tackle this incredible adventure I recommend you don’t pass up an opportunity. Tread lightly, and enjoy. We had median flows of 800cfs at Fillmore.

Photo | Scott Ligare

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