Paddling (and Dragging and Hiking) the Truckee River to Reno


High noon on a hot summer afternoon in the Reno suburbs and I’m getting a lot of looks.

It’s probably my odd appearance. Chaco sandals. Sunburned calves. Sky blue board shorts. Bright green paddling shirt with the hoodie pulled over a visor. When combined with a few days of boater stubble and reflective sunglasses, I’ve been told I resemble an aquatic version of the 1980s FBI Unabomber sketch. I’m even clutching a bright orange Watershed drybag like there’s something suspicious inside and not just a camera.

My buddy Cole and I have been receiving a lot of attention for the past two days now, with most gawks coming from passing motorists and bored truckers, bewildered fishermen and surprised riverside residents as we paddled (and increasingly portaged) down the Truckee River. But at this moment, the latest looks seem due to the fact that a paddling mannequin from a local outdoor shop has seemingly come to life and is sauntering through the neighborhood during a heatwave without the river in sight.

I’ve already come a couple of miles from the Interstate 80 bridge near Verdi, and I have a couple more miles to walk before reaching my truck. Meanwhile, Cole is carrying our equipment in batches from the nearly-dry riverbed to a gate we can reach by vehicle.

I’d like to say this development is entirely unexpected. But hiking in my boating clothes across radiating pavement within sight of a 30,000-vehicles-per-day freeway seems pretty much par for the course when it comes to a Cole and Bez adventure. In the three decades since we’d become best pals in grade school, not much had changed.

As a Truckee local, Cole was pretty excited about finally paddling a longer section we’d driven past for years. He was also dead set on clandestinely camping in a forested corner of a public park in Verdi. He figured no one would notice, plus we could saunter into town for dinner and drinks. I loved the idea of us paddlers walking from river to casino like characters from Ocean’s—or how about River’s Eleven? I imagined pulling a slot machine lever, coins spitting onto the floor, and us loading 50 pounds of quarters into drybags.

Despite the cinematic daydreams, I was a bit concerned about gear theft. We’d be using my equipment for this outing, with me in a hardshell and Cole in my ducky. I also worried about cops. So, 48 hours before my sweaty walk through Reno, the night before putting on, we pulled into the public park and wandered around just long enough to confirm two things. The forest was entirely empty. And plenty of signs insisted that camping was illegal.

“I think we’ll be fine,” said Cole. “Let’s go have beers.”

We continued uphill to our put-in just off Stampede Meadows Road and nestled our camp in a quaint dirt lot between the interstate and railway. I did the proper (former) raft guide move and set up my cot under a shimmering field of stars. Stampede, in this case, referred less to the overnight serenade of vehicle traffic in my left ear, but more the occasional Union Pacific freight trains in my right ear, which blazed through the gravel meadow singing a sweet mountain song with air horns.

Early the next morning, we paddled away from the Hirschdale Bridge. Those upper miles on the river were great. The level was on the low side, sure. But 500 to 600 CFS of cool clear water seemed to be enough for getting down. We’d hoped the highwater year would keep things much higher through July when we were both free. But when the trip arrived, we were only a few hundred CFS above average. Still, for the 24-mile section we’d selected, both American Whitewater and California Creeking indicated we were in the green.

Truckee River below Hirschdale Bridge

The canyon of dark volcanic rocks, draped with stands of pine and fir, slowly deepened into a lofty gorge. The interstate and railroad were always up there, sometimes close but often lurking just out of sight. After a few miles of fun class II rapids, we floated through a group of friendly young fly fishermen.

About five miles and a dozen more fishermen downstream, we stopped to study the recreational map from the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, which manages the complex plumbing of the Truckee River. We were watching for the Floriston Gorge, where the river squeezes between slopes of granitic and volcanic bedrock with a few class III-IV rapids, their difficulty dependent on water level.

Seeing the river drop away beyond a bridge, we hopped out to scout what turned out to be Railroad Rapid, a straightforward class II-III. A half-mile below, Bronco Creek entered on the right, carrying a bit of inflow, and we cautiously continued until Jaws appeared. A river left cliff and massive boulders leaving just enough space for a stout drop on center-right. Cole took one glance and started carrying along the right shore. I paddled down to scout, but the only line looked manky, possibly landing on a rock.

While I joined the portage, a raft company photographer arrived ahead of a commercial trip. She explained the high flows earlier this year had rolled a large rock into the typically open chute. But she told us the next one, Bronco Rapid, had a clean line on left.

As we approached Bronco, though, it was like looking down the barrel of a pool cue after a bad break. Call it 15 tightly spaced and rounded boulders, meaning we couldn’t see past the entry move. Cole climbed up a house rock, while I paddled into a far-side eddy. When he signaled there was a line, I dropped down to pick a path through. Luckily, the current was manageable, so we eddy-hopped until emerging happily below.

Fun class II-III rapids continued as a broken flume lined the left shore for a few miles. At the overpass in Floriston, we left the gorge behind where the commercial buses waited for rafts. While we still had a few class IIIs and dam portages ahead, supposedly we’d passed the hardest part.

We were casually floating, drifting around a corner when jet-black volcanic boulders appeared on the right. The river dodged left.

“Those look sketchy!” I shouted as I realized half the flow plunged underneath the massive boulders. We paddled swiftly around the undercuts, which from a downstream overhang looked like an emerald porthole of pouring water.

“That’s no joke,” said Cole.

A warning sign announced the first portage at Fleish Diversion Dam, a smooth parabola of cement which is sometimes run at higher flows. A thin sheet of water running overtop convinced us to make the easy walk. Below, Fleish Canal noticeably reduced the flow.

When we reached the next rapid, Deadman’s Curve, there wasn’t a single line through this rocky bend. We waded and dragged down a nearly-dry left channel. Next came Steamboat Diversion Dam, a flat-faced wall about ten feet high, which we easily carried around. Blinking my eyes, I realized this second siphoning canal ran adjacent to the first. Who the heck puts two canals right next to each other? (Don’t answer that, Reno.)

As I bumped and shimmied my kayak down a measly few hundred CFS, and my old back injury hissed at the punishment, I wondered if our paddling trip was over after 13 miles. I recalled the time a guide buddy and I put on the South Fork American at fish flows, expecting a release, but hiked out after the water never rose. Today, we’d be walking 12 miles along the almost completed Truckee-Pyramid Bikeway. But our hyper-detailed map listed a return flow was coming up, so we scooted along, hoping for a resurge in flow.

Of course, first, we had to somehow get through two class III rapids. We approached a fly fisherman on a rock who almost fell off after swiveling his head at the nails-on-chalkboard sound of us scraping past on six inches of water. At the bottom of a boulder field—can’t call it a rapid—I waited for Cole. Meanwhile, a strange individual, maybe on a bad trip of a different variety than ours, hustled away from the riverbank and lurked in the bushes until we passed.

The water returned after a mile. A blast of flow from Fleish Powerhouse, which lifted our hulls and our spirits. Appearing in the next pool, like the Sirens of Greek mythology luring us onward, were a pair of local girls in bikinis and a yellow raft. We bragged about our unusual trip. They welcomed us voluptuously to Verdi. All four of us seemed just the right amount of pleased with ourselves.

“There’s another dam right there.” One of them pointed.

The portage around Verdi Diversion Dam was through a side channel of mud. And below was the least amount of water we’d seen yet. We basically clawed our boats through damp rocks with our hands, grime accumulating under fingertips, as the river entered a neighborhood of riverside mansions. A few annoyed residents evacuated their patio as we approached. Only a half-mile from the park, I told Cole I wanted to end the trip there—no clandestine camping, sorry—and walk to the truck that evening.

But then, a photoshoot—of sorts—derailed my plan.

Just upstream of the Verdi bridge, three people sat on the rocks in the hot afternoon. One was an attractive young woman in short-shorts and bikini top with long hair as jet-black as the basalt boulders from earlier that day. And speaking of undercut boulders, one side of her head was freshly shaved clean.

With her was a wiry sunburned man with an elaborate full-back tattoo, taking photos of the young woman with a tiny point-and-shoot camera. A third younger guy was wading around in jeans and an oversized white tee, distributing beers.

With our intended take-out spot occupied by this trio, we continued to the downstream side of the bridge and pulled up our boats to debate the plan. Cole preferred to camp and hold out on the hope of more return flows. Then his attention drifted.

“She just took her top off,” he said.

Sure enough, both the short-shorts and her top were just as gone as one side of her hair. The wiry photographer was moving around in the water, establishing the angles as if he was using a professional camera with portrait lens. The young-woman-turned-topless-model seemed nervous, clutching and unclutching her chest with her forearm between shots. So here came oversized tee-shirt running from the shore with another round of beers.

“We should probably have a beer while figuring out our plan,” I said.

Psskaw, was the instant response as Cole opened a can of beer. He tossed one to me and sat back on a rock to watch this bizarre scene.

The young woman glanced toward us, thrilled by an audience. Soon, she bent the tentative forearm behind her head, while she arched her back against a boulder—amateurish yet confident. The wiry man with his back tattoos flexing was working his tiny camera—confident yet amateurish.

Out of nowhere, a stream of water sprayed onto the topless young woman. Turns out, oversized tee-shirt had brought a water cannon.

“You don’t see this on every river trip,” I said.
“I don’t see this type of thing ever,” said Cole.
“That’s what I should have said.”

After an inappropriate amount of time with increasingly risqué public posing, several families arrived to fish. The young woman abruptly replaced her top. The sun silhouetting the treetops made our decision to camp for us. So we paddled down to the remote corner of the park and hid our boats in the forest.

Truckee River water diversions near Verdi.

We walked to town for dinner at a bar-grill-casino, where the bar-top is video poker machines, and the bar patrons prefer their meals in cups. A giant Sasquatch statue stood near the entryway, and I half-expected to encounter the real-life Sasquatch as we wandered back through the forested park, searching in the dark for our boats.

Early the next morning two fly fishermen stumbled into camp. Cole was still asleep on the upside-down ducky, with mangled hair and unzipped sleeping bag askew. Frankly, he looked like the Sasquatch as the lead fisherman gave us a judgmental glare.

“What are you guys doing?” said the lead fisherman, suspiciously.
“We tried to paddle the river from Truckee,” I said, and the dudes looked at us like we were not just hobo adventurers, but hobo idiots.
“Come on,” he said to his friend. “I know a different spot.”

So, what can I say? The rest of Thursday went pretty much exactly like we expected. A half-mile below camp we portaged another boulder field. Just downstream, a massive jet of return flow filled the channel with more water than we’d seen yet. We hooted and hollered through a mile of fun waves and rapids. We stopped on a sunny gravel bar to swim since, at this rate, we’d be done within the hour.

Then we portaged around the fourth and final diversion dam, Washoe-Highland, through a semi-abandoned RV park. And below that dam? There was less water than in some dry arroyos. Just a trickle winding through a northerly bend in the river. We dragged our boats for a mile, past more bewildered fishermen, until the I-80 bridge loomed overhead. My back ached. I’d had enough.

We both accepted it was over, four miles short of our goal. After stashing the boats under some trees, we hiked up to a gravel access road. The Washoe-Highland Canal was full of swiftly flowing water.

“What if we paddled this thing to Reno?” said Cole, half-seriously eyeing the canal.
“The ride of our lives,” I said. “Literally, if it goes into a pipe.”

The canal did just that, whooshing through a debris gate a quarter-mile downstream. We turned and walked upstream for a mile until the access road led to a paved street that went onward into a neighborhood. The truck sat four miles farther.

I tugged down the brim of my visor, pulled on the hood of my green paddling shirt, grasped my orange drybag and snugged up my Chacos like I was entering a sandal walk-a-thon.

We’d paddled and dragged 21 miles down the Truckee River at summer flows. And nobody could take that away from us—no matter how much we may have wanted them to.