The Tuolumne River at the end of the Grand Canyon runs into a structure that has nearly defined a generation of environmentalists. The O'Shaughnessy Dam holds the Tuolumne back in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and completely floods the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Formerly as magnificent as Yosemite Valley to the south, all of Hetch Hetchy Valley now lies under water, and even with many activists lobbying for its restoration, will likely forever remain drowned.
The feasibility of dam removal has been topic of discussion since before construction even began, but now more than ever is there a movement towards restoration.
Check out this timeline from the beginning of the process to today.
"Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." - John Muir
These were taken in the early 1900's before the O'Shaughnessy Dam was constructed.
You can see much of the valley and Wapama Falls cascading in on the left.
Wapama Falls is the smaller looking one on the northern wall. It cascades for more than 1100 feet before meeting the reservoir and is probably still the most powerful falls in Yosemite.
Hm, can you guess where the high water line is?
Proponents of the dam replied to environmentalists like John Muir that the valley would be even more beautiful with a lake. Muir was right, and now the valley, drowned by its own waters, looks sick and damaged. Consistent with other environmental devastation, you'd never see this and think "you know, it's actually more beautiful this way."
Anyway, below Hetch Hetchy is the Poopenaut Valley, which also happens to be strikingly impressive. After a few hours of sleep and some cold jambalaya following our Grand Canyon mission, Ben woke Darin and I excitedly reporting perfect flows for the 'sneak of the century' down through the Poopenaut.
We rose quickly and hiked down below O'Shaugnessy Dam on a service road that eventually crossed the river.
"It looks low, but that could be my 6 a.m. motivation speaking."
We worked down through some mank and a few portages before reaching a couple more miles of mank and portaging. There were a few good rapids, but not really enough to make all the funny business worth it. With a name like Poopenaut, it's hard not to draw parallels between the name and quality of the whitewater.
Ben filming me getting my poop-schmeer on.
Ben using the same technique on the schmeer rapid.
'Like it came out sideways' was our throw and go portage where my attempt at the infamous corkscrew throw failed, leading to an uncomfortable sinking/swimming/paddling experience to below the vertical walls.
Still in good spirits after running a couple good rapids and having relatively easy portages in a very walled in gorge, we continued downstream and were quickly turned off again by a mile or three of low flow mucky-muck.
Just when things were feeling really hopeless, around lunchtime, we got to this great mini gorge with an almost-redeeming-but-not-quite ten foot boof into a swirling little toilet bowl with a tight exit.
Preston Falls was the 'marginal' 'thirty footer' on which we had limited beta. I think the 'exploratory' 'kayakers' we heard that from had limited experience actually seeing the Tuolumne River below Hetch Hetchy.
Life on the edge: running the highly marginal Preston Falls. It is rumored that soon after our descent, small children with only water-wings for craft successfully navigated the falls.
If we would have known that this was the last slide before the final couple miles of mank and meadows, I think we would have taken more time to enjoy and appreciate how much better rapids like it are better than flat pools and manky boulder gardens.
The final verdict on the Poopenaut section of the Tuolumne River was that the name was indeed fitting and that our flows were too low, but that we probably wouldn't even go back with more water.
Thanks again to Darin for the photos.