After decades of work, American Whitewater has succeeded in opening limited access for paddlers in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite hosts a number of rivers, ranging from class I floats to multi-day class V+ epics, including the Merced River. Despite millions of visitors a year, paddling the Merced had been off-limits—until now.
Setting out for the Merced River
On June 1st, I set out on an expedition with South African professional paddler Steve Fisher to document the first descent of this long-forbidden route. Fisher hopes that this legal first descent will encourage authorities to open up other rivers in the national parks where paddling is not permitted. His kayaking partner was Pat Keller, a southeastern expedition paddler and waterfall guru. My role was to photograph the expedition.
Over hill, over dale
We approached the Merced River from Tuolomne Pass, hiking our gear 17 miles through alpine meadows, past icy cold lakes, and into the headwaters of the river. At the end of the first day, after hiking with a 90-pound loaded kayak over a 10,000-foot pass, Keller was still keen to explore.
We scrambled up to a rocky point overlooking the Merced Valley, staring in awe at the massive snow-covered peaks surrounding us. In the distance, I could just make out the trail the crew would be hiking the following day to access the river. I knew I needed a shot of that from this vantage point. The next day I was up early and waiting in the same spot to snap this photo of Fisher and Keller with my Nikon D610 and 70-200mm F2.8 lens.
Fisher’s first descent begins
The following morning, Fisher and Keller began their descent, beginning 15 miles of whitewater from the Lyell Fork to just above Nevada Falls. The Merced River would reveal itself to be a gem, with crystal clear water, massive slides, a handful of stout boulder gardens and astonishing scenery. “It’s one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever had the pleasure to go on,” Keller later said.
The Merced is forbidden fruit no longer
Fisher and Keller completed the epic first descent over five days. Because of the efforts of American Whitewater, kayaking sections of the Merced River is now legal in Yosemite National Park.
Check out Episodes 1 to 6 of “Beyond Adventure: The Lost Valley of the Merced” on Outside Television’s Youtube channel.