Kayaking Yosemite's Merced River With Steve Fisher

Yosemite National Park recently opened up the Merced to kayakers, and Fisher shows us how it's done.
Steve Fisher Kayak the Merced in Yosemite National Park
Steve Fisher on the Merced river © Scott Martin, courtesy of Jeep/Outside Television
By Kevin McAvoy

There’s no shortage of rivers out there in the world for kayakers to run, but a lifetime of kayaking adventures only serves to whet the appetite for more. Every river presents its own challenges, pushing paddlers to intensely gratifying moments of accomplishment as they float away from running their latest rapid. Those moments drive the search for more, and technology has helped broaden that search as Google Earth gives glimpses into previously un-paddled routes.

The Merced River within Yosemite National Park has long been on the wish lists of kayakers, but park rules have kept it off limits. Recently, Yosemite opened access to kayak the river, and Steve Fisher was there to run and document its first legal descent with fellow kayaker Pat Keller. The expedition was no small undertaking (watch it in the six-part video series below, courtesy of Jeep and Outside Television), so we checked in with Fisher to get the full story behind it.

© Scott Martin, courtesy of Jeep/Outside Television

Redbull.com: You’ve racked up loads of accomplishments over the course of your career, so what are you looking for in the projects you take on now?

Steve Fisher: There’s that age-old question every time you accomplish something: What’s next? That’s something I’ve been trying to answer myself, specifically since my Congo mission. I’m not looking for some kind of “bigger than, wider than, deeper than, taller than” project — what I’m after these days is much more than that.

As we finished this particular project, I looked back on the various accomplishments and feelings of satisfaction that I had on the way through it, and realized that the actual kayaking of the run, while it was very enjoyable, wasn’t where I was finding my satisfaction. It was in the act of pulling a team together, arranging all the logistics and believe it or not the act of acquiring the permits to kayak it and the permits to film it, which was very, very difficult in Yosemite National Park.

Filmmaking was something I was doing before I was a professional kayaker, and it’s something I’m going to do after. So to come out of Yosemite with all of this footage in the can, having brought an entire crew through there legally, that’s a great accomplishment to me, to pull off the project as a whole. It works toward my goal of being an accomplished filmmaker. It also works toward another goal, which is to use my position within the sport to expand and regain access to various runs in the U.S.

Steve Fisher Kayak the Merced in Yosemite National Park
Steve Fisher and Pat Keller enjoying the Merced © Scott Martin, courtesy of Jeep/Outside Television

Why go so hard after the Merced? What’s so great about it?

In California, in the Sierras, you have a series of major drainages, all of which have been kayaked, along with many of their tributaries. But the one “forbidden fruit” of the major drainages that has always been illegal to do is the Merced, because it’s within Yosemite National Park. As it happened, news came out early last year that American Whitewater, which is our main organization that advocates for access, had been working with the park on opening up access to certain drainages within Yosemite.

Last year, I did that Hanging Spear project in Upstate New York, and one of the reasons that interested me was because it involved gaining access, permitting and filming in a New York state park. I felt that if I were able to gain full access in a state park, especially the Adirondack state park, that would make a fine example to show to Yosemite to get that permit. I took the Hanging Spear clip to the office at Yosemite and they were super impressed with the way we documented it. And they decided to let us do it in Yosemite.

American Whitewater made it so it was becoming legal, with or without us. But at the time we called the park, they had no idea how they were going to police this or how it should all work. I think we helped speed things up a little bit, maybe helping to get it implemented this spring rather than next spring.

You hiked 19 miles in to the river and 4 miles out — have you hiked that far to kayak before?

That’s a huge hike. I have hiked 100 miles to a put-in in Burma once, and we hiked nine days over the Himalayas in Tibet once, but for most kayakers, hiking 19 miles to the put-in is further than they’ve ever done, yes. I don’t know of any runs in California that have a longer hike than that.

What was the total weight of all the gear each one of you were carrying?

About 90 pounds.

Pat Keller Kayaks the Merced in Yosemite National Park
Steve Fisher and Pat Keller hiking in Yosemite © Scott Martin, courtesy of Jeep/Outside Television

How do you determine if a river is even runnable when you’ve never done it before?

We’ll go very slowly, stopping at every opportunity, getting out of our kayaks and walking down the bank to see what’s next. You can’t just go paddling off blind horizons, that’s just not how kayaking works. That’s one of the reasons you need a manageable flow; if the flow is too high, it just sucks you down into the unknown before you’re able to stop.

You scout little pieces, break the rapids into chunks and navigate each chunk one at a time. You don’t just put in at the top and bomb through. For this particular run it was ideal because the John Muir Trail was nearby, and before we did the trip we hiked the trail to have a look at the river. The drought year in California was actually in our favor.

How will this project help the sport of kayaking?

Again, there are other people working on access to the rivers that are locked up. I am not the spearhead of those movements, but I think that my role as a public figure in kayaking and as a filmmaker is to add to what they’re already doing. I think one of the main reasons kayaking is not allowed in many areas is simply because it is not well understood. With the storytelling I’m doing, I think I can help the viewer understand all the pieces that go into it, and see that it’s not just a stunt, it’s a legitimate sport.

You can go to Yosemite National Park or Yellowstone with your backcountry skis and you are most welcome to ski whatever you want. And that’s because all of the people who wrote the laws and rules for those parks and who currently police them are skiers — they know skiing. It’s understood. And I feel that kayaking remains a little less understood.

Steve Fisher Kayak the Merced in Yosemite National Park
Steve Fisher navigates a drop on the Merced river © Scott Martin, courtesy of Jeep/Outside Television

What are some of your dream rivers that you hope to be open to kayaking one day?

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is probably the most illegal kayak run in the world. I’d quite like to paddle that. It has been done illegally; it’s not the hardest, gnarliest river ever, but it would be significant. Once the Merced River has been run through Yosemite and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has been run, then what park ranger in what National Park can say, “Kayaking is not allowed here”? What would his reasons be?

Follow Steve Fisher's latest adventures on his Facebook page, and while you're there, like the Red Bull Adventure page as well.

Get the best new stories from RedBull.com delivered directly to you — sign up for our email newsletter now.

Steve Fisher
read more about
Next Story