Saturday, April 21, 2007

Upper Clear Creek, Klamath Drainage: IV+/V

This run deserves an awful lot more attention than it gets. Maybe it's because of the one-mile hike in or the nastiness of the mandatory portage. Maybe it's because it's so far from population centers and doesn't have any granite, which makes California boating so good. Whatever the reason, it isn't good enough to not run Upper Clear Creek. The run itself is fairly short (3.5 miles), but with a gradient of around 165 fpm, there's plenty of action. And if you prefer to just bomb through stuff, you could either do laps or continue on to the mellow lower run (class II/III) to cool down.

A view of the gorge from the shuttle bridge

Gabe lining up for a boof early in the run

The name Clear Creek suits the water quality, which is almost as transparent as a swimming pool. You can see the riverbed clearly throughout the run, even in pools that are 25-feet deep. The volume of the "creek", however, is bigger than many rivers out there. Clear Creek doesn't have a gauge, but is closely correlated to Indian Creek at Happy Camp, the next drainage over. In general, Clear Creek carries slightly more water, but locals just refer to the Indian Creek gauge. At 600 cfs, the run is a bit more creeky with lots of boofs and more sieves than keeper holes. At 900 cfs, some smoking holes develop in many rapids, a few of the pools flush out, and it gets pretty pushy in general, but almost all the sieves cover up and the run gets softer. Running Clear Creek at high water is like taking all the hero lines on the Cal-Salmon at 5.5 feet.

As of spring, 2007, the road was gated about a mile upstream of the take-out. The hike in from here takes about 45 minutes and is well worth the effort. Plus, it means you can walk your entire shuttle.

Cyrus on a sketchy part of the hike in.

The put-in is at the first pack bridge you come to, about a mile beyond the trailhead. After about a quarter-mile of class II-III warm up, the first section of real rapids begins. The first rapid has a long class II lead-in with a scouting eddy on the left just above a class IV boulder jumble.

Gabe and Adam scouting halfway through the first rapid

The next rapid has a massive hole on the left that 90% of the water goes into. The right side features a fun sneak line with two boof moves.

Cyrus runs the top slot while Glenn looks on.

The next (third) drop deserves a scout from the left bank. The best line is right at all flows, but at low water a hole at the bottom gets nasty.

Glenn just above the third rapid

The fourth is the hardest and final rapid in the first gorge. At high water, this one is class V, with three big holes to punch through and undercuts all along the left wall to avoid. At lower flows, all the holes mellow out and the last drop is an auto-boof with a narrow landing. A partial portage is very manageable along the right bank.

Cyrus dropping in to the second hole, dodging undercuts

The run cools down for a bit here. You'll see outhouses at the trailhead high up on the right bank and be happy to see some class II-III water. The next major rapid has a big log on the right side, scouting eddy on the left, and a sweet boof in the middle. At 600 cfs, boof in the middle. At 900, a tongue forms between the center hole and the log.

Cyrus hitting the boof

The next drop has a nasty hole on the bottom left and can be scouted on the right. About 100 yards downstream is the ugliest "runnable" rapid on the run. The lead-in is a sweet looking rapid, then it drains into a river-wide sieve. At high water, it's navible, but at lower flows, your choices are to break you ankles, break your paddle, break your face, or, my personal favorite: portage!!!!

Which slot would you like to get broken in?

The next mile below this is mostly class III with a couple minor scoutable horizon lines. Eventually, you'll reach The Frowner, a river-wide upstream U-shaped ledge with an ugly hydraulic and easy sneaks on each side.

Cyrus sneaking left at The Frowner

When you get to this point, consider your situation a little bit. This is the last chance to hike out, and the walk is pretty easy back up to the road. Downstream, the river enters the unportageable gorge. The scenery from here on down is the highlight of the trip and the rapids are much cleaner than up above, but at high flows, some huge holes develop and nothing's scoutable.

One of many river-wide foam piles on Clear Creek

Once you pass under the bridge, keep good spacing. Soon you'll pass a big tributary on the left, from which you can see the horizon line of the mandatory portage. It's the kind of drop where your chances of survival are better without a life jacket, as the only way to escape the hole at the bottom is by flushing deep and clawing along the bottom. Portage on the right, catch the eddy one boat at a time.

The portage: I wouldn't be surprised if there are some

trees/dead animals swirling around down there.....

Gabe seal launching below the portage

The next horizon line is the last one, but it's quite a finale. The last rapid on the run is 100 yards long, unportageable, and mostly unscoutable. You can get a good view of it from the road before you put on, otherwise, this is the best scout you'll get:

Fortunately, it all goes (eventually). The general run is left, right over the big ledge, left, then center. The big ledge gets a big hole on the left side that's a good 8' boof below 800 cfs. On to the take out.

Light at the end of the gorge


My car was almost small enough to squeeze underneath it.....

Take out: Iif you plan on doing the lower run as well, park a car along Hwy. 96 where it crosses over Clear Creek (six miles downstream of Happy Camp). Otherwise, drive another mile upstream on the highway and turn off onto Clear Creek Road at Wingate Bar. A sign for Slippery View River Access marks the takeout of the upper run, put-in for the lower run. Hike down and scope out the take out, because it's hard to recognize. Also drop off your victory beers here so they get nice and cool.

The fruits of good planning

As you continue upstream, you may want to stop about 300 yards above Slippery View and scramble down to scout the last rapid. It's unportageable, mostly unscoutable, and the biggest rapid on the run, so it's good to have some idea what you're getting yourself into. Continue up the road 2.5 miles to the Clear Creek Trailhead where you begin the hike-in. Once your reach a pack bridge across the creek, start looking for a good seal-launch spot.

Monday, April 16, 2007

South Fork of the Salmon, California: Class IV+

The Cal-Salmon area has a huge variety of rafting and kayaking runs. Upstream from the popular commercial runs on the main fork, the South Fork offers a steeper, more creeky style of whitewater. The gorge run described here is simply referred to as the South Fork. Downstream is a class III run known as the Methodist Creek run, named after the creek at the put-in. The South Fork is generally considered a step up from the Nordheimer Run on the Salmon and rated class IV+ to V depending on the source. At low flows, the run is good class IV, but nothing is really class V. With more water, everything gets pushier and some of the rapids develop some major holes. Duh.

Blue skies at the put-in for the South Fork

The run starts out with a great warm-up of class II riffles for a couple miles. The scenery through here improves as the river approaches the gorge.

The mellow first half of the run.

The South Fork has a great tempo to the run. The beginning has a great warm-up grading from class two up to a few class III chutes and then a great class IV drop. The class IV is a long boulder garden that leads into horseshoe-shaped ledge pictured below. The middle is a nasty hole but has great boofs on either side

Peter below the first class IV

Here the run calms down again for a half-mile or so until a short twisty class IV that deserves a scout if you don't know the run well.

Above: Shaun in the entrance to a short class IV. Below: Michael finishing the same rapid

The action continues for quite a while from here with too many class IV drops and good boofs to count. Another rapid to be aware of is The Sieve. It's a fairly easy rapid, but consequences have been fatal in the past. On a recent trip, one paddler missed the move and had to eddy out just above the sieve. We spent about 20 minutes carefully getting him and his boat through the 6-foot portage. In the photos it looks pretty innocent, but there are enough stories to make a lot of boaters walk this one.

Chris corrals Peter's boat and Peter holds Adam's boat while Adam scrambles around the sieve, which looks harmless from all angles: until you're stuck inside it.

Action continues with boat-scoutable rapids until you get to Disneyland. Disneyland has got to be one of the most fun rapids out there. It can be intimidating from the scout (I know class V boaters who've always walked it) but is fairly easy once you get the hang of it. It's the only rapid I know where the more defensive you are with pry strokes and draw strokes, the better your run will be. The trick is to just go with the flow and ride the pillows around all the nasty spots and through the tight run-out.

Working the first pillow in Disneyland

Damon in the run-out of Disneyland.

After Disneyland comes a fun boulder garden that's a great one to practice boat scouting and hand signals in. The run ends with the final gorge, containing three rapids. The first is the infamous hole from the Oregon Kayaking write-up. The hole has been pretty benign every time I've seen it, so we just paddle hard down the right side. I tried the left boof once and it was one of the worst lines I've ever had.

The very last rapid has some nasty holes in it, but there is typically a fun and easy sneak line around the right side.

Peter finishing off a great day on the South Salmon

The run is fairly short (5 miles) and packs a lot of good rapids into the short distance. Some people shorten it further by hiking in to alternative put-ins and do laps.

The take-out is at Matthews Creek Campground, a free campground maintained by the Forest Service. It's right along the South Fork Road between Forks of Salmon and Cecilville. To reach the put-in, just drive upstream and look for a road dropping off to the right. Some people put in at Cecilville, but that only adds to the class II warm-up. Bike shuttles on this run are highly recommended due to the paved road with minimal traffic and great fresh air.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Our Clear Creek Epic

On March 25, Gabe talked me and two other guys (Adam and Adam) into running Upper Clear Creek. Thankfully, we got an early start, because the water was up and we needed all the time we could get. After driving the 2 hours to Happy Camp, California, we left the arid, brown Klamath River canyon and headed up into the Clear Creek drainage. The overcast skies were starting to burn off because, after all, this is California, where it’s always sunny and 70 degrees. After getting dressed and leaving a car at the take-out, we were shut down one mile into the shuttle drive. The road was gated shut and a tree was down just beyond the gate. After a quick group meeting, we all got ready for the hike in. Hiking along the road, we got a few views of what kind of whitewater awaited us.

View downstream from the shuttle bridge into a 20-ft deep pool

The water in this creek is the clearest I have ever seen and the lushly vegetated canyon is breath-taking. The few views we did get were all too obscured for us to appreciate the seriousness of the rapids that lay below. After about two and a half miles, we finally reached a pack bridge over the creek where we could put in. Now we got to paddle. The first rapid was a fast wake-up call to the power of the river. The high flow pushed us all around as it constricted through a 7-foot wide slot. Gabe probed just about every rapid and we soon reached a long class II stretch wrapping around a blind corner. We all crammed into an eddy just above where the lead-in became a big class IV rapid.

Scouting from the middle of the first big rapid

Scouting took a while as we couldn’t see any particularly clean lines through a series of major holes. Gabe and Adam 1 opted for a 6-foot boof into a hole backed up by a rock, while Adam 2 and I chose to peel out, ferry in front of a nasty undercut, then punch through two ledge holes. Gabe dropping in

The next rapid had 90% of the water going into an ugly hole, and had a super fun sneak route on the right. The short, steep double drop featured a 7-foot sliding boof to dodge a hole followed by a super-clean 4 foot ledge boof.

I probed the drop, then took video of Adam 1 styling the rapid. Just afterward, my camera announced the battery was empty and shut itself down. I’m quite disappointed in myself for not charging the battery, because the photography conditions that day were ideal for my little point-and-shoot. We continued down through a couple more pushy class IV+ boulder gardens. The typical rapid involved making some ferry to dodge a sieve/undercut, bracing through some big laterals, and punching a massive hole somewhere in the middle. At this flow, it would be raftable by a solid team, but I wouldn’t want to be on the river with them to help portage.

Soon enough, we came up to another big rapid I’d call class V. We all opted for a partial portage along the right side then ran a little sneak slot around a hole and scraped over a shallow ledge. I tried scraping over said ledge upside down pressed against my back deck, and fortunately had elbow pads on, so I didn’t suffer any injuries. Thanks Mike! A little further downstream, Gabe started to get antsy with our slow scouting. He hopped out for a quick peek at the next horizon line, and gave verbal directions to the rest of us. “You can either boof the rock in the middle, or go right of the rock. But don’t go too far right because there’s a tree dipping into the river.” I was out of my boat scouting at this point, and Adam 1 was peeling out to probe. As he pulled out, he mentioned that he wasn’t sure which rock to boof, but wanted nothing to do with the tree, so he took his best guess.

The hole that ate Adam, taken on a later trip when the boof was good

He guessed right, but the boof wasn’t there. Adam got stopped immediately and began side-surfing. He gave a valiant effort, but the hole had no exit. He swam before I could get a rope to him and Gabe gave chase. Gabe took the tongue between the hole and the log and disappeared downstream. I went back up to my boat and Adam 2 and I composed ourselves and headed downstream. In the pool below, we still saw no sign of our friends. I got out to scout the next drop and found a sieved out right sided and a pushy left line with a nasty hole at the bottom. Adam 2 led this time and I followed close behind. After I cleared the hole, I saw Adam 2 out of his boat clinging to rocks with his boat and paddle both bouncing down the rapid. I made sure he was ok and took off after his gear.

Now we had two swimmers gear all over the river. The boat eddied itself out and I caught the paddle just above another horizon line. In the midst of all this, I had passed Gabe and Adam 1 and was now the furthest downstream. After a few minutes, we were all reunited minus one paddle. Gabe pulled out his break-down and we scouted the next rapid: a messy class V we all portaged. We got back into the read-and-run flow with Gabe out front. I seem to remember flipping a lot after the swims but always flushed and rolled up. After another half mile of class III-IV+ pool drop rapids, we came to an 8-foot ledge with an upstream horseshoe shape and a mean hole in the middle. Sneak lines existed on both sides, but after seeing one run, Adam 1 decided to hike out. This rapid marks the last spot where a hike out is reasonable. Both Adams were exhausted from their swims and decided to call it a day. I was getting tired, but still felt good about my paddling, so Gabe and I continued down.

The horseshoe ledge: your last chance to hike out

This is where the canyon really gorged up. We came to several big horizon lines that couldn’t be scouted. One rapid was marginally scoutable and just above the shuttle bridge. This one was a steep, uniform ledge with two massive holes and no sneak line. After sweating a little bit, Gabe and I worked upstream, got a little speed, and powered through both big hits without much trouble. The un-scoutable, un-portageable class IV gorge continued for about a half-mile before we eddied out for the mandatory portage. At this flow, the eddy above the portage was really only big enough for one boat at a time, but spacing wasn’t an issue with our reduced party size.

The last drop of the portage. If you're still concious going over this, you'll have to get out of your boat and rip off your life jacket to flush below the 20-foot boil line.

We made the portage and got to do a sweet seal launch into the pool below. After the next little rapid, Gabe announced we were pretty much done. We boogied through a couple more class IV drops and about a quarter mile later, we arrived at the biggest horizon line of the day. “Oh shit,” said Gabe, “I forgot about this one.”

The best scout you can get of the final mandatory class V

I could see that the river dropped out of sight, and somewhere downstream, about 50 feet below us and 200 yards later, it pooled up again. What lay in the middle was a mystery. The canyon walls made this drop completely unportageable and mostly unscoutable. Fortunately, a recent landslide had changed the rapid. The rapid wasn’t any easier, but there were some rocks to park on and at least stand up on. I found a tree that was leaning into the river and climbed up it a little ways to peer into the rapid below. All I could see was a steep rocky lead-in moving into a series of ledges, but had no idea where to go. It looked like there might have been a sneak line on the far left, so we paddled down there and caught a little micro-eddy above the first ledge. Gabe told me how stupid the left line looked up close and made a hero ferry across the river to the other wall. He gave me a quick grin, shrugged, and peeled out.

A picture of the mandatory class V finale taken from the road on a later trip. Note the kayak for scale just below the big ledge we eddied out above.

He shot through the first ledge without any problem, but then I lost sight of him until he was in the pool below, right side up. With no other options, I went to follow his line. Halfway through the ferry, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I turned my bow downstream and had time for one stroke before being swept over the edge. I dropped right into a deep seam in a powerful hole and promptly flipped. I snapped a quick roll before the next ledge, and again had time for one stroke before the next hole flipped me. One more roll and I found myself getting shoved into the wall, flipping again. My next few roll attempts were futile as I continued to get pushed against the wall. I took a hand off my paddle and grabbed the rocks to try to roll up. As I got upright again, the current grabbed my paddle and I lost my grip. I dropped into the third major hole without speed, angle, orientation, or a paddle. My hands only worked so well and I flipped again. I popped off a hand roll and got a big breath just before I was swept into the final wave-hole. By now, I was exhausted. Had I only kept my paddle, I wouldn’t be swimming at this point. I grabbed my boat and swam to shore while Gabe grabbed my paddle for me. Below this, we really were done. Good thing, too. I was now exhausted from my swim and my total of 10 or more rolls in the course of the day. We hiked up to the truck where the Adams were waiting in their street clothes.

Clear Creek doesn’t have a gauge, but it lies one drainage over from Indian Creek. When we ran Clear Creek, the Indian Creek gauge at Happy Camp was reading 930 cfs. Clear Creek typically carries a little more water, but the two levels are pretty closely correlated. At this flow, Clear Creek is definitely a class V run. Only three of the rapids are class V, but the last one is mandatory/unscoutable and with the committing nature of the gorge, this is no place for a class IV boater like me. Clear Creek was within my ability level, but beyond my comfort zone. I am eager to see the run again, with a charged camera battery and a little less water. I’ve heard rumors of a 14-mile class III-IV wilderness run upstream of the gorge that you hike into from the other side, so that just may be my next big destination. Until then, I need to get in better shape.