Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Upper South Fork Gorge, Smith River, CA: IV+/V

Getting buried in the Upper SF Gorge

This run is typically referred to as the best run in the Smith drainage, and with good reason. The gorge itself is fairly short, but still has more rapids than the the other main gorges. It may even have more good class IV rapids than the North Fork. Considering how rarely I hear of people running this section, I was amazed to see how large the flow window was. I would estimate our flow to be 1300 to cfs at the put-in and the gauge read 5800 at Crescent City. I thought it was a pretty reasonable first-time flow but wouldn't want to go much higher. I think lower flows would be fine on this gorge.
Peter on the hike in

The run starts with a one-mile hike in that is all downhill and goes by quickly. Once on the water, we had about a half-mile of class II/III boogey water with a couple good class IV drops we boat-scouted. Then we arrived at The Island.
Peter paddling hard somewhere on the Upper South Fork

The Island is a long class V boulder garden with two channels. Most of the water goes left over some tall ledges separated by pools. The right channel is more continuous but appears easier. Either way you go, the best way to scout is to pull over on the island itself and choose your channel and your route. After the channels converge, the river drops over a 12-foot junky ledge with lots of options. The cleanest routes are all on the left.
The junky ledge below the Island

Below The Island are a couple class IV rapids that were fairly easy down the left, followed by sharp 5-foot ledge with a fantastic boof over a meaty hole. The boulder-gardens continue for a few rapids leading up to the last big one. This last rapid is a powerful channel down the undercut left wall with a series of big holes to punch. In the spring of '08, there was a log on the bottom left, but was easy to avoid.
Below this last rapid is the three-mile paddle-out that moves along pretty swiftly through occasional class II and III rapids. Wood was more of an issue down here than in the gorge, so keep your head up.
Peter at the exit of the gorge

Access:
To reach the take-out, turn off Hwy. 199 on to the South Fork Road. Follow the road about 12 miles until you reach the fourth bridge over the South Fork called the Stevens Memorial Bridge. Be careful with maps because the gazeteer omits two road bridges near Rock Creek. Drop a bike or shuttle car at the turn-out at the upstream end of Stevens Bridge. This is also the put-in for the main South Fork run, which sucks by the way.

Peter scrambling down to the river.

To reach the put-in, continue up the road and turn right after 1/2 mile, crossing the next bridge. There should be a sign saying no winter travel and indicating mileages to Kelsey Creek, Red Mountain, and Orleans. After about 2.5 miles of climbing on pavement, turn left onto road 15N39. Follow it down to the Kelsey Creek Trailhead. From the trailhead, hike about a mile downhill until the trail forks at a switchback. Follow the upstream trail and start looking for a good spot to descend to the river. Watch out for poison oak and poor footing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Upper East Fork Lewis (WA): III+ (V)

With a bunch of rain in the Lewis drainage, we were skunked on Canyon Creek and even Copper Creek was suspected to be too high. We came up with an alternate plan of running the upper East Fork of the Lewis River. The Waterfall run is extremely well-known as a classic class IV creeking run with two big yet friendly waterfalls. We continued up the road past the normal put-in for about four miles before hitting snow and decided to make that our put-in. We put in just below a river-wide strainer and that set the pace for the next few miles.

The creek kept a continuous gradient somewhere around 120 fpm. The flow spreads out a lot and we didn't have much water anyway, so hydraulics were not an issue. Wood was. Everything below our put-in was navigable, but we had to boof over one log hazard and I ended up getting out of my boat briefly to portage one log. Everyone else made it around, but I took a different channel that dead ended into a strainer.

After a couple miles of continuous manky boulder gardens with wood, we rounded the corner above Tombstone. Tombstone is a nasty class V where all the water goes over a six-foot drop and powers into a rock. There is a very thin line to get left of the rock, but none of us elected to take it that day. Tombstone is preceeded by a funky class IV+ ledge that just didn't look to be worth the risk of getting swept over Tombstone. We all portaged the entire section on the right. The portage isn't very dangerous, but certainly annoying.

Below Tombstone, the river cleans up considerably, but the gradient drops off. We all cruised down a mile of class II boogey water dotted with a few class III+ ledges. I quickly got a little lazy and got woken up by one of the steeper drops of the run. I got a little close to the paddler in front of me as we came up to a five-foot ledge. As I dropped in, I noticed he was getting pulled back into the hole at the bottom. I quickly went for plan B and paddled hard, but my Huka is hole bait and I was drawn back in. I bucked around for a second and braced hard downstream, but then the ride calmed down quite a bit. I took a few deep breaths and relaxed a little while surfing as my friends cheered me on from the eddy below. It was a fairly tame hole ride, but I still couldn't get out of it. I tried surfing to the left, then the right, then left again, but nothing was working. Eventually I turned by boat downstream, gave it a big backstroke to push my stern into the green water, and got launched downstream and upside-down with a big ender. I dug deep to reach some green water, flushed out, and rolled up.

After a few more similar ledges, we came to the horizon line at Sunset Falls. At this flow, the middle line looked particularly good and we all fired it off one by one. On my first run I boofed a little too early, but still landed upright. I just had to do that again, so I hiked up the little trail on river right for a second lap. The second time around, I blew my entrance and got shoved left. I went around the boof flake and into a deep seam. I pencilled in without tucking and went deep. My paddle blades caught a lot of water and ripped the blade out of my left hand, straining my shoulder in the process. I drifted around upside down in the pool for several seconds before I got my bearings, found my paddle again, and rolled up.

There are a couple different options for a take-out on this run. The best one is probably to finish at Sunset and hike to the road. We got permission from Mike Olson to take out at his place just downstream on the left, and we had a fantastic host while we changed into dry clothes in his shop. Just above his house we ran Sky Pilot, which was in my mind the most fun and challenging rapid of the trip.

Flows: when we launched, the EF Lewis Gauge was reading 2000 cfs at Heisson. This was juicy for the waterfall run, but pretty low for the upper section. If I were to do this section again, I would drive up the road until it starts looking thin and just put in where ever access looked good. The section below Tombstone contained the best rapids and clean drops on the run.

Overall, the difficulty wasn't more than class III most of the time. We could always see the bottom of rapids and boat scouted everything. The consequences are definitely class IV however, with lots of wood in the upper reaches and a narrow window to eddy out before the portage at Tombstone. This is a good fall back run if the water is too high on the surrounding runs, but I would only put in above Tombstone again at higher water.