Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lower North Fork Cal-Salmon: IV+

Yet another classic run in California's Salmon river system is the Lower North Fork. The North Fork is a smaller watershed than the South Fork and thereby only goes when most of the other runs are too high. The upper section above Sawyer's Bar is reputed to be a great class III+ play run and is almost never too high. Downstream of the confluence with the Little North Fork, the gradient steepens and the river tumbles through some truly impressive granite boulder gardens.Brian McQueen trying to see what lies ahead

The first time I checked into this run was in the company of Chris Ingram and Jud Lehman. Chris hadn't seen this section either, but Jud knows the lines as well as anyone. We had a huge group at the Salmon that weekend and elected to disperse amongst four different runs. This led to an absurd mess of shuttle logistics and we ultimately arranged for someone to pick us up at our take-out and we got out of camp at the crack of noon.

Once on the water, we had a mile or so of wide, shallow cobble bars to grind over before reaching our first rapid. This wasn't so much a horizon line as a wall of boulders with a few slots hidden throughout the jumble. Jud gave us some concise beta and disappeared into the maze. Chris and I eddy hopped along behind him and once past the initial drop, we could see the rapid continuing for over a hundred yards around and over more beautifully rounded granite.
Jud leads Chris through the right channel

This seemed to be the character of the run: long boulder gardens extending beyond vision but open to a variety of routes. Another three or four rapids ranked in the IV+ range and the in-between stuff was filled with fun class III+ read and run. After a couple miles of continuous action, we pulled over for a scout and the only horizon line of the day.Peter Gandesberry dropping into the big one

Darin McQuoid melts through the sneak line

This is a beautiful rapid as the river tumbles steeply over some big boulders and has a few nasty spots, but the sneak line down the right was very straightforward with no moves to worry about. Below here we cruised through another mile of thinning class III to our take out. Overall, the run took us about one hour and 20 minutes with a small group and stopping only once for a scout. We beat all the other groups by a long shot and loitered about the take-out for another hour waiting for crews to finish up with the Methodist Creek run.
Chris Ingram at the top of another long boulder garden

I ran the lower NF again a couple weeks later with Peter Gandesberry, Brain McQueen, and Darin McQuoid and I imagine the more you do this run the less continuous it feels because there are really only a handful of good rapids. But your first time down, prepare to be kept busy by miles of stacked up boulder gardens.

Flows: These pictures were taken when the Salmon gauge was around 5.5 feet and the NF estimate on Dreamflows read about 900 cfs. I would say this is the low end of good, though boner-boaters would probably have fun even lower. The river channel is pretty wide, so I'm sure it could handle a lot more water.

Access: This is probably the best reason to bring someone who knows the run. The put-in and take-out are both at poorly marked fire engine fill sites. You can put it at the mouth of the Little North Fork or cut off some flat water by going downstream about 1/2 mile to the engine fill site. The take-out is about four miles downstream just past a developed mining camp. Some people continue on to Forks of Salmon but all it adds is five miles of class II and a manky class V/portage.

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