Sunday, October 31, 2010

Clear Creek Headwaters, Wilderness Falls Section: IV (V,P)

Hiking in from the Smith River divide

Since I began kayaking, I've dreamed of this section of river. Clear Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River near Happy Camp, California, is one of the most pristine watersheds in the country. The entire drainage is protected by the Siskiyou Wilderness Area and is completely roadless with the exception of a dirt road to access the lower canyon. The lower section from Slippery View river access to the Klamath confluence is a great class III scenic float and one of the best beginner runs around. Above that, upper Clear Creek is a classic section of class IV/V whitewater that has become a favorite run of mine. But for the last five years, I have stood at that put-in bridge at Ten Mile Creek and gazed upstream, wondering what whitewater secrets the wilderness holds.

Looking upstream from the bridge at Ten Mile Creek

The light effects made the hike in much more pleasureable

So I went to work researching the Wilderness Falls section of Clear Creek. I talked to a paddler who had run it at extremely low water and countless kayakers who wrote it off due to access challenges. I studied topographic maps, geologic maps, historical hydrographs and discussed access with forest rangers in the Gasquet Ranger District to formulate a plan. In 2009, two separate attempts fell through at the last minute and in the abnormally wet October of 2010 I was ready to give it another shot. I stirred up curious enthusiasm from Brock Nelson and J.R. Weir. Both were flexible and fired up, so I tirelessly watched the changing weather forecasts and river gauges for over a week while the northern California coast was hit by rainstorms. Then, at 8 p.m. on October 28th, I made the final call: "we're launching tomorrow boys!" It was on.

Driving to the trailhead above the clouds

The trip started in Gasquet, California along the Smith River. We picked up our shuttle driver and drove about an hour to Doe Flat Trailhead where Clear Creek shares a divide with the Siskiyou Fork and South Fork of the Smith. From there, we began the six-mile hike on a well-maintained trail down into Clear Creek. The hike is as easy as it could be to carry a boat with overnight gear for six miles and took us about two and a half hours without backpack systems.

J.R. and Brock shouldering their 75-pound backpacks

The boat felt a lot heavier than it looks

We were all able to put the pain aside and enjoy the fantastic scenery. Fall colors were out, the sun was beaming through old growth coastal spruce forests, and we were surrounded by freshly snow-capped peaks of the Siskiyous. When we reached Doe Creek close to its confluence with Clear Creek, we were happy to see water and hastily put on with 50 cfs. It lasted about 100 yards before our first log portage. Then we had another. And another before I lost patience and portaged across the flat to Clear Creek proper.

Perhaps a touch too enthusiastic to see water. On the banks of Doe Creek.

Brock ferrying across a creek to avoid wet feet

J.R. enjoying the sunshine

The entire first mile of the run was rough. We had almost 150 cfs total and it was somewhat how I imagine the Manky Mile on Bridge Creek. We were all bouncing off rocks and good eddies were scarce while wood was abundant. We scouted several times and ran some chunky lines just to avoid putting our boats back on our shoulders. Each of us faced several minor broaches and pins.

Typical tight boulder garden with brush obstructing the full view

I was starting to worry we'd be in for 14 miles of this and could see why no one had come back raving about this run. But throughout the first mile, several large tributaries poured in and gave us more hope. Soon the portaging was over and we began to encounter many fun rapids.

Brock below a fun slide

There were extremely tight, technical boulder gardens, pushy bedrock slots, and even a couple of nice ledges in the 10-foot range. We boat-scouted nearly everything and took quick looks at bigger horizon lines to see more manageable rapids.

After paddling about four miles from the Doe Creek confluence, we came to the first real pool on the run. A significant tributary called Cedar Creek entered on the left and we knew we had reached the namesake of the run: Wilderness Falls.

Wilderness Falls viewed from our camp

I had heard numerous varying descriptions of Wilderness Falls that ranged from a 50-footer with a shallow landing to a 35-foot multi-tiered sliding affair. None were even remotely fitting. The total drop was around 20 feet and the falls consisted of a cross-current boof into a hideous crack that boiled, pillowed, and fell off a second drop into a big pool.

The bottom of Wilderness Falls

To the best of our knowledge Wilderness Falls had never been run and none of us decided to step up to the plate that day. It actually looked fairly clean with a fun entrance move, but I hate crack drops, couldn't predict what kind of beatdown might happen in there, and considering our location, didn't feel like playing probe.

The entrance move to the crack

At this point in the day, we had been slowed down by many setbacks and it was getting late. We portaged relatively easily along the right bank and found a perfect campsite overlooking the falls where we called it a night.

A nice cozy campsite on a clear morning

Day 2
We awoke to clear skies and were happy to see the water hadn't dropped out at all overnight. By this point all the tributaries had boosted our flow to a healthy 400 cfs. We knew the day ahead of us would be long with 10 miles of unknown creek left before we hit the more familiar upper run. The only beta we had on this run was a cryptic class III/IV rating from a trip at much lower water. It was evident that the previous exploration did us no good beyond the assurance that we wouldn't have any boxed in waterfalls. For the next 10 miles, we were in full exploratory mode. On the water by 9 am.

The next couple of miles held the best whitewater of the entire trip. The canyon would gorge out and open up regularly and we were once-again scouting some bigger horizon lines. We encountered several steeper but channelized boulder gardens and exciting bedrock drops including a unique 15-foot slide and a multi-tiered slide ending in a 10-foot plunge.
Brock getting ready for the 15-foot slide

Looking down the lip of a 10-footer

The creek was littered with countless smaller boofs, but often we found ourselves landing on shallow rocks. Some drops were still quite chunky and the gorges were separated by long stretches of class II. Because of our time crunch we were almost more excited to see easy water than we were to find big, clean drops.

A nice section of slides

But everything was navigable, bony as it may have been, and we didn't have a single portage all morning. After three hours of aggressive boat-scouting, we found ourselves looking downstream at the Ten Mile bridge. The unknown headwaters of Clear Creek was behind us.

One of many fun drops

By the time we reached the upper run, we were floating on around 600 cfs. This made the upper section a touch bony, but all the normal lines were the same and holes were never a concern. But we had put in a long day on the water and starting to get tired. My fatigue became especially apparent during the first portage, when I was struggling to carry my full-loaded kayak 100 feet after I'd carried it six miles the day before.

Fall colors on upper Clear Creek

It took all my focus to finish off the final class V rapid, Cottonmouth. But in the pool below the un-scoutable finale, we were both in our boats, thrilled to have finished off such an incredible section of river. We proceeded through the last five miles of class II water and I'd forgotten just how gorgeous the lower canyon is. Just after 3 p.m., we passed under the highway bridge where our shuttle driver was waiting, guarding cold beers and dry clothes.

I haven't been able to find much information on the kayaking history of Clear Creek, but here's what I do know. Brandon and Dustin Knapp completed the first descent from Doe Creek down sometime in the 90's. They did the run in the summer with an estimated 200 cfs at the take-out. Dustin has been a huge help with the success of this trip and graciously recounted every detail he could and confirmed my conclusions about access and flows. Otherwise, we know of one other descent completed at low water by one of J.R.'s coworkers at Otter Bar Lodge. I figure the best way to hear about other descents is for me to go around claiming that this was the third descent. So I will, and I eagerly await contradiction, because anyone who has successfully completed a mission like this one deserves due credit. I'll also claim that this was the highest water descent to date as the summer-time runs would be on about 1/3 the flow we had. If you know these claims to be untrue, please let me know. Finally, it is my understanding that Wilderness Falls has yet to be run.

Access and flows
This is where I could write my Ph.D. thesis. The road to the Doe Flat trailhead climbs to nearly 5000 feet and snow doesn't melt away until late June or July of most years. By that point, the creek is a trickle and the canyon is much more effectively explored on foot via the well-maintained trail along the entire length. The only way to catch Clear Creek with worthwhile water levels is to hike up from the trailhead on the Klamath side (about 14 trail miles) or do the run in the the fall as we did. Flows are difficult to predict as Clear Creek has no gauge. As a general rule, the watershed is more stable than nearby Indian Creek and holds its rainwater for longer.

But there is really no way of knowing how much water will be in the creek when you start the hike. We started hiking the day after a rainstorm brought Indian Creek up to around 600 cfs. The Indian Creek hydrograph steadily dropped off over the next two days while Clear Creek stayed at a fairly even flow. The week before, the area experienced an uncommon rainstorm that left all the soil saturated. These conditions provided us with around 150 cfs at the get-on and 600 cfs dumping into the Klamath. I would consider this the low recommended flow and an ideal level for our exploratory trip. Next time, I would want more water, a little more time, and err on the side of high water as you can always wait for levels to drop (provided you brought enough food.)

Right around the first snowstorm of the season, the Forest Service locks a gate four miles down the road from the trailhead for safety reasons. If you have a truck that's good in the snow, you can borrow a key to the gate. Check in with the Gasquet Ranger District for up-to-date conditions. They were extremely accomodating to me and easy to work with. The take-out is easy: right where US Highway 96 crosses Clear Creek at its mouth. If you can do the trip before significant snow accumulates below 5000 feet, the shuttle is only about 2.5 hours one way over the Greyback Saddle between O'brien, Ore. and Happy Camp, Ca. If the Greyback road is blocked due to snow, you'll be in for a much longer shuttle driving over 5 hours each way through Grants Pass and Ashland.

We hired Bearfoot Brad out of Gasquet (707) 457-3365 to do the entire shuttle for around $100. He is dependable, honest, takes good care of vehicles, and is a great guy to hang out with on the drive. Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of this run. Other than the first mile and Wilderness Falls, the run had no portages. What I've failed to capture in this trip report are the numerous technical rapids. The most challenging rapids of the trip were the dozens of tight boulder gardens. I backpaddled more than ever and it was barely enough to control my loaded kayak. Pins and broken boats are a serious concern throughout this run if you get out of control. There were plenty of campsites spaced throughout the run and the whitewater and scenery are both outstanding. I imagine it will be a few years before someone is fortunate enough to go back in there, but I would absolutely do it again. The conditions for this trip were pretty ideal for our situation and lack of beta. Next time, I would like to get an earlier start and see more water. I'd try to be on the water by noon, partly to avoid the pressure of time, but mostly to take more pictures of this incredible creek. If you are putting together a group and have space for one more, please let me know. I can't wait to run the headwaters of Clear Creek again!

Next time I'll have to take some better pictures. Brock boofing out on a big slide.


Roman Dial said...

nice story and cool adventure

Bsuess said...

I have been wondering what Wilderness Falls looked like for a few years now. Until now, I have not been able to find an accurate description or pictures of it. Thanks for the effort to get there! I must say, compared to how it had been described, it seems a bit underwhelming.