River III-IV (V)
The Salmon is an all time classic river in the
northwest corner of California. It's commonly called the Cal-Salmon to
differentiate it from the more well known Middle Fork Salmon in Idaho.
The Cal-Salmon is one of California’s three major free
flowing rivers, and it drains the Northern side of the Trinity Alps
Wilderness Area, Southern side of the Marble Mountain Wilderness Area,
and the East side of the Russian Wilderness Area. Because of draining
these wilderness areas, it’s no surprise that water quality
and scenery on the Cal-Salmon is top notch.
is a group on the Salmon with flows around 2,300cfs
There are two runs on the Cal-Salmon, although the
two can easily be combined into one day by kayakers. Playspots abound
and the big water character lends itself to playboating the runs. The
standard warm-up run is from Butler Creek to Brannon’s Bar.
This run is III-IV with one of the largest mandatory rapids on the run,
“Gaping Maw” aka “Marble”.
It’s a pretty straightforward rapid that requires the paddler
to work their way down the right side through some large waves and
laterals. The left side contains several large holes. Here is Scott
Yoder running down the right of Gaping Maw with flows around 4,000cfs.
I was young and foolhardy, and decided to see how sticky the left side
of Gaping Maw was.
Gaping Maw, Cal-Salmon
Nordheimer is the true classic run of the Cal-Salmon, as has a general
big water class IV character with two larger rapids sprinkled in. The
winter of ’06 made some major changes to some of the most
significant rapids on the Salmon. Cascade, a large V- rapid consisting
of many different routes, has several new barely submerged rocks in the
left channel, making it dangerous for an upside down kayaker. Cascade
offers up a wide variety of routes.
Last Chance and Freight Train were quite a notorious combination in
past years. Last Chance is a big class IV that is right above class V
Freight Train, and used to contain a hole that gave some long hole
rides to rafts and kayaks. Reported hole rides have been over two
minutes before people finally giving in to a swim. In the last few
years the hole Last Chance has mellowed out and it isn’t
nearly as sticky these days. That said, it’s still a large
rapid and the hole can flip rafts. Last Chance is an aptly named rapid,
because it is separated by either a wave train or short pool from
Freight Train. A raft at the top of Last Chance
This rapid’s name is also very fitting, Freight Train a big,
powerful, lengthy rapid, and at higher flows it sounds like a Freight
Train is roaring by while scouting.
This picture is from a few years ago, here I am rolling back up in
Freight Train with flows around 1,800cfs.
The move used to be a strong left to right move through the gigantic
lateral hole, where you would melt through and resurface in the middle
of the river. Since the rapid has changed, the ideal line for a kayak
is still up for debate. While the hole on the left is still large and a
little sticky, it’s also free from rocks. Currently if you
punch through the lateral with momentum you end up going over the rock
pile on the right, and if you let the lateral take you, there is a
barely submerged rock where it takes you. Ok if you are upright, but it
has already caused some injuries to upside down kayakers.
Rafts still run the left to right move, tending to hug the large horn
rock and hit the lateral with more of a downriver angle. Here rafters
style the line on the not as friendly any more Freight Train, with
flows around 2,300 cfs. Note how many more rocks there are currently at
2,300 than previously at 1,800.
getting setup 1/3 of the way down Freight Train.
raft makes the crux move in Freight Train.
buried in Freight Train, shot from below.
Over 4,000cfs Freight Train cleans up a lot, just make sure you have a
rock solid roll for the high flows, in the ‘80s a commercial
rafter flushed into Freight Train after falling out in Last Chance and
tragically drowned. It’s a lot longer than it looks like in
the photographs, and has a habit of flipping rafts on the bottom wall
too, but there is a nice recovery pool below at this point. There is
also an easy portage for both Freight Train and Cascade down the right
banks, for those wishing to get all the class IV action and avoid the
Epic whitewater, great scenery, what else could you want?
How about free camping? With BLM and National Forest compose the
majority of land ownership in the Salmon River watershed, and good free
camping is everywhere. It’s so easy to find I don’t
even need to give out directions to it.
also have great write-ups
on the Salmon.
I agree with Oregon Kayaking on ideal flows of 2,000-4,000, although
once you know the run it's great up to 5,000 but very pushy in a few
spots. Bring your creek boat too, because there is a lot of other stuff
to run in this area. Look out for poison oak, it's quite lush in the
Gauge near Somes Bar.