three day epic wilderness
adventure down Fantasy Falls of the North Fork Mokelumne is one of the
hardest and most rewarding of the classic High Serra rivers.. The
normal season for Fantasy Falls is sometime
in June-July and dictated by the current year’s snowpack.
for Fantasy Falls is generally estimated from the outflow of Salt
Springs Reservoir. Most years there is no outflow, making Fantasy Falls
a complete guessing game.
Taking off South
Wednesday, the only information we could gather through our network was
that one person had checked the Highway 4 crossing and thought flows
were too high. We debated spending more time in the South American
drainage, but low flows and the temptation of getting on this classic
prompted us to sacrifice a day of paddling to check flows at the
The gauge at the Highway 4 crossing of the North Fork Mokelumne.
literally jumped with joy
when I saw the flows. In spring 2006 the run was done at
the highest known levels. Their put-on flows is the high mark, and when
taking off three days later the water was at the low mark. Having heard
the gauge described I instantly knew that we would have optimal flows,
as we were below their take-off flow mark, but well above anything
resembling low water.
Not boney at all for our run either.
years the rumor of
Fantasy Falls was that you wanted the river low at put-in.
Shasta boys proved this wrong, had an incredible
trip and were still able to run the majority of the rapids at flows
that would have initially seemed absurdly high. We found flows about
10" below their high mark and 3” below their low
that we knew we had the
right water levels, we set off on a mission
checking the weather for heat waves, restocking food supplies and
setting the infamous three to four hour
Salt Springs Reservoir
Fantasy Falls is generally
considered a three day trip through the
Mokelumne Wilderness, although it can be done in two long days with a
shuttle driver. If you want to get an early start on day
one, shuttle should be set the day before. The good news is that for a
three day trip the first day on the water can be short. There
shuttle options, a long paved route on river right, and labyrinth of
dirt roads on the left. On our way to the take-out we choose the paved
roads and got our gear together at the beautiful reservoir.
Calaveras Dome from the shuttle road.
were people camping
everywhere near Salt Springs, so we decided to ask for
directions on the left side shuttle, a reputedly faster route when it
goes. A friendly group gave us some nice instructions and mentioned the
road was a bit rocky, but they were able to work around the rocks in a
small pickup truck. So we were off, loaded three deep with all our gear
and kayaks in a Toyota Corolla, which was riding a bit low. Once we
crossed to the left side of the river we started a routine of driving a
little and then hopping out to throw rocks out of the way. The shuttle
road was a lot steeper than we expected, and we needed some momentum to
get the car up rock strewn road. The Corolla did us proud and we were
relieved when we eventually hit pavement without getting a flat tire.
With night setting in upon us we rallied down the paved road only to
find it turned back into dirt and slowed our pace.
It also forked in
many places, and we were off the area covered by the Mokelumne
Wilderness Area map. We simply stayed on the most traveled road until
we hit a large snow drift that impeded our progress and looked to be
about three feet deep and about fifty feet long. We figured that
another road must go through, and proceeded down a few roads that got
too rugged for the Corolla, and eventually found what seemed to be an
alternate route that someone had gone so far as to cut out a few downed
trees. Optimistically we figured we must be on the right track, but
after another fifteen minutes of slightly rowdy dirt road we came to
another large tree across the road that hadn’t been cut.
Turning around we noted that where the logs had been cut was rather
narrow, and laughing at ourselves realized that we had been squeezing
the car through some gaps cut wide enough for four-wheelers. Turning
around we hung our heads in defeat and headed all the way down to
Angels Camp and a long shuttle. All told we arrived back at the Highway
4 crossing around midnight, after a six hour shuttle mission. I think
we were about four miles away from Highway 4 when we hit the snow drift
that turned us around.
Pack it up, pack it in.
Once again we had another
day of beautiful California weather while
packing our boats at the put-in for Fantasy Falls. We put on the cold
water around ten-thirty in the morning expecting a bit of warm up into
the run. No warm up was in sight as we rounded the first corner and
faced a long, steep, continuous boulder garden. Chris
the lead and with some great boat scouting we made quick time down
through the steep and manky boulder gardens. Rounding one
early corner we scrambled for eddies above a large log jam that the
whole river went under, really one of the sketchiest spots in the whole
trip because the eddy above it was only large enough for one boat.
Thankfully we had been hopping eddies all the way around the corner and
were each able to take our turn getting into the small eddy above the
Taylor running the cleanest drop in the early day one boulder section.
If flows are any lower the
first section of boulder gardens is just terrible. Thankfully there is
a trail on river left, and it's much easier on the boat, body and blade
to just walk this whole section at low flows.
Kevin Smith dropping into the first mini gorge.
An early big rapid.
Our first scout of the day
was this gorgeous little mini gorge. This
mini gorge shows the true character of Fantasy Falls, long multiple
move rapids set in stunning scenery. The first day is know as the
“bad” day of Fantasy Falls, but at high flows
better than many others, although at low flows it deserves to be known
as the bad day.
Davis Gove runs the first falls of the run.
The same drop on a low water run, Jonas Grunwald.
Chris and Kevin scout another unofficial gorge.
I say unofficial gorge
because people say there are three major gorges
on Fantasy Falls, but there are really over five distinct gorges all
containing large rapids. Shortly after this scout we were down in the
“First Gorge” which does contain the largest rapids
of day one. Chris and I gave it a scout high on the right and deemed it
good to go, although we noted one rapid with a big hole + pocket
combination that didn’t look like it would be fun to be in.
Back in our boats we gave verbal of the first two
Taylor and headed downstream. We all eddied above the large hole rapid,
and I probed while Kevin and Taylor scouted. In this rapid the water
pushes up onto a large midstream boulder, then about twenty percent of
the water went left into a chunky looking mess, and the rest charged
right and into the pocket hole. Perhaps five percent of the water
actually climbed over the rock, and the line was to drive hard at the
rock and try to boof past the hole, without getting caught in the jet
of water going straight into the hole. I started off in the center with
a slight left angle, and once I got near the boulder the jet of water
moving right caught me and I drove hard into the hole, punching through
to the right wall and working my way out upright, glad I
hadn’t gone upside down against the wall where it would have
pulled me back into the pocket. Over the years I have seen this hole
dish out several swims. There is an easy portage on the right, and
unless flows are low I don't mind walking.
At medium flows we portaged the drop on a 2008 trip.
Downstream we pushed on
through several large ledge drops, scouted one
exceptionally large and long rapid that goes but can be portaged on the
right. It's worth noting that at low flows this one is full of sieves
and almost a mandatory portage, but the high water cleans it up.
Devin Knight running the same drop at medium flows in 2008.
Below the long rapid we
breathed a sigh of relief. Light was already
fading from the canyon, but the drop below we recognized from Seven
, and from the beta we had
our campsite was supposed to lie just below. With the light gone from
the canyon I ignored the shot and opted to probe the fun looking rapid.
All our lines had varying degrees of success, but the rapid was more
forgiving than it looked like.
Ryan and Devin Knight in the notch at medium flows, 2008.
Epic afternoon light.
A late in the afternoon slow shutter shot of said rapid.
Looking back at the same with low flows.
As promised a gorgeous
campsite was just downstream with fresh water
coming in on the right and a big gorge directly downstream. We settled
in for the night glad to be at camp, nervous about the following day
and the challenges we would have to face.
The good life on Fantasy Falls.
Sometimes you just have to pay your dues in the mank.
Spectular vistas from camp.
Google Maps Marker for camp one.
down to green arrow.