Grünwald, like me, has no
idea what we're about to
Climbing up from Fulda
Creek the snow banks recede, leaving us to carry
our laden kayaks. At each break we talk about how to approach the
creek. There is better access on the left, but it would be several more
miles of hiking to access. The closer we get to the North Fork of the
North Fork, the more inclined we are to take a direct route to the
We continue hiking on Texas Hill road until
dividing ridge between Fulda and the North Fork of the North Fork.
Charlie makes the call to drop down to the river. It's not too steep at
first, but the hill quickly falls away to the river and we are
scrambling downhill, dragging our boats and occasionally switching
roles and being drug by our kayaks. At the bottom of the final pitch we
regroup and flows are determined to be perfect. Which is perfect
because we are already deep in it.
up in the watershed we drink
straight from the stream, joking
about getting sick but not truly concerned. We have perhaps a hundred
cfs, which by estimations based off the gradient and past attempts,
should be perfect. We launch and are keen on making downstream progress
"mellow" section, which is a little tight and manky with our heavy
Jason Hale making a crux move in one of the early rapids.
Downstream progress is the
name of the game. I try to achieve the right
balance between documentation and speed, and am still not sure what to
expect of the river. Right now it's a mix of fun rapids with quick
portages mixed in.
Jonas Grünwald in the first good rapid.
Typical to the character so far, Charlie and Jason start a quick
portage below the good rapid.
We start to get into a rhythm, run a good drop, nothing epic, and then
make a portage on par with the rapid. If it's not big, at least let it
be beautiful; John Grace runs a beautiful boof.
We're moving at a decent
pace and conserving energy. I'm starting to
get a little hungry, and just on que the next horizon falls away. Far,
far away. We eat a quick lunch and enjoy typical California sunshine,
hoping for the best in downstream tribulations.
Dispatching our repast, we quickly scout out the
navigating the steep section. Not only does the river get incredibly
steep, it drops into a deep gorge. Charlie and John scout downstream on
both sides of the river. The next set of slides isn't perfect, but
portaging them will take over an hour, while running them only a brief
Looks like they are clean enough. Charlie ops to probe while we play
Hale lines up the big drop.
I wasn't worried about the
drop in and of itself. The concern was
catching a mandatory eddy on the right after the second slide, because
immediately downstream was a portage. That always gets the heart going.
I also want to get a shot from below with good lighting, so I go next.
John quickly follows down the second slide.
I had a sneaking suspicion
that the slide would commit us to the gorge,
and looking downstream, that feeling is confirmed. Below, a portage
around a messy slide, then, well we'll just have to figure it out. I
pick up my Villain and start the moderately sketchy portage, finishing
above another slide. John and I scout down to the bottom, where the
slide pinches down and looks like an elbow bruiser. I portage as the
rest of the group run it, some going deep but all manage to avoid
hitting their elbow.
The pool is minimal at best, Charlie hops out to
sequence. We're all relieved when he gives it two thumbs up, and walks
back up to tell us the beta. First we'll drive left up a steep curler,
boofing left before a narrow hallway leading to a fifteen foot falls
that we'll attempt to boof right.
Charlie goes first, wanting to capture video from below.
I wait until Charlie is
ready to film and push off. The entrance is
manky, and I squeak through a tight spot between two rocks and drive
down to the first move. I can't help but think "how does Charlie do
it"? He is a big guy and tends to power over things better than I do.
Sure enough I only get a partial boof and continue down the hallway,
not getting a perfect boof at the bottom but landing with enough
control to resurface upright, and cruise into the right eddy where I
get out to take shots of the rest of the team.
Jonas nails the boof into the rainbow.
Below the rewarding double
drop we are all smiles. This is a lot better
than we had any right to expect it to be. The next drop is a ten foot
slide, followed by another horizon. Time to scout again. Smiles quickly
fade away. Ten foot slide, to as many feet of freefall...to a seventy
foot high slide. Slide into the wall. We all think, it's okay, Charlie
promised us a portage on the right. Looking down the right side I can't
see a portage route. Not unless I was to rope my boat up a dangerously
steep scree field to the top of the ridge. Basically hike out. If
someone had a forty meter rope we could rappel. We don't have a forty
meter rope. All those thoughts processed in a minute of looking around.
Looking at the slide again. Maybe it goes. Maybe
the wall. The
spray from the bottom certainly lands right at the base of the wall.
What about the pocket on the right? The slide also banks to the left,
where the pocket looks terrible.
In an equally short amount of time, Hale decides
first and give
it hell. I can't wait to see what happens and hope for the best. I am
sure everyone else feels the same. Will he hit the wall?
The light is pretty bad, so I throw on my
Jason comes in down the far left of the entrance and nails the line.
Right at the lip he drives hard to the right, and we're stunned as he
catches his bow on the rock and spins around. He flies off the bottom
of the slide backward, flipping upside down and landing in the water
before the wall. The current quickly pulls him off the wall and
downstream. Whew, looks like she goes!
making the first descent of "Graduation Party"
John said he was going next, and I knew we were
normally he sticks around for getting the best angle, and there
wouldn't be much from downstream. Like the rest of us he obviously just
wanted to get it over with.
Mr Grace enters the Graduation Party.
John stays a little more
center on the slide, and has better luck
moving right at the bottom but he corkscrews into the pool below,
staying away from the wall and rolling up quickly. Better, but the
slide is still not an easy sell. Charlie quickly jumps on the
opportunity to go next. His entrance looks similar, and he comes off
the bottom of the slide upright and in the center, lands pointing
directly towards the wall and instantly does a huge wall splat, holding
on as the current pulls him downstream. Woohoo, the first upright run
of the beast.
Jonas decides to go next, and I'll get one more
before joining the
team. Thunderclouds had been moving in all day, and as Jonas hiked back
up to his kayak they partially obscure the sun, giving me slightly
better lighting. The top half is still in direct sunlight so I reverse
a Grad ND filter on my lens and get ready for Jonas to come down.
A hard right to left move on the top slide,
the eddy and
the mandatory plug on the second drop, and Jonas is at the lip of the
slide. Jonas starts center and moves right, his line is almost exactly
like John's with the corkscrew at the bottom.
Jonas welcomes the party.
Now it's my turn. I feel a
sense of loneliness, separated from the rest
of the group by natural terrain. It's a long scramble back up to my
boat. I stay focused on what I believe to be the key of running many
slides: Finish pointing where you want to end up. My stomach is tight,
I snap closed my skirt and give a quick spit test (if you are too
scared to spit, don't run it) before lining up the first move. Not that
there are other options at this point.
I paddle hard to the left down the first slide,
eddy and line
up the small channel for the second drop. I resurface a little to far
left, and paddle out into the main current, trying to avoid too much
right momentum. I accelerate at an amazing rate the second I hit the
slide, and get whited out halfway down. I am planning on taking a left
stroke at the bottom to get my angle, and get bumped over to my left,
which works out perfect for taking a massive left stroke and finishing
the slide with an edge to edge boof. I land in the pool facing right
and away from the wall, glad to have that one behind me!
Jason is up on the right setting as much safety as
signals me right for the next slide. Elated by the good line on the
slide I come in a little too slow and a curler rejects me from the
right side and into the left wall where I slam my head on the wall. A
hit but no real damage. The river is never shy about showing who is
really in charge.
We regroup in the pool below, only to be out
again. The fabled
forty footer. A manky lead lands in a short pool of fast moving
waterfall before falling a perfect thirty feet. Sunlight left the
canyon while we ran Graduation Party, so speed mode kicks in and I make
a quick portage of the entrance and run the falls.
Jonas's beautiful shot of Charlie.
I get out on a precarious rock in the middle of the river and try to
get ready in time for Charlie, but am nowhere close and miss grabbing a
shot of him. Jonas decides to go next and I am ready.
John lines it up quite nicely.
We regroup below the falls
and feel on top of the world...while being
very deep in a beautiful ditch. We'd just gone through the probable
portage section, now on to the tea-cups!
Charlie hops out to scout the next section, and we
assuming the best. Then we get the signal to scout. Out we go, and to
my dismay, the second rapid down is a sieve pile. In a gorge.
Portage-able? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way it would be a waste of time
for us to run just one drop to be forced to portage and gain even more
elevation in the big portage. Time to look at other options. The hill
above is incredibly steep and full of loose rocks. Rope work will be
required at the minimum. John and Charlie head off in search of a route
that Charlie had seen.
At the pool we search around for the best access
rest of the
portage. Initially it will involve near vertical climbing, and we
search around for the safest way to get it done. As Charlie and John
return we decide the best option is to rope the boats up one pitch, and
climb upstream a ways before climbing up and traversing to meet our
Rope work with fully loaded kayaks is never easy,
is no exception. Up on the steep hillside there isn't enough room for
all the kayaks to rest in one spot, so the traverse starts depending on
boat location. The traverse is across steep scree fields which make the
infamous South Branch portage look like a walk in the park. Ten minutes
into it and we are committing to dynamic moves across exposed sections,
where a slip means a lost boat at the minimum.
Pushing through the brush I hear a whoop from
letting me know
it's time to head up. Jonas and I start up and incredibly steep,
scrambling climb. We have to keep some distance between us because of
the danger of loose rock. Breathing hard I look up and see Charlie just
above me, but there is nowhere to set down my boat. Without any other
options I continue a slow push up the incredibly steep hill. I'd like
to stop but there is nowhere to rest. An eternity of struggle seems to
pass, and I eventually find a small tree to brace my boat against and
catch my bearings.
The top of the ridge isn't more than thirty feet
stabilize my boat on a precarious tree before hiking to the ridge.
We'll be able to traverse here, it's steep but possible. The down climb
appears to steep scree again, but with lots of leaves on it. The sun is
already over the horizon. I hike back to my boat and wait for the rest
of the team.
Down below everyone is fading as quickly as the
water before the morning, and when Jonas reaches the top we start the
down climb. Leaves cloak the ground, each steep down is chancy, the
unstable ground makes it a trial to descend quickly without sliding all
the way to the unseen river far below. I carry my boat as far as
possible, but the incline increases and it's too steep to shoulder with
any hope of control. I start roping my boat downhill and Charlie
quickly catches up. Together we devise an ingenious system. I go first
down to the kayaks, find a stash for them and pull the rope down. As
Charlie comes down I lower the boats to the end of the rope and wait
while he down climbs to reverse roles.
The light is fading even faster than expected. I
let out a
shout of joy
when I see the river, still several hundred feet below. A cliff band
blocks us just below the sighting, and we're forced to combine ropes
and do the standard method of lowering boats, eating up precious
minutes of dusk as we do so. It's nearly dark now that we have both
kayaks below the cliff, and thankfully it's not quite as steep either.
I grab my boat and make a bee line for the water.
Darkness has almost completely sets in as I reach
final pitch. To
my right I can see a cliff band above the river, and to the left
perhaps a small draw. I switchback to the left and the slope gets even
steeper. Borderline cliff. Climbing up would take all four limbs. But
it's almost pitch black out. Looks like it will work. I scramble down
the steep slope hoping to see a nice granite slab or sandy beach at the
bottom. No such luck. It's just an uneven bedrock outcropping. The
other side of river looks worse, this one at least has a small pothole.
First thing is first though, I charge to river level and drink the
clear cold water.
Somewhere in the descent I lost Charlie, and we'd
and Jonas after the crest. I give some whistle blows and start
gathering sticks for a fire. Sticks because there is no such thing as
real firewood on our desultory rock. Charlie finds me and quickly
returns uphill to help the others find us while I continue seeking
The stars are out. After
much tribulation the team is reunited on the
perch, sans kayaks. Jonas lost his water bottle but was miraculously
reunited with it. John's headlight fell off and the batteries flew out.
At one point Jason was standing above John and thought he was on a
ledge, so he tossed his drybags down. Unfortunately John wasn't on a
ledge, and the drybags continued off into the darkness with all Jason's
At least we are all at the water safely. I stoke
food, thankfully from experience we all packed enough extra that
sharing with Jason is no problem. We are all exhausted from the portage
and scarf down our food, hoping to catch a semblance of sleep in the
rocks will allow it. I give Jason my down jacket and someone else
shares a beanie, it's all we have for him. The fire quickly flickers
out and we head to our beds.
Good morning rugged camp, Charlie interviews John about the nights
adventure. Note how cliffed in we are here. Pure luck or natural
intuition got us down the only access route.
First light comes faster
than I expect. Jason is already up and gone,
searching for his gear and kayak. As the fire starts to burn he returns
with his gear bags. They had tumbled down and just over the cliff, but
somehow got caught in branches and he was able to pull them back in, a
most fortuitous circumstance!
Already tired and ready to get out. There is no
how we feel. Thankfully there are just two clean twenty footers above
the known section of the North Fork of the North Fork that has been
done before and contains "one technical, river level portage" in its'
eight miles of whitewater. Plus fourteen miles on Giant Gap. I am glad
that I packed an extra dinner and breakfast just in case.
We peel out of the camp eddy and make a quick
around a drop
that would probably get run if we weren't so damn far out and tired.
Now for the clean twenty footers! This was one of the highlights that
Charlie promised before the trip, and when as we eddy out above what
appears to be not exactly twenty feet, and not exactly clean, Charlie
starts a long scout down the left. At the bottom of the drop smiles
fade as Charlie has a classic moment...pondering the drop...looking at
the portage...looking at the drop...one last look and the portage and
the double set gets a thumbs up. Charge hard left on the first move,
then stay off the left and right walls, and run the next falls left of
center. Clean twenty to twenty my ass we declare.
John probes with the Fulda Creek confluence downstream.
John and Jason go first, both flipping in the first ledge and one takes
a brief surf before paddling out of view. Huh. Not exactly inspiring.
The light from downstream will be terrible so I opt to wait while
Charlie hikes upstream and Jonas goes.
Jonas cruises through just
fine while Charlie and I get in our craft.
Since I already have my boat out of the water I seal launch in below
the entrance hole, which Charlie runs planning to go straight through.
The hole has another idea, and he resurface 50-50 between the eddy and
the downstream current. Charlie catches the eddy with me and quickly
peels out and disappears over the horizon. I quickly follow him out of
the eddy, paddling hard to the left and getting enough of a boof to
land in control. Paddle, paddle and I am out of the backwash and
heading for the next horizon, glad to have escaped any trouble. I come
in a bit too slow and get pushed too far to the center and go deep,
thankfully my Villain resurfaces upright downstream of the drop and we
are through the surprise crux.
The next four miles of the North Fork of the North
beautiful and mildly challenging. The run is tougher than Giant Gap,
and certainly has more rapids, and one significant problem.
"Technical river level portage."
This time down the river flows are higher than the
time this run
had been done. The technical river level portage is a boulder pile in
an inescapable gorge. All sieves. The technical walking section is
under water. We poke around and deliberate for twenty minutes before
biting the bullet. The portage has two cruxes. First we hope over a
spine shaped rock with considerable volume flowing under it. Then one
person has to down climb with rope assistance, climb up another rock
and stand on a four foot wide flat spot while they get boats bridge
roped to them, then lower the boats thirty feet. Jason asks if I'd be
willing to do it because he is tired from the lack of sleep, but I am
terrified of heights and decline. I give him profuse thanks as he heads
to the rock.
Once we pass all five boats fifteen feet across
time for the second crux. The normal route is to jump five feet down to
a rock in the center, wade across shallow water and onto a final large
boulder that is possible to climb down. Unfortunately in the high flow
the initial jump is sketchy, the landing rock is damp and slippery.
Once this is done, the wading has turned into swimming. Swimming down a
channel where the water hits the destination rock and splits off boats
sides, falling fifteen feet onto rock piles. Dubious. Appalling. I am
downright scared. We hook each person up to ropes from the front and
back to help guide the process and take our turns. We all make it okay
and feel deliverance in the best way possible.
The North Fork of the North Fork continues through
gardens with the occasional bedrock drop thrown in. It's really a true
gem except for the heinous portage. The beauty is unique to itself,
while it's reminiscent of the Giant Gap it has a unique feel that I
regret not capturing images of. An old mining camp marks the first sign
of civilization, but I am surprised as we paddle three or four miles
past it before making the confluence with the North Fork after passing
a large mining complex.
Late afternoon sun spreads its warm rays across
and we take
a break at Euchre Bar. I don't feel like paddling out, but am assured
it's only a few hours out at our flow, which is roughly two thousand on
Oddly enough I know Giant Gap better than the
through what I remember being mediocre. Pleasantly, Giant Gap is tons
of fun at two thousand and we make incredible downstream progress in
the quick current.
5:30pm and we arrive at Iowa Hill Road with hoots
hollers, glad to
From left to right: Charlie Center, Jonas Grünwald, John
Grace, Jason Hale and Darin McQuoid. Jason's calorie counter estimated
9,500 on the first day alone!
Retrospectively if the
"technical river level portage" didn't exist I
would be inclined to go back and do the section from the Fulda
confluence down, it's quite classic. As it is, flows are too hard to
estimate and the portage too frightening for me to return until my
memory dulls considerably.
little video teaser from our
campsite at the East Fork confluence with the North Fork of the North