look really small in front of The
Minarets, haze due to a forest fire.
Previously during our diner
with the rangers we had inquired about the
trail, and heard stories of how epic the up and over climb was, turning
us off to the Upper North Fork. Believing that we had a heinous hike in
ahead of us, followed by six miles of river, Ben and I hit the trail at
six in the morning, planning on a grueling slog.
On the trail one thing immediately became
were a lot of
mosquitoes. Perhaps because I was in the lead, they were all over me,
for what proved to be the worst mosquito battle of the year. Most of
the hike was through meadows, with one climb through “The
Niche” which came much sooner and easier than expected. The
Niche was the major ascent of the hike, both Ben and I were equally
pleased to pass through it with relative ease.
view of the Minarets from the
trail, you can see the North Fork of the San Joaquin down in the valley
It felt like we were well over halfway through the hike, and the
mosquitoes had helped us set a fast pace, so I took a nice nap at the
The author hiking through another mosquito infested meadow.
Switchbacks set the pace
for the steep down climb into the North Fork,
but they were short lived and soon led to Hemlock Crossing, where we
knew a twenty-footer awaited us.
There is also nice camping at Hemlock crossing if you want to turn the
North Fork San Joaquin into a three day trip and really soak it in. Of
course there are lots of mosquitoes too.
Home sweet home
The river above Hemlock Falls was steep but tiny, so we decided not to
go further. Ben opted to go first and run the slide above it too.
Ben Stookesberry starts it off right on the North Fork San Joaquin.
We were expecting Hemlock Falls to be clean, and rather boring twenty
foot falls. The entrance move was actually rather entertaining and
required a strong move, and I wouldn’t have liked to see it
with much more water.
Ben Stookesberry, Hemlock Falls.
Chris Korbulic runs the same at high water.
The large pool below
Hemlock flowed into fast moving water under the
bridge, and the river fell over another waterfall in the ten foot
range, which was clogged with wood and mandated a quick portage.
We were still concerned that flows were too low,
held the water perfectly, and as we scouted and ran each drop, our
smiles grew wider and wider, this was looking like a great run!
Ben Stookesberry runs an early gorge rapid.
Initially the gorge started with many fun rapids, with one of us giving
a quick scout and signaling the other off.
The author getting routed through another fun rapid.
Chris enjoying the rapids and scenery.
Pristine wilderness paddling at its finest, the North Fork San Joaquin
has impeccable (and frigid) water quality.
After many manageable and
fun rapids, the river did what we knew was
inevitable, gorge walls rose higher and the gradient steepened. Not
wanting to find ourselves locked into a dire situation, we chose to
take a gorge rim scout. The metamorphic rock was considerably easier to
climb on than the polished granite of the Lower North Fork, and a quick
scout from up top revealed a rock blocking the flow, and in combination
with a submerged tree, it made quite a sieve. From above it we decided
that it was possible to get out on the rock and seal launch in.
I seal launch in while Ben films from above.
From the gorge rim we could
see an obvious large drop was just
downstream of the gorge, and after a few lead in rapids we scouted and
portaged on the left. The drop could have gone, but flows looked low
and it looked like both a boat abuser and big hitter.
I’d estimate the overall drop around forty feet.
We portaged down to where a small tributary and scenic camp coincided
below the drop, and put on to a series of ledges and slides.
Stoked to be on the North Fork San Joaquin.
A few slides later and we
were up on the canyon rim again, scouting a
large triple drop. I wasn’t too sold on the triple drop, it
looked big, fast and potentially shallow if you got upside down.
Ben Stookesberry runs the big triple drop.
Chris in the same with considerably higher water.
Ben Stookesberry in the run out of the tripler.
The author, boofs away.
The triple drop set the
tone, and quick scouts showed clean drops with
unique moves, all stacked on top of each other in a gorge with good
pools. Ben directed me off a nice double set that pushes hard into the
wall, and demands a strong left to right move on the second drop.
The author, part one.
Part two of the same.
Ben runs the same.
My favorite shot of the run, the transition in
the entrance was smooth and set you up perfectly to punch the big
The run out is a series of ledge holes full of very
beautiful clear water.
short pool led into another
large horizon line, and the river divided
around a large rock and bounced down about thirty feet.
Pinball on the North Fork San Joaquin.
I seal launched in below
Pinball and ran to the lip of the next tight
drop. Ben and I hiked around and scouted the drop extensively from both
sides, and couldn’t decide of the center went under a rock or
over it, and eventually chose to portage the tempting but risky
The author runs down to the eddy above the final gorge rapid.
Gorge walls opened up at
the end of the short portage, but a rock pile
sieved out the river and forced us to portage again. Putting in below
the pile, the river instantly cleaned up into a mix of boulder gardens
and bedrock drops.
Post portaging, the author back in the goods.
There were plenty of nice punchy holes too.
With the evening sun setting, we reached the confluence with our major
tributary, Iron Creek, which enters with style in a series of big
The author heads into the Iron Creek mini gorge.
It was really just a class IV drop into a tight gorge, and beautiful to
look back up through.
Delighted by what we had
run so far, we named the the upstream section
the "True Believer" gorge. Over the campfire we talked about what a
classic this might become, and as we drifted off to slip
we were harassed by mosquitoes and dreaming of similar high quality
We had been thinking of one drop all night long.
beta, we knew the geology changed from metamorphic to granite, and that
somewhere in the granite, this beast awaited:
was really the photograph that made
the run first on our to-do
list, and we hoped it would look as good in person. But
first we had to get
there, and although the gradient had mellowed
out, compared to the average run it was still steep. Only a quarter
mile downstream from our camp we came upon an incredibly tight mini
gorge, with a singular entrance move.
The thin entrance.
The tight run out.
The North Fork San Joaquin maintained a quality class IV character
until the rock started to change.
North Fork San Joaquin class IV.
As granite started to show up in the river bed, the water plunged over
a fifteen to twenty foot falls, landing in a severe undercut at the
Ben gave it a nice long
look while I portaged, and eventually he joined
me. It might have cleaned up with more water, but no matter what the
flow it had terrible consequences.
We were running some easy class two and as the
transition to granite, and suddenly we were eddied out above a monster
horizon. Before getting out of our boats we knew this was it, and I
already had butterflies in my stomach.
Walking out to the lip it was apparent this
a lot larger
than the picture had led us to believe. I was expecting something in
the forty to fifty foot range, but this was certainly larger. It was
immediately apparent that the lip rolled off beautifully, but there was
a large, hungry cave on the left and a smaller cave on the right. Depth
looked deep in the center, but possibly shallow on the right until we
realized that the water was completely green just a few feet to the
right of the base.
Ben and I hoped, but didn’t really
expect a drop
this big to
go with only 200cfs, but it funneled down into a landing about eight
feet wide, and looked relatively soft. Below the lip on the right Ben
was able to get his rope into the cave on the left, but just barely.
I really wanted the drop, and liked the line more
as we talked it
through. The plan would be to line up the right edge my boat over a
small wave in the entrance, go directly over a small air pocket on the
roll, reconnect slightly off the left wall and then tuck on my right.
I felt great about the line, except being left
always tuck on
my left side, so this was going to be something new. While Ben found a
resting spot for his video camera and got setup with mine, I practiced
a few tuck positions on my right and felt confident, signaled to Ben
and received a go. Waterfalls with entrance markers and easy moves are
the best, because they keep you focused at the task on hand, and not
the size of the drop. This one was a perfect example, and coming over
the lip I was happy to be exactly where I had planned, so I stayed
forward, waited for the reconnect, and when I felt the bump I tucked to
my right, plunging into the foam pile with a surprisingly soft hit,
coming up bracing out of a big “Red October”, free
and clear of the caves on both sides.
The author waits for the reconnect queue.
Stoked by my line, Ben had no hesitation and dropped in.
Celebration awaits in such a magnificent place.
We took a few minutes to soak in the beauty of the falls before heading
Pool to pool the drop was taller than either of our throw ropes, and we
estimated it to be between sixty and seventy feet before heading into
more beautiful river miles.
At higher flows the falls looks terrible, caves on both sides and a
tall boil far downstream.
Exiting the waterfall gorge into lush forest.
Chris overlooking some good North Fork San Joaquin read and run above
the final gorge.
When we hiked into the
Lower North Fork San Joaquin, Ben had hiked a
ways upstream to see if the waterfall was near, but he stopped at a
granite mini gorge that ended up being only a half mile downstream of
the big falls. This is one of the tightest mini gorges I have ever been
in, and we were able to drop right in because of Ben’s
The author at the top of the mini gorge.
The going gets tight.
The final significant rapid of the Upper North Fork is almost through a
cave due to the snug gorge walls.