been said there are no quality first descents left in California, or
that what is left has more hiking than boating. There aren’t
many first descents in California left, and the last one I was involved
with, Lost Creek,
held true to this theory. However the most common trait in exploratory
kayakers is continual optimism.
The North Fork San Joaquin has been on
radars for a
long time. I’d heard tales of people flying over and seeing
incredibly steep bedrock. Logistical problems have held people back.
The largest problem is the Middle Fork San Joaquin, a river not many
have done. Legends of its inescapable gorges are wide spread, and if
the North Fork confluence was above one it could spell disaster.
The previous summer while running the Middle
Fork San Joaquin (Devil’s Postpile)
had noted that the North Fork confluence was below the walled in
“boof-o-matic” gorge and above the “class
IV” gorge, and exit could be made via Millers or Cassidy
Crossing. I was convinced the Crucible wouldn’t be safe with
the added flow, so a steep hike out was the only option.
While seeking beta, I found that Kevin Smith had
of the North Fork, and was kind enough to share pictures and beta, and
the run was instantly my priority for this season. A big thanks to
Kevin for sharing.
Driving south from the Tuolumne
scoured for more beta, and heard conflicting stories. One source
thought flows would be a little high, and a second source reported that
it would be way too low and that it “correlated with Dinkey
Creek”, what was to become a well used joke for the rest of
the spring. Dinkey Creek is a tributary to the Kings River, also
commonly referred to as the “best run below 3,000
The North Fork San Joaquin starts high in the Ansel
, draining the
south side of the 12,000 foot Minarets
We had complicated options. One was hiking in ten miles on the Isberg
trail, kayak six miles to Sheep’s Crossing and hike another
three. Option two was the same hike in, but kayak ten miles to the
confluence with the Middle Fork, then another four to six on the river,
and hike back out four to six miles at Cassidy Crossing. The third
option was three miles of downhill to Sheep’s Crossing, boat
four miles to the confluence, and then four to six on the main river
with Cassidy hike.
From beta we knew that the upper section was
the river turned to granite only a short ways above Sheep’s
Crossing. Looking at our map we found the steepest gradient lay below
with three miles at 400fpm. Tired from the Tuolumne missions, we took
the easiest option, setting the five mile shuttle, packing for three
days on the river and heading to Sheep’s Crossing.
dropped the motorcycle off at the wrong location, and while
moving the bike Chris
off for the put in. Problem fixed and heading to put in, we were
surprised to see the Chris gang headed downhill. Upon arrival they met
a volunteer trail maintenance crew finishing up their last day. After
chatting a few minutes the trail crew invited us to dinner. Since it
was their last day, all the extra food had to be finished, and we were
more than happy to lend a hand during the course of the meal at Clover
also met some very helpful rangers and USFS employees.
downhill from 7,100’ with
full stomachs had us at the
crossing in no time.
Hiking in to a wilderness run with no gauge for
level, and no
precedent for flows is risky business. We were all grins when upon
inspection the water level looked perfect. With this major worry out of
the way, we put on the cold water with beautiful skies overhead.
view from Sheep’s
The first mile was filled with nice IV-IV+ boulder
succession, and it took us no time for the river to start getting
steep. Ben sent us through a few larger drops with some fine hand
Gabrielli enjoys the clear water
and good scenery on the North
Fork San Joaquin.
routed through about half a mile of
high quality boulder gardens, as
the river continued to gain gradient.
author as it gets steeper.
As the gradient increased, a class II rapid led
horizon line, the type of horizon line that you could see the tops of
trees from. Climbing around on the boulders made the scout take a
while, but it revealed a larger version of the
“poop-smear” we had recently encountered on the
Tuolumne. This one also had a tricky entrance, and after extensive
scouting Chris decided to run it, while Ben and I opted to seal launch
into a big cave and run the bottom half.
Korbulic on the first drop of
the big smear.
We all agreed that after the initial drop you
that you would have to deal with the weird spot at the bottom.
Korbulic dealing and resurfacing.
second part that Ben and I
launched in for was a narrow alley way
into a tight smear move.
Chris Korbulic in the alley way.
Korbulic moving into the smear,
as the downstream view shows the
getting into the goods.
run out from the smear was a nice
long boulder garden that wrapped
around the corner.
The author in a little mank.
As the river wrapped around the corner the gradient
gorge walls rose high overhead, and continued on far downstream. Not
wanting to get locked in we decided to climb high on the right for a
scout. Walking downstream the gorge was considerably longer than we had
originally thought, and we ended up hiking downstream to an open dome,
where we could see the gorge taper off. From above we could see five
portages, all possible at or near river level. Directly below the dome
we saw part of a large rapid, but couldn’t get a view of the
whole thing and it looked like we could figure it out at river level.
Back at river level the portages were tougher than
had looked, but
we made good time to the corner below the dome. The rapids were still
large but had clean lines, and Ben had his camera out more than I did.
Gabrielli down in it.
Large rapid followed large rapid in this section. All very walled in,
but we were able to scout where necessary and make decent time.
Chris Korbulic boofing into the shallow landing.
Ben Stookesberry pushes through a big boulder garden into the walled
From two rapids above we could tell that the rapid
been able to scout wasn’t going to be as easy to deal with as
hoped. There was a great eddy at the lip, and we could get out on a
rock, but not see over the horizon line. We were completely walled in.
The only option was to send someone down to the eddy above the larger
horizon and hope the rapid went, or that a portage might be possible.
Korbulic decided to take one for
the team and drop into the eddy.
From the eddy Chris could see the ledge was clean,
another large drop downstream that wasn’t visible from his
eddy, and he ran the ledge while I dropped into his eddy to maintain
our line of communication. The final ledge seemed to be a bit of a
mystery, but Chris saw what appeared to be a good boof left of center,
and wanting to get pictures I opted to probe, and his line was perfect
for the rapid.
Stookesberry on the first drop of
As we finished the big un-un rapid, the river
stayed gorged up. We had another large horizon line through a rock
jumble, and while scouting found the first flat spot we had seen since
putting on. The sun was already out of the canyon, and with unknown
gorge length before us we decided to camp in the middle of the gorge.