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North Fork of the North Fork American River V-V+

    The Upper North Fork of the North Fork had been on the radar of prominent local paddlers for quite some time, and seen several attempts. In fact, five attempts had been made by Charlie Center! Let's just say he had a vendetta on the North Fork of the North Fork American river. When he called me to see if I'd be interested in partaking of a first descent, I was of course interested and in typical fashion, ignorant to what it would be. We scheduled our meeting in Auburn and I knew that it would be in the North Fork American drainage, but not being a beta guru I knew no more. 

   At the last second our team is assembled: Jonas Grünwald, Charlie Center, Jason Hale, John Grace and myself. Charlie is the only one with first hand beta and informs us during the shuttle. It will be low volume, and has a few slides leading up to a big slide into a wall that can be portaged on the right, followed by a thirty to forty foot falls that goes into "the tea-cups", which we will be able to run down to the lip of a three hundred foot cascade. From the cascade we can egress on the right, climb up to a shelf where we will traverse, followed by a quick descent to the confluence. After the confluence we'd be rewarded by two sweet twenty foot waterfalls. Beta like that was more than enough to have me looking forward to the day.

Day One

It will be a big day, of that I am sure. Charlie has a law school graduation party on Saturday, and today is Thursday. Our goal is to paddle the first descent section today. Tomorrow we will have a big push: eight miles of the North Fork of the North Fork that has only been run twice, and then all of Giant Gap at medium high flows.

We exit at Emigrant Gap and drive a mile down the road before hitting snow. There is a few feet of snow on the road, which should make for good sledding, since most the hike is supposed to be level. As we pack our kayaks with overnight gear, a county truck drives up. Can we park further off the road? They'll be plowing the road later in the day. If we (Charlie) wasn't on a strict time line we'd postpone a day and avoid four or five miles of hiking. As it is, the clock is ticking and we need to move. It's just after nine in the morning, and we have an alpine setting if not an alpine start.

The snow is nicely packed by snowmobiles and what must have been a burly four wheel drive vehicle of some sort. Whatever it was, I'm grateful for the easy sliding and we make quick progress to Fulda Creek.

Jonas Grünwald, like me, has no idea what we're about to get into.

   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 river. 

   We continue hiking on Texas Hill road until passing Sailor Point, the 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.

High 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 through the "mellow" section, which is a little tight and manky with our heavy boats.

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 possibilities of 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 moment.

Looks like they are clean enough. Charlie ops to probe while we play media crew.

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 scout the next 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 it hits 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 to go 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 polarizer and get setup. 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!

Jason making the first descent of "Graduation Party"

   John said he was going next, and I knew we were all nervous because 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 shot 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, orientation in 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, skip the 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 possible, and 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 scouting 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 wait in our boat 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 to the 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 craft.

   Rope work with fully loaded kayaks is never easy, and this experience 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 Charlie, 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 above me, so I 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 daylight. I'll need 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 the 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 outpaced John, Jason 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 tinder. 

   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 overnight gear.

   At least we are all at the water safely. I stoke the fire and start 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 better way to describe 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 portage 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 Fork are incredibly 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 last 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 and then down, it's 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 fun IV-V boulder 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 the water, 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 the gauge.

   Oddly enough I know Giant Gap better than the others, and lead down 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 and hollers, glad to be done. 

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.  

A little video teaser from our trip.

Our campsite at the East Fork confluence with the North Fork of the North Fork Confluence.

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