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North Fork San Joaquin V-V+

   With the quality Lower North Fork San Joaquin behind us, we camped at the Sheep’s Crossing trail head, exhausted from the hike out and uncertain what to do the next day. 

    Our beta for the Upper North Fork was slightly better than the lower. We had heard rumors of it being run once, and Kevin Smith had hiked the whole upper section, reporting a steep gorge with big slides and falls, and clean granite in the bottom with one major waterfall. Too temping to resist, even with a ten mile hike in and three miles out, we decided to stay in the area, planing to take one day off to get food and starting the hike the following day.

I 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 apparent; there 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. 

Epic view of the Minarets from the trail, you can see the North Fork of the San Joaquin down in the valley too.

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 overlook. 

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

Hemlock Falls

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, but the tight gorge 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 right 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 bottom hole.

The run out is a series of ledge holes full of very beautiful  clear water.

 A 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 cataract.

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 cascades.

Iron Creek.

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 exploration downstream.
   We had been thinking of one drop all night long. From Kevin’s beta, we knew the geology changed from metamorphic to granite, and that somewhere in the granite, this beast awaited:

Photo: Kevin Smith

This 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 base.

   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 river completed its 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 waterfall was 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 and 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 handed I 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 downstream.

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 previous scout.

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. 

Minutes later we were back at Sheep’s Crossing, elated to have completed an epic run and looking forward to sharing such an incredible place. The hike out was considerably harder than expected, it was so easy on the way down!

Flows for the North Fork are a complete guessing game. We put on the Lower North Fork with the Tuolumne at Hetch Hetchy flowing between 600-700, and drove from the Upper North Fork straight to Upper Cherry Creek and had perfect flows.

Mammoth Trailhead on Goggle Maps.

Hemlock Crossing on Google Maps.

Sheep's Crossing on Google Maps.

Video from the Upper North Fork San Joaquin by Ben

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