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Royal Gorge of the North Fork American V-V+

   Royal Gorge is a well known run in the class V set, yet beta remains unpublished in print and online mentions subsist of "check out how cool we are this run is". Access is a juxtaposition of easy-impossible for this section of river. If conditions are right, it's an easy drive to a bridge over the river, but some years snow is on the road until after the flows have dropped too low. 

   There is interesting history behind Royal Gorge. As kayaks improved and paddlers grew bolder, they explored further and further up the North Fork American. Chamberlains Falls was first cutting edge, but swiftly fell to the fourteen mile "Giant Gap" section, which kept paddlers satiated for a while. Eventually the bar was raised again, with paddlers entering the river ten miles higher up for "Generation Gap" which required paddling both the new run and Giant Gap, commonly done as a twenty-four mile overnight trip. The standard was set for many years, but in the natural evolution of the sport, an even higher put-in was destined. Sixteen miles further upstream, Soda Springs road crosses the mild looking North Fork American and the start of an epic journey.

   In the past, unfriendly, monetarily enabled land owners used to try to block access to the Royal Gorge, but after years of calling local authorities, they have finally realized that the general public does indeed have legal access to using the river. It's still best to have a shuttle driver, as finding legal parking is next to impossible. 

This sign sugar coats their attitude.

   We put on to a river river meandering through a meadow below the bridge, giving no foreshadowing of what lies below. At the end of the meadow things change gears quickly. A man made dam marks the first portage of the trip and the beginning of the first and steepest mile, which cascades through what is affectionately known as the "mank gorge". Paddling over the lip of the first and tough drop, the North Fork American lets us know it means business, rear endering most of our team. We paddle on through two more significant drops and get out to scout a larger series. I personally choose just to start hiking the rest of the mank gorge on the left, but others continue on for a few more rapids at river level before portaging the final, rarely run cascade.

Devin Knight seal launches in below the mank gorge "warm up".

Below the mank gorge, water tumbles through nondescript boulder gardens until a nice double set requires a quick scout and fun lines.

Nothing like talking about yourself in the third person: Darin McQuoid on the first photogenic rapid.

Chris Korbulic runs the same.

Looking downstream below the double drop, typical day one boogie that is just a bit chunky.

More boulder gardens set the pace, with a few bedrock rapids full of munchy holes intermixed to spice things up: Jonas Grünwald.

We kept our heads down through the boulder gardens, knowing that the effort would be rewarded. 

Heath Springs

If you have a desire to run large waterfalls, Royal Gorge is the place to go. Heath Springs is the first juncture where desire and possibility meet.

Darin McQuoid enters a special place.

Heath Springs is an incredible set of waterfalls, the end of private land and the true start of the Royal Gorge, an awe inspiring crack in the earth for several miles. The first falls, known simply as Upper Heath, is a near perfect forty foot falls with a large and optional lead in. 

Jonas Grünwald runs Upper Heath with the bottom of the lead in just showing.

   Upon initial inspection the most significant hazard in Upper Heath is the wall, but in reality it's only a small player in the drama. The big player in the drama is Lower Heath, a fifty to sixty foot falls which lands in a tight gorge and contains a large and very undercut cave on the left. If things go wrong on Upper Heath, time for recovery is short.

Upper Heath and the lip of Lower Heath.

   Lower Heath is one of the more commonly run "big ones" on Royal Gorge, although as of 2010 that focus is shifting to a larger and cleaner falls downstream. Lower Heath has significant hazards, one with which I've had personal experience. You can read about that experience here or listen to it on inbetweenswims.

Chris Korbulic charging Lower Heath in 2009.

Darin McQuoid a few seconds away from an epic rescue.

   While the Royal Gorge is large, a portage on the left is easier than I had any right to expect. Below Upper Heath we eddied out and climbed up to the bench above Lower Heath. From there we traversed for ten to fifteen minutes, until we reached a rocky gully and followed it down to the water. Partaking in the portage put us below not only Lower Heath falls, but the toughest rapids of the Royal Gorge. Because Chris knew the river so well, we stayed in our kayaks for the next hour, bombing through many complex boulder gardens and slides. I'd like to go back and take my time in here, I could spend time contemplating and trying to capture the immense gorge walls that line this whole section. 

   Past countless rapids the walls of the Royal Gorge peeled back and we floated above the "white rock" gorge. At the top of the gorge we started portaging on the right around a series of slides that lead into an un-run (and very dubious) falls. Tired from the miles we'd put in, and our whitewater thirst quite satiated, we started to walk the final twenty footer above camp. At our flow level the sloping falls had a massive hole. 

   We spent a few minutes soaking in the afternoon sun and talking to backpackers. A trail crosses the river here just above Rattlesnake falls, but it's quite a hike. Motivated as always, Ben decided to give the sloping falls a go while we set safety and did the media thing.

Ben Stookesberry lines it up.

In the mini-gorge under the bridge is one of the most cliche Royal Gorge photographs, normally a sweet boof over a small ledge. We'd put on with somewhat high flows and were at the high point of the diurnal cycle, and the small ledge had a significant hole too.

The author boofs the bridge ledge..

Tight like a tiger; the mini gorge was full of powerful currents making us work hard to stay off the walls.

   The mini gorge drops right into a large pool and the Rattlesnake campsite. Nothing better than a relaxing evening after a big day of challenges and excitement. Camp is right above Rattlesnake, a fifty foot waterfall notorious for disrupting sleep patterns of bold paddlers contemplating the plunge. I had no real plans for running it and enjoyed a night of unaffected sleep.

Ben Stookesberry, Jonas Grünwald and Chris Korbulic living the good life.

Day Two

   Game on. A typical, but applicable cliche for day two of the Royal Gorge of the North Fork American River. If you ever want to go somewhere with more than ample opportunity to go big, the second day on Royal is the place. Waking up at camp it's a short walk downstream to the lip of fifty foot Rattlesnake falls. A good, but not perfect fifty footer. Outside of height considerations, Rattlesnake has the choice between a subtle but complex lead in, or tough ferry from an eddy. Flows tend to dictated the choice of options. Doing either move the focus is avoiding a shelf at mid point on river left, and then dealing with the wall at the bottom, because the landing makes a ninety degree turn. As Americans it's a common tradition to start our day with something to "get you going" like a cup of coffee. I'm not sure if running Rattlesnake, or getting bit by an actual Rattlesnake would get the adrenaline going more. 

The author lines up Rattlesnake on Royal Gorge.

Jonas Grünwald runs Rattlesnake.

At camp I'd not really thought about the falls too much. I find it best to make my decision when I am standing at the lip. It lets me sleep at night. Scouting in the morning I saw no reason not to run the falls. I was ok with the potential hit, liked the lead in and felt like I could deal with the wall.

   It's tough to get photographs of the "in between" rapids on a run like this, and following Chris and Ben made that exceptionally tough. We occasionally got verbal directions, but spent most of the next hour or two just following them through amazing rapids and a few nice waterfalls. The section between "Rattlesnake" and "Scott's Drop" is the most classic of Royal Gorge, but due to the nature of our descent no opportunities to get images. All I remember is that the end of some fantastic whitewater, including a perfect twenty foot falls, we were at the lip of a gargantuan horizon line, Scott's Drop.

   Knowing the history of the cascade I started portaging from the top.

   Scott's Drop is named after Scott Lindgren, who got the first descent of of this two tiered falls in an Eskimo Diablo during 1997 or 1998. Despite countless descents of Royal Gorge over the next eight years, no one stepped to the drop until Charlie Center ran it in 2006, followed two days later by Pat Keller. 

Jonas Grünwald's thoughts on Scott's Drop.

   After three clean descents, the next three descents provided considerable carnage; broken paddles, boats and bodies. The six previous descents had all been done at lower flows, because the two falls are stacked incredibly close. With high flows I didn't think anyone in our group was giving it a look, but Chris had that serious look on his face.

    Chris committed to giving it a good look, so Ben and I hiked around trying to find a good angle, while Jonas completed the portage and set safety at the bottom while Chris ferried across up top and scouted from the other side too. The top move of Scotts is tough, and people always disappear in in the fold and mist.

 I held my breath as Chris vanished halfway down, and watched intently to see what would happen next.

Several seconds passed and nothing was visible, then slowly Chris emerged upright, paddling away from the base of the falls. Now for the crux move. The Crux of the drop isn't the tough forty foot lead-in falls, but a shallow shelf on the bottom right. The nature of the bottom slide is to push anything to the bottom right, necessitating a tough, technical and big right to left move.

Chris Korbulic lines up the tough move.

At the bottom, Chris finishes with a good line about as far left as possible.

   Ben and I breathed a big sigh of relief over Chris's perfect line, and finished the long but easy portage. Below Scotts was a quick section, full of boulder gardens and ending in another twenty footer, that placed us just above the lead in to Wabena.

   It's rather bewildering to think that while Lower Heath and Scott's Drop had been run, Wabena was the last of the big ones to see a descent, first run in 2002 by Ben Stookesberry. It also so a long gap before a second attempt was made by Rush Sturges in 2006, to be followed by Evan Garcia and Chris Korbulic in 2009. It was once estimated at at ninety feet, but current estimates tend to say around seventy feet. 

   Wabena is very clean on a relative scale. There are no death caves or shallow spots in the landing. A class V lead in drops into a small pool at the lip, and a slight off-kilter slope of the ramp complicates things. Thankfully the ramp is long and sets up the perfect angle, so going over the handle bars or boofing isn't too much of a threat. 

During the scout and lunch break we'd decided to go in groups of two, and by the time Ben rolled up, Jonas Grünwald was in the eddy ready to go.

   Now it was our turn. Chris and I put out gear on and made the traverse back up to our boats. We took one more look at the lead in from river level, and even with the higher flow it did look possible to portage the lead in on river right, and seal launch into the pool at the lip. Regardless, we both wanted the lead in too. Chris went first and paddled out of sight through the boulders, while I tried to be patient. 

   Time is a very subjective thing, and after what felt like ages I peel out and headed down the lead in. The crux of the lead in is a tough right to left move across the current. Guard rocks extending from the left to center right make the line narrow. The final move is boofing a river wide hole backed up by the left wall.

   Coming through the first hole I was pretty sloppy and not as far right as planned. I quickly got pushed downstream and bumped a guard rock at the lip, losing momentum before squeezing into the right channel, driving right as hard as I could. I didn't get much of a drive to the right, but did get a lot of right angle, and as I went into the hole I quickly flushed out the right side and was in the pool staring at a gigantic horizon line. 

   I drift down the pool, moving left while approaching the lip. The entrance to Wabena is narrow, and I enter it far on the left, quickly gaining speed down the ramp, feeling it pull me further right than I'd like. In a flash the ramp is behind, I toss my paddle and brace for impact. 

   The moment of free fall is always incredibly brief, yet somehow longer than expected. Impact there was, as I hit the pool the wind was knocked out of me and I resurfaced upside down and attempted a hand roll. Close, but no cigar. Two more quick attempts, one gets me a little air. I can't swim, it's a huge pool! One more try and it's close, I'm almost all the way up but go back over for a final try. Why isn't anyone t-rescuing me? I make one last strong attempt to get up, and do just as I enter the rapid below the pool. There are some willows on the side, which I quickly grab onto as Chris runs over and grabs my bow.

   Well, that was entertaining, but we don't have time to contemplate as I throw together my breakdown and head downstream to see where my paddle went. 

   Below Wabena the river continues through another mile of steep boulder gardens, before suddenly the gradient eases and we paddle mellower rapids above Generation Gap, making one portage on the left and starting the search for a campsite. 

    Royal Gorge is not a run infamous for mosquitoes, unlike many of the other High Sierra classics. We weren't too concerned when there were a few mosquitoes where we pulled out. Thirty minutes later we had a campfire going and the attack was on. The mosquitoes were massacring us. Most likely due to how late in the year (compared to normal) it was, they were unavoidable. We all ducked out for an early night knowing we'd have to paddle over twenty four miles: both Generation Gap and Giant Gap the following day.

Ben Stookesberry in Generation Gap.

Chris Korbulic on the final rapid of Generation Gap.

   Happy to have finally completed the whole of Royal Gorge, and watch Chris Korbulic become the first person to run all the big ones, we took out at noon and returned to our normal lives. I found Royal to be one of the most unique of the High Sierra runs, both in whitewater and scenery. It is a beautiful place that deserves to be reveled in. It's a place that deserves the utmost respect for both the remote wilderness setting, and whitewater. As I learned my first trip, just because you can go big doesn't always mean you should.

Logistics: Royal Gorge flows in the spring and tends to have a brief window. Ideal flows are 800-1,200 inflowing to Lake Clementine We had around 1,200 putting on.

Take-Out from Sacramento: Highway 80 East, Canyon Way exit and turn left. Follow to the top of the hill and turn on Iowa Hill Road. Follow this road down to the river. Parking on river left is $10 a day, and free on river right for the time being. 

Put-in: Return to 80 East, staying for I-80 for over 30 minutes, until exit 174/Soda Springs. Turn right onto Donner Pass Road, and follow a short distance until another right onto Soda Springs Road. Continue down Soda Springs road, it will turn to dirt and eventually cross the river at the elitist, private land of "The Cedars". It's best to be dropped off, or leave your car further up the road on a spur to avoid the possibility of being towed. 

Google Maps Put in (Zoom out until you see the Green Arrow)

Heath Springs (Zoom out until you see the Green Arrow)

Rattlesnake (Zoom out until you see the Green Arrow)

Campsite Two/Generation Gap (Zoom out until you see the Green Arrow)

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