May 06, 2011 at 11:00 AM
Boating Lessons on the Cal-Salmon
By Brent Davis
The following narrative recounts two days of boating in Northern California’s Salmon River (Cal-Salmon) basin in the spring of 2011. The Cal-Salmon is a tributary to the Klamath River about 51 miles due west of Weed, CA, a very remote, but road accessible area. It’s a Class IV/V pool drop run through some amazing geological features with lots of whitewater. Trip participants were myself, Doug Smith, Mike Evans, and Dave Hagmeier.
This was my second trip to this river. In the course of this trip I learned a thing or two about exploring my personal boating limits, skills I still need to build to be a reliable boating partner, and, in the process, expanded my class V boating tool box, which includes the wisdom not to boat. These lessons aren’t always apparent in the moment and are rarely learned without making mistakes. In this narrative I don’t focus on the lessons, but instead attempt to recount my experience. The reader might get somewhat different stories from the other participants. I’ve also taken some liberties with the dialogue, trying to relay the substance of the conversations and not worrying too much about exact quotes.
Friday, May 6
12:00 PM, roadside, Salmon River Road near Somes Bar. The staff gauge at Somes Bar reads mid 6's on a green background with about a half a foot to the 'white' zone. The Forest Service has provided interpretive signage here that includes a map of access points and the major rapids. Next to the usual bit about classification of rapids is a graphic of the gauge post, visible across the river, labeling the green zone with the words "have fun." Have fun? Really? We agree that something more like "you definitely better know what you’re doing" would be more appropriate for today's level. We've driven 9 hours to get here and spent the last hour scouting the run, it is now decision time. After some hesitation and discussion that includes statements like "I promised my wife I wouldn't die on this trip," we decide it is a go.
2:30 PM, eddy, river left above Bloomer. Today I understand this rapid's name. The river takes a bend to the right. The channel narrows from 200' to about 50' and pours over an 8' drop confined by sheer rock walls. This rapid is formed from a catastrophic landslide followed up with an indiscriminant application of TNT. At lower flows this is a straight forward class IV drop, but at today's level it is one of the most impressive hydraulics I've ever contemplated running. As we approach, the horizon line is blind, except for mist and an inviting green tongue just right of center. We spent 10 minutes studying this beast from the bank a few hours before, so we know the tongue only leads to a huge 4' high foamy, elliptical, “blooming,” emerald boil (there really aren't enough adjectives to describe it) consuming about 2/3 of the drop and breaking into a nasty ledge hole. During our scout, we could only agree that the line, such as it is, is somewhere on the left. Dave approaches the horizon line on the left, stands up to get a better look, and goes for the eddy. Mike makes the same approach, doesn't see the line, and moves to the eddy too. Doug and I follow. There's a small tongue about 10' off the left wall bordered by a barely exposed fin of rock on the left and a 5' breaking lateral on the right. Below the entry waves are chaotic lateral waves breaking off the left wall converging with the boiling left edge of the bloomer, ugly.
Mike pulls out of the eddy and drifts toward the left side, still looking for the line. He finally sits down and pushes over the edge with his left tube just right of the rock fin and shoots straight through the laterals and boiling water to the bottom, his right oar pops out and he spins to the right. From above, it looks like he’s getting sucked, nose first, into the ledge hole below the bloomer, but as he gets his oar back in play, its clear that he’s made it.
Dave peels out next and appears to follow Mike's line, but at the last moment he turns to face the right lateral. His boat tail stands as it rotates toward the right. Dave falls out of his seat, back first, into the river and his boat goes airborne, rotating over on the rear tip of the right tube. Dave and his boat flush through the boily stuff into the pool as I pull out for my turn. I don't yet fully comprehend the subtle differences between Mike's clean run and Dave's spectacular flip, so I instinctively turn toward the right lateral as I enter. As I crest the break, my boat spins to the right and I wash cleanly through the rest of the line backwards, ready (unexpectedly) to pull away from the ledge hole. I watch Doug repeat my performance as Dave rejoins his boat and begins the self rescue process. As I pass by Dave, he asks, "what did I do wrong?" I don't have an answer until later that evening after some good beer and several mental replays through which I settle on the theory that as Dave squared up to the right lateral, the left lateral broke over the rear of his upstream tube, forcing it down while the front of the boat went up, then, at some point, the submerged portion of the tube caught a downstream current causing the whole boat to rotate upward and over in a spectacular aerial display. Unfortunately, my proof would later end up at the bottom of the river somewhere below Freight Train (read on). Only 8 more miles of Cal-Salmon whitewater to go and our group confidence index (GCI) just took a serious hit.
3:05 PM left bank above Airplane Turn. We've recovered from the excitement at Bloomer and passed through a series of class III and IV rapids. The pools are flushing downstream and the currents are chaotic. Ferry lines require numerous hard pulls and the boats turn for no apparent reason.
I remember this rapid, from previous runs, as a fairly simple enter right and get further right drop to avoid a large surprise hole immediately below the entry. As we approach, the horizon line is blind and we’re drifting left hoping for a boat scout. No luck, so here we are grabbing micro eddies and brush on the left bank. Mike pulls out and tries to ferry back to the right. He gets about 2/3 of the way before the current pulls him to the edge. He's not where he wants to be, but there're no choices left, so he forces a full body push on the oars and grabs frame (both hands, bad juju) and vanishes from view. He emerges in the pool below, oars in hand, looks back at the drop, and points far left. The rest of us run a nice airplane turn chute on the far left, all smiles. Thanks Mike!
3:30 pm, Cascade Falls. Scouting again, we already spent 20 minutes here on our road scout. The far right is a 10' drop, nearly vertical. A lateral breaks off the left from the top. 2 successive laterals below the drop surf into a rock wall. This is the obvious round boat line, but it doesn't look so friendly to cat boats. The left side requires crashing through a deep lateral hole followed by a fast run tight against a rock wall (too tight to work the left oar) into an unavoidable terminal hole. Both holes are flushing, but the swim does not look like much fun.
Mike is on the right looking closely at the big drop. He's committed to the right or something in the middle. The rest of us are on the left. We're discussing the middle, but its a line with several "ifs" with bad results for the "if nots". Middle right there is a large flat topped boulder with a 10' vertical drop into super bubbly froth. Water is barely breaking over the rock but the wash around the left is a white boil breaking at a left to right angle into the froth behind the rock. Upstream of the rock are a series of small standing waves. The wave just above the rock extends into the hydraulics pouring around the left side.
The trick is to get to the left side of the rock and ride the top of the boil down the seam between an exposed rock in the middle of the tail out and the left edge of the terminal hole on the left side. Simple. The real problem we're having is seeing the route to get us to the left side of the rock, and the consequences of missing the line, flipping over the boil break into the recirculating froth, or getting worked in the ugliness left of the boil and then getting an express ticket to the terminal hole on the left.
Mike finally moves to his boat and pushes away from the bank. At first he looks like he's lining up for the far right drop. Really Mike? Anticipation mounts, but he pulls to the top of the eddy. Can he make the ferry to the middle line from there? We're less than doubtful on that question. He pulls into the current with easy confident strokes. What the hell? Before our confusion can clear and transition to grave concern, Mike catches the small lateral above the pour-over rock and pulls a gentle surf. He slowly surfs left across the lateral and drops perfectly into the line, then rides the top of the boil and shoots between the center rock and the terminal hole, easy as pie. We're stunned and suddenly excited to try this test of our skills. The rest of us follow without any trouble. The GCI is back to normal and we’re ready to press on.
4:10 PM, right bank above Last Chance. This rapid is immediately upstream of Freight Train. It has a reputation for having a hungry, hard to avoid, flipping hole that will send unlucky boaters swimming the class V rapid below. We're scouting and we see a line center right. We're good to go. We all hit the line as planned, but come out in various stages of upright discombobulation.
We eddy out on the right above Freight Train. This is a difficult scout and we've studied it from Grant's Bluff, 600' above. We know left is bad and middle is big. I was sweep through Last Chance so I enter the small eddy as the 4rh boat and clog the exit. "I guess you're up," I hear. I look at the entry, "no problem getting to the middle," I say, "see you at the bottom." As I line up to ferry through the boulder garden between me and the middle tongue, I hear someone say, "I've always heard that at higher flows you need to get right." Here I go, I get on the tongue that looked smooth from the bluff. Instead, I’m riding over huge rollers. I look left, no way. I look middle, huge, twice as big as Lochsa Falls (in the moment anyway). I opt to break over the right lateral, but as I push into and over the break, I get turned to a downstream, right to left ferry angle. Backwards and mostly sideways in 7' chop, I madly attempt to turn back to face down stream. I get around about 30° and suddenly I'm airborne flying upstream to the right of my boat in a sitting position. As I enter the water, backwards, butt first, I see my boat tilted, left front rising, at about 30°. I think to myself, "it won't flip" and I mentally prepare for self rescue. I come up and as my eyes and brain clear, I see my boat upside down 10' in front of me. Two swim strokes and a tag line is in my hand. I pull myself to my frame and start to climb up. I realize I'm at the back of my frame and I'm 3' from any structure I can safely climb and ride on. I look downstream and see I'm entering ‘The Nozzle’ where the tail out from Freight Train makes a sharp bend to the left and shoots through a narrow slot. I decide to ride it out bellied up on the rear yoke of my frame. After clearing The Nozzle, I climb to the bottom side of my scout deck and stand. I see Dave enter The Nozzle and give the OK signal.
I have some gear issues to resolve and I'm in a stable position, so I take my time getting sorted out. I see Dave eddy out to wait for Mike and Doug as I hunker down to float through a minor rapid. I later learned that Dave crashed the middle, after seeing my folly, and got completely swallowed by the break, but flushed through, and, seeing that I was OK, stopped to set safety for the others.
I get re-flipped and eddy out about 500 yards down stream. I lose my helmet cam with all the great footage from the run as the tube came down on my helmet (I was trying to come up from the re-flip between the tubes and didn't quite make it). I see Dave in the right eddy below The Nozzle, but where are Mike and Doug? After a few minutes I see a black and yellow speck (Mike) and a blue and yellow speck (Doug) on the river right ledge looking straight through The Nozzle.
"They're scouting," I say, to no one.
After a few minutes the colored specks disappear upstream. Soon I see a boat enter my field of view at about 30 mph, stop abruptly, turn toward me, and emerge through The Nozzle. A second boat follows and we're clear of the last class V of the day.
4:45 PM, pool above Butler Creek. We're half way done, but the biggest stuff is behind us. We enter Butler Creek rapid and find the hydraulics impressive, but manageable, as we pull hard to the left to avoid the large boulder and pillow at the bottom. Below this the hydraulics mellow and become more predictable and the river feels friendlier. At last we pass through Gaping Maw and leave the constricted canyon and class IV whitewater behind. We run 3 more miles to our take out, load up, and head for camp back at Nordheimer. In the end, we did have fun. The gauge at Somes Bar held steady at 6.4' for the afternoon. Over dinner, we discuss tomorrow's plan…
Saturday, May 7
9:30 AM, Nordheimer. Breakfast and coffee are behind us and we've settled on a run on the North Fork Salmon. We have very little information about access and the river itself. Both Mike and Dave have run sections in the past, but recollections are vague. The guide books mention this river as an aside to the description of the run we did yesterday, but give no useful details. We've talked to kayakers at Nordheimer for the Cal-Salmon races and the general consensus is that it’s runable class IV/IV+, that's all we have. We secure camp, load up, and head out for The Forks of The Salmon, about 4 miles up river to find a take-out.
10:00 AM, Forks. We've found an easy takeout just below the confluence of the North and South forks where we can drive right to the water. Shuttle is set and we plan to head up river 8 to 11 miles to find a put-in, road scouting along the way.
10:45 AM, a high bluff on the road 2 miles up from Forks. We've seen some interesting rapids down in the canyon and stopped to take a closer look. We see clear lines between car and truck sized boulders, all good. We can't get a view of a portion of the river on the upstream side of the bluff. I say, "there's probably something down there we can't see."
"Maybe, let’s go..."
11:30 AM, Engine Fill site about 10 miles up the road from Forks. We're unloading boats and getting rigged on a road grade with river access. This is a Forest Service facility for filling fire trucks from the river as denoted by the small wood sign on the road above that reads 'Engine Fill'. A perfect put-in.
12:30 PM, eddy, river left a few miles below Engine Fill. Dave says, "this is just good clean fun!" We've run a series technical of class IV boulder gardens separated by pools, easy read and run water. We're smiling. From here the rapids change as the drops confine the flow and get bigger. The hydraulics get stronger and some bigger holes appear. I miss a center to right move in one rapid and have to grab frame as I bounce over a steep bouldery 6' drop into a hole. Oops, but the hydraulics are still forgiving and I come out laughing at myself.
1:20 PM, the river narrows into a gorge and enters an 'S' turn. We pass under a rope foot bridge, there's a home on the left bank. As we come to the tail of the S, an old man in faded jeans, suspenders, and a plaid flannel work shirt, with a gray beard down to his waist (seriously) appears on the left bank waving his arms to get our attention. We warily drift toward him and he yells, "DOWN AROUND THE CORNER YOUR GOING TO COME TO A HOUSE SIZED ROCK THAT BLOCKS THE RIVER! YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO GO LEFT OR RIGHT, BUT YOU'LL WANT TO STOP AND LOOK AT IT" Sure enough, we round the corner and see nothing but rock. Good advice old miner dude.
1:30 PM, river right above the “house sized rock”. We scout and quickly decide to go left through a steep 7' airplane turn drop just wide enough for the boats. We also notice a blind horizon line downstream about 50 yds. We clean the drop. I'm 3rd. I turn to watch Doug's run and when I turn back downstream, I see Dave lining up on the left. He disappears over the horizon line. Mike is rowing hard for the right bank. He's out of his boat as he lands, grabbing his throw rope and beaching his boat in one fluid motion. He scrambles down stream. Doug and I land upstream of Mike's boat and follow him. We’re looking at a 2 stage falls with an 8’ drop leading into a 12’ drop. The top of the right side is a rocky sieve bounded by several car sized boulders in the middle of the river. We can't see the left side of the top drop yet, but Dave is parked across the river in a kayak eddy between the drops, tight against a vertical rock wall with a flip line tied to a log hanging over his head. How did he manage that?
Immediately below Dave is a 12’ drop over a jumble of boulders with a 5’ diameter log pointing straight downstream in the middle of the drop. The root ball is hanging, dry, 15’ past the edge of the drop, over the pool below. If Dave had followed the current, he would have straddled the log or side flipped, mid drop, as one tube or the other went over the log while the rest of the boat fell over the drop. Dave gives us the OK signal.
1:35 PM, river right at an unexpected Class V+/VI falls. It takes me 3 seconds to react to what I see, “I’m NOT running that!”
Mike replies, “I think we can line the boats down the right side to this eddy, but we’ll have to run the last bit.”
“What about Dave?”
“Dave is on his own, It looks like he’ll have to break is boat down and portage it in pieces.”
Dave gets our attention and points to the middle of the rapid. The bottom drop is divided by a cement truck sized rock, the left is as described above. The right is a less vertical boulder drop leading into a very large, hungry, hole on the left half and a series of small ledges on the right half terminating in a headwall hydraulic flowing around the right side of the big hole. After we line our boats, we’re planning on running out the lower half of these ledges. What Dave is asking is if we think he can ferry across the left channel in front of the midstream boulder and make the pour-over to the right side. He can’t see the impossible hydraulics he’d have to fight to get to the right of the center rock, or the hole he’d end up in at the bottom if, by some miracle, he did manage the ferry. All three of us give the universal wave for “NO WAY!” and signal “portage.” At this point, Doug says, “I bet this is that spot you talked about from the road where we probably weren’t seeing something.”
We begin the lining process and quickly learn that we really need 3 people to safely manage the rope and obstacles. We get Mike’s boat down and tie it off in fast current below the 1 boat eddy we planned to re-launch from. Mine is next, we park it, dry, on a 50° sloped rock above the eddy. Finally we get Doug’s boat down into the eddy. By this time, Dave is wading in the shallows downstream of his boat with a line, but he can’t figure out how to untie his flip line from the overhead log and retain control of the boat single handed.
2:10 PM, still river right at an unexpected Class V+/VI falls. Mike gets set to run out the rapid and we decide I have to cut his line to release his boat and avoid dragging a rope through the ledges. He’s away and through, ferrying across to the left to help Dave. Doug gets set from the eddy and I give him a push. I retrieve Mike’s rope, bag it, then pull my boat off its perch into the eddy, get set, push out and run out the falls.
2:20 PM, river left still at an unexpected Class V+/VI falls. By the time Doug and I get eddied out on the left, tied off, and up to the top of the bottom drop, Mike is helping Dave form a plan. I take a moment to look upstream at the left top drop. It’s a steep 8’ high ledge feature. It is a wonder Dave ran it clean enough to catch his tiny eddy. They toss me the line Dave has tied to his boat and Doug positions to act as a catcher. Mike holds the boat, while Dave unties the flip line, then they use the flip line to turn the boat on its side and float it between the bank and a rock. Once the boat is clear and back on both tubes, I can pull it to my position as Doug catches it, we then drag it over some rocks into a small shallow pool to the left of the drop. We want to secure the ropes and have Dave seal-launch from the pool into the bottom of the drop, but he wants the boat in the pool at the bottom before he has anything to do with it. So Mike moves downstream over some large boulders with the line and, once he’s set, the rest of us push the boat over the ledge. It drops into the pool and Dave scrambles down into it to secure his ropes and get set on the oars. We head back to our boats and I give Mike his rope, minus the 3 ft. still tied to his oar tower.
Post trip research fails to reveal a name for this class V gorge or its rapids, but one kayaker’s blog post refers to it as a “manky class V/portage” and a more complete description (cacreeks.com) describes the gorge as follows:
Mile 9: Foreboding, class V-, scout right
A landslide on the right marks the start of a class V gorge. (This rapid named after Holbek, who apparently dislikes landslides.) This steep drop among large boulders can probably be run most easily on the far right. Eddy out immediately below!
Mile 9.1: The P-word, class V, scout right, possible left portage
This rapid is portaged more often than run. It starts with a class IV drop on the left that turns the corner right and out of sight thru some gigantic landslide boulders. The standard route goes all the way left, pausing above an entrapment chute, then all the way right around some smaller rocks, and exits against the right wall. A “devious” sneak route described by Holbek seems to have been eliminated by recent geologic activity (1996).
2:35 PM. On the river below the unknown falls. We approach the next rapid and the horizon line is blind yet again. We’re sure we looked at this rapid from the road, but at this point the GCI is back in the toilet and we’re a little gun shy about blind drops, so we pull off to the right to scout. A quick look reveals a straightforward class IV rapid. One more rapid like the last and we exit the gorge. We find a few surf waves to round out the day and reach the takeout at about 3:30 PM. We discuss a possible short run in the morning before heading home, but everyone agrees we’ve filled our thrill baskets full enough for one trip.
Composite: Mike shows us the line at Cascade Falls (Class V)
Dave and his boat from the middle of the “manky” unnamed Class V+ falls on NF Salmon
Dave (front) and Brent enter one of the numerous class IV boulder gardens on the NF Salmon.
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