The South Fork of the Salmon River

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In April 2003 we took our annual California Spring Break trip, which ended up spanning five major river basins: The American, The Yuba, The Sacramento, The Trinity, and the Salmon.
We paddled a wide variety of rivers and creeks, met some great folks, and had a great time. At the end of the trip we had: Two broken boats, one broken paddle, and two swims out of burly hydraulics.
This time around I was accompanied by: Pete Giordano (Portland), Dan 'The Man' Coyle (Corvallis), Josh Knapp and Gabe Flock (Eugene).

We ended up in the Cal Salmon drainage at the tail end of our Spring 2003 California trip. At this point we were down to three boaters: Josh Knapp, Pete Giordano, and myself. I had never paddled anything in Cal Salmon river basin before, so I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the rivers and the spectacular scenery in this area.

Great views down into the South Salmon river drainage.

On the way over to the Salmon, our much-coveted California spring sunshine melted away behind a wall of ominous-looking gray clouds. Going over the pass from the Trinity drainage, we stared in disbelief as the snow started to fall in earnest. "Aw, man, you gotta be kidding me!" I said. "What state are we in, anyway?"

Well, our great weather had headed north with Gabe and Dan, and we were stuck the rest of the trip with wet, Oregon-esqe weather. Of course, the worst day of boating is better than the best day of anything else, so we didn't really have much to complain about.

The South Fork rolls along through a steady barrage of pool-drop rapids in a granite-lined gorge with a few powerful holes to watch out for. The greater South Fork canyon towers overhead, with thickly forested slopes that reinforce the impression of being just a few miles south of the middle of nowhere. The single-lane access road teeters along the rim of the gorge high overhead, and the shuttle is not for the faint-hearted. The take-out is a very nice free campground overlooking the river, so this run is ideally suited for road-tripping boaters looking for a little adventure.

Pete Giordano soars over a munchy hole backed up by a boulder in the South Fork gorge while Josh Knapp watches below.

Pete melts through a big hole in a fun drop downstream.

Pete cruises through a fun drop in the South Fork gorge while Josh watches from behind a boulder downstream.

Pete enters a narrow, powerful drop about halfway down the run.

Towards the end of the South Fork the gorge walls go vertical and the river roars down through a blind, tough drop with limited (if any) portaging options. Pete grabbed an eddy on the left, and Josh and I crowded into a slightly larger version on the right. A quick scout revealed a bouldery jumble with a powerful hole on the right and a tricky, technical boof on the left. "Wow, that hole on the right looks like a real ass-kicker." I said to Josh. "I think I'll do the boof on the left."

Pete was already getting into his boat on the other side of the river, and I assumed that he was going to boof left too, but he lined up on the right side. "Um, he's going right." I said to Josh. "Uh oh..." Josh started scrambling down to his boat while I watched..

Sure enough, Pete rounded the corner and was slowed down by the feeder wavehole just above the main hydraulic. He broke through it, but the damage was done. He hit the hole, broke through, surfaced on the pile, started to take a stroke, and fell back into the hole. "Pete's getting WORKED!!" I yelled. Josh leaped into his boat, and while he was getting ready I shot one more photo and scrambled down to move my boat into place as Josh vacated the eddy. We both ran the left side, boofing left and scrambling down the left wall past the bottom boulder, no worries..

Meanwhile, Pete was getting worked HARD; oh yes, it was a frickin' mosh-pit in there.. He cartwheeled, sidesurfed, tried to ender out, said the secret word, to no avail.. Eventually he swam, and luckily we were able to recover all of his gear except for one floatbag which the hole sucked out of his boat, and we headed downstream.

Pete decides to see if the right side hole is as sticky as it looks...

Pete, getting worked hard in the hole, which is hidden by the pointy boulder... I got one more shot off and then ran for my boat!

Below the rapid that swam Pete is one more double-drop, described as the 'Final Falls' in the guidebook. We ran this one center-right, melting though the hole, a very nice way to end the run!

Josh Knapp styles the 'final falls' described in the guidebook. We all ran center-right, going with the flow though the big, soft hole.

We took out at the campground immediately below the gorge, and started setting up camp for the night. Josh and Pete ran the shuttle, and when they got back Pete said: "There's some other boaters coming down the gorge... Let's go watch them run that drop!" I grabbed my camera and we headed upstream. After a steep scramble down the cliff face, we arrived at a lofty perch above the rapid that pounded him. "Hey Pete! There's your floatbag!" I said. Sure enough, Pete's red floatbag was bobbing around against the right wall, serving as a subtle warning that not all was well in Salmonville..

Soon four paddlers in creekboats rounded the corner. Almost immediately I could see that one was the leader, very confident, and the other three were less sure of themselves, probably their first time on the river. Sure enough, they eddied out on the left and the leader climbed up on the cliff to scout.

"I wonder if we should say anything." I said to Pete.

"Nah, let them figure it out." Pete replied. "How would you feel if some guy started yelling at you from the top of a gorge while you were scouting a drop?"

"Good point." I said. "I just hope I don't get a chance to use my camera any more today, but if they go right, I think I will."

Almost as soon as the words left my mouth the leader signaled to go right.

"Here we go." I said, picking up my camera and getting settled.

The leader climbed down and got into his boat, peeled out, and charged downstream, very smooth. He punched the tricky feeder wavehole just above the main hole, and melted through with lots of speed.
"Nice!" I said. "But he made it look too easy.."

Sure enough, the next guy peeled out and almost from the second he entered the drop I knew he wasn't going to make it. He hit the feeder hole, got surfed to the right, and dropped in with no speed. He surfaced upside-down against the right wall, and the hole started greedily pulling him back upstream. "C'mon man!" I said to myself. "Get UP!"

But he had other plans. As soon as he felt the wall on his right the boater latched onto it and hung on like grim death. His buddies across the river were frantically scrambling around, vainly trying to get downstream, while the leader started trying to ferry across the river. Slowly, the boater started pulling himself along the wall, inching his way downstream until he ran out of handholds. He let go, and tried to roll but didn't quite make it, so he dropped his paddle and started tapping the bottom of his boat. The leader gave chase, and both of them disappeared around the corner.

"Ummm. Ok." I said.

So now there were two paddlers left on the river-left wall, and they stared and stared and stared at that hole. Finally I couldn't stand it anymore, and I yelled "HEY!!!" They looked up, startled. "BOOF LEFT! IT'S NO PROBLEM!!!"

Man, you should've seen these guys go. They scrambled down, hopped in their boats, and bombed over the left side.. The last we saw, they were charging around the corner to help their buddy..

"I couldn't stand it." I said to Pete with a grin. "I had to say something.."

Fingernails, don't fail me now..
The big hole in the final gorge claims another victim. Note Pete's red floatbag, surfing against the hole on the right..

FLOWS: We ran the South Fork when the Cal Salmon at was at 3400 cfs, which translated into about 1500 cfs in the South Fork. This was a nice medium flow for this river. For shuttle directions, pick up the Stanley / Holbeck guidebook, "The Best Whitewater in California."