The North Fork of the Trinity 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).

The North Fork of the Trinity is one of my all-time favorite rivers, earning top marks for scenery, remoteness, and sustained, high-quality whitewater.

I had heard nothing but praise for this river from my friends who had run this section before, most notably from Steve Stuckmeyer and Gabe Flock, who is lucky enough to have paddled this river three times. They described the North Fork as beautiful, challenging, and strenuous; they also spoke of thrashings, swims, and unportageable drops, which I must admit raised the adrenaline level a bit on my first trip down.

This run is challenging on several different levels. First, it is quite long, (fourteen miles), and the whitewater is evenly distributed with few slow spots. The rapids are challenging on an individual scale, but this run demands a higher than average level of physical fitness due to the large number of tough drops and the remote nature of the river.

In addition to endless miles of superb class IV and V rapids, the North Fork has stunning crystalline water which is offset by spectacular granite gorges, similar to those found on Oregon's famous Opal Creek run. Indeed, running the North Fork feels equivalent to paddling Opal Creek five times in a row, except the rapids are larger, more frequent, and far more interesting overall.

There is no warm-up on this run because the first mile is the steepest, dropping 190 feet. You peel out, go around the corner, and then start running a long series of class IV and V boulder gardens that pile up on one another with scarcely an eddy in sight. A common reaction on for first timers on this run is: "Is the WHOLE fourteen miles like this?.."

Time Considerations:
Josh was really going off the day we did this run, and we ended up boat-scouting most of the rapids. Even so, it took us five hours to complete the run. The guidebook says that small, fast teams can get down this run in eight hours, so I imagine the Josh-less average speed is somewhere in between. Either way, get an early start and eat a big breakfast before you tackle this one!

The North Fork starts with a bang: A hundred yards below the put-in Pete Giordano negotiates the first in an endless array of powerful and complex boulder gardens while Josh Knapp watches from below.

Josh and Pete cruise down the first (and steepest) mile on the North Fork.
This mile drops 190 feet and is essentially a single large rapid.

Josh boofs a tricky drop containing a dangerous undercut on the river-left side; the far right side where Josh is was the only safe line.

Below the first mile the gradient cools off a bit and the river becomes more pool-drop, but the rapids are evenly distributed so you are almost never without a significant horizon line to ponder.

Soon we arrived at the first portage, a wicked class V+ rapid that I had seen photos of in the past. Here the river tears down through ever-narrowing walls before ramping up and over a bulge in the rock and slamming into in a hideous hydraulic backed up by the wall on the left side. Pete and I never even gave this one a second look, but I knew something was up when Josh headed downstream to scout; I could tell by the determined look on his face he was thinking about running this monster..

Josh and Pete ponder the hideous hydraulic at the bottom of the first recommended portage.
Josh ended up running this drop flawlessly (see below).

I always get a little nervous watching my friends run drops that are as dangerous as this one, so I wasn't surprised to feel my heart rate start accelerating as Josh headed upstream to his boat. Pete and I got set with ropes as Josh waited an eddy above, and once we were set we gave him the thumbs up. He peeled out and lined up, accelerating rapidly downstream as the river narrowed and funneled down into it's terminal plunge; at the last moment he drove hard to the right and was enveloped by the frothing mass of water, reappearing a moment later upright and elated in the gorge below..

Pete looks on Josh Knapp goes for the gut on the first recommended portage, a wicked drop with a huge, vicious hydraulic backed up by the wall just downstream.

One of countless scenic vistas on the North Fork...

The final gorge on the North Fork is the most intense, containing several large, unportageable rapids leading up to a class six drop that is usually portaged. The last must-run rapid above the class six is a ten foot ledge with a powerful hole that we call 'Nemesis'. Here's the story: The first time Gabe Flock and Steve Stuckmeyer ran this section Gabe was aggressively boat scouting and got stuck in an eddy just above Nemesis and couldn't scout it. Out of options and not too happy about it, he ran it blindly on the left, got pounded in the hole, swam, and was busy collecting his gear in the pool above the class six drop while everyone else took their turn in the hole. No one else swam, but there was lots of cartwheeling, whooping and hollering.. Ever since then Gabe has referred to that drop as his Nemesis..

This time we were ready, so we eddied out well upstream of the Nemesis on river-left and scrambled up a steep gully that eventually leads to a narrow perch fifty feet above the ledge. From there you can scout this drop, but you can't portage it. Just as we reached the vantage point the clouds closed in overhead and there was a ground-shaking peal of thunder overhead. It was one of those moments on the river when you are reminded of how pitiful and weak you really are when compared to the elemental forces surrounding you.

"I'm gonna run it left through the hole." Josh said. From our vantage we could see into the hole and it looked pretty big but not too bad, while the right side appeared to be a narrow double drop that we couldn't see into because of a large boulder blocking the view.

We scrambled back down to our boats and I stayed about fifteen feet up on the cliff face to watch as Josh peeled out, driving hard with right angle as he dropped out of sight over the left side of the drop. Suddenly I saw his bow, then stern, bow, stern.. "Josh is gettin' F--kin' WORKED!!!" I yelled to Pete, who was below me in the pool, in the process of putting on his skirt. Pete froze, and listened to my commentary: "C'mon Josh, C'mon buddy, get outta there... aw shit, cartwheel, I can see his paddle.... nothing, nothing.. he's OUT, he's OUT, he's still in his boat!!"

Below us Josh appeared in the pool, shaking his head, pointing to the right. "He's saying go right!" I relayed to Pete, who couldn't see anything from river level. Pete peeled out, driving far right, dropped over the first pourover, hit the right wall, flipped violently, and dropped out of sight.

"Well, shit." I thought.

"Lets see. The left side sucks and the right side... sucks. Hmmm.. I think I'll go right and try to break it down.."

I got in my boat, paddled down the right wall, boofed the first drop and scrambled into a nice eddy halfway down the drop on the right, (this eddy is visible in the photo below, just to Pete's right) from the eddy I could see into the bottom part of the drop, and I was able to peel out and run the drop, melting through the hole at the bottom, no worries!

"Thanks for probing, guys." I said to Josh and Pete in the pool below. "It looks like Plan C was the way to go..."

Josh watches from below as Pete runs the right side of 'Nemesis', a powerful ledge immediately upstream of a class six rapid.
(If you look carefully downstream you can see the entrance of the class six just below..).

Pete and Josh work their way around the class six boulder choker immediately downstream of the Nemesis.

Below the portage the rapids just keep coming, all the way up to just above the take-out bridge! This is on of the most sustained pool-drop rivers I have ever paddled (if that makes any sense), with excellent rapids from start to finish.
I think the Stanley/Holbeck guidebook says it best: " The North Fork maintains a serious atmosphere all the way to the take-out.."

Couldn't have said it better myself!

FLOWS: The North Fork is probably most enjoyable in the spring when the weather is nice. April and May is a good time to visit this river. We ran this section when the Trinity River at Hoopa (see below) was rising to 8000 cfs, which translated into about 600 cfs in the North Fork. For shuttle directions, pick up the Stanley / Holbeck guidebook, "The Best Whitewater in California."