Tired of being too big of a pussy to run the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin? Are you sick of hanging out at the Upper Tuolomne after your Upper Cherry run waiting for the Kings to drop down to saner flows? Fear not.
From the people who brought you the new independent kayakers manifesto, the people who told you "yes you can(with the proper planning and portaging)", and the persons responsible for the detested and quickly forgotten brief resurgence of the Chimp Method on the Green River in NC, yes yes yes....
We here at gorgedout would love to introduce to the loose and leary out there, The Devils Postpile for Pussies!
Now in all seriousness, the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin is one of the coolest places I have been. It is awesome and with proper planning and homework, it can be accessible to more than just the rockstars and athletes. Yes, that's right, even the slightly in shape nine to fivers can make an appearance with full intentions of coming out the other end, given a few simple precautionary measures are taken.
The origin of the methods described herein source from an ill fated attempt at booking flights for the Middle Kings 3 weeks in advance. Luckily, with some creativity, there is bona fide quality multiday whitewater available in California from May through July most years, with guarantee of said experience at least through the Middle Kings time frame. So while we blew it on the Kings this year (next year we will just eat it and book the flight 3 days in advance) we had to make the best of things. With word a week out that West Cherry was still going, we figured Upper Cherry would be about right upon arrival, but this would leave a serious void on the posterior portion of the trip. The Kings would be too high, and the North San Joaquin too low.
Now many a gnarly knight hath head into the postpile in the past few years during the flow gap between the Cherry and the Kings, but this has consistently led to terrified experiences staring death in the face due to the precariously sketchy confines of a few gorges on the run that do NOT handle high water well. However, the first half of the trip always ends up being optimum at high flows, excepting one little gorge. So when I was sitting on the computer a few days out, knowing that we needed to come up with a plan, I started investigating the idea of running the MF San Joaquin anyway, and just doing some creative avoidance techniques to bring the risk back down into the range of "wife and kids at home" territory.
First of all, I found out where all the water level sensitive gorges were, with there being two that were the real issue. The first is the boof-o-matic gorge on the upper part of the run, which we would have to find a way around. Though it contains one of the best drops in the sierra, it also has a tight succession of unscoutable and unportageable ledge holes that at high flows are hard and quite deadly. This first stretch of concern is only around 200 yards long and immediately dumps into a relatively open valley below, where Fish Creek drops in. But this gorge is some of the most walled in and sheer stuff in the sierra, so it looked like if we could just get over to Fish Creek, we could run the last mile of Fish, which is decent and would be a second descent of some fun drops.
Its amazing what you can do with Google Earth, USGS topo maps, and the blogosphere at large. Between these three resources, I have full confidence to drop into various entrenchments in the US with little to no personal experience. It is as close to exploring as I get. So using these tools, I discovered that around a mile or a little more above the Fish Creek confluence, there is what appears to be some type of fault related weak point that cuts through the mighty ridge separating the San Joaquin and Fish Creek. Not only that, the gradient gain from the river to the highest point on the cut through was only 250 feet, and it reached this somewhat gently, before flattening through some understory and tree growth and plopping out on the other side right at the beginning of the interesting stuff on Fish Creek. So this was to be our first bypass.
The second problem with running the Devils Postpile at 700-1000 cfs on Mammoth Pool Inflow was the crucible gorge. I fully believe that at 400-600(normal flows) this gorge would be quite reasonable, but from many accounts at high flows, it has become apparent that doing it high would be a risk and a mistake. Sure it would maybe work out, but it has become well known as an out of control and dubious undertaking for better boaters than I.
As far as I can tell, without extensive climbing gear, there is no way to portage the crucible. Even wrapping around the lower back end of Balloon Dome brings you to big cliff bands before dropping into the South Fork. So given the situation and likely high flows, hiking out above the crucible seemed like the way to go. Luckily there is a trail crossing right above the first set of portages that lock you into the crucible, so this would prove a convenient exit, just when the fire starts getting too hot. In fact, most of the portages are in the stretch between this hike out and the South Fork, so energy expended on the hike out wouldn't totally trump schlepping boats around granite domes and through sketchy friction climb portages. We also decided that if the flows dropped below 600-700 and cool temps dominated the forecast, we could go all the way to the lake.
So the plan was established, and after a post Upper Cherry celebration in Groveland, we discussed our plan and made the call to do it. Amazingly, we half convinced Tim Kelton that we were in fact not misinformed and overzealous fools and that maybe this wouldn't be a complete portage-grovel fest. Afterall, the heresay on this run is thick and discouraging. Tom was convinced it would be misery, but humored the idea none the less. Jim trusts me, which may not be a good thing, and Tim was understandably skeptical that this would turn out to be anything resembling a quality experience. Yes, all the makings of an adventure. Uncertainty, vague maps and beta, stubborness, optimism, and finally, a shuttle driver. Because to do this run you gotta drive from one side of the mountains across Tioga Pass to the dry side and down, then back up through Mammoth to Devils Postpile National Monument.
Keith wasn't able to commit to the Kings trip, but had driven out to California anyway and was willing to run our shuttle on whatever trans-sierra run we ended up on. He drove up from L.A. and ran the heinous shuttle and then drove back. We really appreciated him doing this, and he has much goodness coming his way. We couldn't have done it without you Keith. Wish you could have been there man.
Hey, you guys wanna go kayaking? What, It's dark?
We rolled in to the monument around 8pm for a classic start. Keith was going to drive off the minute we were unloaded, so there was no point in hanging around. We got our gear loaded in about 15 minutes and began the easy 1.5 mile hike downhill through the monument to Rainbow Falls, our indicator of how things would be. Rainbow looked like it does in 7 rivers , but maybe a little higher than other recent runs.
Plenty of water
It was almost dark now, and we kept trudging down to lower falls and put in at the base, not wanting any moonlight class 5 action. We rolled around the bend and into Ansel Adams Wilderness and bedded down on a big bend in the river. We killed a bottle of wine I bought in Mammoth and went to sleep, waking frequently in the night to scrape frozen dew that clung to our bags. I woke up at one point with my hair froze to my drybag. I was using it for a makeshift pillow and it started collecting water and freezing. Needless to say, this was good for flows.
We awoke in the morning, cooked some oatmeal, and put on. We got a good 100 yards of class 2 under our belts before we reached what was obviously the sketchy gorges that people walk high on the right. The first one has been run with little success, and it had a morbid Black Canyon flavor, but with fewer eddies in it.
Looking upstream at the nasty first little gorge
A sidecreek came in 200 yards downstream on the right, allowing a brief drop down to river level before a second climb for the longer main slog along domes, with occasional forays into the manzanita.
Taking a break from the big portage
All in all, if I hadn't lost a drybag somewhere along the way and didn't have to retrace the entire mile I had just portaged to find it, this mile long portage only takes around an hour, and you can drop down relatively soon to start boating. You could drop in earlier than we did, or even go river level below the first gorgette, but it would take longer. We dropped in 2 or 3 rapids above the classic double drop, and got a long portageless stretch that lasted all the way to the next gorge. The first few rapids were pretty awesome, and there seemed to be plenty of water.
Golden Stroke Nominee?
Double drop is one of the signature rapids on the run, and it has all the makings of a full course drop. Aesthetic, classic crossgrain to boof move, serious hole below, and TIGHT!
Jim has a stomping problem
We all had different lines, but Tom's was the best for pictures.
OK, he lived. Moving on.
We almost wanted to hike back up again, but it seemed way too early to be getting cavalier at this point. Below here there were some slightly junky but challenging and fun mank for a good distance.
At a sharp right bend the bottom appeared to drop out, and it was getting late. Tim and Tom scouted down the left while Jim and I checked the right. What we found was a long and committing gorge with hard rapids and one unrunnable drop near the top. Everything else looked awesome, and further down we came upon the pothole to slide rapid that is one of the many "Tommy Only" drops on the postpile, though one of the more doable. The seal launch to slide looked good, and the runout gorge was totally walled in and unscoutable from river level. The river left crew signalled the "better look from here", and with that we reconvened at the top. Since it was late, we decided it best to carry all our camping gear down to the bottom of the gorge, but leave our paddling gear at the top. This way we could scout it on the way down to camp, and then run ultralight in the morning.
From our little camping spot at the bottom, we cooked over an open fire and gazed up at the Milky Way though our little slit in the granite, and I couldn't stop thinking about how that gorge appeared in the evening light, and how quality and intense it looked. Upper Cherry was awesome, but this was what really got me fired up. Not all rivers have the coincidental permissiveness to paddling that Upper Cherry does, and sometimes the most valid river experiences and the ones that leave the longest lasting impressions, are those where the river is not always your friend. Rivers afterall, are in pure nature, indifferent to our preferences, and as such, can vary from brutally raw to iconically perfect, but only within the scope of the human construct. Ultimately, beyond the shallow classifications of man, the river just IS. And just as any other, the MF San Joaquin most certainly IS. To see such a quality and full scale paddling environment such as the gorge we were camping below, in contrast to the sieve piles above double drop we had toiled around, is to appreciate the privilege and honor that the earth gives that any of these steep terrains can be descended in a kayak, on and in the water. We went to sleep anticipating mission mode in the morning.
The next morning we got moving back up to the boats after a full river left scout of the gorge.
We almost ran the first series, which had a killer looking boxed in hole. The set looked sweet, but we conservatively portaged the top bulk and launched for the last pinch. Next was a quick portage around a sieve and then a big burly rapid that would have looked better with maybe a little less flow. Daniel Delavergne stomped this thing in Seven Rivers, but none of us were feeling like a rockstar. We did run a nice triple slide and then a folding drop before getting back out to mosey around the pothole section of the big slide.
Jim below the triple slide
At the big slide, we seal launched in on the right, and all had varying lines on the slide. Tim was last, which meant he had to make a little birds nest of sticks and such so as to not prematurely slide in. It was intense watching from below. What an awesome rapid though.
Sorting things out at the big slide
Jim sliding in
Things are getting interesting
Yes, its that good in here.
It dropped us into a vertical walled gorge and we all ran various lines that we had picked from the rim earlier in the morning.
Got everything we need here. Creamy.
We got out right above Clay Wright's rapid and walked around. This one looks innocuous, and makes you question your ability to spot hazards on a river. She's always in charge.
Right below was the series of chunky slides we slept next to the night before. While not seeming like a big deal that evening, the following morning they gave us a run for our money. But Tim and I being the cool cats we are, elected to run backwards, a hot new move that will gain popularity very soon.
Tom, running it regulars.
It is here that we began the approach to the first crack in the earth gorge. The approach consists of 3 really fun and low stress slides. The first was wide and slow, the second channellized into a fast and frumpy sluice, and the third appeared to go 300 yards before dropping out of sight near a tributary downstream.
Jim on low angle slide number two
Author on the same
Getting out above the long slide
Knowing that once we dropped the last slide we would be river level only, and then around the bend not able to get out, we hiked around the dome on the right and planned our routes and camera angles.
Even the scouting was a little scary
We spent a while doing this, and split into teams of two for the gorge. Below the most brainless and fun slide ever, we portaged a sketchy 20 footer into a little gorgette above the waterfall rapid.
Upper deck view of the long easy slide
Long slide from river level
Once again, a Tommy rapid here. It starts with a trib cascading in on the left, and ends with a second one coming in on the left, but it is the river in between these two features that is of concern.
Tim hovering upstream of the portage
We did what ended up being a stout little portage on the right over and through some convenient boulders that had slid into the canyon. After puting back in, we entered a completely scoured bedrock gorge with walls to the sky and turned around a bend to the right, totally walled in, no way out, with only mist and treetops downstream. You gotta love it.
Luckily we had scouted and found that it was all California class 4, with a few sliding drops ending in a sweet 22 foot off vertical waterfall.
Fun bedrock action leading into...
This ended the first crack in the earth and began a 2 mile stretch of stout but manageable class 4 boating through boulder fields and ledge gardens. After a few more bends we started getting curious about where exactly our cut over would come in, as we were hastily approaching the boof-o-matic gorge. After a few map sessions, we homed in on where we were, and ran some more fun class 4-4+ read and run before getting out on the left and beginning the Fish Creek bypass.
The first 150 feet of the route was open rock face with decent footing, but as we approached the little notch in the wall, the understory started closing in. Once flattened out in the gap, it got pretty thick for 10-15 minutes, but soon enough we were out the other side into the gently rolling fields that nestled us down to the banks of Fish Creek. The camping wasn't the greatest, but it was a scenic spot and we did a little fishing before calling it a day and saving Fish Creek for the morning.
At this point I was getting quite used to sleeping down in a gorge. I love it. In such a topographically dramatic place, the lighting is always changing, especially at night. Sometimes I would sit up and just look around, amazed that I could see so well with such contrast. And then I would lie down to sleep for a while, wake back up, and come to find that the moon had shifted and created an entirely new combination of shadows and light to take in. I miss those nights already. You only get so many of those.
We woke up in the morning to the usual routine of breakfast and slow moving. Why be in a hurry in places like this? Once geared up, we started taking apart the short and steep stretch on Fish Creek. It starts with a dechannellized waterfall before tightening up into a little gorge with a few good drops.
Fish Creek at fish flows
The first is a nice 10-15 foot sloper with a lip near the bottom, and then bottles down into some Colorado-esque "stuff" into the big triple drop rapid.
Nice 15 footer
This is the big one on the creek, and Jim was the only one feeling frisky this early in the morning. Watch out ladies! He greased the whitewater line, and I made a real loud ruckus seal launching the green pool below the drop.
We headed through some SE style (read low water) creeking before wrapping around the corner to the last drop/gorge on the run. This one was a great sliding entry to a 12 foot drop with a hole and a wall on the right. The creek then exited through a nice little mini gorge with laterals galore. The MF San Joaquin came back in around the corner, so we had successfully avoided getting our panties in a wad on the main stem.
Now we were on a river. The flow was ample, and between here and Cassidy Bridge we enjoyed 8+ miles of glorious class 4-5 boating. We portaged once out of fear, and twice out of neccesity, but other than those brief jaunts, the entire stretch was one quality rapid after another. Boofs, slots, holes, wavetrains, minigorges, boulder rapids, and all kinds of other features kept things fresh. None of it was fringe or scary, just consistently challenging and rewarding.
We all got trounced in this one, except Tim
Things calmed down for a while as we drifted a few calm miles though beautiful Pine Flats. The first gorges ended up being a warm up for what lay below the North Fork confluence. Here the river gained more flow before entering the "class 4" gorge of the run, or the "high water mark gorge" as it is also known. This stretch started with a totally walled in flat stretch before turning the bend and entering a series of hard to scout and likely unportageable rapids. But they weren't scary or hard enough to be fully stressfull. It was just what we were looking for. A few were a little intense, but mostly just lots of fun.
Entering the high water mark gorge
Catching an eddy above a big sieve
Below this gorge things opened back up at Miller's Crossing, where a long flat pool and a cabin marked the crossing. This would be a great spot to camp, but we rolled on a few miles down to our takeout at Cassidy Bridge. These few miles had a few class 4+ suprises, but for the most part, was just a great float trip through epic scenery.
Once at camp, we set up and checked out the footbridge where the trail crosses. Standing on the bridge, you can look downstream and peer into the enticingly stunning entrance to the Balloon Dome gorges. A mile down is the crucible, and it starts it's walled in nature here, right below our exit. It was hard looking down in there and not continuing, but this further affirmed my conviction to come back at a lower flow one day and do the whole thing.
They all float down here
We enjoyed triple portions of food, killing off any unwanted weight in consideration of the hike out in the morning, and stayed up late reflecting on the trip up to this point.
We got moving a little quicker than usual in the morning, not wanting the heat of the day to beat down on the majority of our hike. I was prepared for absolute hell, but after the Upper Cherry hike in, and several days of exercise, the hike went well, and was much more scenic than the Upper Cherry hike. We made it up in 4 hours, and it was not a bad hike. I would do it again for sure.
View of the river from the hike out, around a mile and a half in.
Balloon Dome, Jim's Dome
Balloon Dome towering over the Crucible Gorge
The prominent brow in the distance is below the South Fork confluence
After chilling our wrecked bodies in Granite Creek for an hour, we loaded up and headed back to Groveland, saying goodbye to Tim, who was due back in Santa Fe. That night we ate well, drank a bit, and fell asleep with plans for a rendezvous with some of Jim's friends for a morning run on Cherry Creek section of the Tuolomne before our flight back home. The Tuolomne was a world class stretch of class 4-5, and it had plenty of flow and was very continuous. What an awesome staple to have in California. It was also nice to boat without weight in the kayak.
Looking back, the run we did on the MF San Joaquin was anything but a portage fest, and all said, we spent almost 4 days enjoying this place. It has some of the best whitewater I have run, both steep river, and steep creek style, and the scenery and dynamics of the place is second to none. I can only imagine what it is like to continue through the Great Corridor around Balloon Dome and through the crucible. Maybe next year. After the Middle Kings of course. God that hike would have just murdered me.
Back home the whole trip seems like it went by so quick. They go by quicker every year. It has been 2 weeks since I got back and I still am not inclined to paddle. Still just marinating in the past experience. Who knows where we will go next year, but it will be good once again, and hopefully another life changing experience as well.
Finally, I would like to extend a huge THANKS to Tim Kelton and Tom Janney for giving me permission to use their photos on this blog. I doubt it would have been worth writing anything at all without the top notch photos they gave me to use. Thanks again guys.