Oct 30, 2008

South Fork San Joaquin V-V+ (P)

Day Four

Thankfully we had packed for the extra day. Now we knew we had to get out for two reasons. One was the lack of supplies and palatable goodies, and the other was water flows, if they held through the day they certainly wouldn’t continue overnight.

If we could set a pace like day one, two or most of three, it wouldn’t be a problem. The afternoon of day three showed us that the river could slow our pace to a grind, so we got up early and hit the water.

This is the rapid that forced us back out of the gorge. It looks a lot better here in the picture than in person, both sieves are out of view, but note how thin flows are in the center.

The gradient looked good as we rounded the corner out of camp, but the first drop was highly suspect. We scouted high on the left and deemed it in our best interest to make a quick portage. At least we were making use of the seventy meter rope Ben was hauling down the river.

Matt Thomas seal launches in while Kevin Smith rappels.

Post rappel to seal launch we ran a boulder garden or two before coming to something none of us expected. Every rapid we had run was composed of boulders and at best, a miniscule amount of bedrock. I didn’t get out of my boat, but the horizon line was big and looked clean. Ben gave signals and was ready to film, so I peeled out and ran down a nice slide to slide combo that was clean as a whistle.

Kevin Smith relieved to be running a clean rapid.

Matt Thomas drops in to the slide, it had some big holes too.

At this point in the trip we were all tired, but Kevin Smith proved just how motivated he was by hiking up and running the slide again.

The downstream view from the slide, it looks like we are almost there!

Well it looked like it at least. Exiting the slide, the character of the river made a severe turn for the worse, and was filled with boulders, generally not of a friendly nature. Our portage ratio picked up dramatically but we were still picking off a few good ones.

Kevin Smith runs a good one in bad lighting.

Once again another downstream view, the confluence is above the tight gorge pictured.

The last good rapid we ran for a while. Matt Thomas.

Then it turned into complete hell. This was the steepest section of the river, and we had been expecting that, but the whole thing was basically a big sieve pile, and the portages were terrible. The portage we were making was like a gigantic Crucible entrance portage, and if you have done those you know what I mean. Giant boulders, right up against the gorge wall, lots of boat raising and lowering. It made for a tediously slow pace.

Portaging, Kevin’s back must have been to the gorge wall, thankfully it was this wide.

Looking back up at the general style of the river for a quarter mile section.

Once the gradient tapered off the river gave us one last fun rapid that was relatively clean, and we were floating through some beautiful class II riffles, when suddenly Balloon Dome came into view. Truly a sight to behold from any angle, the granite monolith that divides the Middle and South Fork San Joaquin.

Kevin Smith takes a look at the dome.

I thought it would be all easy run out to the Middle Fork at this point, but when Ben scouted the rapid below the above pool, it was another gigantic sieve, locked deep in a gorge. Amazingly we had to attain back to the beach in the above photo, and we ended up portaging up and over the whole bottom gorge.

The lead in was just one big sieve, with some wood thrown in. One of the most locked in gorges I have ever seen too.

Once on top we decided to check if it was worth rappelling in, since we were so deep into the run anyways. It wasn’t…more sieves…

From left to right, top to bottom, Kevin Smith, Matt Thomas, Ben Stookesberry and Darin McQuoid.

Below the gorge it was easy class II to the confluence, where the Middle Fork contributed only a paltry amount of the flow. Before putting on we debated if five to six hundred cfs would be enough for the Middle Fork, and to our relief it was perfect.

Ben, Kevin and I had done the Middle Fork earlier in the year, so we made quick time down this section of river. It was much better at medium flows than the high flows of spring. There were still the typical big San Joaquin portages, and we were only too glad to see the lake.

In July the lake was full, and we had to paddle all the way out due to a surprising lack of motor boaters on the lake. We figured this time it was Labor Day weekend, and we were sure to get a ride out.

When we reached the bath tub line it was apparent the lake was really low, and we continued to portage and paddle for at least two more miles before finally finding the lake.

I was baffled that there were no fishermen on the lake, but our mistake became apparent as we paddled into the boat ramp, or lack thereof. Mammoth Pool was so low that boats couldn’t launch, which meant for the second time of the year Ben and I paddled the full length of the large lake, a daunting task after either the Middle or South Fork San Joaquin.

Off the water it seemed even more daunting, the four how shuttle followed by an eight to ten hour drive back to Shasta. Truly, this one was a mission! Thanks to Kevin, Matt and Ben for rallying like true pioneers.

In retrospect 500cfs was the perfect flow. Somehow I thought the run would be 24 miles long and be possible in three days. Start to finish it was 40 miles, a bit much to cover in three days on a first descent. I’d imagine in the spring, flows would be low at the start, and way too high at the confluence, mandating a strenuous hike out. Will Southern California Edison ever willingly release water down the South Fork San Joaquin? That is highly unlikely considering the amount of money they make off of reusing the water so much, and we can only hope a freak occurrence like this will happen again.

Thanks again to Paul Martzen for sharing flow information with the kayaking community at large, and to Kurt Sable for notifying me about the flows.


yetigonecrazy said...

damn, that was worth the wait! you guys are awesome, keep it up!

Daniel Elasky said...

If there is ever created a Nobel Prize for Blogging, Darin must absolutely be the first recipient.

This contribution to the paddling community is immense, just like the South Fork itself.

Thank you.

Daniel Elasky
C-1 paddler from the past