French Creek

Upper French Creek: IV+ to V-, 250 fpm average, 1.85 miles ( 0.75 mile section from the powerlines to no-name creek, 310 fpm )
Lower French Creek: III to IV ( IV ) depending on flows, 170 fpm, 1.3 miles
Torture Factor: Low

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The uppermost reaches of French Creek had intrigued Pete and I for quite awhile. We had scouted the lower parts of the creek off and on over the years, but the 400 metric tons of wood in the creek had always kept us from going higher. As the years went by the wood cleared up and the upper section started to actually seem like an option, so we decided to give it a go.

French Creek has a somewhat ideal location as it joins the Breitenbush at the lake village of Detroit. It even has a new gauge, and a paved single-lane road that allows for easy access. To us, it seemed like the creek was a viable option for paddlers looking for something different in the area.

Except for the snow. After all of our scouting we didn't expect to hit snow so far down on the road, and it definitely crimped our plans a bit. Of course, we had only brought one car and a bike to do shuttle, so we had to hike in AND do a bike shuttle at the end of the day.. I call this a 'conditioning bonus', though some people have been known to call it 'Getting @#$%ed over by the @$%#ing $@# $#$ snow..'

To this day, I'm not entirely sure why I drove. My starter had been acting up, and in typical fashion I was seeing how long I could baby it along until I was absolutely forced to replace it. "I gotta new starter last week, it's sitting at home." I said to Pete. "I don't wanna miss any boating though, so maybe next weekend.."

We had to ditch my car down below the take-out bridge for the upper section, which marks the put-in for the lower section. I think if we had had a truck we could've made it all the way up, but my little Tercel didn't stand a chance. Of course, this meant a two-mile hike up through the snow, so we geared up and started trudging up the road..

Pete Giordano, on the hike in to Upper French Creek

We had decided to put in where the powerlines crossed the creek, because just above this was where the wood started to pile up. Below the powerlines had looked just fine during the previous summer though, so we hoped nothing had changed.

At the put-in I broke trail down through almost two foot deep snow drifts, while Pete opted to 'otter in' and slid down the hill with a yell, narrowly missing the sharpened beaver-stubs at the edge of the creek..

The upper put-in, where the powerlines cross the creek.

I had scouted the creek most recently, so I supposedly knew what the lines were. Of course, I had seen the creek with no water, so I didn't remember anything.. which led to some exciting moments!

The first quarter mile is very steep, exceeding 300 fpm. There was no wood to speak of, just short, powerful boulder drops with few eddies. Early on my paddle got chocked in a sub-surface rock when I attempted to make a last-chance eddy and I flipped right above a big horizon line. As I rolled up I went over the drop backwards with no boof, pitoned off of a boulder in the pourover, then scrambled into an eddy downstream. I was really lucky I didn't go over that one upside-down, or I might've left some teeth up there!

After my hectic moment at the first or second big drop, we got into a groove and started rolling.. There is definitely some good stuff up there, and there was no wood to be seen!

Pete Giordano drops through the steepest section of Upper French

Pete boofs a ledge, taken from the same spot as the previous photo, looking downstream..

Soon we arrived at the double falls at no-name creek, where the gradient started to cool off. No-name creek also adds some water, which was nice too..

Pete runs a nice double drop at the no-name creek confluence

Below No-name Creek there are a few more steep, bouldery drops and then the creek settles down quite a bit. We were grateful that we hadn't run into any wood in the first steep section, but we weren't so sure that our luck was going to hold out in this lower section..

Below no-name creek the creek opens up a bit, but there are a few more steep drops..

Even though creek mellows a bit below No-Name Creek, the scenery is excellent, making the creek well worth paddling. Amazingly, we only had to limbo and sneak a log or two, nothing at all like the French Creek of old.

Next up was The Narrows, one of the best rapids on the lower section. This drop is easy to identify from above, as the creek swings left around an old logjam through a narrow channel. The entrance is totally blind, so I recommend scouting. This is easy enough to do, just eddy out on the right and climb up onto the pile of logs.

The Narrows were totally clean on this day, and we enjoyed a great ride down the steep, bouldery drops..

Pete enters the narrows, one of the best sections of whitewater in the lower section.

Immediately below The Narrows is the first ( and only ) logjam portage. We eddied out on the right and did the short and easy hike past the first part of the jam, then we put in the moving pool above the second part of the jam and ran the sneak channel down the left side.. This was great fun, and a lot better than portaging!

Pete runs the sneak line to avoid portaging the second half of the logjam.

Below this logjam the creek just rolled along, nothing too exciting until the middle bridge, which marks the put-in for the easier lower section. There were a couple of more challenging drops below the bridge, but no wood that I can remember..

Soon we arrived at the crux of the lower section, French Creek Gorge. This short section is super fun but has some rather sticky holes, so be careful at high water..

French Creek Gorge begins with some short, fun slides as the creek bends sharply to the right. The next drop is a creek-wide pourover into a powerful hole, which had clean boofs everywhere. Below this drop we got out to scout the narrow flume-drop, which also was clean and fun..

Looking upstream at the narrow flume-drop, one of the entrance rapids to French Creek Gorge.

The final drop in French Creek Gorge the longest single rapid on the creek, and warrants a careful scout during the shuttle. The final hole in the gorge is big, powerful, and unavoidable, so take a little time to locate it before committing to this one!

Pete enters the final ( main ) drop in French Creek Gorge. The final horizon line visible downstream ( just before the creek goes around the corner ) conceals a large, unavoidable hole. Scout this drop carefully during the shuttle, especially at higher flows.

I hadn't bothered to scout the gorge at all during the shuttle, so I had no idea what to expect. I shot some photos of Pete, then I put the camera away and ran down the right wall, rushing along with a big grin on my face. Then I saw the final hole and Pete downstream in a tiny eddy against the wall, signaling for me to 'paddle! paddle!'.. Hoo-boy, good thing he warned me because I had time for a couple of strokes and then I dug in deep to get my bow up and plowed right through.. Good times!

Below the gorge the creek rushed along with smaller drops, interesting but not super-exciting, all the way to our chose take out at a campsite just upstream from the lake.

I unchained the bike and started up the road, slipping and sliding in the ice, trying not to wipe out as I struggled up the hill. Finally I hit snow and had to walk the bike the rest of the way.

I arrived at the car as dusk was settling in and I was a little nervous; my gimpy starter had proven to be more difficult to get going in the morning when it was cold, so I held my breath as I turned the key over..


Ohhh no. The sound I had been dreading.. I tried again.


"C'mon baby, c'mon baby, c'mon.." I muttered..

"click.. click.. click.. CLICK.. CLICK.. CLICK.. CLICK.." I smelling something burning and knew it was game over.

Shit. Totally screwed. Stuck in the snow with a bad starter, an hour and a half drive from home. No cell reception.

I got out of the car and tried to push the car, but I was in six inches of snow so it was extremely difficult. After rocking the car back and forth a bit, I managed to get it into the icy ruts formed by some trucks that had made it farther up the creek.

Once in the ruts, I started pushing the car with the door open, hoping that I could push-start it by myself. After several exhausting tries I collapsed in the drivers seat, gasping for breath.

"You dumbass." I thought. "You slip in the ice and run yourself over, and you'll end up on some stupid Darwin list or something, AND Pete'll get to make fun of you for the rest of his life.."

After having a good laugh about that, I got out to give 'er one more try. I pushed, pushed, and pushed, and finally I came to a slight downhill and the car really started rolling. I hopped in, dropped her into second ( more compression ) and she roared to life!

"WAHHHHH HOOOOOO!!!" I yelled, gunning it, and.. started fish-tailing down the road, and.. almost went into the creek, which calmed me down again in a hurry! In spite of that last bit, I must admit, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself..

Ah well, I guess Darwin will have to wait until next year..


We had about 1,500 cfs and steady in the Breitenbush when we did the creek. This was fine for the lower, a little on the low side for the upper. I think 2,000+ cfs in the Breitenbush would be better, especially for the uppermost section. Also, you want to catch this one as close to or during the rain event, because I think it falls quickly, more quickly than the Breitenbush.

For directions, see the map below. I don't remember any wood at all from the middle bridge ( lower put-in ) on down. This lower section is fun class III-IV, with a solid class IV gorge. I recommend this section to anyone comfortable on the comparable nearby runs Breitenbush and Opal Creek, especially now that the wood situation is the best it has been in a very long time.

The upper section ( from the powerline crossing to No-Name Creek ) is much more challenging, so be ready for some steeps if you go up there. It's all runnable and super fun, ( and currently free of wood ), so get your boof on! ( the only wood we encountered was between No-Name and the bridge marking the lower put-in. I think we had two short portages in this section. )

Note: When the reservior is low enough a waterfall and a short gorge become visible below the take-out. The waterfall is about 15 feet tall and is fairly nasty, so it is worth looking at but not worth running..