The North Fork of the American ( Giant Gap )

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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 paddled the Giant Gap on the first day of our 2003 California Spring boating trip. This section is a California classic, flowing through a deep, ominous canyon with some sweet drops and plenty of great scenery.

When you get your first glimpse of the Giant Gap from the trailhead, you have to admire those bold paddlers who first ventured into this canyon back in the early 70's. I imagine them shlepping their hollowforms down into the canyon and putting on without knowing what lay downstream; those must have been epic and intimidating trips!

Just getting to the put-in is something of an adventure; the narrow gravel access road ends abruptly at the lip of the thousand foot deep canyon, forcing a 1.5 mile descent down endless switchbacks to reach the river. Once at river level the crystalline water and soaring granite rock formations are guaranteed to impress even the most well-traveled boaters.

The Giant Gap, as viewed from the beginning of the hike down to the put-in.

Dan Coyle cruises downstream below the put-in.

There are a few easy class five rapids and a bunch of solid class four drops on this section, and most of them would be pretty hard to portage if you were so inclined. In that respect this river is very similar to the Olympic Peninsula streams I have run like the SF Skokomish or the Grand Canyon of the Elwha; the level of commitment feels significant once you are in the main gorge. That said, none of the drops are especially dangerous, so I think most competent class IV boaters could get down this section in one piece.

One of the first sizable drops is Nutcracker, a drop which forms an unmistakable horizon line. Here the water careens down through an ever-narrowing gap with an overhanging wall on one side and a pile of boulders on the other. At the bottom the river pinches down through a narrow 8-foot pinch which threatens to crunch boaters who come through the pushy, hydraulic-filled leading sideways! In the photo below, Gigi Bates careens down through Nutcracker while Jason Bates and Dan Coyle watch from below. The 'Nutcracker' boulder is visible just downstream and on the left from GG, where the river pinches down.

Gigi Bates runs the Nutcracker

The next significant horizon line was Locomotive Falls. This drop contains the only true keeper hydraulic on the run, and is quite difficult to scout or portage. To scout, you have to beach your boats under the overhanging rock wall on river right (not possible at higher flows!) and then scale the rock face to reach a platform about ten feet above the river. This climb is maybe 5.3 in difficulty and sticky rubber shoes are essential for the first person up, who can drop a rope for those who follow. If you look upstream in the photo below (directly behind Gabe in the picture) you can see the overhanging rock wall where you can take out to scout this drop.

Locomotive Falls is very similar to Horseshoe on the Little White Salmon, both having the same short drop into a stomping hole. That said, the main difference between the two is that if you swim out of Horseshoe on the LWS you could be swept into a nasty V+ drop immediately downstream (Stovepipe), whereas Locomotive has a large recovery pool below it.

Gabe Flock does it right at Locomotive Falls; hard boof stroke, right angle, and a buddy with a rope in case he ends up in the spanky hole.

Downstream the rapids mellowed somewhat until we got to the lunch spot. Here a creek cascades spectacularly over a series of waterfalls into the North Fork. There is a slight game trail on the right hand side of the creek which allows boaters to hike upstream and view the creek. While we were relaxing in the sun two more California boaters appeared and hiked upstream as well.

Pete and Gabe relax at the take-out for the lunch spot

The Jason, Josh, Gigi and Dan eat lunch on a granite platform above the falls at the lunch spot

Downstream the rapids keep coming, gradually building into a large boulder garden known as the Dominatrix which eventually leads to Dominator, the longest single rapid on the run. Dominator is a long boulder garden with a variety of routes, hardest being a run through the meat on the left where the river squeezes between two large boulders. The middle-to-right line is where most of our group went; this line requires a precise ferry above the stomping hole on the left, into a boof on the right.

We all ran the right side because the left-side hole looked quite retentive with little hope for rescue in the event of a swim. If you look carefully in this photo, you can see the large boils recirculating off of the river-left wall twenty feet downstream from the hole, and the difficult rescue situation should someone start getting recirculated along the wall..

Josh Knapp boofs at the bottom of Dominator

After Dominator the rapids fizzle out and the river eases to class II for the last few miles. There are some significant stretches of flatwater on the section below Dominator, so be ready for some mellow floating..

The NF ..WHAT?
Many of you may be wondering where this river is. The North Fork of the American is located near Lake Tahoe in the Tahoe National Forest. It is about a 9 hour drive from Portland, depending on how good your radar detector is.

We drove down I5 and then turned east on Highway 20, (where the 'I5' symbol is on the map) and headed east up to the river from there..

The NF of the American approximate location, courtesy of 'Yahoo.'