The North Fork of the Mollala would be run a lot more often if it weren't so inaccessible. This pleasant little creek tumbles down through a scenic canyon with a steady 200 fpm gradient that translates into endless boulder gardens and a few twisty, ledgy drops. Soggy Sneakers makes the run sound like it gorges up significantly, but this section is way more open and much less intimidating than the upper White Salmon. John and I were a little apprehensive about running this section because it is on private timber company land, so I asked around to find out the latest information. Dan Coyle told me that since the spotted owl controversy subsided the armed guard was gone and he said he knew some guys that had run it recently and had no access problems.
We drove up into a small rural community and tried to keep a low profile in spite of the puffy day-glow creek boats squatting on top of my car and my "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker. Needless to say we weren't too successful- by the time we got to the gate at the end of the road we had a beat up truck and a very large dog in hot pursuit. The dog was a pitbull/bulldog cross (how do they DO that?) so when we got out of the car we were on our best behavior.
The kid in the truck was named Chris and he explained that not only were we on Cavenham Forest Company land but we had driven across his family's private property to get there. The guidebook hadn't said anything about local ownership of the land, so we apologized and explained that we were only there to paddle. (I promised Chris that I would pass the word- If you go up there be sure to stop at the last house on the right at the end of the gravel road after the big yellow gate and ask permission to cross their land. Oh, and by the way, the dog's name is Bo and he's real friendly even though he doesn't look that way...)
Anyway, after working things out with Chris we started up the gravel road with all of our gear and pretty soon we were sweating profusely and wishing we were on the river. By the time we got to the put in bridge four miles up we were soaked with sweat and cursing the warm weather. We put on and were immediately rushing through steep class IV bouldery rapids with a few larger drops but nothing too difficult.
Then it happened. I heard John yell and I looked back to see him sitting in an eddy looking irritated. I jogged back upstream and asked what happened and he said "I broke my boat again." He got out and it looked pretty bad. He had already cracked open the bottom of his Descente seven times but now he had punched a quarter sized flapper in the bottom of his boat in between the heavily duct taped cracks! To make matters worse the flapper was pointing downstream so if he caught it on another rock it would break off and he would have a boat with a quarter sized hole in it- game over.
Luckily I had broken my boat the day before on Upper Silver Creek so I had a bunch of fresh duct tape pasted all over the inside of my hull. Unfortunately the break was directly under John's seat so we had to put a small square of tape on the outside of his boat. "Boy, I dunno.." I said, eyeing the feeble little square of tape. "You'll be lucky if that lasts around the next corner..."
So then the fun began. We were on a fairly steep creek where all of the rapids consisted of boulder gardens and John couldn't boof, hit, or otherwise tangle with any rocks- even one could spell disaster. John had one thing on his side though- when he started boating there were only fiberglass boats so you couldn't hit rocks then either, so he put the rock avoidance skills developed in his early years to good use!
When one of my paddling buddies heard that I was doing this run they all said to be sure and get pictures of the rapid known as 'Laughing Teeth of Death'. The guidebook listed it as a mandatory portage, so we were being cautious, but the problem was that none of the boulder gardens really stood out. A few were pretty steep and tight, but nothing was all that toothy or deathly.
Some creative eddy hopping was required when the walls closed in a few times...
The next supposedly mandatory portage was around 'The Notches', a drop that the guide described as 'one of the most dangerous rapids on any river because it looks so innocuous from above'. Needless to say we were a little paranoid but we didn't find any drop that needed portaging, until we got to a drop that looked pretty innocent from above....
I went first and careened down through the rapid without problems and signaled to John that it was clear. John caught the eddy above the drop and as he peered down into the drop he... hesitated. Now, John has been paddling almost as long as I have been alive, and he has pretty good river sense. He knew there was something wrong in there but he had just seen me run it with no problems. Finally he peeled out of the eddy and then all hell broke loose! John blasted down into the rapid and suddenly he slammed into something and then did a huge backender in the chute, pinning vertically in fast, deep water. "Holy S--t!!" I yelled as I bailed out of my boat and ran back up the river on the right side but by then John had washed out. We had found the Notches! The front of John's Descente was caved in- boy the North Fork was sure unfriendly to that boat! Well, that was the end of that old Descente...
John managed to limp down the rest of the river and by the time we got to the take out that piece of black duct tape was looking mighty sorry but it was still hanging on strong!
This run was not as hard as I expected (ie: this is NOT a class V creek) it to be but it was still worth doing and it had some nice scenery. There was very little wood, and though the last couple of miles were pretty tame the first half of the run was very busy! The rating given to this run in Soggy Sneakers is undeserved as this creek never reaches the level associated with modern class five runs. Nevertheless, if you do go up there be careful- you are a long way from help if something goes wrong!