The North Fork Trinity River was once considered to be the most challenging run in the entire Northern California area, although by today's standards it is rated a class IV and V river. The NF flows 15 miles through a steep, remote canyon packed with many tough class IV and V rapids, which makes it a very serious undertaking. In addition, the only access road is nearly always 4-5 miles on the other side of a several thousand foot tall ridge. The average gradient is 110 fpm with several miles as high as 190 fpm. As Lars Holbeck puts it, "The North Fork maintains a serious character all the way to the takeout."
Gabe Flock, Brad Cascagnette and myself left Eugene Oregon this evening and headed south to California to paddle the East Fork of the Trinity. It proved to be an ill-fated destination. In Castella, CA, we turned off I-5 and attempted to climb up and over the mountains into the East Fork drainage. Unfortunately near the crest of the gravel road we encountered snow. Brad's Subaru and Gabe's truck plowed on for a short while, but we soon determined the idea of getting stuck at 4000+ feet elevation around 1 AM was not appealing, and turned around. Brad and I sped down the mountain and waited for Gabe to catch up at the base. After waiting 15-20 minutes, we drove back up the mountain only to find Gabe sitting right where we had left him! It turns out he had been changing a flat tire. Momentarily thwarted, we retreated back down the mountain and camped a couple miles off I-5 around 2 AM.
The next morning we decided to drive on down to Redding and search out a Les Schwab tire dealership to get Gabe's tire fixed. It turned out his tire was trashed, and he decided to buy two new tires. We waited as they installed the new tires and rotated the two old ones. Probably around 10 AM we headed west out of Redding. Our destination was still the East Fork drainage, so we drove about 40 miles west and then backtracked about 50 miles north. Around 1 PM we finally reached Coffee Creek.
Coffee Creek was a fast ride that rocked and rolled it's way downhill at about 130 fpm. The streambed was entirely gravel and occasional large boulders. The six-mile run rated a IV due to speed, continuity, and technicality. Although nowhere near a classic, it was entertaining, and anything beat being in the car. Best of all the weather was superb; near 70 degrees on a cloudless day!
Upon the conclusion of that ride, it was obvious we all desired something a bit more challenging for the next adventure. First we attempted to access the put-in for the East Fork Trinity (an 8-mile run reported to be class IV-V), but were again thwarted by snow from a different direction. At a momentary loss for what to do next, I suggested the one run that had been intriguing me since reading Holbeck and Stanley's guidebook: The North Fork of the Trinity. Gabe had also been interested in the NF, but had not suggested it because he had heard it was a tough run. The "easy" run down Coffee Creek proved to be enough to sway our groups interest towards the North Fork and hurtled us into what would be the defining moment of this trip.
Having come to a decision we headed back south to Highway 299, and then west to the North Fork takeout. Here we found an excellent camp near the old stream gauge. We also found the North Fork was flowing with about 800 cfs of crystal clear water; apparently a nearly optimal flow. Later that evening a local resident (also a kayaker) drove into our camp and told us the North Fork was possibly inaccessible. He claimed to have been turned around by snow several miles from the put-in only two weeks earlier. Nevertheless he said it had been melting fast enough that there was a chance we could make it. Also he said we would probably be the first folks to run it this season. Only a bit discouraged we went about the tasks of preparing our gear for the North Fork descent. This included preparing for the possibility of a emergency bivy part-way down the river.
The next morning we rose early and began driving up the shuttle road about 8 AM. As we slowly climbed higher, majestic views of the Trinity Alps became visible just to the east. Every corner was approached with some fear that there might be a snowdrift hidden just ahead, though none ever materialized. After passing one access road to a cabin on the North Fork we knew we would at least get to see this river, even if it meant making the 4-mile downhill hike on that road. Eventually we crested the ridge! Would there be snow hidden in the shadows on the downhill slope? As it turned out, we only saw a smidgen of snow, no downed trees, and before long we were at the Hobo Gulch Campground.
At the put-in, the scene was fairly pastoral. The NF tumbled by in open, sunny canyon with a river bearing about 500 cfs through some class II rapids. A very relaxing atmosphere for changing into our river garb. Only the steep rock cliff jutting out into the canyon as the river made a sharp bend to the left, provided any sense of seriousness to the scene. On any other day I would have simply felt like lounging in the sun, but on this day I was about to thrust myself into the bowels of a long, remote class IV-V canyon.
Upon rounding the corner we were greeted by the roar of a big class V drop. Within sight of the vehicle we were already clambering out of our boats to see down the frothy beast that dropped about 15 feet through a sequence of 3 drops. Perhaps this was the first portage indicated by Lars Holbeck? In retrospect I think it was, however there was a line and portaging so soon was an unbearable thought. Gabe elected to probe, a function he was to maintain throughout most of the descent. He charged down through the initial drops, tried to crash over a surging pile towards a clean drop on the right of a huge boulder, didn't have enough momentum and was momentarily side-surfing the huge pillow coming off a midstream boulder. Then the current forced him backwards, down the 6-foot drop to the left of that boulder and into the shallow water found there. Fortunately he just bounced off his stern and then leveled off into the eddy before heading on downstream a bit. I followed with a slightly different line in which I used the top portion of the pillow to shoot me left and into a huge eddy on far river left. Then Brad followed my line, didn't climb up high enough onto the pillow, and was sucked down into the nasty fold the pillow was creating on the left. He flipped going into the fold, but popped through and rolled easily. This rapid determined the pace of the entire day. Usually Gabe would probe, I would follow, and then Brad would come on through.
Below this initial class V, the river continued to drop away through big rapids. The first mile was dropping 190 feet through steep class IV+ and V rapids. Overall it was very solid class V. On this section I scouted many times from the bank, and the typical drop tended to be a 15-foot steep technical drop through massive granite boulders fraught with pinning potential and evidence of several undercut boulders and sieves. After about 3 drops, we were all a bit worried. Gabe looked at us and said: "Well, what do you guys think?" After all we had 15 miles worth of river to cover! Not willing to be defeated, we moved downstream at a seemingly snail-like pace. I suspect it took us nearly an hour to run that first mile. Fortunately the gradient slowly lessened, and we began to improve our downstream progress.
Brad enters a typical class V drop on the upper section.
Somewhere in this initial 2 miles of mostly class V, I suffered my first vertical pin. While attempting to negotiate a narrow turn through the side of a big rapid, I stuck my boat's nose on the right bank, and had the stern pressed into a mid-chute boulder. I was upright, and stable, but going nowhere fast! I could have stepped out of my boat, but would have risked wrapping my boat full of water. So I sat there and waited for Brad and Gabe to lift and push on my bow until it slid free, allowing me to finish dropping through the narrow chute. Fortunately neither Gabe nor Brad had any problems on this one. There were so many big, intense rapids on this run that my mind has already grown cloudy with the details of all but the most memorable. Suffice it to say that below the initial tough class V section, the river settled into a steady rhythm of class IV, IV+, and V rapids as the river pool-and-dropped its way through the granite canyon. Occasionally a mile would mellow out to class III. In one of these easier stretches came the next memorable rapid. It was a steep flume with a swirly hole halfway down and what looked like an undercut left wall. Gabe probed, hit a seam and went deep enough to barely submerge his head, but popped on through. I followed, heading down from left to right a bit different than Gabe had. No problems. Didn't even get my helmet wet! Then Brad's turn was up. Unfortunately he hit that swirling hole, squirted his Micro 240's stern, and did a quick sequence of cartwheels before flushing out upside down. Again, he recovered quickly with a deft roll.
The author punches the hole at the bottom of the flume.
Below this easier section came a long narrow gorge, and our first portage. After slowly eddy- hopping our way down this intimidating place, and having to run at least one blind 5-foot drop into a terminal hydraulic, we came to a significant narrowing of the gorge and the loudest roar we had yet heard. Upon quickly climbing out onto a shallow ledge, Gabe looked over the top and came back down saying he wasn't going to run this one. Trusting his judgment, we all hauled our boats up 8 feet and walked along the edge of the gorge. Just below the river dropped about 10 feet, recoiled off a wall that appeared undercut, and continued to ricochet down a narrow steep passageway. About 25 yards downstream we were able to climb back down 20 feet to another ledge affording entry back to the river. The drop had been runnable, but not worth the risk of getting plastered against the wall in my opinion. Plus, the portage wasn't bad at all.
The first portage.
This gorge then emptied out into the first "valley". This was the site of a very nice private cabin with a flagpole carrying an upside-down US flag at half-mast. We didn't inquire as to whom the inhabitants were.
Below the valley, the river gorged back up a bit and presented us with a couple more miles of tough class IV and V rapids.
A few miles down this narrower stretch of canyon we finally stopped for a lunch break. Feeling we were making very good time, we sat back and relaxed for perhaps 20 minutes. I suspect we were 7 or 8 miles into the canyon. Although a welcome rest, this stop did end up making us all feel much more tired on the remainder of the run. (I suppose it was the effect of eating while sitting in the hot sun.) Unfortunately, even though the frequency of the rapids was diminishing their intensity was remaining nearly the same. A relaxed state was not good for this river! From this point onward I think we all had to struggle somewhat to maintain our focus.
The Author in a IV-V section.
Soon the gradient again jumped back towards 120 fpm, and the rapids grew steeper with longer flatter stretches separating them. The canyon also started to get boxed-out with granite walls extending upwards of a hundred feet in places, and in this section we ran into problems. With a visible horizon line approaching, Gabe elected to move on down into the last possible eddy on the left. I had been preparing to scout from further upstream on the right, but assumed Gabe could see a decent line and moved down to his location. Immediately I realized the mistake. The drop was still blind, we were less than 50 feet upstream of it, and the accessible canyon walls had no portage or scouting options! The drop appeared to be around 12 feet, and was formed by a massive boulder sitting between the vertical rock walls. The right route had appeared to have pinning potential from above (the wall jutted out into the river), and the left side (where we were) had a lot of bubbles percolating up through the water for about 50 yards downstream. It appeared that a nasty hydraulic awaited us below, and we were stuck!
Unhappily, Gabe probed, charging for the lip and dropping out of sight. He disappeared and ominously did not reappear downstream. I thought I heard someone yell something, but I'm not certain. Then, after about 10 seconds, Brad and I saw Gabe swimming downstream with his boat! There appeared to be a massive drop several hundred yards ahead, and fortunately it had pooled up the river enough to create a shallow gravel bar extending across much of the river. Gabe was able to find some footing on this, and as we watched he walked himself and his gear over into an eddy along the right wall of the gorge.
My turn. With much trepidation (and little choice in the matter) I peeled out and charged towards the horizon line.
As I blasted over the lip I caught a brief glimpse of a huge, deep hole far below... I plunged into the hole, which swallowed me up and cartwheeled me once. Adrenaline working overtime, I thought I too was going to have to swim. But rather than immediately roll and risk being still in the hole, I delayed for a couple seconds and the beast let me go. I then rolled easily and headed down to help Gabe. Brad also paddled off reluctantly, but must have had more speed. He flipped instantly and shot through the hole at the base of that waterfall. It turns out Gabe had spent enough time in the hole to do at least 3 full cartwheels, and catch one breath before he punched out of the boat. I wonder if the hole would have let him go had he held on longer? Perhaps not, especially since his Phat is more cartwheel-friendly than either the Microbat or the Skreem.
The next rapid is the picture found in Holbeck and Stanley's guidebook! It's a 30-foot cascading class VI cataract. No words could do it justice; we simply looked in awe, and shouldered our boats for the strenuous portage along the boulders and granite walls forming the right side of the drop. Fortunately the wall had a series of ledges and cracks facilitating the portage. Still it required climbing and losing about 20 feet of elevation twice, and finished with a 20-25 foot seal launch into the runout from the last cascade. Unfortunately I was too tired to remember my camera until I was back in my boat at the bottom, and then I was too tired to get back out again. Now I wish I had forced myself to record it on film.
From this point we had 3 more miles to go, and they were the longest 3 miles I have ever done! It seemed a never-ending sequence of tiredly floating through class II water, then mustering up the concentration needed to deal with a class IV or IV+ rapid, and then settling back into an exhausted float. Every corner was greeted by the anticipation that the take-out bridge would finally be visible.
Gabe in the last gorge on the North Fork.
Eventually the last class IV yielded the sight of the bridge, and there have been few more welcome sights. We all kicked back and calmly floated the last 1/4-mile. Thus ended our descent of the North Fork of the Trinity. It was a stunningly beautiful canyon, and the rapids were true classics of the class IV and V genre. We completed the run with 6 hours of paddling, about 20 minutes of eating lunch, and 3 (or 4) portages. Even Lars Holbeck says the minimum number of portages is two, and that it usually takes even small fast teams 8 hours of paddling to complete the run; so we did pretty well, I think. I have paddled a few more challenging rapids, but never a more challenging (mentally or physically) river! Gabe pretty much agreed, and said the river was in the top 5 he had ever paddled.