I had heard nothing but praise for this river from my friends who had run this section before, most notably from Steve Stuckmeyer and Gabe Flock, who is lucky enough to have paddled this river three times. They described the North Fork as beautiful, challenging, and strenuous; they also spoke of thrashings, swims, and unportageable drops, which I must admit raised the adrenaline level a bit on my first trip down.
This run is challenging on several different levels. First, it is quite long, (fourteen miles), and the whitewater is evenly distributed with few slow spots. The rapids are challenging on an individual scale, but this run demands a higher than average level of physical fitness due to the large number of tough drops and the remote nature of the river.
In addition to endless miles of superb class IV and V rapids, the North Fork has stunning crystalline water which is offset by spectacular granite gorges, similar to those found on Oregon's famous Opal Creek run. Indeed, running the North Fork feels equivalent to paddling Opal Creek five times in a row, except the rapids are larger, more frequent, and far more interesting overall.
There is no warm-up on this run because the first mile is the steepest, dropping 190 feet. You peel out, go around the corner, and then start running a long series of class IV and V boulder gardens that pile up on one another with scarcely an eddy in sight. A common reaction on for first timers on this run is: "Is the WHOLE fourteen miles like this?.."
Josh was really going off the day we did this run, and we ended up boat-scouting most of the rapids. Even so, it took us five hours to complete the run. The guidebook says that small, fast teams can get down this run in eight hours, so I imagine the Josh-less average speed is somewhere in between. Either way, get an early start and eat a big breakfast before you tackle this one!
Soon we arrived at the first portage, a wicked class V+ rapid that I had seen photos of in the past. Here the river tears down through ever-narrowing walls before ramping up and over a bulge in the rock and slamming into in a hideous hydraulic backed up by the wall on the left side. Pete and I never even gave this one a second look, but I knew something was up when Josh headed downstream to scout; I could tell by the determined look on his face he was thinking about running this monster..
I always get a little nervous watching my friends run drops that are as dangerous as this one, so I wasn't surprised to feel my heart rate start accelerating as Josh headed upstream to his boat. Pete and I got set with ropes as Josh waited an eddy above, and once we were set we gave him the thumbs up. He peeled out and lined up, accelerating rapidly downstream as the river narrowed and funneled down into it's terminal plunge; at the last moment he drove hard to the right and was enveloped by the frothing mass of water, reappearing a moment later upright and elated in the gorge below..
This time we were ready, so we eddied out well upstream of the Nemesis on river-left and scrambled up a steep gully that eventually leads to a narrow perch fifty feet above the ledge. From there you can scout this drop, but you can't portage it. Just as we reached the vantage point the clouds closed in overhead and there was a ground-shaking peal of thunder overhead. It was one of those moments on the river when you are reminded of how pitiful and weak you really are when compared to the elemental forces surrounding you.
"I'm gonna run it left through the hole." Josh said. From our vantage we could see into the hole and it looked pretty big but not too bad, while the right side appeared to be a narrow double drop that we couldn't see into because of a large boulder blocking the view.
We scrambled back down to our boats and I stayed about fifteen feet up on the cliff face to watch as Josh peeled out, driving hard with right angle as he dropped out of sight over the left side of the drop. Suddenly I saw his bow, then stern, bow, stern.. "Josh is gettin' F--kin' WORKED!!!" I yelled to Pete, who was below me in the pool, in the process of putting on his skirt. Pete froze, and listened to my commentary: "C'mon Josh, C'mon buddy, get outta there... aw shit, cartwheel, I can see his paddle.... nothing, nothing.. he's OUT, he's OUT, he's still in his boat!!"
Below us Josh appeared in the pool, shaking his head, pointing to the right. "He's saying go right!" I relayed to Pete, who couldn't see anything from river level. Pete peeled out, driving far right, dropped over the first pourover, hit the right wall, flipped violently, and dropped out of sight.
"Well, shit." I thought.
"Lets see. The left side sucks and the right side... sucks. Hmmm.. I think I'll go right and try to break it down.."
I got in my boat, paddled down the right wall, boofed the first drop and scrambled into a nice eddy halfway down the drop on the right, (this eddy is visible in the photo below, just to Pete's right) from the eddy I could see into the bottom part of the drop, and I was able to peel out and run the drop, melting through the hole at the bottom, no worries!
"Thanks for probing, guys." I said to Josh and Pete in the pool below. "It looks like Plan C was the way to go..."
Couldn't have said it better myself!