Salmon North Fork below Sawyers Bar


Stretch: Little North Fork to Salmon Confluence
Difficulty: class IV (3 class V rapids), harder at higher flows
Distance: 11.3 miles, 1 day
Flows: rafts 1000 - 3000 cfs, kayaks 600 - 3000
Gauge: estimate 30% of the flow at Somes Bar (USGS site)
Gradient: 70 fpm average, 100 fpm at times
Put-in: wide gravel bar above Little North Fork, 1980'
Take-out: on main Salmon near Forks of Salmon, 1190'
Shuttle: 11.3 miles (20 minutes) one-way
Maps: USFS Klamath NF, AAA Northern California, Topo
Season: spring, from snowmelt
Agency: USFS, private
Notes: © 1996 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo

Add this to the list of “what was Lars smoking?” when he wrote the river description. This is not a class III-IV run that suddenly becomes class IV-V at 1001 cfs. It is a class IV run with easier class II-III sections, 2 class V- rapids, and 1 class V rapid. There is no way the last two rapids could become class IV below 1000 cfs, although perhaps the first one could.

Overall this run is more technical and requires more skill than the main Cal Salmon run from Nordheimer to below Wooley Creek. However, most folks think it is less exhilarating. Clearcuts and mining debris are often visible, badly degrading scenery. When the Nordheimer run is deemed too high, this run makes an interesting but not entirely forgiving alternative.

Put in at a gravel bar less than a mile upstream of the Little North Fork confluence, where a dirt road leads down to the river. Access at the Little North Fork is poor. For the first three miles, expect primarily class II-III rapids over boulder bars.
The canyon closes in and some passages might deserve a scout.
Devious, class V-, center island scout
A class IV drop leads to a blind entrance into a rock maze where much of current goes right, although the correct routes are far left or left of center. Two big drops are then followed by a boulder maze runnable on the left. This rapid is named from Holbek, who remembered it as being just below the Little North Fork.
Many enjoyable class III-IV drops with short pools between.
Primarily class II-III rapids over boulder bars; a low gradient builds your sense of impending doom, considering the 70 fpm average.
Foreboding, class V-, scout right
A landslide on the right marks the start of a class V gorge. (This rapid named after Holbek, who apparently dislikes landslides.) This steep drop among large boulders can probably be run most easily on the far right. Eddy out immediately below!
The P-word, class V, scout right, possible left portage
This rapid is portaged more often than run. It starts with a class IV drop on the left that turns the corner right and out of sight thru some gigantic landslide boulders. The standard route goes all the way left, pausing above an entrapment chute, then all the way right around some smaller rocks, and exits against the right wall. A “devious” sneak route described by Holbek seems to have been eliminated by recent geologic activity (1996).
Several more class IV drops.
Rapids ease; class II-III to the confluence.
Confluence with the main Salmon. The town of Forks of Salmon, with small general store serving ice cream, is nearby.
Good take-out on the right with gravel bar and parking lot, after about .5 mile of big but easy water.
Access note: the road from Etna to the Salmon is now entirely paved, but goes over a 6000' pass, so the road along the South Fork Salmon is probably still a better route coming from I-5.

The following story by Rocky Contos tells about his adventure starting at the Little North Fork and ending on the Klamath. Excerpted with permission.

27-29 December 1995: North Fork Salmon, Main Salmon, Klamath

This was a ~60 mile trip which started out my river kayak break. The Cal Salmon and Klamath were classic runs which had enough water to run at this time (3 weeks after a big storm), while most other creeks were getting too low to boat. A couple days prior the flows on the Salmon at Somes bar was 1200 cfs and the Klamath at Orleans was 5000 cfs. I drove up and camped at Weitchpec (confluence of the Trinity and Klamath) the night of the 26th. That morning I looked around and threw my bike in the bushes there with a backpack nearby containing my biking clothes and gear. And then I took off for the put in. Roads follow the Klamath, Salmon, and NF Salmon the entire way, thus the shuttle is the same length as the run. The road along the Salmon is narrow in many places, though paved. Reaching Forks of Salmon, I judged the flow on the NF floatable and continued upstream. Ideally, if there were enough water, I would start 20 or so miles up the NF. As I drove upstream, several rocky, steep sections looked marginally boatable with this flow, thus I decided to put in at the Little North Fork confluence (11 miles from Forks of Salmon). This run, described by Lars Holbek, is 70 fpm and 100 fpm in some places, and class III-IV at 600-1000 cfs (IV-V at 1000-3000 cfs). The main Salmon is 31 fpm, 19 miles and rated III-IV+ by Holbek up to 2000 cfs (V by Cassady/Calhoun). The Ikes Falls run on the Klamath is about 8 fpm, 8 miles, and class IV by both guidebook standards. After this section on the Klamath, which ends at the town of Orleans, there is another 16 miles of class II-III to the confluence with the Trinity at Weitchpec.

Loading up my boat for two nights on the river, I took off on the NF Salmon about 11 am or noon. This run had clear cold water. I had no gloves or pogies. The temperature of the air was about 50 and the water was probably 45. It started raining as I began and continued all day. My hands and wrists were soon numb and this made it difficult to grasp the paddle effectively at times. At the flow I had, which was probably 400-500 cfs, I thought the run was OK. It would have been much better with at least double this flow. Many rapids were class III-IV, with some tight maneuvers. I banged up the nose of the boat several times, and the fiberglass patch soon had holes in it. Maybe two-thirds of the way into the run there were some very challenging class V passages. Because I wasn't having many problems with the other parts, besides banging the nose of the boat, I ran all these. I ended up side-scouting about 4-5 times, and boat scouting 6-8 times. Some of these rapids were definitely class V. I wouldn't trust Lars rating of III-IV for the low flows. My opinion is that the river would be much more boatable and easier if the flow was >2 times greater, but I was biased for a large, long, loaded Mirage. In the description Lars speaks of a lower gorge section with lots of “debris” rapids in it. I did not encounter such a place. Most of the river was similar. I made it to Forks of Salmon about 3 pm.

Continuing on the main Salmon, I immediately felt much better with the greater water level. The first few miles on the main Salmon are class II-III, and then one comes to Bloomer's Falls. This is a really nice rapid, and in my opinion class IV or IV+. It certainly isn't a II+ chute as Holbek states. Cassady/Calhoun give a much better description of it. I found a large reversal awaits at the bottom of Bloomer Falls that someone could easily get stuck in. The gorge after this is narrow and wonderful. The water level was adequate and I was not scraping or bumping into rocks at all. I continued another mile or two past Lewis Creek Falls and camped on river right on a sandbar about 4-5 ft above the river. There was some small structure (10 ft X 10 ft) up the side on river right where I camped. It was locked, and I don't know what it was for. The next morning I continued down and went through the pleasurable rapids Airplane Turn (IV+), Cascade Falls (V), Achilles Heel (IV+), Whirling Dervish (IV+), Last Chance (V-), Freight Train (V), Butler Creek (IV), Double Hole (IV), and Marble (IV). Of these, I side-scouted Cascade, Last Chance, Freight Train, and perhaps Achilles Heel. The others could be boat scouted. Cascade Falls had a right steep chute which looked quite possible, and a more gradual descent down the main channel. I took the main channel. Last Chance/Freight Train are very significant and should be looked at. Butler Creek was just a long fast ride. The gorge is beautiful. There was one spot somewhere before Marble with a cave on the left. I was intrigued with this as a possible sheltered camping spot. Though I didn't check it out, I wonder if anyone knew what it was like.

I was making good time and was at the Klamath confluence at 1 pm. I considered paddling/portaging my boat up to Ishi Pishi Falls to run it but decided it not worth the effort, especially seeing how strong the current was as the confluence (here there is a class II+ rapid that I played on briefly and took a cold dunking). I continued down through the Ikes. Big Ike and Super Ike were class IV rapids and really had a big water feel to them. The river was rising slightly as it was raining all that day as well. The flow was probably 6000-8000 cfs. In the Ikes section, I only expected about 3 rapids, and was surprised to find 7-8 distinct class III-IV rapids. This was a very fun area. Just below the seventh after some calmer water there was a teepee on river right. I got out to explore. There was nobody around and it was falling apart, but it still provided some protection from the rain. A small vial correctly labeled Peppermint Oil was in it (which I confirmed). I thought about camping there, but I dreaded the idea of putting on my cold wet kayak gear the next morning, thus continued on to Weitchpec. The current in the Klamath was strong and good time was made. There are many class II-III rapids in the section from Orleans to Weitchpec, which I was not expecting. It was a very fun stretch. Bluff Creek rapid was about class III, but there were others of similar magnitude that are not mentioned in the Cassady/Calhoun guidebook description (about two just after Bluff Creek rapid). Bluff Creek itself still did not have much water in it, though on the drive up to the put in, it looked intriguing and like a fun continuous class V run if there were enough water. I made it to Weitchpec by 4:30 pm and set up camp on river right about 8 ft above river level on the sandbar near where a washed out road goes down to the river.

It continued to rain lightly all night. In the morning I left my tent there and went to get my bike and ride the shuttle. I figured the ride would take 4-4.5 hrs and then driving back another 1.5 hours. I got off later than I had hoped though (9:00 AM). It was a cold ride. As I started I thought about moving the tent up higher, but didn't think the water level had come up any and wasn't going to. It was still light raining. As I crossed Bluff Creek 8 miles upstream I started worrying more, since this little creek was now a fully runnable torrent of water. I continued on. Past the town of Orleans about 4 miles, the crankshaft froze up!! No bike - no shuttle. It must have rusted being left in the rain for two days. The chain was getting some rust on it. I was really bummed and cold. In soaking wet shorts and my paddle jacket, I stood on the road and tried to hitch a ride up to Somes Bar. A couple vehicles passed. Then one of them (a pickup) came back - a couple from Texas who were sightseeing and normally don't pick up hitchhikers. These wonderful people took me and my bike in the back of their pickup, and all the way to my car!!! I was really happy about that. They were on their way to I-5 and sightseeing anyways, so the detour wasn't all that bad. I gave them some details of the region/rapids and river as we drove up to my car. It took a while to warm up in my car, but eventually it happened. When I returned to Weitchpec, I was worried that the river had come up and started washing things away. When I arrived at 2:30 pm or so, the water was about 1-2 inches above the bottom of the tent. Luckily, most of my stuff was in the tent, and I quickly took it all to higher ground and then to my car. The tent was like a big waterbed inside on the water!! I ended up losing a tupperware with some dates/almonds in it but that's about it. Beware of light rains adding up after a while. Another thing happened. When I called my folks later that day, they informed me that the police had come to my apartment in La Jolla looking for me. A ranger had found my car at the NF Salmon and talking to people there, knew I had taken off down the river the 27th. I suppose on the 28th he thought I was washed away in the waters and searched my car to find my telephone number, etc. Of course, I was OK and was doing a multiday trip on the river. I guess that sort of thing is not very common, especially in December. My Mom straightened it all out for me.

- Rocky Contos,


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