(Alex, online, looking for the next boof)
I had been hearing for years about a run on the Middle Fork of the Yuba river below the hwy 49 bridge. I've been curious for some time, but never dipped a paddle into that stretch of water as it only flows on rare occasions during big water spring runoff. Rumors had floated around about this canyon, and from the sounds of it there were supposed to be some pretty big rapids, and it seemed critical that the flows not be too high. This presents a pretty challenging combination: only flows during peak runoff of a big snow-pack, coupled with a lot of big rapids in a canyon that you don't want to be in at high flows. It seemed that the river was always either dry or flowing at questionable flows, rising or falling quickly.
I must admit I had not really been thinking much about the Middle Yuba at all, being that it was almost Thanksgiving of a low snow year, and most every river except the South Fork of the American is bone low. I was therefore quite excited when Alex mentioned that they had been paddling down the North Yuba river dropping down into the Middle Fork and then through this very same canyon that had eluded me for years. Due to some work on the dam, Bullards Bar dam on the North Yuba was cranking out about 600 cfs or so. Plenty of water for this canyon, but not so much to make things too juicy; a great first time flow. Needless to say I jumped on the opportunity to join in the very next day to paddle down this run.
Early the next morning I met up with Alex and Nick, both of whom had been running this stretch several times during the last two weeks. We were both joyful for the warm sunny weather, and surprised to be the only ones out there at the put in for this beautiful canyon. Since we had sort of thought that we might run into others we had all piled into one car, hoping to hook up a shuttle with the other paddlers who would surely be out there on this fine run. Lucky for us, Alex had brought a back up in case we did not find any other folks to shuttle with. Lucky for us Alex also seemed to like the idea of a steep ten mile bike ride as a pre paddle warm up. Had I been the one riding a bike shuttle, I think that they would still be waiting on me...
After a short hike down into the canyon we set off down the river. First impressions were mostly on how beautiful this canyon is, especially with near peak fall colors on the slopes and clear turquoise water flowing around and over large boulders. Things start right away, after a big pool the river starts to drop through the first of countless rock gardens. There is nothing too serious at first, but there are plenty of rocks to dodge or boof, and we are all quickly "in the groove" and fluidly moving through the rapids. The rapids pick up quickly, with some of the boofs getting a bit trickier and some of the drops getting a big steeper and taller.
I mostly followed behind Alex and Nick, who seemed to remember all of the lines pretty well. I'm always a bit hesitant following someone else's line down any rapid, so I am tentative at first, not sure just how many of the rapids I'll need to scout out for myself. I am consistently relieved and pleased that these guys knew their lines, and were setting me up for consistently smooth runs. Well mostly smooth... as the rapids get a bit steeper, I find myself unable to keep my balance in a turbulent landing off one of the many boofs. My roll was instinctive and quick, bringing me back upright just in time to miss out on hitting some shallow rocks... thankfully this turns out to be my only roll of the day.
(Nick, checking out the next move)
Pretty quickly we come to a big nasty looking sieve. Since Alex and Nick both start to portage, and since their lines have thus far proven trustworthy, I quickly follow suit. The rapids are almost constant and challenging from here down to the Middle Fork, rarely more difficult than class 4, and rarely much less than class 4. Each rapid seems to contain some fun boofs, and some piton rocks or sieves if you miss the right slot or the right direction to boof. While the moves are not so hard, they do have some consequences in spots, enough to keep my attention focused SHARP. We come to one more drop that looks runnable (rumor has it that ALL drops have been run) but iffy. We all elect to portage by doing a seal launch into the run-out. This is still quite exciting, as there are clearly rocks in the landing zone, and yet another sieve just below on the left side of the rapid.
(Nick, head of safety and communications)
Arriving at the confluence with the Middle Fork we come to a long big rapid with a nasty looking sieve at the bottom. As is typical on this run, it's not that difficult looking, but it looks really nasty if you screw it up. Being a bit on the rusty side, not having done a lot of harder runs in recent times; I decide that this particular rapid is just not quite worth the risk. Below here things seemed to pick up just a tiny bit more, the boofs getting just a bit bigger, and some of the rapids a bit longer. A couple of more rapids really stand out above the others, with two of them just looking a bit too questionable for us. The first of these had a really cool seal launch into the run-out, which also happens to be the lead in to a fun and challenging three drop rapid (each drop growing a bit more difficult). Afterwards the river just keeps dropping away at a very steady clip, only short pools and the rare easy rapid split up the countless long technical class 4-5 rapids.
There are so many drops and so many moves that it's hard to really describe this run drop by drop. It also seems like a lot of the lines would sound the same: "enter on the right, work your way left of the big rock in the middle, be sure to hit the boof in the middle with a left stroke to miss the piton rock at the bottom"... or something similar. Lots of moves require you to cut across a boof at a sharp angle to narrowly miss rocks in the landing, ample opportunities to test those elbow pads when landing. We work our way quickly and efficiently through all these with fluid and seamless team work, picking our way down each rapid piece by piece.
With all of the drops on this run, it's interesting that there were really none that were very tall; lots and lots of drops in the 2'-4' range. Probably one of the tallest drops also had what was probably the juiciest of all the holes on the run.
(Nick boofing the big hole)
( Alex boofing the same hole)
A swirly approach tries to push us to the right, but we all manage to work left to hit the crucial boof... avoiding an almost certain thrashing. Another standout rapid dropped into a big hole right in front of a turbulent headwall, offering no real dry ride option... we all try slight variations on how to approach the meat of this drop, but all of us end up buried in froth in more or less the same spot, sort of like being flushed down the toilet. Other fun drops continue all the way to the ending, with the last big rapid, one of the best, just around the corner from the take out.
All in all I'd say that this is an outstanding run; beautiful canyon, consistent and challenging from start to finish, short portages, always seemed to be an eddy where you'd need one. On the negative side, there are a lot of piton opportunities if you're not sticking your boofs and a lot of dangerous undercuts and sieves if you're offline. As far as a difficulty rating, there is no doubt that whatever level of difficulty I would rate this run there will be people who will say that I am over rating and/or under rating. That's always kind of the way that a subjective number system works, but in this case it's particularly tough to pin a single number down.
There will be those who would point out that the moves are usually pretty straightforward, and there are only a few rapids that are really big class 5's. The run does starts easier too, with the rapids building gradually in difficulty, and there are lots of good eddies, and short pools to recover and regroup in. On the other hand this run has a LOT of tricky moves, and those who's skills are not up to par will almost certainly make a mistake sooner or later. This run is also about 10 miles in length, with the vast majority of those 10 miles being class 4-4+ tight and technical, and thus it could prove quite fatiguing to those not quite ready. Last but not least, there are a lot of dangerous sieves pushing the hazard factor up to that of a solid class 5 run. All paddlers should be comfortable reading and running lots of steep class 4 drops, and able to make last second boofs and adjustments. This run also demands some solid teamwork; including clear signals, group awareness, and setting up safety in some key spots. There will just not be enough time to get out and scout each and every drop on this run, so this team approach really pays off even more than usual.
Be safe and enjoy- JB