Well here she finally is….and just shy of a year and a half late! The first descent of the Upper Upper North Fork Kaweah. By now, you should have heard of the Kaweah drainage in Southern California. It’s main stem, the Middle Fork, and it’s FOUR branches of epic whitewater are a one-stop-shop for steep creekers worldwide.
Having personally done all Upper stretches of the other Kaweah forks (Middle, Marble, East and South) one was left, the North Fork. Popular for it’s hike-in “Upper” stretch, this fork (like the others) have seen very little exploration in it’s “Upper Upper” headwaters. Not that it didn’t ever have water, but because it was rumored as “just a steep canyoneering stretch”. Interest in it’s exploration somewhat died, until Kevin Smith gave a call stating he was definitely game to check it out! Kernville’s, Geno Hacker was in as well. So it was set, our three-pack would drive 2.5 hours out of Three Rivers, into the North Fork headwaters for a 2 day mission. Nothing other than a “steep section of bedrock” was known from a quick Google Earth scout.
The perfect start the the mission! Put in teacups. Photo by Kevin Smith.
Outside of Badger, CA at the end of a bouncy dirt road, we started our bushwhack from a small turn-a-round called Cherry Flat. After trampling passed a pissed off rattlesnake, we arrived to the scoured granite bedrock of the Upper Upper North Fork Kaweah. It was obvious that flows were high for it’s riverbed….but what a sick riverbed!! What should have been calm pools were dangerous re-circulating potholes. In front of us, tea-cupping 5 footers into a perfectly clean 20 footer. Still….high flows. After some deliberation if we would be able to make it through the slick granite gorges below (rumored to be a technical canyoneering route), we decided it was worth the risk and “we would figure it out.”
This unique slide had a sweet kicker at the bottom. Photo by Kevin Smith.
After a mile or so of “classic quality” granite falls and slides, we arrived to The Gorge. Scrambling up on the river left wall, we could see teacups for a while. Imagine Dry Meadow Creek, but instead of 10 footers, these where 20-30 footers. Epic! Mist in the distance signaled the final 50’er waterfall out of the gorge (we could clearly see on Google Earth pre-scout). The high flow had us out of the river and shouldering past runnable drops. Thankfully, the portage route was clear and wasn’t too exposed. The danger was it is COMPLETELY littered with rattlesnakes! (Later the team agreed, this was the most congested population of ratters we had ever seen…that’s saying a lot from a pair of Southern Cali boaters, and a desert rat from Arizona….there were a TON!)
Wondering what these clean drops would look like with lower flows, we scouted the entire gorge with hopes of a future, lower water descent. Portaging the final 50 foot falls, we put back on and river started it’s transition from granite to marble sections of bedrock. A couple of good drops brought us to a nice campsite next to a slick rapid we dubbed “Breakfast Boogie”…for the morning wake-up paddle we would have.
Halfway through the portage and looking at the epic set! Photo by Kevin Smith.
The oh-so-tempting 50′ final falls of The Gorge. We’ve got a date… Photo by Kevin Smith.
Morning came and we routed through the fun, but sievey – Breakfast Boogie. After a nice bedrock section a wide horizon line marked another scout. This double set falls started with a 20’er landing on a ledge into another stout drop. The view downstream had another dark mist-sprayed wall in the distance….time to get through this thing! Working our way around the double drop we then rappelled ANOTHER clean(ish) slide-to-falls. The problem with this waterfall was a curler at the lip that sent a large chunk of water into a wall 40 feet below. A fine line, in the middle of nowhere, had us opting for the rappel.
Breakfast Boogie. Gnar sieves on the right get the blood goin’ in the morning. Photo by Kevin Smith.
Making our way downstream with the double drop the background (the upper falls is what Mike would eventually run). Photo by Kevin Smith.
Oh yeah, I love this part! Lean back and trust your setup. Photo by Kevin Smith.
Mid rappel and swing on the line as the waterfall sends mist spraying.
Geno on the smear drop. Rappel falls in the background.
A fun move is required to style this one. Photo by Kevin Smith.
Below, we had a nice wall smear drop combo’ed into rowdy slot exit. Various other slides and boulder boogie brought us the familiar section of the “Upper NF Kaweah”. We pulled over, ate lunch and made plans for a return trip the following weekend (with lower water).
Fast forward two weeks. The gauge is now reading 2 feet lower and Mike Fisher is on-board for a 2nd descent and attempt #2 on “The Gorge”. A long drive from Phoenix, AZ put us in Badger and starting the hike just before sundown. Planning on camping just above The Gorge, we eddy out and it’s near dark. Paddling the class five rapids in the near dark was fun, but here’s where the REAL excitement began. As I stepped out of my boat and up into the forest to lay out gear to dry, I hear Mike yell, “Stop!” I freeze in place. My foot is inches away from a deadfall pit that has been camouflaged by a blanket of leaves. Holy crap! That way close. We then realize we are smack-dab in the middle of someone’s booby-trapped camp! Covert grow operations in the far corners of the Sequoia National Park have become a big issue. Flying in over the border of Mexico, the drug cartels are plopping down an armed kid, some plants and some irrigation piping, along the side of the Kaweah. It appears we’ve discovered one and standing in amongst his fortified camp. So back to the boats we go! Paddling in complete darkness now, we drop one more rapid just above the entrance to The Gorge. Thankfully Kevin and I know where to get out on the slick rock and we start out trek into the night, portaging our boats to safety. After a long, rattlesnake dodging event, we set up an amazing camp at the lip of The Gorge’s final falls.
We we go again! This time lower and near dark…put in drop(s). Photo by Kevin Smith.
Another morning in the canyon arrives and we recount last night’s fiasco. A quick glance over the final falls reveals a less then desirable landing….again! The low flows didn’t help out the stacked drops at all. The big entrance falls still was tricky and still had an ugly corner pocket. It appeared that even low, this stack-up of drops will always have it’s problems. The drops are absolutely gorgeous and definitely “next level”….but not too far “next level”…more like someone who just really wants to give ‘em. None of us had it in us. Kevin portaged back upstream and picked off the clean 30’er at the bottom of the stack up. A clean line, a nice shot and we where off! Down to see if the bigger falls could be “more runnable” with this lower flow.
One of my favorite photos in a long time. Kevin Smith dropping the last of the epic stack-up. Photo by Mike Fisher.
Arriving to the next big one, the double drop. Mikey liked the upper falls and decided to give it a go. With very little water going over the preferred line, he dropped off the lip and dug deep with his paddle, getting zero purchase on the thin veil. Ricocheting off the ledge in the landing with his elbow and flying into the pool. It was obvious he was hurt and we raced down to help him. He had busted his elbow (without elbow pads) so hard that it ripped through his dry top and was squirting out blood every time he would bend his elbow. Not much we could do with such a big cut out there, but we knew it wasn’t too far down to the takeout. Being the trooper that Mike is, he didn’t miss a beat and quickly portaged and paddle his way downstream to the takeout.
Kevin on the beautifully colored, slot drop as we ping pong our way down to the takeout.
We loaded up, it was off to the hospital to get Mike stitched up. But not before some glorious In-N-Out! So after two descents of the Upper Upper NF Kaweah, at low and high, I would say that this one needs water to give the biggies. The Gorge will always be very enticing, but has some issues (sieve just below the big stack-up) and it’s just plain BIG! The final falls of The Gorge is good to go….it’ll need some flow to cover the ledge halfway down. And then there is the slide-to-fall “in the wall” drop…well that one is one of those drops too. BUT, the whole canyon is definitely a worthy trip. It could be done easily in a day, but with the proper safety and running the bigger ones, it’s best to pack for a sick overnight. Just stay away from the deadfalls and AK-47 toting dudes!