With all of the high water in the Southern Sierra this year, it has been a little more of a challenge finding steep, low volume runs. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been fortunate enough to get two high quality runs that are new to me; the Upper South Fork of the Kaweah and the Upper Tule (aka the South Fork of the Middle Fork, aka the Nelson Branch). If you are looking for water falls, these runs are a good place to start; they also have some pretty unique scenery and will certainly be put on my "to do" list every spring.
Upper South Fork of the Kaweah
I had heard about this run from a couple of people, and it wasn't exactly a glowing report. Yeah, there was a nice 20 footer in there, but people were not exactly lining up for this stretch. Part of the problem, I believe, was the access points; if you use the public access at the bridge near the park boundary and the road bridge that is the put-in for The Shatner Ranch stretch, I think there are a fair number of portages and it would probably make this a long day. If, however, you ask some land owners nicely, you may be able to put in about a mile below the park boundary bridge and take out at the first foot bridge, which leaves you exactly zero portages and a very enjoyable run.
The night before we had ran into the Italian Hammer Crew; they had just gotten off the Shatner run and were excited to find something with a little more classic California bedrock. They had briefly looked at the upper run but the water seemed high for a run they didn't know anything about and they elected not to go in. While I had no idea what the Upper run would be like, I was pretty sure there would be at least one good drop, and the weather had cooled significantly and the river was dropping so they were stoked to join up. In the end, the level was 1.6 on the SF gauge, which I would call a perfect medium level.
Along with the Kernville Crew, Austin, Spencer, Evan and Johnny, it was going to be a big group, but it ended up working out well in the end. Austin had some beta that we should approach some land owners below the 20 footer for permission to take out; they were super kind and had absolutely no problem with it. In fact, they were very interested in our trip. We also found a put in with a slightly worn trail in the grass (probably from the previous couple of groups that had boated the run this year) which put us in about a mile below the "normal" put-in. You know you are in the right spot if the first drop you see is the one pictured below; not very big, but a meaty hole with a big boil on the left side.
Hammer Crew Party Drop #1: Gio
Waiting for the shuttle, we stared at the hole long enough for it to start growing. It was getting to the point where putting in below it seemed like the right thing to do, but once the shuttle arrived, Daniel (Hammer-Crew lead boat) and I hurried up and got in to do it. After a little odd-even match, I ended up probing. It went well, and everyone that followed suite made it through without too much excitement.
What followed next was a long stretch of read and run class IV with one significant class V drop (to my recollection) which was fairly soon off the bat. There was a technical lead-in to a two stage drop with a potentially uncomfortable run-out if the first drop got the bet of you. Daniel fired it up first and made it look good, so the rest of us followed. This time there was some significant action with Spencer and Evan executing quick rolls on the lip of the second drop. Gigi's (Hammer-Crew member) action is shown below
About a mile or less above the big drop (which you can see from the road), you start to enter a granite section. Above this I would say the characteristic is much like the North Fork of the Kaweah with boulder problems being the main characteristic. Once you enter this gorge it feels much more like the East Fork, granite slides and large house-sized boulders dominating.
Evan exiting the first rapid of the Granite GorgeThe first rapid in this gorge is probably the most difficult one on the river; a multi-drop affair with a giant boulder splitting the flow before a chunky 10 foot ledge. The ledge is hard to scout from the top of the drop, so you can either run part way through and eddy out right above the ledge or just trust that the right side goes (albeit bumpy). Under no circumstances should you probe the far left side. Just saying.
Spencer in the Slide sectionJust below this drop are a series of three fun slides. I didn't get pictures of the first two, but again, think bottom half of the East Fork
Gigi loves getting pics in my blog!
Evan bracing through the final slide
There are a couple of more boulder drops before the highlight of the run, the 20 footer.
Spencer - check out the Monkey flower in the background...
The lead in is somewhat complicated, so make sure you pay attention before you get too excited for the falls. Also the eddy on the right has a very green water landing (at least at our flows), so a super boof right would not be recommended. It looks like it really wants to launch you off the lip, but after running it, I would say that is deceiving. Go ahead and try and boof back to the center. The face plant works, but feels a little silly (I speak from experience)
Austin on South Fork Falls
Another cool thing about this drop is the giant house overlooking it; they were very interested to see us running it and were taking photos from their porch. This drop is definitely classic Kaweah, and even if the rest of the run were marginal, it would almost make it worth it. As it is, the rest of the run is just fine on its own and this is simply the icing on top.
Team Kernville Hammer Crew (Johnny, Evan, Spencer and Gio)All in all I would say this is a good class V run for when most creeks in the area are too high. The Kaweah was running in the 2100-2500 range, but the South Fork gauge is obviously preferable. I would go in there up to 1.8 without hesitation, but around 2 I think the read and run would get juicy. It could be run lower too, but I am guessing that below 1.4 the slides and falls would still be good but the rest would not be nearly as much fun.
Here is a video edit from Austin Nickell
Upper Middle Fork of the Tule: The Nelson Branch
The next week we rallied the Kernville Crew again, this time with the addition of Andrew. The target was the section above the Middle Tule, which is a great run on its own merit. The Tule drains a much lower area of the Sierra than the Kern to its South (and East) and the Kaweah to its North. Due to this, the river had run out of snowpack and the levels were dropping quickly. The Tule at Springville was about 220 cfs the day we ran this section and the gauge on the Nelson Branch (if you walk up the flume to where it diverts from the river was 0.40
This run has some classic big drops in the 10-30 ft range, but be prepared for a long day. We put in at a trail-head 1.5 miles up from the confluence with the Wishon Branch (which is the takeout) and it took us over 4 hours to complete the section; granted we removed a log and took a bunch of photos, but still...
Andrew Drops inApparently there is another put-in a little farther upstream that adds a few more drops - but if you put-in at this point the action starts of pretty much right away with the tallest drop of the run, a solid 3o footer (after a short brush portage).
Johnny Dropping in - Evan in the pool below for perspective
WARNING - there is a rock in the center landing of the pool, so DO NOT roll off the center. I had heard rumor of this so I probed the standard right line which involves trying your best not to reconnect hard with the ramping rock at the bottom. Here's a hint, try to get a little of right to left early on the lip so you don't launch off the right side early; this keeps the bow down and creates more of a glancing blow...
I guess I was surprised to see everyone charge this drop, but enthusiasm was high, which was a great way to start the run.
As cool as the 30 footer was, I thought the run-out of the pool was a really unique drop. It consisted of a short slide into a solid rock corner. You pretty much just had to paddle into the pillow and ride it out...
The next half mile or so had a bunch of fun drops, starting with a fun 12 footer
Evan Stomps the 12'er
Then a long, narrow section followed by another three-tier drop with some creative line potential
Johnny in Sliding off the porchThis is soon followed by another signature double drop
Austin in #1
Spencer in #2
For some reason the Tule has had it out for me this year; I had another flounder moment at he bottom of the second drop where I ended up surfing. Yep, surfing a waterfall. After a little bit of thrashing around I was able to get out, but if it wasn't me, I would have thought it looked pretty funny...
After this, the character of the river degrades somewhat and there are several portages before you get to the end of the run. Many of them look runnable, just not pleasant. There are a couple of cool drops though; one of them slides around a corner and under an overhang.
Andrew in Monkey-Fu
And another nice banking slide
Spencer putting money in the bankHere is another edit from Austin on this run...
Once again, another great day on my second new run in as many weeks. Gotta love living in the Sierra with a new adventure around every corner!