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Little North Fork of the Clearwater

LNFC.jpg

Green Room - Photo Jim Buffenbarger.


Flow Information:

Finding the right level for the Little North Fork is difficult as there is either too much water in the lower section, or not enough water in the upper section. At high flows, the upper reaches are padded out and contain fun drops, but the lower section (below Body Bag rapid) holds several long, challenging, class V rapids that are extremely difficult to portage. At low flows the lower section is far more manageable, but the upper section becomes too low and scrapy. High flows should be attempted by experienced and committed class V boaters only. Start looking for runnable levels towards the end of June. Despite its remote location, the road to the put in becomes accessible fairly early, but stay out of the canyon at peak runoff! Best fishing is at very low levels.

There is no gage on the Little North Fork, but historic data from an old, defunct gage show that it generally runs at about 20% of flows of USGS gage on the Main North Fork at Canyon Ranger Station. In 2012 I made a run with 4,300 cfs on the Canyon Ranger Station Gage, and found a nice medium level with one class IV+ rapid (Eenie-Meanie). In 2011 I attempted the run at 5,300 CFS and ended up hiking out at Eanie-Meani after one member of our party swam and lost their boat. The lower section of the river was continuous class V at this level. Other groups report that flows between 3,100 and 2,700 on the Canyon Ranger station gage provided manageable, class III+/-IV flows. There are a few sources that give very dubious flow and logistical information for this river. Be skeptical of all old or second hand info.

Run Description (based on trips in 2011 and 2012):

The upper reach of the river has the character of a small headwaters stream with braided channels, brushy banks, scrapy low spots, sweepers, logs jams, etc. From the put-in bridge to Rutledge Creek we portaged wood 10+ times, and were able to sneak a few big jams. Most logs were easy to spot, but some were not. At Durham Creek the river becomes steeper and more channelized as it enters a narrow gorge. There are a few quality boulder drop type rapids in this section that are mostly read and run. Wood is still a serious hazard though. In fact, one log caught us by surprise in 2011 and we had to limbo under it on the fly, mid-rapid. I call this section Durham Narrows, and after two runs down it, I've sworn I'll never run another drop blind again, despite any temptations to make good time. Its not worth the risk as the run is chocked full of sketchy wood.

From Spotted Louis Creek down, the river changes character with a deeper, more defined channel, steeper gradient and more volume from several large tribs. The gorge in this section consists of a long series of consecutive 90 degree turns. Running it becomes a game of eddying out low enough down each drop on the outside of the corner to see around it, while still leaving room to peel back out and run the inside to avoid the mess of logs that each seemed to hold. It is a long and demanding section that never seems to let up. I call it Whipsaw Gorge as on the map it resembled the teeth of a cross cut saw. In 2012 nearly ever major corner of Whipsaw Gorge was blocked by wood. In 2011, they were all runnable.

Around Culdesac Creek, the gradient backs off, but the river is still busy. The last major rapid in this section is .8 miles above Foehl Creek, where a massive fallen boulder/slab has blocked the river channel (see photo above), creating a distinct corkscrew type slot move on river right (some people call it the Green Room). One of the only established camps on the entire river is at Foehl Creek, which pumps in another 200 to 300 cfs. Look for a small beach and a burned out old cedar tree with pots and pans hanging on it. There is one more small camp on river right a ways below Foehl Creek, but it is extremely hard to find. Look for game trails coming down a steep bank.

From Foehl Creek to Crescendo Creek, the river is easy, fast, read and run cruising through a beautiful, open gorge. At Crescendo Creek the gradient picks up and the gorge becomes more constricted. There are increasingly challenging drops that require out of boat scouting, and there is plenty of sketchy wood. This section ends in a long, calm pool above Body Bag rapid (Class VI). I've not see Body Bag at flows that even remotely resemble anything runnable, but it has been run at flows of around 2,700 cfs on the Canyon Ranger Station gage. The portage is on river left, and is a long hellish bushwack through chest high Devil's Club (a thorny plant with stems and leaves covered in long, stinging, barbed thorns).

Below Body Bag, the gradient picks up, and the gorge walls become steeper and more constricted. There are several long sections where the river left wall is completely vertical. As such, scout all drops below Body Bag from river right. At high flows, avoid even catching eddies on river left, as you will soon find your self stranded in between meaty drops with no way to portage or cross to the other side. Take your time in this section as the drops can easily sneak up on you with the gradually increasing gradient and ever constricting gorge. Its not a bad idea to get out on river right a short distance below body bag and scout the entire section down to Eanie-Meanie rapid. This will give you a feel for what's in store, and allow you to put together a good safety plan.

There are approximately three large rapids below Body Bag before reaching the crux rapid on the run, Eanie Meanie. At high flows it is an ugly, mean class V, mellowing to a solid class IV+ at medium flows. It is an extremely difficult rapid to portage (on river right) depending on flows (at very low levels, a line down the river left opens up). Its also wants to sneak up on you. From Eanie Meanie there is a long busy section down to the second stand out rapid of the run, Minie-Moe. Its is also class V at high flows, making a solid class IV at medium and low flows. Watch for a small beach on river right at the end of a long pool just above Minie-Moe. There is a trail here that makes scouting and portaging easier. Keep your eyes open as this rapid can also sneak up on you with deadly consequences.

Immediately below Mienie-Moe, the river becomes non-stop, class IV whitewater most of the way to the take out (3.1 miles to Cedar Creek, 4 miles to the bridge). Much of this section is read and run, but there are a couple of junky drops that you do not want to run blind. This section is remniscent of the North Fork of the Payette below Crunch rapid at around 1,500 cfs on the Otter Slide Gage. Scout everything in this stretch from river right. Worst case scenario, it is possible to walk out of the gorge from below Minie-moe on river right, but its not easy. After our ill fated trip in 2011, I had to hike back up the bottom of the canyon to Eanie-Meanie and swim across to retrieve a boat. It was 4.5 hours of bushwacking hell through thorns and slippery rocks to cover 3.1 miles of canyon. Once I made it to the boat, it took only 15 minutes to paddle down to the take out. At very low flows, Eanie-Meanie and Minie-Moe become too boney to run.

If large amounts of wood in the water makes you squeamish, this run is not for you. Carry survival gear in your PFD pocket.

Stream Stats:

Ave Gradient: NA
Max Gradient: 100+ fpm
Distance: 20+
Difficulty: IV+ / V
Consequences: V
Min Level: 2,500
Season: Jun - Jul

Planning Tools:

Little North Fork Clearwater Map Guide (.pdf) Little North Fork Waypoints (.gpx) Scheffy's Store and Motel Avery, Idaho Trip Report and Photos - Riverlog USGS Gauge - NF Clearwater at Canyon Ranger Station

Key Places:


View

Little North Fork

in a larger map.



Logistics:

The Little North Fork has possibly the longest and most complicated shuttle route of any run in Idaho. It is close to 300 miles in length, and involves many poorly marked roads. Do not attempt this trip without US Forest Service Maps of the Clearwater and St. Joe National Forests. If you use the Idaho Gazeteer, there is a 100% probabilty you will end up lost, stuck and out of fuel. Don't get in a hurry driving in, and keep all your vehicles together. Note that no map of this area is 100% accurate in terms of road designations. Some roads shown on the map don't exist, and other existing roads are not on the map. To make things worse, very few of the roads have signage.

Key points are marked on the embedded map on this page (above), but don't really on Google's "Directions". If you don't feel comfortable navigating in from the information provided, do not attempt the run. The are a few routes that look tempting on the map, such as Freeze Out Pass and the route over the Little Goats Mountains, but they are usually snowed in until late summer. The shortest route to the put in is from Clarkia to the St. Joe via Hobo Pass, upriver to Avery on the North side, cross at Avery and go back downriver to Fishhook Creek on the South side, then up Fishhook and all the way in to the 1268 Bridge. There is nice camping near the put in. The take out has limited camping and it always seems to be full. Some sources indicate that it is possible to put in via Montana Creek. I have carefully scouted this option and it is simply not possible. Not only would it add significant length to the shuttle, the route to Montana Creek is washed out, grown in and is even gated at one point. Use the 1268 bridge put in.

Recommended Reading:

Crowell, Sandra and David Asleson.

Up the Swiftwater:

A Pictorial History of the Colorful Upper St. Joe River Country. Museum of North Idaho Publications, 2003.

Egan, Timothy.

The Big Burn:

Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. Haughton Milflin Harcourt, 2009.

Hoffman, Todd.

"Locals Favorite: St. Joe Drainage."

American Whitewater Journal July/August (2006):12-15



Copyright Todd Hoffman 2009 - All Rights Reserved