After a failed attempt to run Fordyce Creek down in California last season (based on PG&E not releasing as published), a plan was once again hatched by the Oregon crew to try again this year. After checking our schedules, as well as with our buddy Bill from Sacramento, we determined that the best bet would be to shoot for the weekend of July 16. As we approached the date, the crew begin to drop off one by one until it was basically me and Bill, which meant that I would have to drive to Cali solo. I had pretty much given up on the idea of heading down there by myself, but after confirming that flows would be good, I decided that the lone drive might be good for me (some good soul searching). To sweeten the pot, it also looked like South Silver would probably drop in, which pretty much sealed the deal.
Since Bill would be driving from Sac, the plan was for me to meet him and his buddy Brian at Lake Spaulding, our camp for a couple nights and the takeout for Fordyce. The drive down took me about 8 ½ hours, long but not over the top. The nice thing about a solo mission is that you can stop whenever and wherever you want, which I did on a few occasions. By the time I reached camp on Thursday night, it was ~9pm. I had beaten Bill there, but Brian (who I had never met before), had already secured us a site and was crashed out in this truck. He soon emerged, and after trading pleasantries I went to work setting up my spot and getting a fire started. Right at about the time I got the fire established, Bill showed up, ready for some beers and chit-chat before heading off to bed.
The next morning we got up with the sun, cooked breakfast, and lounged around a bit before loading up and heading to the put-in. Checking flows, it looked like it was holding nice and steady at ~360cfs, a little low but still in the recommended range.
It’s been well documented that the road into Fordyce is a 4x4 only route, and not suitable for most cars. Brian had a big Suburban, so we had little worries about making it in, although when it was time to retrieve it (after our run), we hoped my Subaru would be up for the task. After about four miles on this dirt road we reached the pass, and unfortunately a roadblock of massive snowdrifts. The problem would now become available daylight -- Fordyce is already known for being a long day run, so the added hike in was an unwelcome surprise. After kicking ourselves for not getting an earlier start, we decided to continue our mission and make it happen.
The hike ended up not being all that bad, since it was downhill and the snow was pretty well packed, which allowed us to drag our boats most of the way. We only had to hike about 2 miles before reaching the start of Fordyce Lake, which we then paddled across ~1.5 miles to the dam and our put-in for the run. While paddling across the lake I spent time to take in the view of the granite landscape that the high Sierras are known for -- ever since I started kayaking I had dreamed about being immersed in it, and now I was finally getting that chance.
When we got to the dam, I was surprised to see that all 350+cfs was cranking out of such a small opening, although it was coming out with quite a bit of force. We still needed to scramble down a few steep pitches before we reached the creek. Conveniently, painted arrows (for better or worse) helped guide the easiest path down the exposed granite slabs. Once at the water we relaxed a bit and ate a snack before putting on.
The first bit of the run consisted of continuous, shallow, low angle slides. Almost immediately we were confronted with a river-wide log that we portaged easily on the right. Brian was able to sneak around it down a scrapey channel on the right. Once past this log and just around the corner we reached a large horizon line, where Bill exclaimed, “This is Eraserhead, we’re gonna want to scout this one”. After pulling into an eddy on river left, we hiked down to give’r a look. What lay in front of us was a massive slide with a pretty straightforward line down the center left. Basically I was told to avoid the big kicker rock, sitting dead center in the second half of the drop. Although it would be the biggest slide I’ve run, it seemed straightforward enough, and after watching both Bill and Brian clean it up, I hiked up for my turn. Like the others I dropped through the entrance and headed toward river left. As I approached the second pitch I headed back to river center to catch the green tongue that led into it. Unfortunately this tongue also fed right into that rock I was supposed to avoid. While scouting, I figured that I would be able to break left just above it, but Eraserhead had different plans… Once I knew that I wasn’t going to avoid it, I squared up on it and sailed over without even slowing down, nice! As I hit the bottom hole I was surfed right of the split rock at the bottom, finishing up with a big smile. I hoped that there were more like this downstream!
Below Eraserhead were a couple of class III/IV boulder drops and slides before we reached the next larger horizon line, “Old Man”. A brief scout indicated that the line was good to go down the river right. I had wanted to hit the sweet looking boof on the left side of the channel, but was blown right just above it, so I ended up running the drop using the same line as the others, which worked out just fine.
As we rounded the corner just below Old Man, I was reminded why I had driven all the way from Eugene to do this run, the high Sierra scenery. With the sloped granite walls extending all the way to the river’s edge and sparse trees/brush dotting them, it reminded me of pictures I had seen of classic runs such as Upper Cherry Creek. The sound of thundering water and a large horizon line signaled that it was once again time to get out and give a scout. This two part monster is known as “Insanity Falls”, and is fully deserving of its name. The drop has been run, but with a high likelihood of a massive piton at the bottom (or worse), all but the insane will choose to walk it. We chose the route on the right, which was easy enough and sported a cool snow bridge along the way.
Putting in directly below the falls, we were now in the short gorge that it spilled into. Just downstream was a walled in ledge that dropped 6 to 8 feet, with a rather sticky hole at the base. I have seen this ledge referred to as Loco[motive Falls], and the beta I had heard (and read), was to run it center-left. I had eddied out above the drop and ran down the cliff to set safety for the others. Looking at the drop up close I didn’t really like the recommended line, the left side was somewhat “U” shaped and a good boof was a must. Bill was the first to drop in, and after getting a decent stroke at the lip he was back ender’d upon landing and narrowly escaped a severe beat-down, which only reinforced my thoughts of the left line. Brian went next, running it more towards the center, which he greased.
At this point I had decided I wanted to run it center-right, so I ran the entrance drop down that side, where there ended up being a sweet sloping boof that I took full advantage of. Coming off a nice flat landing I drove straight for the bottom ledge, and with a last minute stroke I sailed off the lip and barely got my head wet. Super fun stuff!
The next couple of drops were kind of a mank-fest, including the next one, “Bishop’s Balcony”. We portaged in this section as we felt necessary and made our way further downstream. Soon we came to a really fun mini-gorge with no real ledges but some good padding and a nice pushy feel. This basically led into the next major drop of the run, “Rotator Cuff”. Supposedly this drop gets its name from the violent hole at the bottom which does its best to rip apart the limbs of any paddler that it gets its grips on. To me, the line was kinda trashy and with the bottom hole's reputation, I didn’t feel the need to run it. Furthermore, it was clear that daylight was starting to become a concern, as we had only gone 2 miles and we’d been on the water for hours.
As we put-in below Rotator Cuff, I got the signal that one of the others had cracked their boat. This was not good news and only added to our time concerns. After putting together a makeshift patch with bitchathane and duct tape, we continued on. Luckily, the next six miles were much mellower and went pretty fast, with only a few scouts/portages. A couple of the bigger ones that stuck out were “Big Squeeze” and “Where’s Berry”, as well as another monster drop called “Bad Seed”. Bad Seed didn’t appear to be that tough of a line (you basically line it up out of a pool), but if you erred to the right, the consequence would have been high with both pin rocks as well as a log. Even if you ran the drop where you needed to, it looked pretty junky -- I guess it’s run fairly often, so maybe it cleans up a bit with more water.
We were now at the last few miles of the run, I was told that some bigger drops were going to start stacking up, which I was happy for. We first ran through one called “Sidewinder”, which was pretty straightforward, but the bottom hole almost caught me off guard, and I had to throw in some deep power strokes to claw my way out -- it was actually a good wake-up call. A drop called Typewriter followed soon after, and although it wasn’t very big, it did require a couple of strong moves to make it through cleanly.
The next major horizon line was “Fordyce Falls”, a sweet 15’er with a somewhat tricky lead-in. At our flow I just didn’t feel like bashing down the entrance, so instead decided to start at a left eddy about halfway down and ferry across to center-right where I ran the falls. It ended up being more of a double step than a full vertical, but super fun none the less.
Not far downstream we encountered another big drop, “Split Falls”. Although I was the only one feeling the drop, I was told to just “Paddle down the tongue and tuck! You’ll go deep, but the hole is friendly.” With those words of encouragement, I ferried above the lip of the falls, spun around, and dropped in. As said, the entry was both soft and deep. As I resurfaced upside-down, I was pushed against the left wall where I rolled up, losing my paddle in the process. Luckily, I was able to hand paddle to shore and convince Brian to retrieve it from a recirculating eddy.
By this time the sun had dipped below the canyon walls but luckily we only had less than a mile to go, although we still had some big drops to contend with. The first was “The Hole That Ate the Donner Party”. Once again, more water probably would have opened up a better line, but at this flow it was just too much of a dice roll for my liking. The others agreed and we walked this one easily on the right.
The last two drops we ran were a large double-tiered slide, and another called Ninja. Both were good fun, and a great way to end the run. We had almost completely run out of light after hiking the last ¼ mile around the sievey/pinny mess and reaching Spaulding Lake. Now all we had to do was paddle 2 miles across the lake to the takeout. The paddle across was actually quite pleasant in the dark, but it had been a long day, and I was ready to be done. When we reached the boat ramp it was a little after 10pm, marking a 12hr adventure for the day! We were all pretty tired, but still had some work to do. Brian and I drove my Suby up to retrieve his truck, while Bill hauled our gear up to camp and got dinner going. By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag it was after midnight -- I was really looking forward to a late start and easy day of paddling the next day.
I had wanted to do Fordyce for a long time now, and I’m glad I did. The scenery was spectacular and it was a very manageable introduction to the High Sierras. That said, I would definitely like to see it with more water, say 500cfs. I think it would pad out the shallow slides nicely as well as open up better lines on some of the big drops. I’d definitely go back, and would love to do it every couple of years or so. Next time, hopefully the road will be open all the way and it will have a little more juice coming out of the bottom of the dam.
The footage from our run: