Dates: June 10-11, 2017
Rivers: Nordheimer and Butler Sections of the Cal Salmon (IV-V) & South Fork Cal Salmon (IV-V)
Level at Somes Bar: approx. 5 ft (3,250 cfs)
With a few days off of work in Southern Oregon in early June I began to look into boating options. I had heard great things about the Cal Salmon river, and with it only being 3 hours from the Grants Pass area it was the obvious choice. I headed down to the Nordheimer campground on a Friday night and hoped that I would run into some boaters there for the weekend.
The drive down from Happy Camp was beautiful as I followed the Klamath River, and then drove up the Cal Salmon from Somes Bar. It quickly became apparent that this river system is nestled inside a huge wilderness area, so be aware that you won’t have cell service and it’s best to top off on gas in either Happy Camp, Etna, Callahan, or Orleans. There is also gas, albeit expensive, in Cecilville which lies along the South Fork of the Cal Salmon. Access to the rivers in this area is awesome since almost all of it is roadside, but it is a pretty treacherous single lane road with steep drop-offs. Take it slow around the blind turns. It’s possible to view many of the rapids from the road, so you’ll quickly get a feel for the character of the river.
I showed up to the Nordheimer campground Friday night, and linked up with Jordan Sherman who was also there looking for a boating partner. We had the place to ourselves that night which was surprising since I figured more people would come to the river for a weekend at a prime level. It was cool and rainy Saturday morning when we put on, but the water was much warmer than I expected and clouds over the mountains provided a beautiful backdrop.
Now for the boating. We decided to do the Nordheimer (IV-V) and Butler (IV) sections and take out at Brannons Bar, which would make for around 10 miles of boating. Jordan had done a bit of scouting the day before, so we cruised through Bloomer Falls without a hitch and continued to read and run down much of the river. Neither Jordan or I had done this river before, but it was fairly obvious when more than a simple boat scout was needed. We also go out to scout Cascade, Last Change, and Freight Train since those rapids were a bit more involved.
Freight Train provided a big finale to the end of the Nordheimer section and we soon discovered the power of the hole at the bottom. Jordan and I decided punch through the right side of a flake feature in the middle, but he got spun out at the entrance to this move and found his way into this hole. After a solid bit of surfing it became apparent that there wasn’t an easy way out, and he pulled his skirt. Luckily there was a nice long recovery pool just below and we were ready to go just ten minutes later.
The section from Butler to Brannons Bar provided some fun, stress-free read and run boogie. We elected to run Gaping Maw without scouting, and while our lines were solid there was a large hole in the middle that could catch the unsuspecting paddler. This rapid has a large horizon line and is fairly continuous, so it’s not too hard to recognize for a scout. Overall we quickly discovered how classic and fun these runs are. After figuring out the lines on the first run we could have cruised through a second time easily. The water level was also great for a first time level as the river was well padded with lots of quality boofs, but nothing was too pushy.
The next day we headed up towards Forks of the Salmon and followed the South Fork of the Cal Salmon to Matthews Creek Campground. Along the way we passed Otter Bar, the well known kayak school in the area. Matthews Creek is the takeout for the approximately 5 mile run on the South Fork that begins at a mining claim just upstream of mile marker 15. There is great info on this run and other Northern California runs in The New School Guide to Northern California Whitewater.
The South Fork of the Cal Salmon (IV+ to V) is a quality section of whitewater with a creeky feel to it. There’s a nice warm up leading into the main action, and once again all major rapids were easily scouted from river level. There are a few mini gorges in this section, so be careful not to blow past upper eddies with good scouting access. We agreed that the level (about 5 feet at Somes Bar) was a good medium to medium-low level. Most rocks were covered well and the holes weren't stompy. Quality boofs abound! If you’re in the area for the Nordheimer run it’s definitely worth driving the half hour upstream to the South Fork to fit in another quality run in the area.
This area is a gem that few people venture out to. We stopped at the Salmon River Saloon during our trip to figure out some directions, and it was a treat to hear the locals talk about their off-the-grid lifestyle and challenges of living in a community that is relatively isolated during the winter (these remote roads are plowed every day, but some bridges get destroyed). After two quality days of boating and camping it was time to head back north. I took Cecilville Road out to Callahan, and it snowed on me while driving over the pass! It made for beautiful views, but came as a surprise since it was early June. Despite the quality of the rivers, Jordan and I only saw one other group of boaters the last day. It’s definitely an area worth checking out for yourself.
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