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Kayak adventure of a lifetime

The San Joaquin River is all over the news these days, thanks to long-awaited restorative flows.
Published online on Thursday, Oct. 01, 2009
By Marek Warszawski / The Fresno Bee

Well, here's a San Joaquin River story that hasn't gotten much attention - unless you're plugged into the expedition kayaking community. It's about four adventurers who took advantage of an unexpected release to complete a historic first descent of the river's South Fork.

Because the South Fork of the San Joaquin and its tributaries power the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project - the so-called "Hardest Working Water in the World" - it isn't surprising that the section below Florence Lake remained the last major river segment in California to never have been descended in a kayak. After all, how does one run a river that contains little or no water?

"It's just not something anyone would be able to do without a slew of factors coming together," said whitewater expert Paul Martzen of Fresno. The biggest factor is Southern California Edison, which generally withholds information about how it moves water through the project. But Martzen caught wind that SCE was planning to release water into Mono Creek (a South Fork tributary) over Labor Day weekend in 2008.

Martzen e-mailed this information to friends in the whitewater community. It then appeared on a popular blog, where the prospect of running the South Fork of the San Joaquin began to stir the imaginations of expert kayakers like Kevin Smith of Mammoth Lakes.

"The South Fork had been in the backs of people's minds for 20 years," said Smith, a Mono County paramedic. "And all of a sudden, it was dropped in our plate."

Darin McQuoid of Davis was also among the intrigued: "Not much was known about that section of river - except it's all steep."

Springing into action Over a series of hurried phone calls, Smith and McQuoid assembled a foursome that included Ben Stookesberry of Mt. Shasta and Matt Thomas of Ashland, Ore. They had to act fast because the flows were supposed to last only five days.

If they weren't off the river by the time SCE turned off the spigot, it would be a long, difficult march out.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Smith said. "We couldn't pass it up."

The four sprang into action and met the following morning at Mammoth Pool, the planned takeout point. Then they drove over Kaiser Pass, picked up wilderness permits and headed to Mono Diversion, a little ways downstream of Edison Lake.

The group was thrilled to discover that there was indeed water flowing down Mono Creek (at a rate of 500 cubic feet per second) and that the trip wasn't a complete waste.

They quickly got packed - each of their 40-pound kayaks was weighed down by an extra 30 to 40 pounds of gear - and put in on Mono Creek, which turned out to be too swollen and log-filled to run safely.

Thus began the first of many portages they would encounter over the next four days. Their main concern, however, was the series of narrow, vertical-walled granite gorges that (according to Google Earth) awaited downstream. In these tight sections, there is no getting out. As a safety measure, they packed a 60-meter climbing rope and bolt kit.

"Once you enter a gorge and run that first rapid, you're pretty much locked in," Smith said. "That was our big fear."

A near disaster The group made it past the confluence of Mono Creek and the South Fork of the San Joaquin without incident. On Day 2, the real difficulties began as they entered the first series of gorges and encountered boulder-choked rapids filled with dangerous sieves (narrow gaps between boulders where water flows through). Numerous times, Smith had to scramble up smooth granite just to scout what lay ahead. The biggest scare came on the afternoon of Day 2, when Thomas missed a critical move and became wedged in a sieve. He had no choice but to swim from the boat, which took an hour to retrieve.

Exhausted after that ordeal, the group spent the night bivouacked on a rocky hillside.

"We got devoured all night by ants crawling on top of us," Smith said.

Day 3 began with a scramble to the top of the gorge, where Balloon Dome loomed in the distance. Because this distinctive hunk of granite sits at the confluence of the South and Middle Forks, the guys could use it to track their progress. (Smith, McQuoid and Stookesberry had previously done the Middle Fork.)

Finishing the run More gorges and sketchy rapids hampered their progress, and a section of river that disappeared beneath a massive rock pile resulted in yet another arduous portage. But the day ended well when they came across a sandy beach stocked with dry driftwood: the perfect campsite.

"It was a pristine, huge beach in the middle of two gorges," McQuoid said. "There wasn't a trace that anyone had been there."

As long as the water kept flowing - and it did - the major difficulties were behind them. By lunch on Day 4, they were at the confluence of the Middle Fork and arrived at the Mammoth Pool boat ramp just before dark.

In all, it was a 40-mile trip: 6 miles on Mono Creek, 20 miles on the South Fork, 6 miles on the combined South and Middle Forks and 8 miles across Mammoth Pool.

Smith and McQuoid rated their run Class V or V+, which basically means it should be attempted only by experts.

"There's definitely an added element to being the first person on the planet to kayak that river," Smith said. "We were fortunate to put it together and had the skills to pull it off."

If conditions permitted, McQuoid said he'd do it again: "I'd definitely go back. It's so beautiful in there, all the work is worth it."

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