North Fork Falls Canyon

The lowest unroaded section of the North Fork of the Blackfoot is a proper packraft classic.  You can packraft it at kayak flows (~600 cfs or more), but I much prefer the pure boulder garden aesthetics and utterly clear water of true summer levels, with 350 cfs being ideal.  Casey and I got it, from half a mile above the first pack bridge to the last road bridge, a few weeks ago at exactly 350, and a more perfect butt boating whitewater experience I cannot imagine.   The geology is amazing, the rapids continuous, and lines solid but challenging.  You might even see a bear, directly or indirectly.


If this lower stretch is the fat ideal of where packrafting is headed, that is to say technical, but accessible, the upper North Fork of the Blackfoot (upstream from the confluence with the East Fork is the sort of scrappy but eminently floatable creek that will never be popular.  The grade is gentler, but the flows required and the brush and wood make the experience even more continuous.  Unless you hit a really fortunate time in the wood cycle, floating will never be more efficient than a fast walker.

One of these will be packrafted dozens of times next year, the other maybe twice in the next decade.

There is another stretch of the North Fork of the Blackfoot which might get floated even less often.  The short gorge below North Fork Falls drops a little over 300 vertical feet in 6/10s of a mile.  And there are a few flat bits toward the bottom.  The rest of the gorge is a astonishingly steep, sustained, and chunky piece of water.  Years ago, pokes into the top and bottom suggested I would never have a reason to attempt it.  This year, with the volume and especially quality of my whitewater days driving poise to unprecedented levels, I couldn’t get it out of my head.  So I went to investigate.


North Fork Falls thunders into an impressive pool set into a bell shaped chamber, with shades of the Pacific Northwest.  The first section of boulder drops gives away some of its pushiness at lower flows, though as seems to be the rule with such steep creeks, the blockiness and velocity make sieves and pins a real problem, even in water that never gets much above knee deep.  With no warm up I was reminded of this inside 100 yards, when a steep sequence halfway between a boulder garden and slide bounced me from the bedrock wall out into a boulder, at a speed which I found gave me no chance to recover.  So I flipped and swam, collecting ass and torso bruising for my bother.  I hiked back up and tried again, hitting a better line up top, and in the crux exchanging an unsustainable side bounce for a straight bow slam that stalled me and folded the boat to an alarming extent before I shoved back into the flow, arm checked the same boulder, and was rocketed down, wondering what new things I would need to learn to feel more controlled in such water, and what arm guards I ought to buy.

The rest of the run got harder, and did little to provide clear answers.  On some moves, memorably a left slide to 3 footer to hard right back ferry around a log, each stroke did just what I told it to.  On others, such as a chunky and tight double of six footers, the odd kicker rocks mid drop tried to send me either over the bars or sideways, my now throbbing right forearm repeatedly asking for discretion.  I portaged plenty, probably around 40% of the whole section, around drops which needed a little more water, drop with logs thrust out like rotten teeth, drops with obvious and obviously doable lines with sieve-y consequences or just plain too continuous to feel like a good idea solo.  Learning happened fast, and I was pleased that my arms and balance were ready.  A curving left drop to slide to hard ninety degree left eddy behind a bus sized boulder, stern hanging above a thin and thus unrunnable 8 foot flat drop to chunder.  A seived out, impossible drop with a tenuous right side 5.7 friction move to a perfectly still eddy, just enough room to point the bow downstream in midair and hit a partial boof stroke before a 5 footer.

It was, in summary, an entirely perfect run for that place and that day.  I’m left with a nose and one eye in the door, looking out and forward, wondering how and where to see the rest of this new world, and where in the summer there is still enough water.


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