Middle Fork Nooksack River
Class V, 156fpm, 260cfs
August 1, 2001
Ben, Jason, Josh
Author: Josh Hummel
Josh keeping busy. One of the many Class IV boulder gardens above the dam.
Jason was set on running the Middle Fork Nooksack, a gnarly creek an hour out of Bellingham. He ended up convincing Ben with little effort but Ben was feeling pretty cocky after climbing Nooksack Tower. They felt that it would not be much harder than the Cooper River. I thought otherwise. I went anyway.
Jason and I planned on meeting Ben in Acme at 8:30 a.m. Normally the drive takes only 15 or 20 minutes. On this particular day it took nearly an hour. There were only two direct ways to get to HW9 from my house, one was closed by construction and the other was blocked off by a crash. We spent nearly an hour backtracking on HW542.
We continued down HW9 and from there we took a right on Mosquito Lake road and parked Benís Mazda at the bridge over the MF. Immediately thereafter we took a right onto Porter Road (38) and a right onto Road 697. In ľ mile I parked the Sport Truck at a bridge in a pullout that also serves as the North Twin trailhead. This gave us a five-mile run of Class IV and V rapids.
The beginning of the run was pretty mellow. This quickly changed. Jason was in the lead. The horizon abruptly dropped and we soon found ourselves confronted with some of the hardest river we had set our boats upon. At first it was fun but eventually it became scary. We could not see an end. We continued instinctively. About 100 yards in Ben flipped ahead of me. I passed as he pounded his way upside down. I looked back the first chance I got and saw him backwards attempting to roll. I soon looked back again and saw that he was up. He flipped twice more thereafter and the last time that I saw him he was swimming. In Benís retelling of the story I found out that his paddle was snatched out of his hands while he was pinned upside down against a rock. He managed to right himself without pulling but was quickly swept downstream without a paddle. Like a duck without feet, he broached himself between two rocks and waited for his paddle to reappear. It didn't and after several minutes he pulled.
I looked down river to see that Jason had also pulled. He made it to shore in good order. With two swimmers I had no choice but to get out. I got my rope and went to see how Ben was doing. The situation was not good. His paddle was gone. I sent Jason to look for it. His boat was also caught between two boulders. I was unsure of what to do. The river was moving fast. The way across to Ben was not easy. I soon had to go anyway because Ben was losing hold of his boat. I almost lost my footing on the way over. Once there Ben and I were able to bring his boat to safety. Ben then, on a whim, decided to look under a boulder just above where his boat was broached and found his paddle where he was originally pinned. He searched there earlier with his hands but couldn't feel it. On the second attempt he felt the shaft with his foot, stuffed at the bottom of the riverbed. We were almost unmanned at this point, but we put it together and continued on at a much slower pace.
Jason in a small drop while Josh stands by amongst the boulders.
We where more than a little intimidated by this Class IV section mostly because we had a Class V section ahead of us. With a slower pace we were able to set up more protection and take some photos. The rest of the run down to the damn went well minus a few mishaps. One being that Jason had to pull again in rocks and he got his boat stuck. With the combined effort of the three of us we were able to haul it out with the use of Benís rope.
Our learning curve was drastically increased. We began to learn fast and run more and more scary stuff. Finally we made it to the dam. We climbed the dam on the left and hiked the gravel road to a bridge. You should pull out on the right bank of an island ahead of the dam. If you go left, you end up dropping some concrete into a nasty reversal where most of the flow was being sent. If you're lucky, you might get screened before that. Either way it looked pretty messy. We were hoping that they would be diverting water but the channel was dry. Otherwise, it might have made the canyon a little easier.
From the bridge we had a superior vantage-point to better grasp the nature of the beast that lay ahead of us. We could have stopped here and walked back to the Sport Truck but that's not what we came to do. We dropped the 20-foot dam and headed into the Class V canyon. We took the balls out of our pockets and rolled them for all they were worth.
Josh dropping the dam.
The first drop went well. It was fairly easy. Jason went right and got munched in Icebox so Ben and I decided to go left. The second drop Ben scouted on the rocks to the right. He pulled out, signaled me down and helped feed me through. It was a good 10-foot slide. I flipped at the bottom, but was able to roll. Jason and Ben made it with no problems.
Josh running left on Icebox. The hole is on the right side of the boulder near Jason who is recovering below.
There were countless drops that we tried to scout. We ended up running all of them eventually. Hawaii Five-O was among the highlights. It involved several small drops followed by a 5-foot plunge with a twisted entry. Jason ran it twice.
Jason on the upper part of Hawaii Five-O.
Jason on the lower 5-foot plunge.
Several more drops led to the landslide, also known as S-Turn. It was a fast shot to the left followed by several reversals along a wall. I went first disappearing in the froth at the bottom. Ben went next. Jason was above on the landslide with his throwbag. More of a lookout than anything else, he could do very little but watch. The idea that someone was there with a throwbag helped boost the confidence that was needed to make a successful run. Ben must have not felt this because he was about to experience something bad.
Ben started too far right and was slammed into the wall hard and lost balance. He flipped right away but managed to roll, continued down backwards, out of control. He was lost in the froth until he appeared upside down at the bottom of the rapid. I thought he was fine, but the wall assaulted him and he was unable to roll and so with all his breath spent, he pulled. Now, in most of the rivers that we had run that wouldnít have been of great consequence, but in this particular river, it was. Shear walls met the river on both sides and the horizon line fell, as did Benís hope of making it to a nonexistent shore. I followed him and his boat until they both disappeared over a small waterfall that from above I could not scout or portage. I was greatly relieved when I saw him float out of the falls, but I was still unsure of his safety.
With the danger still high I decided to wait for Jason before I dropped the falls. He soon made it down. Boat scouting at the top of the 10-foot drop, we inched our boats as close as we dared. There were three entries over the falls. I had seen Ben get swept down the right so I opted to run that. The drop went fine but the lower part of the falls ate me alive. I pulled for the first time that day mostly because I feared I would be pinned by a large tree on the right side of the river. As I swam downstream I heard a scream from above.
Jason told us later, with a touch of embarrassment creeping into his voice, that he was watching me drop the 10-footer. While observing my demise he had lapsed in his paddling. Before he knew it he was being sucked over. His paddling did little to save him. He went over backward on the far left and upside down. The water was low and he ended up hitting some rocks in the head and left shoulder. He was then eaten quite nicely. Eventually he pulled, climbed up on the slippery cliff to a cave with his rope in hand, and drained his boat.
I floated downstream with my paddle and boat in hand until I saw Ben on a ledge. He helped pull me up the slippery cliff so I could drain my boat. His was already drained so he paddled up river to check on Jason. We had lost contact and there was no way to walk or climb back up. Fortunately, our ordeal ended in the largest pool thus far so we were able to paddle up to the last drop to make sure Jason was ok. He was.
The rapid that Ben swam, I freaked, and Jason went backwards down is known as Super Boof. There used to be 3 logs at the bottom of it but 2 of them were recently removed. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn't been. There is also a fixed cable on river right that is supposed to assist with scouting and portaging. Ben was lucky to escape with a few bruises and twisted thumb. Jason hurt his shoulder.
Super Boof. Ben swam the main falls on the left. I followed him in my boat. Jason went backwards over the waterfall that is cutoff on the right. That large dark thing protruding downstream is a log. There used to be two more.
We continued on, after I took a photo from my boat. The river from here on out was easy going except for a Class V that came towards the end. Meanwhile, a few Class III helped sober our adrenaline. Ben iced his thumb in the river in-between our less frequent scouts. The last rapid we had to deal with was Cheese Grater. A name that I learned fit quite nicely. I was the first and last to run it. It is really two drops, one is into a large hole that seeks to flip you, and the other is a tight slot on the right side. I made the first drop, just barely. Once I was in the slot on the right side of the second drop, I was fine. Ben and Jason opted out. They had been worked today and felt no urge to be worked further. I had made it out fairly unscathed only having rolled three times, recovering twice, pulling once.
Josh in the slot of Cheese Grater.
The rest of the way was relatively flat water and we were at the bridge in no time, happy to have made it even though we had been worked hard. Overall, we felt that the upper boulder fields were much harder than the Class V canyon. The river dealt us a few low blows, but we learned and our wounds will heal with time. We will be pushing the limits again, looking for that next challenge, and ever-searching for that next drop on the horizon.
Notes from Ben:
The photos are dark because the film I used was too slow (ISO 50). I'll know better next time.
It's over 2 weeks later and my thumb still hurts. I'll know better next time.