Middle Fork Nooksack River

Class V, 156fpm, 380cfs

January 5, 2002

Ben, John Easton, Eric Schertzl, Justin Ashworth

Justin does some gardening in the upper boulders.


I wasn't going to write a story about this trip because there wasn't too much carnage involved but I figured what the heck.

My first trip down the MF Nooksack came a mere six months after I started kayaking. The bruises, cuts and sprains healed within weeks but my mind needed a little more time to recover. I wasn't ready for Class V then, and I'm probably not ready for it now, but six months later I decided to give it another go.

The flow was at 500cfs when we started planning this trip. I didn't want to run it above that and the weekend forecast called for rain so Tumwater Canyon was added to the coin. The flow had dropped to 400cfs by Friday evening and the rain held off Saturday morning so MF Nooksack won the toss. John, Eric and I met up at a Park n Ride in Seattle shortly after 7am. John agreed to drive because he had the largest rig. I drove through some heavy showers on my way from Tacoma but the sky dried up as we continued north. We gave Justin a call and told him to meet us at a bridge across the SF Nooksack in Acme. He was in Bellingham visiting family. We arrived a little late and Justin was nowhere to be found. We tried calling but nobody was home. An hour had passed since our scheduled rendezvous so we decided to leave a note and head to the take-out. Paper, pen, duct tape… I turned around and saw a car with a kayak on the roof. Sure enough, it was Justin. Turns out that he waited for us at a bridge in Deming and had some trouble with the law after realizing his mistake. We continued for 9 miles up Misquito Lake road to a bridge across the MF. We parked at a large pullout on the east side of the river. There is a much better take-out on the west side but I wasn't sure that we could access it. I was the only one who had done this river so I decided to stick with what was familiar.

We greeted while gearing up. Justin was an avid paddler going to school in Portland. He was the youngest in our group but had the most experience with Class V. John, Eric and I were confident Class IV paddlers with some Class V experience. We exchanged tales on the way to the put-in. I'm not sure what the others were thinking. I was mostly anxious.

We started floating around 11am. I led through the first half-mile of Class III. Clearwater Creek entered from the right and we eddied out left. The first Class IV boulder garden worked me during my first trip (I thought all the hard stuff was below the dam so I didn't bother scouting).

We scouted the entry and agreed to go left. Eric, Justin and I went left and eddied out above a log. John had a different plan. He flipped and ran it center through a boulder choked slot and eddied out right.


Eric running left on the entry. John ran it center between the two large boulders. That is where I got messed up during my first trip.


Neither side had a clean line through the next section. There was a log on the left and the right was too shallow. Center would have been ok but it looked like a difficult ferry. Eric, Justin and I carried our boats below the log on the left and John portaged a good portion on the right. We ran the next section far left and finished with a boof down the center.


Myself running far left.

Photographer: Justin


Myself above the center boof.

Photographer: Justin


Eric was the last to boof. He actually got parallel parked and had to use his offside roll to escape. I didn't know that he had an offside but I was impressed with his method nonetheless.


Eric getting parallel parked.


The rest of the boulder gardens were slightly familiar. We scouted most of them from the shore. I was ahead at one point so I scouted a rapid by myself. I told the others to go right and they were gone by the time I got back in my boat. Being in the rear made me feel lonely and I ended up getting stuck in a reversal. I'm not sure what was going on but I flipped, freaked and ended up pulling.

The river takes on a completely different personality when you're swimming. I've had my share of swims so I knew what to expect. I held onto my paddle and made it to shore fairly quickly. The others were still ahead so I yelled a few times to make them aware of my situation. My boat did fairly well navigating by itself but it eventually got shoved against a boulder. It balanced there for a few seconds so I slowed my chase. Big mistake. I paused in frustration as it freed itself and continued down. Fortunately, it righted itself and came to a stop on a shallow slide. I hurried my way down and across until I was able to grab hold and drain it. I caught up with the others and apologized for my swim.

Just below here was a rapid that we ended up portaging. The most promising line was a boof down the center but you had to make the corner first. The right chute had a decapitating log above what appeared to be a shallow 3-4 foot ledge. That is where you'd go if you didn't make the turn. There was also a shallow chute down the left but it wasn't worth the scrape. None of us were enthused about running it so we portaged on the left.


The rapid that we portaged.


From there we boat scouted until we reached the dam. The lines hadn't changed much although some of the reversals were harder to punch. It was nice to gain some ground after shore scouting a fair amount on the upper section. Watching each other from eddies is always fun.

I knew the dam was nothing to worry about but the others seemed a little concerned. We eddied out on the right side of an island above the dam and hiked up to the bridge to take a look at the canyon. I pointed out Icebox Paradise and suggested they go left.

Soon we were back in our boats. The 20-foot plunge was effortless but fun.


Josh taking the plunge during my first trip down the MF.


I went too far left above Icebox and got pinned. The others passed me down the center while I freed myself from the rocks. I caught up with them in an eddy and shot down the next slide on the right. A few smaller rapids led to Hawaii Five-O. We scouted this drop on the left and ran it on the right. Eric's skirt came undone so his boat filled with water on the final plunge.


Justin makes the final plunge on Hawaii Five-O while Eric drains his boat.


The rapids continued to impress us. John missed an eddy and got swept down one rapid that I was planning on scouting. The rest of us chased him down to a pool above the landslide rapid, also known as S-Turn. This is where I got worked further during my first trip. Scout this drop on the left unless you plan to portage or set up safety. That way you can avoid the T-bone entry led to my demise. The key to this rapid is to not flip. There are several submerged rocks that will mess with your roll and one at the bottom that could stop you all together.


John running S-turn.


S-turn is followed by some swift water and a few small drops. This section is fun as long as you're in your boat. Next comes Superboof. Eric, Justin and I eddied out above it. There is a fixed line on the right that allows you to scout or portage. John wasn't able to make the eddy so he ended up going first. He wasn't sure where to go and ended up flipping against a rock. He pulled right away and was swept down the right chute. I knew the right chute was ok for both swimmers and boats so I followed him. Center would have been a great boof at this flow but Eric and Justin followed unknowingly. I caught up with John in the long pool below the drop and helped tow him and his gear to shore. Turns out he noticed the log before he flipped and figured that it would be better to swim the drop that run it upside-down. I would tend to agree having swam that drop myself.


Superboof. The log on the left is pretty intimidating from above but it's not too difficult to go under or around. This photo was taken during my first trip at lower flow.


John recovered and we all paddled back for another look at Superboof.

I relaxed knowing that there was only one more rapid to be dealt with. There was plenty of Class III to keep us busy until we reached the final Class V. I'm not sure why they call it Class V but those who have flipped above it might know. Cheese Grater is a narrow chute between a boulder and a wall. The drop is rather small but get sideways, flip or lean too far in either direction and you could be in a world of hurt. I discovered a boulder above the chute where I could take photos. The others got in their boats while I waited to witness the carnage. Eric went first and I snapped a photo. He flipped at the bottom of the chute but gave me the thumbs up. I was out of film but I ended up taking notes. Justin went next, followed by John. The both flipped at the bottom and John came up with a bloody nose. My notes served me well and I made it through without flipping.


Eric in Cheese Grater.


We estimated over 200fpm for the upper boulder gardens. The remaining Class II served as proof.

This isn't the type of river that I would run every weekend. The pinning and wood potential leaves too much to chance. We began to reflect on the drive home but I think it will be another 6 months before this one stares back at me. By then, John should have a creek boat and I hope to get by with no swims. Rain is another thing to watch out for. The flow got above 6,000cfs a few days after our trip. That could make the canyon a little more difficult. 600cfs is the recommended high.

For more carnage or a look at lower flows on the MF see Summer 01.