In the Spring my Minnesota friends Jason and Tommy asked my advice about when to pick a week of vacation to come out to Cali. I recommended that they pick a week dead in the middle of the projected summer run-off, guaranteeing that they would run something good, though there was no way of knowing what it might be. As it turned out, their vacation fell in the weird in-between time after Dinkey and Fantasy, but before Upper Cherry. There was much deliberation in the situation room at the We Three Bakery as to where to go.
I had been entertaining the idea of running Goddard Canyon and Evolution Creek, the headwaters of the South San Joaquin, since the surprise success on Paiute Creek of the South San Joaquin in 2009. I am not the type to keep a river journal and record water levels and such like that, so I racked my brain trying to figure a correlation for Goddard Canyon and Evolution Creek based on last year's dumb luck on Paiute. I remembered that I went there right after my birthday, so I looked up the hydrograph for the Kings on that date. The backside of Goddard Canyon is called Goddard Creek, which is a high tributary of the Middle Kings.
I checked the Kings gauge and proclaimed that the level would be good. I enticed my friends with hidebound speculation of bedrock waterfalls and promises of glory. I rhapsodized about the spirit of adventure and the thrill of the unknown. The hook was baited.
We could not afford these horses, and they looked happy to be free anyway.
They took the bait. We drove to Florence Lake, rigged up pack systems and set out to paddle across 4 miles of reservoir and hike up 12 miles of trail to basecamp at the confluence of Evolution Creek and Goddard Canyon.
Photo: Tommy Norton
Most of the backpackers we met on the way up had come down Evolution Creek and confirmed that there were "hella waterfalls." Hiking up the valley, we were eventually treated to a view of a spectacularly steep creek with a granite high-rise like Tenaya Creek. "Good thing we're not trying to paddle that!" I laughed. And then I realized that we were in fact looking at Evolution Creek. We set up camp and went up for a scout. We found a band of granite with teacups that looked like they were full of piping hot Chinese Gunpowder.
There was probably 2x too much water for what would be a fringe descent with ideal levels. In my mind I saw the life-size foam boaters withstanding the beatings and bouncing off the rocks, but the human kayakers were sorely punished in my hypothetical runs of Evolution Creek at high water.
Devil at the crossroads.
No matter, the other branch of the wish-bone, Goddard Canyon looked more feasible on the map anyway and we re-directed our attention. We tended the fire into the night happy to be under starry skies, our backs starting to return to their original shape from before the hike.
The next morning, a localized cell of buzzkill shrouded the sun and threatened rain. We carried our empty boats up the trail, scouting as we went. Surveying the rapids slowed us down, but a few beauties mixed in motivated us to keep going. About 3 miles up from the confluence we got to a large and marginal looking falls and set our boats down. We walked up to the next large marginal looking falls to satisfy ourselves that we weren't missing anything upstream. Somewhere in there was a sweet thirty footer which had a tricky entrance with badly placed wood in it. We stared at it for a while, but decided to let it go and backtracked to our boats where we tried to move the cold wet clouds with mind powers before gearing up.
Photo: Jason Stingl
Pretty soon it got good.
Photo: Jason Stingl
This run sure has its moments. Tommy Norton in the moment.
The rock was crumbly on the banks and harsh on the kayak, but it did make some waterfalls. The river would go straight as an arrow and then take a 90 bend, then another one to straighten back out. Probably the straightest river I've seen. The gorges reminded me of the trenches on the death star that Luke Skywalker had to fly through to blast the core reactor.
As it got late in the day, I recognized that we were at a drop I had already scouted. Tommy scouted and decided to portage. Once he was around the drop, I went ahead and ran it. I thought I knew where I was going, but I got tea-bagged like some English Breakfast! Luckily, I was upside down when Jason landed off the drop, clearing the hole. I swam. I ran down the bank for a frantic minute until I remembered that there was a log jam at our camp that would conveniently catch my boat. Jason and Tommy paddled down, completing the run.
The next day we paddled out on the South San Joaquin above Florence Lake with great flow. The last 5 miles of river into the lake has some great sections with a very continuous nature. Above: Jason finishes this section, good to the last drop.