Fordyce Creek is located in the Sierras just west of Truckee, California. It is an absolute gem for its spectacular scenery and miles of uninterrupted rapids. I often feel as if I am traveling on a high alpine trail when I am kayaking Fordyce.
However, Fordyce is not to be taken lightly. It is fairly remote and full of surprises. I have seen a significant amount of carnage over the years, including one death as a result of a vertical pin, a deep face laceration, a fractured jaw, and several swims. Additionally, every year there are new placements of fallen trees to contend with, and these obstacles always seem to be around blind corners or hidden in tight chutes.
Despite these inherent dangers, Fordyce is an unforgettable experience that will leave you both satisfied and sufficiently exercised. Optimal flow is between 3-600 cfs, but it can be run as flows as low as 200cfs.
Boatable flows on Fordyce are few and far between. In my experience, the past 8 years have consisted of calling the dam keeper and asking what the flow is. Usually, there is a period of one to two weeks in the Spring when it is running, and then sometimes is the Fall it will also run as they prepare to drop the reservoir down for the winter.
Part of the problem is the area around Fordyce is a popular recreational area for OHV-4 Wheelers, and many of them like to cross the creek. Even though many of them equip their vehicles with snorkels, the creek has to be at fairly low level for them to make it across; in fact, I have seen several of them stuck in the river, attempting to wench their way out.
So come summer, the snow completely melts away, Fordyce release levels go down, and the 4-Wheelers come out. Naturally, I would like to see a compromise where whitewater enthusiasts can be guaranteed boatable flows for part of the summer, and the 4-Wheelers can have their own scheduled dates. For as it stands now, kayakers and rafters are not receiving equal consideration.
Once you make the challenging 4-wheel drive down to the put-in, look for the water shooting out of the pipe at the bottom of the dam. If it’s not, you have just gotten screwed by the irregular releases that have historically presided over the run.
If there is water you scramble down the trail adjacent to the dam and the outflow pipe for Fordyce Lake. Look for the painted arrows at the far side of the parking area.
As soon as you apply your first stroke forward, the day is on and you are quickly approaching the first rapid, Eraserhead. A fun 50 foot slide, Eraserhead is usually run far left or center until the bottom,where it is best to make an immediate right at the point of connecting with the bottom hole.
There are many class IV rapids between here and the portage. Although, it should be noted the portage has been run by at least two people I know of, one of which had a dicey run at best. You will know when you are getting close because you will emerge into an open hanging valley suspended above a spectacular view of Old Man Mountain. Portage right or left.
The next notable drop can be run in a few different spots depending on the level, but you definitely do not want to run it far right. You will piton hard and potentially put yourself in a predicament. I run just right of center.
More bouncy class IV and then you reach Rotator Cuff. When running Rotator Cuff, it is best to time it such that you get a strong boof stroke right at the lip. If you do it right, you will find yourself airborne until landing flat on the foam pile at the back of the hole.
Again, there are many more class IV-V rapids beyond Rotator Cuff. Look out for what many people call “Nun’s Cunt.” It is a tight slot canyon that since 2005 has had the broken end of a tree sticking slightly down into the entrance. You will know you are approaching it when the canyon gets boxier, rockier and darker with more overhanging trees.
Where’s Berry got its’ name because of the sketchy pothole at the bottom. You can’t really tell it is there unless you get out and look at it. You will see that water pours both over the pothole as well as into it. The rapid is run far left and the move is best executed by slightly ramp-boofing the edge of the rock shelf that forms the bank. Otherwise, you can easily portage the right side and there is a fun seal launch back into the river.
This rapid is run on occasion, but it does have its consequences. You have to be precise in your execution as you slide off of the middle flake and squeeze through the two guard rocks at the bottom. Lots of potential for bashing yourself up here.
Shortly after the Lunch Rapid, you will pass under a bridge and find the beginnings of a multi-tiered rapid that culminates into a tricky hole at the bottom. I have seen several people get spanked in this hole, and the trick to avoiding a swim is is to approach the n-shaped tongue with speed and a very slight left-to-right angle. Throw a strong boof stroke right at the lip to propel yourself over the hole and keep paddling.
Shortly after, you will encounter the river-wide Fordyce Falls, which is run on the right of center, but not far right. Far right is where one paddler went and ended up hiking out with a bashed in face.
Below Fordyce Falls is Split Drop. It is an intimidating drop that should be scouted on the right. Basically, you line up right on the little seam above the lip, throw in one last stroke before paralleling your paddle with the boat, and plunge into the maw. Typically you will go deep, so if you come rocketing to the surface upright it is even more rewarding. I have hit my left arm on some hidden rock at the bottom, so try to keep your appendages in close.
The Hole that Ate the Donner Party
This rapid changes quite a bit depending on the level. It is definitely worth a scout regardless. The only bit of information that I can share with you is run from center to right at the top, and then as you approach the bottom, do not drive hard right too early. I have tried to get my nose up on the rock to the right of the hole too early and pitoned into some hidden protruding piece of rock, which then pushed me sideways right before the hole. By sheer luck I did not get surfed.
After The Hole that Ate the Donner Party, you will run many more rapids that require too much description. There is a sievey rapid that some people run and others portage on the right. Eventually you get to Ninja, which you run far right by squeezing through a tight channel, landing, and then driving far left very quickly. People that have not made it far left, and instead run center, have cut their faces on a protruding rock.
Some people simply get out on river left and begin hiking out on the trail down to Lake Spaulding. For those that choose to run the Boulder Garden, there are couple of different ways to do it, and by no means are they smooth. Proceed with caution.
It is a 2-mile paddle to the boat ramp across Lake Spaulding. You will see it in the distance to the far left. Ideally, you catch a tow from one of the motorboats that frequent the Lake.
The put in for Fordyce is accessed from the dirt road off of the Cisco Grove Exit on Highway I-80, and the take out is off of Highway 20 at the Lake Spaulding boat ramp.