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First Descent Opportunity of Slate Creek (NF Yuba), California

This article describes a possible opportunity for a First Descent of Slate Creek,
a tributary of the North Fork Yuba.  The run is about twelve miles,
from Saint Louis Road to Slate Creek Reservoir.

Written November 17, 2008 by Bert Welti

In writing this article I am probably giving up on running a creek that has attracted me for over thirty years.  Intermittently, but more frequently at the beginning, I would try to assemble a group to run it.  The common response was why give up a known great run for a secret out of the way creek, burdened with uncertain flows and road conditions, that may not be a first run?  Even if this creek has been run let me describe what I know about it and how I got into, perhaps even slightly obsessed by, it.

I started kayaking in 1972.  In the spring of 1973, Charles Martin invited me to join him on an exploratory trip on Mill Creek, and I was immediately hooked on running exploratory trips.  To improve the likelihood of success and to maximize my pleasure, I was soon paddling twenty five pound, epoxy filled, Kevlar and glass or carbon fiber, boats with contoured thigh braces and seats.

At that time, to make a first run was both easy and difficult.  The easy part was that many stretches of rivers had not been run.  Finding a new run was often as easy as looking at a AAA map to find where country roads crossed some river, calling the few other serious explorers, and asking if they knew anything about that stretch of river.  If they did not, a first run probably had not been made.  Competition in making first runs was not yet in its infancy.

The difficult part was finding information about the river.  On occasion, gradient information was deduced simply by looking at the elevations of towns close to the river and estimating the length of the river to be run.  More typically, it was calculated off of topographic maps.  Viewing stereoscopic aerial photos once helped to find unmapped forest service roads for access.  And if needed, a hike down the river, especially to significant rapids, was often possible.

Flow information on major rivers was available from a telephone hot line.  For other streams, PG&E was often the only source of information, but the people in its water management group did not want river runners calling them.  For a number of years, in return for their giving me flow information in response to my questions, I would pass the information on to any river runner who would call me.

At some point I was given a printout that included all of the streams and gauges controlled by PG&E.  Soon previously unknown dams and diversions became part of my river knowledge, and more streams became possible new runs.  For whatever reason a particular creek that flowed into the North Yuba River intrigued me, and I was soon at the US Geological Survey office then in San Francisco tracking down the appropriate topographical maps, which were the 7.5 minute, La Porte, American House, and Strawberry Valley, quadrangles.  Less informative, but functional, were the 15 minute, Downieville and Mooreville Ridge, quadrangles.

Encouragingly, this creek, Slate Creek, which seemed to have a problematic gradient over most of its run down to its confluence with the North Yuba, had a stretch of perhaps twelve miles, accessible at both ends, that dropped about 900 feet.  Near the end of this stretch, about nine miles above the confluence, was a PG&E dam with a diversion to the nearby Sly Creek Reservoir.  Knowing the flow of the diversion would help with estimating the upstream flow.  Unfortunately, I have lost track of the diversion gauge number and the maximum diversion flow possible.  Perhaps there was also a gauge for the release to the creek below the dam, but I do not recall one.

The first tricky part of running Slate Creek is getting to it at the right time.  Although the area receives considerable snowfall, the drainage area above the put in is relatively small.  The resulting small window of opportunity to run the creek, perhaps from early April to mid May, is further diminished by the wait for the put in road to become sufficiently snow free and dry to be open.

The second tricky part of running Slate Creek is convincing people that the worst case scenario of driving for up to four hours to the put in, getting skunked by the creek, and then driving more hours to the North Yuba fits the definition of fun.  As Quincy La Porte Road is, or at least was, still closed in April and early May, driving to the Feather River drainage is generally not an alternative.  In the spring when there are too few days to run too many rivers, this is a tough sell.  In retrospect, I should have known how difficult it would be to promote a trip to the Amargosa River in Death Valley.

I drove to Slate Creek perhaps three times to check out the access roads and stream flows.  Except for an occasional new bridge, the roads in the area seldom, if ever, change.  To get to La Porte use the AAA Northern California map.  In the vicinity of La Porte, the Plumas National Forest map is more informative than the AAA map.

About ten miles before La Porte is Scales Road, the take out road to the dam.  Two concerns arise in setting up the shuttle in route to the put in.  As Scales Road starts from the highway at about 1000 feet lower than does the put in road, it may be open at times when the put in road is closed.  Additionally, the water flow into the reservoir is not ascertainable at the end of the road to the dam.  Consequently, setting up the shuttle runs the risk of driving the take out road twice with no river run to show for it if either you cannot get to the put in or there is insufficient water.  A better strategy is to bring a shuttle driver and go directly to the put in on Saint Louis Road.  Then before going to the take out, the shuttle driver can drive Port Wine Road to Slate Creek to wait should the run need to be finished on the second day.

The area has been heavily explored for gold and contains numerous dirt roads.  Both Saint Louis Road and Port Wine Road start from La Porte, but I recall few indications of the road names and found the roads mostly by deductions about what should work.  Near the put in is the exit of a small tunnel, probably used either to drain water from a nearby mine or as an upstream diversion.  From the put in to the bridge at Port Wine Road, the gradient is a fairly constant 70 feet per mile.  At Port Wine Road is a long cut of perhaps over 100 feet down the creek bed that made no sense to me when I saw it.  An article on the Internet, however, mentioned a long sluice that had been blasted out of the rock possibly to trap placer gold.  Think of the slot on the Middle Fork of the American, only much longer and less steep.

I did not find the road or the two trails indicated as going down to the creek below Port Wine Road.  From the topographical maps, the probable crux of the descent starts about a quarter of a mile downstream from the bridge and extends for about two and one half miles descending at of 100 feet per mile.  Then for about four and one half miles is a stretch with an overall gradient of about 60 feet per mile.  More than two miles in this stretch is indicated as running through tailings, possibly the remnants of hydraulic mining, but with no map contour lines crossing the creek.  Finally, for the last half mile of the run the gradient increases to over 100 feet per mile, and should the reservoir not be full that gradient appears to continue for the next half mile down to the dam site.

So, tell me what you know about the river.  If it has not been run, invite me on your first run, even if only as the shuttle driver.  It is a beautiful and fascinating area, and just being there has always been a treat.


Maps:Plumas County and Sierra County, California.

Average gradient:72.6 feet per mile.
Estimate flow at put in:May 3, 2002?, 225-250 cfs, with little additional inflow to take out.

4400' --   0 Saint Louis Road, dirt road, open to river, with snow patches. 
4360' 0.50 mi80   0.20 mi 
4320' 0.50 mi80   0.70 mi 
4280' 0.60 mi67   1.30 mi French Camp Road indicated at mile 1.7, condition unknown. 
4240' 0.50 mi80   1.80 mi 
4200' 0.70 mi57   2.50 mi 
4160' 0.60 mi67   3.10 mi Port Wine Road, dirt road at mile 3.5, open to river. 
4120' 0.70 mi57   3.80 mi River canyon generally 700 feet
 deep with over 50 percent gradient
 to river.
4080' 0.40 mi100   4.20 mi
4040' 0.25 mi160   4.45 mi
4000' 0.40 mi100   4.85 mi China Bar. Clark's Ravine and trail to ridge indicated at mile 5.0. 
3960' 0.70 mi57   5.55 mi 
3920' 0.35 mi114   5.90 mi 
3880' 0.30 mi133   6.20 mi Possible trail to ridge indicated at mile 6.4. 
3840' 0.50 mi80   6.70 mi Possible misread of map. 
3800' 0.45 mi89   7.15 mi 
3775' 0.60 mi42   7.75 mi Road from American House indicated at mile 7.9, condition unknown. 
3750' --   - Tailings indicated at river level.
 No contour lines crossing river. 
3725' --   -
3700' --   -
3675' --   -
3650' 2.30 mi54   10.05 mi 
3625' 0.40 mi63   10.45 mi 
3600' 0.40 mi63   10.85 mi 
3575' 0.25 mi100   11.10 mi 
3550' 0.20 mi125   11.30 mi Slate Creek Reservoir. Top of ~ 60 foot dam at 3554'. 
Dam0.50 mi0   11.80 mi Scales Road, open to river. Dam road to bridge .4 mi. 

This article appeared around December 2008 in Paddler's News Bulletin.  It is copyright 2008 by Bert Welti.