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South Fork Feather - Forbestown Gorge Run

*Forbestown Diversion Dam to Ponderosa Reservoir*

The South Fork of the Feather has received quite a bit of attention lately, mainly as a result of several flow studies that have been done on various reaches of the river, as part of the FERC re-licensing process.  It's hard to believe that in this day and age there are still high-quality runs that remain unexplored in Northern California.  When South Feather Power and Water began the process of renewing their license to generate power with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, American Whitewater got involved.  As a party to the agreement to the new license, AW agreed to help organize flow studies on the various reaches of the South Feather.  Last fall a group of paddlers from all over Northern California and one from as far a way as Idaho, came together to run what we believe is the first decent of the Forbestown Gorge of the South Fork of the South Feather, and it turns out that it's a real gem.

The best put-in is just down stream from the Forbestown dam.  Park at the dam then carry your boat back up the road about 100 yards to the first bend.  There's a faint trail that drops off the edge of the lower end of the bend in the road.  Follow the trail down to a scree slope and pick your way down through the scree, veering to the left a bit as you head down toward the water.

The run starts out with some pretty junky looking stuff: First Rapid  Just portage around anything that looks questionable.  We portaged several rapid in the first half mile.  The next mile or two has lots of stuff that looks kind of junky but it goes: Junky Rapid  and Junky Rapid  Just take your time and don't hesitate to jump out of your boat and take a look.

When the geology starts to change from boulder gardens to more bedrock formations you know you're getting close to the "goods": First Good Rapid  The river changes course from an East/West orientation to more North/South when you enter the main gorge.  This is where things start to get really fun.  There is a series of big drops and fun rapids with plenty of juice to get your YaYa's going: Fun Rapid  The first few rapids are fairly straight forward then you come to the first big falls.  It's a narrow drop on river left.  It looks questionable but several members of our party ran it with no major issues: First Big Falls  Both Ben and Devin got knocked over and Ben got shoved up against the wall upside-down after the drop but it wasn't really a big deal.  It goes clean if you don't mind being upside-down.  There's a pretty good pool below the drop.  At the end of this pool is another stout drop so don't linger too long if you have trouble.  If you don't want to run it you'll have to down climb on river right.  We lowered our boats with a rope then down-climbed next to the falls and traversed around to the boats: First Good Rapid  It's not too bad though.

There are a lot of really fun, good-sized drops on this run.  One of my favorites is toward the lower end of the gorge.  We named it "Pineapple Train-wreck": Pineapple Train-wreck  Pineapple Train-wreck  It's a 15-20 footer with a clean entrance around a blind corner.  It's easy to scout but you don't want to blunder into it blind.  There is a series of drops right up against the right wall, leading into it (kind of reminds me of the section right above Middle Burnt Ranch Falls on the Trinity).  The right side of the river is walled up, the left is a little more open.  Then you'll come into a clean bedrock mini-gorge with slow moving water and plenty of place to get out and look.  There are several places to get out on river left to scout.  Just don't try to run any blind drops in this section or you'll end up with a "Train-wreck".

There are still some stout rapids below "Train-wreck" but things start to ease up a bit. The last couple miles are mellow.

Overall, I'd give this run a "must do" rating if you're a solid class five boater.  It's not super hard but it certainly demands respect.  It's remote, hard to get in and out of the canyon in a rescue situation and if you get in trouble in there you could be in for an epic.  Plan on a solid day, if it's your first time down.  Get an early start and use full wilderness protocols.  Don't go in there without extra food, space blankets, and all the necessary rescue and first aid gear.

With that being said, the white water is really cool, with some stout drops and cool scenery.  I didn't like the first couple miles, on the first decent.  I thought it was too junky.  But after we got below the manky and into the bedrock, my opinion of the run went way up.  The second day we ran it, once we realized there were no major surprises in that first couple miles, we relaxed and went pretty fast.  It all went (except for maybe 3 or 4 portages) and we did the entire run in under four hours.  After the second run I came to realize that we had found another Sierra Nevada classic.

Just for comparison purposes, I'd compare the run to Upper Deer Creek (above Ponderosa Way), Upper Butte Creek (the Desabla Dam run) and the Ben and Jerry's run on the W. Branch of the Feather.  It's a small volume run, we ran it at 230 cfs and there was plenty of water.  I'd be real careful above 400 cfs.  I flew the run in a helicopter at 600 cfs and it looked like it would be one for macho He-men only!  Count me out.


The run starts at the Forbestown diversion dam.  To get there take the Olive highway through Oroville.  Turn on Forbestown road just outside of Oroville.  Drive about 15 miles to the town of Forbestown.  Then get out the map and find your way down to the dam.  The take-out is at the Ponderosa reservoir, just downstream of the power-house at the upper end of the reservoir.  Again, check the map for more detail.

Narrative copyright 2006.  Contact Eric Petlock.  This page was last updated Mar 16, 2006.