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Chris Korbulic Runs the Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone
Posted on July 24, 2015

Thunderstorms and dark clouds added drama to every corner and horizon line and piece of whitewater. One of the most dramatic rapids on the river, Balls to the Wall, races along the base of a vertical face, forced to the left by crashing off giant boulders on the right. Here Seth Swallen drops in to the steepness.

If you are a regular visitor to the Live Your Adventure blog, you know that Chris Korbulic gets around. With whitewater trips to Labrador and Papua New Guinea in his recent past, he’s not just a pro kayaker but also a professional traveler. But what does Chris do to unwind after paddling in some of the most remote corners of the globe—well, apparently he hits the road and takes a river trip to the Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork just outside Yellowstone National Park. Rated as “one of the definitive multi-day class V kayking trips in North America” by American Whitewater, the Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork is a river respected, even by the most experienced boaters, for its scale and danger. Korbulic checked in with the five-star report of a classic American whitewater trip while braving the iconic park in peak season, despite the hordes of wildlife traffic jams on the narrow no-passing-lane roads. —LYA Editor

Green Monster Portage: The Box Canyon of the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone is known for its stunning beauty, committing whitewater, mandatory portages, and for being the third deepest canyon in the continental US. The Green Monster is the first and longest portage of the river, requiring about 40 minutes climbing around the gorge in ideal conditions. We had arrived at the put-in around 7:30 in the evening after a long drive from Idaho and negotiating hours of frustrating bison-jams and roadwork through Yellowstone National Park. I certainly didn't make any friends on that drive, but we barely made it to the put-in with light. Halfway through the portage on this ledge, we broke out the head torches to carry on and finish the portage in the dark.

Images and Captions by Chris Korbulic

Top: Thunderstorms and dark clouds added drama to every corner and horizon line and piece of whitewater. One of the most dramatic rapids on the Clark’s Fork, Balls to the Wall, races along the base of a vertical face, forced to the left by crashing off giant boulders on the right. Seth Swallen drops in to the steepness.

Above: Green Monster Portage: The Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone is known for its stunning beauty, committing whitewater, mandatory portages, and for being the third deepest canyon in the continental US. The Green Monster is the first and longest portage of the river, requiring about 40 minutes climbing around the gorge in ideal conditions. We had arrived at the put-in around 7:30 in the evening after a long drive from Idaho and negotiating hours of frustrating bison-jams and roadwork through Yellowstone National Park. I certainly didn’t make any friends on that drive, but we barely made it to the put-in with light. Halfway through the portage on this ledge, we broke out the head torches to carry on and finish the portage in the dark.

Shot in the Dark: The Green Monster portage ends in an open valley where the river calmly meanders between the growing walls of the Box Canyon and has great camping options after a couple miles of tranquil water. We paddled through the descending darkness until reaching a suitable camp above the growing thunder of whitewater.

Shot in the Dark: The Green Monster portage ends in an open valley where the river calmly meanders between the growing walls of the Box Canyon and has great camping options after a couple miles of tranquil water. We paddled through the descending darkness until reaching a suitable camp above the growing thunder of whitewater.

Enter the Canyon: While the Box is considered one canyon, it can be broken up in to a few distinct sections by the gorges it cuts into the bottom of that canyon. Early on day 2, we enter the first major gorge, walls towering 2000+ feet directly from the water.

Enter the Canyon: While the Box is considered one canyon, it can be broken up in to a few distinct sections by the gorges it cuts into the bottom of that canyon. Early on day 2, we enter the first major gorge, walls towering 2000+ feet directly from the water.

River Camp Sunset View: Adrenaline by day, sublime beauty by night: the perfect mix.

River Camp Sunset View: Adrenaline by day, sublime beauty by night: the perfect mix.

The campfire cast: Matt Swanson, MD; recent medical school graduate; first time in the Box. Brenden Cronin, USFS river ranger; one pot meal gourmet chef. Seth Swallen, Sethsquatch; Yellowstone trail crew; Box veteran. Seth would go on to complete the whole run twice in one day after we finished our three-day trip.

The campfire cast: Matt Swanson, MD; recent medical school graduate; first time in the Box. Brenden Cronin, USFS river ranger; one pot meal gourmet chef. Seth Swallen, Sethsquatch; Yellowstone trail crew; Box veteran. Seth would go on to complete the whole run twice in one day after we finished our three-day trip.

Flame and Star: What is true or false, ephemeral or permanent somehow gains great, even if brief, clarity when set against that display of geology and light. It certainly becomes clear that though the canyon belongs to us as public land, we, particularly as kayakers, really belong to the canyon.

Flame and Star: What is true or false, ephemeral or permanent somehow gains great, even if brief, clarity when set against that display of geology and light. It certainly becomes clear that though the canyon belongs to us as public land, we, particularly as kayakers, really belong to the canyon.

Good Morning High Water: Though we had no rain at camp, thunderstorm bursts unleashed sediment-rich torrents down an upstream tributary that transformed the river from its elegant blue-green to chocolate-brown. The water level did not change much, but the feel of the water also transforms when the color and texture change so dramatically. In most Western rivers, clean and clear water generally means that the level of the river is low to normal, and when it is running brown the water level is generally higher than normal. Normal water levels feel very different than high water levels and are also slower and safer, so a change of color without a change of water level was an interesting play of perception and reality.    Of course there are exceptions and rivers can run very high and still be crystal clear and likewise be very low and brown. Desert rivers exemplify the low but full-of-sediment possibilities, and we paddled out the rest of the way on a turbid desert river.

Good Morning High Water: Though we had no rain at camp, thunderstorm bursts unleashed sediment-rich torrents down an upstream tributary that transformed the river from its elegant blue-green to chocolate-brown. The water level did not change much, but the feel of the water also transforms when the color and texture change so dramatically. In most Western rivers, clean and clear water generally means that the level of the river is low to normal, and when it is running brown the water level is generally higher than normal. Normal water levels feel very different than high water levels and are also slower and safer, so a change of color without a change of water level was an interesting play of perception and reality.

Of course there are exceptions and rivers can run very high and still be crystal clear and likewise be very low and brown. Desert rivers exemplify the low but full-of-sediment possibilities, and we paddled out the rest of the way on a turbid desert river.

Dillworth: Sethsquatch sighting in Dillworth rapid, another of the rowdy rapids made just a little more intimidating by the brown water. Reading water is arguably the most important skill in whitewater kayaking. It takes years of practice and experimentation in all kinds of situations to become an expert, and reading brown water like this is one of the most difficult cases. Luckily the sun was out to give contrast to the surface features as the sediment prevents viewing many of the nuanced water features usually critical in reading water.

Dillworth: Sethsquatch sighting in Dillworth rapid, another of the rowdy rapids made just a little more intimidating by the brown water. Reading water is arguably the most important skill in whitewater kayaking. It takes years of practice and experimentation in all kinds of situations to become an expert, and reading brown water like this is one of the most difficult cases. Luckily the sun was out to give contrast to the surface features as the sediment prevents viewing many of the nuanced water features usually critical in reading water.

Calendar Falls: One of the most wonderful feelings on the river is exiting a committing canyon safely and looking back upstream, gaining a little more understanding of what you had been locked in to.

Calendar Falls: One of the most wonderful feelings on the river is exiting a committing canyon safely and looking back upstream, gaining a little more understanding of what you had been locked in to.

Seth Swallen Portaging: A final series of portages around unrunnable cascades leads to the final exit of the canyon. There is no grey area about the portages in the Box; you walk, or your chances of survival are low. Here though, the entrances to the portages are inviting and look like any other runnable class IV whitewater on the river so it is critical to have detailed beta or paddle with someone who knows exactly where to exit the river and start portaging. In 2003, tragedy resulted from a group trying for an eddy downstream of a critical stopping-point and being swept, all seven together, into an enormous cataract. Three were somehow uninjured, three were seriously injured, and one was killed. The accident here stands as one of the most tragic but poignant lessons of on-the-water prudence in river adventures.

Seth Swallen Portaging: A final series of portages around unrunnable cascades leads to the final exit of the canyon. There is no grey area about the portages in the Box; you walk, or your chances of survival are low. Here though, the entrances to the portages are inviting and look like any other runnable class IV whitewater on the river so it is critical to have detailed beta or paddle with someone who knows exactly where to exit the river and start portaging. In 2003, tragedy resulted from a group trying for an eddy downstream of a critical stopping-point and being swept, all seven together, into an enormous cataract. Three were somehow uninjured, three were seriously injured, and one was killed. The accident here stands as one of the most tragic but poignant lessons of on-the-water prudence in river adventures.

Sunset on the Box Canyon of the Clark's Fork.

Sunset on the Box Canyon of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone.

The Clark's Fork exits its final canyon into a foreign landscape, having started in the mountainous sub-alpine and finishing in arid desert. The Nevervan was there waiting, ready for another very legal, reasonably paced, calming drive through Yellowstone and back to Idaho.

The Clark’s Fork exits its final canyon into a foreign landscape, having started in the mountainous sub-alpine and finishing in arid desert. The Nevervan was there waiting, ready for another very legal, reasonably paced, calming drive through Yellowstone and back to Idaho.

 

 

Author: - Friday, July 24th, 2015
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