Monday, August 31, 2015

Returning to Slab Creek one year after Sierra blaze

Canyon forest on the one ridge, fire damage on the other side at Slab Creek Reservoir

King Fire damage remains, but kayaker access better than ever...

It’s been a year since the King Fire destroyed thousands of acres of beautiful Sierra forest and devastated several mountain communities. One place that narrowly avoided total destruction was Slab Creek Reservoir near Pollock Pines. While parts of the north canyon wall were scorched, the southern ridge – and hundreds of homes nearby – were spared. It’s a remarkable before-and-after view of nature.

A NorCal Yak paddle just two days before the arson fire began last September may have caught the last pre-fire photos of the area. Here’s a link to that paddle trip with pre- and post-fire photos.
NorCal Yak pal Karen left her pups at home but attracted a dog paddler 
For the first anniversary of the fire, we returned to check out Slab Creek’s recovery. Unfortunately, California’s epic drought has put a damper on re-greening. On the plus side, some fantastic rock-scapes remain fully visible, and the southern ridge still offers lushly forested views.

While this area looks very remote, it’s less than 30 minutes’ drive from Pollock Pines and nearby Apple Hill. Most of the Apple Hill fruit and pie stands will reopen this Labor Day weekend, so it’s the perfect time to plan a paddle-and-pie (not necessarily in that order) trip up to Slab Creek.
Rock-scapes on the American River Canyon's north face 
There’s another bonus, too. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which operates the reservoir, has made some much-needed improvements for recreational access. Kudos to SMUD for that.
Sure glitters under water, but is it gold?

The upper (eastern) end of the lake now offers expansive parking on a smooth gravel lot. The lower (western) end also has been smoothed out a bit, say utility officials, but it’s still a steep drop that can turn your knuckles white. Check this VIDEO from last year – and it was taken on the more relaxed uphill drive. Both access points are governed by automatic gates that open at sunrise and close at sunset. 

Upper-end launch, scorched ridge in background
(Thanks to NorCal Yak pal Paul K. Redd at SacYakkers for the tip about improved road conditions.) We took the upper-end road to check out the new parking lot.

 One downside worth noting: Slab Creek itself, which flows into the reservoir about two miles up from the dam on the north shore, was almost covered by brush and other debris when we visited.

There was hardly any room to land our kayaks, stretch our legs and enjoy a snack. SMUD has been clearing fallen trees out of the reservoir recently, and hopefully crews will get around to cleaning up the mini-bay where the creek enters the lake.  


To reach the upper (east) launch point, take the Pollock Pines-Sly Park exit off Highway 50.  Turn left at the stop sign and under the highway, then left onto Pony Express Trail.  Just after the Safeway store, turn right onto Forebay Road for about 7.8 miles to the launch point, just across a bridge at the head of the reservoir. The drive takes 20-25 minutes.
New, improved parking at upper end
Important tip: About one mile down Forebay Road, the yellow center line ends at a “No through road” sign. Continue on this narrow, winding road, and show some respect for local residents by obeying the 25 mph speed limit.

There are several blind curves and expect to meet local traffic along the way.
Second launch point at upper end; bring a kayak cart
Two launch points are available at the upper end. Both are lined with boulder barriers to prevent vehicles from getting too close to the water, so be prepared to carry boats in.
On that point, check the reservoir level before you go. Above about 1,840 feet, you can launch near the top of the lot, but it involves a short, steep and rough walk between boulders. Or bring your kayak cart for a longer but smoother walk at the far end of the lot.

This would also be the place to launch when the reservoir level falls. Also be aware that when SMUD releases water down the South Fork, the current may suddenly accelerate, and that could make the return paddle tricky.

One more caveat: Don’t be surprised if you hear gunfire or encounter large dogs off-leash. This is a popular spot for target practice, and a couple of local guys were popping off rounds the morning we arrived. That disconcerted some of our party, but hey, it’s part of the Sierra lifestyle.

© Glenn Brank 2015