Friday, March 20, 2015

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Upper NF Smith River (Oregon Coast Range)


The NF Smith (Oregon Coast Range) has been on my radar for many years, after having it mentioned to me on a few separate occasions by some of the pioneers of kayaking in this area. I was told that you could hike ~2 miles to the base of Lower Kentucky Falls / North Fork Falls, where you'd put-in and be treated to continuous class III/IV bedrock rapids. I wasn't sure how long the run actually was, but after looking at the topo maps, a road bridge was located ~5 miles downstream – a perfect length for a relatively obscure run. Another thing that I was told was that you needed quite a bit of water for it to go, and the best online gauge to use was the one located on Siuslaw River (at Mapleton), where you’d want a reading of ~15’.

I had actually come close to doing this run on a few different occasions, but plans always fell apart at the last minute – it can be pretty difficult to convince people to go do a run like this when other more well-known ones are in, especially when it requires a hike in and a high potential for wood. Then out of the blue, my buddy Jacob texted me to see if I was interested in finally checking it off the list. Of course, without hesitation, I jumped on board.

Along with Jacob, we’d have Lucas & Kory coming from the north, and from Eugene, Roman, Emile, Ben and I would be rounding out the boating crew for the day. Since we’d be coming from different areas, we decided to meet up on Hwy 126, about 15 miles west of Eugene. When we got to the meeting point, at least one in the group expressed concerns about the quality of the whitewater on the run. Apparently he had hiked along it at lower flows and felt that it didn't have enough gradient to be worth it. This certainly contradicted both the beta that I had received from others who had done it as well as my own topographic research, which indicated that it averaged ~100fpm over its 5 mile length. Of course this did have me second guessing the potential for good whitewater, but after a couple of phone calls re-validating the original beta and not having a good backup plan, we decided to move forward with the mission.

The drive to the Kentucky Falls trailhead, from Eugene, leads you through a maze of forest roads in the Oregon Coast range, as well as through some rather large and obnoxious clear cuts. It’s actually quite surprising that such a popular hiking destination is so hidden away. Once we finally arrived at the trailhead, we quickly changed into our boating gear and headed down the trail with our boats on our shoulders. In less than a mile, the trail reached the top of Upper Kentucky Falls, where it fell nearly 100’ onto a jumble of rocks, rendering it completely unrunnable. The trail eventually snaked its way down toward the base, providing a good place to take a quick rest as well as some photo ops. Just below the falls, the creek continued to tumble down the hill over a cascading drop, which looked marginally runnable if not for some unfortunately placed wood. As the trail continued to parallel the creek, more steep whitewater continued, although knowing that we still had a mission in front of us, we didn’t stop to see if it would have been worth putting on the small side creek.

Looking over the lip of Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

The crew making their way down the trail, around Upper Kentucky Falls

Photo op, at the base of Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Hiking past the cascade below Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

The bottom half of the cascading drop below Upper Kentucky Falls
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

After crossing over Kentucky Creek (via a small footbridge), the trail led us up and over a ridge, before dropping us down into the NF Smith drainage. From here, the trail headed down a series of switchbacks and upstream a short distance to one of the most amazing put-ins I’ve been to. It’s at this point that Kentucky Creek and the NF Smith converge, after each drops over equally impressive waterfalls. Just with Upper Kentucky, Lower Kentucky Falls dropped onto rocks, and although it was hard to tell, I would assume that NF Falls did the same. After taking in the view for a few minutes we finally hiked down to the edge of the river to put on.

Looking downstream from the footbridge
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Getting close
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Made it!
(photo by Priscilla Macy)

Ben, taking in the view, at the put-in

When I had looked at the river from the trail, I was a bit nervous that we wouldn't have enough water, but now in my boat, this anxiety was quickly subdued. Although it certainly wasn't at flood stage, it definitely had a nice push to it and eddies were surprisingly scarce on the first stretch of the run – this along with potential for wood forced us to leapfrog downstream while using hand signals to communicate. The first hazard we came to was a wood strainer, just downstream of the put-in and on the right side of an island. In hindsight, we could have avoided the portage by going left of the island, but even so, the portage was pretty easy and soon enough we were heading downriver once again.

The next major obstacle was a low angle slide that dropped over a small but distinguished horizon line. Ben, who had already had run the drop, was giving us signals on where to run it. As I watched a few boaters in our crew line up and go over, it became apparent that there was a tricky hydraulic at the base. The shallow slide above the ledge certainly didn't help with lining up for it, and since I was working hard to do so, I was only able to muster a half-assed boof attempt and was deposited into a pocket that required a deep brace to come out of it upright. Looking back upstream, it appeared that the easy line was to run hard right off a short vertical drop with a minimal hydraulic at the base.

Jacob running the straightforward right line.
The pocket to his left produced some interesting results

As we headed down, the river widened a bit and highlighted how surprisingly large of a drainage it actually was – I'm guessing it had 800 to 1,000cfs. More low-angle bedrock slides continued with a relatively continuous nature. Although it was mainly a class III/IV affair, there were definitely some holes that could work you, and the ever-present risk of wood kept us on our toes. We did get out to look at a few drops, which I was happy to do since I was also trying to get some photo documentation of the run. One particularly fun rapid that I remember was an S-turn style drop down the left side of the river. This drop also had a nice little waterfall pouring down off the river-left wall, which added to the ambiance.

The crew makes their way downstream

Kory drops into a fun S-turn drop

Roman, in the middle of it

Amongst the next series of slides, we came to a larger drop with a short boulder garden at the start. It was good that we had gotten out to inspect it, since all but the hard right channel fed into a rather nasty looking piece of wood. Although the move to make it right wasn’t too difficult, you definitely wanted to make your strokes count. Below the initial boulder garden, the rest of the rapid consisted of small splashy holes to drive through.

Kory enters another fun drop

Roman, somewhere in one of the busier sections

Lucas makes the move to the right, to avoid some nasty wood on the left (not visible)

Just around the corner was another sizeable horizon line, where Emile (who apparently had already run the drop) was standing on an island and giving beta. From what I could understand, he was telling us to go right of the island and that we needed to get a boof somewhere in the middle of the drop. After watching a couple of the others drop in, I setup for my turn. Once I had committed, I could see what Emile had suggested to keep our bow up for – a pretty sizable ledge-hole that typewritered me to river-right and just barely let me go. Happy to be safely below the hole, I eddied out and took a few photos of the others running the next drop – a wide shallow ledge into another large hole on river-right.

Roman gets buried, while sneaking the large hole at the bottom of a long shallow slide.

Next, we reached a drop that I had jumped out ahead for and caught an eddy on river-right to see if it was clear. From the eddy it looked clean but I didn't have a good enough sightline to feel comfortable giving it the “all clear” signal or dropping in myself. I signaled Jacob into the eddy that I was in, to see if he could get a better glimpse. Right about the time we both decided that one of us should get out and take a look, Ben snuck by and was able to drop into an eddy just below us, where he confirmed that the drop was clean. With that, we signaled back up to the others and dropped in behind Ben, running what ended up being a pretty fun rapid.

Finishing up the last of "the goods"

Now about halfway through the run, a footbridge passed overhead and the river flattened out quite a bit. The mellow character of the river continued through the whole second half of the run, but luckily the scenery continued to entertain. Furthermore, the water moved along at a fairly good rate and although we had to squeeze under and around a few logs, none of them required a portage! Before long, a road bridge came into view, signaling the end of the run and our adventure for the day.

Class II from here

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’d been wanting to get on this run for a long time – simply put, I wasn't disappointed. The first half of the run was fairly continuous with some really fun drops in the class III/IV range. Even the 2 mile hike in wasn't too bad, given that it was all downhill on a good trail and the falls along the way provided some amazing scenery. One thing that I wasn't expecting was the complete lack of wood portages, and although we did have one at the very start of the trip, this could have been avoided by going left at the first island. For an adventure-style run like this, it was actually pretty easy going and I’m a bit surprised it isn't in any guide books or has any online info.

All that said, I certainly wouldn't call it a classic, but it’s a great choice when everything else in the area is running high. We had around 13’ and dropping on the Siuslaw at Mapleton gauge, which I’d say correlated to a good medium flow. I’m guessing it would probably go pretty good up to maybe 16’ to 18’ on the gauge, but some of the holes would probably get pretty big and eddies slim above blind corners. Of course if you ended up getting in over your head and needed a bailout option, a hiking trail parallels the run for its entire length. As for the low end of the flow range, you probably wouldn't want to hike in for this one if the Siuslaw gauge was below 11’ or so, simply based on the shallow slides that make up a majority of the best drops.

Flows on the day we did it (the 18th)

All in all, I would definitely call this one a successful mission – a great crew and a great day on the water!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2014 Photos of the Year - Water

Although the 2014 boating season in the Willamettte Valley wasn't as wet as we would have liked, we were still able to get out and have some fun during of a few of the weekends. Digging through my collection of photos, here are my favorites from last year, in no particular order:

Tight Squeeze
Brain Walsh slides into Laura's - Brice Creek (OR)
Sony A77 with 16-50mm f2.8 Lens
1/400 sec @ f/2.8 (ISO-400)

Pit Stop
Chris Arnold eddies out partway through
Upper Zig-Zag - White Salmon River (WA)
Sony A7 with FE 70-200mm f4 Lens
1/640 sec @ f/5.6 (ISO-200)

Chasing Dragons
Quin Slocumb drops down the Dragon's Back, during the NWCC - EF Lewis River (WA)
Sony A7 with Rokinon 14mm F2.8 Lens
1/1000 sec @ f/8 (ISO-250)

Hammer Time
A boater with a nice line off Hammering Spot, during the NWCC - Canyon Creek (WA)
Sony A7 with Minolta 100mm f2.8 Macro Lens
1/1250 sec @ f/4 (ISO-100)

Race Face
Alison Homer closes in on the finish line, during the NWCC - Canyon Creek (WA)
Sony A7 with Minolta 100mm f2.8 Macro Lens
1/640 sec @ f/8 (ISO-200)

Riding Giants
Jason Hesse rides the massive tongue into Lochsa Falls, at 20,000cfs - Lochsa River (ID)
Sony NEX-6 with 18-200mm Lens
1/500 sec @ f/8 (ISO-400)

Sweet Endings
Aaron Loft finishes up the crux section on Sweet Creek (OR)
Sony A7 with FE 70-200mm f4 Lens
1/500 sec @ f/5.6 (ISO-800)

Salmon Run
Matt Cline near the bottom of Holy Terror, at low water -- Salmon Creek (OR)
Sony A7 with FE 70-200mm f4 Lens
1/1000 sec @ f/7.1 (ISO-200)

Summer Camp
Cait Towse digs in at 100%, during Meadow Camp race day - Deschutes River (OR)
Sony A7 with FE 24-70mm f4 Zeiss Lens
1/500 sec @ f/8 (ISO-64)

Keepin' it Up 
Joel Matthew Meyer gettin' wet in Laura's -- Brice Creek (OR)
Sony RX10
1/400 sec @ f/2.8 (ISO-400)

High & Dry
Hilary Neevel enters the bridge drop on Henline Creek (OR)
Sony A6000 with 10-18mm f4 Lens
1/500 sec @ f/5.6 (ISO-1250)

Power Stroke
Ben McKenzie leads the charge through Confusion  - The Miracle Mile (OR)
Sony A7 with FE 70-200mm f4 Lens
1/1000 sec @ f/4 (ISO-400)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Little Bunchgrass / Heckletooth, OR (9.27.14)


Starting to feel strong after finally getting in some time on my mountain bike for a few months, I was hoping to jump on the Oakridge epic, “Bunchgrass”. I had done it many years back and remembered it being a spectacular but exhausting adventure ride, complete with amazing views, technical riding, and of course some hike-a-bike (both up & down). Unfortunately, Derrick (at Willamette Mercantile) informed me that the top half of Bunchgrass had an excessive amount of downed trees and that it probably wasn’t worth the effort, unless of course you’re into that type of thing. As much as I enjoy putting myself into situations that often turn into misadventures, I don’t get overly enthusiastic about jumping into something I already know is going to turn into one. Although Bunchgrass, as a whole, had lots of blow-down, he also said that from Lower Bunchgrass down was in decent shape and definitely worth doing. With this beta and a new plan in mind, I went to work, trying to find anyone else that might be interested.

With about half of the normal crew heading to Bend for the weekend and most of the others unavailable due to other plans, there were only 3 of us that would be doing the ride – Emily (my wife), my buddy Scott, and of course myself. The plan was to shuttle to the bottom of “Derrick’s Deadly Switchbacks” and ride from there back into Oakridge. The reason we weren’t planning to shuttle to the top of the switchbacks was due to the additional driving that would required to get there. This would give us about 5 miles worth of trail, before we transitioned onto the standard Heckletooth section of trail, which is much more commonly ridden.

Even though we cut out some of the shuttle by starting at the lower trailhead, it still took quite a while to get there, after we had dropped off Scott’s car, near the Salmon Creek fish hatchery in Oakridge. Furthermore, the trailhead was fairly obscure, and it took us some effort (with help from our GPS) to actually find it. Once we had geared up, we rode the small spur trail that connected the road to the main trail, directly at the bottom of the Deadly Switchbacks.

I think the trailhead is around here somewhere...

Once we reached the bottom of the switchbacks, Emily suggested that we hike our bikes up to the first downed log(s), and then ride down from there. Before I had time to even respond to this wacky idea, she began pushing her bike up the steep/winding trail – of course, I had no other option but to follow… At first the trail started climbing at a reasonable pitch and we continued on and around a few switchbacks, with no signs of blow-down. As the trail started to steepen, our pace slowed, and I found myself huddled over my bike more and more, in an effort to catch my breath. About halfway up, we reached the first series of logs, where we had a decision to make. Since, apparently, we had not tortured ourselves enough, we decided to push on. Eventually we did make it to where the gradient let up at the top of the ridge, although we still had about a ½ mile before we could truly say that we had reached Little Bunchgrass. Not wanting to stop our mission at 90%, we rode up the remainder of trail, until we reached the large Beargrass meadow, which ended up being well worth the additional effort.

Startin' off the ride

Scott, somewhere on the short section of trail between the road and Deadly Switchbacks

You actually have to take another spur trail from the ridge onto the meadow, which may or may not be worth taking your bike, since it’s pretty short -- Scott had decided to ride while both Em and I decided to walk it. Just a little ways down the trail we found a knoll off to our right, where we left the trail and hiked the short distance to the top, hoping to get a nice view over the trees. Although partially obstructed, it was still a great view, especially with the low clouds that had moved in. Once were done taking it in, we headed back to our bikes and prepared to descend the Deadly Switchbacks.

Scott riding the spur trail at Little Bunchgrass

Emily, taking in the view, while the clouds roll in.

Leaving the meadow

After a 1/2 mile or so of uneventful downhill, we reached the switchbacks. I had jumped out ahead so I could setup for some photos in strategic locations. I actually took a pretty good header around one of the lefthanders, which provided both a wakeup call and a convenient opportunity to pull out my camera and wait for the others. Before long Emily came down and setup for the tight lefty, making it about 90% around before having to drop a foot. As we continued down, we attempted and cleaned more than a few of the switchbacks, but there were a few that were just a tad too steep/tight for me to wrap my wheel around. I can certainly imagine cleaning them, but you'll really need to be on your game and warmed up -- Having the nose wheelie and/or pogo method in your arsenal would also be helpful. Even though we weren't able to make them all, we certainly had a great time and a few laughs attempting them!

Emily attempts a tough lefty

And makes a righty

One of the stepper/tighter ones. I actually went up and over
the rock that's blocking the exit, which worked well.

Emily, enjoying the ride!

Rounding one of the last ones

Now at the bottom of the switchbacks, we started the ride that we had originally planned on. The trail headed off in a northwesterly direction as it gradually climbed up toward the top of the ridge. Apparently my memory isn't very good, since I hadn't remembered this section as being much of a climb. It soon became apparent that pushing my bike up 1,200' earlier in the day was going to hamper my pace. It ended up climbing about 500' in a little less than 2 miles, and although it did put a little bit of a hurtin' on me, the old-growth forest that it cut through helped dull the pain -- it was really cool to see large trees like this that had somehow stayed hidden from the logging operations that this area of the country was known for.

Starting off the planned ride

Scott finds his way through the brilliant foliage 


Emily enters one of the more beautiful sections of the trail

Some bigger trees in this area

A 500 year old tree that had been cleared from the trail, after it had fallen.

"500 years old"

Sea of green

more climbing...

Eventually the trail flattened out for a short bit, before dropping into a much anticipated descent. This section of the trail was awesome, with some great technical pitches, including one that dropped down a few rocky switchbacks. Before giving it a go, I scouted out my line, which went about as good as I could have planned for. All too soon we reached the road crossing (NF 5871), which also happened to be the start of the Heckletooth section, where most people choose to begin this ride.

The author inches his way around a fun series of technical switchbacks
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Once we had regrouped and downed a snack, we dropped on the Heckletooth Trail, which started with a nice short descent, before starting to climb once again. The climb itself was broken into two parts, with the second being a little tougher as it led to the summit of Heckletooth Mountain. The last pitch to the top is super steep and will force all but the most hardy to dismount and push their bikes up the trail -- of course, I found myself pushing. The view from the top was well worth the effort, especially knowing that we had a great descent ahead of us, which would last all the way back into Oakridge, ~7 miles away (including the road).

What the hell happened to that tree!

Emily finds one of the rare bridges on this trail

More beautiful forest 

Scott, climbing toward Heckletooth Mountain

Great views straight off the trail, thanks to a fire that ripped through here

Scott, with one eye on the view and one on the trail

The view from Heckletooth Mountain makes it a worthy pit stop, and also allows you to catch your breath. If it hadn't taken so long to get to this point, I would have liked to relax for a while and eat a snack, but daylight was burnin' and we needed to continue on.

Looking southeast from Heckletooth Mountain

Looking west, toward Oadridge

From the summit, the trail descends in a hurry, zig-zagging down the hill through a series of tight and loose switchbacks, which all of us walked. Once past the initial pitch, the trail continued down and finally reached some much more manageable switchbacks. Although not as steep as some of the Deadly Switchbacks, there were a few that provided a nice challenge, including one lefthander that dropped down a rocky pitch with a narrow exit -- great stuff! Along with the great riding, there were also some spectacular views in this section, especially with the sun low on the horizon, which draped the hillside in a blanket of warm light. By this time, both Em and Scott were getting tired of being my photography subjects, but I just couldn't help myself. The trail did flatten out for a mile or so before making its final plunge down towards Oakridge, which provided some more great downhill.

Emily starts the descent down from Heckletooth

Scott, in hot pursuit

Typical scenery on the Heckletooth descent

The author on one of the tougher switchbacks on the Heckletooth descent
(photo by Emily Pfeifer) 

Roundin' another one

The author drops another fun techie pitch

Emily, between descents

More exposed side-hill

Emily starts up a short climb

Follow the light

Great lighting and views!

Heading back into the forest

All too soon, the trail turned to double-track and traveled a short distance too the paved road, bringing an end to the awesome singletrack descent. Before riding the remaining two miles of pavement back to the car, we were treated to a small herd of elk, who were hanging out in the yard of a nearby house. We watched them for a few minutes and then rode past, sending them off into the woods and out of sight. By the time we got back to the car, the sun had almost set, and did so by the time we had driven up to retrieve my car. Usually we would have stopped somewhere in Oakridge to grab a bite to eat, but we had been on the trail longer than anticipated and needed to get back home.


Parting thoughts:
I can't believe I don't ride Heckletooth more often, it's such a great trail and offers a technical challenge that most of the rides in this area lack. Combined with some amazing views, this one is really a gem! I think the reason that I don't ride it more often is that I typcially switch over to mountain biking (from kayaking) a little later in the season than most people want to ride it, since it tends to get blown-out/dusty once it dries out. Luckily for us, the trail was in great shape, which I'm sure was due to the recent rain event.

As for the section between the Deadly Switchbacks and typical starting point for Heckletooth, I would say that the trail quality isn't nearly as good, but it really depends on what you're looking for. It does cut through a beautiful section of old growth forest, which was worth the price of admission by itself. Even though we shuttled to the start of it, it still provided plenty of climbing, making it so we didn't feel too guilty.

Putting it all together, it was a great day on the trail with Scott and Emily -- part adventure riding and part classic trail shreddin'. just how I like it!

Tracks from our ride: