Friday, April 9, 2010

Opal Creek (4.4.10)

The Sunday before last, a group of us headed over to Opal Creek to do some paddling. After weeks of drought the rains finally made a return and we were glad to see that one of the more faithful creeks in the area actually appeared to have enough water. (according to the internet gauge) However, since the gauge is so far downstream it's not an exact predictor, and it can vary quite a bit between winter and spring, with the latter usually having more water with the same gauge reading. Most people run Opal when it is reading between 1000cfs and 2000cfs. (from medium low to medium high) On this day we had ~1150, so we expected it to be a little low but still fun.

The gauge used for Opal Creek

After picking up Bob and meeting Jim at the Best Buy parking lot in Springfield, we headed towards the creek to meet the rest of the crew, which consisted of Eric, his brother Jason (who was visiting from out of state), and Brandon. After approximately an hour and a half of driving we pulled into the Three Pools parking lot, the take-out for lower Opal. Since we were the first ones to arrive I grabbed my camera and decided to take some photos of the Three Pools rapid, or as it's known to the kayaking community "Thor's Playroom". The first thing I noticed as I walked down the stairs toward the bottom drop of the rapid was how low the level was. In fact I was pretty sure that this was the lowest I had ever seen it. I'd paddled it down to ~1000 cfs in the past (on the internet gauge), but this seemed more equivalent to say 800cfs or so. Whatever the case we were here, and would be paddling it regardless. After pondering the flow, I walked upstream to take some more photos and just enjoy being outside, as this is one of the most beautiful places in Oregon.

Birds-eye view of the takeout at Three Pools

Looking upstream at the upper section of Thor's Playroom.
The rock column in the center-right of the photo is his hammer.

After the others had shown up, we quickly changed and headed to the put-in. Reaching the put-in of the Lower Opal run actually requires about a half-mile hike in from the parking lot via a dirt road; this is due to the road being gated off which leads to Jawbone Flat, an abandoned mining town and headquarters of the Friends of Opal Creek conservation group. It should be noted that you must take a side trail down from the dirt road to reach the put-in. This can be easily missed, but essentially it is the first trail to the right (double track) soon after crossing Gold Creek, the first bridge on the dirt road. If this is your first time to Opal Creek, make sure to check out the old mine that marks the put-in. Another thing that should be appreciated is how clear the water is, which only adds to the whole Opal experience.

Jim leading the charge to the put-in

Bridge crossing at Gold Creek

A view of the mine entrance at the put-in for Lower Opal

Jim and Brandon get geared up at the put-in

Once at the put-in, I rushed to get ready so I could get downstream before the others and set-up for some pictures. On my way down, I had a hard time not stopping at every corner due to the sheer beauty of the place that would have made a good photo even without some whitewater; however I stayed focused and set-up just below the first sizable drop in the first stretch. Soon after, boats started appearing one by one, eddying out just above the drop. Since the water was low I wasn't able to send them over a nice boof that's there at higher flows, so instead I pointed everyone down a sliding ledge to the right of it.

Jason runs the bottom ledge of the first sizable rapid on the lower run

Once everyone had passed, I loaded up my gear and started heading downriver, and once again jumped out ahead to set-up. The next location was just after a class 3 rapid that exited through vertical rock walls on either side. Just after these walls the water pools up before dropping over a ledge with a powerful hydraulic, which usually dishes out a couple of good stern squirts.

Looking upstream through the vertical cliff walls.
Notice the clarity of the water!

Jim runs the ledge below the vertical rock walls.

After a few bends in the creek we were sitting in the eddy just above Big Ugly. I've run this drop using just about every line imaginable, and with a variety of results. Typically however, I tend to run the right-side sneak which sends you bashing down and through a couple of boulders. On this day, the water happened to be too low for that, and created a high likelihood for pinning. Although the left side slot had enough water to run, horror stories from the past of underwater pins in the slot at low water convinced me that the easy portage on the river right was the best option. Everyone in the group decided the same, except the Emerson brothers who decided to give 'er. Eric went first, and after making the move from right to left he lined up the slot, shot through, and was pushed into the left wall at the bottom, but was still able to make it through without flipping. Next, Jason followed the same line but hit a nice little rock boof in the bottom slot; after landing on edge in the seam he was flipped, but he followed it up nicely with a quick roll and a smile.

Eric in the bottom right slot of Big Ugly.

Jason in the bottom right slot of Big Ugly.

Not far downstream from here lies Big Fluffy, a 15' waterfall and the largest single drop of the run. The general rule is that the hole at the base is pretty sticky above 1000cfs, and only gets worse with more water. Since the level was fairly low (and I had run it at higher) I was pretty sure I would give it a go. I left my boat next to shore, and quickly scrambled over the rock cliffs to give it a quick scout. While looking at the drop from the cliff above, I started to have second thoughts about running it. The problem was not the hole (which looked pretty benign at this level) but rather the lead-in which had a guard rock just above the lip blocking the right side. Essentially what this does is funnel the water toward the left hand wall, which is definitely not the preferred line. I believed that if I could catch the small eddy just above the lip on river left, I could ferry across the current and sneak in behind the rock making the line to the right; however after a couple of minutes of staring at the drop, I decided to shoulder my boat around the falls and use the seal launch to enter the gorge below. (which is exciting in its own right!)
Everyone else had pretty much made the same decision except for Eric and Jason (once again...) who were giving it a longer (and closer) look. After some discussion between the two of them, they both decided to fire it off. Wanting to make sure they had safety down below, I launched in from the portage rock, eddied out, and waited for the signal that they were coming down. Eric was first, and after running the entrance he peeled into the eddy that I had planned to catch, just above the lip of the falls. Next, he pulled out of the eddy but quickly turned back as he didn't feel he had lined up the falls correctly. On the next attempt he hit it perfectly, and sailed off the right side of the drop before paddling away with a few loud words of satisfaction. Now it was Jason's turn, and just like his brother he caught the eddy at the top of the falls. In similar fashion he went for the right line and nailed it, catching his breath below.

A view from the gorge below Big Fluffy.
Truly an amazing place only seen by boaters.

Eric and Jason recap their ride over Big Fluffy with Jim

Bob using the seal launch approach around Big Fluffy

Once everyone was around the falls, we headed downriver once again. Eric and Jason, excited from their lines at Big Fluffy, jumped out ahead and led the charge. After a couple of quick rapids, we entered a class 3 boulder drop that has had wood in the past. Eric, seeing a clear line down the center, headed down with his boat angled at approximately one o'clock, and dropped between the first set of boulders. What he did not see was a rock just under the surface of the water; it quickly turned his boat perpendicular to the current and pinned him with his cockpit upstream. Both Jason and I were close behind and saw it unfold. We both knew immediately that it was a serious situation, since his head was just above water and the current was pushing hard against him. Jason called out to the others while I looked for a place to get out. Getting to him proved to be difficult, but luckily, as his boat started to collapse in on him, he was able to pull his skirt and self-rescue to a small gravel bar next to where he was pinned. Watching your buddy in a life threatening situation, and not being able to to them quickly is a sickening feeling; I can't even imagine what his brother was feeling at the time.
After he was safe on shore, Eric gave me the signal that the chute to the left was clear, so I dropped though and quickly ferried over to where his boat was pinned. Soon after this, the others also made their way to the small gravel bar, and we analyzed the situation trying to determine the best approach to get his boat unstuck. In the end we decided to try and get it off without setting up a Z-drag, and after a few attempts with five of us on the line, we were able to work it free. Now that the boat was on shore, you could really see how bad the situation could have been; basically his boat was completely crushed in, and easily could have trapped him had he not gotten out so quickly. You hear of similar stories from time to time, and know that these types of situations can occur in class 2/3 water even to experienced boaters, but it's still a surprise when it does. After some crude reshaping techniques, Eric was able to bring his boat back to its original form, and we were off again, perhaps with a little more caution.

Eric analyzing the situation and happy to be out of the boat.

A quick survey of the damage

After paddling some more class 2/3 water for a mile or so, we were sitting above the grand finale, "Thor's Playroom". To enter the playroom you have a choice between 4 or so doors; I won't go into detail on each one but they all have their own character, and allow you to change things up each time you run it. My preference is typically door #2, which consists of a narrow slot where the water pours through and over a double ledge. The holes aren't too sticky, but I've seen the first one flip boaters in the past.

Bob enters door #2 at Thor's

Jim busts through the first ledge in door #2

Once through this entrance, the water turns around a sharp left-hand corner and over a small slide. After a small pool the creek then heads down what I feel is the trickiest rapid in Thor's, right above his hammer. Basically, it's a steep pitch with some laterals and small holes, so be prepared to do some quick bracing on your way through.
Only a small diagonal hole/eddy line separates you from the eddy above the final drop, and the exit from the Playroom. If you run the main line on the right, this drop provides a wild ride down a steep slide before banking to the right and through a hole (with a seam) that allows you to show off your best mystery move to your buddies. This drop is always a crowd pleaser, and cheers can be heard from the many hikers and swimmers that crowd the area on warm spring days. Everyone had a great time at Thor's, however we did have one swimmer over the last drop. Since there is a large pool below it wasn't much of an issue and he self rescued in the left eddy at the bottom of the drop.

Bob runs the final drop (and exit) in Thor's

A boat solos the bottom drop in Thor's

From here it is just a quick walk up some stairs to the awaiting cars. (thanks girls!) At this point the rain really started coming down, so we all changed as quickly as we could, pretty much skipped the goodbyes, and headed home.

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