Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Little White Salmon (6.26.10)

My maiden voyage down the Little White:

First, I must give a little back story:
As I started my boating career back in early 2005, I remember perusing Jason Rackley’s site Oregon Kayaking, and drooling over all of the rivers and creeks the PNW had to offer. Although I was not yet a creek boater (which I would venture into the following year), I knew that someday I would want to tackle some of them. Runs like Opal Creek, Upper Quartzville, and Brice Creek were the first ones on my radar, and I would soon journey down most of them thanks to the help of the flourishing Eugene boating community, who were informally led at the time by people such as Steve Stuckmeyer, Jeremiah Sullenger, Gabe Flock, Galen Griffin (Griff), and Shawn Haggin (from Roseburg). These were also the same people that I had seen in a lot of the trip reports, so I felt secure on the river with them. A couple of the runs that I read about which intrigued me the most (and at the same time frightened me), were the classics, such as The Miracle Mile, The Green Truss, and the “crown jewel” of the PNW, The Little White Salmon (LW). It’s funny how times and perspectives change. I remember telling Emily (my wife), that she didn’t need to worry, I would never run a waterfall taller than 15’, and I would never run the LW, which seemed way too dangerous. The first commitment fell pretty quickly, as I started to run drops more in the 20’ range. The second would hold until a couple of weeks ago…

It was now 2010, and I had made up my mind that I did in fact want to finally tackle the Little White. I remember having the same anxious feeling come over me that I had for both the Miracle Mile and Green Truss when I decided to run those. When I finally did complete those runs it felt like climbing another rung on the ladder, and setting a new baseline.

I had just received an email from my buddy Chris which read:“I think the LW has about 2-3 weeks left for the summer. If you are interested, I think next week or the following will be an ideal level.” Along with that, I was also getting some encouragement from my other buddy Shawn who reinforced that I was ready and needed to get on it. With that, I felt it was time…

A couple of quick notes:
1. For reference, this trip report is from the perspective of class IV+ / part-time V boater going down the LW for the first time.
2. Most of the pictures in this report are from when I did the run at a slightly lower level the following week (~3'). The reason for this is that I wanted to focus strictly on the river the first time.

The time had come:
My final decision came on Friday night when I called Shawn and asked “When are you picking me up?”, for which he replied “That’s what I like to hear!”. After a good night’s sleep, I met up with Shawn at the Best Buy parking lot in Springfield. From there we drove up to the Corvallis exit on I5 and picked up Eric Emerson who would also be joining us for his first time down. Once all the gear was loaded, we made our way north to meet Chris Arnold and Eric Arlington on the north end of the "Bridge of the Gods" (not as impressive as the name would suggest). Now that we had assembled our crew for the day, we headed toward Willard Fish Hatchery, the put-in for the Little White.

Once at the put-in, we hiked down to the gauge to see what the level was. I had been told that the best first-time flow was between 2.9 and 3.1, and that inches make a huge difference on this run. That said, it was reading ~3.2, on the high end of what I was planning to run it at. I turned to Chris and asked what he thought. After a quick pause, he said "Let's run the river". I have boated with Chris on many occasions (including a few Cali trips), and completely trust his judgment as a conservative boater. I also have complete trust and respect for the rest of my boating companions that I would be running down with. Even though it can feel like you're alone on the river sometimes, I truly believe that it takes good group dynamics to ensure a safe trip down the river, especially for one like this.

The put-in for the Little White. Willard Fish
Hatchery can be seen in the background.

The stick gauge at the put-in (~3.2')

For reference, here is what Pat Welch's correlation was
reading (~490cfs on 6/26). This gauge can be found here.

After the shuttle was run, we geared up and put on. The first 1/4 mile (or so) consists of splashy class III that serves as a good warm-up before the bottom drops out. All too soon, a log jam appears blocking the right side of the river. This signals Getting Busy, a very steep 1/2 mile long boulder garden.

The view looking down from the bridge
gives no indication of what lies below
(taken the following week at ~3')

The crew makes the portage around the entrance to Getting Busy.
The right side was blocked with wood, and the left was very pinny.
(taken the following week at ~3')

Looking downstream at the start of Getting Busy
(taken the following week at ~3')

Many consider this to be one of the toughest section of the run, but this is actually the environment that I feel the most comfortable with. I believe this can be in part attributed to the countless laps I’ve done on The Miracle Mile, which has helped train me for just this type of boating. This along with Chris giving excellent beta got me through with only one slip up. Basically, I missed an eddy and flushed out the back of it. Having no other options I spun around and faced what was in front of me, the steepest section of Getting Busy! It quickly turned into reactionary boating at its finest, and after busting through a couple of laterals and turning a couple of corners, I eddied out in the middle of the river. For a moment, I felt very alone and was hoping I wasn't about to drop through a sieve or into a log jam, since it would have been almost impossible to stop. Chris, who had been in hot pursuit, appeared in an eddy on river right where I was able to give him the head tap letting him know I was good to go.

Looking upstream at one of the mellower stretches of Getting Busy
(taken the following week at ~3')

More of Getting Busy
(taken the following week at ~3')

Eric drops over a ledge and under a log in Getting Busy
(taken the following week at ~3')

We soon finished up with Getting Busy and were now sitting above Boulder Sluice, which we hopped out to scout. After discussing the line of this ramping monster-boof (~10') we all fired it off. I had the most colorful line, flipping on impact and getting surfed upside down for a brief moment. Luckily, I was able to snap off a quick roll above the following boulder garden and eddy out downstream. I was a little bummed that I fumbled the line a bit, since this is one of the most classic boofs anywhere.

Looking back upstream at Getting Busy
from the lip of Boulder Sluice. Steep Stuff!
(photo by Eric Emerson)

An upstream view of the lead-in to Boulder Sluice
(taken the following week at ~3')

Ryan digs in at Boulder Sluice
(taken the following week at ~3')

Ryan touches down after a nice boof at Boulder Sluice
(taken the following week at ~3')

Chris mid-flight at Boulder Sluice
(taken the following week at ~3')

The author comes off the lip at Boulder Sluice
(photo by Eric Arlington)

After a couple of more boulder gardens, (one fairly trashy) we came to Island Drop, the next big horizon line of the run. None of us felt like running this beast, partially due to some wood that was blocking the right side of the entrance. With that, we all made the lengthy portage down the right side of the island. My next time down we portaged on river left from the lip of the drop, a much easier carry.

Now that we were below Island, it became far less continuous and contained more pool-drops over a series of well-defined ledges that the lower half is known for. To be more clear, pool-drop probably isn't the best way to describe this section, since the stuff between the ledges is more class III/IV boogie water than pools. The first ledge you come to is Sacrilege, which I was a little nervous about since we weren't going to be scouting it, and is described as having an extremely powerful hole. Essentially, when we got to the lead-in I was told "it's just a ledge" and "run it hard left off an obvious flake". The beta was spot on and I was able to pull a nice boof, landing in the pool below. This ended up being one of my favorite drops of the run.


Next up was Double Drop, which also had some holes that could send you into rodeo mode. After an easy scout along the right bank, I was considering the equally easy portage. However, after some words of encouragement I decided to give it a go. As suggested, I ran the first ledge center-left off the nose, and then headed back right for the second. Everything went well and I was sitting in the pool below the drop happy to have made it past another.

Chris runs the top tier at Double Drop
(taken the following week at ~3')

Chris powers through the bottom hole at Double Drop
(taken the following week at ~3')

Ryan between the 2 ledges of Double Drop
(taken the following week at ~3')

Ryan runs the preferred right line on the bottom tier
of Double Drop (taken the following week at ~3')

Looking downstream from the base of Double Drop
(taken the following week at ~3')

Below Double Drop were a couple of really fun boulder gardens. One I particularly liked was on the right side of an island; it reminded me a lot of the stuff on The Miracle Mile down in our neck of the woods. Soon after that section we were sitting in a river left eddy above a beautiful double ledge/waterfall known as S-Turn Falls. Unfortunately, there are a couple new pieces of wood in the drop. The first lays vertically on the left side of the first tier, but luckily it’s not really in play if you hit your boof over the top of it. The other is in the second tier, also on the river left side. The problem with this one is that it blocks/backs-up the hole a bit, and could cause problems with a missed line. Not wanting to deal with the lower wood, Shawn and I made the easy portage on river left; the rest in the group ran the first falls and eddied out left to walk around the lower wood. We all rejoined on the gravel bar below, and took a quick snack break with an amazing setting created by the waterfalls. On my second trip down the LW, I ended up running the first tier, getting a good boof and landing nicely below; I also eddied out and portaged the lower drop. I’ll most likely continue to run the first since I think the huge boof is worth the extra trouble of portaging from below.

A view of S-Turn Falls showing the
two pieces of wood described above
(taken the following week at ~3')

Eric fires off the top tier of S-Turn Falls
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

Chris does some spelunking behind
the first tier of S-Turn Falls
(photo by Eric Emerson)

The crew relaxing below S-Turn Falls
(taken the following week at ~3')

We now had a few smaller drops before reaching one referred to as Nasal Douche (by Chris). I followed everyone else’s line which consisted of running down a ramp on the right side into a small right-side eddy above the main ledge. From here, the tougher line is to ferry to river center across the lip of the drop to another small eddy, which you then peel out of and over the ledge behind you. My line from the right-side eddy was simply to ferry into the main current and run the right side of the ledge. This produced a nice mystery move, followed by a big back-ender, followed by a quick roll. After clearing out my sinuses, we headed further downstream.

Soon, we were in an eddy above the lead-in to Bowey Hotel. I had been particularly concerned about this drop due to a horror story of a paddler that got stuck in the hole, flushed out and over Wishbone, and had to be resuscitated and airlifted out. One of the guys in our crew was actually on that trip and is partially responsible for saving the boaters life; he still has strong memories of the unfortunate events that unfolded. Chris told me that the drop wouldn’t be much of an issue since we planned to sneak it on hard river right away from the hole. That said, you do have to run a long class 3 lead-in while working right. This ended up being much easier than I had pictured in my head, and we all came through without issue.

Bowey Hotel from below. We ran it hard right
avoiding the nasty hole (and cave) on the left.
(taken the following week at ~3')

Directly below Bowey is the lead-in to Wishbone Falls, a super sweet 20 footer. Since it was Eric's and my first time down, Chris suggested that we take a look so he could point out the line. Getting out above Wishbone is not an easy task, and requires you to catch one of a few small eddies on river left. We went down in pairs of two, as not to create a traffic jam, and all were able to make it on shore safely. Next, we scrambled down the bank of the river and peered over the edge of the falls, and what a view it was! As Chris pointed out, you have a couple of options for running the lead-in, but the best line off the falls itself is just off the left wall over the auto-boof, which will send you airborne. Supposedly, even if you blow the line it’s pretty friendly; you’ll probably go deep, but will most likely be spit out without a thrashin’. After scouting, we all hiked back up and fired it off one by one with everyone getting a huge boof.

Eric Arlington lines up the boof at Wishbone
(taken the following week at ~3')

Ryan airs it out at Wishbone
(taken the following week at ~3')

Chis throws in an "Oregon Tuck"
for good measure at Wishbone
(taken the following week at ~3')

Looking back up at Wishbone
from the lip of The Squeezes.
(photo by Eric Emerson)

Chris and Eric relax in the pool
between Wishbone and The Squeezes
(taken the following week at ~3')

I was now standing on shore looking down into what I had guessed would be the mental crux of the run for me, The Squeezes and Horseshoe. The reason for my concern (and many others) is that they are both stacked on top of each other in a tight gorge, with only a small moving pool between them and Stovepipe. The Squeezes is really just a class 4 mini gorge with three distinct ledges, and the last having the largest hole. The line that I was shown was starting left over the first one, and finding your own line through the others, since it all pretty much goes. After standing onshore and watching the others have clean lines, it was now my turn. I got in my boat, took a deep breath, and dropped in. It all went well (and pretty fast) with the only real excitement coming when I stern-squirted out of the last ledge. Luckily I was able to brace out of it and catch the small eddy on river right with the others. With Horseshoe sitting just below me, I took a moment to make my decision. After some time, I decided that I was not feeling the tricky entrance that day, and instead made the hike around on river right. The people that I had talked to prior to the run had said they weren’t sure how you could portage if you were so inclined. However, from my experience, I didn’t find it too tough, and it only required a short hike up and over a small hill that lined the bank. I wish I would have made the same decision on my second trip down, which would have avoided an epic beatdown which I won’t soon forget. More on this later…

Chris enters The Squeezes. Horseshoe
can barely be seen in the distance.
(taken the following week at ~3')

Eric drops in behind Chris at The Squeezes
(taken the following week at ~3')

Now in the river right eddy below Horseshoe, another group of boaters came down and asked to play through. One paddled up to me and asked how I was doing and if it was my first time down. After replying yes, he congratulated me while giving a big smile and went on his way. I can only assume he remembered how it felt to be in such a magical place for your first time down. It was kind of nice that we had let them go by, for they showed us how easy it would be to sneak Stovepipe on the left through a narrow chute of water that eventually plunged 6’ into the left eddy below. No one in our group seriously considered running Stovepipe since it has some fairly significant consequence and the line is somewhat tricky to run clean. That said, we did see another group fly down through, running a variety of lines as we sat in the pool below. One guy who had a particularly clean line off the center pulled up beside us and asked how our day was going. It took me a moment to realize that it was Tyler Bradt who had just recently set the world record for running the tallest waterfall at 186’ - Palouse Falls.

Next, we weaved through a couple of logs, and down some more fun drops before we were sitting at the lip of one of the most classic waterfalls run by kayakers, Spirit Falls. This 33’ beast gives off amazing energy and creates one of the most spectacular boils/pillows that I’ve ever seen at the base of it. I did not or probably never will have any real desire to run it. Although I love running waterfalls, the many broken backs it has to its name, as well as having Chaos (a fearsome hole) lying just below, my better judgment has convinced me to make the labored hike around instead. You never know however, I did tell myself at one point I would never even be on this run…

Taking in the view of Spirit Falls from the lip
(photo by Shawn Haggin)

A view of the river left side of Spirit Falls.
The part you run is directly behind Eric
Emerson who took this photo from the lip.

There was another group in front of us that was in the middle of portaging Spirit, so instead of getting in line we decided to sit at the lip of the falls and take another break in another unbelievable setting. Once we were done taking in the view, we made the portage around the falls. As we came to the spot where you lower your boats by rope, Chris pointed out the location where Ryan Morgan had lost his life in a strainer on river left just below the portage route. Even though I never got to meet Ryan I was still grief stricken as I lowered my boat down the rocky cliff to the base of Chaos, truly a tragedy.

Once we had all made the portage and ran the next couple of drops, Chris informed me that I still had a task to do that is considered a rite of passage for anyone venturing down the Little White. Not knowing what to think, I made my way to a river left eddy above a nice sized ledge pour-over and awaited instructions. Since I'm not sure if this is supposed to be kept secret I won't disclose the details, but I can say it adds some fun excitement to the trip...

Below this is one more significant drop before the river starts to mellow out, which is called Master Blaster. We did a quick scout from river right where I was told to run down the center left side, and bust through a small hole before going over the last part of the drop, a fun 6' or so plunge between a midstream boulder and the cliff wall on the left. After watching the others have a variety of lines but coming through OK, I followed in similar fashion. As I hit the first hole, I was a little taken aback at its punch, which left me in complete whiteout. Now blinded, I dropped over the left side of the bottom ledge and was drug along the left wall on the way down. Luckily, I was able to keep 'er upright and joined the rest below the drop.

From here to the takeout our only real obstacles were small man-made dams. They were pretty fun to run but were somewhat anticlimactic after venturing down what lay upstream. Soon enough we hit the flat water of Drano Lake and made the short paddle to our awaiting vehicles, where we were greeted by Captain, Chris's giant yellow lab.

I felt great having finished the run I had been so intrigued by for many years. Huge thanks to Chris, Eric, and Shawn for showin' us down. In retrospect, and from a part-time class IV-V boater's perspective, I would say that the drops on the Little White are definitely manageable but a good guide was invaluable. I also would say, for a boater at my level, you have to really want it and check any apprehension you might have at the door; basically have a "let's do this" attitude. Luckily for me, on this day I had both a great guide and the right mind-set, which allowed us to get down the river with absolutely no carnage. It was truly my most memorable day of boating!

The crew after a successful run down the LW!
From left to right: Chris Arnold, Shawn Haggin,
Eric Arlington, Nate Pfeifer (me), and Eric Emerson.

The following week (4th of July weekend) I again got on the LW, this time at ~3'. Another great time was had with the exception of a severe beat-down I was handed for blowing the line at Horseshoe. Once again, thanks to my crew for being there and ensuring that I didn't swim over Stovepipe, which is something I'd rather not think about. This just served as a reminder that you always have to respect the power of the river and learn how to use it rather than fight against it. Instead of describing how I screwed up the line, I'll just let you see it from my perspective (see video below):

Beatdown on the Little White Salmon from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

Here is the head-cam footage for the rest of the run (up to Horseshoe where I didn't feel link filming anymore =)):

Little White - Head-Cam Footage from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Nate,

    Thanks for the write-up and the kind words. I’ve had the privilege of taking 12 people down the LW for the first time. I always try to do as good of a job as James Bagley when he showed me down for the first time.


  2. excellent, thanks for sharing