The South Fork Coquille has been on my radar for quite some time. There are multiple sections on this stretch of river, although, one in particular had peaked my interest more than the others. It is simply referred to as “The Gem”. After reading Steve’s write-up (here) and seeing things such as “instant class V classic” and “a more difficult version of the Miracle Mile”, I was foaming at the mouth to get on it. Further, the stated gradient of 300fpm (600fpm in the first 1/8 of a mile) for a boulder garden run was also quite appealing.
So why had it taken me so long to get on it?! Well for starters it's quite a ways away from Eugene (~3hrs). In addition convincing weekend warriors to take a chance and abandon plans on one of our roadside classics can be tough. This weekend seemed to be the perfect excuse to head down, all of the standard Cascade runs were snowed in (and would require a good deal of hiking), plus due to the snow levels, the flows weren’t that attractive either. Knowing that the SF Coquille was in the coast range, the elevation wouldn’t be all that high, and the flow also looked like it would be medium low (based on the stated range), which would probably be good for a personal first descent. After a round of phone calls and emails the crew was formed. Joe Bushyhead, Roman Androsov, and I would be coming from Eugene, and Shawn Haggin would be joining us from Roseburg; pretty much the usual suspects.
After meeting up at LCC, the Eugene crew headed south, where we met-up with Shawn right off the I-5, just south of Roseburg. From there we headed west, and into the coast range. The drive was long indeed, and by the time we reached the takeout, 16 miles upstream from Powers, we were pretty much in the middle of nowheres-ville, Oregon. The first thing we noticed upon inspection of the river, was that it looked really low. The gauge at powers was reading ~1200cfs, and the stated flow range was 1000 to 2000, so we optimistically thought, “Well, maybe it’s more channelized up higher…”. Since there were no painted markings on the bridge pillar (they must have been removed since Steve's write-up), we couldn't verify the level, but we decided to just take a chance. With that we got changed and headed toward the put-in, which shouldn’t have been far, since the run is only ¾ of a mile long.
We had a little bit of snow at the takeout, but it started getting deeper and deeper as we made the steep climb up the road. As we approached a summit, we turned left off the main road and continued to climb. Since there was only one other set of tracks (which were already partially covered), it was puttin’ my Suby to the test. Soon the snow was up to my under carriage, and not wanting to get stuck (plus our other car was only 2wd), we opted to park on the side of the road and continue by foot. The nice thing about hiking through the snow is that you can drag your boat behind you without burning a hole though it. However, your feet still get a little heavy.
We hiked for probably another half mile before crossing over a road bridge and cool little waterfall. Just on the other side of this was our marked trail down to the river. Although the trail wound through a snowy forest, it was nice and wide and headed downhill, which made for hastily descent down another half mile or so of trail. If you’re counting, we are now at 3 hours (one-way) of driving and 1 mile of hiking, for a .75 mile stretch of river; hmmm…
Our efforts were partially rewarded when we rounded a corner and both the river and awesome cascading waterfall, Coquille Falls, came into view. This multi-tiered, nearly 100’ tall waterfall, is far from runnable, but created a wonderful backdrop for the start of our adventure. Although only ½ mile from the road, it felt like we were in a highly remote location.
There was a drop directly below the falls which plunged ~10’; although, both sides of the forked entrance had issues. The right went through a narrow (and shallow chute) that would have been hard to clean and get a boof stroke in. The left approach was far better but also sent you into the gut of the pocket, and most likely a beat-down. After giving it a little thought, we all wisely chose to put-in below it. As soon as we put on, we had to ferry across the pool to start a portage of a log blocking the channel. It was an easy portage, but we hoped this wasn’t a precursor to what lie downstream.
The first drop we actually ran had a sieve in the middle of it, but since the water wasn’t very high it really wasn’t in play. We all made the easy line off a shelf and through a slot to the right of it, before continuing downstream.
Above the next drop, and at the start of the boulder garden, Roman got out on river-left to scout and give us beta. He quickly navigated us using hand signals to an eddy about halfway down the drop. From here Shawn got out with Joe to look at the next pitch. After some time they signaled it was a no-go and required a partial portage. With my boat on my shoulder I walk past what had given them concern, a trashy little slot that fed into an undercut rock. Luckily we were able to put-in just below it to finish up the drop, which ended up being a fun airplane turn into a pool below.
This pool emptied into another blind boulder drop, requiring another scout and partial portage. Like the others this one was also quite trashy due to the level, and required some moves back and forth to navigate through it cleanly. The last part of the drop had two options, going left through a boily diagonal slot, or right over a small ledge with a couple F-U rocks to thread through. We all chose the right line and came through without issue.
Next up was probably my favorite drop of the run, a 10 to 12 foot double tiered plunge between large boulders. Going off verbal and hand signals from Roman, we came through the drop cleanly with smiles on our faces; we hoped there were more like this one downstream.
Immediately below here the river poured over another ledge, with most of the flow directed into a large undercut boulder on the bottom left. There was a line on the left but it was uncomfortably close to the undercut, so most of us chose the chunkier line down the right.
We were now faced with a fairly long /complex boulder garden, that was surprisingly clean. Once again you couldn't see around the large boulders, Roman and Joe scouted from different locations and gave beta as I worked my way through the drop. I stopped near the bottom and got out to take some photos as they came through and joined Shawn below the drop.
We were now about halfway through the run. The rest consisted of more trashy boulder drops and ledges with sieves here and there for good measure and to keep you on your toes. We also came to a couple islands which split the current and made it that much more trashy. There weren't really any standout drops on the second half and we got through them both boat and bank scouting, with portages made around the ones with no clean lines.
Finally the takeout bridge came into view, and although we had only gone ~3/4 of a mile, it had taken us the better part of 3 hours and I was pretty glad to see it (I'm sure the others were as well). Back at the car we changed into our street cloths, while Shawn, with help from the others chained up his Buick so we could retrieve my car which was still sitting in the snow near the put-in. I was actually surprised with how well it did in the snow on the way back up, and we made much better time than anticipated. On the way back we stopped to load our boat before heading back toward home, it had been a long day for such a short stretch of river...
I'm somewhat conflicted on summarizing this run. Since we had such low flow, I'm not sure I'd be giving it a fair shake. That said, I would guess that 50% more water would equate to the minimal "good" flow, and probably double what we had for a more optimal level. I'm guessing that it was much lower than the 1200cfs (at Powers) would indicate, because it was looked up in the form of snow; similar to how the flow correlation for Opal Creek and Upper Quartzville changes based on the season. The others felt that due to the character and gradient of the run, double the flow would start to get a little scary; however, I still hold hope that it would "pad out", become much cleaner, and more runnable. One nice thing about the run was that it was almost completely clear of wood, with only a couple pieces in play. If I was to go back down, I'd like to camp for the weekend (in warmer weather) and do some of the other runs in the area; then it might actually be worth it.
In the end, it was also kinda fun to practice our river signals and scouting for the group, which I must say everyone did extremely well. The jury is certainly still out on whether this is truly a "instant class V classic", but for now I would have to say no...
Here is some head-cam footage of some of the upper (and best) half of The Gem: