Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Upper MF Willamette (4.23.11)

First documented descent, or an attempt at least...

The first time I mountain biked alongside the Upper MF Willamette I remember wondering if anyone had kayaked it before. I had just started creek boating so I really didn’t have much of a clue as to whether it would actually be good or not. However, I do remember seeing a waterfall and gorge or two and thinking that it would probably be worth checking out by someone. I assumed that people would probably be deterred by the poor access, at least for the fun looking sections. The one thing I knew for sure was that I certainly didn’t have the skills or knowledge to pull it off myself.

Fast-forward a few years and my intrigue for this section somehow returned. I believe it is partially due to Jacob Cruser’s desire to explore some new runs in that area. When I pitched the idea to him a couple of weeks ago, he was more than game -- unfortunately we were denied on the first attempt by snow levels below the put-in and time left in the day. Fast-forward even further to last weekend, where once again Jacob and I had made plans to give it another go. These plans were also quickly squashed as work called and he was sequestered to raft-guide up north. I really wanted to run something new and a little adventurous, so I pitched the same idea to my buddy Shawn, who jumped on board pretty quick. After firming up plans we tried to wrangle a couple others to join us, and in the end both Aaron Loft and Bob Lee took the bait.

The section that we were planning to run was only about 3 ½ miles long and had an average gradient of around 200fpm. I figured that as long as we got a reasonably early start we should have plenty of time to complete our mission. We would take out at Indigo Springs and put in via a decommissioned service road and short bushwhack down to the river.

The map showing our day's adventure

It took us a little more than an hour to get to the run from Eugene, and after dropping off a car at our planned takeout we hiked down to see what the water situation was -- it looked like it would probably be a perfect level for a first attempt. Back in the car, we continued up the road a short bit before running into a small shaded section that still had snow. It wasn’t necessarily deep, but it was quite soft, which required us to do a couple runs at it to break through. Soon enough we came to our turn off, which sent us down a brushy dirt road that will most likely be taken back by mother nature at some point. Eventually we were stopped by a couple of trees that had fallen across the road, which forced us to hike the remaining ¼ mile or so down to the river.

The level for our descent. The gauge was reading ~1700cfs,
but this is at the reservoir (~15 to 20 miles downstream).
I would say we probably had about 1/4 of this.

The end of the road

Once we reached our destination, the first thing we noticed was how small the river was at this point, and much more so than what we had seen from the takeout. After a quick study of the map to ensure we were in the right place, it appeared that we were starting the run where the river was fairly braided and probably had three main channels. Another thing that became apparent once we had put on was the generous amount of wood that blocked our path and forced us out of our boat every couple hundred yards or so. My hope was that I hadn’t gotten us into a daylong portage-fest, and that our path would be much clearer once the separate channels had merged into one. Before long the river did come back together, but unfortunately the wood did not disappear, and we found ourselves doing more climbing over logs than kayaking. At this point the river was still pretty flat so my next hope was that once we picked up some gradient and the walls closed in that our luck would change.

Shawn and Bob get geared up at the put-in

Typical character of the first half mile or so

Shawn runs one of the only clean drops of the first bit

Just about when I was starting to lose hope, the river dropped out of sight in front of us, signaling a good sized horizon line. I was cautiously optimistic as I stepped out of my boat to peer over the edge. I almost couldn’t believe what appeared in front of me, a super clean, vertical, river-wide, 10 to 12’ waterfall! Unfortunately there was one small problem, a river-wide limbo log lay just downstream in the shallow run-out. Upon further inspection, we determined that with safety set at the log it could be run safely. I mean, there was no way I wasn’t going to run this thing after what we had just came through, and knowing that it would probably continue below the waterfall.

The first glimpse of "Hole in the Wall" Falls. Almost too good to be true!

A view of the falls from below

Loft volunteered to go first and climbed back upstream to get in his boat. I setup on the log for safety and photos while Bob manned the left-hand eddy below the falls, where he would offer assistance should Aaron need it. I soon saw his helmet come into view along with an occasional paddle blade, and as he drove toward the lip he aimed for the highpoint, which I assume he thought was the best boof platform. Unfortunately this spot didn’t have enough water, so he briefly stalled out before dropping over -- hey, at least we now knew the landing was deep!

Aaron gets the first documented huck of Hole in the Wall Falls

As I looked up at Shawn, who was standing at the lip, he gave me the thumbs-up to signal that he was ready for his turn. He soon came into view similar to how Lofty had, but he lined up the lip a little further right where there was more water going over. As he came over he got in a last stroke and made the plunge. Once he resurfaced he paddled over to the left eddy and got out to trade places with Bob, who went next and had a very similar line to Shawn.

Shawn takes his turn

Shawn gets baptized

Bob lining it up perfectly

Shawn give some assistance to Bob to help avoid flushing into the log below.

I was last, and after handing my camera gear to Bob, I scrambled up the bank to take my turn. As I took a last look at my line I noticed that I hadn’t even looked at the entrance ledge, a pour-over with a small recirculating hole. It was kicking out on the right side, but the current from there moved pretty quickly toward the falls, and I had planned to eddy out between the two drops. Not wanting to overthink it, I turned away and hiked to my boat. The entrance drop went well, although I did have to put in a couple hard digs to climb into the eddy. Once there I pointed upstream and ferried back into the main current. About 5 feet from the lip, I let my bow swing back around and put in one last stroke as I came over the falls, landing nicely. We were all pretty happy that the we had gotten to at least run one good drop! Aaron had probed, and since this was a first documented descent, we gave him the honors of naming the drop. In the end he settled on “Hole in the Wall” Falls, due to a small cave in the cliff wall just below the drop.

The author drops in...
(photo by Bob Lee)

...and over
(photo by Bob Lee)

Below the falls the wood continued, which was a shame since the gradient picked up and it had ruined a couple of would-be good drops, including another small waterfall. At one point we actually got out and walked the trail for a short while to portage a few jams in one effort. Although we had only gone a little over a mile, mental and physical fatigue was starting to set in. We had a brief discussion on whether or not it was time to hike out. After looking at our options on the map, it looked like our best bet would be to hike-out at Chuckle Springs, about a half mile down and just below the crux gorge section. We were a little concerned that once the walls closed in that our portage options would dissolve, which could be a big issue based on all the wood we had already encountered.

"Great, looks like more wood..."

Starting to get more channelized

What would have been a fun drop was ruined by yet more wood

We did get to run a fun relatively wood-free section before we reached what appeared to be the start of the gorge. I was leading at this point and dropped in between a short section of vertical walls. The exit to this small gorge was yet another log blockage, and I turned back to see Bob looking at me with concerned eyes. Luckily we were able to run a very narrow line to get out, but portaging would have been a real undertaking had we not been able to get through in our boats.

Shawn gets ready to drop into one of the
only clean (relatively speaking) stretches

The runout from the photo taken above

Another shot of the same section

Shawn lends Bob a hand by lifting up a branch to allow passage

Just downstream we reached what appeared to be the point of no return for the crux section. We could see that there was a large horizon as the river dropped out of sight. Of course there was more wood guarding this entrance, but it looked like you might be able to navigate through it. By this time Shawn, Bob, and Aaron were having a discussion and motioned for me to come over. “It’s probably time to re-evaluate”, I believe is what one of them said to me. We had been on the water for ~4 hours and only gone a little over a mile and a half. Chuckle Springs was just past the gorge that lay in front of us, but with the wood situation, it was too risky to drop in without a thorough scouting effort.

The new plan was for Bob to hike up the hill to see if he could find an easy way out, while I hiked downstream to look at what lay in front of us. My mission ended up being pretty difficult as the banks were near vertical and the soil was soft due to a fire that had recently torched the area. I didn’t make it very far before I decided it was just too difficult and dangerous to scout effectively, I couldn’t even get close enough to the first drop. Feeling defeated, I turned back to report the news.

Looking downstream at the first drop of the crux gorge,
which as shown, had a concerning amount of wood.

When I made it back to where the others were, Loft and Shawn were still chatting and there was no sign of Bob. Apparently he had not returned from his recon, and we joked about how he must have been eaten by a cougar. Finally we were able to trade whistles with him and he soon came scrambling down the steep slope. Luckily he was able to determine our exit strategy and quickly gave us the details. Basically it would be a steep but manageable carry up to a small cliff band, where a short 5:8 climb and roped boats would get us over. Just above that was the MF trail which paralleled the river, and on the other side of that, a fire line was cut through the trees and in the direction of the road. As we started the climb I realized how tired I had actually become, and I was now cursing all the safety/camera gear I had to haul out. The climb up the vertical cliff ended up being pretty easy, especially with the group effort.

When we got to the trail we decided to hike down-a-ways and look into the gorge that we were unable to scout from our location at river level. We peeked down from a couple of viewing points, and although we were high up, we could tell that it was much cleaner and had much better drops than what we had just came through. We did see a couple pieces of wood spanning the river, but it was hard to tell from our vantage point whether they could be limbo'd or portaged easily. One thing we all agreed on was that it actually looked pretty good, and might even be worth coming back to explore it – although a hike in and pre-scout (and potential maintenance) would almost certainly be required before an attempt was made.

A peek into the gorge on our hike out. It looked like fun
class V from our perspective, and fairly clear of wood, which
sparked discussions of a return to complete the mission.

One of the drops in the gorge, I'm
guessing a technical 6 to 8 foot fan ledge.

The rest of the hike out (mainly on the fire line) was pretty easy going, and after about 10 or 15 minutes we reached the road, all a little pooped. Since we were right at the mid-point, it really didn’t matter which car we retrieved, but Aaron offered to get his first, which I gladly accepted. Once he returned with the car we drove up and got mine before heading home. We reached Oakridge just before 7pm and when I was supposed to be at my house hosting a BBQ. Luckily my wife is used to kayaker time estimates and was covering for me.

Bob nears the end of the hike out

The stats:
  • 1.7 miles of river
  • 14 log portages
  • 300 ft vertical hike out
  • 5 hours (including hike out)

In the end I’m not sure if the run we did was worth the effort, in fact I’m pretty sure that the others would agree it wasn’t. However, it’s good to get in an adventure every now and again, especially with the monotony of doing the same old runs time after time. I would actually love to go back and finish up the mission. I’m not sure who in the original crew would join after what we dealt with on the first half, but I should be able to sucker someone else into it, eventually…

Once again, I'm calling this a "first documented descent" since I don't know if it's been done before. However, I have to assume that someone else has done it, even though my research turned up nothing. Please let me know if you have heard of someone doing it so I can give credit to where it's due.

Followup - Gorge Scout (1.8.12):
With little local options for boating this weekend, Roman Androsov and I decided to hike in the gorge (below where we hiked out before) to see if it was runnable and/or worth it. The short answer to both is no. Basically what we found was trashy class V boulder drops in a super committing/walled-in gorge. If the wood wasn't there you could probably pick your way through, but once again, not really worth it. In the end, I'm glad we scouted it out, ever since our hike out above it I'd been really curious about what we had missed. Well, check this mission off the list, it's time to start looking for another. If your curious, here are a few pics from our scout:

Wood complicating one of the first few drops in the gorge

This one too

Below the first couple of boulder drops. The waterfall
sliding down the wall marks the half-way point.

Pretty amazing scenery in the gorge

This photo gives you an idea of the wall-in nature of the gorge

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Blue River (4.17.11)

Blue River used to be my “go to” run when I first started creek boating. Its technical moves, friendly character, and good flow range make it one of the best stepping stone runs for aspiring class III+/IV boaters in the area. It is much more of a creek than a river, and in fact, was my first experience into that part of the sport that would change my life forever.

The flow range for Blue is quite wide, but it also changes character from one end to the other. At levels of 300cfs to 500cfs, it’s quite technical and stress free. Between 600cfs and 800cfs it fills in nicely and is probably considered the “sweet spot” for most class IV boaters. In my opinion the creek really comes to life once it gets over 900cfs, and starts to have more of a river feel, with more continuous water and bigger features. Even at these higher flows the creek/river bed handles the water well, and most holes will flush you out after a quick surf session if you happened to be trapped by one. I’m not sure what the top end is, but I have been on it once at around 1,500cfs, it was fun but also pretty exciting.

On this day we had ~1100cfs, a super fun flow. We ended up here after a scouting mission of a rarely run creek in the area that revealed levels too high to safely run. We knew that Blue was at a nice juicy flow and would work great as a backup. It was also only about 15 minutes away, so we didn’t spend too much extra time in getting there.

Although there is an upper put-in that starts from Quentin Creek which allows you to run “Food for Thought” (class V), most people put-in at Cook Creek due to the wood and portage around FFT upstream. I’ve done the upper stretch once at around 800cfs, and would only go back up there if flows were lower, since the hole at Food for Thought was pretty nasty and the portage was a pain.

Below Cook Creek, Blue River begins its descent through a series of fun boogie water, and depending on flow is either pool-drop or continuous; at our flow it was definitely moving. Some drops are bigger than others, but for the most part they’re all read & run. The first major drop is S-Turn (aka Pincushion). The whole drop is not visible from above, but it’s super easy to scout from the road on the way up, which we did, so we knew that it was both clear of wood and had already chosen our lines. I think S-Turn is actually easier at these flows since it can be quite trashy when it's lower. I decided to setup for some pics while the others came down. Afterwards, Joe was nice enough to switch spots and get a couple shots of me as well.

Joe halfway through S-Turn

Roman makes the move

Scott enters S-Turn

The author finishes up S-Turn...
(photo by Joe Bushyhead)

...and eddies out below
(photo by Joe Bushyhead)

Roman and Scott relax below S-Turn

Continuing downstream, our next obstacle was going under a couple of large logs propped up above the river. These logs have been here for quite some time and don’t really present much of an issue, but staying away from the right side is advisable since there is a log lying just below the surface. Not far below this is the next major (unnamed) drop. It’s basically a double ledge that goes by entering the first part either hard right or hard left, and the second part pretty much anywhere, although try and avoid the recirculating eddy against the left bank at the bottom. It was nice and juiced up at this level, I ran it right down the middle and it actually felt a little bigger than S-Turn. The rest of the crew followed soon after with good lines as well.

Just below here is a fun mini-gorge that exits through a decent sized hole. As long as you’re left of center you’ll shoot right through. I know of people who have swam out of here at various levels, but it’s pretty rare to get stuck.

The author about to drop into the
hole at the end of the mini gorge.
(photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska; taken on a previous trip at much lower flow)

More fun boogie water continued until we reached a pooled up section above a left-hand bend and an obvious horizon line. The lighting was perfect, so even though scouting wasn’t absolutely necessary, I held up the others so I could get some pics. After setting up and pointing out the preferred line for them, they drove through the small ledge hole one by one without issue. More fun water continued as we moved further downstream.

Scott digs in

Joe bustin' through

The crew in the run-out to the drop pictured above

The next big drop is a series of three ledges. This one I did want to scout since wood had been an issue in the past. Also, since I hadn’t run it at this level in a while, I couldn’t remember how sticky the holes were. With that, I jumped out of my boat armed with my throwbag and a camera. Scott’s recollection was that everything went nicely down the right, and upon further inspection, this appeared to be the case. There were a few wave/holes but everything seemed to be kicking out pretty well. I gave the others the signal and took some shots as they came through.

Joe enters the three tiered drop

Joe lining up the first tier (just below him)

Scott comes out of the first tier

Between here and the confluence with Tidbits Creek were a couple more fun drops, but for the most part much more mellow than the stuff upstream. Soon enough the road bridge came into view, where we had planned to take out. You can actually continue another mile and all the way to the reservoir, but there are only a couple of good drops, and the last (and best) one was currently covered by the filled reservoir.

Roman and the author run one
of the last drops above the reservoir
(photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska; taken
on a previous trip at much lower flow)

The final stretch above the reservoir
(photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska; taken
on a previous trip at much lower flow)

Instead of continuing down we decided to go checkout Lookout Creek, which was supposedly class 3(4). Unfortunately, on the drive up we noticed a fair bit of wood, so decided it probably wasn’t worth it. So instead, we loaded up, drank a beer in celebration of our day, and headed home. Even though Blue River doesn’t provide quite the excitement it once did during my early boating years, it’s still a great run, especially if you bring a playboat instead. It also brings back lots of memories of good times with old friends.

The head-cam footage from our run down Blue River:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hills Creek (4.9.11)

After weeks of bailing on Jacob for some exploratory boating, I finally committed to making it happen. We had first thought about looking at a run in the South Santiam drainage, but then our attention was turned to the Upper MF Willamette watershed, based on some further research that he had done. After getting some photographs of the creek online, I agreed it looked like it had promise and a plan was set. Since this write-up is about Hills Creek (where we ended up), I’ll keep this part short and sweet. Basically we got to our destination and verified that it would definitely be worth doing, but unfortunately it only had about half the flow of what we would have liked. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the name of the creek, it's probably because it deserves its own write-up, but only after it’s been run, and I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag just yet!

With this plan on hold we decided to check out a couple of stretches on the MF Willamette above Hills Creek. Unfortunately we ran into snow at the section we wanted to put on, which also turned us back. We could have hiked in, but we weren’t sure we have enough time for that and an unknown run before it got dark. On to the next one…
The one creek in the area I did know would be running is Hills Creek, although it’s certainly not one of my favorite runs. It actually has a lot of promise, but unfortunately the stuff that would be good, like the put-in waterfall, or first gorge, are sketchy due to wood or junky rock formations. It’s really too bad, because other than that, it’s a beautiful run with tight walled gorges and some fun in-between stuff. Since Jacob hadn’t yet done the run, it was pretty easy to convince him that it was still a good idea.

The gauge used to determine approximate flows in Hills Creek.
Supposedly you divide this flow by 5 in the winter and 4 in
the spring
to get a rough idea of what you'll have in Hills.
The gauge read
2,000cfs for our run, which would equate
to between 400 and 500 cfs, although it felt like more than that.

On the drive there I mentioned that we should scout the two gorges for wood on the way up, which would save us time once we were on the river. Also it would be good to scout the first gorge to see if we even wanted to run it at all, due to its trashy nature and consequence for a missed line. Luckily I was able to recognize where the second gorge was in relation to the road, and we parked the car and scrambled through the brush to get a peek. Upon inspection, it was clean. We also confirmed that the water level was good, and probably in the medium to medium-high range. Next, we drove up to the top gorge, which allows for easy road scouting. Basically it's located where a rock quarry meets the road on the left and the trees give way for easy viewing. The first two drops can be seen from here. The first is a narrow slot against the left wall and a midstream boulder. The hole does have a little grab to it, but the real issue is that a portion of the boulder partially blocks the slot on the right, creating a piton hazard. If you hit it, you'd probably bounce back into the hole and setup for some fun rodeo action. After this and a fast run-out is a broken ledge that is also far from clean. I've seen people have violent pitons against the exposed rock in the center, and even "cleanly" run lines haven't looked that pretty.

The first drop of the first gorge,
a tough slot drop against the right wall.

Looking down into the second drop in the gorge

The second drop of the gorge, a nasty broken
ledge that this photo does not show very well.

To see the third, and most difficult drop, you must do a bit of bushwhacking down a steep slope to a viewing platform above the gut of it. The big concern here is the "Room of Doom" against the right wall, where most of the flow goes after pillowing off the left wall. There is also a ledge just above it that you must clean to have any hope of avoiding a stay in this room. At higher flows, like we had, it's a fairly low percentage drop, and the pillow would be very tough to get over if you weren't in complete control. Even if the other two drops were clean, this one definitely makes you think twice about running the gorge, since taking out between it and the drop above would be difficult. At this point Jacob and I still weren't sure if we wanted to gamble with it, but decided to drop a rope into the room and tie it off above, just in case.

The third, and hardest, drop of the
first gorge. Note the "Room of Doom"
in the bottom-left of the photo.

Jacob looking into the Room. It's hard to tell
in this photo, but the water is pillowing hard
off the left wall and deflecting right into it.

We still had one more scout before putting on, the put-in falls. Wood had been a problem here in the past, but with the flooding that occurred earlier in the season I was hopeful that this had changed. Unfortunately this was not the case and the wood situation was still pretty bad. The upper falls had a vertical log on the left side that complicated running it. There was a line, but it was fairly thin and would require you to boof out and to the right of the veil. Further, the wood in the next drop had rendered that one unrunnable. Running just the upper falls was an option, but there was a slim chance that you'd get pulled into the logjam below if you had troubles above it. Also, we were burning daylight and it seemed like it would be a lengthy affair. With that we decided to put-in just below.

Jacob scouts the top 18 to 20'er.

Looking downstream of the waterfall into the log-choked bottom drop

The left side of the bottom drop. If you look carefully
you can see Jacob still scouting the top falls.

The right side of the bottom drop. Nasty!

The first part of the run consisted of fun class III boulder fields with an occasional log to dodge here and there. I was actually surprised to see it much more clear of wood than the last time I did it, which required a few portages. Before long we reached a series of slides that made an S-turn and dropped out of sight. Still a little gun-shy after my last wood episode, I decided to get out and give a look. Once I confirmed it was all clear, I setup and took photos as Jacob dropped in. Other than being blind, the drop is pretty straightforward and plenty fun.

Looking downstream from the put-in. This is pretty
characteristic of the first mile or so of the run.

Jacob enjoying himself on the slide section

Halfway through the slides...

...and nearing the end

Just around the corner from the slide the road came into view on the right, signaling the start of the first, and tougher of two gorges. Since we had planned to walk this one, we took out just above it and hiked straight up to the road. By this time my injured ribs (from my previously mentioned log pin; here) were really starting to bother me. This must have been pretty obvious to Jacob, who offered a much appreciated hand in hauling my boat up. The nice thing about having the road right there, was that it made for an easy portage around the gorge, and we were able to put-in not far below the last drop of it.

Now off and running again, we continued further down the creek. Even though we were between the two gorges, the walls started to narrow down a bit and the scenery become much more spectacular. Soon we dropped into the first part of the second gorge with a fairly trashy entrance drop that deposited us into a slow moving pool between narrow vertical walls -- similar to Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge, only on a much smaller scale. Around the next corner we took out to scout the class IV stretch.

The crux section of the class IV gorge

The exit to the crux section

It started off with a narrow line to either the right or left of a large mid-stream boulder. The right slot was a little more complicated and fell into a fairly sticky looking hole, which also seemed to be somewhat undercut. Based on these factors we chose the more straightforward left line, although even it had somewhat of a hole. After a brief scout, Jacob felt good about the move and offered to fire it up first. He came through the small initial drop and lined up for the left slot. As he dropped through I could see him throw in a last stroke to bust through the hole, before paddling into the narrow gorge below and out of sight. I ran down along cliff where I found him held up in a small right hand eddy giving me a thumbs up.

Jacob enters the gorge

Lining up the left slot...

...and dropping in

Jacob paddles into the slot gorge below

With my bruised ribs I didn't feel comfortable running the slot drop without some kind of safety setup at the hole. In reality I'm not sure how effective a rope would have been, since the safety platform wasn't very good for pulling someone out of the hole. However, Jacob graciously agreed and we started the process of getting him and his boat up on shore and out of the tight little gorge. This ended up being more of an ordeal than I had anticipated, and may have been more dangerous than just running the drop without safety. I guess if nothing else, we got to work on our extraction skills, which was also kinda fun.

I basically ended up running the same line as Jacob and had pretty similar results, although not far below the slot I was deflected into the left wall by a midstream rock just below the surface, which should be noted on the scout, since at lower water it could be more of an issue. I eddied out where we had pulled Jacob up and where he was planning to seal-launch back in. It was actually a pretty dramatic re-entry, which he did with style and a big smile on this face.

Below here and not too far downstream, the gorge walls opened up a bit and we were treated to a couple more fun class III rapids before the takeout bridge came into sight. You can actually continue down to the reservoir about a mile downstream, but we decided to cut the section out due to time constraints and the reservoir being full enough to cover up the last couple of rapids.

Looking back upstream into the gorge
from the eddy we lifted Jacob out of

Opening back up


Our takeout

It had been a long day of scouting potential runs and boating on Hills Creek, but it was also really fun. However, once again, this run is not one of my favorites, it's just not clean enough to be one of our "go-to runs". I'd probably only do this run once every couple of years and it would be more for the scenery than the whitewater.

Head-cam footage from our run down Hills Creek: