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

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