One of the first things that Emily and I did after moving to Oregon was go backpacking up Eagle Creek, in the Columbia River Gorge. I remember being completely blown away by the massive waterfalls and moss covered cliff walls and trees. It was a stark contrast from Arizona, where we had moved from. The trail that parallels Eagle Creek and allows access to hikers was built using dynamite by Italian engineers in the 1910s. Also, the area above the 800’ mark was officially designated as Wilderness in 1984.
Fast forward ~10 years to 2011. Although I’ve grown accustomed to my new environment, I'm still awed when I visit places like Eagle Creek. Now being a kayaker (I wasn’t back then) I wondered what it would be like from the water level in my boat, as opposed to high up along the cliff walls. I’d seen many pictures and a few videos of fellow kayakers entering the canyon, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I made the journey myself.
Eagle Creek is not for the faint of heart, and the standard run (from Skoonichuck Falls) requires a four mile hike in, albeit on the well maintained hiking trail. Furthermore, one of the main reasons for hiking in is to run some big drops, and big they are. The first, Skoonichuck Falls, is a two-tiered monster that starts with a 40’er before almost immediately dropping over another 15’er. The next big boy is Punchbowl Falls, a 35’ drop into a deep pool with a notoriously hard landing. Not far below here lies the crown jewel, Metlako, 20’ of slope into 80’ of freefall, for a total of a 10 story drop!
For the last couple of weeks, Eagle Creek had entered my mind a few times, and when my buddy Chris threw the idea out in an email thread, I pounced. Now all we needed to do was round up a crew and find out how to determine flows (there's no real information out there on the internet for this). Chris worked on rounding up people up north, while I targeted the Eugene area. I also got in contact with Jacob Cruser, to see if he was interested in joining us. Jacob has done the run a few times and he’s always a good person to have along, as well as get beta from. Unfortunately he had already made plans, but he was able to direct us to the best gauge to use for determining flow. Basically, he stated that 400cfs on the Bull Run near Multnomah was a great medium flow. Further, he knew of people that had run Eagle Creek when this gauge was reading 600’. At that level Skoonichuck was too big to run (in their opinion) but the rest was good to go. He also stated that going in there over 700cfs would probably feel pretty full on. After looking at the gauge, it appeared that flows would be between 400 and 500cfs for Saturday. Perfect, right in the sweet spot, the plan was set.
After many phone calls we were only able to wrangle up one more person into joining us, Eric Arlington, one of our dependable kayaking buddies from the Portland area. Luckily, Roman was planning to come up to Portland with me so he could run the slalom gates with Stephen Cameron. Having company would make the drive a little more enjoyable as well as help with the cost of fuel. We had also planned to all boat together on Sunday, so everything was starting to come together. Saturday morning rolled around, and after driving up to Portland and dropping Roman off at Stephen’s house, I headed over to Lewis & Clark State Park to meet up with Chris and Eric. Once we had all loaded up, we set our course for the parking area at the start of the famous Eagle Creek Trail.
When we entered the parking lot we saw that there were a couple groups of kayakers already there, packing up and preparing for the hike in. Obviously the word had gotten out about the water level. Upon talking to them we also discovered that these were not local crews, but rather from the southwest, specifically Colorado and Utah. After chatting for a bit they started the hike while we got our stuff packed up.
After some last minute preparations and some final adjustments to my kayak pack, I started up the trail, with my crew up ahead and almost out of sight. The hike in was long, but scenic. We stopped a few times along the way to rest and readjust. Eric, who didn’t have a pack, was shouldering his boat and doing everything he could do to prevent rubbing his shoulder raw. Chris, who was using the same NRS pack as me, managed to break it about a mile into the trip, and therefore was also forced to shoulder his boat up the trail. Luckily mine stayed intact, but with the boat’s high profile it was a little sketchy on some of the exposed/overhung portions of the trail. Our first major stop was at the overlook to Punchbowl, bigger than any waterfall I had run before, at 35’. From high up it didn’t look that big, but I knew this would be a different story from our perch at the lip once we were there in our kayaks.
We now had about 1 ½ miles to our put-in, and since I was fairly warmed up it didn’t seem too bad. The scenery from this stretch of trail is pretty spectacular, including a narrow slot canyon that I was quite excited about floating through. Before long, Skoonichuck came into view, and although it was far away it looked massive and I was already questioning whether I’d be running it or not.
At this point we had ran into the crew of three from Colorado, Leif, Natalie, and David. After offloading our boats we hiked down to the lip of the falls to give it a look. I believe, “Wow, that’s big!” were the first words out of my mouth. Chris gave a chuckle and replied “Yup”. I was now about 50/50 on running this beast. The concern was that there was essentially no time between the first 40’er and the bottom 15’er. As Chris noted, “It’s basically a giant version of Double Drop on The Green Truss!”. At this point Eric had joined us and was also looking at the falls. His decision was almost immediate, “Yeah, I’ll be putting in below”. After some deliberation, Chris and I both walked away and decided not to run it. We were a little bummed about this, but at the same time happy in knowing that wisdom (more than fear) was what was guiding our better judgment. There was a line but it kinda seemed like a roll of the dice.
(photo by Natalie Kramer)
The side trail that led to the base of the falls was back down the trail a bit. This off shoot was pretty steep but also short, so before long we were gearing up at the edge of the creek. Right below us was a ledge that I decided to take a look at before getting in my boat. This was good, since it allowed me to see that the right slot was pretty much a no-go, based on a piece of wood as well as a nasty hole. With that I directed the others to scrape down the far left side, where I followed soon after.
Just below was another horizon line, which Chris was already scouting. He motioned that it was good to go and then told us that it was an S-Turn drop which should be entered hard left. He also said it would be a good one for photos, so I jumped out to setup. Eric went first and had a super clean line. Chris was thrown around a bit, but finished it up clean. Now my turn, I ferried over to river left to drop in. I came down the tongue and was immediately flipped by the offset diagonals. After running almost the entirety of the drop on my head, I quickly rolled up in the pool below. In hindsight, I think the fact that Chris and I had to ferry over from the river right eddy complicated the line a bit, and didn’t allow us to enter cleanly. If I had it to do over again I would have put-in higher up or not eddied out at all and just stayed left.
Below here were a couple more fun ledge drops before High Bridge came into view, signaling the entrance to the slot canyon. Since it did have a drop leading into it, I decided it would be a good time to jump out, have a look, and take some photos. The line ended up being pretty straightforward along the hard left side, and it reminded me a lot of Upper Trestle on Brice Creek. The canyon below did not disappoint, and was just as impressive as I had imagined it being. After taking a couple shots, I quickly packed up my belongings so I could boat down and join the others between the moss covered vertical walls below.
We soon exited the slot and came to a pair of ledges, still in a gorge-type setting. The first drop had a narrow slot against the right wall that fed into a crack with a hole. It had a line, but it didn’t look that good to me or the others, so we all opted for the fun seal-launch into the eddy below on river left. From here a ferry back to river right lined us up for the next drop, with a tongue on that side to avoid a hole in the center.
Below these ledges the creek pooled in front of a logjam that was damming it up. We made the easy portage over the large log spanning the width of the creek at water level. Below here were a couple of class II/III rapids before we reached another obvious horizon line. What would be a fun ledge was all but ruined by a log that had fallen into the drop. There was a very narrow line on the far right side where the water spilled over it, but the water was pushing into the right overhung wall and it would have been difficult to stay off of it. Chris, who was scouting, quickly gave us the signal to portage. As I looked downstream from the rock shelf (that we were using to portage), it looked like Punchbowl Falls was right around the corner and we had reached a point of no return (based on the cliffed out walls). At this point Chris had already made the seal-launch back into the water and was headed downstream to check things out. Eric and I quickly made the portage as well and moved downstream to join him.
The drop a little way up from Punchbowl.
Unfortunately the log complicates the line
a bit, and most of the water plows into the right.
Unfortunately the log complicates the line
a bit, and most of the water plows into the right.
Sure enough we had reached Punchbowl, and the entrance drop that guarded it. After eddying out, I hiked across the sloping cliff wall and met up with Chris who was scouting the drop. As predicted, the drop looked bigger than it had from high up during the hike in. After a short discussion on who should go first and where we should setup for pictures, I volunteered to be the probe so I could setup for them from down below. I did ask Chris to take photos from above and then toss the camera (in a drybox) to me once I had run the waterfall. After a quick study of the entrance drop I headed upstream to jump in my boat. I had planned to ferry over to river right to run the entrance drop on that side, which was really the only clean line. Once I was setup in the eddy, I paddled toward the lead-in ledge. I came down the drop with a nice little boof near the bottom which deposited me in the boiling pool below, and ready for the plunge that laid in front of me.
I’d seen video from above of people running Punchbowl. One of the lines that looked really good to me was done by entering the pile as high up as possible and then riding it over the drop with a nice tuck. This would be my line, and we often refer to this recon as “video scouting”, usually in a joking manner. “Don’t worry man, it goes, I video scouted it!”After rehearsing the line in my head, I paddled toward my target. I was a bit surprised at the power of the boil which was actually pushing against me, and I had to put in some power strokes to make forward progress. As planned, I entered the pile high and drove through the seam with one last paddle stroke and a hip thrust. This is where thing started to go a little wrong. What happened next I didn’t expect (and therefore didn’t prepare for). I stalled out on the pile for an uncomfortable amount of time. Not only that but it was trying to spin me around and send me over backwards or upside down. Luckily I was able to keep it straight and upright, but unfortunately I had lost most of my speed and also wasn’t able to get in the tuck, which was probably the most important part (based on the infamous hard hit at the base). As I dropped through the air and toward the pool and the inevitable hit, I thought to myself, “This is gonna hurt”. Upon impact, which I landed completely flat, the jolt ripped the paddle from my hands, blew my skirt, readjusted my helmet cam, and flipped me. Without a sealed boat and paddle (I don’t have a hand roll), I was forced to swim. As I reached the surface I was glad that I was able to move all four limbs and had complete mobility. At this point I was pretty convinced that I hadn’t broken my back. I quickly swam for my paddle and grabbed it before climbing to shore and waiting for my boat, which was slowly floating toward me. A little shaken, I emptied my boat and asked the two gals (who were in their kayaks below the drop), if they could catch my camera as Chris threw it down. They graciously helped while I recomposed myself to prepare for my role as camera man.
After Chris was convinced that I was okay (through hand signals), he prepared for his turn. Although, I could not see the entrance ledge or boily pool above Punchbowl, I knew that Chris was coming based on the hooting and hollering from the others that were scouting the drop from the lip. He soon appeared on the pile with a deep blade in the draw position. As he transitioned the draw into a power boof stroke, he sailed off the curtain in perfect form. On the way down he was able to pitch the bow down and stuck the landing with an equally impressive angle. Happy with his line, he paddled over and joined the others in the right side of the pool.
We watched a couple of other paddlers go over (with good lines) before it was Eric’s turn. Eric was not super excited about the potential impact (especially after seeing my line), and had voiced his desire for me to get a good photo to make it worth it. Anyone who paddles with me can attest that this is not usually an issue, since I typically take an annoying amount of photos, especially on a personal first descent. One thing is for sure, I wasn’t going to let him down. As he came over the pile he immediately went into the ol’ “Oregon Tuck” to reduce the force from landing. I could tell while he was mid-air that he had nailed it, and he soon floated away from the base of the falls with a big smile on his face -- nice!
It was apparent that we were all pretty tired at this point...we usually don’t have to work this hard for a kayak run. Since we wouldn’t be running Metlako, our portage route was starting just downstream. As we paddled away from Punchbowl we all turned around to take in one last view. It really is a stunning waterfall and there’s no wonder that it’s one of the most photographed in Oregon, if not the United States. Just around the corner I caught a glimpse of Roman and Stephen who had been watching from the trail. The first thing they asked me was if I was okay. “Yeah, I'm a little sore, but still good to go.”.
There was one more drop to run, Lower Punchbowl Falls, a ~10 to 12 foot boof ledge. The problem with running this drop is that it requires a more difficult hike up to the trail, but after my botched line on Upper Punchbowl, taking out above it was not an option. Chris also thought it was worth running so we both got back in our boats. The lead-in and lip were a little shallow so it required you to build up speed from further upstream. As I came over the lip, I got in a nice stroke and had a much better landing. Much happier with this line, I felt like I could finish the day feeling just a little bit better.
The hike out was tougher than I had imagined. I was pretty drained and it must have shown, as both Stephen and Roman offered (and provided) assistance in getting my boat up to the trail. From here we had a little bit more than a mile of hiking before the gorge walls gave way, allowing us passage to the river. It wasn’t really worth setting up the kayak pack, so I just shouldered the boat. We watched as most of the other two crews paddled down to run Metlako. Since there were a couple of viewing platforms from the hiking trail, we quickly hurried down to watch the show. It was now starting to get dark, so we knew that we couldn’t watch for long before we needed to make our way out of the canyon. We also worried for the other boaters and hoped that they would not have to paddle out under dark skies. Soon enough, like lemmings, they dropped over one by one. It appeared that there were a couple of swims but most of them looked like they’d had good lines. The second to last boat had the most exciting line, as he was pitched forward and landed on his head. I can’t even imagine what that felt like after dropping almost 10 stories!
Once we were done watching, we quickly headed down the trail until we found the spur that would lead us down to the creek. Once we were back on the water it was a mile float out through class II/II+ rapids, and definitely helped relieve the energy it would have taken to hike all the way out. Once back at the car we loaded up and headed into Portland for some much needed Indian food and a good night’s sleep. The next day we paddled the ultra classic Canyon Creek run in Washington. We had ~800cfs, and good medium flow. We all had great lines and it was a good way to end the weekend.
In conclusion, I would say that Eagle Creek is at least a one-time “must do” if you live in the area, although it is a bit of a novelty run. The scenery is jaw dropping and there are some fun drops. That said, I probably won’t hike all the way into Skoonichuck unless for some reason I get a wild hair to run it. However, I could probably be convinced to hike into Punchbowl a few times as a simple “hike & huck”— right now I’m really feeling the need for some redemption…
The head-cam footage of our journey into Eagle Creek: