Thursday, December 13, 2012

South Santiam River, OR - The Monster (12.9.12)

From a water perspective, Winter 2012 in the Pacific Northwest has probably been the best start to a kayaking season that I’ve experienced. We have already been able to get on a lot of the local classics, as well as bag a few of the more obscure runs. The Monster Section of the South Santiam River might fall somewhere in the middle of those outer boundaries, where the whitewater is fun but not quite classic – the real reason to run this stretch is for the scenery, which is nothing short of breathtaking. It should be noted that there are two very sizable drops on this run, The Monster & Tomco Falls, which I’ll discuss as I get to them in my following report.

After assembling our small crew, Roman Androsov, Shawn Haggin, and me, we headed toward Sweet Home (OR) to get on the water. We had originally planned to do Wiley Creek, but the damn Weyerhaeuser gate was closed once again. We had talked about doing Lower Canyon Creek as a backup, but once I found out neither had done The Monster, I convinced them that we should go there instead. It’s a little bit of a drive up Hwy 20, but we soon found ourselves at Cascade State Park, our take-out. After gearing up and leaving a car, we headed another ~5 miles upstream to the put-in, at the road bridge over the South Santiam. Since we hadn’t been planning to do this run, we had no idea what the flow situation was, but it certainly looked good from the put-in. With that, we hauled our boats down to the water and slid in, starting our day’s adventure.

Gettin' geared up at the put-in

I didn’t take any photo of the first mile or so, above The Monster, but it basically contains juiced up class III/III+ drops that are quite fun and serve as a good warm-up. I spent my time in this section, catching eddies and doing ferry practice, even getting dumped over at one point. We soon reached a more pronounced horizon line, which I knew was the ledge just above the big one. This ledge has a pretty sticky spot in the center, but the right side kicks out nicely, which is the line that all of us ran. Once we were all safely below Longbow, we traveled to the end of the fast moving pool and got out to scout the run’s namesake drop, The Monster.

Roman, running the right side of the ledge above The Monster

...followed shortly after by Shawn

It’s always fun to see folks reactions to a large drop at river level vs. looking at it from high up on the road. When we stopped to take a look at it on our way up, Shawn and Roman were picking out a line, and thought it would probably be good to go; since I had done the run before, I knew that the drop was much bigger/nastier than it appeared from 100’ up. Sure enough, now at the lip, perspectives had changed. It certainly has a line (and has been run before , but it’s beefy and the consequences are fairly high, with undercuts, pot holes, and a sieve along its length. With that we went to picking out our portage route(s).

The Monster

Roman contemplates

Shawn, who was on the right bank, began shouldering his boat along the rocks on that side. Roman and I, who had been scouting from river-left, discussed our best option around the beast. Without doing some rope work up to the road, portaging the whole thing wasn’t really an option. However, Roman thought that we could run the bottom part, just below the entrance ledge, without much trouble. I wasn’t completely convinced at first, but after giving it a long look, I had to agree with him. Basically, the only real obstacle we’d have to contend with was a large pillow boiling off the left, and undercut, wall. We had to wade into the water knee deep, where we stabilized our boats on the rocks that formed the backside of the sieve, which was better than it sounds. Roman went first and didn’t have any problem navigating the swirly runout, eddying out on river-right below. Shawn was in the middle of working his way down the rock wall to join Roman, while I took my turn, also without issue.

Roman utilizes the convenient boulder sieve to shorten our portage route 

Now safely below the meat of The Monster, we found ourselves in a mini gorge, between it and “Crawdad”, a non-uniform ledge that dropped into a beefy looking hole. Shawn was sure it flushed well, but I was a bit concerned about the strong left-hand eddy that fed back into it. It was definitely kicking out on the right, but it would have been hard to line it up that way. Roman offered to go first, while I setup with safety and my camera. Once I was in position, I gave him the thumbs up, and he dropped in shortly after. Since the best way to enter the drop was right to left, that is the line he chose. After digging in off the lip, he blasted through the hole and was immediately drawn into the left eddy, upright and in control. He quickly jumped out and setup for safety from that side. Shawn came down next, with a similar line, but was able to catch the water kicking out on the right, depositing him safely below the hole. After I packed up my camera and throwbag, I headed up to my boat. I ended up having a pretty good line and was also able to catch the run out on the right side, where it flushed.

Roman lines up Crawfish

Bustin' through the hole at Crawdad

Roman readies his rope in case of a beatdown

Shawn prepares for his turn

Shawn, entering the water between The Monster and Crawdad

Goin' deep, but away from the powerful left-hand eddy

Safely below Crawdad

After Crawfish, the river bends through another squeeze, this time through slack water. Below here, the walls peeled back, and we paddled through a mile or so of mellow class I/II water.

The run-out below Crawfish

Shawn exits the gorge below The Monster/Crawfish

Before long we reached the next major obstacle of the run, Tomco Falls. The entrance to this drop occurs at the confluence with a side creek coming in from river-right, and is fairly unmistakable from above, based on the rather large horizon line. That said, make sure to eddy out high to scout this one, since the river pulls swiftly into the gut of the drop on river-left, with no easy way to eddy/get out once you’ve committed. This drop deserves a look, and serious consideration. Here the river drops through a couple pot holes, which form some pretty chaotic hydraulics/holes that are difficult to stay upright through, at least at this level. I’ve run the left line before, but pretty much out of control once I dropped over the first ledge. It didn’t take long for all of us to decide we didn’t want to contend with the main line, so we all opted for the right side sneak. The sneak is a bit of a pain, and requires you to run a long shallow slot, against the hard right bank. From here you can pretty much drop off the broken ledge at any point you feel is a safe enough distance below the meat of the drop.

Looking into Tomco Falls, which is not the easiest thing to do.

Looking back upstream at Tomco Falls.
Note that the ledges making up the drop are formed by potholes.

Tomco Falls also marks the start of the gorge, which takes up most of the remaining stretch of river, and to me, this is the real reason to do this run. Along its ~1.5 mile length, the gorge cuts through spectacular rock formations, crating dramatic undercuts & caves, and pinching down to about 6 feet wide in one spot. Luckily, with all these potential hazards, the water is pretty mellow, with only one drop really reaching class III. However, and as you might expect, there are some tricky currents that push off the walls, and being out of your boat could turn into a bit of an ordeal. The one real drop in this section happens not far below Tomco, and actually worked me for a bit before I was able to paddle out of the extremely swirly eddy on river-right. Since it’s pretty hard to get out of your boat along most of its length, and we were also a bit crunched for time, I was only able to take photos in a few spots, but trust me, I could have spent all day photographing this amazing place.

The start of the gorge, just below Tomco Falls

Roman and Shawn making their way into the gorge

Shawn enters the trickiest drop in the gorge, while Roman awaits below.
This is the drop that gave me a little trouble by trapping me in the right eddy for a few moments.

Shawn goes deeper into the gorge

Getting a little tight

Typical scenery in the 1.5 mile long gorge


All too soon, the walls peeled back once again, signaling that we only had a mile or so left before the take-out. There aren’t any major rapids in this section that are worth noting, although there are a few wave/holes that looked like they would have been pretty fun to surf. With the road bridge in view, I casually looked for a place to get out, and didn’t decide on one until it was too late, just past the bridge on river-right. This resulted in a steep scramble through a fairly thick patch of sticker bushes – I’m sure my drysuit paid the price for that little miscalculation. Shawn had taken out well upstream where Soda Creek comes in. Supposedly this had a nice path and some stairs up to the parking lot, which is obviously recommended over Roman’s and my route.

I gotta say, I really like this run, and I would also say that it’s a must do if you live in the area. I would consider The Monster Section, as a package deal, a local classic – once again, not strictly based on the whitewater. We had ~1,500cfs (South Santiam at Cascadia), which I’d call a great medium flow. For everything else but The Monster and Tomco Falls, which are certainly class V, I’d give the rest of the run a III/IV rating.

On a final note, we found a new place to eat in Sweet Home, Spoleto's Pizzeria, which has some fantastic gourmet pizza & calzones, as well as a good selection of beer and wine --It actually feels a little out of place in this town. Make sure you stop in and get some grub on your way home, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The video footage from our run:

POV - South Santiam River, OR (The Monster section) from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Great run. Longbow Falls is actually upstream of where you guys put in. It's about the same size as the ledge above The Monster. The section up there is a step easier than below the bridge but provides some nice warmup strokes.

  2. Cool, thanks, my buddy also let me know the same. Edits have been made.

  3. I grew up on that river (one time took an 18' Grumman lake canoe down from the Green Steel Bridge (where you guys put in at, they replaced it with the concrete bridge there, and the old steel bridge is now crossing the river a few miles south of the covered bridge) gorgeous videography, thank you!