Saturday, February 16, 2013

Opal Gorge, OR (2.10.13)

Opal Creek is considered one of the crown jewels of whitewater kayaking in Oregon. The middle run (Mines to Three Pools) is a classic class III+/IV adventure, with one class V (Big Fluffy) to spice things up if you so choose. This run is a great place for up-and-coming creek boaters to test their skills and get a feel for more committing style runs. The run above, from Jawbone to the mines, is a bit of a step up in both difficulty and commitment, but offers some great whitewater and is often combined with the middle run for a long day on the water. Below both of these runs, and Three Pools, lies Opal Gorge, the most committing and spectacular (scenery wise) section of the creek.

The first time I ran Opal Gorge was at 1,300cfs with Brian Ward and Alex Scott, a couple of months ago. Since we were running a little behind from our run down the middle section, we boated most of the run without scouting, as I relied on verbal beta from the other two. It definitely left an impression on me, with really fun whitewater and surrounded by one of the most amazing backdrops I’ve ever seen. I thought the flow was just about perfect, not super pushy but nice and padded out. Unfortunately, we would not have those flows for this trip…

With very little in the way of options for a kayaking adventure over the weekend (due to unseasonably dry conditions), I checked all the different gauges to see if anything would go. I noted that the Opal Creek gauge (far downstream) was reading around 625cfs, which was low, but according to Oregon Kayaking, still a fun flow for The Gorge. Figuring that it must channelize well, Shawn, Roman and I decided to give it a go. Since the other two hadn’t done the run, and this place should be experienced even without water, I figured we’d still have a great time; plus the other option I was considering was sitting around the house on my rear. With that, we decided to meet up mid-morning on Sunday, before heading north.

Heading out on Sunday morning we drove to the takeout at Salmon Falls, a tough but runnable 25’er. At this point I wasn’t really considering whether I planned to run it or not, since you really can’t scout it from the roadside, and I had no idea how I’d feel by the time we got there. We quickly changed into our kayaking gear, piled into one car, and headed to Three Pools (our put-in). Before carrying our boats down to the water’s edge, we decided to scout Thor’s, just above the put-in, to see if it looked runnable at this low flow. Looking like it would still be fun, we shouldered our boats up and along the hiking trail, to put on, above Thor's.

Salmon Falls

Dropping into Thor’s confirmed that the creek was definitely low. However, we were able to make it through the channels that had water, and it actually provided a fun warm-up, prior to venturing into The Gorge downstream. The bottom hole at Thor’s actually provided some sweet mystery moves, and even convinced Shawn and Roman to do another lap on the bottom ledge. Now sitting in the crystal clear pool below Thor’s, we took a monument to take in the view before heading downstream.

Settin' sail

Roman and Shawn, enjoying the sun and clear water

Roman exits Thor's

Shawn, on his second lap

Three Pools

Between Three Pools and Opal Gorge, was a mile or so of boney class II, and we were certainly wanting more water. Before too long the walls started to steepen up and we soon reached the boulder garden which acts as the entrance to The Gorge, and should be considered the point of no return. Since we only had about half the flow of the last time, we decided to walk down and make sure the line was still the same. Sure enough, the line down the right, which we had used last time, was pretty trashy, making the left side much more appealing. At the bottom of the drop, the water splits around a large mid-stream boulder, with both sides good to go at this level. All of us opted for the right side, using the rock for an off-camber boof.

The entrance/boulder drop

Roman, making the move at the bottom of the boulder garden

Shawn, going right was well

Roman and Shawn wait for me, before heading deeper into The Gorge

We were now sitting in the long deep pool above the Un-Un (unportagable/unscoutable). Since I was the only one that had done the run before, I offered to go first, which would also allow me to setup for photos from down below. The Un-Un basically drops about 12’, after the creek splits around a pile of large boulders the middle of the river. Most folks run the left side, which is what I was planning to do. After I gave some verbal beta to the others, and we had discussed whistle signals, I dropped in. Basically the left drops down in a sort of airplane turn, where you need to keep your bow pointed to the right to avoid getting pushed against the wall. My line went about as good as I could hope for, and I quickly blew my whistle to let the others know I was through safely. From here I quickly climbed up the rocks so that I could snap some pics of the boys droppin’ in. Both had great lines, and soon we were gathered and headed downstream once again.

Shawn drops in, sight unseen.

Roman blasts down the Un-Un

Just below the Un-Un is a trashy class III drop (at this level), before another long pool that sits above the Big Un, aka The Undertaker. This drop is a mandatory portage, regardless of your sack size or skill level. Basically, the whole creek drops into a giant boulder sieve, with wood jammed in it for good measure – it’s enough to give anyone jitters just looking at it. There has been much discussion and debate about which side is best to portage on, but since I’ve only done the left side, I’ll only be discussing that option.

Shawn runs the drop just below the Un-Un

Looking downstream, toward The Undertaker

A visual explanation of why this drop is a portage

Shawn and Roman, staring at death's door

The top part of The Undertaker

The start of the portage requires a slippery scramble onto the rocks just above the start of the drop. It helps to stage someone above to lift boats up to since footholds are few and slick. Once you have the boats and people out of the water and up on the rocks, there’s a nice grotto to stage from for the next part of the portage. You’ll need to climb up onto the narrow shelf that runs along the angled rock slab - luckily it’s one of the only surfaces that isn’t extremely slippery. Since a slip here would most likely send you to your death, straight into the belly of the beast, it’s best to be overly cautious here. We have found that the safest approach is to send one person over with one end of a rope, which can then be used to guide the front part of the boats, while another person guides the back end with another rope. The whole process took us about 15-20 minutes, and after packing up the ropes, we planned our entrance back into the water, below the Undertaker. Probably the easiest way to do this is via the natural rock ramp that deposits you just below the sieve. Make sure to dip your nose as much as possible since it tends to kick you flat, which can dish out some impact, which all three of us can attest to...

Rope work. Taken from from first trip down.

Shawn seal launches back in, just below The Undertaker

And.... Impact!

Roman, startin' off well...


Shawn, stoked to be below the Big Un

Now safely below the portage, we continued on, first past another small drop, followed by a nice boulder garden. The boulder drop was one of my favorites at 1,300cfs, but at this flow it was a bit trashy. At the bottom of the boulder garden, a waterfall poured down from the river-right wall, signaling Henline Falls rapid. This drop actually got the best of me last time, but at this flow, it seemed much more straightforward. Henline starts off with a fun angled boof on the far right (with a big hole at high water), which is great if you hit it well. After ~10 yards, the creek drops over a second ledge, against the undercut right wall. Luckily the water is pillowing off the undercut, pushing you away instead of pulling you into it. Both Shawn and Roman went through together while I shot photos. Unfortunately, my wide-angle lens was acting up, so the photos turned out a little soft... After the boys had made it through clean, I followed suit, with a much better line than last time.

A small/trashy drop below The Undertaker

Roman scouts Henline Falls rapid

Getting ready to drop in. Be careful, those rocks are slick!

Shawn hits the line on the top ledge of Henline.

Just below Henline is Sierra Slot, which is run on river-right. Since I wanted to take some more photos I got out and setup, as well as gave beta to the others. The line through the slot looked a lot harder at this flow, since boofing off the rock on the right side of it wasn’t much of an option. We still setup for the same, running from right to left, but this time it would require a water boof followed by a deep brace in the chaotic seam at the base. I figured that there was about a 50% chance that you’d make it through upright, but to my surprise, none of us got flipped. As with the rest of The Gorge, this drop greatly benefits from more water.

Roman digs in at Sierra Slot

Shawn, with a bit of a boof

Below Sierra Slot, the walls started to peel back, signaling that we were through the pinch. After a quarter mile or so of II/III water, we came to the next big horizon line, a nasty looking ~12’er with an atomic piton rock blocking most of the flow, in the main line. This drop has been run at least once, by local legend Jesse Coombs, but certainly most folks wouldn’t consider it runnable. At higher flows, it does appear the left side of the creek could be run, but at the same time, the portage is pretty easy as well. Since there wasn’t enough water going over the left on this trip, we all made the quick decision to portage.

The nasty looking drop / easy portage

After this portage, the creek goes through a major mood swing, turning into more of a slow moving river, and houses start to lineup on the banks. This goes on for about a mile and a half before the run takes its biggest plunge, over Salmon Falls. These falls have been run numerous times, and as far as I know, it’s always been down the river-left side. Basically, the line starts through a steep/narrow slot that has a tendency to flip the unprepared. After about 10 feet of aerated water, it drops over the ~25’ falls -- It probably goes without saying that flipping in the entrance slot is not recommended… After seeing this drop at both ends of the flow range, I probably won’t fire it up at any time soon (if at all) – to me (and my abilities), it's just too much of a dice roll, based on the entrance. On this trip I was the only one that had even given it much thought, but after the above reasons, I finally relinquished, and paddled back over to river-right to take-out above the falls. From the top of the falls, there is a convenient hiking trail all the way to the parking lot, and our awaiting car.

Opal Gorge is one of the most spectacular places I’ve explored in Oregon, or the whole country for that matter. If you’re looking for some good whitewater, I really can’t recommend going in there at flows below 1,000cfs on the gauge (winter flow). However, at the flows we had (625cfs), it was still enough to get down without too much trouble, and it was still a great way to spend a Sunday, if nothing else for the scenery alone. As I previously stated, pretty much all of the drops are much better with higher flow, with the only exception being Henline, and probably has more to do with me messing up the line on my first trip down. Regardless of what flow you decided to run it at, it will most certainly leave you with a lasting impression of its grandeur. 

Some footage from my first time down, at higher flows. This video also contains the standard run down Opal Creek, so if you only want to see The Gorge stuff, start it about halfway:

POV Highlight - Opal Creek / Opal Gorge from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. undertaker has been run at 3500 on the gauge and if there's a bit more water you can skip the left side slot entrance to salmon falls and boof center to left.

  2. I've run that line on Salmon above about 1500. Who ran the Gorge at the flow?

    1. willy and ben d. it cleans up very well at that flow and is highly recommended.