Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Upper Upper Blue River, OR (3.30.14)

At least a few times a year, I feel the need to explore some obscure creek, which usually requires more time portaging than actually paddling. Upper Upper Blue River (UUB) fell onto my radar at about the same time that we had done an exploratory run down Quentin Creek (trip report, here), which is one of the main tributaries to Blue River, and also happens to be the take-out for UUB. Further peaking my interest in this run was a reference to it in the back section of Soggy Sneakers (4th edition), which stated that it was 1.5 miles long, 240’ per mile, and class IV(V). It also stated that the run was from Mann Creek to Quentin Creek, which according to the topo maps, was more like 3.75 miles, which can be rather long for an obscure run with little beta and lots of wood potential. With my limited research, I put out some feelers to see if anyone would be interested in taking on this mission, which got little response. With that, I decided to shelf it for another time.

Fast forward to last weekend, when Bobby Brown asked if I was interested in going up to run UUB, which I immediately pounced on. With ~1,000cfs on the Blue River gauge (below Tidbits), I guessed that we’d have good flow for a first time run down. Since I didn’t get his message until 10am, we ended up getting a pretty late start, not leaving town until 11:45am. By the time we had reached Quentin Creek, it was almost 1pm. We quickly dropped off a shuttle bike, before proceeding upstream to find a good place to hike down into the creek. We ended up driving ~4 miles to where the road crossed over Mann Creek, and after seeing that it really wasn’t big enough to run, we proceeded back down the road a ½ mile, where we could see the creek far below, which appeared to have more water.

Our flow for the day -- ~1,000cfs on the internet gauge (here)

Although the road paralleled the creek/river for its entire length, in most places it was ~150’ up the steep canyon, making a mid- run exit doable but not pleasant. Therefore, we made sure to bring the essentials, like a break-down paddle, pin-kit, GPS, map, etc. After gearing up and loading our boats, we threw them on our shoulders and started the steep bushwhack down to the water. Down at Mann Creek, we discovered numerous logjams just downstream of where we’d planned to put on, so we decided it would be best to hike down a ways to see where we could actually start the run safely. It was at this point that I pretty much knew what kind of day we were going to have – one that I’ve had a few times before, which usually entails a hike out in the dark. I asked Bobby what he thought, and suggested to him that we may want to hike back up to the road and put-in more downstream, where the creek would have more water and ability to flush out potential wood. He response was, “But, what if it gets really good around the corner?” This is a trap I’ve fallen into many times myself – chasing a dream that will never be realized. Of course, like a drug addict chasing the feeling of his first high, I’m easily convinced that the risk (and pain) are worth the potential benefits. Downstream in our boats it would be. On that note, since we needed to make good time, I didn't take a whole lot of photos with my camera, so I'm using head-cam screenshots to fill in -- apologizes in advance.

Once we finally found a safe place to put on the water, it was ~1:45pm, a very late start for such a mission. As I slid into the water, and passed under a few logs that were spanning overhead, it felt like we could have also used a little bit more water, but until we got further into the run, we wouldn’t know for sure. This is always a tricky balance, enough water where you’re not bashing your way down, but not too much where catching eddies becomes a high stress/dangerous process, if not impossible.

Sweet put-in...

First log limbo, about 20 yards downsteam

Around an 1/8 mile down Mann Creek, we reached the confluence with Wolf Creek, which together forms Blue River. It was also the location of a rather big horizon line, which definitely deserved a scout. Bobby had decided to walk across a log to river-right, while I would scout from river-left. What we found was indeed a large drop – starting off with a shallow slide, into a ~5 vertical ledge, followed by a short trashy boulder garden, which disappeared around the corner and out of sight. I quickly motioned to Bobby to hold up, so I could bushwhack further downstream and see what lurked below. Climbing up and over a small knoll, I found a bit of a mixed bag. After exiting the boulder drop above, the creek (err, river), went through some tree limbs (from an overhead log), and finally, went over a tricky ledge that would require a strong 90 degree mid-air boof, to the left. Below this ledge, the water flowed strongly to river-left and into a eddy that was carved into the wall on that side. Unfortunately, the biggest hazard was also below this final ledge, in the form of another logjam, ready to catch any out-of-control boater. I took a few minutes to study the line off the final ledge and the hazard, and determined that it would probably be okay, since most of the water was pushing into the left eddy (above the logjam) and the water wasn’t pushing especially hard into the logs. In other words, as long as you didn’t get pushed into it upside-down, you’d probably be fine.

I quickly hiked back to let Bobby know the situation, but he was nowhere to be seen, so I figured he was probably waiting at our boats upstream. When I got to where we had eddied out, he wasn’t there, so I sat on a log and waited for his return. After about 10 minutes or so, I started to get a little impatient, knowing that daylight would probably become a factor, later on in the mission. I blew on my whistle and waited for a response… nothing. Finally, after another 5 minutes or so, I finally got a return whistle, with Bobby showing up soon after. We quickly had a talk about river communication and how we could be more efficient with our scouting, since we wouldn’t have a lot of time to do so, and we had just killed nearly a half hour on this drop.

I was actually glad that Bobby had hiked all the way down and saw the final log hazard for himself, since I typically don’t like giving only verbal beta, when a must-make move is required above a hazard like that. After a little further discussion we both agreed to run it, which based on the portage options, was probably the best decision. Furthermore, the drop, as a whole, looked pretty darn fun!

Bobby agreed to go first, with me taking photos at the 5’ ledge and then heading down to set safety at the bottom. Once I was in position, I gave a whistle to let him know I was ready, with him dropping in soon after. After coming off the ledge, he quickly eddied out between it and the chunky boulder section. From here, I headed downstream to the bottom, and once again gave him the signal that I was in position. Since my view of the boulder garden was blocked, I only got to see him run the bottom section. As he came off the bottom ledge, he landed on edge and was flipped at the base. This was followed by one of the quickest combat rolls I’ve ever seen, which I was really happy about since it was right above the logs. Now upright, he easily caught the left eddy, out of harm’s way. From his new location, he was able to get out and set more appropriate safety.

Bobby runs the entrance ledge of the first big drop on the run

Just below the boulder stretch

Dropping the bottom ledge

Bobby eddies out below the drop and safely above the logs

It was now my turn, and watching Bobby flip certainly wasn’t helpful to my nerves, especially since I’d been struggling with my roll lately. Back at my boat, I took a few seconds to calm my nerves, before dropping in. As I pulled out of the eddy and down the shallow slide, which acted much like a cheese grater, I lined up the 5’ ledge center-left, with a boof into the small eddy at its base. Taking a couple more seconds to reorient myself, I then dropped down the left side of the boulder garden, which went reasonably well. After I crashed through the low hanging limbs, the bottom ledge came into view, which I started my setup for. At the lip, I was able to pull a nice right-hand stroke, landing 90 degrees to the drop and paddling away without issue. Stoked with my line, I paddled over to the eddy to join Bobby and portage around the logs.

Dropping down the shallow slide, into the top ledge

Living up the boulder garden

Left line though the boulder section

Another log limbo

Setting my sights on the bottom ledge

Pulling the mandatory right boof stroke

And safely below

The next 1.5 miles (or so) can best be described as continuous trashy boulder gardens, with micro-eddies above sketchy logjams. We eventually established a process, where we'd take turns getting out and hiking down to scout around blind corners, or take a closer look at anything that looked questionable. We would then give verbal beta, including where the next visible eddies were located. This section reminded me a lot of both the EFSF Mackenzie and Upper Middle Fork Willamette, with the wood situation falling somewhere in the middle of them. When we did have to portage, which was often, shouldering/dragging our boats along the bank was an arduous process, with lots of foot traps as we made our way up, over, and through the many old growth logs that lined the banks. Of course, there were plenty of sticker bushes as well.

Bobby navigates a trashy boulder pitch - quite common in this stretch

Running one of the cleaner sections - not common in this stretch...

Enjoying the scenery!

A typical section in the top half of the run

All the portaging was starting to take its toll on our fortitude, and we had to keep reminding ourselves not to make bad decisions, like running questionable drops simply because we were too tired to walk around them. Unfortunately, I did falter once, by deciding to go under a limbo log, which formed a nasty little strainer against the left bank. The chute above the log had a few F-U rocks, one of which kicked my bow in to said strainer. With Bobby downstream and around the corner, I was on my own, at least for the time being. As the current did its best to flip me and pull the paddle from my hands, I reached down and pulled my skirt. Although the top half of my body was downstream of the strainer, I was having a hard time getting my legs out of my boat, based on my awkward position. Eventually, I was able to kick free of my boat, but lost my grip on my paddle in the process, which quickly floated downstream and out of sight. Since the water was fairly shallow, I was able to get pretty good footing below the strainer and pull my boat through, which was now filled with water. I quickly pulled it up onto some rocks and then started hiking downstream to try and find my paddle, hoping that it had gotten hung-up somewhere. I soon met up with Bobby, who was hiking back upstream, after getting worried from how long I was taking. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen my paddle float by, and after a quick survey of the area, I was forced to use my homemade breakdown (instructions, here). Now back on the water, with the need to proceed safely reinforced, we continued downstream.

Gradually, the side streams helped add to the flow and the wood portages became less numerous, which fed our hopes that we may actually finish the run before dark. We eventually reached a sizeable horizon line, which looked to be a single large drop. Interestingly, and seemingly out of place, some kind of measurement device sat near the lip on river-left. It looked a lot like a gauge station for calculating river flow, but since we were fighting daylight, I didn’t paddle over to take a closer look. The drop itself was a shallow slide, with a fairly sticky pocket, situated at the base on river-right. Since neither of us were feeling too energetic, we both opted for the scrapey line on the left, which bypassed the hole.

The instrument, located above the slide drop

Bobby takes the safe line on the slide

Below this drop, the river tumbled down a long series of low angle slides, which were actually quite fun, but certainly would have benefited from a little more water. This section also provided the longest stretch of portage-free whitewater, which was really good, since maneuvering or stopping on the shallow/fast current would have proved to be a challenge. Eventually, we did reach a river-wide log that we had to walk around, where my aggressive boat scouting forced me to settle for a less than optimal eddy -- if you could even call it an eddy. From shore, it looked like we'd have another clean section to run below the log, but there also appeared to be another large horizon line, a couple hundred yards downstream.


more slides...

...and even more slides.
This pretty much sums up the middle section of the run.

Sure enough, as we closed in on it, it looked like we'd have another big drop to contend with. Being a little more cautious this time, I pulled into a higher-up eddy to scout from. What lay in front of us was the steepest slide in this section, and it looked good-to-go, except for an unfortunately placed log on the right side, where most of the flow was going. The whole left side was clear, but it was also sloped to the right, with the shallow water making it almost impossible to correct your trajectory once you were committed to your line. Both Bobby and I agreed that even though it probably would have went fine, it really wasn't worth the risk, especially with how tired we both were. Shouldering around this one was a little more grueling than the others, requiring us to hike up high for a bit, before we could find a place to get back down to the water.

Sitting above the large ledge that we portaged

Below the portage, we were once again treated to a wood-free section, with more shallow bedrock and slightly less gradient than above. Before long, we reached yet another horizon line, which I would have been excited to see if I wasn't so worn out and ready to be at the take-out. This one ended up being a fairly straightforward multi-tiered ledge, with two small/uniform ledges leading into another shallow slide. The left side had a bit of a hole, but the center-right was good to go, with what ended up being a pretty fun line.

The small multi-tiered ledge, from below

With little light to spare, the road soon came into view, about 50' above us on river-right, which brought with it a huge sense of relief. We only had about a half mile of river left, and with our stress level greatly reduced, we were able to just enjoy the whitewater in front of us, which was actually pretty fun. The last two drops both pinched down through narrow rock outcroppings, and were a great way to end a exhausting day on the water!

The final drop of the run!

Mission accomplished!

Unless you're a masochist, I can't in good conscience recommend this run, at least the top few miles -- there is just too much wood to make it worthwhile. Unfortunately (from a boating standpoint), many of the logs that have fallen across the river are large old growth timber, which are heavily anchored high on the bank and probably won't be coming out in our lifetime. That said, the old growth forest also makes it an extremely beautiful place, and if you didn't have to carry/drag your boat through many sections of it, would be reason enough to do the run.

One option, that I might even consider in the future, would be to hike into and only run the last 1.25 miles or so. This would allow you to run the slides and section that had pretty minimal wood. There were some really fun drops in there, but as I previously stated, they needed more water to really bring them to life -- I'm thinking ~1,500cfs on the gauge at Tidbits. That said, if you do decide to run the last half, any existing or new wood could become much more of an issue, since eddies would be hard to catch, especially with additional flow.

Alternate put-in - From the gauging station to Quentin Creek.
This would cut the run down to the good stuff - Continuous slides and wood free!

I'm actually quite happy that I did this run, if for nothing else, to end my curiosity and give me a sense of accomplishment. Even though these runs can really take it out of you and can sometimes feel like a wasted day on the water, I really enjoy the adventure/problem solving side of it. I also feel that it helps build invaluable river skills, like good communication and team work, which is essential for a successful descent on exploratory style runs. I'm sure it won't be long before I find myself fighting daylight once again, with my boat on my shoulder and a smile on my face...

The footage from our run:

Upper Upper Blue River (OR) from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Have you figured out on a map where you would descend to the creek for just the fun part?

  2. No, I haven’t pinpointed where the best place to hike down would be – unfortunately I didn’t mark a GPS waypoint, when we hit the clean section. That said, I’m guessing it was between 1.5 and 2 miles up from the Quentin Creek confluence. Since the road parallels the creek, I’d probably just look for a good place to hike down once I got there. If I could find out what exactly that measurement device was and its exact location, it would make this task a lot easier, since that’s the start of the goods.

    Sorry I couldn’t be more help,

  3. Wonder if it has something to do with the Andrews Forest. Maybe an old stream gauge they've used for studies.

  4. Okay, so I hiked back down into Upper Upper Blue (after a solo run down the lower section), and here is what I found.

    If you hike from the road, just above milepost 10 (signed), directly down to the river, it should get you within close proximity to the gauging station and the start of the good stuff. I added another map at the bottom of the trip report to further clarify.

    BTW, there is a measuring stick going into the water, so it's definitely a gauging station; although I'm not sure if it's active or not.

  5. We ran from the gauging station to Quentin Creek last winter, hiking 1/4 mile down a spur road (decommissioned 535) starting near the intersection of NF-15 and NF-1516. I'd do it again, 1,500-2,000 cfs would be ideal.

    Also now that Food For Thought is clean again, it might be worth putting in at the gauging station and running through to Lookout Creek.