Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ohanapecosh (7.24.10 & 7.25.10)

The Ohanapecosh (Ohane) is one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever paddled. Named for a Taidnapam (Upper Cowlitz) Indian habitation site along the river, is thought to mean “standing at the edge.” Actually most write-ups and guide books spell it "Ohanepecosh". To be honest I'm not sure which is correct (maybe both) but the National Parks Service spells it with an "a", so I'm gonna go with that.

Tucked away (and starting) on the southeast end of Mt. Rainier National Park, this run features crystal clear water that glows with a blue-green hue when the light touches it. Although the full run actually starts at Ohanapecosh Campground, we put-in at Secret Campground (just outside the park boundary) due to a landslide that brought many trees (and portages) into the upper stretch.

This is the second summer that I’ve come to paddle the Ohane, which runs when most everything down south has dried up or is on the low side. It’s a real treat to have such quality creeking during the warm days of summer, in this case the high 80s! Although the water is still quite cold, it’s a great opportunity to paddle in shorts after being in a drysuit all winter. Our crew for the run consisted of Chris Arnold, Jenna Watson, Stephen Cameron, and Ryan Cole from Portland/Vancouver; Dan Dellwo from Corvallis; and Roman Androsov, Scott Bridgham, & myself from Eugene. I had paddled with everyone else in the group except Jenna, who was a great addition to the crew.

The gauge that is used to determine the flow for the Ohane is the Cowlitz River at Packwood, WA. On this trip we had ~1,700 on the gauge, which I felt correlated to a perfect medium flow. Last year when we did it (right around the same time of year) I believe the gauge was ~1,500, and I remember it being a little more trashy, but still plenty fun.

Gauge used for the Ohane. We were there on the
24th and 25th and had ~1700cfs on the gauge. It
should be noted that this is a lot more than you'll
actually have on the run.

Our Eugene crew had the longest drive, (~5hrs) and we didn’t get out of town until 5:30pm on Friday, after putting in a full day of work. This put us at the campsite around 10:30pm where I was surprised to have folks still up and sitting around the fire. After being greeted by Chris, we soon joined them and had a beer or two (or three…) before heading off to bed. The next day I woke to warm morning temps and bright sunny skies, which usually signifies the start of a great day on the water. Without hesitation, I quickly went to work preparing coffee and a hearty breakfast burrito...damn it was good! As I looked around, it soon became clear that our group was not the only ones who were staying at this particular campsite; in fact, there were probably a total of 4 to 5 groups and 30+ paddlers! The cool thing about paddling in the Pacific Northwest is that almost all the paddlers are friendly, and it’s like one big happy family, even if you’ve never met before.

A typical night around the fire

Since we were actually camping at the put-in, (quite convenient) all I had to do was relax while the drivers set shuttle a mere 4 or so miles downstream at La Wis Wis Campground. The takeout is actually at the confluence of the Ohane and its mighty sister run, the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz. The Clear Fork is supposedly quite a step up in difficulty from the Ohane and is said to a have a bunch of new wood. Based on these factors, I have no plans to do this run anytime soon.

As soon as our drivers returned, most of us hiked upstream from the campground to run the entirety of the put-in rapid, which starts off with a nice ~10’ ledge drop. Due to some wood at the lip of this entry ledge, you are basically forced to run the hard left side, which is fine since you’re required to make a hard left move at the base to avoid a midstream boulder. Once below this, read and run boogie water followed for the remainder of the rapid. The final ledge is best setup for from a river left eddy, from where you then ferry back up into the current and make a sharp turn to run the drop. Fun stuff, and a great way to wake up in the morning!

Looking upstream at the put-in rapid

The top ledge of the put-in rapid

Ryan makes the left move mid-air off the starting ledge

Stephen runs the stuff just below the first ledge

Looking downstream at the last part of the put-in rapid

After a short class II rapid we were now sitting above another ledge drop in the 6’ to 8’ range. This drop has a fairly straightforward line on the right, but the walls are undercut on both sides at the base. Luckily, the water is pushing to the right and away from the uglier left undercut. This drop is probably a good one to set safety on, just in case. That said, everyone in our group ran the ledge without issue, but it did dish out a couple of nice stern-squirts.

Dan grabs for the boof at the next ledge after the put-in rapid

Jenna drops over the same ledge

Scott getting a nice stern-squirt

Regrouping below the first ledge after the put-in rapid

More class II water followed until we reached the next big horizon line. This drop is partially formed by large a log that diagonals downstream. If you choose to run this drop, the line is on the right side of the log with right angle by either boofing or doing a small log slide dropping off the right side. If you happen to fall off the left side, prepare for a dangerous thrashing in the hole underneath the log, which could even pull you in from the right line if you’re not careful. For me, the fun factor does not outweigh the consequence, so I chose to portage, which can be done on either river left or right. Everyone that decided to run it in our group had great lines and came through just fine. The one downside to me portaging this drop was that during re-entry I was holding my paddle backwards, and as I went to spin it around I was flipped by a small curler and drug my head against the wall, losing my head-cam. Luckily I was able to roll, but was still pretty bummed out about losing my prized possession. For the record, a replacement has already been ordered!

Chris shows the line at the log drop

The next little bit of water contains some fun class II/III pool drop rapids, one class IV, and of course, great scenery. The class IV rapid makes a sweeping right hand turn which lines you up for a couple of holes depending on where you are. Everyone in our group ran left on the outside corner which produced a couple of flips. I was able to clean it both days, but the year before I got flipped by one of the holes and smashed my face with my paddle; this left me with a broken visor on my helmet and a cut above my eye. Even with that, this is a really fun drop and one that I look forward to. There is also one rapid that makes an S-turn (starting with a sharp right bend) which had a little hole that took me by surprise. Basically, I had a semi-controlled surf session which lasted about 60 seconds before I was able to claw my way out. Since I couldn’t see (or remember) what was just downstream, I had extra incentive to stay in my boat.

Some mellow stuff in the first part of the run

Dan drops into one of the larger rapids
on the first part of the run. This is the
one I broke my visor on the year before.

Scott drops in as well

The author finishes up the drop
(photo by Chris Arnold)

Stephen catches some rays below more fun
boogie water in the upper part of the run

Soon we came to the first true class V of our run, a long complex rapid that can be identified by a choke of wood at the lip of the drop. The first part of this drop falls over a fairly large ledge (maybe 8’ or so) with an off-camber boof flake on the right side that feeds left. The ledge has a pretty good hole, and the walls/rock on both sides are undercut. On top of these hazards, the aforementioned boof is not an easy one to hit cleanly, which convinced everyone in our group to portage this top ledge. While we were there, other groups showed up and portaged as well, which included a couple of pros, so look this drop over well before you decide to run it. I did watch both Chris and Dan run it the year before, and although they both made it through this entry ledge, they didn’t make it look easy.

Another group joins us on portaging
the first ledge of the first class V

Once we portaged the top ledge (on river left with some effort), we were able to put in and run the rest of the rapid, which still makes for an exciting, if not chunky, one. It starts off with a shallow slide along the left wall which has a rock just under the surface in the run out. Just to the right of this slide is a tempting looking boof ledge. Although the water appeared to be dropping on some shallow rock, to avoid the chance of breaking our boats we all opted for the line down the slide. Immediately below the slide, the rapid drops over a diagonal ledge with a hole at the base which can be boofed over running either left, right, or center depending on your assessment. The run out from the diagonal ledge funnels down the right side of the river between a large boulder on the left and the cliff wall on the right. In this slot is a half submerged boulder with a lot of the flow pushing directly into it, creating severe pin potential. Knowing this, you must be prepared to make a quick move right or left to avoid it, with left seeming to be the easier move. Everyone came through fine, but we did have one or two wash into the midstream boulder before flushing off.

Chris drops down the slide just below
the entrance ledge we portaged

Ryan boofs the diagonal ledge

Chris follows in similar fashion

Chris finishing up the rapid (below the diagonal ledge)

Stephen finishing on the final stretch of the rapid.
The pin rock is between the large boulder on the
left and the cliff wall on the right.

The author makes the quick move to the left
of the pin rock at the bottom of the drop
(photo by Chris Arnold)

Below this are a couple of boulder gardens to contend with. The first is best run by navigating down the right side until a slide comes into view against the right wall. From here, it’s an easy line right down the middle of it with a brace against the curler coming off the rock at the bottom-left of the slide.

Ryan runs down the slide which exits the boulder garden

The next boulder garden is just below. I’ve always portaged it starting near the top on the left, due to the very bottom of the run, which has a sieve in the middle and wood in both channels that go around it. However, even with these hazards, the drop is certainly runnable on the left side where the water goes over a log, at least at this level. However, I would say that the hazards make it worth at least a look if it’s your first lap down. About half the peeps in our group ran it and didn’t have any problems getting over the log.

Next up was a fun sloping ledge that is best run on the right with a delayed boof over a diagonal hole at the base. This drop is pretty friendly and everybody had a great line using a similar approach. Directly below this drop, and a fast moving pool, the water pushes into the right wall and can catch you off-guard, so be aware.

Chris doing it right (literally)

Roman throws in a nice boof stoke while Ryan looks on

This is the part in the story where our luck (and maybe a little prowess) started to falter a little, at least for some of us. Being the nice guy that I am, I got to be the one to start it off…

Just below the ledge described above is another one. This drop is a favorite of many, (including myself) and features a so-called “give-me” boof off the center-right line, which is fairly obvious from above. That said, you can pretty much run it anywhere, (it’s river-wide) as long as you throw in a good stroke off the lip, although the line I mentioned is probably the preferred one. After watching Ryan boof the hell out of it (as usual), I pulled out of the eddy and prepared for take-off. As I was floating lackadaisically down the lead-in, thinking about how great I was going to stomp the boof, I misjudged the right to left current just above the drop. This error in judgment made me charge the flake which I wasn’t really set-up for. As I came over the lip, I took way too wide of a right stroke, and was angled hard left at the base, and this sent me straight into the shallow cave/undercut on that side. Although I had landed the drop flat and upright, I flipped as I was pushed against the wall. From here, I made probably 5 or 6 roll attempts, but was rejected every time and ended up pulling the pin. I could probably blame it on a multitude of things, including rolling against the undercut, highly aerated water, paddle blade on the upstream side; although even some of these excuses may be true, the fact of the matter is that I missed my line to begin with, which put me in this mess. Luckily, both Chris (who was taking pictures) and Dan were both ready with a throw rope. Unfortunately I didn’t see the one Chris threw and grabbed for Dan’s, who was on the other side of the river. To everyone’s amusement, I was unavoidably towed parallel to, and under the veil of the falls, which dished out some good downtime. The following day I was better prepared for this drop and stuck the line, getting a little redemption.

Ryan killin' it on the sweet river-wide ledge
just a couple hundred yards above Elbow Room

Same ledge from below

This drop is so much fun that Ryan actually decided to hike back up and run it again, this time doing a freewheel! I believe he told Chris something to the effect that he was “probably going to swim”, so “have a bag ready”. After emptying out my boat (from my swim), I set-up for some photos of the event that was about to unfold. In hindsight, the drop was probably a little too short to freewheel (especially in a creekboat) and as he came over the lip he didn't quite get it all the way around and dropped into the meat of the hole. On top of this, he apparently dislocated his shoulder (his fourth time) at some point during the display. Luckily he was able to get his shoulder back in and was also the subject of the winning photo sequence!

Nice approach, looking good so far...


"Chris, where's that rope we talked about?"

...Ahh, thanks buddy!

Looming just downstream of the swim inducing ledge is Elbow Room, probably the most difficult and consequential drop of the run. The entrance to this infamous drop is a boulder choked ledge that is followed by the river splitting around a table rock that rests on other rocks forming a particularly dangerous sieve. At the top-right of the table rock is a nasty siphon hole that feeds directly under it, and has done so to at least one pro paddler that I know of (found here). Because of this, my perspective is that the only sane line is to the left of the rock. This line is not without its difficulty though, and after dropping over the entrance ledge you must run a tight chute down the left side with a poorly placed rock right in the middle of it. On our trip both Dan and Stephen ran the left side and had clean lines. According to Dan, don’t plan on being able to take any paddle stokes once you drop into the chute, instead plant your rudder and ride it out until it widens.

The lead-in to Elbow Room

The entrance to Elbow Room

A couple of groups (including ours) scouting Elbow Room

Chris gets a closer look at Elbow Room.
I believe this is right before he asked me,
"Can I borrow your boat? I don't want to break mine."

The rest of us made the long portage up and over the cliff on river left. The first day we actually started the portage well upstream under the assumption that it would be easier that way. Unfortunately our decision was probably not the best since the upper portion of the climb got pretty steep with loose soil. No sooner had I grabbed my camera to document the portage did I catch a glimpse of Roman’s boat careening down the cliff toward the river. Just as I was about to yell “Boat!”, I interrupted myself with the phrase “Oh my God!” as I watched Roman’s body ragdoll down the cliff in unison with his kayak. After seeing an agonizing look on his face, I dropped my camera and quickly jumped down to where he was lying to check his condition. While doing so, I could hear the others yelling to him not to move. After some verbal confirmation and physical tests, we determined that he had gotten very lucky and hadn’t sustained any major injuries. Believe it or not, it was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen on the river.

Our crew taking the safer portage route around Elbow Room

Right after Elbow Room (whether you portage or not) is a drop that features either a double ledge on the left or a shallow low-angle slide on the right. You can also mix it up a bit if you’re so inclined. It should be noted that the holes on the left can be quite sticky, especially the second, so if you do run them get in a good boof.

The double ledge / slide just below Elbow Room

Not far below is the largest series of drops on the run, which starts with 18’ Ohane Falls. Not only is this the biggest set of drops, it’s also the most visually spectacular section of the canyon. The sheer vertical wall running down the entirety of the right side, along with the giant boulders soaking in the bluish water makes for a truly amazing setting that can only be enjoyed by those adventurous enough to travel down to it. Ohane Falls itself can be run in a variety of ways, from the hero line all the way down the left side (skimming a massive hole), to the more manageable line of banging down the entrance on the right and then firing off the center of the falls; I have always chosen the latter. The other line option, and probably the most difficult, is to run the first part on river right, and then ferry just below the nasty hole to run the falls on the far left side. This line allows you to both miss the hole, (hopefully) and run the classic left side of the falls. From our group, Chris, Stephen, and Dan Dellwo stuck this line nicely. We actually had another swim of the trip at Ohane Falls; luckily it was after running the middle line and in the pool below, which was pretty benign.

Looking downstream from the top of Ohane Falls

Jenna slides down the middle line at Ohane Falls

Roman airs it out at Ohane Falls

Stephen digs in at the left line over Ohane Falls

Dan Rubado shows off for the crowd
on the left line at Ohane Falls

Dan Dellwo gets his boof at Ohane Falls

Chris goes 2 for 4 on the left line at Ohane Falls

Next in the series is Petrified, which I was told was named based on a piece of petrified wood sitting next to it; although after looking at the back-to-back holes I’m sure there are other reasons as well. The main line has you run down the hard left side skirting the meat of both holes. Sometimes this is easier said than done however, and you must make the move with authority or face the wrath of a serious pounding you won’t soon forget. On our first day down, and in keeping with tradition for the day, Stephen was served a pretty good beating before swimming out of the top hole; it was his first swim in 25 years! I was only able to witness the chaos from above in my boat, and all I could see was the paddle flailing and ends of the boat taking turns in the air. As I paddled back over to shore above the drop, I heard Chris yelling for a throw rope. Luckily I had my waist mounted one, and threw it up to the crew standing above me on the rock. Apparently the paddle was still in the hole which Chris was then able to lasso it using my rope and a stick?! You’ll have to ask him how exactly he pulled it off. By the way, if you’re counting, that’s four swimmers in one day on ~3 miles of river; what we refer to as a "shit show”. For Stephen's "up close and personal" account of the event, go here.

The entrance to Petrified

Dan getting ready to drop in on the left line at Petrified

Chris gets out over the second hole of Petrified

The run-out to Petrified

The other line option on this drop that avoids these two holes altogether is the hard right line, which I ran on our second day. Basically, you drop through a tricky narrow chute against the right wall and continue down the right until you’re forced to make a shallow airplane slide back to the center of the river. It should be noted that coming out of your boat anywhere on this drop is dangerous, since it’s one giant sieve lurking just under the water.

Looking downstream at the right side line into Petrified

A boater runs the hard right line at Petrified

After this is one more small drop in the series that is typically run down the center between the boulders. Once below this, it’s worth getting out on the left bank and hiking back up along the rocks to get a view of the whole section. It’s a pretty cool view and the token shot for any Ohane kayaking write-up.

The token Ohane shot taken from below
the series of drops that start with Ohane Falls

From here you only have a couple more class III/III+ boulder drops before the takeout; the last one does have some wood on the right, so when in doubt, stay left. If you’re there on a weekend during the summer, you’ll most likely pass by people hanging out in the water, playing on a rope swing, and jumping off the left side cliffs; however, don’t mistake this for the takeout, which is within view, but further downstream right after the confluence with the Clear Fork.

The pool below the the largest series of drops.
Look at the color of the water!

Looking downstream at some of the last drops on the run

After taking off the river the second day, (Sunday) we headed back to camp, packed up, and headed back to Oregon. We did make one stop for lunch in Packwood at a pizza joint, which was surprisingly good and filling. Just a quick walk back up the road gives a great view of Mt. Rainier, one big piece of rock! After we had all finished eating, we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. I’m already looking forward to next July and another trip up to the Ohanapecosh.

A view of Mt. Rainier from Packwood

As for the difficulty of the run, I would put it at about the same level as The Green Truss, and in the 4+/5- range; some feel it’s a little harder, some a little easier. You can certainly make it what you want based on the moves and rapids you choose to run. A competent 4/4+ boater should be fine knowing that they’ll probably walk a few. One thing is for sure, if you fall into this category, you’re in the PNW when the Ohane is running, and it’s a warm summer day, it shouldn’t be missed. There are also some great short hikes to The Grove of the Patriarchs and Silver Falls, and both are just inside the national park boundary and share the same parking lot.

Somefootage of our run down the Ohane the following year, with a little less water:


  1. Beautiful! One of these days, of these days...gotta get the mojo back.

  2. Ah, yes Kenzington, you must rejoin us; we miss you out there!