Thursday, February 10, 2011

Canyon Creek, Washington (2.6.11)

A view from the put-in bridge gives no
indication of the playground downstream

Canyon Creek, Washington really needs no introduction. Many photographs and write-ups exist touting the quality of this ultra-classic Pacific Northwest run. It’s also no secret that a couple of years ago a massive logjam (created by a landslide) choked the run at the beginning of the gorge, requiring a time consuming, and somewhat sketchy portage over the top of it. Words cannot describe the size of this massive dam of wood, but it was literally 20ft tall and more than 100 yards long (see here). As almost everyone has heard in the boating community, and what was thought to be an impossibility, the logjam blew out bringing back to life this sweet stretch of boating bliss. Not only did it eliminate the portage, it brought back drops such as Swizzle Sticks and Terminator, which were greatly missed.

After waking up from a good night’s sleep at our cabin located on the banks of the White Salmon, we all sat around, made breakfast, and tried to decide what to paddle that day. Even though we were conveniently located at the put-in for the Farmlands section of the White Salmon River, we had done that the day before (see here) and were looking for something else to paddle. The Truss would of course be a good option, but the level was fairly juicy, and probably wasn’t the best choice for the group as a whole. Another option was the Upper Wind, but most of us had done that recently as well. We had also been throwing around the idea of driving west to jump on Canyon Creek, but we weren’t sure about levels and assumed it would probably be too low. With that, we fired up the computer and decided to check the level.

Surprisingly, it had come up a bit from the rain and was continuing to rise. It was ~360cfs on the gauge, but we guessed it would probably be around 400cfs by the time we got there. This was certainly on the low end, but still plenty of water to have a good time, especially once it channelized in the main gorge. Further, there were a few people in the group that had never done it, and basically that just wasn’t acceptable. With that we choked down our breakfast, packed up our gear, thanked our hosts, and headed west.

The internet gauge. We had ~400cfs on our run (2/6/11)

The drive ended up taking much longer than I had remembered, partially due to the caravan of cars and multiple stops; it was like herding cats. By the time we got the put-in it was already 2pm, and probably too late for doing two laps like we had planned. Instead, we decided to make one lap, while allowing time for pictures along the way. Once again, we had a fairly large group, but unlike The Farmlands the day before, we were committed to keeping the group tight as we made our way downstream. From the put-in we could also see that the water was ~6” below “the unit”, using the cement pad for one of the bridge supports as our guide.

The improvised gauge.
~6" below "the unit" (cement pad).

The first mile or so consists of fairly mellow class II/II+ with a couple of steeper pitches, and it is also a little scrapey in spots where the riverbed widens out. I had jump out ahead so I could set-up for photos, and before long I reached the beginning of the gorge and the first major drop, Swizzle Sticks. There is actually a ledge drop that feeds into the pool above Swizzle Sticks; basically the creek funnels down against the right bank and through a narrow slot. At this level it was pretty straightforward, with a nice eddy just above it to line up from. However, it could flip an unprepared boater, especially at higher flows. Now in the pool above Swizzle Sticks, I paddled up to the midstream boulder at the lip of the drop and got out to scout, set safety, and take pictures. I was actually glad to setup here since there aren't many photos out there of this drop. It did not appear to have changed much from the version prior to the logjam/flood, and still has the ability (and desire) to stuff boaters. It’s essentially a diagonal hole that is backed up by the left side wall below. The only good line is right of the mid-stream boulder that I was perched on. From here you can either ride high and bank off the far right side, or try and boof the hole more centered. The goal with either option is to hit the hole perpendicularly by driving with a left angle. The current just below the hole is quite boiley and flipped a couple of boaters in our group. Luckily they were past the backwash and flushed into the tight mini gorge below, where they were able to roll up. Now sitting in my boat in the pool above, I got ready to drop in. I’ve always had so-so lines on this drop, and this one would be no different. After breaking through the hole I was immediately flipped by the boils (as the others had been). While I was floating upside-down and downstream, I smacked my head a couple of times against the left wall. After rolling up, I felt around for my head-cam, it was still there but now pointed down at the top of my head. The impact had also released the latch for the camera housing, and as I grabbed it the bare camera fell into my hands. Amazingly it had not opened up underwater and didn’t get wet!

Dan and Stephen wait for the rest of the crew, in the pool above Swizzle Sticks

Dan lines up Swizzle Sticks

Chris, bustin' through

We were now floating where the logjam once occupied the canyon, one of the best class IV/IV+ gorges anywhere. At low water (like we had), most of the drops in front of us were big no-brainer ledges and waterfalls; however, with a botched line, a hole at the base of a few of them could strip you from your boat, so some caution/scouting is still advised. Also, at higher flows the holes become much hungrier.

The first drop in this series is Terminator. It starts off with a lead-in over (or around) a couple of midstream boulders. I opted for the boof over the top of them, along with a few others in the group. Directly below this is a small eddy on river right and just above Terminator. It can get filled up pretty quick, so make sure there’s room beforehand if you want to eddy out. From this eddy the line is to ferry back to river left and drive around the hole high on the left side. Basically, you just want to stay away from, and try not to sluff off into, the slot on the right side of the drop. Once I had made the line I set-up for some more pics. Everyone in our group ran the described line and we soon regrouped below.

Chris, with a nice line at Terminator

Regrouping below Terminator

Right after Terminator is a slide type drop that is fairly straightforward, although it makes a loose S-turn and has a couple of exposed rocks to thread through. After packing up my stuff, I slid in, ran the drop, and continued downstream, while jumping out ahead to set-up for more shots.

Stephen runs the drop just below Terminator

Following a couple more small ledge drops, (one I don’t remember being there before the logjam) we came to Prelude (to Thrasher). This drop is almost always run on hard river right, to avoid a dangerous hole on the left. A friend of mine had swam there some years back and said that she was basically suspended just below the surface and unable to peek her head out of the water. This was due to the highly aerated water...scary stuff indeed. Obviously this is a good one to consider setting safety on. We all took the conventional right line and came over the drop with mixed results, since it was a little trashy at this level.

Roman with a nice line at Prelude

Next up was Thrasher. This drop has one of the best lines on the run, a sliding boof off the large midstream boulder. A boof-fest ensued with some in the crew running it multiple times, which is easy to do by hiking back around on river left. I was satisfied enough with my first line, so I joined a couple others as we headed down the next drop, The Boulder Garden.

Dan drives up on the rock at Thrasher

Chris with a good boof at Thrasher

Although there are a few others small boulder gardens, this is the one most people are referring to when they talk about it. The meat of the drop is actually more of the run-out, rather than the boulder slalom itself. Once the boulders give way, the creek funnels down through a pair of ledges. The first drops into what appears to be a wall of water, which who knows what forms this. I am always amazed that little impact is felt and you basically just sail right through without even a stern squirt. However, you will most likely be in whiteout conditions, so make sure to shake it off and get back on line for the final ledge. At lower water the hole at the base is pretty flushy and usually doesn’t cause much of a problem; this is a different story at higher flows. In either case the typical line is to run it center left with a good boof thrown in. Since we had gone down in front of the bulk of the group, we got to watch everyone come through. Good lines were had by all, but we did have one minor swim.

Dan waits as the rest of the crew runs
the ledges below the boulder garden

Roman runs the preferred left line on the bottom ledge

It was now time for the most celebrated single drop of the run, Big Kahuna. This waterfall drops ~18 feet and is very forgiving at most levels. In all my times running Canyon Creek I have only seen one swim, and happened after the boater was flushed under the left side undercut. It should be noted that as long as you line the drop up correctly you should stay well away from this hazard. Kahuna is a beautiful drop, pouring into a giant punchbowl, and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The typical line is down the chute a couple of feet off the right bank. At lower flows an auto-boof forms which almost guarantees a near flat landing, so make sure to lean forward on this one to reduce the jolt to your back. After taking some pictures of a few in our crew, Chris graciously offered to take my camera and setup down below. My line was similar to everyone else's. I started in the small eddy just above the lip, and with just couple quick strokes, I dropped in, hit the kicker, and went airborne. Not expecting to get so much lift, I didn’t lean forward enough and so took a little bit of a jarring; however, this was certainly not enough to detract from this great drop.

Dan drops into Kahuna...

... and lands it nicely

Eric fires up Big Kahuna

Anna runs Big Kahuna

Once below Big Kahuna, we were faced with a small boulder garden and a couple of trashy drops before reaching the next iconic drops, the dynamic duo, Champaign & Hammering Spot. These ultra-clean twin 10 to 12 footers have been the backdrop for many pictures plastered on the web and in guidebooks. The first can be run with a variety of lines, but the one that I (and most) take is center-left off a side sloping boof flake. From here the creek pools up before dropping over Hammering Spot, which gets its name from the hole at the base on the left side. As a general rule it’s best to stay away from the left at any flow. The center right has a nice flake, but it does sluff off to the left a little and can hook you into the hole if you don’t compensate with a stroke. Since I wanted to get down before anyone else and take pictures from below both drops, I didn't scout, instead I went off memories from a couple of years back. Luckily my memory served me well, and I got a good boof off of both. Before long, the rest of the group started dropping over one by one. For the most part everyone had great lines, although a couple in the group did find themselves in the hole at Hammering Spot, which produced one swim.

Nate Merrill, crushin' the boof on Campaign
(taken on a later trip)

Dan airs out Hammering Spot

Joni perfect at Hammering Spot

The author digs in at hammering Spot
(photo by Brad Bassi, taken a few years back)

The last drop we came to was Toby’s. Named after a guy who was fatally pinned, this drop should be taken very seriously. Most of the drop is a junky broken ledge, but it does have what appears to be a clean line off the center-left. I have never seen anybody run this line; I’m not sure if this is where Toby got into trouble, or if it’s simply out of respect for him. Whatever the case, we typically drive up onto a flat shallow rock (on the far left) and drop ~8 feet over the other side. On this trip I had shown up last and noticed that most everyone was on the right side and appeared to be running a part of the drop that fed back toward river center. I had never run (or looked) at this line before, but after getting the thumbs up from the scouter on shore, I assumed it was clear and good to go. I did have the benefit of watching the person in front of me go first, and after doing so it was my turn. As I peeled into the current and toward the drop, I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a slab of rock in the landing I was heading for. I tried to make a last minute correction but wasn’t able to do it in time. As I dropped over I side checked the rock, straining and bruising my shoulder. I was able to work off the rock and finish up the drop with an ugly line. I eddied out far below and saw two more people come down also crashing into the rock, one in a near vertical pin. At this point I was getting pretty upset that people were still being guided through here and voiced my frustrations to the scouter. Both words and opinions were exchanged, for better or worse. In the end and after giving it some thought I believe it really came down to miscommunication (e.g. hand signals). There was a line there, but it was tight and had consequences. We have since discussed further and I feel we all learned from the situation, which I hope will translate to better safety/communication on the river. My advice for this drop is that, unless you know the line and are comfortable hitting it, it's best to scout and/or sneak it.

Toby's from below

The creek ends just after Toby’s and the 1 ½ mile lake paddle that followed allowed us to lighten the mood again and talk about what a great weekend we had. It was really nice to have Canyon Creek back and without the logjam. Of course I have my own selfish reasons, but I also think it’s good for the community as a whole, as it allows aspiring class IV/IV+ boaters the ability to run big drops and get some experience on them without having to face high consequences. I still remember my first trip down some years back, which at that point was one of the best and most exciting days of boating I’d had to that point. After we finished up the run we all met for some Chinese food in Battle Ground, WA. From there we parted ways and headed home.

The group relaxes on the lake paddle out. I believe
Dan was telling jokes or fish stories at this point...

The fog sets in on the crew

Some footage taken on a more recent trip, with a little more flow (~600cfs):

POV - Canyon Creek, WA from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Man, I had no idea you almost lost your camera! pssst, thanks for not showing pictures of my line at you-know-what.


  2. Yeah Stephen, I gotta stop using my head as a rudder. BTW, not sure what you're talking about, all I saw was lines of perfection... ;-)