Monday, March 14, 2011

Upper Canyon Creek, Oregon (3.12.11)

Upper Canyon Creek (Oregon) has been on my radar for quite some time. I had heard mixed reviews, from a great class V run to a scary class V run (and everything in-between). One thing that most people agreed with was that it was one of the hardest runs in the mid-Willamette Valley with lots of consequence for missed lines or a swim. I had done the lower run multiple times, and based on its geology and character, I assumed it would be filled with a nice supply of undercuts and sieves. I guess it was time to find out first hand.

We had five people rounded up for the trip: Shawn would be coming from Roseburg, Chris and Eric from the Portland area, and Roman and I from Eugene. Everyone but the Eugene duo had done the run, but since this creek can change dramatically after a high water event (due to its unstable geology), we would still need to proceed with caution. Since we had gotten a late start, and we wanted to take our time and relax, we decided to just do the Upper run. After meeting Chris and Eric in Sweet Home, we headed to the put-in.

It looked like we would have between 400cfs and 450cfs, based on the calculation on Pat Welch’s page (here). According to Shawn this would be a good medium flow. He also mentioned that when it gets much above 500cfs it can get pretty pushy and below 350cfs was fairly trashy, so it appeared we'd be right in this fairly small window.

We had just over 400cfs on this day (3/12/11)

On the way up, we stopped to look at the last series of drops on the Upper run, Terminator and Day of Judgment. These two back-to-back boulder gardens are the climax of the run. Unfortunately, Day of Judgment is, for all intents and purposes, unrunnable. This is due to a massive boulder that peeled off the cliff and fell into the entrance, creating a junk pile of epic proportions; it really must be seen to be believed. Although there is a line, it’s a hard one, and the price of failure is much higher than I’d gamble with. After we were done gawking at the massive boulder field, we headed up to put on.

Terminator, as seen from the road to the put-in.

Day of Judgment, as seen from the road to the put-in.
Note the massive boulder that fell into the creek a few
years back, making it a highly consequential drop.

A closer look of the boulder mess in Day of Judgment,
as seen from the road to the put-in.

The put-in for Upper Canyon is a small bridge over the creek, and its slow-moving nature gives no indication of what lies downstream. After paddling for about a mile down the meandering stream, around downed logs and over shallow gravel bars, the walls closed in. We quickly eddied out and hiked down to scout the first drop of the run, Chocolate Chips. This two-part drop reminds me of a chunkier version of Laura's on Lower Brice Creek. After running a small ledge and making a left-hand bend, the creek funnels down through a violent 6' wide crack into the pool below. After hearing stories and seeing the drop, the biggest concern I had was pitoning the left wall in the slot, other than that it looked good to go.

Looking downstream from the put-in bridge.
Don't be fooled by the calmness...

Looking into the first drop of the run, "Chocolate Chips".

After a quick inspection, Chris said he was ready to fire it up first. I setup for photos while the others looked on and set safety. After running the initial drop Chris worked over to river-left to line up for the slot with left to right angle, which was exactly what I was planning to do. As he entered the slot he drove right into the curler at the top and dropped in. As he came through he was kicked sideways and chalked end to end in the slot for a split second, before shooting out like a watermelon seed and going deep. As he resurfaced his boat came completely out of the water while doing a 180 degree aerial, which he stuck the landing on! Unfortunately, during his extremely brief pin, his boat had folded across the middle. Luckily, Chris was not injured, and eddied out below to inspect the damage. After some persuasion from his foot, he was able to push it back into shape allowing him to at least finish the run.

Chris lines up the slot with right angle...

Chris in the split second pin that folded his boat

The dramatic resurface, which he landed!

Shawn and Eric were next, and both had excellent lines. After watching them and packing up my gear I headed upstream for my turn. After seeing what had happened to Chris, I decided to change up my line, and instead enter the slot more right. The entrance drop went well and I stayed right based on the newly planned line. As I dropped through the slot my nose was pushed slightly left and straight toward the left wall. Not wanting to piton, I leaned away from it and flipped as I hit the base of the drop. I was able to snap off a quick roll and join the others in the eddy below. Roman was next, and basically had the same line/outcome as me.

Shawn lines up between tiers while the others look on.

Shawn halfway through the slot

Eric runs the first ledge of Chocolate Chips...

...and the second

Eric waits below the drop

Roman dropping in

Just below Chocolate Chips was a fun little boulder garden before we eddied out once again to scout the next major rapid, Chicken Little. The first thing I noticed about this drop is how big it is! After a fairly trashy lead-in, the creek bends to the right dropping over a broken ledge/pile of boulders. This is the meat of Chicken Little, and it's filled with a couple of holes, wood, and undercut boulders. There was certainly a line, but I wasn't confident I could run it cleanly, so I decided to portage. I soon got the signal from the rest of the crew that no one was going to run it, so we all walked back upstream to gather our boats.

Looking downstream from Chocolate Chips

The small boulder garden just above Chicken Little

Looking down into the entrance of Chicken Little

The first part of Chicken Little

The crux second part of Chicken Little

Putting in just below Chicken Little, we needed to make a ferry over to river right to run the next drop. I was the last one in the water, and after making the ferry I dropped into a trashy shoot, planning to join the others in the river right eddy. On my way down I got bumped by a couple of rocks and was deflected left, where you didn’t want to be. A couple of frantic strokes in the shallow water allowed me to pull myself into a small eddy just before dropping over backwards down a sieved-out mess. Feeling a little humbled by my goof, I recollected myself and made it over to the river-right eddy where Shawn was still waiting.

Shawn gave me the verbal, but the line sounded a little complex, so I decided to get out and take a quick look. What lay below was yet another boulder garden that looked similar to the stuff on the Miracle Mile section of the NFMF Willamette (here). Since there was a log in play center-left, the plan was to work down the right side through a trashy little section, until it opened up where you could then work over to river left and eddy out below. My line was certainly not the cleanest, as I was tossed around a little bit at the top. Luckily I was able to get'er back in control and finish up the drop without too much trouble.

Scouting from the top of the boulder garden
that's directly below Chicken Little

Looking back upstream at the boulder garden

Immediately below was another fun rapid that was nice and clean. The right side walled up and was covered in a blanket of deep green moss, it was a pretty cool setting. Basically you wanted to start right from the top and just work your way down. The only real obstacle was a small ledge hole that needed to be run left of center, due to a rock that was backing-up the hole.

Chris eddies out about halfway down the drop.
The ledge just below him contains the ledge hole that is
backed up by the midstream boulder.

Roman enters the drop...

...and makes the move at the ledge hole

We had now entered the gorge section of the run, where it became a little more pool drop. The first drop we came to was pretty straightforward, but it did have a piece of wood coming in from the left that deserved some attention. We all ran it without issue, although I did get flipped by the top curler, but followed it up with a quick roll. Just below this was another fun boulder drop, which also had a couple small pieces of wood, but they weren't really in play.

Chris busts through the top curler. Note the wood just to his left.

Shawn in the boulder garden just below
the drop in the previous picture

At the next horizon line, Shawn said that we should probably get out and take a quick look at this one. Upon inspection, we had a small entrance drop that was followed by a nice sloping boof ledge. To me, it looked like the hole was fairly sticky, but Shawn assured me that it goes just fine and you'll end up sailing right over it. Since I was already out of my boat, I decided to take a couple shots while the others came down one-by-one, all with nice lines. Finally it was my turn, and I had a similar one to the others.

Shawn enters the lead-in drop

Shawn digs in at the boof ledge

Eric follows in similar fashion

Just around the corner the creek dropped over another horizon line, and once again we climbed down the rocks to give it a look. This was obviously the one that I had heard referred to as a mini version of the famous BZ falls on The Green Truss. My buddy Jacob told me later he believes that it's called Demon Seed. Not sure if that is its name, but since I don't know of another I'll go with it. None of us but Chris really gave it much consideration, since the line was quite thin and missing it could result in a face-plant into the right wall, which it fed into. After further thought Chris reluctantly decided to shoulder his boat as well.

Chris scouts the drop referred to as Demon Seed

Next we came to a fun double ledge that was not too difficult but still entertaining. Chris held up between the drops so I could get below and snap a couple of quick pics. After giving me a chance to setup he came down with a nice boof off the bottom ledge.

Chris runs the first ledge

Roman waits his turn as Chris eddies out between ledges

Chris with a nice boof on the bottom ledge

A little ways down the creek, the road came into view high on river right, so I knew we had arrived at the big daddies, Terminator and Day of Judgment. The last time the guys were here they were unable to run Terminator due to an unfortunately placed piece of wood. It was now clear, so we hiked down to give it a scout. This boulder garden was definitely bigger than it looked from a couple hundred feet up at the road, which was shocking. There were a couple of key moves that needed to be made as you threaded your way down. The first, near the top of the drop, was a small hole that should be punched with some speed or a well placed power stroke. Next, was a small boof that lined you up for the last and most important move, an airplane turn off the right side of a midstream boulder. Going left of this boulder would be bad since it ends in a sieve against the left bank. However, if you drop in too low on the right side you'll most likely be deposited in a terminal eddy against that bank, which would be difficult to paddle out of. Based on these hazards, we made sure to set safety in a couple of key spots.

Looking up at Terminator

Shawn and Chris volunteered to go first, and came down one after the other. I staged myself down below with a nice view looking upstream into the bottom part of the drop. Shawn was the first to appear and was right on line. As he made the last move at the midstream boulder, he was shot hard right landing on a hard brace. He was able to avoid the pull of the eddy on the right and paddled away safely with a big smile on his face.

Shawn in the middle of Terminator

Shawn lines up the bottom move at Terminator

Almost done!

Next came Chris, lined up in similar fashion. He was able to come off the boulder with a nice boof and landed cleanly, also paddling away happy with his line. He quickly stated that the drop paddled much bigger than it looked, and that the top hole had more pull than he was expecting. That said, I decided to re-look at the entrance while Eric prepared for his turn.

Chris boofs the midstream boulder...

...and digs in for the finish

I now had an upstream view of the drop as I watched Eric drop in. He had managed to build enough speed in the lead-in to cruise right through the top hole and setup for the remainder of the drop. Even from my vantage point I could see that he was able to make the move off the boulder and join the crew safely below.

Eric halfway through Terminator

As I headed upstream to take my turn, a good nervous energy came over me, which always seems to happen when I’m about to run a bigger drop. I retraced the line in my mind and slid into the water. As I dropped down the lead-in I set my eyes on the hole and dug in hard, easily clearing its back flow. A few more quick strokes had me sailing over the small boof and lined up for the bottom move. Seeing the other guys get really close to the right eddy, I decided to drive higher up on the boulder, which I did, and nearly landed directly behind it. The seam/boil was pretty impressive and my boat momentarily sucked below the surface before I was deposited downstream. Wow, that drop was worth the price of admission on its own!

The author at the entrance to Terminator
(photo by Chris Arnold)

The author drives high on the bottom boulder move
(photo by Chris Arnold)

I got out to setup safety for Roman, who was the last to drop in. Once again, since I was downstream I couldn’t see his line through the top part of the drop, but he finished off with a sweet line off the bottom boulder and eddied out right below me.

Roman takes his turn...
(photo by Chris Arnold)

...and finishes nicely
(photo by Chris Arnold)

Since we didn’t plan to run the Lower section, our takeout was just around the corner and we were all planning to portage Day of Judgment, we decided that we might as well takeout above it. We did have one more fun drop to run, which used to be the lead-in ledge to D of J, prior to the rockslide jamming it up. It’s basically a ~10’ sliding ledge, which we ran down the left side, to avoid a large undercut boulder on the right. We all had great lines and pulled out beside the massive boulder that formed the new entrance to D of J.

Chris runs the final ledge above "our" takeout

Chris eddies out just below the 10' ledge drop.
Roman awaits above the eddy we took out from.

Looking back upstream at the 10' ledge

After a quick but steep scramble up the scree slope, we reminisced about our day’s adventure and all the great lines we’d had. We decided that the best way to finish off the day was with some Mexican food at Los Dos Amigos, in Sweet Home, where Shawn treated the wait staff with the utmost respect... After that, we parted ways and headed back to our respective abodes.

The climb out

Eric waits his turn to avoid getting smashed by falling boulders

One more look into Terminator. Nope, still looks nasty.

In conclusion, I would say we had a perfect medium flow at a little over 400cfs. I would definitely go back, and would probably even do it a couple times a year, if there was interest. The negative publicity I had gotten about this run may have been due to an older version of the creek, since things are prone to shift around a lot on this run. Also, it was pretty clear of wood--there were a couple of pieces in play, but nothing that couldn’t be avoided. I’m sure that as I do the run a couple more times, I will find cleaner routes through some of the boulder gardens. Also, I may eventually run a couple ones that we portaged, like Chicken Little and Demon Seed, but I’ll probably never run Day of Judgment in its current state. Hopefully this provided some up-to-date, and much needed information about this run. We just don’t have many road-accessible class V runs in the Mid-Willamette valley, and this might just be one of the best, depending on your flavor.

Here is the head-cam footage from our run. Unfortunately I forgot to turn on the camera for Terminator.


  1. Nice report Nate! One of the best trips this year!

  2. Nice report Nate. This is the only account I have ever heard/read that made me want to run this section.

  3. Thanks guys! Yeah, I think it's right up your alley Jacob -- it feels more adventurous than your typical road accessible run.

  4. I had run the upper and lower sections a seperate runs before, but today I ran the whole thing as one run. There are several IV+ rapids below Day of Judgment, but above the hike in for the lower put in that I had missed when only running the upper or lower sections. If I was to do it again I think I would run down to the put-in for the lower and use that as the take out. The portage around Day of Judgment was not as difficult as I expected on the right.

  5. Thanks for info Ben! I definitely want to get back on the run as a combo.