Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Black Rock, OR (In Lycra)

With no real kayaking options due to unseasonably dry conditions, it looked like I would need to turn to one of my other outdoor passions for the weekend. Since my wife, Emily, will jump on any opportunity to go mountain biking, I knew it wouldn't be hard to convince her to hit the trails with me. I was actually thinking it would be fun to head to Black Rock to play on some of the freeride trails, and when I mentioned it to Em, she was immediately on board. You see, she and I head to Squamish/Whistler (BC) each year for our anniversary to mountain bike for a week and half, and although we're XC riders, we love all the technical and freeride style trails the area offers. With that, Em sent out the open invite to our other XC buddies to see if they wanted to shred with us, on some of the easier trails that Black Rock has to offer.

With a crew of 11 strong, we headed north on Sunday morning, clad with lycra, styrofoam helmets, and clipless pedals -- perfect for a day of shreddin' freeride trails! As we made our way along I-5, the morning fog started to give way to sunny skies, and I knew it was going to be a good day. By the time we reached BR, it was around 10:30am, and after getting suited up, we started our ascent up Mt. Brown.

Gettin' out of the valley

Davey, ready to get his groove on

Our first stop was at Basic Training, to get in some practice before hitting the trails. This would also give those in our crew who hadn't done this type of biking a taste of what was to come. The most popular section of Training Ground, for our group, seemed to be the jumps/small pump-track features. We hadn’t even gotten on the trails yet and already folks were grinning ear to ear as well as hootin’ and woohooin’ -- I felt like I was back in grade school again, playing on my old BMX bike. I also decided to play a bit on the skinnies, which I also have a fun time with up in BC. I was certainly a bit rusty, and took a couple spills just getting onto the damn things.

Jason Snook gets elevated

Emily gets some flight training

The author knockin' the rust off
(photo by Jason Snook)

Roland on one of many practice laps

Okay, apparently I'm still a little rusty...
(photo by Jason Snook)

That's better!
(photo by Jason Snook)

(photo by Jason Snook)

Exit, stage right
(photo by Jason Snook)

(photo by Jason Snook)

Once we had been trained, we started the grunt to the top of the hill. With only about 1,400’ of vertical climbing over a few miles, it’s not too bad of a climb, unless of course you’re out of shape, like me… My legs and lungs were definitely feeling it, but I was able to mosey along at a fairly steady pace, only stopping a few times to catch my breath. Along the way, off to the sides of the road, were manmade stunts that were certainly impressive to look at, but way out of my league – you want your big boy pants and not your Styrofoam helmets for these ones. There were a few groups of riders getting ready to session them, as well as others that were doing trail work. As we passed by, everyone waved and were very friendly/welcoming to our crew. Eventually the road ends at a winding trail that continues up, but don’t fret, you’re almost there. Before long we reached the peak, where a conveniently placed bench and bike stand presented themselves, allowing us to take a bit of a break and eat a snack.

Enjoying the climb!

The gals ride past some big stunts on the sides of the road.
The bridge in from of them is actually a road-gap.

The summit!

The first trail that we decided to ride was Bonzai Downhill (BD), the easiest rated trail in the network. Although it contains numerous dirt and wood structures, they can either be rolled or ridden around, making it a great introduction to more novice riders. BD is also broken down into multiple sections (BD1 through BD5), and each section has its own flavor. The first section heads down the hill in a hurry, with sweet berms made from dirt piled high, and even one bolstered with wood planks; there’s also a fun skinny to hit if you so choose. The last feature on BD1 is a super cool wood ladder bridge, which zigzags before dropping down to the first road crossing.

Perry Morris rounds one of the sweet berms on BD1

Then attacks a wood platform

Amanda Morris hits the platform

Roland and Davey, playing chase

Randy Rimby

Kim McGovern, enjoyin' the ride!

After a quick regroup at the road, we dropped into BD2, which starts off with Plankenstein, a rollercoaster of a ladder bridge, which is quite an impressive structure -- It starts off with some large up/down woops before dropping down into a high-banked left-hand berm, and finally doing a quick zigzag before dropping down to the dirt trail – really fun stuff!

Justin Turlak, in the middle of Plankenstein

Randy, rounds the corner


Davey and Jason, toward the bottom of Plankenstein

Bridget Hildreth

Bridget, exiting Plankenstein

Once past Plankenstein, the trail descends down the mountain with lots of dirt jumps and a few wooden stunts thrown in for good measure. To be honest, I don’t remember which stunts were on which sections of Bonzai Downhill, I was having way too much fun to pay attention. What I can tell you is that the features are very well built and have great flow, allowing you to hit them at speed, or simply roll them if you choose. All too soon, we reached the road, just down from Basic Training, and everyone had such a good time that we decided to head back up for another lap, which was just as fun! I must say, the last time I had ridden this trail was about 4 years ago, and the improvements that have been made are really remarkable. The BRMBA crew really deserves recognition for what they’ve put together -- Bravo! Here are some pics taken from different sections of BD.

Girl power!

The author hits a fun box-drop
(photo by Jason Snook)

R5K splits the uprights

Justin, turn & burn!

Davey gets a lift


Jason, leadin' the pack

Perry goes for the side route

JT, lookin' stylish

Even after 2 laps on Bonzai, we were having too good of a time to stop, so we decided to head partway up the hill and drop in on the lower part of Sickter Gnar. Once again, we were treated to lots of fun jumps and pump-track style riding. There were a few larger stunts, but each had easy ride-arounds, making also it suitable for XC folks. The last section of Sickter, just above Training Ground, is a little more rough than the groomers above, and reminded me more of the trails we typically ride. At the top of it is a steep/chunky pitch, which goes fine, and then the trail meanders its way through some technical sections, before dead-ending in the middle of Training Ground. Next time we ride at Black Rock, I definitely want to ride Sickter Gnar in its entirety – I can only assume that it’s just as quality as the other bits of trail we had ridden that day.

Roland finds a kicker on Sickter Gnar



Kim, super stoked!

The great Davey Sprockett

By this time we had done ~3,200’ of climbing, and most of the group was feeling pretty tired. With that, our attention soon became diverted to food (and beer), so we decided to head back to the car and find something to eat. To do so, we used the last section of BD, which starts just down from Training Ground, and ends at the road, not too far up from the parking lot. Back at the car, we enjoyed some refreshments, supplied by the great Davey Sprockett -- thanks buddy! From here our crew split up, with a few of us heading into Corvallis to grub on some Mexican food and reflect on a great day of shreddin!

Black Rock is awesome! Don’t be deterred from going there because you’re a XC rider. Bonzai Downhill is completely appropriate for small travel (or even no travel) bikes, it will only limit how big you want to go. Furthermore, the section of Sickter Gnar that we did was also Lycra friendly, and only a minor step-up from BD. This is not a trail system I’d travel for every weekend, but I’d certainly head there a couple times a year for a whoopin’ good time! Once again, BRMBA deserves a huge amount of praise for the work they’ve done, building high quality trails for riders of all skill levels!

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.