Thursday, March 27, 2014

NFMF Willamette - The Lower Gorge (3.23.14)


Typically, when I drive up to the NFMF Willamette, it's to run some laps on the Miracle Mile -- one of the best sections of whitewater in the area. However, on this particular day we felt like mixin' it up a bit and continuing down through the lower gorge, after a quick run down the Mile. Since it was spring break and almost everyone was out of town, Pat Welch and I would have the run all to ourselves. We ended up meeting up a little later in the morning than usual, which allowed for some extra sleep, as well as giving the temps a bit more time to warm up. From Eugene, it takes about an hour to reach the river, where we stopped briefly at the take-out to drop off a shuttle bike, before heading to the put-in.

By the time we reached the put-in for the Mile, the sun was shining bright and the temps were near 50 degrees--pretty nice for March in the Cascade foothills! After gearing up, we slid into the water and headed downstream. Our run down the Mile went great, with clean lines by both of us. Some new wood had entered a couple sections of the river (from recent floods), but for the most part, the lines were the same as usual. I must say, even though I've done literally hundreds of laps down the Mile, it never seems to get old!

Pat, somewhere on the Mile

Pat runs one of the last straightaways of the Mile

As we passed underneath the bridge, below the Christy Creek confluence (where we normally take out), we made our way over to river-left, were we picked our way down the bouldery sneak route, around Dragon Slayer. Dragon Slayer is a legitimate class V drop that I've never had the stones to run. The first part heads down a fairly juiced-up runway, with unfortunately placed rocks scattered throughout its length. Basically, as long as you can get left for the final ledge, you're good, but the complicated lead-in makes this a difficult task. If you do end up right at the bottom, you'll drop through a slot against the right wall, which forms a fairly nasty hole. Apparently, there have been some pretty severe beat-downs, but I've not seen anyone fall into it myself. All that said, it's certainly a runnable drop, and I'm sure I'll give it a go at some point, assuming there is good safety set.

The bottom of Dragon Slayer. If you look carefully, you can
see the nasty pocket against the river-right wall, at the bottom.
(taken on a different trip, at a similar flow)

Dragon Slayer, in all its glory. The river-right pocket
is out of view, behind the large rock outcropping.
(taken on a different trip, at a similar flow)

Pat, happily taking the safe route around Dragon Slayer

Once Pat and I had made our way around Dragon Slayer, we headed downstream once again. The next quarter mile or so was filled with fun class III/III+ boulder gardens, although not quite as exciting as the stuff on the Mile.

The fun section of whitewater, just below Dragon Slayer
(taken on a different trip, at a similar flow)

Pat in the middle of one of the better pitches, below Dragon Slayer

Somewhere between drops

Getting close to Spinal Compression

Before long, a headwall came into view, where the river dropped over a horizon line and appeared to run directly into it. This drop is affectionately named Spinal Compression, which I can only assume came about after a painful ride down what is essentially a pile of rocks with water running over it. Although this drop is river-wide, there are only a couple of clean line options. The one I've always taken is center-left, though a narrow chute between a few pin rocks. Pat agreed to go first so that I could get a few photos from above. With that, he hiked back up to his boat and prepared to drop in. His line went just as planned, and after paddling away from the drop, he eddied out and waited for me to take my turn. My line also went really well, and after pulling over to take some more photos of the drop, this time from below, we continued downstream.

Spinal Compression
(taken on a different trip, at a similar flow)

Pat, with a nice line down the center-left of Spinal Compression

Looking back up at Spinal Compression

For the next 3/4 of a mile or so, the river continues through more fun class III boulder drops, with lots of great eddy practice to be had. I really wish that there was a nice take-out below this section, and Dragon Slayer was a little cleaner, as this would be such a great extension to the Mile! Eventually, the water began to mellow out, until it turned into class II riffles, which allowed us to enjoy the warm sun and our amazing surroundings.

Pat waits for me to pack up my camera gear, just below Spinal Compression

Just as we were starting to feel a little lethargic from floating through the mellow section, the river made a hard left bend and dropped underneath another road bridge, where we knew that we had reached the lower gorge. The water in this stretch certainly feels pushier than it does on the Mile, but it's only class III, at least at this point. Soon enough we reached the first significant drop of the gorge, which starts off fairly wide before gradually narrowing down, with most of the flow along the left side of the river, where you want to be. There is actually a really fun eddy to catch on the top-right of the rapid; from there, you can drive back to the left to finish up the drop. This is the line I chose, with Pat entering on the left.

The first section of the gorge, as taken from the road bridge - Super fun stuff!

Pat enters left / drives right, on the first sizable drop of the gorge

Finishing up the first big one

After a small drop that requires a fairly strong move to the right to avoid slamming into a log, the river entered the next sizable drop of the gorge, marked by a log spanning the river overhead. I let Pat know that I was going to take some photos from down below, before dropping in and running it down the left. It should be noted that the bottom-center of this rapid has a pretty retentive hole, which has hammered at least one person that I know of. However, as long as you’re left, it’s a non-issue. Once I had run the drop, I eddied out on river-right and took photos while Pat took his turn, who made it look easy.

Pat eddies out, partway through the second of the larger rapids

Toward the bottom...

...and eddying out

The next rapid on the run was the largest of the gorge, which I've heard referred to as “White Knuckler”. The drop is a big/steep boulder garden, and although the moves are probably only class IV, it definitely has a class V feel to it. This rapid has also changed throughout the years, with the center and right lines becoming much more boulder choked, with high potential for pitons and/or pins. Therefore, I've changed the way I run this drop, which is now down the left through a couple chutes and over a ledge at the bottom. Although this line is fairly clean, it has a couple tricky moves, and should be scouted from river level, on the left, if you’re not familiar with it. We both figured that the best way to approach the drop was to run both chutes and then eddy out above the final ledge, to setup for a better angle off of it -- the move getting into the eddy looked tight but manageable.

Looking down into White Knuckler

White Knuckler, from below

The bottom ledge of the river-left line.

Pat once again agreed to go first, so that I could take photos from above the drop, from a perspective I'd not seen another photo from. His line ended up being perfect, and he easily sailed into the eddy above the final pitch. From there, I gave him some quick verbal beta to line him up properly, before he dropped down the ledge and exited cleanly. Now my turn, I took the same line, but did get thrown a little further left than I wanted, coming out of the first chute. Although I was able to recover and make the eddy, it wasn't my cleanest line of the day. From the final eddy, I lined up and dropped down the bottom ledge, joining Pat above the last big drop of the gorge.

Pat, near the top of White Knuckler

Pat lines up for the eddy, just above the final ledge

Dropping down the final ledge of White Knuckler

And paddling away, after a nice line

The final drop is easily identified by a large slab of rock that has fallen into the water, and now leans against the river-left wall. Although this rapid is not particularly difficult, it's hard to see the line(s) until you're already committed, since a large boulder sits at the lip blocking your view. Furthermore, it does have some tricky hydraulics, but it's fairly easy to avoid the slab of rock, which does have some of the flow pushing into it. My preferred line here is to stage from a river-right eddy, then ferry into the eddy behind the large boulder at the lip, and finally turn around for a quick look before dropping in. Both Pat and I had good lines through this one, and met back up below the drop.

The last drop of the gorge, with the fallen rock slab

Pat, staged above the final drop

Finishing up strong!

From here it's only a short distance, through some class II+ boulder drops, to our take-out just above the road bridge. Unfortunately, I locked my bike to a tree and had accidentally left the key in my car, ~4 miles upstream. With no other choice, I stripped out of my gear and started hiking up the road, hoping that someone would pick me up along the way. Sure enough, a local from Oakridge gave me a ride up to my car, albeit a little reluctantly. After driving back down, we loaded up and headed back into Eugene, ending a great day on the water!

I really do enjoy this section of the NFMF -- Maybe not as much as the Mile, but it's a great extension to that run, especially if you're willing to run Dragon Slayer. This is also a great run for up-and-coming boaters looking to progress into the class IV range. Other than Dragon Slayer and White Knuckler (and maybe Spinal Compression), this section is certainly manageable for strong class III boaters. Although portaging around these drops takes a little effort, they can all be done at river level, and greatly shortened depending on how aggressive of an eddy catcher you are.

As for flows, we had about 3.1' on the Westfir internet gauge (here), which equated to just under a foot on the painted bridge gauge, just below the Christy Creek confluence. This felt like a medium to medium low flow, and more water certainly would have been better, especially for White Knuckler. It should be noted that since the internet gauge is located ~10 miles below the gorge, the actual flow will vary based on the time of year (i.e. rain fed vs. snowmelt).

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