Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SF McKenzie - French Pete to Slide Creek (OR)

The South Fork of the McKenzie (above Cougar Reservoir) is one of those runs that has always seemed to allude me. Although it's not an extremely common run, it does have a brief write-up in the local guidebook and I've had multiple boaters tell me that it was well worth doing, especially when other local runs are a bit high. Probably the main reason I hadn't done it yet was due to the fairly short season that it's boatable, as least for the section that holds the best rapids. You see, for most of the year it is inaccessible; not because of snowpack or a locked gate, but because it's actually hidden beneath Cougar Reservoir, when the water level is higher.

The elevation of the reservoir was ~1560' (the 19th), you wouldn't want it much higher. 

According to the guidebook the run is 8.5 miles long. However; since the upper half of the run was also stated as being fairly uneventful, we decided to put-in about a half mile above French Pete Campground, at a road bridge that crossed the river. Bobby, who was the only person in our group who had done the run, confirmed that the upper stuff probably wasn't worth doing from a whitewater standpoint, especially with all the wood that they had encountered. From our put-in, we would have ~3.5 miles of river to the take-out, at Slide Creek Campground. As for flows, we would have ~2,300cfs, which was considered a good amount of water for this run!

Our flow - ~2,300cfs

As I peeled out of the eddy and passed underneath the bridge, I could feel the power of the river carrying me downstream. Since I typically paddle steeper low volume creeks, it always takes a little bit of time for me to adjust to the bigger water. The first two miles of river, between the road bridges, pretty much ran together -- continuous class II+/III with some hole dodging here and there. It actually reminded me a lot of the Upper Upper Calapooia at high water. Since there weren't many eddies or discernible drops in this first half, I didn't stop to take any photos, but it's basically just a read-n-run type affair.

Looking downstream, from the put-in bridge

Below the bridge (Cougar Crossing) the river mellowed out for a short distance as we entered the section that is usually concealed by the reservoir. We eventually reached a larger horizon line and the river disappeared around a right-hand bend. I was certain that this was the one drop we had seen from the road, with the dominant landmark being a large cliff wall that the rapid banked off of at the bottom. Even though we were able to scout it from the road, that was from ~200’ above the river and looking straight down, which only gave us a general understanding of the layout but little indication of how big it would feel once we were in the middle of it. Since I wanted to take some photos anyway, I jumped out on river right to take a quick peek at the drop. From river level it looked fairly straightforward – there were multiple line options with a few wave holes to be aware of, although none looked particularly sticky. The largest hole was actually at the bottom, spanning the whole right side of the river. After giving me a little bit of time to get out my camera and set-up for a shot, Roman dropped in, starting right and finishing center-right. He ended up hitting the gut of the bottom hole but punched through with relative ease.

The first major rapid after the Cougar Crossing bridge (from the road)

Roman gets ready to drop in

Roman, partway through.

Pitts deep in the bottom hole

Finishing up

For my line, the plan was to start right but drive harder left, hitting the soft spot of the hole and riding the run-out that banked off the cliff wall. It ended up being a pretty fun drop but got a little exciting when I dropped into a diagonal hole, which I had misjudged the size and spacing of during the scout. Luckily I made it through unscathed and met up with Roman in the eddy below. Since Scott and Jim hadn’t yet dropped in, I decided to head down and set-up for photos on the next drop while the others waited for them.

Scott finishes his run while Bobby looks on

The next rapid in line was much longer and also appeared to be a bit more spicy. From my vantage point, there appeared to be a rather large hole guarding the entire right side of the river about halfway down. Since there were also some holes on the left near the top of the rapid, the best approach seemed to be starting right and then working toward the center-left of the river. After giving verbal beta to the others, I took photos as they passed by one-by-one and dropped in. Sure enough, the hole down the right did present some excitement and even a flip, but luckily everyone made it through safely and were waiting in the eddy below. Now my turn, I followed my planned route and was feeling pretty good about how I was set up. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to cut to the left as well as I would have liked and ended up dropping into the edge of the hole -- sideways of course… I instantly leaned into the pile and dug in with my paddle, freeing myself from its grips. What I hadn’t seen from my scouting platform was that it was also backed up by another hole, which I also dropped into. Fortunately I was able to hit the second one straight on and got in enough of a stroke to blast through. The second half of the rapid mellowed out and I was soon eddied out with the others, where we shared stories about our battle with the double-hole.

Jim enters the second big rapid

Roman and Bobby, in the thick of it.

Scott about to encounter the double-hole

The next section of river went around a couple bends of continuous read-n-run rapids -- although they were pretty straightforward they were also plenty of fun and only added to the run as a whole. Before long, we reached the last rapid of the run, which was another long one. The main obstacle here was actually the top guard hole, which spanned almost the entire width of the river. There was a tongue down the left, which definitely looked like the best way to enter the rapid. From there you would need to make a move back toward the center of the river to avoid a rock pour-over, but once past that it looked like easy sailing all the way down to the calm waters of the reservoir. Once again I took photos while Roman dropped in. As expected, he greased the line and eddied out on river left about halfway down the rapid. I went next with essentially the same line, although I broke right after the rock pour-over and eddied out further down where I could get some photos of the rest of the crew coming through.

Roman enters the final rapid, stage left.

Making the cut around the rock pour-over (to his left).

The author takes his turn
(photo by Jim Reed)

Bobby, drivin' hard.

Jim gives chase

Roman reenters the final rapid

Finishin' up

With everyone now safely down at the reservoir, I packed up my camera gear and headed down to join them. There was one more fun airplane move at the very bottom left, which I graciously took advantage of. With just a short flatwater paddle to the boat ramp, we soon found ourselves beached on the muddy river bed. This only added to the effort of getting up to our car, which was all the way at the road, since the gate to the campground was locked. The hike out was only a quarter mile, climbing ~150 vertical feet, but it was certainly enough to wind me a bit and dissuade me enough from doing another lap.

Jim, stoked to bag another new run!

An end to a great day on the water!

I’m really happy that I was finally able to bag this run – it was super fun and like the others had said, well worth doing. Although I wouldn’t call it a classic, it’s a great option when other runs in the area are too high for comfort. As mentioned earlier, the best part of this run is under the reservoir for most of the season, therefore your best bet is to get on it during late fall / early winter, before they start filling it up. Luckily there is an online gauge that can be used to determine the water level (found here). It was at ~1,560’ on this day, which just left the rapids uncovered; in other words, you wouldn’t want the water elevation to be much higher. As for flow, we had ~2,300cfs (gauge found here), which I would consider a good medium flow. The holes would certainly get bigger and the rapids pushier at higher flows but I’m guessing it would still be very manageable with another 1,000cfs. As for lower flows, Bobby had done it with about half the flow and said that it just becomes a more technical boulder garden affair, similar to the final rapid on Blue River (below the Mona bridge). Since we didn’t do the top 5 miles listed in the guidebook I can’t speak to the quality of it, but according to Bobby it’s really not worth it, especially with all the wood they encountered. It seems that the general consensus is that the last 3.5 miles that we did is definitely the best part and the reason for doing the run. All of that said, I would certainly do this run once or twice a season, especially with a tad more water. BTW, it would also be a fun run in a playboat – just a little more exciting!

Additional flow/water level info:
Along with the two links above, a nice resource for determining conditions can be found here:

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