Thursday, May 28, 2009

Little North Santiam: Classic Opal

Photo: Priscilla Macy


Stream: This section of the Little North Santiam River (usually referred to as Opal Creek) is one of the best whitewater trips in Oregon.  There are miles of fun and forgiving class III-IV rapids and 3 stand out rapids (two are class V-ish).

After a short walk in along a gravel road you reach the put in at an abandoned and barricaded mine.  Most people put in just below Hypoxia a short ledge with a hole backed up by an adjacent channel.  Paddlers coming down from the upper section usually sneak it over the shallow part on river-right.

                                                                Photo: Priscilla Macy

  The river is busy from the get-go with some pool and drop II-III separated by calm pools.  The water clarity is such that you can see the river bottom on a typical day.  Paddlers quick pass by Gold Creek coming in on the right as the class II-III continues.  At the first rapid you cannot see the bottom of, just after the river bends to the left it is important paddlers run along the right wall at low flows to avoid a piton in the main current.  Below here is a gorgeous regrouping pool and then the whitewater really begins, with numerous boat-scoutable class III-IV rapids with fun boofs and unique lines.  This is a run where it is more fun to follow someone down who knows the run the first time because the rapids are not big enough to warrant a scout, but there are some small bugger rocks you are likely to bounce off of if you are boat-scouting yourself down at lower flows. 

There are a couple stand out rapids before Big Fluffy including a rapid ending in two large boulders, be sure to dart to the right of them to avoid a small sieve in the center.  Too far right though and you may find yourself pushed into the right wall which has a small but generally benign pocket.  Another notable rapid is this ledge, proceeded by a deep pool between beautiful walls.  There is some nice cliff jumping here and is a nice place to take a break, it really captures the essence of this beautiful section of a river.

Jesse Shapiro paddles back into the ledge for some enders.
Photo: Priscilla Macy

More pool and drop class III-IV continues down to Big Ugly, which is proceeded by a small rapid that pushes paddlers close to the right wall.  As you pass the wall the river turns 90 degrees to the right, the small horizon line at the end of the straight away is Big Ugly, which can be scouted right or left but is portaged right.  The left wall is the obvious hazard and is portaged more often at low flows.  There is a sneak option on the right at some levels.

Matt Pearson sneaking by that left wall at the bottom of Big Ugly.
Photo: Priscilla Macy

The next rapid below Big Ugly is a slot through a channel against the right bank.  Start left, driving hard back to the right through the slot.  It's easy and forgiving, but occasionally flips lackadaisical paddlers.  

There is a short bit of class II before the walls rise back up and the river disappears into the lead in at Big Fluffy, it is easy to eddy out on the right just above the horizon.

                                                              Photo: Clinton Begley

Scout and portage (via a seal launch) Big Fluffy on the right, this is where most of the pictures come from that people associate with the Opal Classic run.

                                                                Photo: Priscilla Macy

To run Big Fluffy I like to run the entrance ledge wherever is clever, then as I approach the pinch along the left wall I make sure I have momentum and angle to get to the left wall as I come through the pinch.  I then scrape (if levels are low) along the left wall until I am about 6 feet above the lip, at which point I drive back to middle and get in a left stroke to keep my nose up.  If you follow the current, you will find it pushes hard into the left wall.  

                                                            Ben Mckenzie gets it right
                                                              Photo: Lucas Reitmann

 The hole spices up at high flows and is not afraid of dishing out beatings and swims.
  I like to take the line shown in the photo below at all levels, even when it requires scraping over a an exposed shelf at low flows.
                                                           Photo: Lucas Reitmann

Things are a half class easier below here but the whitewater keeps rolling along, a small rapid with large boulders has a hungry mid stream sieve that is not obvious from above.  When you see those boulders, make sure you end the rapid on the far left.  

                                           Scouting the rapid with the sieve below.

The next innocuous spot is about half a mile to a mile below the bridge where Cedar Creek enters from the left.  Nondescript boulder gardens are the name of the game as the river makes a gradual left and the main flow crashes into a pile of boulders, make a strong move to the left or right of them.  This is one place where following a veteran is nice, but the consequences here are low aside from mangle potential.

There are a couple of long class II-III rapids below here and then the Little North Santiam pools again and bends to the left above the finale, Thor's Playroom.  

                                                         Thor's Hammer and the flume
                                                              Photo: Priscilla Macy

The entry drop into Thor's and out of the pool has a number of options, nearly every time I take the second door from the right but don't let that keep you from checking out the other options.   Door two is through 2 soft ledge holes, I recommend a right stroke off the top one.

The current picks up again after a nice recovery eddy and drops away through a fun flume run down the tongue with some offset waves.  As you slow down from the flume you will find yourself floating slowly (at normal flows) towards the final drop, a fast tongue into a ledge.  Eddy out on the right before dropping over to give it a quick peak from your boat.

I like to run this one moving right down the tongue, finishing right.  Otherwise follow the tongue straight over a boof that most people kind of just plop over, but every once in awhile it offers up a nice pop.  If you are looking for some extra fun aim for the seam between the boof and the hole on the bottom right.

                                             Ben drops into the final segment of Thor's Playroom.
                                                            Photo: Priscilla Macy

Take out on the gravel bar in the pool below this drop on the right.  There is a short set of stairs up to the parking lot.

The water quality is probably the thing people talk about most after their first trip to Opal Creek.
Photo: Nathan Pfiefer

Flows:   This run can be done at a wide range of flows, and gets run anywhere between 350-5,000 cfs on the Little North Santiam @ Mehama gauge.  The most common and cleanest levels for running all the rapids are 700-2,000 cfs.   Much higher and Big Fluffy is usually portaged, much lower and Big Ugly is usually portaged.  And of course you can assume there will be other concerns that arise with flows outside of the ideal range though the difficulty does not change much until you get passed 3,500 cfs.

The gauge is far downstream, so the definitive gauge is the stick gauge at Elkhorn.  5-6' on that gauge is good for all the rapids, but it's visual only.

Access:  Take I5 to Salem and head East on Highway 22 towards Detroit Reservoir.  In about 22 miles turn left at a flashing yellow light onto N Fork Rd.  In about 15 miles the road turns to gravel, just under 2 miles after that turn right (there is a kiosk and some boulders at this location).  Just under a mile after turning right at the kiosks, pull right into the paved Three Pools Day use area (not signed).  This is the take out.

To reach the put in return to the kiosks on N Fork Rd and turn right.  Continue a little over 4 miles to a gate and park (there is a $5 fee).  Carry your kayak past the gate along the road, in half a mile you will cross over the compelling, yet log choked Gold Creek.  In another hundred yards veer right onto an overgrown spur road that leads down to the put in at the location of a decommissioned mine shaft.

Some Opal Media


Opal Creek 2009 from Jacob Cruser on Vimeo.

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