Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Little North Santiam: Opal Gorge

Photo: Matt King


Stream: Most people do this run as an extension of the Classic Opal stretch, but it is also worth doing as a stand-alone run.  Either way you start this section at Three Pools.  It is easy to walk up to the top of Thor's along a short trail to get some action in right away.

The stream exits the Pool at the base of Thor's and goes around an island.  At low flows both sides are rocky, right is the standard route.  The next mile is class II and gives you a chance to get warmed up.  The entrance to the gorge is obvious as the walls rise up and a rapid presents itself.  This is the longest, yet least challenging rapid of the section.  You can run the entrance wherever, though I like to stay along the right bank.  The lines converge near the bottom and a boulder in the center of the river creates a ledge.  At low and high flows it is best to boof off the left edge of this boulder (covered at high flows) and at medium flows it is fun to boof off the right shoulder of it.

This lands you in the calm pool above the Mystery AKA the Un/Un (unscoutable/unportageable).  The standard line is 6 inches off the left wall at the lip, pointed towards 1 o clock and letting your nose drop.  If you have the correct angle a shelf will shoot you out cleanly into the aerated pool below.  Angled too far left or right and you will likely receive a glancing blow from either wall before being shot out into the pool below.  
The right channel gets run too, but not as often.  There is even a middle boof at high flows as well.

                                               A right side run of Mystery AKA the Un/Un at very low flows.
                                                              Photo: Lucas Rietmann

There is a small ledge below here that develops a respectable hole at high flows before another calm pool.  The next horizon line is the Undertaker, as far as I know this drop has been run once at 5,000 cfs (by Willy Hinsdale) and portaged by every other boater who has ever run this stretch of river.  The left side portage is quicker, but there are about 5' of this exposed portage that are slippery and this keeps a lot of people who would otherwise enjoy the run from paddling Opal Gorge.  I don't want to tell people it's no big thing, and it's true that if you fell it would likely be the end of you, but lots of people have made the portage without issue and most of them are more than willing to repeat the trip.   The decision is always yours, and if you really get freaked out you can always attain back upstream to get to the river-right portage at med-low flows and below.

                                                                             Don't fall
                                                                       Photo: Matt King

                     Eric Foster-Moore is all smiles after passing the crux of the Undertaker portage.
                                                                  Photo: Matt King

There is another boulder just below the Undertaker (Tombstone Rock) that can be run on either side so long as you are driving strongly back to center.

The next rapid is Unicorn, a long Boulder Garden that is entered on the center/right and then run down the main/center channel the rest of the way.

A moving pool separates the runout of Unicorn from Henline Rapid which can be scouted from the right at normal flows and left or right at low flows.  Lines exist far right and far left, avoiding the center of the rapid (where most of the current funnels) at the top and bottom.  There is an undercut bottom-left that makes me squeamish here at low flows, but it is covered at normal flows.

                                                Brian Butcher runs left at Henline Rapid.
                                                           Photo: Lucas Rietmann

The next horizon is the Sierra Slot, which used to have a boof on the right but things seemed to have changed a bit and that line seems to flip people onto their head.  The new standard line is the same as the old, running the right channel driving hard left with a right stroke into a fold that can rinse out the sinuses but lands in a forgiving pool.

Below here you are free of the gorge, a half mile of class II leads to the last portage at Elkhorn Falls.  If you look at this rapid and decide it looks like something you may want to run (main line or sneak), first walk out onto the finger of rock creating a pinch in the outflow and see for yourself how much of the river actually flows under there.  The portage is ultra easy on the left.

                                Michael Freeman making the first move of Elkhorn Falls at flows under the            .                                                    recommended flow range (still a class V rapid).
                                                             Photo: Lucas Rietmann

A half mile downstream is the Elkhorn bridge with a staff gauge underneath on river right.  I generally like taking out at the Elkhorn bridge these days as it avoids another mile of class I and flatwater down to Salmon Falls, the other take out option.  

That said, Salmon Falls is a good drop, and if you have never paddled it before I would encourage you to paddle down to it and make up your own mind about whether it's worth the flat water or not.

Salmon Falls can be scouted thoroughly along a retaining wall on river-left, you won't be able to see much from river-right.   For me, if levels are below 1,000 cfs I choose to portage the lead in to Salmon Falls and seal launch at the lip.  Over 1,500 cfs the center to left line Rick Cooley demonstrates below is most appealing.  At 1,000-1,500 cfs I usually take out at the Elkhorn bridge.  

                                                                     Photo: Matt King

Then there are those who try the far left lead-in to Salmon Falls, sometimes these people even manage to go over the main drop upright. 

                                                             Photo: Lucas Rietmann

Flows:  400-2,000 cfs on the Little North Fork Santiam Gauge is the range I am comfortable with; ideal first time flows on the Elkhorn Gauge are 5-6'.

Locals have done the run up to 5,000 cfs but many of them have regretted that decision.  If you do the run over 2,000 cfs the Undertaker needs to be portaged on the right, and you should know the run well beforehand.

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. 14 miles after turning off Hwy 22 you pass Salmon Falls, which is the lower take out.  To use the upper take out continue upstream 1 mile and park your vehicle at the intersection of Elkhorn Rd (which leads promptly to the take out bridge) and N Fork Rd.  At the end of the day you can walk to your car and drive it down to the bridge to load gear, but locals don't like boaters leaving vehicles at the bridge all day. 

From either take out continue upstream on N Fork Rd to get to the put in, after a few miles the road turns to gravel.  Just under 2 miles after this happens you will make a sharp right onto a road marked by a kiosk and some boulders that leads downhill.  Just under a mile after making this turn, pull right into the paved Three Pools day use area (not signed in 2015).  Stairs at the far end of the parking lot lead down to the put in.

Original Write-up

Well, Matt and crew seemed to have a lot of fun on Opal Gorge a couple weeks ago, so Nate and I decided we would head back for each of our second runs down this PNW classic. I had to be back to class that evening, so we met at the Swiss Village restaurant at 10am. I was a little apprehensive about the drizzle given the strong warnings about venturing into the gorge when the rocks are slick. Nate had done the left side portage before and was confident it would be just fine. Plus, if it was really that bad, we would just do the right side portage.
We put in and putted around the put-in pool for a couple minutes, then were on our way. The class II went by quick, then we were at the first boulder garden.  This boulder garden is a good skill check, if you feel comfortable on this drop the rest of the run will be within your ability but maybe a half class harder.
This put us in the pool above the Un-Un. I didn't feel like hanging out here thinking too long, so caught the final eddy for a peak, didn't see much, then dropped over the left side where a quick reconnect propelled me into the pool below (don't boof).  Nate joined shortly after with a similar line.

After the next small drop we eddied out on the left above the Undertaker. When I had portaged on the right side, the drop looked runnable (as in Tyler Bradt or Eric Boomer runnable). This time I got a better look and I no longer think that.

At this point we were a bit on edge because of literate warning against doing the portage if it was raining, Nate and I walked the route first without boats to suss things out.  Instead of the friction climbing, mountain goat, totally gripped tightrope walk I was expecting, we found a manageable, if exposed, portage route. We did pass the boats to each other at one spot, but this was just a precaution, not a necessity. The issue is definitely the fact that IF you were to slip and fall, you would have very close to zero chances of living.


At the time this video was shot (a time before GoPro!) you can tell we were taking the portage awfully seriously, as at the time conventional wisdom said what we were doing was "against the rules".

I was glad we did that trip as it broke the stigma of the portage for me and I could enjoy the run much more afterwords.

15-20 trips down the gorge later and I still take the portage seriously, but I am no longer apprehensive about it.

Level was about 650, which is a friendly level.


Opal Gorge from Jacob Cruser on Vimeo.

You can contrast that video with this one made a few years later.

Opal Gorge: Winter, 2014 from Jacob Cruser on Vimeo.

We seal launched in below the portage, then did a boof move off the center rock downstream.  Just downstream was "The boulder garden". This one probably has the highest fun:stress ratio of the rapids on this section, just move back and forth down the center channel. One more class three, then we eddied out left to scout Henline rapid.   Getting out to scout here was tricky on the left as the rocks are slick as snot (2016 UPDATE: If I scout this rapid now, I do so on the right).

We both decided to run right. There is a log hanging down into the lead in (2012 UPDATE: The log is gone) that we thought we could go under, but we couldn't so we had to reroute on the go. You can see my strokes get off in the video, it wasn't a big deal though and we both had acceptable lines through this fun rapid. Below here was Sierra slot. We caught the eddy right at the lip on the right and were able to look down into it. We both attempted boofs, but ended up plugging, someday I'll hit that boof!(2016 Update: I am 1 for 10 on trying to hit that boof)

We both braced out of the bottom and enjoyed the boogie and boofs downstream. We both portaged Fishladder and took some time to stare into the outlet which is nasty looking. You can see this in the video. The whole Little North Santiam goes into a six foot wide slot, however, there is a rock outcropping blocking that route. The only way to do it in your boat would be to boof into the eddy on the right, I would love to see video of the people who have run it.

We then began the paddle down to Salmon falls. We scouted for a bit, then decided if looked plenty reasonable if we portaged the lead-in.   The boof route looked like it would launch you weird, so I decided to try to hit the right side of it. Getting into my boat at the top and without my boat filling with water or slipping ended up being the most difficult part of the falls.

 Nate came next and went down the main tongue of water to the right of the flake, he got a good stroke in and rode out a brace at the bottom for a clean line.   We were both stoked on the falls and the run.

We walked up to our vehicles and scouted access to an ugly looking creek I will probably find myself on someday, then back to class. I couldn't have asked for a better day!

The first time I ran Opal gorge, I thought, that was cool, now I have done it. This time, I was thinking, this is awesome, I love every rapid and I can't wait to come back. To me, the change of heart came from the portage of the Undertaker. The first time I took the right side portage, which was  more work, sketchier, and scarier I thought. The second time I took the left side portage which I felt was easier and gives you a cool view of the Undertaker, plus adds one more boof. I will be coming back more often.


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