-Story by Nate Merrill
Since I made it back to the great north west from a winter in Crested Butte, the Ohanepacosh has been at the top of my list. Two weeks ago, Dan, Jacob, and myself headed up to knock off the PNW classic. Jacob had done the run once before, but it was the first time down for Dan and I. With flows looking to be on the upper end and a sunny day in the forecast, we agreed to meet in Jantzen Beach at 8 AM to begin the long haul up towards Mt. Rainier. Somewhere along the line there was a miscommunication and upon arrival at the rendezvous, I learned that Jacob and Dan were rafting together and I was going to be the only kayaker on the water that day. After some funny interactions in the grocery store, we loaded up Dan’s raft into my car, strapped the kayak and the bike onto the roof and we were on our way north. 3 hours later, we were standing at the secret camp put-in starring at river that was moving like a freight-train. I think it was this point when Jacob turned to me and asked “Hey, you see that big hole over there along the right wall?” to which I replied, “yeah, it looks pretty sticky.” Jacob smiled at my response and stated “on my first trip down, that hole was a shallow auto-boof and today it looks like it could pound the bejesus out of you.” The river was high. I don’t think I realized how high it was until much later in the trip. Note: the Cowlitz was reading about 2,000 cfs.
After a quick discussion and a scout of the drops just downstream, we all decided to give her a go, despite the high water. I’d like to mention that Jacob and Dan were very respectful of my initial hesitance to commit to the run. Both offered to drive elsewhere in the drainage to catch other creeks and even offered to allow me to guide the raft R3 style if I wasn’t feeling comfortable with being the only guy in a kayak. In the end, we decided that we would take our time, setting safety at every drop, and work our way down the run in a methodical fashion. I busted out the bike shuttle in about 30 minutes and we were on the river before 2pm. Note: the bike shuttle is stupid easy for this one. The river starts off with a series of narrow ledges. The second of which is the drop noted on oregonkayaking to possess a dangerous crack/cave combo on river left. Each ledge was clean and the boofs were some of the best I’ve ever seen. Pretty soon we approached the first recommended scout on the run. It is worthwhile to note that after the initial ledges, the river mellows for about half a mile. Just when you least expect a major drop to be around the corner, hop out of your boat to scout this wood chocked 7 foot pour over. I portaged on river left while Jacob and Dan fired up the thin line with ease.
From here, we entered a series of complex boulder gardens separated by moving pools. I have a feeling that some of these boulder gardens were actually made easier by the flow that we had. I think the extra water opened more lines and covered up a few rocks that might have thrown someone off line. The holes were big but avoidable for the most part. Clean lines were had by all. Before long, we go out to scout Triple Drop. This class V drop starts with a log jam, which is doable, but leads into a romping stomping terminal hole and is followed by two more giant pour over style hydraulics. I portaged the drop outright while Dan and Jacob walked the tricky log jam/hole combo at the top and ran the second and third holes. The last of these holes is backed up by a giant boulder that gives the hydraulic a retentive nature. Lines existed on both the right and left side of the drop, but anything in between would lead to a long and nasty beating.
Next up was an 8 foot ledge that we didn’t scout, but probably should have. Jacob likened this drop to boulder sluice on the little white. Being in the wrong place at the lip or missing a stroke would probably result in a beat down. Below this ledge, you have about 75 feet to hit an eddy and begin your portage around Elbow Room. This drop is nasty and the portage isn’t much better. Dan opted for a seal launch in the raft, which nearly resulted in his head knocking a rock, while Jacob did the 45 foot cliff jump into the walled out gorge below the rapid. I wasn’t feeling the jump and spent about 25 minutes roping my boat and then myself down the cliff side to a small ledge at river level where I was able to get into my kayak. After a few more smaller rapids the walls began to rise up even higher on either side of the canyon and we entered the crux section of the Ohanepacosh. It was at this point when I realized just how high the water was. I was standing at the lip of a falls that I had studied intently via photographs, yet I could hardly recognize the drop nor the class V rapids below. All of the photos that I had seen of this section were no help at the water level we had. Everything looked completely different and a lot harder. Dan and Jacob opted to gut the falls and had a great line. Somehow Jacob got bucked from his seat in the raft and landed in Dan’s lap. Apparently, this was a theme for the majority of the trip…. But you would have to ask Jacob or Dan about that. I opted to take a line that was more technical, but if performed correctly would allow me to avoid the meat of the falls and maybe even keep my head dry. I ran the lead-in (a series of 3 small pour overs) on far river right before catching an eddy at the lip of the big drop behind a midstream boulder. From here I surfed a wave, which was created by the boulder I was behind, over to the river left side of the maw and drove hard onto a flake. The result was an autoboof that kept me high, dry, and well away from the powerful hydraulic at the bottom of the falls. Although the line sounds convoluted (and it was) I’d do it again in a heartbeat. So fun and I didn’t get worked!
You can see the small series of pour overs I came down on river right and the eddy I caught (just below the raft) Dan and Jacob gut the falls. I surfed over and boofed off the flake river left of the raft. After the adrenaline of the falls, I was content to walk the last rapid on the Ohanepacosh. It looked good to go, but a blown line would mean a beat down and I was starting to feel tired from the long day. Of course, Dan and Jacob, steped up to the plate and fired off the drop with style. A photo is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking on this one. I would like to note that this is the section that is often photographed in trip reports and guide books. I suggest comparing the photo here to the photo in Bennet’s book. The comparison gives a good indication to the amount of water that was in there on our trip.