Monday, October 24, 2016

Thomas Creek: Pumpkin Patch

Each October hunting season rolls around and access to Thomas Creek is allowed.  Like a pumpkin patch you can go in just a short way and get a worthwhile reward, but if you want the biggest and the best you gotta go just a little further.


Stream: Walk down the short nose of land and put on to a Thomas Creek that has noticeably less water than where you left the take out vehicle.  A short warm up ends at an island, while most of the water goes right I suggest taking the left channel.  Immediately after the channels merge back together the whitewater gets rolling in the form of manky (if you are not on line) class IV whitewater that can and should be scouted.  There is an eddy on the left before the creek turns right and pinches down to half its size between a couple boulders.   It is important you catch an eddy right or left just below this pinch to scout the rest of the rapid, which makes a bend to the left and over "Pumpkin Spice".

Pumpkin Spice has a narrow hallway leading to a ten foot ramp that must be run right (without hitting the right wall) to avoid an atomic piton middle and left.  The line is straight forward, but don't mess it up.  Scout/portage the lead in and Pumpkin Spice on the left, safety can be thoroughly set below.

                                                   Ross George enjoying this seasonal treat.

A nice boof and a short bit of easy water lead to another island that is best run in the right channel (ducking a couple logs at the top in 2016).  Shortly below this island is a bridge, then some easy floating through some island and boulder bar style rapids before the whitewater builds again as the creek approaches and then passes under another bridge.  This second bridge signals that you are VERY close to Thomas Creek Falls, separated by only two short class III-IV rapids.  There are small eddies just above the plunge, that should be caught one boater at a time.   If you are feeling cautious or the water is high you can chose to walk down to the falls from this bridge along the road and then down a short trail.

The line on the 30-40' Thomas Creek falls is obvious along the right side and away from the log in the center.  The lead in is straight forward, the landing soft and the pool friendly.  The log is intimidating and would likely be disastrous to collide with.  Boaters around here typically assume if there is a runnable drop in the area it was likely run back in the day by Eric Brown or Dan Coyle.  Yet not knowing for sure, this drop did not see a descent for many years (the log was cited as the concern).  In 2010 Matt King demonstrated to our generation of boaters that the line is manageable for skilled paddlers.  Since his run, numerous others have followed.

                                                    Kory Kellum staring down the barrel. 

Thomas Creek Falls can be portaged via a thrown and go from the lip on river-right, or a sloppy up and around route on the same side.

Patrick Beville sans boat

Below the falls are a couple more III-IV rapids in a gorge before the stream flattens out for awhile.  Somewhere amongst these boulder bars you enter the Standard Stretch, and about 4 miles of beautiful and classic class III-IV whitewater later the take out.

Vaclav out front

Flows: We had ~1,000 cfs and dropping slow.  I'd guess 900-1500 cfs is a reasonable range on the USGS Guage @ Scio (and it's probably ok if the gauge is reading a bit higher so long as the flow is dropping).    If levels are lower you can still put in at and run the falls (down to 400 or so cfs).

Access: The take out is located less than 15 miles East of Scio, OR.  Take Hwy 226 to Thomas Creek Dr, following until it turns to gravel which is where the gate is.  If it is Cascade Deer or Elk hunting season, the gate has historically been open (call this number to be sure 888-741-5403).  If not, it will be closed and your only option is to find access through the Santiam State Forest via the Rock Creek drainage out of Mill City or hike a long way.

Assuming the gate is open, continue along Thomas Creek Drive 2.2 miles (past the Sheriff's posse) and make a right turn down to the take out bridge.

To get to the put in return to Thomas Creek drive and continue the way you were going 3.8 miles (stay right at 2 and 2.9 miles) where you will meet up with a more heavily travelled road, merge right.  2.9 miles past this merge (stay straight at 1 mile, drive through a yellow gate shortly after, then pass the road leading down to Thomas Creek Falls at 1.8 miles) you will cross over Thomas Creek, there will be notably less water than at the take out. Stay left on the road along the creek, 3/4 of a mile past this bridge you will reach another bridge over a tributary with an obvious parking area.  Walk down the nose of land to the creek to put in.

A mileage map starting at the take out.
It is worth cache-ing this area on your phone before leaving reception and using the GPS if you have that function.
click to enlarge

Notes:   My friend Jarred voiced concern about the right wall below the falls appearing undercut on a trip he took to Thomas, and thus chose to portage the falls.  I have been there at low flows and it was not an issue.  At the flow the pictures for this page were taken we had about 1,000 cfs and the wall proved to still be a benign obstacle.  Anything that flowed towards it was stopped short of the wall by the water rebounding off the wall short of collision, and subsequently pushed quickly downstream into the pool.  We were even comfortable jumping off the falls and swimming past the wall.  The clips below were put together to showcase how the wall can be...

A) avoided
B) a non-issue if you are pushed toward it

That said, analyze the situation for yourself when you are there.  Especially if the flows are up.

Trip Report

The day before Emile and I had checked out Thomas Creek from the top, exploring 7.5 miles of stream I knew nothing about aside from what I had seen on maps and a tantalizing picture Pete Giordano had sent me.

It was a fun day of adventure, though we had portaged the rapid Pete sent the photo of.

The next day a group of boaters wanted to go to Thomas so we planned on giving the rapid a better look before continuing through the falls and Standard Stretch.

A couple boaters in the group were uncomfortable putting on this high so planned to meet us at a bridge above Thomas Creek Falls.  We walked down to Thomas Creek near a confluence and quickly worked our way down to where the whitewater picked up.  The scouting and safety setting took some time, but eventually Priscilla decided to go first.  We felt that because she was in an IK on this trip it gave her more margin for error with the padding those craft provide.  She ended up getting spun at the lip and dropping over backwards but came out upright and unscathed.

Ross went next with a perfect line, with Kory and I following not long after.

  It took us a little while to get down to the bridge to meet the rest of the team who were pretty worried it had taken us 1.5 hours to run that section.  They decided that since it was now 2pm and it would be dark by 7pm they were not comfortable continuing on for fear of running out of light, we wished them well and continued on downstream.

There was a section of easy floating before the whitewater picked back up as we reached another bridge.  This signaled we were near the falls so we proceeded cautiously down the next couple of short rapids.   We caught the eddy on the right above the falls one at a time and set about scouting or portaging Thomas Creek Falls.

Kory went first, followed by Nick, Ross and myself.  The others chose to save this one for another day.

Nick hopped in the IK for this one.

We continued on through the classic Standard Stretch, having a blast and arriving back in Albany before the sun faded.   Aside from Ross getting lost on the shuttle the day went very smoothly.


Thomas Creek: Standard Stretch

Photo: Lucas Rietmann


Stream: A fantastic intermediate trip in the mid-Willamette Valley that is only accessible during hunting season unless you are navigationally savvy and willing to put in a long day.  Keep an eye out for wood the whole day, but in Fall 2016 there were no portages.

There is some easy floating through boulder bars to warm up in before the first rapid where the current is forced against the right wall creating a rapid that ends in a short plunge into a powerful hydraulic.  Run this final plunge on the left side of the right channel with a strong right stroke, staying away from the right wall.  I have heard you can scout/portage this rapid on the left.

                                                              Photo: Lucas Rietmann

More easy floating is below here before this section of Thomas really reaches its prime as bedrock begins to line the stream and the green walls are in stark contrast to what is turbid water if the flows are not low.

Sustained and highly enjoyable pool and drop class III continues for miles.  As flows rise past 1,000 cfs the difficulty creeps up, never reaching class V (even at 8,300 cfs) but as flows approach 2,000 cfs the eddy situation gets loose and people have reported floating downstream alongside flotsam in a class IV environment.

The last three rapids are the most exciting, the first is rowdy at flows upwards of 1,000 cfs.  Start right, working back to center and hold steady through a violent but forgiving bottom hydraulic that empties into a large pool.  At some flows you can sneak more center/left.

                                                            Photo: Lucas Rietmann

The next one pushes into the left wall if you run left.  After another pool the creek enters the final set of ledges which make for a terrific finale and can be run right down the tongue, just keep that nose up.

If you are looking for more action, put in a little higher to tack on the Pumkpin Patch, which has some IV (V) and a beautiful 30-40' runnable waterfall.
Flows:  This stretch can be run as low as 400 cfs, but ideally look for 800-1,500 cfs for a class III-IV trip.   USGS Gauge Thomas Creek @ Scio.

Access:  Directions from Anthony Boesen.  

If it is Cascade Deer or Elk hunting season, the gate has historically been open (call this number to be sure 888-741-5403).  If not, it will be closed and your only option is to find access through the Santiam State Forest via the Rock Creek drainage out of Mill City or hike a long way.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

North Fork Silver Creek > Silver > Illinois

I think this is the best run I have done in Oregon.  The adventurous nature had a lot to do with that, but its also a good whitewater run that is on the top of my list to return to.

Day 0:  We are not linked in well with the community in the area, so spend weeks planning this trip, looking at satellite imagery we see there will be a lot of logs.  I estimate we could have as many as 30 log portages on day 1, Ben claims they are all "shadow trees" and feels we will be able to float under most of them.   We haven't done an overnighter on a run without first hand beta before in our hardshell kayaks so that plays a roll as well.  Shuttle logistics are daunting, but a scouting trip shows us there is access off Peavine and Bear Camp roads, though snow is a concern and we will likely need to hike in 6 miles (all downhill on a paved road).

Day 1:  We stay the night in Grants Pass at Priscilla's parents house, waking up early with Priscilla's family helping us out with shuttle.   There is fresh snow on the drive to the put in (complete with bear tracks), but we still arrive at the river much earlier and with more energy than expected.  The stream above the put in looks awful but consolidates right at the put in and we begin our trip with an enjoyable rapid.

Fun read and run class III-IV continues for a couple miles with some ledges mixed in and 1 log portage.  We are blown away, Ben was totally right about being able to float under all of the logs that were visible in the imagery.  They all appear to be deposited by high water and reside 5-10 feet above the stream, spanning the creek.

Photo: Priscilla Macy

We encounter a couple scouts and the creek becomes even more enjoyable, we begin to have hope this won't turn into a suffer fest.

There is one semi-strenuous portage around a gorge with a log jam, Ben's boat is dropped 20 feet off a cliff into the river.  It has a dent, but no puncture.  We eat lunch on the portage.

A tributary comes in from river left over a couple small waterfalls and the stream enters a mini-gorge via a fun rapid with a nice boof at the end.  The next drop is a narrow 20 foot waterfall.  We don't look for a portage route, but I doubt that option would be straight forward.  The falls is tricky, but forgiving.  We have a number of rolls and a swim (due only to botched rolls in the pool), but there were not dangerous features in the pool below so the stress level stays low.

More read and run continues broken up by a scout every now and then.  We are beginning to have a lot of fun while at the same time realizing we have not made it as far as we had intended to by this point in the day and are glad we are prepared for 2 nights out.  We startle a bear hanging out on the river left wall and Ben pitons his boat in a neat rapid and now he has dents on both ends :(

We know we still have a serious section of whitewater ahead of us with 3 waterfalls (seen on our google scout) so we proceed cautiously, not wanting to get boxed in above one of them.  The first two falls turn out to be unique and fun with reasonable scouting options, though portaging would be tough.  Both were in the 10 foot range.  The gorge walls are daunting here, we are proceeding cautiously and do not find ourselves over-committed at any point during the trip.

The third falls is the one we are most concerned about as it appears to be the largest based on our mapping efforts.  It ends up also having the trickiest logistics.  We initially fear that we have got ourselves into a bad situation as the walls are vast and a portage route is not immediately obvious.   I catch an eddy on river left to check out the situation there and the drop is V+.  It has a twisting lead in before crashing into the left wall, it does have a nice landing pool though!  I spot out a narrow portage route on the left and signal the rest of the group down. Two people almost blow the scouting eddy.  The portage is short but has about 15 feet that is exposed, a slip would mean swimming over the drop.  Luckily there are foot holds were we need them and soon we are all standing on a nice staging area from which we can complete the next part of the portage.  We do a throw and go, which was pretty fun.  The pool here is large and there is a nice launch pad for our boats.  The large boil created by the falls also provides a soft landing.

Portaging "Prisoner Falls"
Named by the Knapp brothers who first descended this creek.

Prisoner Falls from below.

We float through the gorge below Prisoner Falls and before much time has passed we see a wall of pitcher plants on the left and take a moment to enjoy the moment.  Just around the next bend the stream was backed up by a small log jam (runnable) where a nice camp presented itself on the left.  We stopped here for the night, stashing our food on the other side of the river in case a bear got curious.

Day 2: It rains softly all night and we wake up to gear that is just wet enough that we don't relish the thought of sleeping in it another night.  The level has also dropped a little so we plan to try to make it all the way to the take out today.  We have 4.5 miles to go until we reach Silver Creek, then 7 miles after that before we reach the confluence with the Illinois, followed by another 7 miles on the Illinois.  We feel it is possible to make the 19 miles to the take out, but given we only made it 4.5 miles yesterday that goal is by no means guaranteed.

We find the going easier down here, the big gorges let up for awhile and we have some easy floating mixed in with some committing class III-IV gorges where a log in the wrong spot could spell disaster.  We are forced to deal with only one truly blind corner, which turns out to be benign.  Below these committing gorges the easy floating is next broken up by a nasty landslide rapid that we partially portage on the left after a fun lead in.  After this class V mess the stream eases off again, with some class I-II stretches ending in one final hurrah before the confluence with Silver Creek.

The last couple obstacles are a large log jam we portaged more easily than anticipated on the left and then ate lunch at the bottom of.  After this portage are a couple lesser rapids leading into a tricky one right at the confluence that everyone aside from Ben portaged over the small ridge into Silver Creek.

Silver Creek provided 7 miles of quality whitewater, much of which was read and run, but there were also a few scouts.  There were no rapids that did not get run and we were blown away with how enjoyable this stretch of stream was.  I'd call it class IV with some "BC class IV" sprinkled throughout.

Just before Silver Creek enters the Illinois it flows through a final gorge.  The entrance is a powerful ledge that everyone aside from Ben boofed center.  He took the meat line through the gut on the right.  A final set of enjoyable rapids continued through this gorge and we rejoiced as we passed under the foot bridge and into the mighty Illinois.

After a quick celebration we turned the engines back on and trucked down to the take out, loading up and making it past Powers on our drive home before it becomes dark.

    The Team:     Ben Mckenzie, Priscilla Macy, Jacob Cruser, Emile Elliott, Brandon Lake


Day 1

                                                          0:45    >>>      3:22


happy trees and happy accidents from Difficult E on Vimeo.

Below are the flows we had on our trip down the NF of Silver Creek into Silver Creek into the Illinois.

(March 25-26, 2016)

We had a large storm roll through earlier in the week to supply our flows, we got on the run as the levels were on their way back down.  If I went back I would shoot for similar flows, and while it could be paddled lower the NF would lose a fair bit of its quality.  Higher would be just fine, but too high and the portage at Prisoner Falls would get marginalized.

Put in:  42.532439, -123.784084
Take out:  42.517164, -124.040155

Gate: 42.557979, -123.713982

*Bear Camp Rd is typically closed when there is enough water to do this run, Peevine Rd had no gates on it when we did the run though.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Opal Gauge (in Elkhorn)

The Little North Santiam @ Mehama gauge is far downstream of the "Opal runs" that kayakers from the area like so much.  It's a useful gauge, but there is often discrepancy between gauge readings and actual flow.   For example, last Sunday it was reading 680 cfs  and dropping when I left my house in the morning.  The low water cut off is generally considered to be 700 cfs.  We ended up having a pretty medium flow, one I would have generally associated with 900-1,000 cfs on the gauge.

The day before the gauge was 1,600 cfs and dropping when I left my house and the stream felt like what I would normally associate with that flow.

A few years ago I noticed a gauge much closer to the "Opal runs", right at the take out for Opal Gorge in fact.  There is no online reading, but Mick Evans has set up a Facebook page to report that flow on.  If that reading interests you, following that page will give you updates.  I am also collecting data here and will pull from that Facebook page.

The Elkhorn gauge, at the Elkhorn bridge.
44.8358, -122.355


In the meantime, the first big rain of the season is always an exciting time for  boaters.  In Oregon, Opal Creek is one of the most highly sought after rain fed runs and people flock to it early in the season. 

Here is a video from Nick of opening weekend 2016, where we did a mine to Salmon Falls run at 6' on the Elkhorn gauge (I consider 5' to be the minimum flow).  6' is a nice flow for Opal Gorge where the run is not any harder but the lines open up in the main drops and the in between rapids are more fun than usual.  If it gets much higher The Undertaker needs to be portaged on the right. On the main run nothing is harder (Big Ugly is even easier) except for Big Fluffy, which handed out some swims and a low percentage of upright lines.

Opal Creek and Opal Gorge from IKNick on Vimeo.

November 6th, 2015@370-300