Monday, June 19, 2017

Lawson Creek

Stream: Lawson Creek is another tributary to the Illinois River I have had my eye on for awhile. We had planned and failed to run this creek a few times, but after getting some solid beta from Sean Bowen we really had the bug and made it happen the next weekend.  Sean not only hiked in to check out the access trail and take photos of the level (no gauge on this run), but got us in touch with his friend Jim who agreed to run our shuttle!  

We ran Woodenrock Gorge and the top section on the South Fork Coquille the day before Lawson, and were almost stymied by a log blocking the road we were planning to use.  Despite the best effort of some locals, it wouldn't be clear for a few more days.

We had put enough effort into planning for Lawson that we didn't want to give up.  I looked on the Gazetteer and saw three alternate routes.  One was a long shot due to snow and lots of recent windfall, another we had just been told by a local had too much snow to get his 4 wheeler through, and the third was a 4 hour detour.  

We went for the long shot, expecting at every corner to find a landslide or tree blocking the road, then as we climbed, a snow drift.  The only things of note we found was this neat little roadside grotto and a multitude of waterfalls also visible from the road.

45 minutes later we were back on track and headed to Lawson Creek!  We camped that night at Agness Bar where we were planning to use the pay phone to get in touch with Jim the next morning.

As it turns out the payphone has been out of commission for a few years now, but the camp host was friendly and offered to let us use his phone.  The only problem he told us is his phone only works for local calls.  This was just fine for us, since Jim is as local to the area as it gets!

We met Jim at Oak Flat, the take out for Lawson Creek, and headed up towards our put in at the Fry Place.   During the shuttle Jim gave us some good intel about a time he hiked up the creek from the bottom.  He had gone a mile or two before being turned back by a small waterfall with vertical walls.  This added some trepidation to the trip, but we felt confident we would be able to deal with it since he said it was no more than 10' tall and that he actually hadn't really tried very hard to climb around it.  Part way up the shuttle route, a family waved us down and told us the road was blocked a couple miles up by logging.  Having come this far, we were not going to turn around without seeing for ourselves.  A couple miles later we came to the operation where heavy machinery was being used to clear debris from the road, the operators moved their vehicles and waved us through with a "hang loose" sign.  There were a couple turns past this point I had brought a map to figure out, but Jim knows the area well and he took us right to the spot.

We geared up and Jim checked out the ridge and Fry place, he gave us some more intel on what might be the best route to drop in on and where the trail used to be.  He watched us from a ridge line and we waved every now and then along our descent. 
Eventually I could no longer see him on the ridge and my mind shifted focus to the creek, where the rapids were looking more difficult than I had expected them to be at this point.  The final drop down to the creek had some poison oak, and neither of us came away clear from that on this trip.  Next time I would take a slightly different course I describe below in the access section.

Getting close.

Priscilla and I talked about the challenge of the rapids at the put in and what that might mean about the rapids downstream.   She was nervous, and I was nervous for her, but we both decided we were ok with the situation.  Optimism won out and we pushed off into the first set of rapids, and committed to whatever it was that was going to come down-river.

GoPro, making interesting rapids look like class III since 2002.

Around the corner we get out of our boats to scout a narrow pinch between boulders.  There are plenty of boaters who would have likely chose to run the drop, we chose not to.  The next drop looks more our taste, it has an undercut but also a controlled line will keep us clear of it.  We go one at a time and have clean lines, moving downstream the gradient eases to what I expected at this stage in the game along with our nerves.   

The last rapid in the first set, with the pinch rapid in the background.

Read and run class III+ continues until a ledge appears on a right turn.  It looks kinda ugly from above, but turned out to be straight forward and clean.

Below here comes the meat of the run, we turn to the left and the river again drops away between boulders, from above I assume we will be portaging.  A quick scout and the rapid turns out to be clean and fun.  I go first and weave through, catching an eddy above what appears to be an ugly rapid, but it turns out to be pretty clean.  This becomes a bit of a theme for the trip, rapids that look trashy from above have fun, clean IV-IV+ lines with the exception of the pinch we portaged early on. 

The beginning of Saturation Station, where a rock flow with the consistency of jello comprises the left wall, with a longer rapid at the base.

Boulder gardens of much variety make up the majority of the run.  One of the earliest, with an active rockslide on the left, marks the longest of them.  While we were there, the bank looked stable but was in fact so saturated that stepping on it we resulted in us sinking through what appeared to be rocks.  Bizarre!

The bottom of Saturation Station, a rapid at the base of a soggy rock flow.

The rapids up here mostly have a consistent style, yet with many different kinds of moves.  We scout a fair bit as its hard to tell if the rapids are going to be clean from above, but they all are.  There are a couple plucky holes hiding in there too, though we are always able to find a line through the soft parts of them.  

After many quality boulder gardens, one of them ended in a bedrock pinch at the entrance to a gorge that lasts for about a mile.  There was an unfortunate log just past the pinch that sent us portaging on the left.  In hindsight the rapid could have been run into an eddy on the right, and the log easily moved.  Oh well. 

                                                                          Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

The run changes character here as it enters the gorge.  The rapids are of similar challenge but a different style.   The stand out rapid inside the gorge is Jim's Waterfall, a 5 foot drop (it filled in with the water) with a hole that needs to be boofed.  

Jim's Waterfall

Everything that needs to be scouted in the gorge can be, but as in most gorges, a log in the wrong spot could prove problematic.

Eventually the run tapers off and the gorge is left behind, we had about 20 minutes of easier floating in which to reflect on the trip before reaching the confluence with the Illinois.  Paddling across the Illinois delivered us to the take out at Oak Flat where our vehicle was waiting for us.  Heading towards Gold Beach, we find our favorite beach campsite unoccupied.  Goals met, all that remains is a leisurely drive back home the next day, mostly along the coast.

I look back on this as one of the more enjoyable class IV-V runs in Oregon.  A weekend combining Lawson Creek with either Lobster Creek and the Elk River or the South Fork Coquille is well worth the drive from the Willamette Valley.

Flows:  The pictures from this report were taken March 31, 2017.   If you run it with more water, you can expect a harder run.

The Elk River Gauge (541-332-0405) was at 4.4' that day.

Access:  Take out at Oak Flat (42.5488, -124.0547), less than a mile upstream from the confluence of the Rogue and Illinois Rivers and but a few hundred yards upstream of Oak Flat campground.  This is the same take out that is used for the Illinois River.

Put in by walking down steep, but mostly open terrain from the Fry Place (42.4926, -124.0981),  Reach the Fry place from the take out using these directions:  Return to Agness Rd, turn left and quickly cross over the Illinois River.  8.7 miles after crossing over the Illinois, turn left onto NF - 3318 (marked by a sign in 2017).  Follow 3318 for 5.8 miles to an intersection, continue straight and downhill.  1 mile later veer right onto a spur road (122), if you don't have AWD and clearance don't push it on this road.  So regardless of whether you are hiking or still driving at this point, continue just shy of a mile down the road (the "main" one) until it bends sharply to the right and levels out with a nice field downhill to the left.  

                                                           Gearing up at the Fry Place.

There was a fire line that went off along the ridge here, you can follow this ridge past a lake and down to the stream.  It might take a couple rope lowers, but in a little over half a mile you will be at the creek.

*There is a trail marked on some maps in this area (1173), but in 2017 that trail was not in existence*

Click to enlarge map                      

If you decide to run Lawson Creek, take poison oak precautions.  There is a lot of it on this run.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Bilyeu Creek (Lower)

*A paddlers face has been disguised in this report by request.

Pronounced "Blue Creek", this small creek enters Thomas Creek at the Hannah Covered Bridge.  Talking to a local farmer, there are apparently still some people from the Bilyeu family living in the area.  There is also a Blue Creek that flows into Bilyeu Creek (the French spelling of that word).

It's been on my radar for awhile, and some other boaters have looked at it, Pete and Jason from Oregonkayaking had run it.   Like me, everyone familiar with the creek was a little apprehensive about being forced onto private property while scouting or portaging during a descent.

Creek level, with a grass seed field in the background.

It's March 2017 and the first week of daylight savings.  Priscilla and I are planning to take advantage of the light, good flows and sunny weather to do some laps on the Jordan Dam after work.  While at work I remember that driving by on our way to another creek earlier in the month Bilyeu looked like it had enough water to float.  With the Thomas Creek gauge at just over 2,000 cfs and dropping I think it might be a good flow for checking out some of Bilyeu Creek.  With the advances in satellite imagery available to the public, I am pretty confident the run won't be very difficult and wood issues look minimal.   We pick a bridge 1.5 miles above the confluence with Thomas Creek to start our trip from, and decide if it's too low or high we will still be able to divert to the last couple miles of Lower Thomas Creek.

The flows appear perfect and we drive up to the Bilyeu Creek Rd bridge and put in quickly, we are not doing anything illegal but still don't want to draw attention from locals.  Most of the time interactions are positive, but often enough the interaction between kayaker and muggle on not-commonly paddled streams is time consuming and unpleasant enough that we don't want to risk it today and get geared up at the take out, ready to jump out of the cars and into the creek in as little time as possible at the put in.

We are pulling our spraydecks on 40 minutes before sunset.  I think that is plenty of time to go 1.5 miles if we don't have a slew of wood portages, Priscilla is pretty sure we are going to be hiking out through a field in the dark.  I noted the day before it looked like there is currently about half an hour  buffer past sunset where enough light remains that it would be possible to paddle, so with some encouragement she leaves her concerns at the put in and we push off.


A month later I return with another guy to run the section Priscilla and I checked out, along with an additional 1.5 miles upstream.  Now it's getting dark around 8:30 so we are not as concerned with daylight, but plan on moving fast regardless.

Getting ready at the take out (Hannah Bridge).

Again we gear up at the take out, ready to make an inconspicuous put in.  We make note of the level at the put in, and ponder the installment of a foot gauge here some day.

Just below this put in are two log issues, we squeak by both.  We drift downstream, enjoying the small bedrock rapids that poke up here and there between the cruisy stuff.  Brush is present along both banks, and short bedrock walls pop up very now and then, giving the stream an intimate feel.

Typical Bilyeu Creek

Every now and then the brush closes in and impedes the downstream view.  Fortunately it never caused a problem and eddies were always available (however small some of them were) where we needed them.

There were two ledges in the first half of the run that stood out, both were worth a quick look as they had hazards if the line was missed.  The first one (Goulet) might be tough to look at if the flow was high.  We got out on the right and waded along the right bank to check it out.  There was an out-building from a nearby residence so we were sure to stay below the high water mark.  Right down the middle worked for us, just make sure not to get pushed into the overhangs on the right or left.

Right on line in Goulet.
Goulet is a French word for "bottleneck". When capitalized it is a guy who lives by a river constriction.
Both definitions work here.

A private bridge over the creek signals the other significant ledge.  We were able to stop easily above it, but the situation was not ideal for getting out of our boats.  I was able to grab an eddy under some limbs on the right and scouted.  Walking along the bank was easy and I was able to pick out the line.  If the flows were higher I might plan on just running the drop without a scout, the line is to

"Run the easy lead in center, then go off the horizon line just left of center with a right stroke.  Error to the left".

While easily avoided with the above beta, the right side of the river does push into a rock that would be painful to collide with.  If you are too far left you risk a piton.  It's easy to keep your nose up off the 5' ledge, but if you were to really whiff it appeared possible to get stuck in the left side of the hole which would not be enjoyable as it might be a bit of a pothole.  A class IV move, but missing the line would not feel class IV.

Moving downstream it was smooth sailing, lots of read n' run and while the whitewater was easy it moved along quickly and semi-blind corners kept our attention (again, there were eddies where we needed them).

The creek is pretty consistent in nature.  Looking downstream it is either busy class II-III between walls of vegetation or small bedrock horizon lines, and the occasional log to deal with (we had no wood portages on either trip).

We were having a good time and when we reached the bridge Priscilla and I had used as a put in a couple months before we relaxed and enjoyed the remaining 1.5 miles down to Thomas Creek.

Back to the trip with Priscilla

The parts I had scouted in the summer seemed like pretty easy bedrock on a brushy creek with a couple notable rapids sprinkled in the section above where we are putting on.

The first rapid below where Priscilla and I put in is a nice set of small bedrock ledges, then not far downstream another small bedrock ledge.  There are eddies where we want them, but the banks look unpleasantly brushy so we are hoping we don't have to portage anything.  The stream is boat-scoutable so far, with some fun class III/IV ledgey rapids and a couple plucky holes.  There is more bedrock than I had expected and we have a good time cruising through the splashy rapids.

A ledge just below where Priscilla and I put in on our first trip.

We slide over a log, then deliberate about another one just above a bridge from our boats before Priscilla decides it goes and slides over the middle, it ended up being more straight forward than it looked from above.
Burmester Creek comes in from the left shortly below another bridge and the stream opens up a bit.

Below the confluence on a later trip.

One notable hazard was a line across the creek right at head level downstream of here.  It's hard to see from above and clotheslined Matt on our second trip.

Half a mile and a few more small rapids later we float into Thomas Creek (being sure to drive right into the upstream eddy) and paddle up the eddy to the Hannah Covered Bridge where our car is waiting.  We had expected there to be some whitewater, but were surprised by the quantity and decide that as long as the run remains wood free we both hope to return.  The sun is still up at this point so we practice ferrying for half hour or so and have gear loaded just before darkness takes hold.

Floating in Thomas Creek, with Bilyeu entering just behind.


This is a fun, if oddball run, that I plan to return to given its proximity to my house in Albany. Take note though that with the brushy banks, wood presence and the couple more serious rapids it requires more of boaters than other class III-IV runs in the area like the Clackamas, Butte Creek or Molalla Rivers.

Also, while trespassing is not required to do this run, I implore any potential paddlers to be very aware that they are close to people's back yards and this is not the place to draw attention to oneself.  Gear up at the take out, put in quickly, and don't piss anyone off or infringe on their land.  

Difficulty:  III-IV  with wood potential and brushy banks.

Levels:  From the take out at the Hannah Bridge, walk to the confluence and look upstream.  This is a good barometer for flows.

Medium Flows
 7pm on March 16, 2017

Low, enjoyable flows.
7pm on May 17, 2017

A loose correlation to the gauge on Thomas Creek.

1,000 = Low, enjoyable.
2,000 = Medium
3,000 = High

Take Out:  Hannah Covered Bridge  44.7122, -122.7186
Put In:  Where E Bilyeu Creek Dr crosses Bilyeu Creek: 44.7041, -122.6669

The depicted on the map is 3.2 miles.


The further upstream you go on the creek, the more challenging the stream becomes until you get to a couple mile, 300 fpm stretch and above that a waterfall.  All of the access points are bridges, but the challenges on the water are substantial near the headwaters.