Poking around on satellite imagery as I often do when I have some time to kill, I came across an interesting half mile of bedrock whitewater on the NF Toutle that seemed out of place. The reason it is out of place requires a little background knowledge. As many in the PNW are aware of, Mount Saint Helens erupted in a big way in 1980. There was much devastation, but the form that is relevant to our discussion here is the large debris flows that roared down the Toutle Drainage. Aside from causing much destruction at the time (reaching all the way to the Columbia River), they left behind large deposits of sediment in the stream-bed. This turned what was once a classic PNW, class III-IV style stream with canyon walls and greenery into a boulder strewn flood plain. The only distinct rapid left behind was Hollywood Gorge, about 8 miles upstream of the confluence of the Toutle with the Columbia River.
Back to the map perusing, why was there now a half mile of bedrock up on the North Fork of the Toutle that was not mentioned in any whitewater guidance literature?
As it turns out, the sediment laden river-system was causing issues down as far as the Columbia and to remedy the problem a retention structure was built to hold back a portion of the sediment working its way down the drainage. Initially, the spillway that was there was not something of whitewater value. However, in 2013 the structure was modified and raised 7 feet. The history and reasons can be read about on wikipedia.
The modification in 2013 funneled the flow over bedrock that had not been exposed since us humans have been around. The resulting 1/2 mile of channel drops 184 feet over a multitude of ledges, ramps, and slides.
In December 2017 Priscilla was passing through and scouted out the section from a convenient path on river-right at around 1800 cfs.
It looked big, but we were intrigued to come back sometime with less water and with kayaks.
June 2018 we were taking a trip up to the Cooper River and decided to start the trip off with a run down this section of the NF Toutle.
We set shuttle just below another dam, about 3 miles East of Kid Valley.
2.1 miles upstream was an overgrown road with a gate we dragged our boats down.
In less than a mile we had reached the bank of the NF Toutle and could see the structure and beginning of the gradient downstream. We walked the path along the right a short ways to scope out some of the eddies and the feel of the run (the whole run can be scouted from this path, 50-100' vertical feet above the river with few visual obstructions).
Things looked good for a first run, so we returned to our boats and launched off the wall into what was about 2" of water. You see, the structure was doing its job and the sediment was being retained. So the river was wide, and the water shallow. It was only a hundred yards to the beginning of the whitewater, but it took 20 minutes as we scooted and walked our boats through the sand. Each step had us sinking to our ankles, it was not your normal approach to a kayak run.
We reached the start of the whitewater at the retention structure itself, a gentle ramp to a 5' boof. The sediment had filled in the landing zone, so a boof seemed necessary, even with a boof I landed on sand, though it did not hurt. A week later, Nick Hymel and Brandon Lake did the run and both plugged this drop, neither hit bottom, go figure.
At higher flows when the hydraulic at the base gets large, the retention structure itself could be snuck left or right.
We ferried to river left after the first drop to check out the retaining structure. There is a trail that leads to this area, it would be an option to use that trail as a put in in the future to avoid the sand dragging upstream (Nick and Brandon used this route and gave it the thumbs up), though the path on river right from which the whole section is scoutable would not be accessible if that route was used.
A quick tangent here: while there is nothing illegal about being on this section of river, we all know how muggles can get when they see kayakers kayaking in places like this. We tried our best (and were successful) at passing through unseen and obeyed all signs indicating where we could not go. If others choose to paddle here, I urge them to do the same.
After checking things out we walked downstream on river left to scout out the first couple ledges, which we ended up re-scouting from river right. The first was a short ramp into a hydraulic, then shortly downstream a ledge dropped 5-10'. During Priscilla's scouting trip, both had been enormous holes.
The first ramp at 1,800 cfs
The second tier at 500 cfs
Next was a bumpy section we called we ran down the right. The water spread out below here, with the most obvious low water choice being down a smooth 50' long low angle concrete slab into a 5-10' ramp.
Priscilla sliding down the concrete slab.
Up to this point it had been easy to scout everything at river level on the left or right.
Below here the river split into 3 channels, all channels were sliding sections with ledges. Far right being 3-4, middle being 4-4+, left being class V.
We started down the left channel, after scouting all the channels we decided to scrape down the far right channel. As levels increase, so too would the challenge of scouting these channels.
On an after work trip about a week later, Brandon Lake takes the left channel.
Photo: Nick Hymel
When the channels reconvened, there was one last 5-10' drop with a hole on the left. Priscilla went first and had an entertaining line! She pulled a large boof but was booted onto her side and landed nearly upside down. She was able to hold on until the hole spat her out and she rolled up. That was the end of the half mile of bedrock, we noted it would be easy to get out on river right and walk boats back up the scouting path high on the right to do multiple runs in a day. We had driving distance to cover that afternoon so settled for one lap this time around. Downstream of the whitewater we drifted another half mile through gravel bars to a true dam that looks like a large version of the final dam on the Little White Salmon River. It can be easily portaged on the right. The take out was just below on the left.
Flows: We had 500 cfs in the NF Toutle near Kid Valley. This was a low, enjoyable flow and I would return at that flow. Nick Hymel and Brandon Lake returned the next week at 450 and said they would also return at that flow. Both groups felt more water would be welcomed.
Priscilla's 1,800 cfs scouting trip showed a class V/V+ section of whitewater. The photos she took made it look like at that flow it could be the type of run that boaters running the Little White around 5' might enjoy.
Access: Take Exit 49 off I-5 in Castle Rock. Follow Hwy 504 20.5 miles to Otto Cook Rd and turn left. At the end of the road is a circular area to park in at the take out.
Put In A: To get to the put in we used continue upriver on Highway 504 for 2.1 miles and pull out at a gated road on the right. Drag your boats to the end of this road, where it meets up with the NF Toutle. Don't seal launch from the top here, the water is shallow. If the water is high, you might want to take this route so you can scout from the river-right rim before putting on.
Put In B: From the take out, continue upriver less than 1/4 mile on Hwy 504 before turning right towards the sediment structure on Stewart Dam Rd. Follow this to the parking area, and hike the trail to it's end at the structure. There is a break in the fence where you can walk down to the stream. Brandon and Nick took this route, and I probably would in the future too if levels were conducive to it (medium or low).
46.3642, -122.5595 (trailhead)
*Both hikes are less than a mile.
click to view full sized
Notes: The run is about an hour North of Portland, and there is camping at the put in and take out.
Take out camping: Just after turning onto Otto Cook Rd, turn left again onto a spur. At the bottom there is a place where camping is possible.
At the put in, the road we hiked down led in 1/4 mile to a big grassy area on the right. Alternately, there was a campfire in the road when we were there.
**While there is nothing illegal about kayaking this section of river, we all know how muggles can get when there are kayakers kayaking in places like this. If you choose to do this run, please keep this in mind and keep a low profile, with special care near the dam at the take out. And if there are people at the trailhead, consider using the route in that Priscilla and I took.**