Sunday, October 31, 2010

Clear Creek Headwaters, Wilderness Falls Section: IV (V,P)

Hiking in from the Smith River divide

Since I began kayaking, I've dreamed of this section of river. Clear Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River near Happy Camp, California, is one of the most pristine watersheds in the country. The entire drainage is protected by the Siskiyou Wilderness Area and is completely roadless with the exception of a dirt road to access the lower canyon. The lower section from Slippery View river access to the Klamath confluence is a great class III scenic float and one of the best beginner runs around. Above that, upper Clear Creek is a classic section of class IV/V whitewater that has become a favorite run of mine. But for the last five years, I have stood at that put-in bridge at Ten Mile Creek and gazed upstream, wondering what whitewater secrets the wilderness holds.

Looking upstream from the bridge at Ten Mile Creek

The light effects made the hike in much more pleasureable

So I went to work researching the Wilderness Falls section of Clear Creek. I talked to a paddler who had run it at extremely low water and countless kayakers who wrote it off due to access challenges. I studied topographic maps, geologic maps, historical hydrographs and discussed access with forest rangers in the Gasquet Ranger District to formulate a plan. In 2009, two separate attempts fell through at the last minute and in the abnormally wet October of 2010 I was ready to give it another shot. I stirred up curious enthusiasm from Brock Nelson and J.R. Weir. Both were flexible and fired up, so I tirelessly watched the changing weather forecasts and river gauges for over a week while the northern California coast was hit by rainstorms. Then, at 8 p.m. on October 28th, I made the final call: "we're launching tomorrow boys!" It was on.

Driving to the trailhead above the clouds

The trip started in Gasquet, California along the Smith River. We picked up our shuttle driver and drove about an hour to Doe Flat Trailhead where Clear Creek shares a divide with the Siskiyou Fork and South Fork of the Smith. From there, we began the six-mile hike on a well-maintained trail down into Clear Creek. The hike is as easy as it could be to carry a boat with overnight gear for six miles and took us about two and a half hours without backpack systems.

J.R. and Brock shouldering their 75-pound backpacks

The boat felt a lot heavier than it looks

We were all able to put the pain aside and enjoy the fantastic scenery. Fall colors were out, the sun was beaming through old growth coastal spruce forests, and we were surrounded by freshly snow-capped peaks of the Siskiyous. When we reached Doe Creek close to its confluence with Clear Creek, we were happy to see water and hastily put on with 50 cfs. It lasted about 100 yards before our first log portage. Then we had another. And another before I lost patience and portaged across the flat to Clear Creek proper.

Perhaps a touch too enthusiastic to see water. On the banks of Doe Creek.

Brock ferrying across a creek to avoid wet feet

J.R. enjoying the sunshine

The entire first mile of the run was rough. We had almost 150 cfs total and it was somewhat how I imagine the Manky Mile on Bridge Creek. We were all bouncing off rocks and good eddies were scarce while wood was abundant. We scouted several times and ran some chunky lines just to avoid putting our boats back on our shoulders. Each of us faced several minor broaches and pins.

Typical tight boulder garden with brush obstructing the full view

I was starting to worry we'd be in for 14 miles of this and could see why no one had come back raving about this run. But throughout the first mile, several large tributaries poured in and gave us more hope. Soon the portaging was over and we began to encounter many fun rapids.

Brock below a fun slide

There were extremely tight, technical boulder gardens, pushy bedrock slots, and even a couple of nice ledges in the 10-foot range. We boat-scouted nearly everything and took quick looks at bigger horizon lines to see more manageable rapids.

After paddling about four miles from the Doe Creek confluence, we came to the first real pool on the run. A significant tributary called Cedar Creek entered on the left and we knew we had reached the namesake of the run: Wilderness Falls.

Wilderness Falls viewed from our camp

I had heard numerous varying descriptions of Wilderness Falls that ranged from a 50-footer with a shallow landing to a 35-foot multi-tiered sliding affair. None were even remotely fitting. The total drop was around 20 feet and the falls consisted of a cross-current boof into a hideous crack that boiled, pillowed, and fell off a second drop into a big pool.

The bottom of Wilderness Falls

To the best of our knowledge Wilderness Falls had never been run and none of us decided to step up to the plate that day. It actually looked fairly clean with a fun entrance move, but I hate crack drops, couldn't predict what kind of beatdown might happen in there, and considering our location, didn't feel like playing probe.

The entrance move to the crack

At this point in the day, we had been slowed down by many setbacks and it was getting late. We portaged relatively easily along the right bank and found a perfect campsite overlooking the falls where we called it a night.

A nice cozy campsite on a clear morning

Day 2
We awoke to clear skies and were happy to see the water hadn't dropped out at all overnight. By this point all the tributaries had boosted our flow to a healthy 400 cfs. We knew the day ahead of us would be long with 10 miles of unknown creek left before we hit the more familiar upper run. The only beta we had on this run was a cryptic class III/IV rating from a trip at much lower water. It was evident that the previous exploration did us no good beyond the assurance that we wouldn't have any boxed in waterfalls. For the next 10 miles, we were in full exploratory mode. On the water by 9 am.

The next couple of miles held the best whitewater of the entire trip. The canyon would gorge out and open up regularly and we were once-again scouting some bigger horizon lines. We encountered several steeper but channelized boulder gardens and exciting bedrock drops including a unique 15-foot slide and a multi-tiered slide ending in a 10-foot plunge.
Brock getting ready for the 15-foot slide

Looking down the lip of a 10-footer

The creek was littered with countless smaller boofs, but often we found ourselves landing on shallow rocks. Some drops were still quite chunky and the gorges were separated by long stretches of class II. Because of our time crunch we were almost more excited to see easy water than we were to find big, clean drops.

A nice section of slides

But everything was navigable, bony as it may have been, and we didn't have a single portage all morning. After three hours of aggressive boat-scouting, we found ourselves looking downstream at the Ten Mile bridge. The unknown headwaters of Clear Creek was behind us.

One of many fun drops

By the time we reached the upper run, we were floating on around 600 cfs. This made the upper section a touch bony, but all the normal lines were the same and holes were never a concern. But we had put in a long day on the water and starting to get tired. My fatigue became especially apparent during the first portage, when I was struggling to carry my full-loaded kayak 100 feet after I'd carried it six miles the day before.

Fall colors on upper Clear Creek

It took all my focus to finish off the final class V rapid, Cottonmouth. But in the pool below the un-scoutable finale, we were both in our boats, thrilled to have finished off such an incredible section of river. We proceeded through the last five miles of class II water and I'd forgotten just how gorgeous the lower canyon is. Just after 3 p.m., we passed under the highway bridge where our shuttle driver was waiting, guarding cold beers and dry clothes.

I haven't been able to find much information on the kayaking history of Clear Creek, but here's what I do know. Brandon and Dustin Knapp completed the first descent from Doe Creek down sometime in the 90's. They did the run in the summer with an estimated 200 cfs at the take-out. Dustin has been a huge help with the success of this trip and graciously recounted every detail he could and confirmed my conclusions about access and flows. Otherwise, we know of one other descent completed at low water by one of J.R.'s coworkers at Otter Bar Lodge. I figure the best way to hear about other descents is for me to go around claiming that this was the third descent. So I will, and I eagerly await contradiction, because anyone who has successfully completed a mission like this one deserves due credit. I'll also claim that this was the highest water descent to date as the summer-time runs would be on about 1/3 the flow we had. If you know these claims to be untrue, please let me know. Finally, it is my understanding that Wilderness Falls has yet to be run.

Access and flows
This is where I could write my Ph.D. thesis. The road to the Doe Flat trailhead climbs to nearly 5000 feet and snow doesn't melt away until late June or July of most years. By that point, the creek is a trickle and the canyon is much more effectively explored on foot via the well-maintained trail along the entire length. The only way to catch Clear Creek with worthwhile water levels is to hike up from the trailhead on the Klamath side (about 14 trail miles) or do the run in the the fall as we did. Flows are difficult to predict as Clear Creek has no gauge. As a general rule, the watershed is more stable than nearby Indian Creek and holds its rainwater for longer.

But there is really no way of knowing how much water will be in the creek when you start the hike. We started hiking the day after a rainstorm brought Indian Creek up to around 600 cfs. The Indian Creek hydrograph steadily dropped off over the next two days while Clear Creek stayed at a fairly even flow. The week before, the area experienced an uncommon rainstorm that left all the soil saturated. These conditions provided us with around 150 cfs at the get-on and 600 cfs dumping into the Klamath. I would consider this the low recommended flow and an ideal level for our exploratory trip. Next time, I would want more water, a little more time, and err on the side of high water as you can always wait for levels to drop (provided you brought enough food.)

Right around the first snowstorm of the season, the Forest Service locks a gate four miles down the road from the trailhead for safety reasons. If you have a truck that's good in the snow, you can borrow a key to the gate. Check in with the Gasquet Ranger District for up-to-date conditions. They were extremely accomodating to me and easy to work with. The take-out is easy: right where US Highway 96 crosses Clear Creek at its mouth. If you can do the trip before significant snow accumulates below 5000 feet, the shuttle is only about 2.5 hours one way over the Greyback Saddle between O'brien, Ore. and Happy Camp, Ca. If the Greyback road is blocked due to snow, you'll be in for a much longer shuttle driving over 5 hours each way through Grants Pass and Ashland.

We hired Bearfoot Brad out of Gasquet (707) 457-3365 to do the entire shuttle for around $100. He is dependable, honest, takes good care of vehicles, and is a great guy to hang out with on the drive. Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of this run. Other than the first mile and Wilderness Falls, the run had no portages. What I've failed to capture in this trip report are the numerous technical rapids. The most challenging rapids of the trip were the dozens of tight boulder gardens. I backpaddled more than ever and it was barely enough to control my loaded kayak. Pins and broken boats are a serious concern throughout this run if you get out of control. There were plenty of campsites spaced throughout the run and the whitewater and scenery are both outstanding. I imagine it will be a few years before someone is fortunate enough to go back in there, but I would absolutely do it again. The conditions for this trip were pretty ideal for our situation and lack of beta. Next time, I would like to get an earlier start and see more water. I'd try to be on the water by noon, partly to avoid the pressure of time, but mostly to take more pictures of this incredible creek. If you are putting together a group and have space for one more, please let me know. I can't wait to run the headwaters of Clear Creek again!

Next time I'll have to take some better pictures. Brock boofing out on a big slide.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Upper Minam River, Oregon: IV

First known descent from Elk Creek to Red's Horse Ranch
Mike Thurber on the Upper Minam Photo: Leon Werdinger

The logistical ninja for this mission was an unlikely suspect: my father, John Thurber. And a huge thanks goes out to Leon Werdinger for taking all the great photos

Growing up in La Grande, Oregon, the Eagle Cap Wilderness area was our local craggy mountain range for all those silly activities that draw people into the mountains. My dad, brother and I would fish, camp, and hike in many of the glaciated valleys draining the high granite and limestone peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. Once I became a kayaker, I always wondered what whitewater gems might lie in this area that seemed so geologically similar to the creeking mecca of California's Sierras.

Like many before me, I have scouted several of the drainages on foot and concluded that hiking mile-for-mile upstream in most drainages would never be worth paddling the manky wood-choked streams that flow back to the trailhead. But the largest river to flow out of the Wallowas is also the most remote. The Minam River flows over 50 miles through the wilderness area and several miles through rangeland before its confluence with the Wallowa. Twenty-two miles upstream of its mouth, the Minam passes the only airstrips in the entire Eagle Cap Wilderness area at Red's Horse Ranch and the Minam Lodge. With these access points, the lower section of the Minam had been run several times and even rafted commercially for a short while. I must assume that someone had floated the section upstream, but we were unable to find any information about the first descent or any reports published by the earlier explorers. So I suppose we can call it a first known descent
Photo: Dan Thurber

So after extensively studying the topo maps and conferring with local horsepacker about access, John settled on the confluence with Elk Creek as our launch point. We arranged for two mules to carry most of our supplies and make the long hike in a little more manageable. In the morning, Mike and I made it to our parents' house in La Grande, finished loading the truck, and were at the Buck Creek Trailhead by about 2 p.m.
discussing the finer points of our backpack systems. Photo: John Thurber

Our plan was to knock off the first eight miles of the hike and all of the climbing on the first afternoon. John and Leon were taking IK's for the trip and thus able to send them in on mules, so Mike and I were carrying our boats and camping gear, while John packed in all the food we would need for the night. After about 3 hours on the trail, we reached Burger Saddle just as the sun was going down and found a campsite for the night.
Mike and the author at Burger Saddle, 6 p.m. Photo: John Thurber

Day 2
Having knocked off the toughest part of the hike, we had a very casual pace for the second day. We got back on the trail and descended into the Elk Creek drainage for another seven miles before arriving at a nice bridge over the Minam in the early afternoon. The trip had intentionally been planned for mid-summer to achieve a low flow, so Mike and I were expecting a pretty dismal view of the river. To our delight, the river was well-channelized with about 130 cfs and at least for the next 50 yards was deep enough to paddle cleanly.
Camp at Elk Creek before launching. Photo: Dan Thurber

The rest of the day was spent fishing, swatting mosquitoes, and waiting for Leon to join us. I ventured upstream about two miles to see if the river looked fun enough to hike the boat up a little further. I only bushwhacked to the river once, but saw three logs and very little gradient. I decided I could hold off paddling until the next day.
Mike enjoying a nice shady ponderosa. Photo: John Thurber

Day 3
It took quite some time to divvy up the loads and we got a late start at 11 a.m. The river quickly widened and got shallower, with the IK's getting stuck often and us kayakers leaving a fair amount of plastic on the riverbed.
The author negotiating a particularly bony stretch. Photo: Leon Werdinger

Bouncy cobble bar riffles were punctuated by deep, serene pools that made us just want to swim and fish in the hot weather.
Photo: Dan Thurber

The mellow gradient got steeper for about a half-mile right around the confluence with Last Chance Creek. The river was so continuous that it became hard to distinguish any particular rapids.
Leon leading downstream. Photo: Dan Thurber

Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of wood in the stream. After about 3 miles, we came upon a monstrous logjam in a mellow section and were forced into a quick and easy portage on river right. Studying the topos for the river, we knew we could expect more of the mellow gradient until the confluence with Rock Creek, where the river appeared to steepen to over 80 feet/mile.
Photo of Leon by Dan Thurber

We cautiously progressed into a steeper section as the evening settled in on us. For the first time in the trip, we saw bedrock and something resembling good whitewater. But with the sun setting, we took no time for pictures and worked our way downstream in search of a good campsite. After a half-mile, we exited what we dubbed the Twilight Gorge and were back into chunky boulder gardens. Just around the next couple of corners, we spotted a beach on river left where the river began to steepen again. Our campsite came just in time.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

Day 4
Our biggest day on the water got off to a swift start right off the bat. We were faced with a half-mile of steep boulder-garden that John named "Soggy Britches" after a brief swim. The river continued to drop at about 100 fpm right up to the first horizon line of the trip. Around a right-hand bend, the river disappeared over what turned out to be a class III slide. Some of these steeper rapids were a little above John's comfort level and Leon wanted to get lots of pictures, so Mike and I happily ran the final slide of Soggy Britches twice: once in hardshells and once in duckies.
Mike at the bottom of Soggy Britches. Photo: Leon Werdinger

We continued boatscouting the next couple of miles as the river dropped through more chunky but navigable boulder gardens. At times John and Leon would hop out and line their boats around strainers or especially technical sections, but Mike and I were able to stay in our boats with some creative log ducking and wheelchair boating.
John lining the entrance to Kayak School. Photo: Dan Thurber

Soon enough we arrived at one of the best rapids of the trip. A steep, clean lead-in rapid fed into a short bedrock gorge with several short drops. Mike probed and Leon got set to take pictures. Once John lined the entrance, he got back in his boat to paddle the toughest rapid we'd seen yet. He followed right on my tail for a good clean run through what we dubbed "Kayak School."
Photo: Leon Werdinger

Most of the day was a blur of bouncing our way downstream through cobble bars that would have been much more fun with more water. Mike and I took turns boat-scouting and usually giving the OK signal to Leon and John behind us. For the tougher sections, we got into a steady routine of running in two groups and either Mike or I taking turns hiking back up to run John's boat through while he hiked the conveniently located trail until things mellowed out. One section stood out as the steepest whitewater of the day and we named it the Fuck-All Boulder Garden.

The FABG started with a huge boulder on the right and then the entire river seemed to just siphon out into foot-wide slots. I probed away down the left side until things started to look grim. Then, somehow, my boat just seemed to lift up and bounce over dry rocks into the right channel where there was more water. In the middle of this half-mile section was a single fun ledge. Otherwise, the FABG was just miserable. We stopped halfway through to have a snack and then got back to work abusing our boats.

After the FABG slowed and the gradient tapered off, we were able to make some quick miles. Looking at the topos, I was optimistic that we had cleared the steepest sections and would be paddling flatwater until we reached the horse ranch late afternoon. Sure enough, the river meandered through beautiful meadows
Photo: Leon Werdinger

...then dropped abruptly over the biggest horizon line yet.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

We got out to scout as the river disappeared into a tight bedrock gorge. The entrance slide dropped about 15 feet and we could tell there was plenty more gradient downstream. It was worth scouting the entire gorge before dropping in, especially considering that it was getting late.

We decided to call this section the "Don't Forget Gorge" with each rapid named after the things you want to remember on any well-done self-support kayak expedition. The first rapid we dubbed "Good Beer Falls" in tribute to the 12-pack of microbrews Mike had stuffed into his bow.
Mike on Good Beer, round one. Photo: Leon Werdinger

I went first with a fun boof on the left side of the first ledge, then cut across to run the cleaner right side of the second slide. Mike chose to go right the whole way.
The author on Good Beer Falls. Photo: Leon Werdinger

After clean runs in our hardshells, we went back up to run duckies through. We each felt good about our previous lines and Mike went first with a smooth run. I started down off the first ledge and quickly was reminded that duckies don't boof like creekboats. Where I had previously cruised right past the backwash of a ledge hole, my bow this time got sucked right in. So there I was, sidesurfing a fully-loaded inflatable kayak in a sticky hole right above a potentially sharp and shallow slide.
A less inspiring run the second time around. Photo: Leon Werdinger

Fears of broken legs were running through my head as I braced downstream and wrestled my way to either side of the hole. Thankfully, the boat had thigh straps and after about 10 seconds I found a weak point and paddled out of the hole to a clean run over the bottom slide.

Next up was "Summer Sausage," another fun couple of bedrock ledges that wasn't nearly as eventful as its predecessor. The third rapid was "Wag Bag," because at first it was really clean, fun, and looked like a great idea. But in the end, it was completely full of shit. At the bottom of a cool-looking fast S-turn, the river flowed over two low-head dams that appeared to be made of logs across the river with slats nailed to them. They both looked fairly runnable, but the second one had a terminal hydraulic if you didn't clear it and there was no way to set safety. Besides, I kind of have a rule against running anything man-made, so the portage began.

Mike and I ponder the wooden dams filling up the Wag Bag. Photo: Leon Werdinger

John and Leon elected to just portage the entire gorge, but Mike and I wanted to run the rest of it, so we took the time to carry our boats up to the top of the gorge, walk around Wag Bag, and rope our boats back down at the first good opportunity. The sun was in our eyes as we ran the last two rapids, which we'll call "Flip Flops" and "Bug Spray" respectively. We quickly exited the gorge and met up with the rest of the crew.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

It was starting to get dark, so we wanted to find ourselves a camp as soon as possible. The day had worn on all of us and we looked forward to dinner and dry clothes. We went charging around the next couple of corners and before we knew it, were once again in a steep boulder-garden with few eddies. Things got fairly chaotic as we all went scrambling for eddies. We were going sideways, backwards, bumping into each other, and kept getting pinballed back into the main channel by unseen boulders, but eventually we were all able to stop. Getting so out of control and congested without knowing what lay downstream had been the most heart-racing moment of the trip. Using better spacing, we carefully hopped our way to the bottom of this rapid and called it "Don't Tell Mom."

Right where we pulled over was a conveniently flat bench in the trees and we called it a night.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

Day 5
This time, we really were done with the rapids. From our campsite below Don't Tell Mom, we paddled easy class II for a couple miles before arriving at the nice bridge and Red's.
Photo: Dan Thurber

We took a quick break and Mike went into the lodge to re-up our beer supply, but got back on track soon as we had only covered a third of our 45 miles. Luckily, Red's Horse Ranch marks a geologic change in the river where it flows out of the granite bedrock of the Wallowas and into Columbia Basalt flows more reminiscent of the Grande Ronde river canyon.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

This meant less gradient and less character to the river-bed, and we really didn't have any more memorable rapids. Just below the ranch we had a couple quick log portages but then started making mileage.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

The river was still a bit chunky, but we didn't suffer anymore pins and didn't eddy out except for lunch and camp. We scored on a slightly developed camp on the right at the mouth of a creek. The following day we woke up and paddled just a couple more hours down to the take-out at Minam State Park.
Photo: Leon Werdinger

We had a gage reading of 350 cfs on the Minam. At that flow, the river is certainly navigable, but very very scrapy. It reminded me somewhat of a less steep lower McCloud. I didn't put any gouges in my boat and wouldn't worry about breaking it, but it got lots of new scratches. Being upside-down at almost any point on this run would be very unpleasant and if I were to do it again at these flows, I would probably rather paddle a ducky. With significantly more water, I think this could become a somewhat classic run. The Minam is a spectacular river and may offer the best paddling in the Wallowas. Access is certainly a challenge, but you just have to look at it as part of the expedition. The hike is on a well-graded trail maintained for horses and you get beautiful views of the Grande Ronde and Powder Valleys as well as craggy summits in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I would first go back in at 20 cfs with a bunch of dynamite and get those damn dams out of Wag Bag. Then I'd go back in at 1000 cfs and plan on a 2-day trip and a rocking good time of class III-IV water in the most beautiful corner of Oregon.
Photo: Leon Werdinger