I've probably spent more time scouting this run online than any other stretch of river. I've been reading about "The Ranch" since I was in high school. There are plenty of excellent write-ups out there on Oregon Rafting, California Creekin', Jefferson State Creeking, and Caliproduct, as well as a write-up in the Holbek/Stanley guidebook. From talking to some 30 paddlers who've been down there, I've only really heard two perspectives about the run.
- "Burnt Ranch Gorge is a super fun run with lots of good rapids and fun play waves." -This is about how I'd describe the NF Smith or the Illinois.
- "Burnt Ranch Gorge is F*&king terrifying, and I'm never going back unless I'm with a super solid team and conditions are optimal." –Plenty of good class V boaters have expressed this sentiment.
These polar opposite attitudes from boaters I consider much more talented and experienced than myself made me extremely nervous about the run. My conclusion: both are true. The gorge is loaded with fun rapids. If you're confident enough to run this in a playboat, you'll be rewarded by lots of awesome waves. At the same time, the rapids are only fun when you nail you line, and if you don't, there are consequences. All rapids have a recovery pool below them, but if you swim at one of the upper or middle falls, you need a fast rescue to not swim another class V rapid. There are plenty of big holes you must run and sieves, siphons, caves and undercuts to keep you on edge. I loved the run and hope to go back.
Granted, we had a strong team and pretty ideal flows of 1300 on the Burnt Ranch Gauge. I was in my kayak and Will and Kerri were paddling a 12' raft. None of had been down there before, so we scouted lots of rapids. I would have been comfortable boat-scouting almost everything, but I didn't want to accidently drop into the falls section.
Will and Kerri in Tight SqueezeThe crux of the run is the falls section: three steep class V rapids spaced closely together. At 1200 CFS, the upper falls is the scariest, the second is the biggest, and the third is the hardest. The first falls has a long class IV lead-in to the main ledge, where the river divides around a couple house-sized boulders. About 30% of the water was going into the right channel that dumped into a sieve/cave thing that would be really bad to swim through. The left channel is the best option with most of the water going over a fast slide with hardly any hole at the bottom to worry about. Personally, I thought the showerhead looked fun: an 8-foot tall low volume slide between the two big boulders. I was unsure about the landing depth so I tried to boof but penciled in, got backendered, and sucked into the hole. I couldn't roll up or hang on long enough so I swam. Fortunately, I managed to grab my boat and paddle and stood up on a submerged rock at the base of the drop, so I self-rescued and was able to paddle to shore before the second falls.
Getting my boat drained out, we went to scout number 2. Number 2 is the shortest and steepest. There are three drops with each being taller than the first. The final drop divides around a big boulder and drops 10 feet. I made the tough move and cruised through the fast and easy left channel. The raft blew their angle and got sucked to the right side, where they ran a bigger hole. Neither hole is really a major concern, as the raft punched through backwards.
The third falls is another long rapid with three drops. The whole right side is junky and sieved out, so the only option is to barrel down the left. The first drop is an insignificant boof, flowing into a big lateral hole with a deep seem, which in turn feeds into the last drop. The last drop has a river-wide hole that is biggest on the left. Unfortunately, that's the only place to run it. I peeled out and tried to get as much momentum as possible. The seam pushed me farther left than I'd have liked and I drilled into the farthest left part of the hole and got flipped and pushed up against the wall. I was relieved to be clear of the hole but as I tried to roll my boat kept hitting the wall. I went to my offside and came right up, but was stuck in a pocket between the big hole and the wall. With a little work, I was able to paddle out of the eddy just in time to watch the raft run the bottom drop backward and still clear the hole.
Below the third falls we started boat scouting more. The undercut in Table Rock was plenty easy to avoid at our flows. One of the bigger class IV+ rapids came shortly after Table Rock where we both got extended surfs in a short but wide and ledgey hole at Hennessy Falls.
After another half dozen class IV rapids, we arrived at Gray's Falls, another class V. It's not a hard rapid but has a pretty nasty hole that would be hard to escape from and a funky move off a pillow to avoid it. I ran almost the whole thing upside down and still had a clean line.
The real whitewater was done, but we had the hardest part of the run ahead of us: a two-mile flatwater paddle out with a stiff upstream wind. It took us 4.5 hours to get from Cedar Flat to Gray's Falls, and another hour to make it to the take-out. From there it took me 45 minutes to hitch a ride. I could probably have biked the shuttle faster, but the road is windy with big trucks going fast, and I didn't want to get taken out. All told, the trip took us just over 18 hours. We left Ashland at 5 a.m. and didn't get back until 11 at night. Next time I'll camp and get two days of paddling in, but to see this amazing run for the first time with such great water levels, weather, and people, it was well worth all the trouble.