We launched around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday and pushed down to South Bend. Got there around 2:30 p.m. and decided to call it quits for the day. The next morning we were off around 9:30 a.m. Stopped at Waterfall Camp for a break and got to Oak Flat around 3:00 p.m.
Evidence of the Chetco Bar Fire was visible starting a mile or so above South Bend through Green Wall. There are some big trees that will be making their way downstream, but the only tree we saw in the river and somewhat in play was at Submarine Hole. This log was in the normal right entrance. Fortunately there was enough water to enter left. However, at lower flows this log will be in play until it flushes downstream.
Through a misunderstanding of which section of Steamboat Creek to run, Glen Finch, Willie Long, and T.J. Eilers ran the lower section. If you look at other rafting forums it will go in to why it is a horrible run. I will say if you are looking for non-stop action or a casual day on the river you will not find either on this run. But this run does have everything in moderation and is actually a great training run.
The team wanted a full day on the water but one of our members was playing a gig and needed to be back in Canyonville by 6:00 p.m. We decided to put on where the bank was open and next to the road about three miles up from Steamboat Falls.
At 10:00 a.m. while putting on we enjoyed a mild snow storm. While rigging and rafting in the snow is absolutely beautiful it made everything three times harder and slower. Most of this section was mixed with slow moving current and Class II water. Before we arrived at Steamboat Falls there was one fun Class III rapid. We had previously scouted Steamboat Falls from the road and found an easy portage in the middle of the river. After undoing the bow line and pushing it off the lip of a not yet runnable waterfall we carefully climbed down the rock and continued on.
This is where it got interesting. Although there were a handful of very nice, possibly Class IV rapids, there was a lot of flat water and a difficult portages that involved lining rafts. If you choose to do this run with rafts and do not want to spend an hour and half portaging, there is one rapid in particular that is especially difficult. Lining through this particular rapid is not recommended. My recommendation is to carry your rafts past the rapid and lower them into the river from the mini gorge. There are trees to belay from and shelves to climb down. We did it the hard way. After another few miles you come to the last portage. At just under a grand we were able to beach our boat again and toss it over the water fall.
Another meandering mile or two and we reached our take out at the confluence of the North Umpqua. A little late – but don’t worry – T.J. made it to the gig in time. I like to imagine he played in his drysuit.
Jackson Creek is a tributary to the South Umpqua and offers a fun and logistically-friendly day adventure. There is no gauge on Jackson Creek, so use the Tiller gauge. On this trip, the water was on its way up and this was certainly a minimum flow for a raft.
There are numerous places you could use as access points. We boated roughly 10 miles in approximately 3 hours. There were logs across the river in numerous places, however at this flow we only had to portage over a log once, and were able to duck under the rest of them.
Saturday night, November 26, 2016:
Things had seriously gone wrong. We were in a bad spot. Soaked in my drysuit, I was standing on a narrow ledge, holding a piece of cold soggy fried chicken. It was dark, and a colder rain had started to fall. I was hoping for the sound of a whistle, but with other than the sound of river and the others huddled in the tent next to me the only sounds I heard were the mistakes of this afternoon running through my head…
About a week earlier:
I was in Michigan visiting with my girlfriend Donna, hanging out at a USFS bunk house on the Ottawa National Forest. We would be driving back west shortly and so I checked the weather forecasts. I wanted to see where the snow was going to be so we could hopefully avoid it on our drive back. But perhaps more importantly the river forecasts for SW Oregon/NW California were more on my mind. I got excited after I saw that a series of fronts were forecast to come through SW Oregon just after our arrival. Flood watches were already posted. The flow forecast for the Illinois was to peak at 29k.
I had some butterflies in my stomach thinking about it. I had been on four or five highwater Illinois trips. Some went better than others. Donna has been super supportive of my river trips, and I told her I was looking at hitting the Illy the day after Thanksgiving. I put some word out, and got a little interest. However, as we drove west, and the date got closer, the forecast kept lowering. I had already talked myself into running a 20k+ trip and anything less than that started to feel easy. A couple days later the forecast had lowered to a peak around 15k. Still a healthy level, and I felt at this point with all the talk of multiple very wet fronts that they were underforecasting. However, by the time I got back, a trip was in the works and we were looking at flows peaking around 9k on a Saturday.
I thought this would be a great trip to invite Donna on. The character of the Illinois seems to change around 11 or 12 thousand and the forecast was well below that. On my 7k float I thought all the rapids were relatively easy, although a few had some sticky holes. So I asked, and she accepted. By the evening before launch I had rounded up myself + 4, to embark on what I figured would be even lower, a relatively mellow Illy trip at about 5k – 6k. Again, the flow forecast kept getting lower and lower, and when I got up at 6 AM on Saturday the rain that was supposed to arrive at midnight didn’t, and the Illinois was now at 4500 and still dropping. I thought that some people on the trip might want to cancel. However, after I sent some texts I found out this was not the case. After loading the truck, picking up some folks, finding a trailer, and picking up our shuttle driver (Bearfoot Brad), we decided to turn our one day trip into an overnight due to the lower flows, and now a late start. At around 10:30 AM we arrived at McCaleb Ranch. With an overnight trip in mind we were not really in a hurry. We all agreed we’d like to make it through the Green Wall at a higher flow rather than lower, however, and so we set our planned camp at Collier Creek.
Inflating, and rigging our rolled boats took a while, and when everything was said and done we put on the water just before 1 pm, about 4 hours before dark. The members of this trip were Donny rowing on his own, Dave rowing another with Marcello riding along, and Donna and I were going to trade off rowing another boat.
The flow was really fun. On an overnight trip, putting in at McCaleb Ranch should be your first choice. There are a lot of quality class 3 to 3+ rapids between the ranch and Miami Bar. It adds 6 more miles of whitewater, and cuts out 45 minutes of driving down a fairly bumpy gravel/dirt road. Even at low flows of 900 or so, it only adds a couple hours to your float. At 4k it’s a quick 60-45 minute float if you stay in the current.
There were some really fun surf holes right off the bat. The rapid that usually kicks your ass right around the corner from McCaleb, wasn’t really that bad, but did have a big enough hole to give me a fun surf, and Donny was able to do a barrel roll or two. After a couple miles things calmed down. The water was moving, with 5-6 foot wave trains and some good sized boils. There weren’t really any good surfing holes, but it gave a chance for everyone to get better acquainted with there boats. The float from Miami Bar to Panther Creek was flat and the sun we had earlier was replaced with a steady cold rain. We pushed through the flats and were all happy to get back into some better rapids once below Briggs Creek.
Panther Creek through Nome Creek rapids were fairly mellow read and run with some bigger waves, probably around 7 to 8 feet. Rocky Drop (aka Rapid 19) has some large lateral waves and a big pour over on the left formed by the usual rock that sticks out at the bottom. All of these were super read and run, with lots of room to move around.
York Creek’s normal pour over holes were fairly large, especially the lower one, but easy to miss if you wanted to. We ran the left line to check out the holes, even though the right line is open. The left is a little more fun. I hit a little bit of the right side of the bottom left hole to check it out. After passing it up I though it would have been fun to drop into. Somewhat retentive, but not too mean.
At the bottom of Clear Creek there was a ledge hole that spanned nearly the entire river at the bottom. It’s formed from all the rocks that guard the left line at lower water. But again it’s easy to miss with a sneak on the right. This must be the prime flow for that hole to develop. At lower flows the rocks that form the hole emerge, and at 7000 cfs you want to drive left, and all the craziness pops up right. I eddied out below this rapid and ferried back upriver. It was amazingly easy to get below the hole, but there was too much current just below the hole to get me back in. Donny was coming down, so I pointed the line. He went right in the meat, did a quick backflip and was spit out.
Pine Flat Rapid was fairly inconsequential, everything flushes, and there really aren’t any sticky holes. After Pine Flat the river slowed again. Dave and Marcello had to readjust there rigging and so we stopped for a quick break. Donna did some jumping around to warm up.
I mentioned to Donny that I didn’t think we’d make it past Green Wall before dark. He agreed. I told him we at least need to make it to Deadman’s Bar. We tried to make time. I pulled over at Klondike Creek, just in case people were interested in stopping. We kept going. A bit later we came up on Deadman’s Bar. This is a great highwater camp, but it is hard to catch, especially at high water. I let Dave know that we were coming up on Deadman’s, and we should regroup. He agreed, but not everyone caught the eddy. I wasn’t sure if it was just getting dark, or more cloudy. I was assuming a little of both. By the time we got to Red Rock, aka South Bend, it was becoming obviously dusk. I pulled over on what was left of the beach. We had about 5 to 10 feet of beach frontage, everything else was underwater. I had worried about camping here once we passed Deadman’s as it had been raining since we put on and the forecast showed rain all night. I knew there were no more decent camps until Collier at this point. Dave and Marcelo pulled over. I waved Donny over, but it was not happening. Donny kept going.
I thought to myself, this isn’t the best spot to camp anyway. The river would be rising, if not already, then soon. I didn’t want to camp on the rocks. Donny was already downstream. I was a little pissed off at the situation. I think a lot in my head, and sometimes that can become a problem with a group. I verbalize my thoughts to individuals, but since the put in I hadn’t been talking to everyone together. We were all just going along for the ride. This was my mistake, and looking back on the trip, this was the moment where a firm decision by me to stay would have been the right call.
Instead, I looked at the best case scenario and continued on our plan to reach Collier Creek. There was no room for error. I looked at Donna and said, “Well, I guess we’re going.” I felt like we had about 30 minutes before it was really dark. Which at this flow was technically enough time to get through the last 3 or 4 miles, so we jumped back in the boat. There are times when you know your decision could end badly, but most likely will be fine. So you keep going, hoping that it’s going to be that majority of time when you can push your limits.
Fawn Falls came up within a couple minutes. It was an easy pull to the right. A fairly good sized hole was starting to develop on the left. Donny was in the lead, and running the left drop he expressed his excitement. I did a little thread the needle between two holes on the right. Dave and Marcelo went left and hit a pretty good hole. Now I was in the lead. Looking back at Donny’s boat I yelled, “Alright, here we go. Green Wall.” I heard an excited yell from Donny, and assuming that meant he heard me I started rowing forward. We needed to make time.
Donna and I checked out belts. None of the scouting rocks were covered by water. I felt again a reassurance of a “raftable” flow as the river picked up speed. There was a fairly large hole about midway through prelude. I went right of it, but you could go either side.
Passing the hole there are just a bunch of smaller waves, gradually growing in size. Once you reach the cliff known as the “Green Wall”, everything narrows, steepens, and you see a lot of white. There’s a very large breaking wave halfway through, probably about 10 – 12 feet high, and sometimes it would transform from a wave into a hole. You’ve got three options here. Far, left would be the raft line, taking you away from the hole, but it’s a hard pull. Second option, charge middle and square up to the hole. This almost always results in a bit of a ride. Third option, go right of this hole which looks gnarly, with a good sized lateral coming off the wall feeding into the hole. I always choose to go right at this point. It looks worse, but if you hit it correctly the front of your boat will hit the right side of the hole and stall out. You get slammed up against the lateral which tries to flip you. However, since the back end of your boat is in the faster water it grabs the low side of the back of your boat and spins you 180 degrees. You land on top of the pile. Then you’re set up to pull back and out of the hole. It seems to be the best line in my opinion at flows up to 12000. At 4000 the move worked alright, but the far right current didn’t pull me out as much as I would like and I ended up getting pulled back in towards the trough. I strained to pull back on the oars and the nose of the boat just kissed the bottom right of the trough enough to help push us out. Spinning back around we caught a couple good lateral waves coming off the right wall. This was a fun section where you felt like you were on a rollercoaster. The darkness made it seem even bigger. Then we were at the bottom. The river is still moving fast at this point but you have time a few seconds to collect your bearings and look upstream. The other boats hadn’t entered the rapid yet.
There is a large eddy on river left, and it is a real pain to get out of, especially at flows above 6k. When I got closer to the eddy on river left I could see both boats had made it through the main hole and were upright. Rather than wait in that eddy and make the hard pull, I made the pull back right, and eddied out below what I call the pinch point. The pinch point is the crux of the Green Wall at super high flows, but this evening it was just flat moving water. I noticed one of our dry bags had started to come loose. Donna adjusted our bags and watched the other boats float down.
They were all upright. We were distracted for a bit trying to tie down the loose bag. We could see Donny’s boat go right into a large hole below the Green Wall and we watched as it tumbled a bit, and then floated out upright. Dave floated by and we both communicated the normal “that was big” comments. I glanced upstream and saw Donny coming down from behind. Darkness was closing in. I felt like we had about 20 minutes of dusk left, and about 20 minutes of rowing left, so there wasn’t a whole lot of time to waste.
We approached Little Green Wall. Dave was ahead and went right into a fairly large hole in the center. His boat flipped. I manuevered around the hole and caught up to Dave who was still on his side. The temperature had been dropping and his tops were getting soft. They were both having a hard time reflipping it. I thought about throwing him a line, but we were still moving down river in some rapids and I didn’t want to get a bunch of rope dangling in the water. So we stayed close for a bit and then he drifted into an eddy I drifted down to the next one downstream. I figured he could unstrap and reflip in the eddy. Donna and I waited for a while. I felt like we really needed to get moving. I could see Donny pass Dave and then Dave flipped back over. We peeled back out and continued downstream. Again getting ahead of the group I caught an eddy behind a pour over rock.
We really needed to keep our oars in the water and make time, but I wanted to at least keep in sight of the boat behind me.
As Donny’s boat approached I heard Donna say, “Hey, where’s Donny? I don’t see him in the boat”. I looked at his boat and saw a blinking red light. Thinking it was his helmet cam I said, “No, Donny’s right there.” She said “OK”. But as the boat got closer Donna yelled again. “Aaron, Donny’s not in the boat, he’s not in the boat!”
As his boat passed I saw an empty seat and I started looking for a swimmer. We obviously hadn’t seen anyone float by while we were running the rapids, but then again we weren’t looking for anyone. After a short while more of looking around I thought to myself, maybe he helped Dave flip over and fell in. His boat got away from him and he climbed into Dave’s boat. So I told Donna we were going to go get the boat and pull it into an eddy and wait for Dave. It took us a couple minutes to catch up to the boat and ferry it to shore. There weren’t very many good eddies and I had to grab onto some branches while Donna held onto the boat. I was still holding the branches when we saw Dave approaching. He wasn’t really rowing very hard and there was a sickening feeling coming over me. “Dave”, I yelled, “where’s Donny? He’s not in his boat.”
At that moment the seriousness of our situation became apparent. We realized Donny had come out of his boat somewhere between our location and the top of the Green Wall. Whistles were blown. No sound was returned. We tied up the boats. It was getting dark dark. You could still see the white of the water, but everything else was black. I crawled into his boat and saw that his belt was completely undone. We discussed where we had last seen him, and what our options were. The last anyone could confirm seeing him was right above Green Wall, and we were at least a mile below that point. The river was high, Green Wall was huge, and again it was dark. The canyon was pretty very difficult to hike up or down in daylight, let alone in the dark. Donna started getting headlamps out of bags. I climbed up on an outcrop to see a little better. There wasn’t much to see, except that the ledge I was standing on was a lot flatter than the rockslide we were tied up to. I yelled to the group that there was a decent camp spot up here. I meant it to be relative to the riverside location. Apparently when everyone else climbed up no one else thought it was very nice. It was after all a 5′ wide shelf covered with poison oak about 20 feet above the river with another rock slide filling the shelf with medium sized pointy rocks. But it was what we had, so we made do. Donna had brought an LED lantern and she set it up on a rock as a beacon for Donny in case he was in sight. We blew more whistles and listened. Nothing. Donna and I moved rocks for our camp spot, trying to cover the poison oak, and digging into the hillside we found some dirt to try and fill in the voids in our tent spot. Dave had accidentally brought a small one person backpack tent for both himself and Marcello, so they grabbed Donny’s tent. It was huge, and took up most of the outcrop. They just set it up on top of some boulders.
Things had seriously gone wrong. We were in a bad spot. Standing in the rain, holding a piece of cold soggy chicken, I was staring out into the dark. Hoping for the sound of a whistle, and hearing only the others huddled in the tent I kept thinking about all the mistakes that had led to this moment… It was my trip, and I felt pretty bad.
Eventually I changed out of my drysuit and crawled in the big tent with everyone else. I felt a little guilty being able to crawl into a dry tent with everyone else when Donny was stuck out in the rain… or worse. Donna had a headlamp that she put on her head facing straight up so as not to blind anyone. With her hat on it made her look like a teletubby. We all got a bit of a laugh out of that one, which felt pretty good. Then we started talking about what our gameplan was going to be in the morning.
Among a few options, we eventually settled on me hiking for one hour up river as soon as it’s light to see how far I can get, and then returning. If there was no Donny we would start packing the boats and send for help. After contacting the authorities I was planning on boating back in the following day to start a search from the Green Wall down. There was this feeling of a time crunch. We all wanted to search longer, but we also felt the need to get help. Perhaps they could send a helicopter up if we made it to the authorities in time?
It was a long night. None of us slept much, and all of us heard faint yells, and/or whistles all night. None of them were real, just our hope keeping us from sleep. Eventually light came through and I started moving. I grabbed some gear and headed up river. Right away I realized this was going to be a slow process. It was super steep and unstable almost right away. I was also carrying a Bill’s Bag on my back and my river booties weren’t helping. There were many cliffed in areas where you would have to plan a route and then run across it because the slope just wouldn’t hold your weight if you stopped. I started to make some progress. Unfortunately the canyon walls got steeper and eventually I ran into a cliff that made it apparent that it would take much more than one hour to get anywhere close to the Green Wall. While searching for another route I began the hard decision of whether to leave or stay.
There wasn’t a clear cut decision. So many idea’s went through my head. Looking up at the route I knew I would need to take to get around the next cliff I knew this was a critical moment. If I went back to the rest of the group now, we could get a real rescue started, but I knew there was a good chance Donny would be staying another night in the canyon before help would arrive. If I continued hiking perhaps I could find him and if he was hypothermic or in need of help it would be critical that we find him now. If I hiked up and didn’t find him though I’d be wasting precious time. Any decision was a gamble.
I imagined a lot of scenarios, but I felt due to the ruggedness of the canyon, the immediate need of a rescue, and that we had no idea where, or what side of the river Donny ended up, I would hike back and start the rescue process.
There were at least a couple times when I turned back, thinking I can’t give up looking. I’d hike further up the hill, and then come to the realization that even if I made it around the cliff, I’d have to turn back or else the group would worry that another person was missing. I thought to myself, I’m wasting time hiking around in the woods, and we should just start the process of finding help. It was a tough decision. I didn’t want to be put in this position.
I got back to the group and let them know what I had seen and how I felt. I said I could continue hiking up canyon, but that it would take a long time and most likely I wouldn’t be able to get up to the Green Wall for a few hours one way. We don’t know what side of the river he is on, and if I can’t find him we are looking at wasting an entire day. If we leave now we can start an official rescue process and I can get back down the canyon with a boat by the following morning.
We all decided to leave a tent, sleeping bag, and some food where we were in case Donny came upon our camp after we left. We’d load the boats, leave Donny’s, and head to the takeout. From there we’d make the proper calls and then I’d head back in at first light Monday morning from Miami Bar. We knew that if a helicopter rescue was denied, that it guaranteed Donny another night in the dark before I could come back. We started packing.
I was down rigging one of the boats when I heard Dave yell. Then I heard a whistle. I hiked back up onto the outcrop and Dave said he had heard a yell. We all listened. And listened. Nothing. We all talked about all the sounds we heard last night, and decided it was another trick of the mind. Then we all heard a yell. Dave blew another whistle, and there was another yell. I have never been so happy. A huge relief surged through me. We couldn’t see him yet, but we kept blowing whistles, and a few minutes later there was Donny, a few hundred feet up on the canyon wall across from us. Not the optimal spot, but we knew he was alive. I untied one of the boats and ferried across. The river was still fast and it took me downstream a bit further than I would have liked, but he got in the boat, and we returned back to the left bank a little further downstream.
We got some hot coffee going, got him what dry clothes we had, and let him rest. Eventually we got the story.
I’m sure Donny would be able to give you a much better recollection of his ordeal, and he told a much more detailed story to us while we were sitting on the side of the river. However, this was what I remember.
He had swam from the top of Green Wall. He didn’t know at the time whether his seat belt wasn’t on, or if it just wasn’t properly attached. He fell out after going into the upper hole in Prelude. At the time he had no idea how he ended up in the water, but he couldn’t see the boat or anyone else, just big waves. He said that he kept getting recirculated in some hole for about 30 seconds, and trying not to panic, he tried to think of how he was going to get out and then he was finally flushed out. After flushing out of the hole he swam the rest of the Green Wall and somehow he had been pushed to the right bank. He pulled himself up on a rock, with his feet still in the water, he said he passed out and when he woke up it was really dark. He crawled up the steep bank and found a rock that sheltered him a little bit from the wind. He spent the night huddled next to a rock. It was a cold, rainy, dark night. Sometime during the night he fell asleep for a bit and when he woke up his helmet was gone. It was raining and he wanted to get it back to keep the rain off his head. For the life of him he couldn’t find it so he pulled his drysuit gasket over his head, ripping it, but keeping him a little warmer. I can only imagine what was going through his head all night. As soon as it was somewhat light he found his helmet about 5 feet away. He started climbing, and hiked about a mile downstream to find us.
Eventually he warmed up enough, and he said he could row his boat out. We loaded the rest of the gear on the boats and took off.
We all thought the adventure was over. I pointed out to a couple people in the group the large reversal waiting below us. “That’s the one Donny went in last time.”, I said. After yesterday, with Donny losing the boat, we had exhausted all our spare oar blades. We couldn’t afford to break another one. Everyone agreed to stay out of big holes.
Rapid #103 in Quinn’s book is normally a class 3+ rapid with some boulder maneuvering, but the river takes you where you need to go at lower levels, so it’s usually a pretty easy one. Today it was a little different, and as luck would have it I ended up exactly where I told everyone else not to go. And I was the last boat. Even after watching the video I feel like I was set up perfectly, but avoiding the medium size hole that was somewhat blocking the right sneak I ended up riding right on top of the frothy water created behind the ledge hole I was trying to avoid. Staring back down into the hole I tried to pull away, but feeling the boat tilting into the hole I could tell it wasn’t going to let us go. It was a lot like a lowhead dam, and there was a large amount of water pushing me back into the center, which was keeping me from escaping on either side.
Three minutes and twenty seconds later we got out, with one blade completely sheared off, and another bent about 25 degrees, I was able to eddy out and assess the situation. We were fine physically, the surf wasn’t that bad for us, but we didn’t have anymore blades. I conversed with Donna a bit, and we pulled back out into the water with one oar. I felt there wasn’t really much danger of wrapping, as the river was high enough to cover most rocks. Although I couldn’t be sure of every rock, and I knew we would have pretty poor handling. The other choice for us would be to stay there and wait. Maybe make a blade out of a piece of wood? I thought we’d just start moving downstream. I kept an eye open for any flat pieces of wood though.
The rest of the group had been waiting for me around the corner and Marcelo was walking up with a throw bag. I made sure they saw I had one oar. We kept going. Below us was another class 4 rapid, but I knew at this level any of the rocks would be well covered, and until Sub Hole I wasn’t expecting any large holes.
This turned out to be the case. I was worried about Sub Hole as I was imagining a mean hole in the bottom center, and was worried we wouldn’t be able to avoid it. However, it ended up not amounting to anything and we made it through the bigger rapids without consequence. I was able to use the shaft of the oar to grab a little water, and I used the waves and current to push me where I wanted to go. Donna cracked up quite a few times watching me stroke the left oar about a hundred times only to just barely touch the water with the right. I thought again about trying to use a piece of wood to tie onto the oar shaft for a temporary blade. If I thought we were going to run into problems I would have pulled over and done this. But that would have taken some time. At this point, Donny was getting cold, and he wasn’t able to warm up by rowing. We needed to get out, so we kept pushing.
All of us limped out of the canyon. Some cold, some tired, but all of us were humbled.
We made it out just after 12 PM. Bearfoot Brad was waiting for us. We put Donny in the truck with the heaters on. The rest of us rolled the boats, loaded gear, climbed in the truck, and headed home.
Lots of lessons were learned on this trip. I still question my decision to leave when I was hiking in the morning. Perhaps I should have stayed longer to look. However, I realize no matter what decision I made at that moment no one could predict the outcome. It was a gamble either way. The only thing that I knew for sure was that a decision needed to be made.
Fortunately for everyone this trip ended well. Everyone made mistakes, and I believe everyone acknowledges those mistakes and has learned from them.
Everything seems so obvious in hindsight, and I think most important lesson we learned from this trip is to just stop and take a moment. At any point during this trip if we all just stopped and talked a bit, I’m sure you wouldn’t be reading this story today.
Box Canyon Creek (into the Chetco). High water, ropes and helicopters, oh my!
The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is vast, rugged and steep. I am always grateful to get a chance to visit her again. I had been wanting to do the Chetco, and heard of an alternative. This spring, a group did a tributary to the Chetco called Box Canyon Creek. After reading the article and seeing their photos, I was intrigued to see a different section of the wilderness.
Box Canyon Creek basically parrallels the Chetco River. It is about 7 miles long and the beta we had mentioned class IV/IV+ rapids without much discussion of wood. They recommended higher flows (possible as high as 10k). I thought the same after looking at the photos. The other bonus was only a 4 mile hike versus a 9 mile hike to the Chetco headwaters.
They had 2500 – 5000 cfs on the Chetco gage for the Box. Keep in mind that the Chetco gage is way down stream, and not a reliable source of information. It serves as only an indicator. With flows “predicted” to peak at 6000 cfs I thought we were set up for a great level. With more flow and their beta—David and I thought we could knock it out quicker than they did. We were planning on only one night.
I picked up David Fomolo at 5am. He worked passed midnight the night before and was running on only a few hours of sleep.
We dropped a car at the South Fork Chetco and the Chetco confluence before driving up toward Vulcan Lake. The road we drove was rough, narrow, and no shorter than 15 miles. With the time of year being late November, we were surprised to come up behind a Dodge truck a few miles before the road dead-ends.
When the road ended, I hopped out of David’s truck to talk to the guys. They were rough looking characters. However, coming from West Virginia, I learned to never judge a book by its cover. The guy in the passenger seat was older with what looked to be a burned right eye. He had a rifle in his lap and a pistol on the dash. The gentleman driving was younger. The older gentleman asked where we were going. I explained, and then asked what they were up to. He said, they were hunting and that his family use to own the Gardner Mine up by Vulcan Lake. He was happy to relay some of his family history on the area before the wilderness designation–and I was happy to get the history lesson.
He said that he wouldn’t go in there this late in the year—despite what the weather was doing (It was down-pouring). I mulled over his warning.
David has a two-seater truck and it was dumping buckets. Lucky for us, there was a dilapidated shitter at the trailhead. Dave and I were both able to fit in it to get situated and changed for the mission. We finally attached backpacks to our boats and headed out.
The hiking trail (~2 miles) was pleasant. I’m sure the scenery would have been grand had it not been socked in with clouds. Visibility was extremely low. We got slightly off trail. We took a wrong fork and lost the trail due to the scene of the Biscuit Fire. After a little bush whacking, we were able to meet back up with it again. We eventually made it to the point to start the cross-country hike (~1 mile). We knew we wanted to hike down a ridge line—but due to poor visibility, we couldn’t tell which ridge line to descend. We missed slightly and ended up in an inconvenient ravine. Traversing it was difficult but we eventually made it to Box Canyon Creek.
At the put-in, we could see that the water level was high. We scouted the first section as far as we could see. We had to run the first 3-4 drops all at once to get to the first eddy. I went first and caught the eddy, David came next and said he flipped and had to roll. I ran the next manky drop and eddied out. In front of me were two drops that lead into a river wide log. David came down the shore to scout and check on me. I showed him the log and we discussed our options. The only way to pass it would be to flip when you got to the log and then roll up after it. It was questionable whether there was enough clearance to even pull that maneuver off. Portaging was questionable because the walls were straight up.
We both agreed that the water was too high and it would be best to camp and let it drop. We decided to set camp and reevaluate in the morning. Having only traveled about a half mile—it wouldn’t have been too bad to hike out if things did not improve the next morning. It pitter-pattered rain all night. In the morning I was skeptical that the water would drop enough. We were still trying to decide whether packing boats and gear out would be better than leaving boats and coming back for them in the spring.
In the morning, when we reevaluated the rapid—it looked much more manageable and you could now barely duck under the log. The green light was back on. David carried the manky drop and we ran the rapid and ducked the log without incident.
We got into a rhythm. The water level was still high, but doable. We made it to a really steep, long section. The upper part was a mandatory easy portage river right. We then had to start from river right ferry across some fast current and then drop over a few drops, just flying along. It was our first great rapid and brought smiles all around. I caught an eddy to set safety for David. He opted to carry past me. We encountered a few logjams here and there, particularly where there were islands (I think there were 3?).
There was one newly formed rapid where a landslide had formed and pushed the river bed over to a new channel. The water was fighting to clear a new path between the trees and boulders. This was the easiest portage on the run.
We then got down to a narrow squeeze that had a severe undercut on the right. It was also a mandatory easy portage river right with a seal launch after.
Shortly after this, things started to gorge up. We then arrived at a pinch that fed directly into a wall. The water was violently ricocheting off the wall. You had to enter the pinch and get your nose left to brace/ride it out. The violent surge of water would have made it difficult to stay upright. The difficulty was a deflector rock in the approach that wanted to send you right. If you got caught in the right swirl it looked, bad—real bad. There was eddy service before this rapid—both on the right and left side of the river.
We were able to get above the canyon on river left—out far enough to look down the canyon. It was difficult to see down the canyon here because it “S” turns back and forth. The next rapid after the pinch was straightforward. There was another rapid with a log you could duck—and around the corner you could see a ledge drop with exploding water below it’s horizon line. It was hard to see it from the top of the canyon. It looked big, but straight forward.
There was a spot for us to drop kayaks down on river left after the pinch. If we did that, we would have to commit to running the ledge drop. It looked like there was no getting out before the ledge drop once you were at water level again.
We once again discussed our options. We both thought we had to carry the pinch. If this was the start of the main gorge, we felt there was still too much water. We felt we needed to camp again and hope for the water to drop again.
We debated between carrying our gear and boats around the portage that night, or waiting until morning after the water had dropped. We could not tell from above if there were any good sleeping spots down below on the launch rock. We opted to sleep above, and determine further in the morning.
We had to scrounge around that night for a spot to sleep two bodies. We found one up river. There was not a spot big enough for the both of us to sleep side by side. We were hoping to share our one rain tarp. David had a bivy and I opted to chance it—sleeping out in the open with the tarp beside me in case it rained. We were very thankful that night. It was the only time in our whole trip that it was not raining.
In the morning, we noticed that the water level had dropped again. After scouting the pinch drop in the morning, we decided it looked difficult—but more manageable. It is definitely runnable. Because the water level dropped, I discussed a new option with David. The plan was to drive my boat center and dry out on the rocks above the pinch drop. From there, I wanted to scout the right side and then eventually help David make the same move by grabbing the bow of his boat once he hit the rocks. From there, we would have to go up a little ways and drop back down to a seal launch about 10 feet above water level. Though more dangerous, it would make the portage much easier.
If I did not make the drive onto the rocks correctly—there was a chance that the water would grab my tail, spin me around and flush me down the pinch backwards. If I did not like the situation, I could get back in my boat and eddy back across river. We could still portage river left.
I drove up on the rocks and got out without any trouble. I then attempted to cross the channel to get to the rocks on the right bank. The only way to do it was to commit and jump. If I did that, I was not sure I could get back across. Everything still looked good so I waved David over. I grabbed him and he got out. I jumped across. The passing of boats and gear was very dangerous. If you slipped or dropped any gear, it was going down the pinch and heading for the canyon. We took our time and were very methodical. It was David’s turn to jump. I asked him if he wanted a rope or sling. The look he gave me made me feel like I insulted him. David competed as a decathlete at a collegiate level.
Seal launching back into the river meant immediately committing to the next ledge drop. I went first and was moving fast. I thought it was going to be a boof. Instead, it was a 10-15 foot vertical slide that had a kicker rock in the bottom. I halted my boof stroke at the last second dropped my bow hitting the kicker rock perfectly. I then looked downstream to see a log in the next drop. I caught the only eddy on river left. I knew David was right behind me—so I scrambled to get out of my boat to free up the eddy for him. About the time I got out of my boat I saw him come over the drop. He was further right than I was, and ended up flipping. I do the “roll up, roll up” under my breath while scrambling for my throw rope. David nailed his roll and was facing upstream. He could tell by my facial expression and the fact that I was out of my boat that he needed to eddy out immediately. With a couple quick strokes he caught the eddy and hopped out.
This next drop is a small ledge. It hits the canyon wall and makes a ninety degree right turn. The log is at a “T” to the drop. We looked up and checked both sides of the canyon. There was no easy option. I started studying the logs. There was a small eddy in the back left where the wall makes the 90-degree turn to the right. There is the log and a piece of another log wedged end to end on the canyon walls. It looked like it would be too dangerous to try and paddle to the back eddy and get out of my boat at the log. There was no way to get any footing. Also, if you flipped there, you and your gear would be swept into the logs. If I swam out to the eddy—near the left wall—I could then grab the partial log and use it to pull my self up onto both logs. I jumped in and swam along the left wall about 15 feet. Once secured to the logs, I had Dave attach my boat to a throw bag—which he then tossed my way. It took a couple minutes to get my gear situated. I ended up securing my boat to my rescue harness while it floated freely on the downriver side of the logjam. This allowed me to use both hands freely while balancing on the logjam. We debated tossing my paddle the 15-20 feet—then quickly decided that attaching a line and not losing a paddle was the better option.
David was nervous about the swim, and the “paddling the drop” option wasn’t any more settling. He felt confident enough to seal launch and paddle to me. I then lifted him over the log, and he paddled to the eddy shortly downstream. I had to precariously place my boat on the two crossed logs and get in it, put my skirt on, grab my paddle without falling off the log. With patience and care, I joined David in the eddy below.
A few drops later, we came to another log. This one was big and river wide. There was a pretty straightforward ledge but all the water was feeding right which then culminated at the log and the right wall. Upon first glance, it looked like it you might be able to charge it and boof over the log. Upon further inspection there was a hole right before it that would stall your moment. If for any reason you did not make it, you would be pinned there and have no way for someone to rescue you. The other possible option was to get in the river left eddy before the log. It was an extremely hard move because you would need to enter on the far right and drive all the way across the current in front of the log—thus putting yourself right in harms way. We looked around at the canyon walls; they were steep. We debated waiting it out to see if the water dropped again — hoping it would make the left eddy easier to attain. After discussing, we decided to attempt portaging.
This meant someone had to free climb 75+ feet up the cliff. There was a gap but it looked questionable. I started climbing. The first 10 feet or so was straightforward. It then started to get steeper—and steeper. The canyon walls were made up of small, loose, crumbling scree. The little bit of out cropping rocks it did have, were all shale. As soon as you thought you found a good hold it would crumble in your hands. I was about 50 feet up when I hit the crux of the climb. I had a small section to traverse right to a ledge. I had my feet on some sketchy spots and was searching for a good handhold. I could not find one. For some reason, at that point, I looked down. I think it was to determine a line for a potential down climb. I quickly realized how high I was, and that down climbing was not an option. I panicked for a second and had to pull my body as close to the cliff as I could. I concentrated on my breathing. My legs began to shake due to fatigue, and fear. I concentrated harder on my breathing. I slowly got it under control. Even though I was not breathing as slow as I wanted, it would have to do. I could not just stand there. I quickly determined what my next best option was. Above me was a shrub. If I could get a hold of it, it would provide the decent handgrip that I so desperately needed. The wall near my chest was slightly overhanging. I pulled my hips in tight and started to lean up—reaching. I pulled back in. I wasn’t ready yet. I concentrated on my breathing for 2-3 more breaths. My legs tightening, I leaned up again, slowly—making sure to shift my weight in just the right amounts. I extended my 6’4″ frame to the fullest and grabbed the branch. Pulling my chest close to the overhang and my hips in tighter, I slowly moved my foot to the next hold. Once stable, I quickly pulled the other foot over. Things now became easier and I continued up.
There was no “top” per say. The mountains just go up and up in this wilderness. There is just scree, small shrub trees and small pockets of semi-vertical versus vertical. I needed to determine if there was a place for us to get back down to the river, and how far we would have to traverse to get there. Upon inspection, we were in luck. There was a ravine down to the river with a rock ledge and enough space to launch. The ravine required more rope work to descend it.
I went back and told David my plan. Even 75+ feet below, he knew there wasn’t another option. I found a four inch shrub off to the right that I could use for an anchor and sent down my rope. It was about 10 feet too short (60 foot rope). I pulled it back up, attached my sling to it, and sent it down again. This time, David was able to connect his rope and sling. I pulled up all the goods and got my rope work prepped. I had two ropes, one 60 feet (1/2” thick), one 75 feet (1/4” thick), two pullies, two prussics and a few carabiners.
I set up the sling around the tree with a pulley and prussic on the 75 foot (1/4) rope. I threw it down to David. He connected one of the boats (~100 lbs with gear). I started to pull it up. It was not working. First, the anchor point was not in line, so it was putting stress on a sideways pull. The second thing was the 1/4″ rope was cutting the shit out of my hands. It had a rough sheath and was too small for this type of use. I pulled it about 10 feet and stopped. David hollered at me and I peered down to him and said, “It’s not working, give me a minute”.
I had to fix the problem. I could make a 3-1 advantage with the other pulley and prussic, but then I would have to manage it and pull over and over with not much “working” area on the side of the hill. It wasn’t the ideal option. I needed to get a better pull angle. I looked around to find the next best spot. There was a small 1-inch shrub that I had overlooked. It was the only other option, so I had to make it work. Switching to the 1/2-inch line was necessary to keep from cutting my hands as bad. I released the prussic and lowered the boat back down to David. I hollered down to start unloading boats.
I started derigging. I originally tried to use both slings to connect the 4″ tree and the 1″ tree but they were not long enough. I thought about removing my pfd and using that to bridge the gap. After some consideration, I thought I could test the 1″ tree and see how solid it was. I tied myself into the 4″ tree and put all my, 200 lb weight onto the 1″ tree. It held solid and did not move. That would work. I then connected the 1/4” rope and the 1/2″ rope, and then tossed the 1/2″ rope down. By the time I was done rigging everything up again, David was done unloading the gear from the boats. He connected the empty boat this time. The new rigging allowed me to only have to pull about 10 feet with the shitty 1/4″ rope. If I wrapped it multiple times around my hands it did not cut too bad. Once the connection point of the two ropes reached the pulley, I rigged the other prussic onto the 1/2″ rope. I pulled until I could get that prussic onto the carabiner to hold. I then removed the 1/4″ rope, ran the 1/2″ through the pulley, and the boat was up in no time. The right tool for the job always makes it easier.
We did this a total of 5 times to get the gear up (2 boats, 2 piles of gear, 2 paddles). Each time a piece came up, I had to disconnect it and then traverse or up climb 10-15 feet. I had to find a shrub to stash it behind or attach it so it would not slide off the cliff. I was glad to have a rope on David as he climbed up—though he did not have much trouble. If nothing else, it provided mental security.
Everything was up. I led David over to the ravine to make sure he was comfortable with plan while also trying to find a line to traverse. He glanced it over. He—like me—was not happy with it, but agreed it would work. We started traversing gear—one piece at a time—being careful with every step. The ravine had a really nice tree that I used for an anchor point. I set things up. When I was ready, Dave connected himself to the end of my rope work. He started climbing down. With some back and forth, using trees/shrubs, and kicking some scree, he got down. I lowered boats and gear down to him, one piece at a time, same as coming up. I had to use the 1/4″ rope again due to its longer length. Because it was descending, I had an easier time controlling the weight. At one point, the gear kicked down some rocks and poor David dove into the cliff for protection. He still took a couple big rocks to the head and shoulder.
It was my turn to descend and I did not want the excitement that I had coming up. It looked like I could plan it right using trees and shrubs to down climb while using the thicker (1/2”) rope. I folded the rope in half and slung it around a tree. This gave me about 30 feet at a time to down climb before running out of rope. I did this until I got to a shelf or anchor point, and then pulled the rope around the tree to me. I would then traverse to the next possible anchor point and repeat. I had to free climb the last 10-15 feet before safely regrouping with David and the rest of our gear.
At this point, David and I took a quick break for some food and water. The portage probably took about 3 hours. We had to go slow, be cautious, and do things repetitively to make this feasible.
We had spent almost a full day doing three portages managing about 1/2 mile of river. We were hoping to be out of the canyon soon and get some miles under our belt. The next series of rapids were very fun and enjoyable. As we moved down stream the Canyon walls slowly deteriorated, but we still had about 3-4 more portages ahead due to logs.
We soon came out to the confluence of the Chetco. I gave David a hug. At this point, things became a lot easier. We paddled for about another 1/2 hour looking for a campsite. It rained all night, our coldest night. Considering we were only planning to spend one night and this was our third, we still had plenty of food. David cooked up some rice and beans, a two person dehydrated meal, which we shared. We ate the last crumbles of jerky and each had a cliff bar for desert.
The next morning it was time to finish out and get home. The Chetco at this level was awesome. I would call it 4/4+ bigger water read and run. About 14 miles after our day 4 put-in, we got down to the 1st steel bridge. We expected someone to be there looking for us. We had two more class 5 rapids left, Candy Cane and Cone Head. We got to Candy Cane and got out to scout. It was horrible looking with two big pour over holes and a big hole at the bottom. We thought about trying to sneak down the right side. Upon ferrying over, it looked really bad with some nasty undercuts. We carried around.
I thought there was a small gap between Candy Cane and Cone Head but there is not. Once we put on, I had to make a quick decision between running the rapid and catching the eddy. As I started in, I could see the line: start center and work right. There were big waves but I ended up nailing the line. I turned to wait on David. He said he eddied out on the right to boat scout. He saw me charging right. He came out of the eddy to the middle but then had to change direction to charge back to the right. As he came in, he hit a crashing wave, which sent him back to the middle. The wave sent him backwards right into the pour over hole in the middle. He glamorously attempted to fight it out, but it wasn’t happening. It was so powerful that when he went to pull the sprayskirt, the hole had him pinned against the back deck. He had to wait until it shifted him so he could reach it. He flushed down and around the center rock. It was so violent; it ripped his go pro off his helmet. There was a big pool below. We collected his gear and got him back in his boat.
We were about 100 yards from the takeout when we heard the helicopter coming. It circled around us and we both knew it was looking for us. As we pulled up to our takeout, there was a sheriff and two guys getting ready to launch a jet boat. They were looking up at the helicopter as it circled and did not notice us until we hit the shore. They said they were looking for us. After the helicopter landed, a guy came over and spoke to David directly. I guess David’s dad was on a fire crew for many years and pulled some strings to get the helicopter and most of the rescue team.
I tried to thank each person that had come to assist us. I felt bad about not being able to let others know.
Because we were in there so long, David’s truck got snowed in. I hope we can get it out soon and it does not have to sit there all winter.
The first day, the water was too high. The next day was high. The last day was medium high. I think the Chetco gage is only a loose way to tell what you have in there. Make sure there is no rain behind you and don’t be afraid to sit it out or retreat out of there if things are too high. I think ideal flows are 4K – 6K on the Chetco gauge, but they can change fast—especially in the fall.
I would recommend taking a climbing rope and an ascender/belay device.
This is NOT an alternative to doing the Chetco. It is a separate river and different beast. The magic of the Chetco is in its upper reaches. This section puts you below the best parts of the Chetco.
The Chetco from Box Canyon down at high water is awesome. Too bad there is not easier access.
There would have been more photos and video but my phone died because I had to use it for land navigation in the beginning of the trip and Dave lost his Go Pro.
From a photography perspective this was about the most perfect trip you could have on the Illinois. It had not rained in roughly a week and the water was crystal clear. The sun came out multiple times throughout the trip. The flow was on the low side but with how saturated the area had become (we had one of the the wettest Octobers on record) the creeks were still pumping in lots of water.
We left Selma around 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Arrived at South Bend at 3:30 p.m. Left South Bend the next morning at 9:30 a.m. and found ourselves at Oak Flat right at 3:00 p.m. The icing on the cake was that Bear Camp was still open for the shuttle drive back.
Deer Creek is a large tributary to the Illinois River that flows through the town of Selma, Oregon. It is accessible off of Hogue Drive in Selma. Running Deer Creek into the Illinois is a nice alternative to launching from Eight Dollar Bridge (on the Illinois), as the run from Eight Dollar Bridge to the mouth of the Deer Creek is unremarkable. Additionally, running Deer Creek will shorten your shuttle substantially if you are simply doing a day trip and taking out above Miami Bar on the Illinois.
Most report running Deer Creek when the Illinois is flowing over 2500 cfs, however, as we found on this short trip, it can be run in small rafts when the Illinois is as low as 750 cfs. Obviously, flows on individual creeks within the Illinois drainage can be hit or miss depending on where rain is falling. The good news is that you can simply drive over the creek and assess the flow for yourself.
Launching from Hogue Drive, the creek is very mellow with current but no rapids. As the creek approaches its confluence with the Illinois, there are a handful of technical Class II rapids that probably get more interesting with higher flows.
Reaching the Illinois, you’ll find a handful of fun rapids, especially just prior to reaching Six Mile Creek. Six Mile Creek is the first road access you’ll hit and makes for an easy take out and shuttle. One could continue downstream to McCaleb Ranch, however that will involve a few miles of very little whitewater and a probable portage at Big Falls.
The Butte Fork of the Applegate is a tributary to the Upper Applegate in way Northern California. It’s within the Red Butte Wilderness Area and requires a short downhill hike to access the creek. The take-out is at the confluence with the Upper Applegate, which has a road following it. The short run starts off pretty mellow (class II / III) but the character of the creek changes dramatically in its final mile descent into the Applegate. The run out is very continuous with the random log thrown in for good measure. On this particular trip, the run out was huge as the creek had gotten quite high and the last mile or so was very continuous Class IV and V. After walking for a bit we left some boats and gear behind and headed back to the truck. A few days later, Frank and I came back after flows had dropped.
When we first launched, the creek felt a bit low. As it continued to rain, the water steadily rose.
To get to this bridge, start at the Shoofly Trailhead. Follow the trail down to the Butte Fork and, when you get near the creek, look for a subtle split in the trail. Turn left and follow the Butte Fork Trail #957. A quarter mile later you’ll cross the Butte Fork and find easy river access on the right.
The photo above shows the very last rapids we ran prior to our first portage.
Below Horse Creek, the creek steepens significantly. The rapid at the confluence of Horse Creek and Butte Fork was our first portage. From there, we consistently portaged or ran portions of rapids. The photo above shows the first rapid we portaged, with Horse Creek entering on the right..
Just below Horse Creek – this rapid looked like fun, but the bottom drop leaving the photo landed on a couple rocks. With more water it would probably have been good to go.
After the rapid above, the gradient continued to pick up and flows increased and we called it quits, hiking out on river-right.
Frank and I returned a few days later and floated out at a much lower flow:
If I ever run the Butte Fork again, I would like to see a flow slightly higher than what we saw on our boat retrieval day.
Northern California’s Scott River has had a rough couple years. Two years of brutal drought was finally obliterated by snow-capped mountains in 2016.
Flows bumped up to 2400 CFS for the day. Overall a great flow and some cheats develop that make things a bit easier. At White House you can run left or right of the large hole and Schuler’s has a cheat down river right and through a tight slot way right to exit the first part of the rapid.
We launched at Indian Scotty Campground and soon stopped to look at Tombstone. The center line looked huge and all three boats opted to run left.
Shortly downstream we pulled over to look at White House.
Next up was Tompkins Creek, which we had scouted during the shuttle drive. Shortly after Tompkins we pulled over for a lunch break on river-left.
We scouted from the river-right bank at Schuler Gulch Rapid. A cheat line down the right eliminated the main entry rapid. After that it was a maze of boulders and large holes to avoid.
After Schuler Gulch, the river eases up considerably. Our take out was a mile or two upstream of Scott Bar on river-right, shortly downstream of a bridge over the Scott River.
Three laps from Frain Ranch to Stateline. These photos are of Caldera on the third lap through.
Kayaks: Jared Sandeen, Mike Goglin, Craig Blackard, and Dustin Knapp
Raft: Thorn Lyons, Tyler Pohle, Will Volpert
For the boatmen, for the thrills, but really just for the rivers