Illinois River – December 21, 2014
Written by Aaron Babcock
I hesitate releasing my beta on this run because a written description doesn’t do justice to the truly violent, and unpredictable nature of this river at flood stage. I certainly don’t want to convince someone to run this simply based on what I have written, and the intelligence of my choice to attempt this run at 12000 cfs is debatable.
I’m not a good kayaker, and I can’t imagine attempting this run in a round boat, or a cataraft. The risk of a flip is nearly 100%, and a swim would be extremely dangerous. So for myself and my friends on this trip, we used Creature Crafts for our boat of choice. They performed well, and everyone made it safely to the takeout. So this write-up is here not to convince, but just to give you my perspective of what the Illinois is like at 12k.
So here it goes…
I’m sitting at home closely following the weather updates. This is not unusual for me this time of year. A big storm had come through the day before, and I had actually been planning on driving north to run the NFMF Willamette the next day. The storm was intense, and I had a feeling that my plans might change. That night I did change my mind, last minute (at about 11 PM, both because of flows, and a late night facebook message from Jamie Camden), and I decided to run the Illinois. The Illinois at highwater had always intrigued, and scared me. About 3000 cfs was the highest I’d seen it and it was well over that. It was forecast to peak over 10000, but after talking with Darren Vancil, I learned there was a good crew lined up and so I committed.
The next morning…
I am super nervous, and excited.
My main concerns were entrapment issues. Wood was certainly on my mind, and it was floating by as we rigged boats. We weren’t going to have time to scout much, and so we would be reading and running this river pretty much from start to finish. I had the obvious rapids in my mind as ones to watch out for big holes, The Green Wall, York Creek, Rocky Drop, and then of course all the rapids between Little Green Wall and Submarine Hole. But honestly I was most concerned with wood in the river and not being able to stop in time.
I had double, triple, quadruple checked my boat for everything I’d need and packed overnight gear just in case. I didn’t plan on staying overnight, the river would be moving fast, but plans are only a prediction and I had no idea what lay ahead.
I was reminded of my first trip on the Illinois. We’d be reading and running everything, but this time there wasn’t anyone else to let me know what was coming up. I had the most trips on this particular river, and so I was elected to lead. Not that I was really going to be able to give much beta though. Darren Vancil, the inventor of Creature Crafts, and one of the better boaters I know would be in the back as a safety boat with my friend Dylan Little riding a backseat. Two additional people I had just met, Matt Cronin, and Sara Weimar, would be in two different boats in the middle.
The river was certainly intimidating, moving about 10 miles an hour in an area that is normally flat and still. We put on the river at McCaleb Ranch and we pretty much had to jump in our boats and catch an eddy about a quarter mile downstream before we could really tighten up. We regrouped from there and set off.
Less than a quarter mile downriver I got my first wake-up call near the beginning of the “Deep Gorge”, with a huge lateral off the left, and a stompy curling wave, probably about 6-8 feet high that stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t the size of the wave, but it the power, and it set the intensity for the rest of the trip. Honestly, I had some deep thoughts going on in my head after that on whether I should pull out or not. The water seemed extra powerful, even angry, and after hitting that wave I felt like I had just been in a 15 mph car accident.
However, I decided to continue at least until Miami Bar to make up my mind, knowing that the more intense rapids were just a few miles beyond.
The next 6 miles went by fast, and as we passed the normal put-in at Miami Bar I firmly decided to continue. I was starting to get a better feel for the water, and I was feeling comfortable with the movement of my boat. Passing a torrential Briggs Creek the river swelled even more, and as most would expect, around the corner at Panther Creek, the rapids grew.
From Panther Creek to Nome Creek the rapids become one. It was an intense moment for me. The river was flowing fast, it was very pushy, and other than guessing which rapids would be bigger than others, I was pretty much reading and running the entire way. It was like playing Tetris, trying to line up all the laterals, boils, and waves to move your boat, all the while accelerating to the next corner. Then you round the corner and it’s a reset. At the beginning I was mostly concerned about wood, but I soon realized that the river is so wide, that wood would not be a problem. There were few obstructions in the center, and I don’t think we ever saw any wood floating over 20 or 30 feet in length.
Waves were not unreasonable for our boats (about 10′ – 15′ max) and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had no idea what lie at the bottom of the rapids they would have been fun. On this day, however, I was all about good lines and so some early maneuvering was key. Other boats were able to play around some. Darren and Dylan ended up doing a backflip in one the larger waves on the left of Labrador Creek Rapid that I avoided like the plague. The end of Labrador Creek rapid the river turns and constricts. It is very erratic, but there is a good eddy to catch on the right just above Nome Creek.
The rapids seem to ease up until Rapid #17, followed obviously by Rapid #18 aka (Rocky Drop Rapid). Rocky Drop had been one I worried about. However, although it did have some big waves and holes, is was actually fairly easy, and the rock that normally poses a problem at lower flows was well underwater. Rapid #19 was more difficult, but still didn’t pose much of a problem. It had a lot of erratic waves that were hard to predict, and I felt like I was in some sort of boxing match with the Illinois. There is a large hole in the middle bottom of #19.
The rapids continue with little break through Rapid #22 (aka York Creek Rapid). Getting closer to York Creek I wanted to end up running right and the two rapids above York were not cooperating. Again, however, York was relatively easy. Matt ran left, I ran right, and in the end we both made it just fine. There is a large recirculating hole on the left bottom, however, and so I think in the future I’ll keep running right.
After a brief calm section we entered Rapid #23, followed closely by, you guessed it #24, or Clear Creek rapid which was very erratic, and foamy. The bottom of the rapid pulled my boat down into the water nearly up to my chest level. After this section things started to calm down and we were allowed a little bit of rest. Pine Flat is still a campsite at this level on both sides, and the rock that normally splits the river is just a large standing wave in the center.
The water below Pine Flat again calms, but there are lots of big pulls to make to escape eddies, and a few comparably smaller rapids. I was worried about some of the normally class 3 rapids in this section, but they proved to not be consequential. There are some fun play holes, and the river gives you a chance to get your bearings again.
The action picks up again when you approach Fawn Falls. At this level you must start pulling right early. One of the nastiest holes on the river at this level exists on the left bank at Fawn Falls and it is hard to avoid if you don’t pull early. Sara went into this hole and fortunately Darren and Dylan in the bigger boat were there to push her out. I can’t iterate enough to set up early and be proactive on your rowing.
After you make the pull, stay right to enter the Green Wall. We eddied out left above the wall to regroup after Sara’s encounter with the Fawn Hole, and we were stuck again pulling hard right to avoid another nasty hole at the left entrance to the Green Wall. Scouting would be possible above the Green Wall, (I’ve thought about setting up to take pictures here), but the fact that the most dangerous features lie well below the Green Wall rapid makes scouting worthless. If you’re at this point and don’t feel like going on, stop, set up a makeshift camp and wait for the water to go down. Once you commit to the Green Wall you won’t have much of a chance to stop until Collier Creek.
The Green Wall was still the “big one”. It is crazy to me that we just ran this one blind, but we all knew that we didn’t have time to scout, nor would it have been effective. It was the shortest day of the year, and we would be doing a couple nights out here if we wanted to scout all the major rapids. Plus, we really didn’t know if some obscure rapid, like rapid #29 in Quinn’s book, (more on that in the 20000 cfs version), would be the big one or not. Plus, in order to scout a lot of the rapids you would have to pull out a mile upstream and hike down because there were so few eddies. So, we decided to run everything without scouting, unless we could see an obvious reason, and I still think that was a good decision.
Pulling out of the eddy above the Green Wall and approaching the entrance I could see a huge hole near the top of the rapid that covers 3/4 of the river on the left side. As I began to approach the hole I was able to see the beginning of the rapid, and I think I yelled some expletives. Just past the hole, a large ramp into a 20 foot tall wave starts you out and then it’s all white as far as you can see. A large lateral coming from the left seems to combine with that big wave intermittently and so the wave seemed to move. At this point I was committed to the run and decided to charge the wave, hoping that in combination with the left lateral, it would move me right. I didn’t line up correctly, and at the top of the wave the left lateral flipped me on my side which didn’t give me any power to keep moving right.
When I righted back up I was little disoriented. I looked back up to check on the other boats, they were fine, and then realized I was heading towards an outcropping on the left side of the river and entering the left side of the wave train leading into it. I kept fighting right, another wave popped up and surfed me further left, and in a last ditch effort I tried to surf the pillow in front of the outcrop. Coming up on the pillow, facing upstream, the river grabbed the front of the boat and rolled me end over end. Fortunately away from the outcrop and into the center of the river.
Here the cliffs seem to close up and some very powerful currents form what I now call the “pinch point”. The water moving downstream from the Green Wall builds here and is then forced through a narrow slot. At 12000 it seems like just a fast moving eddy, but at higher levels the currents become extremely erratic and powerful. After the “Pinch Point”, my goal was generally work towards the inside of the corners, and I was fine. There are few eddies, so if you need a break, don’t pass them up, it’s a tiring section. It is pretty much one big rapid from “Little Green Wall”, to “Submarine Hole”. Until Collier Creek there are 15+ foot waves, strong eddy lines, and large holes. I was backflipped in Submarine Hole Rapid by a random wave that seemed to just emerge right in front of my boat in relatively calm water. It was very tiring, but I would love to run that section again at the same flow now that I have seen it at least once. It’s scary, and a workout, but it’s a lot of fun.
After you see Collier Creek enter from the left the river calms, and just before this point I remember grabbing my head with my hands and breathing a sigh of relief and exhilaration.
The river peaked around 12000 at Kerby an hour after we put on, and it took us about 4 hours to complete the 36 miles from McCaleb Ranch to lower Oak Flat. Did I say I was tired? Overall though I had a great experience on the river, and I am looking forward to running it again.