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.
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.
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.
Skip was making the move from Bozeman to the Kern and was coming through Ashland. I was working on Thursday and busy on Saturday. But the Illinois was at a perfect flow and our friends were doing a two-day launching on Friday. What better time to try to squeeze in a one-day trip, right?
9:45 a.m. – push off from Miami Bar
11:15 – pass Pine Flat
12:30 – stop for a quick bite at South Bend
1:00 – scout Green Wall
2:00 – pass Collier Creek
3:55 – arrive at Oak Flat
Video from Skip’s boat of Green Wall and Little Green Wall:
The highest I had seen the Illinois prior to this trip was about 4700 CFS in Kerby. I had chatted with Aaron Babcock in the past year about wanting to see it at higher flows and when the flows were projected to spike, Aaron called and asked if I was still game. Nate Wilson joined too and the three of us met at Ray’s in Selma at 8:00 a.m.
On this trip the river peaked at exactly 10,000 CFS. My goal was to get an idea for what it would be like to bring a raft in at this flow. My impression now is that I would not want to run it at this flow in a raft, but regardless I’ve made some notes about some of the places I think would be problematic for rafts.
Having never been in a Creature Craft I was a little apprehensive but at the same time I’ve seen plenty of videos of folks with seemingly no skill move these things down chaotic rivers so my thought was “if they can I can” and that proved true on this trip. The Creature Craft itself felt awkward to me with tiny oars and a tendency to rock side to side but I also would not have been on the river if not for this boat.
The Illinois at 10k trip notes:
• We launched at McCaleb Ranch. From McCaleb to Miami Bar there was only one stand out rapid with a large wave/hole in the center, a cliff on the left, and an easy cheat on the right. The rapid was within half a mile of McCaleb Ranch. At this flow, it is faster to float the river from McCaleb Ranch to Miami Bar than drive to Miami Bar.
• Below Miami Bar the first significant action occurred at Panther Creek. The boulder field on river left was underwater and you can actually cheat left around the left turn. Then move right. The last section of Labrador Creek is huge with irregular waves that could easily cause chaos in a raft and current flows quickly into Nome Creek rapids. It would be a roll of the dice to keep a raft upright in Labrador Creek.
• Nome Creek – the river bends right and you should stick to the inside bend. There are large reflection waves off the wall on the left at the bottom of the rapid.
• Above BFR – large waves but we cheated right. BFR was no big deal to the right.
• Rapid below BFR – we entered left of center and moved right. Some large holes to look out for but would not be terrible in a raft.
• York Creek – cheated way right against the bank. No problem.
• Upper and Lower Clear Creek – would be a very difficult rapid in a raft. At Upper Clear Creek you’ll want to go way right to avoid chaos near the wall on river left. However, at Lower Clear Creek you would want to be way left. Between the two is a string of huge lateral waves pushing left to right, with one very large hole. I couldn’t tell if the huge hole extended all the way to the left bank. If it did, it would effectively close off a left sneak. If it didn’t, you would want to take a raft way left, which would be a challenging move against the laterals. Starting the move right-to-left towards the bottom of the wave train (at the top of the left turn to Lower Clear Creek) is probably too late to get left.
• Pine Creek (Boat Eater) – you shouldn’t have a problem here left of center.
• Klondike Creek – the river was actually flowing over the gravel bar immediately across from the mouth of the creek. I cheated way right and the cut the corner but there really wasn’t much there. From there to South Bend the water was moving but it’s all easy read-and-run. It would be squirrely in a raft but shouldn’t be problematic.
• Prelude / Fawn Falls – the large boulders at the bottom were underwater and a large hole developed off the cliff on the left to the center of the river. Cheat right. I think in a raft you could cheat right against the right bank. There were some large waves right of center.
• Green Wall – still the crux of the run. We didn’t scout. In a raft you would. I think there is a cheat down the left but there’s also a gigantic hole formed by the scout rocks. We went right in the entry and right of center in the main rapid. There was a wave that was 20+ feet tall in the middle of the rapid followed by some huge laterals. Your chances of keeping a raft upright where we went would be slim to none and recovery of any kind would be non-existent immediately below Green Wall. The current moves quickly to the pinch below Green Wall, with some reflection waves coming off the left and a room of doom to the left of the pinch.
• Green Wall to Collier Creek – there are large rapids with large waves and places in rapids you would need to move across wave trains. Essentially, Green Wall to Collier Creek would be incredibly difficult in a raft. It’s also really continuous and rescue/recovery would be daunting.
Once you are to Collier Creek you shouldn’t have any problems.
We put in around 10:00 a.m. at McCaleb Ranch and took out at 2:30 p.m. We stopped for 15 minutes at Pine Flat.
Three days on the Illinois is hard to beat. Three of us met in Selma and headed to the river. The water was a bit low the first day but the rain started coming down and by day two we were floating on a healthy flow. Our first night we camped at Klondike Creek and on night two we stayed at Waterfall.
So I had planned this trip for over a week. A month and a half ago I had just run the same stretch at 12000. The trip had been very successful, and I was hoping for a chance to see it a little higher. Looking at the weather forecast and reading the discussions every 12 hours I was pretty confident that the Illinois would be at least as high as our last trip, probably higher, and this was what I was looking for. At first I was thinking about 15k, then 20k, then 30k. Friends were trying to convince me not to attempt it. I considered this, but the fact that we had run it so well at 12000 less than two months prior sealed my decision.
The day before our planned run the storm hit. It was an epic rain storm in the Southern Oregon area. Not only was there a lot of precip, but it all came down quickly. We had over four inches of rain in less than 12 hours near my house in Williams, and this usually means about triple in the coast range. The river rose quickly to 27000 cfs Friday afternoon, but as quickly as it rose it started to fall. Our plan was to catch the river just after the peak to miss most of the wood, but unfortunately this would mean running at night, which wasn’t going to happen. I really wanted to see the Illinois at a higher level than last time. A couple friends of mine, Quin and John, met me at my house Friday night, and we drove to our shuttle drivers house, “Bearfoot Brad”, in Gasquet that same night. Brad and his wife Jamie are the most hospitable people I know, and have always left their door open for this soggy, wet paddler. After drinking a few beers and listening to the rain start coming down again, we all felt a slight hope that the river would start on the rise again.
4:30 AM. Brad wakes up, turns on the computer, and starts his daily routine. Looking at weather forecasts, and prepping his daily report. He reports the level of the North Fork Smith every morning at 8 AM and has been doing it for decades. It was hard to sleep with a highwater Illinois trip looming over my head. So, sleeping on Brad’s couch, listening to him type away, eventually I got up. After I woke up I was elated, and a little sick, the river was rising again. 21000 cfs and rising. Also, over the course of the past 48 hours word of our trip had spread and there were more than three of us ready to go that morning. Over the course of the night more had showed up…
While I had been sleeping I had missed a few calls while I was sleeping from my good friend and soon to be backseat rider Kelsey. He had been stuck at the California border for over an hour and some people had been there for over 3. This was bad news. We had to drive that way, and if he couldn’t get to us, we couldn’t get to the river. We had no idea what was going on, but fortunately Brad’s wife Jamie works for Cal-Trans. One phone call later we found out a power line was down. “Well,” I said, “surely the power company will be out there soon to fix it. We should just pack up and go.”
I left with the boats to start rigging and another vehicle stayed back to wait for Kelsey who surely would be not far behind. Well, we got to the border, and traffic was stopped. We made fun of a guy who instantly jumped out of his car and started walking down the road. An obvious looky-loo. Then we made more fun of him when he started running back towards his car. Surely they are letting traffic through now, and he didn’t even make it to the front. He got in his car and drove around the truck in front of him into the other lane. “Huh,” we said, “what is he doing?” Well, he kept going, and then traffic started coming the other way. Apparently a couple truckers had found a 20 foot tall tree top that had broken off in the wind and were holding the sagging powerline up out of the way. Thank you truckers!!! We drove under the powerline and we were headed to the river. And this is how our trip started…
This trip started small and grew over time, and should have shrank if I would have listened to my conscience. (Crossroads #1) But, everyone who was on this trip at least called themselves “Class V Guides”, whether this was on Burnt Ranch, Cherry Creek, or their experience had evolved into boating in water not normally run by anybody. But, the fact remained that I didn’t know everyone, and I should have, and will in the future demand that…
We had 11 boaters and 6 boats when all was said and done. Myself, and my friend Kelsey would take the medium boat and play safety for George and Shawn who were to R-2 a smaller green boat. Matt, Kim, and Tim were to R-3 a large boat, Ryan rowed the smallest boat, Quin rowed the orange boat I had taken last time, and John rowed a larger boat with Hiya riding a backseat. It took us a while to get things organized with this many people.
It is amazingly hard to explain to people, even experienced boaters, what the water is like in this situation. People are severely disappointed if you tell them to come back when the water is lower. It surely is a knock to the ego, and who are you to say what type of boating they should do. Creature Crafts are great boats, and they allow us to explore water that would normally be out of the question. However, they are just boats, and people have gotten into a lot of trouble with the thinking that the boat replaces skill, or even that you can just strap in and go along for the ride. We had all excellent boaters on this trip. Some had been on the 12000 trip, others had not, I knew most, but not all. Everyone performed to the best of their ability, and every boat had some mishaps. We all stuck together, and we made it out. However, for me, personally, I made a pact after that trip not to go on these types of trips again with people I hadn’t boated with fairly extensively. Lesson learned.
Nonetheless, after a few hours of blowing up boats and rigging we were off. It was about 12:30 PM. The first 12 miles were fairly uneventful if you tried to stay out of the features. Matt tested his boat out in a enormous wave and was flipped right off the bat. He was in an R-3 setup and was unable to roll, but eventually he figured it out. R-3 set ups are great if everyone is together, but it exposes your paddlers to the river, and this is not always a good thing. His two paddlers, although experienced, had never seen this type of water. Panther Creek to Clear Creek seemed similar to last time. Bigger waves (15’+), large laterals, and the center for the most part was the place to be. There weren’t too many big holes, but the laterals, and the boils really messed with you. My friend Kelsey who was riding in my backseat was stoked. I was still nervous, and it was a ton of work to maneuver the boat. I told him not to get too stoked, we haven’t seen the big stuff yet.
We made it past Clear Creek Rapid, my nerves eased, and I began letting my guard down after that. (crossroads #2) At 12000 the rapids from here until Fawn Falls were fairly inconsequecial. It appeared that it would be the same again as we moved down river. There was a large lateral coming off the left bank in rapid #27. I thought it would be fun to ride that lateral from left to right. We hit the lateral and I pulled back on the oars. We accelerated back to the right and we were all good. Unfortunately at the end of that lateral a large wave slapped the boat from the right and I flipped. Kelsey and I did not get the boat back over very fast. Perhaps 30 seconds passed until we reflipped and this was right before dropping into one of the biggest and most retentive holes on the river.
The hole was one of the strangest features I had seen, and I was able to get one good forward stroke in before we dropped into the meat. It swallowed our boat, and we spent a very violent minute or two mostly underwater. I had the ride of my life along with Kelsey in the backseat in rapid #29. Don’t flip above that rapid if you think you’re going to have a hard time righting your boat back upright. We surfed on our top for a LONG time. Eventually we would bounce up and do a barrel roll just long enough to get a partial breath and get sucked back under water. Our feet were out of the foot cups since we had just rolled a couple seconds before dropping in. This may have been part of the issue with the boat. Also I was in the Rescue Craft which is outfitted for a motor. Part of the back floor is cut out. Not sure if this would be part of the issue of upside down surfing or not.
It is a moment that I still remember vividly, both the thoughts that went through my head, and the darkness that enveloped us. I can’t say for sure how long we were in there. There were multiple boats waiting for us to come out, and I heard anywhere from 1 minute to 2 minutes. I feel it was more like one minute. Near the end, or what I thought might be the end of us, we were sucked down and everything got really dark. Kelsey and I both thought that was it, but somehow we ended up in our boats on our side, and floating downstream. My vision was quite blurry, and my muscles were cramping up. One oar was bent, the other was tangled up in the boat, but somehow Kelsey and I made it to shore. We regrouped with the rest of our party and took a 20 minute break. John gave me some beef jerky. It was good.
After Pine Flat Rapid, which was just a middle hole/wave feature we drifted for quite a few miles with little to worry about. Eventually we made it to Fawn Falls which was more forgiving than at 12000, but there were still some weird features on the left. The Green Wall was easier initially as the hole on river left was not nearly as retentive, but the eddies at the bottom were very strong, and the waves were just as erratic, with a huge lateral at the bottom coming off of the right wall.
George and Shawn got stuck in the river left eddy. My boat and Quin’s got stuck in a roomadoom on river right in the middle of the pinch point. It was very violent in there. I remember Quin and I looking at eachother and Quin yelled, “We’re in a really bad spot”. I was thinking the same thing. John’s got flipped in the Green Wall, was on it’s side entering the pinch point and kept going. Ryan chased him down. Matt made it through and eddied out on river right. Quin and I circled in that room for a while. The water seemed like it was going by about 60 mph. With some communication between our two boats somehow we both got out, but only after I was slammed into the wall backwards which forced a front flip out into the current.
After I got out of the room I eddied out on river left near a waterfall and started the process of hiking upriver to find George and Shawn. This was going to take a while, and I was preparing myself for an overnight stay. However, when I was about a 100 feet above the river I saw them pass by. They got out on their own, but kept going. The river was not going to let them eddy out. By the time Kelsey and I got back in the boat they were well downstream and out of sight. We got into our boat and let Quin know we were going. We played safety for Quin, so he led. It’s full on from here on with huge waves, laterals with some big holes to mix it up for the next 3 miles. There is a huge rock on the left of the Little Green Wall that was nearly covered, and as the surges of the river rose and fell, the feature would change. It was one of the scariest, and most awesome things I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure this was the biggest, and most continuous piece of whitewater I had seen yet, and on a scale of 1 to 10 as far as what creature crafts can handle I’d rate it an 8. That’s making me feel like I’m underrating it. Every corner I’d pass I was dreading seeing George and Shawn as I knew that meant something had gone wrong, but at the same time I kept hoping we’d catch up to them. Right before Collier Creek we found them eddied out and safe. I was relieved, and we kept going looking for John and Ryan. We eventually caught up to them about 3 miles downstream. We all regrouped, and knew we had made it. When we got to the takeout the water was nearly up to the campground.
There were a lot of lessons learned on this trip. I am happy that we all survived this trip, and I don’t regret embarking on it. My boating skills grew for sure, but most of all I learned about group dynamics, and who I can rely on when on the water. Every person on this trip pushed the limits of their boating skills and despite what you might feel on decisions here and there it’s just too easy to make that call afterwards. It took me a long time to watch any footage of our trip down the Illinois that February without getting sick to my stomach. At the time of writing this, nearly 8 months later, it is still a great reminder to me of the power of water, and my boating practices have certainly evolved. However, if the Illinois comes up to 20,000+ again, I can guarantee I will be considering another trip.
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.
This was supposed to be a two-day Illinois trip, but on Friday night it dumped rain and the water shot up and over 6,000 cfs. We woke up in the morning and decided to run the Green Bridge stretch of the Illinois to Six Mile Access. The miles went by quickly and soon we were back in Selma waiting for Sunday to arrive. The water dropped through the night and in the morning it was falling below 3,000 cfs. Launched from Miami Bar and we got to Oak Flat take out just before dark and then took Bear Camp back over. All in all a tiring trip but worthwhile!
We talked a few Idaho friends (Tony, Andrew, and Josh) into making the trip out, promised it would be worth it… and the water showed up with them. We had great flows for a two-day Illinois trip. Mid-2000s the first day, heavy rain in the afternoon and night, and high flows for the float out on the second day.
Video from the boat:
Video from Green Wall:
Camp was at Collier Creek, which is an excellent “high water” camp. We stopped at Indigo Creek the next morning and were able to park the boats up the creek because the river was up high. Here are a couple more shots from this trip:
For the boatmen, for the thrills, but really just for the rivers