That said, some of my best memories have come on creeks that no one ever heard of, in places no one has ever been. There's simply nothing else like it.
To me, this is what kayaking is all about...
Date: November 3rd, 2001.
Destination: Quartz Creek Washington, Lewis River Drainage.
I arrived at the take-out bridge at 8:15 a.m. and we cross-loaded gear. Soon we were climbing up the side of a mountain on a narrow, single-lane road. It was the peak of Elk season, and the area was swarming with jacked-up fords and heavily armed men lusting for blood. It was quite a show; I hadn't seen so many goofy-looking rigs since the last time I drove past a monster bonanza on my way home from the North Santiam!
Five miles up the mountain we rounded the corner and saw that a landslide had come down and blocked the road. We got out and saw that it was in fact a huge stump that had slid down, and it wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
John ponders the huge stump blocking the road.
We consulted the topos and saw that we were still quite a distance from the trailhead, so we backed the truck down the hill and unloaded the gear. From this point we would have to walk about two miles uphill to reach the ridge top and the trailhead, and then we had another two miles of hiking down into the canyon to reach the creek. No problem, all part of the fun. Besides, it was a nice day, and we had nothing better to do!
We started up the hill at a brisk pace, carrying our boats and gear. A mile or so up I heard a hissing sound and I looked up to an odd sight: It was man on a mountain bike, tearing down the road at breakneck speed. He had a rifle slung across his back, and hanging from each handlebar was an enormous chunk of bloody elk meat, swinging just above the pavement in time with his pedaling. It was such a bizarre sight I almost didn't believe what I was seeing.
He whipped past us and disappeared around the corner, and I turned to John and said:
"Well now, you certainly don't see THAT every day.."
After an hour of hiking we reached the trailhead at Snaggletooth Creek. The trail was coated with thick layer of pine needles, so we decided to drag the boats from here. We started down the trail and after negotiating a series of clearcuts started dropping down into the canyon. The trail was very steep and narrow, and we played dodge-boat all the way down. If you have never played dodge-boat, you should try it sometime. Basically you tether your boat behind you and start dragging it down a steep trail. At some point (if the trail is steep enough) the boat outpaces you and come flying down the trail, bowling you over, knocking you off the trail, or punching you in the back of the leg really hard. I managed to get out of the way most of the time, but even so my boat had hit me in the back of the leg so many times by the time we got to the bottom of the canyon my calf muscles had the consistency of oatmeal and I was ready to throw my boat off the nearest cliff.
When we reached the bottom of the canyon Quartz Creek was nowhere to be seen. The trail turned sharply to the right, and continued more or less down the canyon parallel to the creek. At this point we left the trail, cutting through the woods alongside a small tributary of Quartz.
No more trails... on the last leg of the hike down to Quartz Creek. At this point I was sweating profusely; you can see steam from my head clouding part of the picture. This might be where I ran out of water..
When we got to the creek we saw that we had about 150 cfs, which was low but still doable. We knew that there were several relatively large tributaries that would be coming in downstream, so we were optimistic about the flows for the rest of the run.
The creek started out gravelly and meandered aimlessly along without much gradient. We had to portage a couple of logs, and just when I was starting to wonder what the hell we were doing there the bottom dropped out. Suddenly we were faced with a series of boulder gardens that got gradually bigger the further down we went, culminating in a long class five section of big bouldery drops and slides. The creek was very scenic as well, which only added to our enjoyment. Old growth trees towered overhead, and the whole area had a quiet, solemn feel to it.
John, peering downstream at the beginning of the good stuff. It's hard to see in this photo, but this pool drops over a narrow six foot ledge right in front of John, and then the gradient jumps up to the 250 fpm range for a quarter mile of high quality class five creekboating.
In the middle of this steep section was a bedrock ledge that dropped into a rocky slide with a channel down the right side. I went first, dropping over the ledge and going deep, surfacing downstream just in time to ferry over into the right channel..
John, in the pool below the first ledge.
Immediately below this drop were some more fun rapids, ending in a large, log choked drop that we portaged on the right. Below here the creek mellowed a bit but still had some nice rapids here and there.
Soon the wood started to pick up and we had to start portaging logs more often. John was very surprised by this as the creek had been relatively wood-free on his first couple of trips down. We surmised that the low water last year the creek had never gotten high enough to flush out the wood, so we were paying for it now. Nevertheless, our downward progress slowed considerably as the portages increased in frequency.
Soon the creek cleaned up and the bedrock appeared again. We started running some more slides and ledges, but we were staying alert because somewhere downstream was a large waterfall known as 'Two-Stroke Falls'. Soon we pulled into an eddy between two vertical walls. Twenty feet downstream the creek dropped out of sight over what had to be Two-Stroke. We crowded ourselves into the eddy against the right wall and got out to scout, sort of.
Well, actually we were kind of stuck. The scouting ledge was on the left, but there weren't any eddies over there. Numerous small tributaries had added water to the creek, so now we had a more healthy flow. The only way to get over to the left side was to wade across a slick bedrock shelf covered with a foot of fast moving water. This was very scary, as the slightest slip would have meant a swim over the falls into the unknown! John slowly eased himself across the creek first, and then I came over.
John, scouting Two-Stroke Falls.
Finally we both got over to the other side and climbed up onto the shelf, and what we saw was pretty impressive. Below us the creek dropped 18 feet between vertical rock walls over a totally clean falls into a big hole, and then just below that was another falls, dropping about ten feet into a huge green pool within a spectacular rocky cathedral. It was basically a giant version of 'Double Drop' on the Green Truss, and it was spectacular! ( John and Sprague Ackley had named the falls 'Two Stroke' because you had just enough time to take two strokes in between the first and second falls.. )
"Oh Shit..." John said. "Look at that."
I had been so engrossed with scoping out my line over the first part of the falls that I hadn't looked too closely at the bottom half, but when I did my blood went cold. There was a large roostertail in the middle of the second falls, and that could only mean one thing.
"That wasn't there the last time I was here." John said slowly, and suddenly things looked very bad indeed. We watched the water shooting up and foaming up and suddenly I saw a flash of a root. "That's a rootwad." I said unnecessarily. "There's a log vertically pinned in there..."
After awhile we determined that it would be possible to run the second falls, assuming that you didn't flip or get trashed and swim in the first one. The hole in the first drop looked big, but punchable. The main problem would be flipping, because if you dropped over the second falls onto the rootwad upside down, it was all over.
"Well..." I said, looking around at the walls towering overhead. "Is it possible to portage this thing?"
"I don't know." John said. "I've always run it."
Our options seemed limited. The left wall soared hundreds of feet overhead for as far as the eye could see, and the right towered over us with a near vertical mossy rock wall with small trees sprouting out of it.
"Looks like the right side might go." John said, and I agreed, sort of.
Neither of us wanted to chance wading back over to the boats now, so we traversed along the rock wall upstream on the left side until the wall ended and we were on flat ground again. We walked upstream to a pool and waded across, then traversed back down the river right wall until we got to the boats.
The portage was ugly. We had to drag the boats up onto a sloping mossy shelf just above the falls, then climb up about 30 feet of near vertical cliff wall through a tangle of small trees and brush, followed by another 30 feet of nearly vertical climbing until the ground leveled out somewhat. We started hiking down the small ridgeline above the creek but we couldn't find a way back down so we headed up to the top of the ridge. Eventually we found a hiking trail that wound down the other side of the ridgeline to Snaggletooth Creek.
We put in on Snaggletooth (which was a log-choked mess) and started portaging down to the confluence with Quartz. The sun was starting to go down when we reached Quartz, and we charged downstream, racing against time. We knew we had several miles to go and only about 45 minutes before it got dark. Below Snaggletooth Creek the gradient eased considerably and the logs increased in frequency, until we rounded a corner and saw a huge logjam blocking the flow. "YESSS!!" I shouted gleefully. "Another LOGJAM! Woo hoooo!!"
John went left and I went right as we chased the last of the sunlight across the top of the mammoth logjam. I was able to get back down to the creek at one point and paddle a short distance, which put me well ahead of John. After awhile I heard cursing and John's head poked up out of the logs, well behind me. At this point I thought the whole thing was pretty funny, so I took a picture. "I can't believe this" John yelled at no one in particular. "There weren't any logsjams the last time I was up here! That #@$# drought RUINED this creek!!"
I couldn't stop laughing; I found it amusing that the whole trip was becoming a total disaster.
Little did I know it was about to get even worse.
John, about halfway across the biggest logjam on Quartz Creek.
It was starting to get dark.
Soon the bedrock appeared again and a series of ledges appeared. We were in a hurry now so we ran a ten footer and another below it without scouting, then we rounded the corner and faced a big horizon line. Below us the creek rushed down a long slide and dropped out of sight.
"What's this?" I shouted to John as we drifted downstream.
"I don't remember." He shouted back as we whipped into a small eddy on the left side at the lip of a drop. We still couldn't see over it, so we eased out of our boats and edged down the left wall to the lip.
It was another falls, this one dropping a total of about 20 feet. The left side had very little water with a shallow landing, and we couldn't see the right side where most of the water was going. The light was failing quickly, so we opted to portage rather than risk injury if the right side was as shallow as the left.
Another steep climb up a wall. We climbed up and then roped the boats out onto an old growth tree that was growing out of the wall. We precariously balanced both boats on the tree and then I climbed over the top of the boats while John held onto them, onto a narrow rock ledge. I was a little nervous climbing over the boats because below us was a thirty foot drop onto rocks, so I breathed a little easier when I got to the ledge.
We lowered the boats down the wall and then carefully climbed down to the water. I snapped a quick photo of the falls while John was getting ready, then we tore off down the creek.
Soon we rounded the corner and saw Straight Creek coming in on the right downstream. I was leading and entered a long slide above a big horizon line. As I started down I heard John yelling from behind me: "EDDY OUT RIGHT EDDY OUT RIGHT!!" so I charged to the right and caught an eddy just above the Straight Creek confluence and the final big drop.
It was Straight Creek Falls, and it looked pretty big from our vantage point. We got out just above the confluence on the river right side and started trying to figure out how we were going to get downstream. Below us Straight Creek charged into Quartz and then the two joined and plunged down a narrow channel to the left over a big horizon line with steam coming up. The entire right side of Quartz was a high, rocky shelf overlooking the falls, but we couldn't get over there because Straight Creek was blocking the way. John started to wade across Straight Creek but the water was too deep and too fast in the channel. "That's not gonna to work." he said, looking upstream.
The deepest part of the channel on Straight Creek was about eight feet wide, and the far side was more bouldery and shallower. Before I could talk myself out of it I took a deep breath and leaped over the channel, landing face-first into a foot of water on the far side. It hurt, but I didn't have time to notice. I grabbed onto a boulder with a death grip and pulled myself out of the creek, breathing hard.
It was getting dark really fast now and we didn't have a second to lose. I waded as far out into the channel as I dared and braced myself against a boulder while john swung the boats over to me. Finally John made the leap while I sat ready to grab him in case he didn't make it.
Now we were on top of the falls, and it was an amazing sight. I hiked down the rock shelf to the top of the falls on the left and peered down into it. "Runnable." I thought. "But not by me, not today..."
Below me the combined flows of Quartz and Straight plunged about twenty feet down at a steep angle along the left wall into a huge, swirling pool that was about 60 feet wide and 80 feet long. John opted for the seal launch on the right, where there was about a half inch of water going over the highest part of the shelf. As I watched he plunged about 25 feet off of the rock shelf into the pool, surfacing with a yell. Once he was ready I tossed my paddle off and got ready to 'throw and go'. Of course the updraft from the falls caught my paddle and it drifted over and almost landed on John's boat, much to my dismay. I lined up my Gradient next, and shoved it hard out into space, sure that it would land flat like it always does.
Not a chance!
As I watched with no small measure of disbelief my boat twisted slowly over in midair and landed upside down at a 45 degree angle, instantly filling of water and becoming 400 pounds of dead weight. "SHIT!" I yelled in frustration.
John charged up into the pool started trying to corral the boat but you can just about guess how well that went. Eventually he disappeared with my boat under the curtain of water on the right and I heard him yelling incoherently over the roar of the falls.
Suddenly I was nervous. I couldn't see into the pool below (it was too dark) and I couldn't tell how deep it was. "Aww shit.." I muttered, and I jumped... I sailed through the air out into the middle of the pool and hit the water hard, plunging into the darkness.
When I surfaced I saw the stern of my boat coming straight at me like an oversized shark's fin, with John nowhere to be seen. It was a little surreal, but when I blinked there my boat was, and now it was going right past me, headed upstream.. Before I could fully grasp what was happening I grabbed the stern loop, thinking I would swim it to the far side of the pool. The boat never even slowed down, and suddenly I was being pulled up towards the falls with unnerving speed along with it!
"@#$@# THAT" I thought. I let go of the boat and started swimming like hell, but I wasn't going anywhere! I was thirty feet from the base of the falls, and it was pulling me back up into it! I redoubled my efforts and suddenly I saw John emerge from under the curtain of water on the right side of the pool. I grabbed his bow loop and climbed up onto a shallow ledge under the curtain of water just in time to see my boat disappear into the hole at the base of the falls. "My BOAT!!" I yelled helplessly as we watched it get a ferocious pounding against the wall below the falls.
"Ummm.. there goes my water bottle." I said as John started rounding up my stuff in the pool below the falls.
Soon my boat surfaced in the pool again and came swirling lazily back down to us, where I grabbed onto it and dragged it up onto the ledge. After I drained the water out we raced downstream into the growing darkness. Below Straight Creek Falls the creek entered another gorge with some more fun drops, but I don't really remember them because we were moving so fast. It was starting to get too dark to safely move downstream when I heard John yell and I pulled over on the right, where I could faintly see him broached on a rock on the right side of the channel. Once I got closer I could see that he was just upstream of a jumble of wood in fast water. He got out of his boat and we portaged, and after this close call we moved a little more cautiously downstream.
John putting in below the jumble of wood that almost got him.
Soon the creek flattened and broadened out, and we rounded the corner and saw the lights of the large hunters camp near the take out. It is something of an understatement to say that I was happy to be done. It had been a very long day, but one I won't soon forget.
At least not until next weekend...