Lessons learned on Upper Brice Creek

Everyone knows that rivers and rapids can change dramatically with different flows, or after a flood event. Even so, every so often we get surprised by this immutable fact. It never ceases to amaze me how one high water event can erase holes, redirect channels, or create killer river features that didn't exist before. Rick's Slide on the Carbon, Lower Zigzag on Green Truss, and Killer Fang on the Clackamas are all good examples of this. On this site I am always very careful not to embarrass anyone so I changed the names of the players in this report because I felt it should be told. One of these guys had run this drop many times before (at higher flows) without problems, but at regular flows this drop is a killer...

Be careful out there.

Upper Brice Creek is one of the best steep creeks in the Willamette Valley, with 215 fpm continuous whitewater that keeps even the best boaters busy. On this particular day I headed up to Brice with two other kayakers, one of which I had never boated with before who I will call Joe, and another who I had been on a couple of trips with who I will call Bob. You can scout most of Upper Brice from the road on the way up, and we stopped to check the three big drops. The third (known by some as the Snake) I had no plans on running. The other two guys saw no problem with it, and Bob said the steep left chute was no problem- he had run it many times before at higher flows.

I believe that when you are paddling harder and more dangerous stuff you need to listen to your gut- it can keep you alive. I just didn't like that chute, I couldn't tell you why. That feeling may have kept me from getting into big trouble on this particular day. Bob led off and we were all pretty well occupied with the very busy upper section.. I was feeling a little off until I got warmed up, with one roll before we got to the first big drop, bubble trouble. We got out to scout on the left and it was clean, though there was a log blocking the runout downstream that made swimming a less than desirable option. Bubble is basically a slide into a big hole. If you stay straight you punch the hole. If you don't you become an instant rodeo star... Bob went first and gutted it right down the middle. Joe nailed a nice boof on the right, and I opted for the gut.. Below the log we all had fun on the nice little bouldery steeps above the Snake. Soon Bob eddied out on the right and I knew we were there. Joe stopped upstream and Bob peeled out with a flurry of strokes and disappeared over the lip, his stern popping up as he dropped out of sight... .After a few seconds Joe came down and got into the eddy, but there was no sign of Bob downstream. Of course, the creek is so steep here you can't see anything, so when Joe asked if Bob was clear I shrugged and said "I guess..." Since that moment I have played that scene over and over in my head because I feel totally responsible for what happened next... What if I had said no? What if I had gotten out of my boat a little more quickly? What if we had set up safety? What if ?...

When Bob had paddled over the lip of the narrow chute, he plunged deeply into the boiling hole where he was slammed to the bottom of the creek and vertically pinned, completely submerged in seven feet of water with the water from the chute beating down on him from above. Luckily Bob was able to escape from his boat (A blunt nosed Pyranha Micro 240), which popped up a second later as he climbed up onto the undercut rock just downstream from the hole. Later we found out that the nose of his boat had been smashed in from the impact when he hit bottom.

"Where's Bob?" Joe asked as we sat in the eddy above the chute. "Is he clear?" I craned my neck, trying to see downstream, not knowing that Bob was at that moment pinned to the bottom of the creek. "I guess.." I replied...

Joe peeled out, and dropped out of sight into the chute. He went in deep, and when the front of his boat hit bottom he too was pinned underwater at the bottom of the chute, though much more tightly than Bob (It should be noted that Joe was paddling a sharp nosed Perception Phat). Unlike Bob, (who swam immediately) Joe fought it, twisting and thrashing around under the surface, trying to break free. This only wedged him in deeper, then his skirt blew from the force of the water and he was done- he tried to bail out but one leg got caught in the boat and for a split second he twisted and kicked and then he was free. At the time we weren't sure if his boat had started to fold over on him or if he just hit his legs, but both shins had ugly contusions on them when he got to shore.

Joe waits in vain for hit boat to come out of what we later learned was an underwater boulder sieve. The stern of his boat is blue, and you can just see the end of it in the pourover.

The same picture as above without the crop and zoom.

I got out and scrambled up to the road to chase Bob's boat because he had let go of it when Joe came down. Luckily it broached on a rock just downstream. Once Bob got his boat back we went back up and stared at the chute and waited for the boat to come out. Every so often we would get glimpses of blue as the water surged and we could just see the stern poking up out of the water.

After an hour or so we gave up and Bob and I decided to run the lower section, but frankly I was ready for the day to be over. Two days later went went back and rescued the boat when the level dropped a bit. We had to rig a pulley on a tree on the cliff wall overhead, and then haul the boat vertically out of the pin. It was a full day event with spectators lining the road, etc, but that's another story I guess.