Willow Creek

By Jim Pytel


Copyright © 2004, Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster and Jim Pytel

editors note: In the early summer of 2004, Corvallis paddler James Bagley Jr. organized a creeking trip to Alaska. A native of that wild state, James had it all worked out. Unfortunately I had to miss the trip (opting for the Selway instead) but it sounds like these guys had a great time. Accompanying James on his adventure were: Jim Pytel, Jon Fowlkes, and Mike Long of Corvallis..

Alaska 2004, Day 1: Dodging the Devil’s Club

Opoplanax horridus, the devil’s club, is an apt moniker of the flora that encircles me. It’s stalks, leaves, even it’s flowers bristle with thorny barbs and it’s spiked roots snake through the loose duff that tumbles 100 vertiginous feet onto my companions heads. Unfortunately, opoplanax horridus offers the only handholds in our 300 foot portage of Triple Drop in the Upper Willow Canyon. Day one in Alaska and only an eighth finished with what was destined to become a long day, I am exhausted to the core.

Opoplanax Horridus (Devil’s Club)

Portage may not be an appropriate word. Though I am loathe to admit it, we are hiking out of the canyon. Pride, that stupid human folly, still taunts me and I entertain foolish possibilities. Maybe if I went off the lip just so and maybe if I skipped off that rock and hopefully avoided that undercut I could maybe get on line for the second drop with hopes of missing the log. The spray-skirted angel on my shoulder takes off it’s haloed helmet and whispers in my ear, “Not a chance.” I exhale, sending with my breath a spray of sweat, blood, and dirt, grit my teeth and take that next torturous step up. 200 more feet of spiny lashing we heft ourselves to the canyon rim and find ourselves in that curious Alaskan oddity … the middle of nowhere.

We peel our humid drysuits from our sweat soaked bodies and split in search of anything that will lead us anywhere. Foolish pride tugs me downstream hugging the canyon’s rim in search of a trail that will lead us back into the canyon. If we can’t run Triple Drop at least we’d have the luxury of finishing the run. Reality trumps pride and all that meets my eyes are dense copses of devil’s club swarming the impossibly vertical realm. We rally at our last meeting point and discuss options.

“Nothing.” I wheeze.

“There’s an old logging road that leads to another road about a mile and a half away.” pants Mike. There is given no certainty where this other road goes.

“There’s a bench right there.” gasps James.

We collapse with relief upon a split log bench overlooking the canyon rim. Though how long ago this bench was established it does give us hope that at least in the last two hundred years mankind has visited this area. Silence settles on our exhausted forms while a gentle breeze cools our smoldering cores. I lift my head from between my muddied knees and take in the view.

Upper Willow Creek

Through a pine darkened valley winds Willow Creek, for all purposes largely untouched by man. It’s headwaters, emanating from the fog shrouded Hatcher Pass region, still teem with that most industrious of rodents, the beaver. There are no power lines bisecting the water nor are there noisy two lane roads that parallel it. Only the sighs of pine and the occasional eagle’s cry pierce its’ deepest recesses.

Through this sanctuary we were challenged by a host of rapids. Absent the arduous takeout, the quality of the run was superb. Crystal clear water rumbled over a seemingly endless supply of boulders and raced around the canyon’s constricted bends. The first major rapid presented us with a multitude of different routes over a double horizon line.

Mike Long opts for a sweet chute on the left

Below this drop, a labyrinth of boulders battered the river through a tight stretch and sent the water cascading over a steep ledge.

James Bagley negotiates the maze of rock

Rapids continued in close succession until we found ourselves at the lip of a cavernous drop hemmed in by slick walls, the notorious Triple Drop. Boldly we tested the limits of boat scouting and flirted with the hungry flow to no avail. We leapt from our craft and clammered along the shore to inspect the cataract before us. A collective eyebrow was raised. Neither of us was willing to gamble with the remains of a potentially fruitful life so we opted to portage the beast before us. Portaging at river level offered two distinct possibilities:

1) A ten foot drop directly onto rocks in front of an undercut boulder,


2) A body battering slide into another undercut above a sticky hole.

In vain we search for option 3 until we arrived at the conclusion we must ascend the canyon walls. Sparing a majority of the details I can comfortably say that all three of us shared the same opinion of this humiliating retreat … it sucked. Out of the canyon, through the trees, over hill and around many a turn we shortly arrived at a tiny community seemingly exempt from traditional building codes. From this lopsided hamlet it was a scant half-mile jaunt to the road.

Escorted by the never setting Alaskan sun we wound our way out of the Hatcher Pass region and into civilization once more. Day one in Alaska and I am bruised, battered, bug eaten, and bleeding. Those are but trifling concerns. The rest of Alaska waits to be discovered...