This last year a small group of Portland paddlers solved the mystery Salmon Canyon when they hiked up and put in above Frustration falls, running the crux section without mishap. I remember I ran into Tim Gross on the Little White later that year, and he described Salmon as: "Requiring more commitment than any run he had ever done." Given Tim's paddling resume, that told us everything we needed to know about this river.
Finally in November of 2001 we decided the time was right. Pete Giordano and Kevin Nickel took a day off and drove up to the river on Friday, and confirmed that the river was low, but runnable, which translated into low and survivable.
Word spread that we were going to attempt the first complete descent of the canyon, and even though no one had any idea what we were in for our group soon swelled to ten paddlers. However by the time the weekend arrived four had dropped out and we were down to a more manageable group of six. Several different groups had paddled this section before, at least that we knew of. Tim Gross and company did the first descent (we think) in 2000. In July 2001 the Priestly brothers, Chuck Taylor, and Tony Crawford repeated the canyon without mishap as well. Finally, one week before our trip Ben Stookesberry and company came up from Ashland and had an epic trip down the canyon, putting in higher than any previous group but then abandoning their bid at a top-to-bottom run when they lost precious time in a swampy section above the canyon proper. They returned the following day and put in at Split falls, and ran the crux of the canyon without serious problems.
Now it was our turn.
The plan was to paddle the entire canyon, from Linney Creek down to the roadbridge. The big mystery was the section between Stein Falls and Split Falls, which to our knowledge had never been done. Pete had spent several years scouting the Salmon Canyon, put a tremendous amount of effort into exploring many of the portage/scouting routes along this section. Nevertheless, he said that the portage around Stein (which is huge and unrunnable) would be 'A Considerable Challenge'.
Finally the day arrived and we met at the Thriftway in the tiny town of Welches near Mt. Hood at 7 a.m. I had ridden up with Ben Mckinley, and we were soon joined by Pete, Kevin Nickel, and Isaac Priestly (this would be Isaac's second run through the canyon). We also had a surprise addition to the group, Joel Bandstra. Joel knows Tim and had heard about the trip and decided that he didn't want to miss out. Frankly we were all glad to have Joel along; he was by far the most experienced class five boater in the group.
It's funny how on some paddling trips little things happen that you don't really notice at the time that come back to punish you later. Like I said before, Salmon is on a whole different level in terms of sheer scale, so the small errors and incidents that would soon be forgotten on less epic runs are magnified all out of proportion when you attempt this river.
We sort of got lost getting to the put-in at Linney. We took a few wrong turns, but Pete soon had us on the right track, headed down the mountain. Kevin soon outdistanced us as we bounced down the steep, rough road to Linney Creek, and I grew increasingly concerned as I eyed Joel's gas gauge.
"Umm, hey Joel, you know you're below 'E'?" I said as we bounced over another big berm in the middle of the road. "Oh yeah." Joel said with a grin. "I kind of forgot to get gas back in town. I'm pretty sure I can make it though."
Suddenly there was a 'Thump' from overhead and the boats sagged alarmingly as we skidded to a stop. "Shoot." Joel said. "I tore my rack off on a tree when I was four-bying out in the woods last weekend and they weren't on there very well. Looks like this road did them in." We got out and fiddled with the rack for awhile, finally strapping it directly to the roof, which got us to the trailhead ten minutes after the others arrived.
We geared up and cruised down the easy trail to the confluence of Linney and Salmon. Isaac's girlfriend Jamie hiked down with us as she was planning on running the trail that parallels the canyon down through the wilderness area. Ben gave her the keys to his truck located at the take-out, and we got in our boats as she jogged off down the trail. The below Linney creek the river had about 250 cfs in it, so we were doing some rock-bashing on the upper section. Up this high the river had more of a wide-open feel to it, with some nice forests and a wild, isolated nature.
Soon we were presented with our first horizon line, which turned out to be a tight, twisty drop just above a logjam. Joel went first and then we all dropped down after him, catching an eddy right above where the wood started.
Kevin cruises the first fun drop just above the first logjam.
Portage number one. Not too bad, a short scramble on the right. Soon we were off down the river again, and just downstream was an ugly ledge that was unrunnable at this flow. Portage number two.
Now the Salmon was beginning to show some of it's true nature as the bedrock began to appear, forming a few tight rapids. Joel probed one narrow twisty drop and lost his paddle when it got wedged between the walls of the bottom slot! Without missing a beat, he hand-paddled the runout and caught an eddy below with a laugh while Kevin (who had been standing by with a rope) retrieved the paddle.
Kevin retrieves Joel's paddle from the slot.
Below here the river mellowed for a short distance until we rounded a corner and saw the canyon walls starting to tower overhead downstream above an enormous horizon line. We got out on the left and scrambled up onto the rock wall and stared downstream in awe. Below us the river dropped twenty-plus feet over a falls with a log wedged in it, followed by a hundred foot long pool between ever-higher rock walls that ended abruptly in a truly enormous horizon line that could only be Stein Falls.
Pete and Isaac discuss our options above the first part of Stein Falls.
Pete had scouted most of the portage around Stein, so we roped our boats up the cliff face on the river right side and started climbing up through the trees. Joel and I were the last to get moving (we had been down below rigging boats) so we lagged behind the others a bit.
After hiking up a fair distance Joel and I saw the other's boats up ahead on the ground, each carefully wedged behind a tree (to keep it from falling down the cliff face). Below us the cliff face dropped well over a hundred feet onto the rocks below Stein Falls, but there was no one to be seen. We wedged our boats in behind some logs and started looking around. Soon I heard a voice below us, so we started down the steep slope to the edge of the cliff, moving from tree to tree for safety.
Soon we were at the edge of the precipice, and I still couldn't see anyone. To my left the wall became prohibitively steep, and to my right was a sloping, mossy traverse along the edge of the cliff. I was just starting to wonder where everyone had gone when Kevin and Ben appeared, edging along the side of the cliff. "We're going to haul the boats around the corner." Kevin said. "They are rigging up the first rappel and the hand line. This part isn't too bad, it's the stretch around the corner that's a little sketchy..."
Everyone else had already moved on to other jobs in the chain, so Joel, Ben and I started hauling the rest of the boats across the slick, mossy traverse pictured below. This was scary, dangerous work as any slip would have meant a fatal plunge onto the boulders a hundred feet below. On each trip across the clumps of moss we were using as footholds loosened up and shifted around, and on the last trip we were pretty sketched out and wishing we were somewhere else! Both Ben and I have rock climbed for years so we were both accustomed to exposure, but my stomach turned over every time we went across that traverse with a boat!
"You know.." Ben said to me at one point. "I can walk for miles on a curb, but you put a hundred feet of air under my feet while I'm doing it and it's a whole different story, you know what I mean?"
Ben and Joel just about across the first part of the traverse.
Around the corner we had to fix a handline for safety because it was even steeper and sketchier than this.
Once we reached the main belay station and had all of the boats across the traverse we still had two 'rappels' to do before we reached the ground. I say 'rappels' because we lowered ourselves hand-over-hand down the ropes to the base of the cliff, with whatever brake we could fashion from the gear we had on us! This was a very intense ( read: scary ) experience, and at the time it was probably the most dangerous thing I had ever done on a paddling trip.
Of course, the day was still young..
Finally we were all down at the boats and we celebrated in that terse, quiet way that paddlers do on class five rivers when you know that you have a long way to go with many challenges yet to be overcome.
Kevin putting in below Stein Falls.
Below Stein the river dropped through a steep boulder garden and then flattened out and widened, easing to class II for the most part. After about a half mile of this we rounded the corner at a huge horizon line that could only be Split Falls. Here the river turns sharply to the right and splits around rocky outcropping before it drops twenty-five feet into a deep pool below. The exit of this pool is a nasty boulder sieve, which is the only thing that detracts from this otherwise wonderful waterfall.
We scouted it and decided it looked really good, so Ben probed while we got ready to shoot photos. The lead-in to Split is a twisty, technical class III drop that leads to right to the lip of the falls.
Ben lining up on the lead-in rapid right above Split Falls.
I was on the other side of the river overlooking the falls as Ben came down, perfectly positioned to shoot a picture or jump in the pool below with a rope if something went wrong. Of course, Ben styled the lead-in, caught an eddy against the wall right at the lip of the falls, and then charged over and threw a HUGE airwheel off of the falls in his Dagger CFS!
"YEEEEAHHH!!" everyone yelled exuberantly as Ben emerged from the base of the falls unscathed and paddled out into the pool below..
Ben Mckinley throws a huge airwheel off of Split Falls...
Joel and Kevin followed quickly, and then I was moving back up to my boat with growing apprehension. Aside from a few ledges on the Clear Fork, I hadn't run anything this big since breaking my back at Spirit. Pete and Isaac were watching me closely as I reached my boat. "Hey Jason, you can throw-and-go from here if you want." Pete said, but I shook my head. "I'm going." I replied.
I peeled out into the current above the falls and suddenly I felt the old familiar calmness settle over me, that empty, single-minded feeling I used to get at the lip big drops.. I ran the lead-in perfectly and never even slowed down and as I went over the lip I intentionally let my bow drop as I plunged straight down into the pile at the bottom of the falls.
I went really deep, and eventually I slowed and my boat flattened out as I reached neutral buoyancy. For a moment I was suspended in space, under water, and then I levitated to the surface totally upright and paddled away! It was great!
Pete came down next and then Isaac. Everyone was pretty happy at this point, and we all decided that the only sane put in for this run is somewhere immediately above Split Falls..
Isaac Priestly runs Split Falls.
Below Split we portaged the boulder sieve as everyone started to get psyched as we dropped into the crux section of the canyon. Soon a large horizon line presented itself at Little Niagara Falls. Isaac probed this one without problems, and then everyone else cruised over it while Pete and I portaged on the right. Little Niagara is a little sketchy because the river right side drops ten feet onto a rock, so if you screw up the pushy lead-in you are going to get hurt!
Immediately below Little Niagara was another large horizon line, which had to be Vanishing Falls. Here the main flow divides, with the left side dropping vertically onto rocks while the right side screams down through a slot that directs the flow towards the overhanging left wall. Once again Isaac probed this one, going deep and surfacing downstream. Pete was the only one to run this drop upright; he floated over, twisted in midair, and landed totally flat in the aerated water below.. Nice!
Ben charges over Vanishing Falls. Actually I was pretty surprised that this photo turned out; everyone else shot out of the slot and disappeared into the foam so fast I missed them all..
Immediately below Vanishing the river pooled up and then dropped over another horizon line between narrow vertical walls. Isaac got out to scout and gave the hand signal for Boof Hard! Ben went first, then Kevin and Joel. I followed and then got out to shoot Pete and Isaac coming down...
Pete drops over the ledge below Vanishing Falls while Kevin watches from below.
Immediately below this ledge the river pooled up again and appeared to be dammed up by a large pile of boulders. We could hear a growing thunder below us as we neared the boulder jumble and the top of Frustration Falls. We eddy-hopped around the boulders and got out to scout. At this point we couldn't see much, but we had all seen the photos of the first falls and no one except Joel, Pete, and Isaac even considered the first one. In the end they wisely joined the rest of us as we portaged this falls. The portage involved passing the boats through short cave formed by the boulders in waist-deep water...
Isaac, in front of the water-filled cave used to portage the first part of Frustration Falls.
On the other side of the boulder jumble we scrambled down and looked at the massive drop below us. Frustration has three tiers. The first is about 20 feet and is very dangerous as it flushes strongly into a log-filled sieve against the left wall, while the second two are clean but big...
I took one look at the bottom forty-footer and made up my mind instantly; I've run stuff that big but those days are over... "I'm not running this thing. Pete, where's the portage line?"
Everyone else started getting psyched to run while I trucked up the hill and started the long portage. I had to use a rope to get down onto the rock bench across from the falls, but it wasn't too bad.
Eventually Pete and Kevin decided to join me in the portage. As we watched Isaac probed without trouble, and then Joel and Ben dropped over.
A lone paddler, dwarfed by the enormity of Frustration Falls..
( this photo was provided by Tim Gross and was taken on the first descent of Salmon River Canyon )
Now we were starting to get a little worried because it was getting late. The sun was starting to go down and we had one more long portage to do around Final Falls. Pete, Kevin and I waved the others downstream so they could start portaging while we walked our boats along the ledge thirty feet above the river. Just downstream from Frustration was a twenty footer which leads to the lip of seventy-foot Final falls. I opted to keep on moving down the bench and skip the twenty footer but Pete and Kevin wanted to run it so they threw their boats into the pool just above it.
Isaac, Ben, and Joel had already run the last falls, so by the time I got below the twenty footer they were already in the trees on the left side of the canyon wall. Pete and Kevin both ran the twenty-footer, and Pete emerged with a huge, two-foot crack around the hull of his Micro 240. He said later he's pretty sure it broke when he threw it into the pool above the falls.
At this point we got a little disorganized. We hadn't gone over the plan on how to portage Final Falls, and because we were essentially separated at Frustration there was some confusion initially about what to do. When I finally got across the river to the bench above Final Falls I asked Joel what was going on and he shrugged. There were boats strewn everywhere, and as we helped Pete out of his broken boat the last of our daylight faded away. Soon Isaac appeared again and laid out the plan. "I've set up the rappel station farther down the cliff." He said. "Ben has already rapped off. We need to get the boats downstream where I will ghost them off the cliff into the pool below the Falls to Ben. We need to hurry before it gets too dark..."
Isaac eased down into position on the steep slope just above the eighty foot drop into the pool below and we passed the boats down to him. We were all starting to get fatigued at this point, and the near darkness slowed our movement to a crawl. Isaac threw the first boat off and there was a long pause as it drifted out into space and then a boom like a rifle shot as the boat landed totally flat in the black pool far below. Soon we had all of the boats piled up on the cliff above Isaac, who began firing them off at thirty second intervals so Ben would have time to gather them up. Finally all of the boats were down and Isaac came up with his headlamp. I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but I had left both of my headlamps at home, so we had one lamp among all of us.
Isaac quickly led the way along the cliff wall through the trees. We were more or less following a 45 degree sloping mossy bench with trees on it, so it was relatively easy going. After about a hundred yards the trees ended and the large bench gradually narrowed to a sloping rock ledge. Isaac stopped at the end of the ledge and when we caught up to him I groaned inwardly as he shined the headlamp on the last ten feet we had to cross. Here the ledge faded away and was replaced by a steep, sloping traverse with tiny holds on crumbly rock. Isaac scrambled across like a spider, but he had been doing that all day so that didn't boost my confidence at all.
Once across Isaac turned and shined the headlamp on the rock, which made it look even worse. Pete eased across next while the rest of us stared down into the inky void below, wondering what was down there. We could hear the roar of the falls below but it was totally dark now and we couldn't see anything. Against my better judgment I went next, slowly and carefully testing each small hold before placing my weight on it. Joel and Kevin crossed last, and then we were in the trees again.
We crowded onto a sloping ledge above a tree that was growing out of the cliff wall. Isaac climbed down and hooked his harness into the belay station while I put my climbing harness on. Isaac is also an experienced rock climber, so he had a bomber anchor and rap station all ready to go.
"Hey Jason." Pete's voice sounded oddly hollow in the darkness. "None of us have ever rappelled before. You wanna give us a quick class on how to do it?"
I was pretty shocked but tried not to let that show in my voice. It was
now almost completely dark, and this was
no place to learn to rappel.
Suddenly I realized we were in a very dangerous situation indeed. "How far
of a rappel is it?" I called down to Isaac.
"About fifty feet." He replied coolly.
"Ok guys, listen up. You'll be using my harness so this is how you buckle it. Make sure it is doubled back through, that is very important..." Pete took the headlamp and my skirt kept falling down as I tried to show them how to put the harness on. The ledge was also quite steep and I was trying not to slip and fall off, but finally I got the harness on. "You guys got it? Isaac will double check you, and I will give you a belay from below. As long as you are hooked in correctly and the anchor holds, you can't fall with me belaying you. Ok? You can't fall..."
With that I climbed down to Isaac and he passed the ropes up to me. "Ok, you hook the ropes through like this, on either side of the pyramid. Oh shit, not like that, they got twisted.. Like this. Also, it's very important that this little cable is through the beaner, Ok?"
I eased out to the edge of the tree and Isaac shined the headlamp down into the void below. "Hey Isaac, is there some kind of ledge so I can get some footing when I swing around this tree?"
"No." he replied. "It's totally vertical...".
With that I took a deep breath, swung around the tree, and dropped out into space. For a second I dangled there, and then I opened up the belay device and was soon at the bottom. Once on the ground I took off the harness and yelled up to Isaac to haul it up. After awhile Kevin came down while I belayed him and dodged rocks he was dislodging on the way down. After taking a few pretty good hits I moved my belay under a slight overhang for safety reasons. Finally everyone was on the ground and we had a brief discussion about what to do. Finally after some debate we decided to try to paddle out in the dark, following Isaac, who would be wearing the headlamp. We stumbled up to the boats in the pool below Final Falls and got our gear together. "Ok guys." I said to whoever could hear me. "If something goes wrong and you swim, be sure to blow your whistle or no one will know you're in trouble, OK?"
Isaac and Ben ran the first boulder garden just below final falls while the rest of us got organized in the pool above. We could see the light from Isaac's headlamp bouncing crazily off the boulders and then he was below us. I got into my boat but the darkness was so complete that I couldn't see the bow of my boat!
I pulled out into the current and immediately collided with a boulder, then another, and another. I was totally out of control, with no sense of depth or distance. About halfway through the boulder garden I heard a whistle blowing upstream... Shit!!
I paddled in the general direction of the river bank and made it into an eddy. I jumped out of my boat and started moving upstream as fast as I could, just as the whistling stopped abruptly. I tripped over a big boulder and crashed to the ground just as I heard the thump of a boat in the river next to me as Kevin came bouncing down out of the darkness. "Pete's boat sank!" He yelled. "He's not going anywhere in that thing!"
"All right." I yelled as he went past me. "Get the hell out of here. I'll stay with Pete!!"
I hiked back upstream to where I could hear Pete's boat banging around on the boulders. "Let's try and hike out." Pete said. "Bring your boat so if we have to cross the river you can tow me across..." After tossing his boat aside we started hiking down the river, me dragging my boat behind. Once below the boulder garden we ran into the rest of the gang, who had stopped after hearing about Pete's problems.
"We need to stick together." someone said, and everyone else voiced their agreement.
We crossed the river and ditched the boats on the far side and started hiking/crawling/falling our way downstream. Soon we came to a constriction where the river pinched off into a narrow, short pinch with vertical walls on either side. While the rest of us crawled blindly up onto the ledge above the constriction, Isaac scouted with the headlamp and determined there was no way to get past the walls.
Well, there was one way...
"We can swim from here." Isaac said. "I think I can see a gravel bar downstream on the other side of the river; if we can make it there we'll be OK..."
"Don't get blown downstream." Pete's replied out of the darkness. "There's a pretty big boulder garden down there somewhere with wood in it..."
Isaac was shining the light on the swirling water ten feet below us, trying vainly to determine it's depth. Finally Ben muttered something under his breath and jumped off the ledge into the narrow channel below, where he was immediately swept away into the darkness.
"Aw hell..." I mumbled as I leapt out into space and plunged into the dark water below. I surfaced almost immediately and started swimming strongly for the left shore. I could vaguely see the outline of the gravel bar on that side, and after about a hundred feet of swimming I reached it and climbed out of the water. There was now a little light from the stars so we could see vague outlines and shapes, but that was about it. I could hear the others in the water behind us, and soon we regrouped on the gravel bar. "Well that's it then." I said. "We're wet now so there's no way we can stay in here tonight..." The temperature was dropping rapidly and everyone was getting cold. We crossed back over to the right side and kept moving slowly downstream. Everyone but Isaac was taking a beating on the rocks, slipping into cracks, tripping over logs, and taking headers over boulders in the in the dark. "You know.." I said at one point. "SOMETIMES when I'm out boating with you guys, it feels kind of like the BLIND leading the BLIND; you know what I mean?!?"
In a way, we sort of deserved the beatings we were taking for not bringing headlamps along, and it is a lesson none of us will soon forget. There were several sketchy moments, like when we had to leap across a bouldery sieve with the water foaming into a woody undercut at our feet, and when I almost slipped off of a log we crossed that was spanning a gap between two large boulders. I'm sure the others had their moments as well, but I was too busy trying to keep from breaking an ankle to notice most of the time... Soon the river mellowed and we started making faster progress downstream. There was some debate about how long we should continue before attempting to climb up the canyon wall to the trail, and finally the decision was made.
We turned sharply and started climbing up the steep wall on all fours, scrambling and pulling ourselves up through the trees and crawling under logs. The slope gradually steepened until we started to get a little nervous that we were going to get 'cliffed out' and have to descend back down to the river. After climbing a couple of hundred vertical feet Isaac and Ben traversed across to the right, following some sort of mountain goat trail, but the rest of us couldn't see well enough to follow so we continued climbing straight up. Finally after climbing at least 400 vertical feet we heard Isaac yelling up above us that he had found the trail! In a final burst of motivation we groveled as fast as we could up the last part of the slope to the trail, gasping for air and dripping with sweat. I must admit it was a little odd standing on flat ground again, given that I had been climbing, swimming, and tripping over rocks in for the last couple of hours..
It was a welcome (if not a little disconcerting) change!
Nevertheless, there was little time to celebrate. We still had at least three miles to hike to get out, and everyone was getting pretty fatigued and dehydrated. We started down the path at a brisk pace and after over an hour fast walking we finally reached the parking area. While everyone else took a well-deserved rest, Ben, Isaac and I went looking for Ben's truck. As we hiked up the road we were debating whether or not Jamie would still be there. Isaac was totally confident that she would be, but there was some question about whether she had driven out to get help. It was now getting dangerously cold and we were very much hoping that Isaac was right...
After walking for a quarter of a mile and after the tenth "Geez, Ben, did you REALLY park this far away?!?" we finally saw Ben's truck.. Jamie was fast asleep in the front seat, having plundered our gear bags and wrapped herself in our dry clothes.. (Thanks for keeping our stuff warm, Jamie!) "I knew you guys would make it out!" she said happily as we rummaged around for water and food.
We decided to leave the rigs at the put in and return the next morning for the boats. It was nearly eleven o'clock, and we had been going hard all day. I didn't get home until 1:30 a.m...
The next morning I dragged my aching body out of bed and drove up to the rendezvous. We met again at the Welches Thriftway, this time at 10 a.m., and we drove up to the trailhead where we had emerged the night before. While we were getting dressed, everyone compared our aches and pains. Kevin's shins had an alarming amount of contusions on them, and by the next week they were a nice shade of blue from what I understand...
We geared up and started hiking around 10:30, and after a couple of hours we had covered the five miles up the canyon and were standing on a windy bluff five hundred feet above Frustration Falls. I won't even go into the descent to Frustration; it was fairly sketchy, very steep and involved one short 'rappel', if you know what I mean. At one point I remember Kevin sliding down a particularly steep, scary section after which he looked up at me and said: "You realize that we have no brains..."
"Yeah, that may be true." I replied as I pondered the fall I was going to take if I slipped (it looked like guaranteed death, as usual..) "But frankly my friend, my goal is to keep my brains inside my head today if at all possible.."
Finally we reached the bench across from Falls and worked our way downstream above Final Falls.
I'm sure nobody who was on this trip will ever make that mistake again.
One of the other things about this trip that impressed me was how well we came together as a team. Most of us had never paddled together before, and yet everyone assumed leadership roles at different, critical junctions in the trip when no one else could get the group moving efficiently. I also never heard a single complaint, no matter how bad things got, and that was pretty impressive in and of itself.
Of course, I've always believed that there is nothing like a good debacle to bring out the best in people...
A parting shot...
In 2007 a group of locals ran Salmon Canyon. Final Falls usually doesn't get run, but on this trip Chris Korbulic fired it up..