I. Horse Creek- Prelude to the Separation Creek Debacle.
It was late September, and having completed yet another day on the McKenzie, I was feeling unfulfilled. The "creeker" inside of me was desperately longing for something other than playing yet another day at Clover. Besides, I was wanting to try out my new Wavesport "Y" which I had bought over Labor Day weekend. I drove up to McKenzie Bridge and turned off onto Horse Creek Road. After a mile I stopped on the first bridge over the creek and peered over the side. I was amazed to see a decent (by September standards) amount of water flowing in the stream. If you look on a map, Horse Creek has a surprisingly large, high-elevation drainage, being fed by the west side of the Cascade Range from Middle Sister down nearly to Willamette Pass. I decided then and there to return that weekend to explore Horse Creek.
On the first trip down Horse Creek, Randy and I did seven or so miles above the bridge. Much to our disappointment, it was mainly class 2 with only ONE marginal class 3 thrown in to spice things up. Perhaps more disturbing was the large number of portages (7), limbo logs (3), and other hazards that greeted us on this descent. I later found out that one of the local experts nicknamed this "Horseshit Creek" because of the wood and overall trashiness of the run. I would have to agree heartily. Still, most of this mess was located in the bottom 2/3rds of the run, and there were several more miles upstream that need to be "explored". There was still "plenty" of water at the put in and it could ONLY get better the higher up I went, right?
weekend I returned to run the next five miles upstream. This time I lured
Tom into accompanying me. We dropped a car at the take-out and proceeded upstream.
Things looked better and better - the gradient steepened, no riverwide logs
were seen, still plenty of water - SCORE! We parked at the trailhead, changed,
and hiked down a quarter mile to the footbridge. Upon our arrival, I noticed
that something important was missing - water. What happened to the water?!?!?
Maybe we were putting on a tributary and would join the main stem just downstream?
Ever the optimist, that was at least my reasoning for why the stream before
me had (maybe) 25-30 cfs. Undaunted, Tom and I pushed off and BUMPED, SCRAPED,
and BOUNCED down the creek for what seemed to be an eternity. I lost so much
plastic off my brand new "Y". We did encounter a couple of drops that might
have been class 3/4 if they had water in them, but as such were rocky nightmares
that we had to pull ourselves over/through them. What the hell was I thinking?!?!?
The author on upper Horse Creek
The author on upper Horse Creek
Tom limbos the big log just above the confluence with Separation Creek.
This self-inflicted misery continued for a couple of miles. We then came upon a straight stretch that had a huge limbo log at the bottom. The log effectively blocked our sight. Upon emerging from under the log, we were excited to see directly ahead of us that we were joining the main flow of the creek, which entered from the right and essentially quintupled (or more) the flow. The remaining one and a half miles on Horse Creek was now comparatively fun, ultracontinuous class 3/3-. Although the last bit really didn't make up for the first three miles, it did answer where the water in Horse Creek was coming from but not really. I was mistaken in that we were not joining the main stem. Instead, a side creek named Separation, which flowed high off Middle and South Sisters, was responsible for a vast majority of the water. A quick look at the gazetteer in my truck showed that Separation Creek could be accessed higher up by trail. I vowed then and there to return the following weekend. Besides, it could ONLY get better the higher up we went, right?
Prior to running something as unknown as Separation Creek, I wanted to do my "homework". I pored over the USGS topo maps in the U of O map library and was impressed with what I gleaned - a remote run in a deep canyon, but most of all, a steep average gradient around 160 fpm for the 4.5-5 miles of creek I figured that was runnable. Above that section, the creek steepened to 400+ fpm for a couple of miles, which I figured we'd save for our second trip. Although we'd have to hike in 3 miles with our gear, we would gain little elevation and in fact lose about 400-500 feet overall. This was going to be good!
That Friday, I drove up to the trailhead and parked the truck. The hike back to the creek took about one hour and the trail was in pretty good shape. Piece o' cake! As soon as I heard the sound of water, I picked up the pace and then cut off the trail over to view the creekbed. For the next two hours I bushwhacked up and downstream for about a half mile. I liked what I saw - a steep creek with many class 3 and higher rapids. There were abundant logs, but those could be easily portaged. I headed up to the super-steep section and was awed by the complex and numerous class 5 and class 6 drops. OK, there were some logs in there too, but again these could be portaged. Excited, I hiked back to the truck and headed home. What I saw was enough to give the go-ahead for tomorrow.
II. Separation Creek - The Descent into Boating Hell
I had conveyed my excitement for this run to numerous fellow boaters over the Internet. The only taker was Dan Coyle, a local expert at first descents and other high-risk runs. He too had been curious about this creek and was eager to join Tom and I for our little adventure. He met us at the Texaco on the east of Springfield (albeit late) that Saturday morning and we headed up to the trailhead. We arrived a bit before 10AM and began the hike back to the creek. What I thought the day before would be an easy hike turned into something far more strenuous. Dragging our boats and gear was not a piece of cake. Worse off, my legs were quite sore from the previous day's hiking. We trudged down the trail dragging our boats swearing and eventually arrived at the creek around noon. Still, we only had 4 miles of creek to run with 6-7 hours of daylight remaining.Mike and Tom, ready for a great day of boating on Separation Creek
An optimistic Dan Coyle at the put-in for Separation Creek.
We "suited" up and put on Separation Creek. Sliding down from the bank, it seemed good to be on the water after that long hike - what was I thinking? We boated 200-300 yards before we were faced with the first portage. No problem - a short hike up and over the log and we were back in business. Another 200-300 yards and again we were out of our boats. This time the log blocked 95% of the stream, but Dan thought he could get past it. Tom and I stayed onshore to watch the line. Dan came down, hit the line but got his stern stuck under the end of the log, plastering himself on the face of the opposing bank. Stuck fast and unable to free himself, I crawled out far onto the log and after a bit of a struggle, freed Dan's stern. After that, Tom and I decided a portage was more appropriate. For the next two-three hours, we were out of our boats more than in them. The simple odd log portage quickly transformed into long, arduous portages around monstrous logjams. We slogged through swamps and thickets for hundreds of yards, only to seal-launch off giant old growth logs back into the creek. We'd journey downstream for 50 yards or less and the repeat the whole horrible process. Where the hell were the rapids? By about the tenth portage, Dan expressed his concern. "I think we should hike out while there is daylight left." He said. Undeterred, I countered that this day could only get better. "Surely, we're past the worst of it. Besides, we only have 4 miles of creek to boat." I replied with confidence. In reality, I should have listened to Dan's voice of experience.
We persisted with our journey downstream and the logs and portages continued. I tried to boof one log but I didn't have enough speed. I slid back down off it and then was immediately swept under. Dragging on the creek bottom, I couldn't roll and reluctantly pulled. Fortunately, as I was swept downstream, Dan reached out with his paddle from shore, I grabbed the end, and he pulled me into a tiny eddy. Just downstream was yet another logjam, and fortunately he had saved my ass. "We're even." he grinned, referring to my crawling out on the log earlier in the day. "Agreed!" as I gasped for breath. Again Dan suggested abandoning the run and yet again I resisted, blinded by the desire to do the first descent. The optimist inside me just knew it HAD to get better.The Author on Separation Creek.
Well, it didn't. The monster logjams and arduous portages continued unabated. I can't begin to describe in enough nightmarish detail the scope of the worst of these portages. A typical one involved hundreds of fallen logs strewn about like twigs, sufficiently damming the creek and turning what should have been fast moving water into a braided, boggy swamp full of dense undergrowth. Many times I would sink into the gooey muck up to my thighs, only to free myself and have this happen yet again. My legs began to cramp something fierce from two days of abuse. The net result was that I significantly slowed down our progress, but I just couldn't move any faster.
a huge logjam as darkness falls.
Back on the river, we came to the next logfest - number 17 or 18, I can't remember. This one appeared passable in the fading daylight, but it required some quick maneuvering. Dan ran it first and smacked his stern on the second log during the required S-turn in the exit chute. I ran it next and made it through unscathed. Tom came last. I don't know exactly what happened, but somehow Tom didn't make the turn and as I watched, much to my horror, he was swept under the log. Pinned with only his head was above the surface of the water, Tom locked his arms in a deathgrip around the log. "Help!" he yelled. On the opposite shore, I was frantic as guilt for this horrible day set in. "Oh my god, oh my god - I've killed him!" I thought as I ran back to the logjam with my throwrope. I wouldn't have mattered, as I couldn't get to him. It seemed like an eternity. Fortunately, Dan again saved the day as he was on the other shore. He scrambled out onto the log and pulled Tom out and over the log as his boat went under it.
I had had enough. It was getting dark and my best friend had nearly bit the big one. "F--k this run, screw the boat - I've had enough, I'm hiking out!" I screamed. After his close call, Tom readily concurred. Enough was enough - it was late in the day and far too late for cooler heads to prevail. He and I decided to abandon our brand new boats and hike out, following the creek downstream. What we did not realize was that we had only made it down 2-2.5 miles of the run in 7 hours and that, with night quickly falling, had over 3 miles of treacherous hiking yet to endure. Dan, on the other hand, was not willing to give his boat so willingly to the forest nymphs, and began the hike out with his Vertigo in tow.
Darkness fell quickly over the mid-October sky. Somehow I became separated from my two comrades as, unbeknownst to me, they had decided to strike out high up for the ridgeline. I stuck close to the creekbed, thinking it would eventually lead me to safety. It was pitch black by about 7PM and, as I stumbled along the creek, I reluctantly resigned myself to spending the night out alone in the Oregon wilderness in my cold wetsuit. Bruised, sore, tired, hungry, and thirsty, I climbed up the bank and in the dark made my very crude campsite besides a fallen pine tree. "OK, at least I have my paddle to use should a cougar or bear decide to attack." I thought. I curled up for the long cold night, trying not to think of what might happen IF that cougar should come.
As I lay there in the cold darkness, I found myself cursing my luck. Why did I decide to leave my fleece blanket in the truck??? I had it in the boat and took it out at the last moment!!! As I tried to relax, I eventually heard the sounds of whistles off in the distance behind me. Although I didn't have one on me at the time (D'oh!), I began to shout with all my might. Slowly but surely, Tom and Dan closed in on my position, finally joining me for the night. As they dragged Dan's boat up the bank in the inky black darkness, I welcomed them to "Camp Nihil". Although they couldn't see the relieved expression on my face, knowing I would not be alone this cold night, I expressed my relief vocally and queried as to what had happened to them. It was then I learned that they headed for the ridgeline, hoping that this was the easiest way out, which it turned out not to be. Heading back down, they tried to find me. Fortunately, I had somehow gotten in front of them.
We bedded down for the night. I lay there shivering in my wet wetsuit, while Tom and Dan at least had drysuits. Tom, being somewhat prepared, remembered he had two "emergency blankets" in his first aid kit, which he had miraculously decided to bring with him from his boat, as well as an extra pair of fleece pants. We took out the paperback book-sized blankets and tried to unfold them. However, much like a cheap paperback book, the ultrathin blankets began to rip and tear into unusable shreds. Hmm. These sure as hell won't keep us warm... We stuffed the shreds around our feet and curled up beside each other, my arms down each leg of the extra fleece pants. After an hour of sleepless shivering, Dan decided he had had enough. "I'm going to keep on going. I need to keep warm." he said."What?!?!" I said in disbelief. "It's pitch black!" But Dan was determined. "I don't care - I'll see you later." With that, he grabbed his boat slogged and off into the darkness.
Tom and I decided to stay put and to ride out the night, butt-cheek to butt-cheek. I did not know it could get so cold out there in mid-October in Oregon at 3000 foot elevation as it did that night. Somehow I managed to get a few winks of sleep amongst all the shivering and teeth chattering, but I mostly remember lying there wide awake wishing I was home in my warm bed with my dog snuggled warmly next to me. I slowly regained more than a passing consciousness as dawn broke over the forest. I remember two things distinctly - how horribly thirsty I was and how foggy it was that morning. The former was temporarily quenched with the few remaining ounces of All-Sport, the latter required twenty minutes of blinking to clear the blur incurred from sleeping in my contacts.
Once it was light enough, Tom and I began the long hike out. At first we headed up above the creek along the side of the canyon. However, the beauty of the thick second growth forest quickly gave way to misery of trudging along thick, wooded undergrowth on a 45-degree incline. Somewhere along the way I stumbled and twisted my ankle, which further exacerbated my misery. We then decided to head back down to the creek. This too proved to be a painful exercise. I fortunately was wearing gloves, but Tom's hands were bare, and he was soon to find more than his share of thorns and stinging nettles. The Devil's Club was particularly horrific in this stretch of creek, and Tom paid dearly. Numerous times we thought that the canyon was opening up, only to go around another bend and realize this was not the case. After 3 or 4 hours of this hell, we were both extremely tired and terribly thirsty. We made the decision to drink the creek water - Ghiardia be damned! I waded out into the creek and plunged my head under the surface of the moving water, taking in mouthfuls of the cold liquid. I vividly remember how wonderfully sweet and fresh the water tasted. Of course, having had only a couple of ounces of All Sport over the previous 18 hours, I imagine cow pasture run-off would have been like Perrier! After drinking our fill, we continued downstream which, as it turned out, was only another 30-45 minutes before Horse Creek joined from the left. At first, I didn't believe Tom when he said that this was it, but sure enough, there was the monster log he had limboed under the week before. We were free!!!
Well, not entirely. We still had to cross Horse Creek, which we swam across and then scrambled up the bank, through a relatively small amount of undergrowth and up to the road. Tom managed to flag down a car and, taking pity on us and our sad tale, the driver took us down to where Dan's car was parked. When we arrived, there was Dan, asleep in his sleeping bag. He had paddled out earlier that morning and drove into McKenzie Bridge to get food and supplies. As we walked up to the car, he quickly got up, rustled around the back seat, and produced two giant Snicker's bars, which we tore into like rabid dogs. ( I'm still not certain we took the wrappers off before ravenously devouring Dan's offering.) We did the shuttle back to my truck, Tom wondering if he still had a job and me wondering how big a mess the dog had made in my house.. We headed home, boatless after the 30+ hour ordeal but thankful to be alive and more or less in one piece.
III. Epilogue - Return to Separation Creek
You would have thought that after the above experience, Tom and I would have never thought about going back. But with both of us having abandoned brand new creekboats, we were not going to give them up so easily. Reluctant but determined, we vowed to return to Separation Creek to reclaim our property and our pride. We did both two weeks later...
Tom getting ready
to descend back into the Canyon...
When we decided to throw in the towel, I had noticed by chance that a major tributary was coming in on river right near where we abandoned the boats. Prior to returning for the second round, I pored over the topo maps to figure out about where this was. It turned out that two side creeks came in on the right a bit more than halfway through the run, about a 1/4-mile from one another. This had to be it. Fortunately, one of the creeks had a trail along it most of the way back to a series of waterfalls. From there, we could bushwhack down to Separation Creek and hopefully find our boats. At least that was the plan.
Whereas the first decent had been purgatory at best, the return trip went off like clockwork. Tom and I arrived at the trailhead at 7AM and began our return trek through the foggy, overcast morning. We arrived at the falls within an hour, and then descended back into hell. We got to Separation Creek, crossed over a fallen log, and began the search for our boats. Although they had been out here for two weeks, it wasn't like anyone was going to come along and take them. Anyway, I figured if they were adventurous enough to get my boat out, they could have it! These thoughts were quickly dispelled as we found our boats within 15 minutes of searching, high on the south bank where we had left them.
We unpacked our gear, suited up, and set out on the remaining half of the run. Since Dan had run this section two week's before, and we had "scouted" most of it during our hike out, we knew pretty much what we were in for. Again, the run down to Horse Creek went off without a hitch. OK, we had another 6 or 7 portages, but these we insignificant compared to what we had endured earlier. In fact, dare I say that this lower half was actually fun. Although there many logs in the stream, none blocked the real rapids, which were mainly class 3/3+. Only one drop could be called a class 4, but surprisingly we encountered nothing harder.
We soon rejoined Horse Creek, boating another mile and a half down to the truck. We changed, loaded up the boats, and sped down the gravel road, all before 1PM. We felt victorious having completed the run and reclaimed our boats, but this seemed hollow when put in the overall context of what we had endured.
IV. Lessons Learned.
As I sit here typing this account, two years to the day when Tom and I reclaimed our boats, I am amazed that nothing worse happened to us. Lord knows, the outcome of this whole adventure could have and probably should have been much worse. The images of those days are still quite vivid, as they are seared into my memory. I've tried not to embellish the story as things really were that bad. In the end, I still do not know where I went wrong with interpreting the gradient on the USGS topo maps. The run never once approached the 160 fpm steepness I had calculated. Perhaps I doubled the values between the topo lines - I just don't know.
Over the subsequent period, I've done a few more wilderness runs with Tom and/or Jason and have been far better prepared. Looking back on it, here are some of the biggest mistakes:
1. Preparedness - quite simply, we were not properly equipped for what turned out to be the worst-case scenario. We had enough food and water IF it had been a normal 4-mile run, but it was NOT a normal run! I wisely rationed my supplies as soon I realized that we were going to spend the night in the woods, but others ran out of water long before darkness. Fortunately for us, the creek water we drank didn't give us any diseases, but it easily could have. We each should have had several bottles of extra water. In addition, extra fleece would have been good. The one extra pair of pants just didn't cut it (but it did help!). I now own a dry suit, and that would have made life more bearable that cold evening.
2. Exploration - this is where I and I alone failed the team. I should have hiked most if not all of Separation Creek to see firsthand what we were truly in for. I had seen many logs on my short hike the day before we attempted the run, and stupidly dismissed them as easy portages. I was blinded by the eagerness and enthusiasm of doing a first descent, and it severely clouded my judgement. It showed when Dan urged us to abandon the run within the first couple of hours and I refused to even consider it. Dan later said that if he had seen as many logs as I did just in the first few hundred yards, he would have never agreed to go in the first place.
3. Early start - we should have been at the trailhead at first light. We would have had over three hours of additional daylight, and that probably would have been the difference between getting out late in the evening versus spending the night in the woods.
4. Stick together - dividing the group is always a bad idea. I don't remember why I struck out on my own that evening as night fell, or really why Dan decided to carry on in the darkness. What I do know is that something horrible could have happened to either one of us and the other two would have never known about it. Luckily nothing did.
5. Abandoning your equipment- one word: DON'T! We should have never left our boats, as that meant that we had to come back for them or forfeit $1000. Even then, Tom and I were faster boating and portaging the remaining two miles than hiking along the creekbed the first time. Abandon your stuff only as a last resort.
Do I wish this misfortune had never happened? You bet! Am I embarrassed by it? Certainly not. I am sorry the whole affair occurred, but I have no regrets. This was a powerful and painful lesson for one that thought he was ready to tackle the great unknown, wilderness run but really had no clue what he was getting himself and others into. This story should hopefully serve as a wake-up call for others. Don't make the same mistakes we did!
Mike Haley, October 29th 2000.