Gabe Flock, on the first descent of Wassen Creek




An epic adventure? Coast range waterfalls in an undesignated wilderness area? An exploratory descent? It didn't take long before Dan Coyle had me convinced to join him. Dan had read about Wassen Creek in a hiking guide called Exploring Oregon's Wild Areas, which describes the area as a forgotten place, in a steep and rugged canyon, densely forested with old growth cedar and hemlock. There was certainly potential for a good run based on the description we had, including a five-tiered 40-foot waterfall known as Devil's Staircase, and the desire to simply see this place was enough to push us into the unknown. If my foggy memory serves me correctly, it was during the Winter of 1997-98, and we had been pushing our limits with a variety of harder runs and exploration. That dark and rainy morning, armed with scant survival gear (an extra fleece jacket and a cold bacon and cheese bagel sandwich for myself, nothing for Dan, of course), we loaded the boats and Dan's bike in my truck and headed south.

The area around Wassen Creek is basically roadless, so we knew access would be the first concern. It was hard to imagine much of a wilderness area so close to Highway 38 along the Umpqua River, but apparently, very poor soils and steep slopes have prevented road construction in the canyon of Wassen Creek so far. The maps showed several logging roads that approach the edge of the canyon, but we knew we'd have to bushwhack down to the creek, and once we were in, the only realistic way out was downstream. The only road up the creek from its confluence with the Smith River is private and was gated at the time, so we chose to plant the bike in the woods across from a cow pasture along Smith River Road. We estimated this would make for about a 10 mile run, including some frog water toward the end. We were obviously hoping for a glimpse of the creek to estimate the water level, but a massive hedge of blackberries at the perimeter of the cow pasture blocked our view of the confluence from the road.

Realizing that we had to get moving to make the run in time, we headed up the paved road a bit further and turned right onto Road 110 (I think) from Smith River Road. Of course, the road was in terrible shape, and involved a poorly engineered stormwater drainage system with large earthen berms every 100 feet or so. It was a serious four-wheel drive road, totally saturated and muddy, with these gigantic 'speed bumps' on an unbelievably steep slope. It didn't take long before Dan's boat jarred loose and smacked the side of my truck as it fell to the ground. We proceeded to reload the boat and chase my dog Cassie around for several minutes trying to get her back in the truck, and continued up the hill. Eventually we made it up the hill and to the end of the road, surrounded by thick forest and still no view of the creek in any direction. There was a trail headed downhill, so we dressed and began to drag our boats. Cassie would have to wait, and I think it was on this trip that she learned to hate kayaking.

The trail was pitiful and totally overgrown, so we proceeded to fight our way through. After about twenty minutes of this torture, Dan checked his watch and it was already 11:30 am. Needless to say I had one of those feelings, took a big gulp of sweaty saliva, and we continued to drag. The thick brush began to give away to deep old-growth forest as we began down into the canyon, and the dragging became somewhat easier. The beauty of this place soon became evident as we dropped farther down, into a maze of sword ferns and giant downed trees, the wonderful smell of old-growth cedar, and a carpet of moss several feet thick. We were in awe as we slithered our way down to the water. But soon, the theme of the day would emerge, as we broke through the last layer of brush next to the creek and walked into the shallow, narrow streambed that was Wassen Creek. It was too low.

After a bit of cursing we washed off in the ankle-deep stream and assessed the floatability of this little stream. We noted the peculiar reddish-brown color of the creek bed and water, as we began the long scrape. The creek alternated between painfully shallow stretches and short class II drops for several miles until we reached the first real horizon line. As I recall, the drop was about 15 feet, appearing quite runnable with more water and without the massive log blocking any clean line. Resigned to our sandstone hell, we quickly portaged and scraped further into the foreboding canyon. At some point, if not all day, it seemed to get darker and darker. The rain seemed constant, and we could only hope that it would add to the flow, but the side creeks were only providing a trickle, and the main streambed did not appreciably widen or deepen for many miles below the put-in. Shortly after the first waterfall, we reached a second horizon line which turned out to be Devil's Staircase. I jumped out for a quick scout and was amazed. There were five vertical drops in quick succession totaling 40 feet, with deep pothole-type pools below each one. We savored these enjoyable freefall moments, but were soon relegated back to our low-gradient sandstone hell. Did I mention it seemed to be getting dark?

So we turned on the juice, what little we had, and paddled harder and harder downstream. At some point, Dan shouted and seemed startled as I dropped into a pool where he had eddied out. He pointed into the water and there was a very large Chinook Salmon circling below us. It was obviously upset by our presence, so we quicky paddled downstream only to find several salmon headed upstream at us in the next pool. It turned out that the stream was so small, we could not really avoid these fish. This scenario played itself out for several miles below Devil's Staircase, where there seemed to be a fairly healthy run of spawning salmon. I also had the pleasure of rounding one corner, only to see a 5-point buck elk taking a drink of water from the creek. He immediately turned and slipped on a log as he tried to climb the steep slope, then tore up the hill as Dan rounded the corner behind me. This was a huge animal, and aside from the one small blunder, it climbed the slope with amazing speed and technical skill. It was gone in a flash.

For several more miles, the creek offered the same type of class II sandstone riffles and began to flatten out even more. Soon we were paddling through longer and longer pools, interspersed with an occasional log. The scenery was breathtaking and the rugged canyon walls did not cease, it seemed, forever. The day was surely almost gone by then, as we rounded the millionth corner and found the first clear cut. We figured this was the upper reach of the private logging road from the confluence, and after portaging several logjams, we came to the first bridge crossing. It was still twilight as we cursed a bit, had a short conversation about how much this sucked, and proceeded downstream. We passed at least one other bridge crossing but knew it would be a couple miles further to the confluence. Soon it was dark, and we found ourselves groveling through logjam after logjam down the creek bed. There was very little current if any by this point, as the logjams created stagnant pools every few hundred feet. It was too late to walk out along the private road by this point, since we couldn't really see, let alone get through the tremendous hedge of blackberries along the creek on both sides.

We stayed in the creek and continued for about an hour into the darkness, and eventually a porch light appeared in the distance. It turned out to be the farmhouse across from the confluence, the first and only light we had seen. Truly a beacon in the night. We carefully proceeded into the Smith River and paddled across to a sandy beach, in the pitch black. All I could see at this point was the faint reflection of the porch light in the water, and a wall of darkness along the bank. I knew it was all blackberries, the question was how far up? It turned out to be a 20-foot tall embankment. So, the torture continued as we used our boats as ladders. Throw the boat up, climb on, crawl up, then roll off into the stickers and throw the boat farther up the hill. Over and over and over again. In the dark, bleeding now, desperate for flat ground. We eventually made it to the top, and before us lay a maze of mud puddles and tufts of grass across the cow pasture.

We now had shadows and reflections to work with, coming from the porch light at the house, and the ground looked flat, but it turned out to be waist deep mud with a strong smell of cowshit. Each step was like walking in cement, and by now, my motor skills were shot. We started using the ladder method again, and slithered our way across the pasture trying not to sink in the mud. Still no angry owner with a shotgun, as we made the last climb to the road. This was only a 10-foot tall embankment of similar quality blackberry bushes, backed by a barbed wire fence. It was now about two hours into the darkness, as we flopped onto the road in total exhaustion. Dan went and found the bike, and we split my cold bacon and cheese sandwich before he headed off to do the shuttle. I laid there along the road for about another hour and a half, maybe two, as it poured rain and I thanked God I wasn't stuck in that canyon overnight. Eventually Dan made it back with my truck and frustrated dog, and we made the long drive back to Eugene.

There are a number of obvious lessons I learned on this run, but I'll leave it to you to figure it out. One item worth mentioning is that we underestimated the distance by about five miles. The run was really about 15 miles total, with quite a bit of flatwater. It is also worth noting that it would take a massive rainstorm to bring Wassen Creek up to an enjoyable level, say, 300 c.f.s. at the put-in. I'm guessing we had about 150 c.f.s., even with steady rain for several days prior to our run. On a final note, I must also say that this information is presented with mixed emotions. My interest is in bringing deserved attention to this undesignated wilderness area, in the hope that someday, this place will be truly protected from development and resource extraction. Be careful if you go, and please tread lightly.

Copyright 2001 Gabe Flock