Fear of Flood

February 2004

By Margi Lifsey

Editor's Note: On Sunday, March 22, 1998, a flash flood hit the illinois River, killing two paddlers and stranding ten others.
Early that morning, when the paddlers departed, the Illinois gauge at Kerby recorded the flow at 1,934 cubic feet per second, or 6.9 feet. By Monday, the river had jumped to 21 feet and 17,605 cfs, the flow increasing by a factor of eight in a single day. To give you some idea, this river becomes class V at 5000 cfs.
This river is prone to flash-flooding due to the geology and heavy coastal rainstorms that can form in a very short timeframe.

What would possess a group of boaters to run 24 miles of Class IV+ (V) whitewater in one day?

The fear of flood. What is normally a self-support three-day river trip on the Illinois River became a one-day, adrenaline-pumping adventure. The Oak Flat to Lower Oak Flat section of the Illinois is a 32-mile stretch of whitewater, jam- packed with at least eight class IV/IV+ rapids, a lot of big-water class III in between, and one class V giant, known as The Green Wall. We paddled all of the significant rapids in one day, and – wow – was it fun.

The Illinois River is the quintessential remote and wild river. The Illinois cuts through the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the rugged Siskiyou Mountains of Southwestern Oregon. Its features are similar to its sister river, the Rogue; yet different. The canyon walls are stark and higher. Rugged trees grow out of cracks in the walls and in between the effervescent cascading waterfalls, creating an Ansel Adams-like panorama. Its boulders are larger than buildings. And, as many paddlers have unwillingly discovered, so are the holes. The river constricts and expands for 32 miles, working its way over ledges and under walls. When river calms, its vivid green color is distinctive. This green-ness is created by the serpentine rock which lines the bed and banks.

Historically, Illinois was known for its crystal-clear waters and abundant wildlife. The Biscuit Fire of 2002 temporarily changed that. When I was on the Illinois in January of 2003, the water was muddy. The forest was black and cleared. The Biscuit Fire burned 499,965 acres in Southern Oregon - estimated to be one of Oregon's largest in recorded history. According to the Forest Service, approximately 50% of the area burned “very hot” with more than 75% of the vegetation killed. Many acres of critical habitat were lost.

I was delighted to see in February of 2004 that recovery of the Illinois Valley is progressing. Driving to the put-in, we could see bright-green colored moss covering the ground, and flowers and brush sprouting amongst the damaged trees. The water was crystal clear, and in those rare moments when the sun poked through the clouds, we could see straight to the bottom of the river. Our group didn’t see any wildlife in 2004, but creatures where probably hiding from the heavy rain. Speaking of heavy rain…

Unlike many other rivers, the level of the Illinois is not just affected by rain – it’s controlled by the rain. The steep and deep canyon walls do not hold water, or snow pack for that matter. The Illinois quickly becomes out of control in a matter of hours. Moreover, once you put-on, there is no turning back. The hiking-out options are very, very limited.

This is what one commenter wrote about the Illinois on Pat Welch’s Oregon river gauge website:

Fortunately, Shane Horner, Carrie Horner (Shane’s 18-year old sister), and Mike Ross were with us, and they are veterans of the Illinois River. Shane carries his dad’s 1979 Handbook to the Illinois River Canyon, complete with stories of bear attacks and old wooden rafts. The four Horner kids grew-up on rivers, all having paddled the Illinois many times with their dad as teenagers and as pre-teens. Zach, the youngest Horner at 16 years old, was on our 2003 trip. Mike Ross (Shane’s best friend), Josh Horner (the oldest Horner) and Shane were on the Illinois that fateful day, on March 22, 1998, when two rafters died due to a flash flood that went from 2,000 cfs at the put-in to 60,000 cfs in one day. They were just in front of the rafters, and paddled out…happy to be alive.

Moreover, Shane, Carrie and Mike are all excellent boat-persons and experienced catarafters. The three catafrafts, along with Lori Hoffman in a kayak, lead and organized the trip. If it weren’t for their expertise in projecting the flows of the Illinois; their willingness to haul all the gear of the dirtbag kayakers who tag along; loan out gear; and the organization of our meals and campsites; well, the rest of us would perhaps never have a chance to experience the Illinois.

Carrie Horner in a moment of reflection on her cat.
– Photo by Amy Shipman.

Shane and Lori are affectionately known in the Portland kayaking community as “Shane Dad” and “Mama Duck” on multi-day trips for their humble leadership and parental tendencies (provoked, of course, by our childish tendencies). As for flows, the other paddlers undoubtedly trusted their judgment as to whether we should put-on the river that weekend.

I received the much-awaited phone call from Shane on Wednesday night; when the forecast called for sunshine through the week and a few scattered showers on the weekend. We were good to go. On Friday afternoon some of us drove to the Horner house in Stayton to load up the cats and gear. Walking into the Horner’s garage is like walking into the NRS catalog warehouse – rafts, tubes, boats, oars, paddles, ropes, straps, tarps, dry-boxes, wet-boxes, stoves, tables, oar-ring-thingymigings are everywhere. And all of it is made available for our use, thanks to the Horners. Boats and gear loaded, we drove down to Medford as planned. It rained cats-and-dogs the entire drive down. I sensed a weird silence at times among the group: fear of flood, I thought to myself.

We checked into a cheap motel in Medford and piled into one room with cases of PBR. War stories and dirty jokes naturally followed…but every 20 minutes are so someone would ask “Do you know what the latest forecast is?” We talked about doing the Rogue instead (but everyone’s eyes said “that’s not what we came here for”). Todd Bach served as our land-based comptroller providing us with updates on flows via web. It rained all night, although flows were not significantly affected. In the morning, the weather forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain. As Brett said, that means there was a “40 percent chance” that we’ll get stranded on the Illinois. We decided to put-on that morning:

1. The flows were still fairly low at that point – 1200 cfs, i.e., average flows.
2. The forecast was for scattered showers; not a storm.
3. We were an experienced group of boaters.
4. The Illinois is so much more fun than the Rogue!!!!

(Some may call us slightly stupid).

I was among a particularly strong group of kayakers. In addition to the three catarafters, at least 7 of the kayakers had paddled the Illinois before (Lori, Amy Shipman, Tony Crawford, Brett Smith, Scott Duffens and me), and those who had not been on the Illinois were experienced paddlers (Bryan Youngs, Jason Markanties, Dave Brigg). No doubt - I was the weakest link. Although this was my second down the Illinois, when I ran it in 2003 I was still a newbie with only a year and a half of boating experience. That year, my kayak and I were both secured onto Shane’s cataraft for most of the Class IV/V rapids. (Frankly, I was scared out of my mind in 2003…yet, I loved it. In hindsight, that is when the Creeking Bug bit me!). My boating skills improved over the past year, so I was determined on this trip to run every rapid. As luck would have it, we ended up moving at such a fast pace that I didn’t even have time to think about it…much less portage!

It was the absence of people at the put-in that was most notable. Shane pointed out that there is always at least one other group at the put-in on Saturday mornings when the Illinois is running. Think of it this way, I thought…we have Illinois to ourselves! Yet the fear of flood kept was omnipresent. As we loaded up the cats (and Tony loaded up his kayak with PBR), an occasional ray of sun broke through the clouds. It was only false hope – the rain never let up. Nevertheless, the group paddled away in high spirits.

The Illinois gives you a nice warm-up: a flat-water paddle followed by a couple of Class II and III rapids. The real fun begins in the first canyon, after mile 4. For a next couple of miles, there are three Class IV rapids, with continuous Class III rapids in between. Leading into the first rapid, there is a 6 to 8 ft drop, creating a hole on river right. Kayakers run it on the left, but towards the end of the rapid the river sharply turns right, pushing kayakers up against a flat rock wall on the left, and spitting them out into a swirley eddy soup. Several kayakers in our group were flipped on this one; but all recovered.

The rapid to really watch out for in this section is York Creek. Lori says “This rapid is completely different every time I’ve been here” (which is about 5). York Creek is identified by the creek on the left bank on the river. The river then makes a wide, sweeping turn to the right, along a rock shelf. With Lori in the lead, we ran it by going right at first to avoid the hole on the left, then center, then skirting several large holes at the bottom. (In 2003 I watched two kayakers consecutively swim out of the big hole on the left. Yikes!).

We paddled through the first long canyon section without incidence, and we quickly moved along. And, yes, it was still raining…although no one was really taking about it. Not yet. Our fast pace did not take away from my pleasure of being on the Illinois – I was smiling ear to ear. Besides, much of the Illinois River requires a read-and-run style of boating. The Illinois’ never-ending wave trains and gigantic holes are akin to those of the Lochsa River in Idaho. Just keep paddling and enjoy the ride! In addition, the Illinois has so many Class II-III boogie rapids, that only the most dangerous rapids warrant scouting and re-grouping.

Pine Flat rapid is the next big Class IV. The canyon expands into a large meadow before it takes a sharp left turn where a boulder splits the river in half. The hole at the bottom right is known for its raft-flipping and rodeo-creeking powers. We all took our own lines down this one, successfully, and then began our search for a lunch spot. Pine Flat is one of the few places along the river that is wide and flat enough to have lunch or camp with a big group. Unlike our lunch break on my Illinois trip in 2003, there was no sun-bathing, no long conversation, no resting this time. The intensity of rain had picked up since the morning – the rain was not as “sprinkled” as we had hoped. When Shane Dad wants to get a group going (or put-on the river, as the case may be), he simply and quietly gets in his craft and paddles away. Right after we ate, Shane peeled out; the rest of us scrambled into our boats and followed.

“How much peanut butter do we have?” became the on-going joke, as rain persisted and day-dreams of being stranded on the Illinois infiltrated our minds.

Shane announced that he would like to get past the Green Wall today, depending on how much day-light we have when we reach it. Heads nodded. No one wanted to run The Green Wall at flood stage. Yet, it was getting late in the afternoon and The Green Wall was almost 8 miles away. Normally boaters set-up camp for the night at one of the campsites between Pine Flat, around mile 10, and above the Green Wall, at mile 17.

The Green Wall

My memory of the section before The Green Wall is blurred. I do remember the giant knots in my stomach as approached Prelude, the signature rapid that lets you know that you are only a quarter-mile away from The Green Wall. We worked our way down this III+ boulder garden, followed the river as it bends to the right…and there it was: the lead-in to The Green Wall. The lead in a classic boulder garden. The most important thing to know about the lead-in is that you want to end up on river left at the bottom – regardless of how you get there - to catch the small eddy just upstream of huge boulders on river left. Otherwise, you’re headed into the Green Wall blind. Catching this eddy is challenging, if not down-right scary, for the catarafts. Shane usually has a few kayakers go ahead to set up ropes to catch the cats coming in. (At maximum flows, the lead-in becomes part of the Green Wall. It’s extremely difficult to eddy-out and scout.).

Scouting the Green Wall (Class V) is like shopping for a house: everything looks good on your first walk through; but it’s not until you thoroughly inspect the house do you come to realize all of its potential hazards. The Green Wall is a long and somewhat narrow rapid - the size of a football field - and its entire length is flanked by a beautiful, vertical wall. Upon closer examination, you can see the wall is also undercut the entire length of the rapid, most severely at the bottom. The entry to the rapid is gnarly: an 8-10 foot ledge creates a keeper hole, which also pushes up against the undercut. What is perhaps more dangerous is that the hole is so far from the left bank that a single throw-rope probably would not reach it.

The rest of the rapid is a series of big waves and hydraulics, with an eminent hole at the bottom river-left. At low to average flows, the gnarly hole at top can be sneaked by kayakers on the left. The boulders on river left create a few slots and channels which lead into a swirly pool of eddies. Catarafts, on the other hand, have to run the entire rapid center. (When I was there in 2003, the flow was slightly higher and the gnarly hole was partially flushed-out, so kayakers ran it center too.) The hard part about the sneak line on the left is that it requires a precise ferry to get your boat in a good position to run the meat of the rapid in the center. Once you hit the strong eddy line, the river wants to push you back to river left, where the pin potential is high. Once you’ve made it into the meat, the river wants to push you river-right into the wall.

My subconscious schizophrenia immediately kicked-in as we scouted. (E.g., “You can do this. Just portage - you have nothing to prove. Don’t portage – you’re having a good day.”) The fear of flood temporarily left me, and my sole focus became The Wall.

First, I joined the other kayakers in setting up safety, preparing ropes for the catarafts. Jason caught all of us off guard when he jumped in his kayak and ran it first, making it look easy. Shane went next. Earlier that day, Carrie Horner was having problems with one of the oars on her small cataraft, so Big Brother Shane traded catarafts with Carrie at the top; thus Shane took the damaged cat down The Wall. I’ve previously watched Shane clean a lot of rapids in a cat before, so I was expecting no different this time. But a combination of factors stopped him. He came out of the gnarly hole at the top too far on the left; and, to add madness to mayhem, one of the cat’s oars broke free. Shane was broached up against the boulders on river left.

Right then I made the world’s worst throw-rope attempt. Shane looked right at me, holding on tight to his broached cataraft, and laughed out loud. Bryan came behind me with another throw, a little bit better than mine, but not by much. Bryan yelled down to Tony in an eddy below: “We’re playing a new game at camp tonight: Throw rope contest!” It was pretty funny…embarrassing, but funny.

We pulled Shane's cat on top of huge boulders. Shane’s dilemma was whether to 1) unload the gear of the cataraft and portage…not an easy task, or 2) to turn the cat around and push it back into the heart of The Green Wall…with no momentum. Shane opted for the latter. After a good push, he ran the rest of the Green Wall clean. Whew.

Shane broached in the Green Wall. The kayakers in the eddy above were unaware at that moment that Shane was stuck.
- Photo by Amy Shipman

Carrie Horner came through The Wall next with a perfect textbook line. Mike in the third cataraft followed, spinning down the center. Several kayakers followed. A couple kayakers ended up bracing against or very close to the undercut wall. When Bryan ran it, he had a good ferry to the center; but as he worked his way down the hydraulics, he moved farther and farther right. Eventually he was pushed up against the undercut, braced and then was flipped by it. He rolled away from the wall safely. [Sigh.]

Now Bryan is a far better boater than I am – so watching his line set off my nervous pee-reflexes. You can do this, I thought, just stay off the right wall.

Both of us sharply apprehensive, Amy and I were the last two to get in our boats. We exchanged words of confidence in the eddy. Amy went first and I could tell by the yells from below that she went off-line but then nicely recovered (working her way through the boulders on the left, avoiding pin rocks, then back to center). Then I received the “all clear” signal. Taking my time on the approach, I worked my way through to farthest slot on the left and into the pool. As I set up for the ferry, I had to brace deep into a swirly eddy to avoid getting pushed right. I barely made the ferry (Yes!). As I peeled out I could feel the force of the entire river pick me up and carry me. I paddled as I hard as I could to stay center with a left angle. A giant wave picked me up. Staying left, I headed straight towards the eminent hole on the bottom left. It flipped me upon impact, and I quickly rolled up. At that point I was out of the rapid…and far, far away from the undercut wall. Woo-hoo! Damn… paddling is fun.

Mike Ross entering The Green Wall (notice how dark it is!)
- Photo by Amy Shipman

The rain didn’t let up after The Green Wall, and neither did the rapids. Although The Wall is the most revered rapid on the Illinois, some say the next four miles of rapids in the lower canyon is the toughest. Unanimously, we decided to keep pushing past the Green Wall to take this stretch of river; although members of the group were evidently tired and hungry. Light was fading. So were people’s faces. Does this sound like an accident waiting to happen? Well, to some extent, it was. The carnage kept its momentum for the rest of the day….

The catarafts took off ahead of the kayakers this time. The next rapid, The Green Wall’s evil and lesser-known twin, The Little Green Wall (IV+), is a tight squeeze and a tricky line for catarafts. I was not far behind the catarafts when I heard the whistle blow from upstream. Not good. All of sudden I could see in the distance the very top of two bright orange tubes up in the air, pushed up against a rock wall. A cataraft flipped. That’s bad. I instinctively followed the cardinal rule of safety – if you can’t help, get out of the way. I called for Tony, who knows these rapids well, to go ahead. If I ran The Little Wall without at least boat-scouting I could potentially create more chaos. A few kayakers eddied out while a few more followed Tony to the crash site. Apparently Mike’s cataraft was flipped in the sticky hole on bottom right. As the cataraft became vertical, Mike climbed to the top of the high tube and jumped into the rapid. Tony saw him leap but didn’t see him resurface, inducing temporary hysteria in Tony. Fortunately Mike did resurface out of Tony’s view, and with the help of several kayakers, the cataraft was recovered undamaged and complete with gear. After that, the rest of us decided to take the easy line through the shallow boulder garden on the left side.

Now we were seriously beginning to lose our daylight. Shane and Mike stopped along a bank to check out a possible campsite, but it was flushed out by newly formed, rain-fed creeks. No campsite was in sight. Still, a bigger issue persisted: the rain. The fear of flood set in deep. From that point, there were two more Class IV (+) drops and six more Class III rapids – all technical and fairly challenging. We had just enough daylight left to go for it. We rallied and paddled on.

A man-eating hole

I didn’t recognize it until I was on top of it. At least, it was not until the stern of my boat skimmed the lip of a massive pourover did I realize that we were at Submarine Hole, the last and most consequential rapid in this series. At this level, there are two steps to running this rapid. First, work your way through the small boulder garden on the right bank to avoid bigger hydraulics and boulders on the left. As the rapid approaches a giant boulder in the center, go far left to avoid the man-eating hole on the right. The wall on the right is also severely undercut, as we…unfortunately, found out.

Upon later reflection, I realized that we did not discuss or scout Submarine Hole like our group would normally do. We were in a hurry – read and run. Brave Dave, not knowing what he was getting into, ran it first and apparently went right into the man-eating hole at the bottom; yet he was far enough from the wall that he, luckily, popped out of it. Scott was in front of me. Half-way down the rapid, I could see him working very hard – too hard – to get left. It dawned on me the frothy spray below was coming from the infamous pour-over in Submarine Hole, and I paddled-for-my-life to get left. A last-attempt ferry kept me from dropping into backwards. With a sweep stroke, the tongue along left wall carried me past the hole. Whewie. I saw Bryan just behind me catch a micro-eddy at the top of the man-eating hole in order to signal to Tony and Amy. Amy went right at the top, and then eddied out next to Bryan. But Tony misinterpreted Bryan’s signal and ran the entire rapid right – way far right – into the undercut.

What followed was a frightening situation: Tony was stuck. As the story was relayed to me, Tony was somewhat upright in his boat, head above water, with one hand on the undercut and one hand on his paddle, while the turbulent water bobbed his boat up and down. There was just enough space between the top of the undercut and the violent eddy below to hold Tony’s boat. Tony kept his wits about him the entire time he was stuck. Sensibly, he didn’t reach for his pull cord. Bryan and Tony’s eyes met, and they proficiently communicated what needed to happen next. Bryan and Amy got out of their boats, scrambled up the bank, and Bryan outstretched his body over the eddy towards the undercut (while Amy was holding onto him) until his fingers touched the safety loop of Tony’s boat. Bryan pulled him out of there. Another close call. But - that’s okay - we made it to the Safe Zone. Yes!

Finally, it was time to rest. Even if the river flash flooded overnight, we were safe. Between Submarine Hole and the take-out, the canyon walls of the Illinois expand. Ahead of us was only flatwater, a few Class II/IIIs and a couple super-fun wave trains to keep things interesting. Nothing that we couldn’t get through at flood stage.

We finally found a campsite around mile 24, located high above the river. To reach it , we had to climb directly up a 10 ft granite boulder (making it a pain-in-the-butt to unload our gear). The boulder flattens out, and behind it a trail continues another 30ft to a bluff overlooking the gorge. It’s a beautiful and serene place, actually. Considering the full-fledge, lightening-and-thunder, Midwest-style rain storm that was upon us, our camping conditions were quite hospitable. A tarp was pitched. Stoves and heat lamps were brought out. Our gracious meal-planner and cook, Lori, started cooking right way. Most of us didn’t even change out of our drysuits and helmets – why bother? Beer and wine went down easy. In fact, Tony and Bryan decided that since we ran all the big rapids in one day, we (or they) must drink all of the beer and wine that we brought with us. It made a lot of sense at the time…

When we woke up on Sunday morning, to our surprise, the water levels didn’t appear as if they had significantly increased overnight. As we found out later, the Illinois was indeed about to flash flood. It was approximately 1.200cfs (average flows) when we put on. The river almost reached 2,000 cfs when we reached the take-out on Sunday morning. By Monday morning, the flow increased to 9,000 cfs. Only 12 hours later, the flows hit 14,000 cfs. (See chart below). Now that’s a flash flood. I thanked the River Gods that were not still on the Illinois River on Monday. (Monday was President’s day, so we had considered staying until then).

I was exhausted on Sunday morning, from a poor night’s sleep (I was shivering cold in my wet sleeping bag). It didn’t matter. We had an easy day of ahead of us. Mike made coffee and a hardy breakfast. Unhurried, we enjoyed our paddle to the take-out and reflected upon our journey. Bryan and Tony even satisfied their waterfall cravings by hucking themselves off a small river-side slide a few miles from the take-out. We reached the take-out by noon and we were home in Portland by Sunday evening.

Bryan Youngs running a the river-side nameless slide.
- Photo by Amy Shipman

Yes, the fear of flood took did take a toll on us towards the end, but the actual flood never caught us. That, after all, was our goal. Moreover, we ended our adventure with no gear lost, no injuries…and, most importantly, smiles on our faces.

The flows on the illinois, in blue the timeframe we were on the river.