Lava Creek

By Jason Rackley
Location: Washington, the headwaters of the Little White Salmon exploratory creeking.

Copyright © 2007, Oregon Kayaking. Select photos Copyright Lana Young Photography. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking webmaster and Lana Young.

Ryan Scott emailed me on a Thursday night. The subject line read: "might be worthy...."

My plans for the weekend changed before I even finished reading his message..


I found a creek in the headwaters of the Little White Salmon. Are you interested? I think I'm going to give it a go this weekend. Just put in and work my way down. If you want to go let me know, looks like there's water in it now.

I'm bringing an old Ford four wheel drive so I can make it to the top, I tried in my car yesterday and it was a no go with deep snow in the center of the Forest Service road.

The creek looks to be about half of the flow to the Little White, I was surprised to see such a big trib on that river!

I immediately sent an email to Mike Long and Brad Coleman: "Ryan found a new creek- Meeting time changed.."

Ryan had taken a weeklong vacation and was churning through all of the creeks that form the headwaters of the all-mighty Little White Salmon. He had been driving and hiking the hills above the Little White for a few days before he got to Lava, and it seemed to be the likeliest candidate for a worthy run. Thanks to Ryan's hard work, we now had a new creek to paddle!

( Note: We were fairly certain that Lava had been run before given its proximity to the Little White. Later we were able to determine that John Whaley, Jon Loerhke, Paul Heffernan, and possibly others ran this creek prior to our trip. )

A nice view of Mt. Hood on the drive to the Columbia Gorge.

We hooked up with Ryan, Lana Young, and Keel Brightman at the put-in for the Upper Little White Salmon. Due to the deep snow they arrived loaded for bear in Lana's farm truck, a sweet jacked-up Ford 4x4. "Isn't this truck great?" Lana said when they got out. "It came with my house!"

It was a great rig, I must admit I had some truck envy going on.. It even has a snowplow attachment!

We quickly loaded gear and headed upstream. Soon the snow deepened to about a foot and the truck was chugging along in low, pushing its way up the hill. Finally we reached the fork off FR 66, but the snow was too deep to continue so we backed up down to a tiny, overgrown spur road ( road 717 ) going off to the left.

Parking the truck at the start of the spur road we used to access Lava Creek.

We unloaded, geared up, and started dragging our boats through the snow to the creek.

After a few minutes road 717 ( which wasn't much of a road to begin with ) faded away and we veered upstream, not wanting to miss any of the gradient.

Hiking in to Lava Creek.
Copyright Lana Young Photography

Soon we reached the edge of a crumbling basalt canyon wall and got our first look at the creek. My first impression of Lava was good: There was no wood to be seen, the geology looked favorable, there was an adequate flow and it was lined by nice big trees..

The walls of the Lava Creek mini-canyon were formed by columnar basalt, so we had to lower the boats down about sixty or so feet of very steep, jumbled rocks. It turned out that a single throw rope was the perfect length though, so this part went pretty quick..

Lowering the boats down to Lava Creek.
Copyright Lana Young Photography

Looking downstream at the put in for what we thought was Lava Creek. We later determined that this is actually the North Fork of Lava Creek, which joins main Lava Creek just downstream of where this photo was taken.

Ryan and I hiked upstream a little way and saw a nice rapid above our put in, which was intriguing. We briefly considered trying to run it but the level of effort ( now that we were in the little canyon ) seemed too high for the size of the drops. Still, it looked good and we started wondering what else might be up there.

We headed downstream and found some nice little drops, nothing too hard. We also soon discovered we had actually put in on a tributary of Lava, because main Lava came in on the right hand side and tripled the flow about three hundred yards downstream.

Keel Brightman moves downstream while Brad Coleman waits for the rest of the team.
Most of the creek had this incredible scenery: huge cedars and an ancient, untouched feel.

We knew that there was a relativly flat section before the gradient picked up, so we cruised downstream pretty quickly. Soon we arrived at the first big horizon line and the roar signaling a significant drop.

We got out on the left to scout and our hopes were quickly dashed as a huge log became visible in this otherwise clean double drop. Keel, Mike, and Brad portaged the first drop on the right and seal-launched in, running the bottom drop. Keel probed it, and later named the rapid 'Eight ball in the corner pocket.'

Ryan, Lana and I portaged on the left, which turned out to be a much more difficult and brushy option, but better for photos and video.

Brad gets ready to seal launch at 'Eight Ball in the corner pocket.'
Copyright Lana Young Photography

Brad runs the bottom half of 'Eight Ball in the corner pocket'.

Downstream were more smaller drops. The creek seemed to be dropping through small bands of bedrock, and we kept hoping that there would be a significant line of resistance forming a large waterfall.

Soon we came to another horizon line and I scouted briefly and sent everyone through. This was a long twisty rapid with several parts, very clean and fun!

Keel and Brad cruise through a long twisty rapid, there was more just downstream..

The author just downstream..
Copyright Lana Young Photography

Just downstream we arrived at another horizon line. I was in the middle of the pack at this point, while Mike, Keel, and Brad were out scouting on the left. Mike gave me the 'all clear' so I caught the last eddy in the middle of the creek above the drop, which appeared to be a ledge or falls of some sort.

What followed was a rather amusing back-and-forth between Mike and myself as we tried to make ourselves understood over the roar of the creek.

"Boof off the flake!" Mike yelled.

The horizon line was about thirty feet wide, so I got confused.
"That flake?!?" I asked, pointing.
Mike: "No! No! Piton rock in there! Go next to the mossy rock!"
Me: "So on the right side of the mossy rock?!?"
Mike: "No no no! The LEFT side of the mossy rock!!"

I followed Mike's instructions and landed in a boiling pool blocked by a rocky wall on the right. I caught an eddy on the left just downstream, then got out to take photos. It was at that point that I saw this really cool little stone hut on the creek-right bank. It looked ancient, and was so well concealed I almost didn't notice it at first. When I finally did I thought it looked like something a hobbit would live in or something. Inspired, I named the drop 'Hermit Falls.."

Ryan Scott runs Hermit Falls

Downstream were some more small rapids and some wood, and then we passed under a bridge which could function as an alternate take-out. There was a big logjam portage here too I think, maybe that was upstream of the bridge but I'm not sure of the exact location.

Below the bridge the creek lost its scenic nature and signs of civilization became more frequent. Finally we arrived at the biggest horizon line of the day. There is a house high on the creek-right wall, and the residents heard our yelling so they came out to watch. We scouted on the right, and found a somewhat trashy falls. This would be cleaner if the creek was narrower or you had more water, but as it was the creek became very wide, which spread the water a little too thinly across the falls on this particular day.

Keel went first, running down the far-left side which appeared to have a nice boof. He ended up landing on a rock though, so everyone else went for the double drop on the far right, except for Mike who tried the left side and hit the rock as well..

Mike Long drops the Final Falls.

Below the final falls it was a short right to the Little White; we turned right and cruised downstream to the take out bridge.

Update: March 11, 2007, Upper North Fork Lava Creek, Ryan Scott and Keel Brightman.

Keel and I went up and ran Lava creek again with the LW at 4.3 today, It was Sweet! we used your alternate take out and, put in a further upstream on the North Fork Lava where you and I saw the two ledges, they turned out to be four feet tall.

Just upstream of where we put in was a big log jam. We put in, got to main Lava and it was rockin! we had three or four more inches of water today. It seemed to be a great medium flow. At this flow you had to be very alert on where the wood was, a couple of the duck under logs became portages, I think we had four in all counting Eight Ball.

The entire run only took us 45 minutes. The ledges were really fun! We also found and easy seal launch at Eight Ball that puts you in at a 45 degree angle and a gage rock at the take out bridge. If the Ledge to the left int eh photo is covered most of the loges will be in play and the eddys will start to getting hard to catch.

Here are a couple shots I took today, I didn't take many, we were tryin to get out before dark.


Keel Brightman putting in higher up on the North Fork of Lava Creek

This creek appears to be one of the major sources of water for the Little White Salmon. It has the same amazing aquamarine blue aquifer water as its more famous cousin, and some really beautiful forest scenery.

You can do the run in forty-five minutes if you know it and have adequate flows. Generally you want at least four feet on the Little White put-in stick gauge, 4.2-4.5 is better. The wood that is in the creek is ancient, and looks like it is there to stay for the most part.

Looking downstream from the alternate take out bridge downstream creek-left side, this is the gauge rock on Ryans return trip, at optimal medium flows.

On the positive side, the rapids are fun and the scenery is excellent, so if you are feeling like a somewhat strenuous intermediate adventure this is the creek for you ( and, if you use the upper bridge take-out shown on the map below, you avoid some of the flatwater and portaging, though you would miss the final falls ).

Here's a map showing where we hiked in ( faded yellow line ) and the section of interest on Lava Creek. There is actually a marker on road 717, which is good because it is very overgrown and looks more like a large trail than a road. We ended up putting on the North Fork of Lava and paddling down to the main stem just downstream. The North Fork had a surprising amount of water in it that may have something to do with those small ponds on the map.

The red dotted line shows the 170 fpm section which is where all of the best rapids are located. An optional take-out might be the bridge indicated on the map, because below this point the creek is mostly flat with wood and the final falls, which isn't really worth the extra portaging. We ended up paddling down to Willard and took out at the put-in for the Upper Little White.

A zoomed-out map showing Lava Creek, highlighted in blue.

History of paddling Lava Creek: After running this creek we asked around and found that Lava has been run several times before. Paul Heffernan, John Whaley, Jon Loehrke, and others have all paddled this creek in previous years.