Morehouse Creek

A record-high descent of Morehouse Creek during the 2006 New Years Flood event.

By: Paul Gamache

Location: Northern California, Cal Salmon drainage
Class V ( V+ )
Gradient: Very high, Pool-drop
Nature: Exploratory
Torture Factor: Low-to-Medium

Copyright © 2006, Paul Gamache and Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of Paul Gamache the Oregon Kayaking webmaster.

Morehouse Creek comes into the Nordheimer run at Airplane Turn rapid on the “Cal-Salmon”, or the Salmon River as we here in Cali are proud to call it. Nordheimer is an awesome Class IV run with a few V’s and is arguably one of the most beautiful sections of river in North America. Normal rafting/ kayak flows for the Nordheimer section of the Salmon are between 3.5 and 6.0 feet. Today we had 11 feet and we set our sights on Morehouse Creek.

For Morehouse to be runnable the Salmon itself must be at 7 feet on the gauge. The creek is located on the opposite side of the Salmon from the road, so paddlers must cross the Salmon to begin hiking up Morehouse. Ben Hawthorne and I began paddling across the river around noon and then started bushwhacking our way up the creek.

We were well aware that this was the highest anyone had ever attempted Morehouse and decided to stay creek level so we could scout the creek on the way up. Ultimately, this was a waste of time since we had to re-scout on the way down. There is a trail next to Morehouse upriver of its confluence to the Salmon, which you can use to gain access to the higher reaches of the creek without as much bushwhacking.

As a result of being constantly whacked in the face by branches and falling into blackberry bushes we elected to put-in after only hiking a mile up the creek. However, this small section of creek made the effort well worth our time. We put in just below a small log choked drop and began our way back down the creek.

Happy to get to the creek after our bushwhack upstream. Ben ( left ) and the author.

The first was a relatively simple looking rapid, which had a little bit of a bite to it. For this one we started left and worked our way right. Right before the center rock you need to cut back to the left to avoid a nasty rock and log combo. The move to the left is more difficult than it looks and water is pushing pretty hard into the rock. Ben splatted the rock but came through, and I had a similar line.

After some small portages around logs we scouted another drop, which had a protruding log running the length of the pour-over. The lead in to this drop is not pictured and is a semi-slide which pushes you left.

Ben running the drop with the log in it.

Below this drop is an ugly looking pour-over which looked like it would be hell to be caught in, involved possibly being sucked behind the falls and underneath a rock. We both decided to portage at this flow. This pour-over is shown in the background of the picture with the really fun double boof.

Typical Morehouse Creek rapids..

The final rapid before the super stout confluence waterfall is an ten footer with a good lead in. I cased the entrance and peeled out but I got messed up in the violent hydraulics and went over the drop completely sideways. I managed to work my way out of the hole at the bottom, then watched as Ben hit it straight and blew through it without problems.

At this point you can taste the juicy falls directly below you. Portaging the confluence rapid is possible on either side of the river. For those choosing to run the bottom drop it is highly advised to do so between seven and nine feet on the gauge. That being said, today the gauge was reading eleven feet and this is where our adventure quickly went from exciting to epic.

Standing atop of the confluence falls at eleven feet on the gauge is very intimidating. All you can see from this angle is a near vertical fourteen foot drop, runnable on the left with only a four foot entrance slot which you must boof to avoid a possible piton.

Immediately after this the drop ramps up into a kicker throwing you into the air, if not into the left wall, as you plummet another fifteen feet or so. The creek then makes a sharp right-hand turn and there is about another hundred and fifty yards of class III+ / IV into the Salmon.

It’s at that right turn where all the water coming off of the drop hits the left wall, banks right and is pulled back into the bottom of the falls creating a giant maytagging eddy of sorts.

After about 20-30 minutes of scouting I had talked myself into running the drop. Ben took camera/safety position on the rock below and I climbed to the top of the falls. As I scouted the drop for a final time I saw the line, where I need to be, where to boof, all that was left to do was to push off and NOT flip over. Since the small drop above the falls was blocked by a log I put in on the rocks next to the lead in rapid.

I put in and after shoving off the rocks I had almost no speed and and immediately got stuck in the hole just above the mayhem. There is about twenty feet between the lead in and the actual falls, so needless to say I was concerned about botching the extremely important entrance move.

After working my way out of the lead-in hole I got pushed against the rocks on river left about fifteen feet above the lip. Finally, managing to straighten out I paddled to gain speed to have an adequate enough boof.

As I looked over the lip and felt my speed increasing very rapidly I boofed and accelerated down the top of the drop. Hitting the kicker I was immediately airborne and going as Ben put it “roughly twenty mph”. Clearing the bottom drop I hit the hole/eddy at the bottom of the falls where the creek makes the right hand turn.

This initial impact did little to slow my speed and I proceeded to slam into the wall on the other side of the eddy. This impact in turn pulled me back into the bottom of the falls where I was semi-pinned by the eddy water pulling back into the falls and the actual vortex action of the falls itself.

I tried a few rolls but did not have any success even rotating the boat. After experiencing the extreme speed abruptly ended by slamming the wall to being stuck maytagging under the falls I felt that I might need some air in case of a swim. Regrettably, I pulled out of my boat once my knees had become unlocked from the thigh braces due to the combo of trying to roll and being pushed down by the falls.

The author drops the confluence falls.

Once out of my boat the fun continued. As I came to the surface I began getting worked by the flooded eddy as well as the falls. Luckily one of the last things I saw before being pulled under again was a yellow line. My head no longer above the surface I waved my hands in an attempt to grab the line before I was completely submerged. The rope landed perfectly in my hand and I grabbed on as Ben struggled to pull me through the eddy. About half the distance of the eddy I managed to find a rock to stand on.

Once I caught my breath I managed to grab my paddle as it circulated around me in the eddy, but I had to dodge my boat as it swept around and almost knocked me off the rock. After some more work Ben pulled me over to his side of the creek and I climbed up to where he was standing.

My boat circulated the eddy once again and in vain I tried to grab for it but Ben was holding the back of my pfd firmly making me unable to reach it The boat soon exited the eddy and started downstream towards the flooded Salmon River. Frantically, Ben rushed to his boat and hurried to catch the boat before it took off down the Salmon, but to no avail. The boat was long gone the time he got there.

Now that things had slowed down a bit, I stood on the rocks and took a moment to appreciate my situation. I had my paddle but no boat, and I was on the wrong side of the Salmon river. Eventually Ben returned from his fruitless recovery attempt and we quickly put together a 'plan'.

Ben was mostly afraid that one of the onlookers who saw the swim would call search and rescue as the boat took off down the Salmon. Consequently, we felt we should hurry and get to the other side and get out of town before Search and Rescue came looking to put a bill on someone.

This was the 'plan': Ben would paddle like hell, I would hold on to the back of his boat and kick for my life and we’d make it to the eddy on the other side.

Well, that didn’t exactly happen…

Ben got back into his boat and I climbed down into the small eddy on the Salmon. Holding my paddle in one hand and Ben’s stern grab loop I pushed us off with my feet and Ben began paddling for the other side. As we neared the other side of the river it became obvious we weren't going to make the eddy.

At the time, the severity of missing the eddy didn’t really sink in, but we were about to find out how bad things could get!

All I knew was that we were in for one hell of a ride. In my mind I knew that I was swimming class IV-V at flood stage, and tried to tell myself that people have survived much worse. As soon as we passed the end of the eddy we were swept downstream into a large hole in the rapid known as 'Airplane Turn'.

We hit the hole and I managed to hold onto Ben but he came up upside down, so for him to roll up I had to let go of his boat. As soon as I did I gained speed and quickly left him behind.

As I bobbed down the Salmon I yelled Ben’s name knowing that my chances of survival without him were greatly diminished. He finally caught up to me and I grabbed onto his stern once again. Of course, we didn’t go very far before we dropped into yet another enormous hole. As we hit the hole I felt myself go deep and tried to hold on to Ben as he back flipped upon impact with the hole.

Once I surfaced, I began playing Marco Polo with Ben. I dropped into several very large holes alone and wondered if Ben would ever find me again. Finally, he caught up just before we dropped into an exploding sideways lateral hole. This hole was angled from right to left, I went deep once again and couldn’t hold on to Ben as I was pulled down far under the surface.

When I resurfaced next to a large eddyline and my lungs were burning. I started my paddle and started kicking my legs to cross over the eddy fence and into the eddy. Unfortunately, this wasn’t your regular, calm, mellow, “let’s go for a swim eddy” this was a full on raging feature which was determined to suck me back up river into the pit of hell I had just gotten out of.

As I worked for the bank I watched as the rock wall quickly pass me by as I was pulled up river. Feeling rocks near my feet I lunged for the rock wall and managed to find a hold and climb out.

After catching my breath, I had two options: Swim downstream to a better spot and take my chances with the river, or climb the cliff and risk falling.

Easy choice. I started climbing.

Ben at this point was far down river and blowing his whistle to try to locate me. After sometime I managed to make my way to the top of the cliff and began walking, paddle in hand, down the road to find Ben. He was just about to the road by the time I caught up with him.

We had floated a half mile in less than ten minutes and were both stoked to be out of the water. We hooked up with JD, a local who we met earlier that day. After recounting our adventure, JD and I headed down the river in hopes to finding my boat as Ben worked on getting his boat up the cliff.

Unfortunately, we never spotted my boat although two locals drove by in a truck and said they tried to get it off a rock but it took off down river before they get to it. Just as it became dark we headed back to where Ben was and together we were able to pull his boat the rest of the way up the cliff.

I received a phone call over a month later. Someone had found my boat four miles below the Martin’s Ferry Bridge. The boat was in near perfect condition. It had survived the New Years Flood on the Klamath and was floating in an enormous eddy behind the bridge.

The person who bought the boat from the salvager, ( $150 ) called the Somes Bar store and the owner told him that I lost my boat. He lived in Mckinleyville, which is only six miles north of Arcata and I paid him the $150 for the boat back. I’ll never know for sure if he actually even paid for the boat in the first place but I decided I was happy to get the boat back and decided not to ask too many questions..

Happy Creekin’

Paul Gamache