The Mountain House section of the South Santiam
Oregon, Headwaters of the South Santiam River
By Jason Rackley

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The Mountain House run is a short, steep, obscure section located high in the headwaters of the South Santiam River. This run was first paddled by April Hoffman back in the nineties, and I've wanted to do it for a long time. The main problem is that I've never been able to trick anyone into going up there with me. Heck, I don't even know if it's even been run since the first descent.

In addition, the river has changed dramatically since April first ventured up there. One side of the canyon wall has since collapsed onto the big falls, introducing many tons of rock and debris into the flow. The end result is an entirely new version of this run, with huge boulders and a re-shaped falls.

Pretty much everyone I know has talked about doing the Mountain House at one time or another, but no one has ever gone up there and done it..

Finally, the day arrived. My friend Jesse Coombs was back in town and wanted to get after it, and he seemed like the perfect candidate for the Mountain House. Why Jesse? Well, I figured that since he had just spent a month in Brazil paddling off giant cliffs covered with water, he'd be stoked to get some more of that.

I was right.

Jesse rolled up in his van, and I dumped my car at the Wal-Mart in Sweet Home. We figured since the run was only a couple of miles, we could just walk the shuttle, no problem.

If you're a potential sponsor who would like to put your logo on Jesse's van, there's room underneath, on the oil pan..

We arrived at the House Rock campground and saw a sign for House Rock Falls, a third of a mile upstream. I vaguely recalled scouting the falls with Dan Coyle back in the day, but couldn't remember details. I seemed to remember that it looked hideous and scary, in other words perfect for Jesse. So, we shouldered our boats and headed upstream on the trail.

The hike to the falls was really nice, the trail was well-maintained and obviously popular when the campground was open in the summer. There were some really majestic trees in there too, which is one of the best things hiking around in the Pacific Northwest..

Jesse, dwarfed by an old growth tree on the hike in to House Rock Falls.
We grow em' big out here in Oregon..

We arrived at House Rock Falls and I immediately wrote it off as unrunnable. Jesse scouted it anyway, spending some time scrambling around peering at the falls from various angles. The consensus in the end was that it wasn't runnable at this flow.

However, after much speculation we decided that at higher water some crazed kayaker might be able to try the razor-thin line on the right side, but I think the lead-in would become pretty hectic with the flows needed to open 'er up..

Jesse scouts House Rock Falls. This one needs more water to go, and then only on the far river-right with a razor-thin line.
At this flow all of the water falls into and behind the boulder Jesse is standing on..

Another look at House Rock Falls.

Just downstream of the falls there was a boulder-garden-slide rapid against the right wall which was a nice way to start the day. Short but sweet. Then the river mellowed as we drifted past the campgrounds, before going under a large tree that we portaged on the right.

Jesse runs the first rapid, just below House Rock Falls.

Downstream were some smaller rapids, then the river narrowed and the gradient picked up as we approached the crux section. Finally we reached a large horizon line and we caught an eddy on the right. I remembered from previous summer hiking trips that scouting was necessary along this whole section, so we both got out to check the lines.

Jesse checks relatively mellow entrance to 'the goods', which also happens to include a fair amount of 'the bads'..
Below this mellow lead-in the river reaches a gradient that can only be described as 'skyscraper-esque'.

We scouted the entrance rapid, which looked mellow and fun. However, the next pitch had changed dramatically since I had hiked this section. The river had managed to tunnel under the huge boulder about halfway down, turning what had been a mostly runnable rapid into a death trap.

We portaged this nasty middle section, then got set up for the bottom section.

Jesse ponders the next rapid below the entrance. This rapid has changed since I originally hiked this section in the summer.
Instead of being somewhat runnable, it is now a death trap, because all of the river now goes under a boulder.

Portaging the sieved-out bit. Recent floods have completely changed this rapid, burrowing a channel under the boulder.
The last time I scouted this section, water was pouring over the top of the same boulder.

Once below the sieved out section we got out to scout the falls and to peer at the giant boulder garden downstream. The falls looked good to go, except on the right side where the water fell onto a pile of boulders. That said, it seemed to us that after running the lead-in rapids, the current would put you pretty much where you needed to be, on the middle or river-left side of the falls..

Jesse scopes out 'the goods' a nice section of totally runnable whitewater goodness that stretches as far as the eye can see..

The falls went first, and it was plenty deep and super friendly. As predicted, the current actually pushed you to the outside river-left side, which was exactly where you needed to be. Jesse probed this one..

Jesse probes the falls. This one is good to go except obviously on the right, where the boulders are.

And, from below..

Just downstream of the falls is a towering boulder garden, which was completely clean except for a log at the very bottom blocking the exit. There was no way to avoid this log, so Jesse hiked downstream and broke off a couple of branches so it would be more or less possible to get under it.

Checking out the big boulder garden just downstream of the falls.
This one features a big, sticky hole just upstream of where Jesse is standing, backed up by boulders just downstream.

Since Jesse probed the falls, I went first on the boulder garden. My main concern was a large hole backed up by boulders halfway down, the hydraulic looked somewhat retentive to me but punchable. Jesse agreed, saying it would go "all day long.."

Of course, if you ended up in the hole, "all day long" would take on an entirely different meaning..

After studying the entrance, I got in my boat and peeled out. I ran the lead-in to the pourover and it was deceptively pushy, but I got to the pourover in good shape and hit the hole square on, plugging it hard and punching through. I surfaced against the boulders that were causing the water to recirculate and had only a few seconds to react before I went for a ride.

My first stroke was on the right side of my boat, and that pulled me over to the right side and into an eddy. Good times.

I got out here to take photos of Jesse and scout the bottom half of the boulder garden. By this time Jesse had seen the whole thing since he had gone down to break branches off of the log, so he went ahead and fired up the boulder garden, top to bottom.

Jesse enters the boulder garden.
The sticky hole is visible in the foreground, it is 100% backed up by boulders, no way out except left or right..

Everything went fine until Jesse reached the log at the bottom of the boulder garden. Of course, he was right where he wanted to be, but the log was much lower than expected so he had to nearly flip over to get under it.

Jesse runs the bottom half of the boulder garden.
The log visible far downstream was low and sketchy.

At this point I decided to go down and get a closer look at the log, and the remaining branches sticking down into the current. I just happened to have a folding hand saw with me, so I brought it along, just in case. When I got to the log I was pretty surprised that Jesse managed to squeeze through at all, because there were branches everywhere. In addition, you had to be on the far right side of the log to get under it, the left side was low and would result in a pin if you got blown over there.

To make matters trickier, there was a significant hole just upstream of the log, which made lining up on the far right side no simple matter. While I was contemplating this Jesse hiked back up and said: "You gotta come through that hole on the far right side, and you gotta be ready to deal with that log, there's no way to avoid it."

I was ok with that, but I decided to even the odds a little, so I climbed out onto the log and cut off a few of the branches on the right side that were potential problems. One of the branches was too thick though, so I gave up cutting on it after a few minutes of hacking at it with my dull saw.

I would regret that decision.

The author trims some branches off of the log blocking the exit of the boulder garden.
Directly under me in this photo is the broken off branch I gave up on cutting because it was too thick. I would regret that later.

I peeled out and had a clean line down through the hole above the log, was right where I wanted to be, and then I hit the log. I rolled onto my side and my momentum and the rushing water started to push me under the log according to plan. However, my left arm came up and the branch I had left in place jammed into my tricep, jolting me to a painful halt and causing me to lose my grip on my paddle involuntarily.

The current and my momentum pushed me under the log though, and then I was in the pool below, halfway over and flailing a little. I managed to get my hand back my paddle before I went too far though, and popped back upright. My arm was sore but functional, so we continued downstream.

The author, about to regret not cutting off one of the limbs on the log..

Downstream of the super-steep section the river mellowed to class three, with some fun smaller rapids which were a nice cool-down. We took out a couple of hundred yards downstream of the crux because we had to hike the shuttle, but I wish we could've gone farther downstream because the whitewater was fun and worth doing.

I think if anyone repeats this run, a good plan would be to paddle down to Longbow falls or somesuch rapid on the section described in the guidebook for the upper upper South Santiam.

Downstream of the crux section, the gradient cools considerably and becomes more river-like, less creek-like.

We dragged our boats up to the road and started walking back up to the van. We estimated we had about two miles to go, but it was a nice day and we were in the mountains and hey, it doesn't get much better than that. Every once in awhile a car would go by, but there wasn't much traffic.

After about ten minutes, a nice woman driving a white Lexus pulled over and offered us a ride. I was a little surprised because:

1. We weren't hitching.
2. I was carrying my paddle, we were wet and a little dirty from our climb out, and her car had immaculate leather seats.

"Are you sure?" I asked, indicating my paddle. "We're kinda wet and a little dirty.."

"Sure, no problem." she said with a smile. "I don't mind at all!"

We piled in to her car and she gave us a ride up to the van. She was really cool and it was great to meet such a generous spirit who was willing to help two strangers.

Jesse talks to the nice woman who gave us a ride, in a leather bound Lexus no less!

We had about 1,200 cfs on the South Santiam at Cascadia gauge, with a significant snow melt component. See below for the area highlighted in blue showing the time we were on the river.

When we were up there the temperature was 75 degrees, and even with no rain you can see how much the river rose the next day. So, we had some snow melt the day we were there for sure. I think this was a good flow, More water would be fine, probably up to 2,000. I wouldn't go any less than 1,200 though, it would get too bony.

The time we were on the river is highlighted in blue. I wouldn't want to go any lower than this.

Obscure trivia: This section is named for the old store/hotel near the Soda Fork confluence which was known as "The Mountain House". This hotel never really did well, and it has since been sold and converted to a private residence.