By Jim Pytel

Copyright © 2004, Jim Pytel and Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking Webmaster and the author.

Canyon Creek is the Six Flags Adventure Park of Washington creeking. Typically runnable from late October to early May, depending on snowpack and rain conditions, it is a whitewater playground that justly deserves this popular and pleasurable reputation. While not unusually hard it’s subtle trickery has dealt a high number of comeuppances to up and coming novice creekers and it’s tight knit turns have often echoed the humble phrase, “I think I’m over my head.”

I am of the caliber of kayaker that can only serve to offer condolences to those afflicted and befuddled boaters who find themselves at odds with this most beautiful of beasts. Though the essence of this proclamation may seem boastful it’s justification is found in my intimacy with this passage. At the time of this writing I’ve transited Canyon Creek nineteen times in snow, wind, rain, and sun. It is with tangible vividness I see in my mind’s eye the log skewed approach to Swizzle Sticks, hear the bass drum pound of Big Kahuna in my lungs, and smell the mist rent air below Hammering Spot. The twentieth descent will assuredly awaken these same senses and bring with it amazing new discovery. To put it in another manner, I am enchanted with Canyon Creek.

Though feelings run deep, I am not exclusive in my affections for this one passage and I spend a fair amount of time in pursuit of elusive drainages or other similarly rewarding riverine relationships. It was on such a thwarted adventure I found myself again at Canyon Creek’s faithful door.

The date was December 13th and an iridescent cloud of the most furious reds, purples, and yellows was pounding the once clear skies of a digital simulacrum of the Pacific Northwest on my computer screen. The time was 6am and I was jumping at the bit to dive into this most perfect storm. Though the hazy fog of last nights revelries pulled one eye to the side as if I slept next to something magnetic I could not sleep through the promise of new discoveries.

My boating partner, however, could. Kris Wilson, the self styled Lord of the Little White, was doing his best to live up to his reputation as the hardest sleeping kayaker in Portland. It is with full experiential knowledge of the kayaking communities propensity towards untimelyness I am saying that Kris Wilson’s sleep habits border on the edge of narcolepsy. It is absolutely unreal.

Picking through the epicenter of an apparent localized earthquake I stepped over a pile of paperwork, a spilled laundry hamper, a pair of curiously heat warped butter knives, and a couple stringless guitars on the floor. “Mrmmprh. Gargle. Ack.” From the bedroom Kris waved his arm like a wounded seal would flap a dismembered flipper when trying to dial a phone. “Not go. Too tired.”

“Yes go. Get up.” It is with somewhat cruel satisfaction I recall forcibly dumping Kris from his sleeping bag on the banks of the North Fork of the Payette last summer. If I could only find his bedroom through the obstacles on the floor I’d do the same. Nothing would dissuade us from our goal of Trout Creek.

Nothing except 8 feet of snow. I gasp in sheer incredulity at the reports of a glacier’s advance across the put in road. Another ice age has visited the Pacific Northwest overnight. A sleepy eyed Kris and I shake the phone tree of the Portland kayaking community only to find it bare of fruit. Our usual crowd is embroiled in other pursuits, too hung over, or ‘has plans.’ Those plans no doubt involve curling up on the couch with a bong and watching Speed Racer all day. Our time on this Earth is but short and we will not share this idle fate. Fearing Kris’s eyelids would permanently shut I reached into the Keno lottery game of my memory and pulled out whatever labeled ping pong ball I could grab. The ball read ‘Copper Creek’.

Kris’s eyes opened ever so slightly. “Yeah. That’s got an 18 footer in it.”

“And we could run laps on the Final Five.” said I, pressing the deal.

A smile broke out across Kris’s once somnolent features. It was set.

Or so we thought. Nothing smacks in the face of our hubris as the weather we experienced on the drive to Copper. Shattered tree limbs lay across our path and bewildered rain soaked cows wandered aimlessly around new pasture having been blown into the hills from Hazel Dell. Once desiccated ditches were now raging torrents of whitewater with surfable waves. As we climbed towards our destination the weather only proceeded to get worse. Snow, piles of snow, crouched on the roadside and soon even the heartiest of red neck plow men dared not push it away. We stopped in utter disbelief at our tiny, tiny existence in the face of this overwhelming onslaught. Copper Creek was no longer an option. Kris’s eyelids drooped.

I pressed a cup of coffee in his hands and jammed a thought into his head. “Canyon Creek.” Faithful Canyon Creek. Always there for the boys.

“What’s it running?” asked Kris.

Hmmm. At 6am the Heison gauge on the East Fork of the Lewis was reading 1200cfs which ordinarily correlates to a nice medium level on our desired destination. Undoubtedly it had gone up since my last inspection, but, in what later turned out to be a gross error in judgment given the environment over which we just transited, I didn’t think it was rising that fast. “Should be medium-high.” said I. How much towards the high end of this spectrum I was soon to find out.

Our immediate concern was to secure shuttle. This proved to be no easy task in the wind swept parking lot of the Chelatchee Prairie General Store in a pounding rain. We fanned out and began to solicit the locals. My first attempt at establishing contact with my fellow man resulted in an old farmer shutting the window of his truck as I approached. No luck there. I was then denied assistance by a family that would’ve been hard pressed to come up with a complete set of functional teeth between the lot of them. Similarly deterred Kris met me below the dripping overhang. “I think you’re scaring them off.” he observed.

I sighed in agreement knowing full well my propensity to come off as ‘a little jumpy.’ “What’d you come up with?” I asked.

“Well,” said Kris and shook his head, “I think I’d have better luck if I put my drysuit on, shoved an empty beer ball on my head, and pretended I was an astronaut that needed a ride back to my space ship behind Tum-Tum mountain.” We shared a laugh and agreed that it’d probably be better if just one of us canvassed the parking lot. “Don’t worry,” said Kris, “I speak logger.” and hiked his thumb at a sign advertising Fried Spotted Owl Wings.

After a quick run up the put in road we stood at the Fly Creek bridge in clear disbelief at what roared below us. What is normally a pristine green meeting of two mountain streams, Canyon and Fly Creek, was a mud colored collision of oceans. We tried in vain to peer through the mist and ascertain the level of the river but the chocolate fluid that lapped at the bridge footing allowed no glimpse of the unit* below.

* The unit is the standard reference point for measuring Canyon Creek’s level. It has been referred to over the broad spectrum of the kayaking community as ‘ the foot’, ‘the pylon’ or alternatively ‘the square platform’. Let’s get one thing straight here … it’s ‘the unit’. Refer to it as such or run the risk of being ostracized by those that do not speak your foreign tongue. We are, after all, a community, and communities have standards of behavior and recognizable speech patterns. If boaters from Seattle want to call it something different, fine, so be it, but in Portland it’s called ‘the unit’. Get it? Got it? Good. Now that I’ve said my piece on the unit, let’s discuss what it’s used for. Basically anything below the unit is low and anything above it is high. It’s that simple. Folks typically run Canyon from 10 to 12 inches below to about 6 inches above.

Lacking any frame of reference we did what any reasonable prudent young men would do given that their very well being depends upon the quality of their decision … we guessed.

“I don’t know. Looks like it’s maybe 8 inches above.”

“Do people run it that high?”

“I guess so.” said I vaguely recalling a misty rumor of someone possibly running it at 1.5’ above the unit. We shrugged our shoulders, got ready, and Kris took off down the road in pursuit of shuttle. In no time flat he rounded the bend in the back of a pickup truck of a family intent on getting a Christmas tree that evening. Apparently the astronaut trick worked. We leapt the tank trap ditch, bound down the put in trail, and readied ourselves on the curiously smaller shore.

Like a severed artery the mud colored lifeblood of our planet gushed from an ordinarily mild-mannered Fly Creek and slammed into the brown roller coaster of Canyon Creek. Wide eyed we slid from the bank and were quickly pulled under the bridge having barely enough time to glance at where once the unit stood. The upper reaches of the pylon (‘the pylon’ being the portion of ‘the foot’ above ‘the unit’) rhythmically bobbed in and out of the soil colored soup with a odd white smear winking in and out of existence. “Maybe a little above 8 inches.” I shrugged and was pulled downstream.

What we experienced next was akin to kayaking nirvana, a solid mile of gorgeous whitewater. Waves of the most beautiful persuasion appeared on each and every corner. Foam crested and bucking, huge crashing ones and thick ribbed glassy ones. Wave after beautiful wave. I longed for the responsiveness of my playboat but leapt upon them just the same. Rapids sprung from the depths and challenged us with churning hole and challenging moves. We frolicked in these heavy haystacks with abandon. Not a more perfect stretch of river could be imagined. A tiny sobering thought crept from the deep recesses of my consciousness … the first mile is ordinarily flat. It was with a long glance at the cable trail, the last reasonable hike out, we entered the gorge.

Mindful of the altered nature of this once familiar run I was still not prepared for my first encounter with the radically changed Entrance. What ordinarily is a defined angular ledge drop with a pair of logs high on the canyon wall was now a series of giant haystack waves with sinister pinchers plunged deep in the main current. Swizzle Stick’s net of wall clinging logs was visible just below the run out but nowhere could be seen Swizzle Stick’s rapid. It appeared entirely washed out. As if the mile of great play was not enough to convince me of the great undertaking we were about to commence the simple fact of a rapid disappearing was enough to clue me in that we were dealing with a level just a mite higher than 8” above the unit. Tight Gorge twisted into the distance and around the bend.

“You first.” I pointed to Kris. “I’ll take pictures.” Such is the advantage of being camera man and having gullible friends. Kris stepped to the task and was quickly ground under the haystacks of Entrance rapid, narrowly escaping the hungry tusks of the once benign logs. He emerged from the muddy depths and was sucked downstream through Swizzle Sticks and into the seething chaos of the Tight Gorge.

Kris knocking on Entrance’s door

I slapped my camera into my box, jammed it and myself into my boat and slid into the water not wanting to be separated from my paddling buddy. Hindsight insists that I should’ve been more cautious in my approach. The lead wave of Entrance seemed to batter Kris left, so, wishing to avoid this same fate I lined up on center with aggressive forward momentum. Far too aggressive for the circumstances it turns out. Up and over the wave I drove, only to slip subtly to the right and straight into the descending fangs of the overhanging logs. Bang! My boat slammed to a halt and I swung wildly backwards as water devils grabbed the edge of my craft a gave me a half flip. In potential broach situations, balance is not an ally so I threw my body backwards into the current and momentum peeled me off the log. I righted myself, ducked under Swizzle Stick’s namesake and plunged into the Tights. Ordinarily a constricted maze of many turns, it was a now veritable hall of giant whirlpools and vanishing seams. Emerging from the chaos I encountered my similarly wide eyed friend uttering the same thought, “We need to stick together.”

We battled our way through a number of unknown features and found ourselves above a steaming horizon line. Both of us stared in absolute disbelief. Every atom of my body screamed at once, “Where are we?!”

“Can this really be Terminator?” I asked in mistrust of my own senses.

Kris shrugged his shoulders and headed for a thin eddy clinging above the drop. I followed him in and we both craned our necks in a vane attempt to scout what lay in our path. “Hold my boat. I’ll get out.” After a brief aquatic acrobat routine above the lip of a drop I finally made it to shore and inspected the monster before us. Nothing was as it should’ve been. A monstrous pourover formed on the right side only to be rivaled in size by the one on the left. A wide diagonal chute blazed between them and spilt into what can only be described as an ocean in a box. “Looks good.” I gave Kris the thumbs up and described the line in purposely emotionless fact. “Keep a brace handy at the bottom.” Kris and I both disappeared into the roar and emerged in fast moving water above stream of the bungee bridge.

Below this thin stretch cord of modernity lay Bitch Slapper, affectionately known among some of my crew as 50-50 because of it’s even handed dealing of hammerings. Thankfully, it turned out to be free of hazards. The bungee bridge, noticeably absent of alcoholic dunderpates, passed high overhead and we sooner, rather than later, found ourselves above Prelude to Thrasher. Kris, a first hand witness to this rapid’s characteristic undercut, chose to beach himself on shore and slide down a narrow chute on the left. I scouted from my boat.

Water does amazing things. I’ve paddled for 9+ years and still haven’t seen all the things it can do. Prelude had what looked like an underwater fireworks display going on on the right side, a huge hole in the middle, and a challenging diagonal chute on the left. I’d never seen an underwater fireworks display before but I knew damn sure I didn’t want to be there nor did I want to be in the hole. So, the diagonal chute it was. I lined up, paddled off the lip, and straight into an unseen rock. Damn.

Seizing my brief moment of zero velocity the river took control and sweep me backwards over the wide center chute, it being the residence of the huge hole I referred to earlier. In an interesting commentary about physics and whitewater I’ve noticed time has a way of dilating prior to a major ass kicking. As I accelerated 9.8m/s2 backwards towards certain doom, I saw in sickening slow motion the barrage of underwater explosions on river right and wished I had the capacity to rewind time and redo my entrance. Unfortunately, life has no rewind button and I plummeted into the collapsing mass a prisoner of this unfortunate dimension. I clenched my teeth, assumed a crash position, and prepared for the worst. In what can only be described as paranormal activity, what happened was this … absolutely nothing. Like the inexplicable magic bullet that hit JFK and the governor of Texas at the same time, I slipped through the impenetrable gravitational well without so much as getting my hair wet. With a tremendous heave, the hole surged just as I hit the backwash and I slipped through like a high energy particle out the back. Wide eyed, I back paddled through the roar and made the next eddy. Quantum tunneling or an act of karma? You be the judge.

“You’re one lucky son of a bitch.” was Kris’s estimate.

I hissed a sigh of relief through my teeth and made a mental note to stop being such a jackass to people. Karma exists. It works. It’s real. No place is this more evident than the river.

Thrasher Prime’s roar quickly filled the canyon walls. Not a single recognizable feature could be discerned. Ordinarily an intimidating double chute, Thrasher was now an aquatic atomic bomb. Errant logs fell off the lip in clots and never resurfaced. Kris raised his eyes and slipped down a narrow sneak chute on the far, far left, over what would normally be considered the shore. Considering that my karmic bank account was dangerously on the verge of being overdrawn, I chose to follow Kris down this far left chute.

Here we paused above a liquid avalanche formerly known as the Boulder Garden. Not a single boulder could be seen but the tortured humps of thumping pourovers and exploding waves hinted at their existence just below the muddy surface. Kris and I dove headfirst into the chaos stopping two thirds of the way down in a miraculous Idaho eddy (a handful of riverside vegetation) above the horizon line of a ravenous blackhole. We quickly leapt from our craft to scout this imposing cataclysm before us and could not believe our eyes. What is ordinarily a problematic keeper hole in the lower reaches of the boulder garden was now the event horizon of a collapsing star. Kris and my errant helmet straps fluttered in the wind and the hole’s gravity tugged at our clothing. If we opened our mouths our very words were drawn into the tremendous reversal and slammed into unrecognizable sounds. Through ESP alone we were able to communicate the following shared observation:

“Fuck that. Let’s walk.”

Pricker bushes, goats heads, wait-a-whiles, brambles, and briars saw us around the beast and we soon stood above the thundering Bigger Kahuna. Though it seemed the sanest path, walking this drop was not an option. Off, over, and around a giant pothole poured the entire force of the flooded Canyon Creek. The normal route was buried far against the left wall and a great curtain of coffee colored water poured over the right side. While the far right route seemed promising, the landing did not; for the entire roiling pool rushed into the undercut right wall. A sure line and a steady landing were a must in this trying situation. I again readied my camera and kept my rope bag close on hand. What exactly was I going to do with my rope, I had no idea. The undercut was mighty deep and the current mighty strong. My paddling buddy nodded his head, peeled from the eddy, and made for his line.

Kris takes a look at 'Bigger' Kahuna

A word about Kris Wilson, drinker, smoker, pool hustler, and ladies man. Bonds forged on such classics as the Little White, the Upper Upper Cispus, and eight hour drives to Idaho, he is a trusted friend and excellent paddling partner. Smooth in approach, flawless in execution, collected and cool in the face of danger, Kris is an example of what all creek boaters should strive to be. Which is why it came as such a surprise to see him plummet like a no momentum sack of shit off the edge of this thundering drop and disappear carping a roll under the curtain.

“Oh crap.” I fumbled with my camera as a thrashing Kris disappeared into the undercut below me. “Crap. Crap. Double Crap.” I hopped around and bounded close to the edge in a vain effort to sight him below the overhang. A bit of blue broke the surface and his upside down boat bounced against far right wall just beyond the reach of the undercut. Floundering, Kris he-manned a roll and paddled into the middle of the pool with a fear induced smile.

“Lucky son of a bitch.” I mused and slid into my craft.

Seeing how the lip momentarily robbed him of momentum, I opted for a route that followed a majority of the current over the edge. I sailed clear in that most desired freedom from the toils of gravity … the boof. How sweet the sound. Kris congratulated the line and we continue down the rain swollen rapids.

It was not long before we floated above the Drop Zone, three precipitous cataracts in close proximity. Being the last spasms of gradient before it plowed into the languid flatwater of Merwin Reservoir (Reservoir, not lake. Lakes are natural, reservoirs aren’t) Canyon Creek would not go out without a bang. The first of these is the 10’ Champagne, a straight shot off a triangular prow rock. However, this beacon was enshrouded in an unbroken curtain of raging flood water. We scouted and decided on a narrow chute pressed up against the far left wall. From our vantage point high on the canyon wall, try as we may, we could not see the bottom of the next drop, the 10’ Hammering Spot. As Kris lined up for the first drop, I waited on shore with a throw bag in case he needed to be extracted from between the drops. Kris, as is his character, smoothly approached the desired launch pad and with a single stroke cleared it in the sweetest boof of the day. He paddled to the river left shore and scouted Hammering Spot. A pat on the head signaled it was okay and my retrieval services would not be warranted. Grateful, I slid into my boat and lined up for the drop off Champagne.

Water has a way of awakening you when your attention strays. Jubilant that I would not have to haul my companion out of the canyon and conduct a retreat through the woods I should’ve been more attentive to my line off this narrow drop. With subtle left to right motion my nose dove under a curtain of water on my right just as I made my final stroke. Entrapped in this current’s flow I plummeted off line. Back ender! I cursed my own stupidity and performed a roll in the outwash that barely landed me in the eddy above Hammering Spot. Similarly an unbroken belt of raging water poured over this 10’ drop and blasted a veil of mist into the air. I scrapped down a narrow chute on far left and beat my craft across the river to take a shot of Kris in the midst of the action.

Kris below the Drop Zone

We now stood above Toby’s, the most dangerous rapid on the run and our only barrier to the placid refuge of Merwin Reservoir. No matter how you look at Toby’s, whether high water or low water, it’s manky and full of surprises. Jumbles of rock, broken ledges, and other unseen obstacles wait in ambush at every corner. The sight of a notorious fatality in 2000 and a near miss in 2001, this rapid is not to be trifled with. I scouted on the far right side and found a chute against an angular block tumbled from the right wall. Strong left to right momentum would be required. I returned upstream and told Kris of my plans.

“But what about the flake move?” asked Kris of his usual line.

“Dude, the flake move has some shit going on that I’ve never seen before.” said I. True enough, the once handy flake now had a twisting flume of water that blasted over it and split in two in mid air.

“I think I can make it.” said Kris.

I looked him in the eyes and shook my head to the negative. “You’ll explode.”

“So what’s our line?” he asked.

“Well, a three foot wide chute on far right. Line up at the top just to the right of two diagonal curlers pointing into the flake. Trust me. Don’t follow those curlers.”

Kris uncertainly nodded his head and we began our descent. In what can be considered the lesser of a whole lot of evil, I chose a good line. Outside of this situation on any other rapid, this line would’ve been considered less than ideal. Down here it was our only option. I deftly slipped past the snaring embrace of the two curlers, passed just right of the exploding flake, and launched off the lip of the desired chute. My elation was cut short by contact with a rock hidden just below the boiling surface. Thankfully, my momentum and angle caused me to glance off this hidden obstruction and into the eddy unscathed. Next, came a hesitant Kris. With longing that quickly changed to dread he watched the flake move pass and made for the right hand chute. I’ve seen people take some pretty hard hits before but never have I seen a boat completely stop in the middle of the river. Complete, dead still, no motion stop. BANG! Kris landed square on the hidden rock and halted all forward progress. Like I said, Toby’s is manky and full of unwanted surprises. A curtain of water poured over the back of his boat and thankfully pushed him free. Missing the eddy, he squirted into the main current and over two remaining bonus round rapids in what would ordinarily be the flatwater of the lake. I peeled out and encountered him in our first period of calm in the last 3.2 miles.

A look of pain contorted his features, “My ass hurts. What’s my boat look like?” He rolled over and displayed a completely perpendicular crease in his hull like the entire boat had been folded in half and stuffed in an envelope.

I simply laughed and gave him a high five. We had survived.

After a smoky ritual on the bridge spanning Merwin we quenched our thirst in the tiny hamlet of Amboy, Washington. Immediately conspicuous in this den of hard working mountain folk we ingratiated ourselves to the locals and adopted their customs. Beers and dead animals were the fare of the evening. Kris and I settled into reflection of the days whirlwind of activity. While objectively it can be stated that we exhibited poor judgment in our decision to put on this rain swollen river, there was something about this experience that served to cement our bonds of friendship. Together we tackled this unknown challenge and through sheer tenacity and trust saw it through to the end. It is one thing to run a river, it is quite another experience to be over one’s head. I’m glad we pulled each other through. Everything turned out to be runnable, but the unknown lay around each and every bend. First hand witness to a different Canyon Creek I am far more aware and appreciative of it’s spectrum of emotions. Though an accurate measurement has yet to be made, an unconfirmed estimate places our memorable journey at 30 inches above the unit and rapidly rising.

We paid in cash as not to betray our identity as city folk and pushed into the rainy night.

Fool’s diversion, this is kayaking. This is what I love to do.