Creeking with Elvis

A Road Trip in the USA's Pacific Northwest, April 2003

by Mark Rainsley

(first published in Paddles magazine)

See Mark's trip photos.

Listening to route descriptions from Andy McMahon is always confusing, not helped by his thick Scots accent. This time he was uncharacteristically clear.
"I've just inspected. There's a stopper around that corner. Hit it on the left."
Off I headed towards the corner, steadily working my way across to river left. The corner opened up into view, except that I couldn't see the stopper mentioned. Probably because it was hidden at the bottom of a substantial waterfall, which Andy had failed to mention. Chanting the mantra, "McMahon must die", I soared off the lip, burying deep into a worryingly solid tow back. Everything went green and my ears popped from the pressure. I flung my weight forward and wrenched on my paddle shaft. This time I was lucky; the hole released its grip and I surfaced vertically some way downstream. Even so, I'd gone deep enough and long enough to see the King himself. This wasn't the first or last time any of us would meet Elvis on this trip.

Back to school. The States of Oregon and Washington form the 'Pacific Northwest'. This vast wilderness mainly consists of trees (lots of) and rain (lots and lots of). Millions of years of volcanic activity and epic glacial floods have formed a spectacular boater's Nirvana of gorges and waterfalls. Two hundred years ago, the first whitewater tourists arrived when Lewis and Clark explored the region via the Columbia Gorge, the mile-wide canyon dividing the States. In due course, thousands of settlers trekked out West along the Oregon Trail. About then the region's Native Americans pretty much vanished; my tourist brochure was a bit vague about this. Little has happened since then. Rain fell, the trees got taller and Mount St Helens burped loudly in 1980. Here endeth the lesson.

Nine of us flew to Portland airport, armed to the teeth with an array of creek boats. We'd cunningly planned to arrive on different flights but as the USA was busy bombing Iraq into freedom, we were stuffed onto a single flight with the other non-Americans who still dared take to the skies. Inexplicably, there was no charge for the kayaks but the takeoff was delayed due to "Loading issues". Oops.

At Portland Airport we collected three cool Chevy 4WDs (good effort, Neil) and hit the Freeway. If I'm taking a while to get around to talking about 'boating', humour me. Paddling with Uncle Sam isn't about rivers, or kayaks, or such crudeness. It's about Road Trip culture. For every hour spent frenetically steep creeking, you'll spend three in motels drinking lousy beer, watching lousy TV and eating lousy fast food. This is much more fun than it sounds, especially when you factor in hot spas, post-swim analyses and more lousy beer. Two more hours will be spent driving around checking out rivers which are too high or too low. Another hour will be spent compensating for Chris's navigation. And so forth. It's a wonder any boating ever gets done in the US of A.

But it does. We kicked off with a day of creeks around Hood River, a trendy outdoorsy health freak town. The Lake Branch of the Hood River was eerily reminiscent of our own East Lyn River. The falls were less cuddly than they looked; the poor fellow who'd just joined us vanished below a drop and resurfaced some while later looking dishevelled. His playboat was never seen again, and wild staring eyes showed that first contact with Elvis had been achieved. On the positive side, an instant creek boats convert was made. We ticked off the West Fork of the Hood and then crossed the Columbia River into Washington for the evening supper, the upper Wind River. Bank-full, this was a thumping stopperfest that gave those of us familiar with the upper Dart a sense of dj vu. This wasn't the last time we were to be reminded of home and indeed, a trip to the area can certainly be recommended to anybody aspiring to paddle in Devon.

Tricky decisions on day #2. The nearby White Salmon and Little White Salmon had come mucho recommended to us. Via the miracle of internet gauges, we were gutted to learn that they were both way high. We dipped a careful toe in the easier 'Farmlands' section of the White Salmon and were rewarded with perfectly manageable quality grade 4+ hemmed in by walls of solid lava. Elvis was conspicuous by his absence; I'm guessing he was lurking behind the curtain of the dodgy waterfall that most portaged. Splendid as this was, we opted for the grim climb up and out before the river entered the infamous 'Truss' section. Wussing out of this and the Little White made a lot of sense in terms of personal survival. But as far as our over-inflated egos were concerned, the Big Match had simply been postponed

The following afternoon I found myself hitching along a quiet Washington lane, wearing dripping paddling kit and draped in moss and random foliage. The story of how I came to be there is too heart-rending to tell in full, but suffice to say it involved Canyon Creek, an extended wellying in a walled in tow-back and a personal audience with Presley. Canyon Creek, by the way, nestles deep in a canyon draped with moss and random foliage; I imagine that climbing out would be a horror story. No one picks up hitchers in rubber, but my day had a happy ending. Finally staggering to the takeout, I discovered that Kev and Marcus had somehow managed to tow and throw my jilted Java down the entire waterfall runit didn't look pretty any more, but it was certainly good for the rest of the trip. Good effort Gents, guess I owe you a small beer sometime. Between you.

The next mission objective involved heading into wild central Washington. We'd been recommended some classic gorge runs in the Cispus River drainage. Peering through old growth forest and torrential rain, we spied an unnerving amount of water. You can always tell a trip is a dubious idea if the portage path is submerged. All was not lost; the next few days saw us exploring smaller creek runs. McCoy's and Yellowjacket Creeks were an expedition of Eiger proportions. Preoccupied with hair-raising waterfalls and cliff-hanger portaging, we barely noticed that these two ditches lurk in truly jaw dropping surroundings. We launched onto Johnson Creek as an afterthought ("what's left in the guidebook?") so the eight (count them!) epic portages were a bit of a shocker. Seeing was believing. Assuming nothing could top the frigid 'fling boat and jump' totally evil waterfall portage, we ate serious humble pie when the final gorge proved to be blocked by - filled by - a log jam. This Godzilla of log jams was ten metres high, a hundred long and breathed fire. I made the last bit up. Scaling up 'n' over was oddly masochistic fun, but the novelty might wear thin if this became an everyday paddling occurrence.

We were coaxed back to Oregon by the infinite rain and lack of TV channels in our tents; they don't even have Motels in the Cispus watershed. Heathens! En route we flung ourselves off the big but chummy waterfalls on the East Fork Lewis River, and returned for 'Canyon Creek II - This time, its Personal'. Andy Mc's turn came up, for a thrashing in the helpfully named 'Thrasher' drop. Watching Andy go through Hell's rinse cycle was vaguely unsettling, he was in there long enough for us to get our story straight for the Inquest. Whatever Elvis had whispered to Andy in there, he wasn't telling us after. Back at the motel (vibrating beds!) we offered the usual post-traumatic stress therapy; beer and p*ss-taking.

Oregon had more sun, less water. We trekked into Opal Creek, three miles grunting through stunning ancient forest. We were greeted at the put-in by an equally stunning female Forest guide, and suddenly pretended to care deeply about the environment. The creek was a tad low; a shame as with good water, this would be one of the finest grade 4 days anywhere. Another Canyon Creek (they are ten a penny) laid on a mixed diet of steep boulders and nasty little slots, giving the King plenty of company. The South Santiam River was, "Something out of Tolkien" and the 'Miracle Mile' on the Willamette River was fairly named; a frantic straight-line blast through one 1001 stoppers. The dodgiest moments came off the water. We dropped into the ramshackle Bowling Alley in the logging community of Oakridge and found ourselves fighting off scary 'trailer trash' spinsters; they clearly relish fresh genes out in the woods.

Back in Hood River, we picked the brain of the infinitely patient kayak store owner ("don't you guys ever buy anything?"). The Sandy River (godawful tree-ditch) and the lower Wind killed time. The Wind's volcanic hot pools were a chance to commune with nature and dangle freely. This was all side salad; the main course was still on the table. The two White Salmons were still chuntering, but by now we'd found our mojos. We patched shredded gear, shored up battered boats and became increasingly dependent on the crap that Americans pass for beer. We were ready and psyched. what could go wrong?

The guidebook implied that the best outcome to hope for from the 'Truss' section of the White Salmon would be a merciful death. We were used to this book by now, with its hilarious lack of irony (genuine quote: 'Certain Death rapid is a portage') and conservative water level suggestions. We scrambled into the gorge and picked up where we left off ten days before. Does life get any better? Humping non-stop 4+ in awesome environs. The trip had the perfect climax in Zigzag Canyon. Two long complex grade 5 rapids couldn't be portaged; lousy luck for those with a limited memory span! Simon cleared the crux move past a lethal lava cave but relaxed early and dropped into a Bad Place. A bruising two minutes later, the scrap was over and Si washed out of the pourover minus boat, having gotten about as intimate with Elvis as you can. Winding down with a bounce down the grade 3 'Husum' section to the Columbia River, our blades barely got wet; we were saving energy for the final day.

The Little White Salmon comes with baggage. We've been around enough to take a jaded view of 'World Classic' taglines, but for once the hype is warranted. Ooh yes it's lovely. Three miles of clear blue water, dropping 700 feet without a wasted inch. Total concentration needed, not our strong point after two weeks of motel room channel surfing. We put best frocks on and did a passable impression of good paddling. The only blip: Andy Mc missed a single line, all it took to claim a stopper caning (and the trip swim trophy). It could've been worse; his boat washed up in a dark lava cave whilst Andy front-crawled to safety. The technique for extracting the boat was long, complicated and doesn't feature in the BCU Handbook. I am sure I glimpsed a sequinned jacket glittering at the back of the cave

The Little White ends with a lake slog, time to chill out and weigh up the holiday. A random bag of friends of friends, we'd mixed well; no faffers, everyone making their own safe decisions and everyone able and willing to drink unnecessary amounts of beer. We'd now paddled one of the finest grade 5 creeks anywhere, with a degree of dignity. The Lads Done Well.

Mark Rainsley endured Budweiser with Neil Davey, Kevin Francis, Marcus Holborn, Andy Levick, Andy McMahon, Jason Scholey, Chris Wheeler and Simon Wiles.
Mark thanks Perception for continuing support and the fantastic Java creek boat. Both he and Jason owe thanks to Nookie for supplying some splendid paddling kit. Their clothing matched - fashion disaster! Andy McMahon has requested that his three swims be omitted from the article.