WASHINGTON OREGON: THE FACTS

(first published in Canoeist magazine)

- Another top boating destination

This accompanies Chris's article.

Washington Oregon States together make up the USA's 'Pacific Northwest', sandwiched on the west coast between better known neighbours, with California to the south, Idaho inland to the east and Canada's British Columbia to the north. The two States are separated by the mighty River Columbia, with Oregon to the south and Washington to the north. Running north-south through the western halves of both States are ranges of volcanic mountains known as 'The Cascades', located inland of the coastal ranges but far westwards of the Rockies. These feature major snow capped peaks such as Mount Adams and the infamous Mount St Helens, which are surrounded by forested hills, bisected by a dense concentration of creeks offering every Grade of white water and everything from boulder gardens to pool drop.

The region has in recent times featured in hair boating videos and adverts and is the home of notorious top American boaters such as Jay Kincaid and Tao Berman. Maybe because of this, it has now belatedly made it onto most peoples' lists of World Class creek boating destinations.

Chris on Washington's steep Canyon Creek.

Which rivers?

We focused on rivers located within 2-3 hours of Portland, Oregon, and therefore on rivers in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. This is classic steep creek boating territory and many of the runs consist of challenging pool drop Grade 4+/ 5 boating through steep sided tree lined gorges. However, easier runs are available and there are larger volume classic multi day trips available eastwards through the drier eastern plateaux and in southern Oregon. To give you an idea of what is possible on a 2 week trip, our itinerary worked out as follows:

Lake Creek/ Hood- West Fork (WF)
Wind- upper section
White Salmon- Farmlands section
Trout Creek- upper section
Canyon Creek- upper and lower sections (Washington)
McCoy's Creek
Yellowjacket Creek
Johnson Creek
Lewis EF: Falls section
Opal Creek- upper and lower sections/ North Santiam- Little NF
Canyon Creek (Oregon)
Santiam SF- Monster section
Willamette NF MF
Sandy- upper section
Wind- lower section
White Salmon: Green Truss and Husum sections
Little White Salmon

In other words, we started off by heading out of Portland airport and driving eastwards for one hour to Hood River town. We then worked our way northwards into Washington State and halfway towards Seattle, then southwards back into Oregon to Eugene before returning to Hood River to round off the trip. We were just following river levels but this itinerary worked out very well.

Other hot tips that we received (but which were too high at the time) included the Upper Upper Cispus, Ohanapecosh and Clear Fork of the Cowlitz - all challenging Grade 5 pool drop gorge runs in Washington State.

When to go

The Pacific Northwest has a maritime (ie. wet) climate with weather remarkably similar to that of Southwest England, all year. It is also a year round white water destination. However, the ideal time to visit is during the Spring, when a combination of rain and snow melt ensure that the maximum numbers of rivers are at optimum levels. Also, by April, it's starting to get warmer and snow on the passes is thawing - but be warned - expect maximum temperatures of around 14-16 degs c and temperatures in the mornings at the put ins of 7-10 degs c. Don't forget the dry trousers. Going later (June, July) opens up some of the harder creek runs and the White Salmon and Little White will still be running but many rivers will be too low. It's therefore worth visiting the region at least twice!

Getting there

Direct flights from the UK to Portland, Oregon are not available however, indirect flights are offered by the major US airlines. Seattle is an alternative if you want to focus on Washington and maybe nip across into BC. We flew with United Airlines for 509 each return. UA had rather worryingly 'gone bust' a few months earlier but we figured that they were too big to go under and that it'd all work out. It did. In fact, we managed to get 6-8 boats there and back at no extra charge despite not forewarning them that we were bringing along 'surf boards'. Those travelling individually were again, strangely, not so lucky. Again, the weight limit was a very generous 64 kgs (2x 32 kgs), enough for paddling and camping gear.

Getting about

We booked hire vehicles in advance through Alamo at www.alamo.com. All the major operators are based at Portland Airport, and their offices and more importantly their cars, are situated within 50 yds of the terminal entrance- very convenient! We hired three 4 wheel drive Chevy Blazers with roof bars which, 3 to a car, worked out at 208 each for 2 weeks. Don't forget to take foam off cuts to support those flimsy roof bars!

Where to stay

We took tents. There are numerous camp sites, most of which were still closed at Easter, although it was still perfectly possible to park up at the barriers and carry camping gear in and set up camp. Sites are geared towards RVs (mobile homes) and are therefore basic with simple chemical WCs blocks but no showers. However, this is really all you need and they are very pleasant places- only 1-2 per night per head, deserted off season and almost invariable tucked away in the forest under trees, but watch out for those bears!

In practice, camping in the region in April (indeed, anytime, anywhere) can be a damp, cold, miserable experience and we spent practically the whole trip in motels, which are readily available in every town. Squeezing 4-5 of us into double rooms (each featuring two sizeable double beds- we're not proud), the cost per night worked out at between 8 and 13 each. This often included breakfast and a hot tub and pool - so shop around.

Where to eat

Self catering - dear oh dear, why suffer? There are cheap, good value diners and fast food joints everywhere. With a typical daily intake including large quantities of pancakes, steaks, burgers and tacos, don't expect to lose weight!

Which boat?

Creek boats. There you are, now that wasn't so difficult now was it? This is steep creek boat territory that is infested with trees and log jams. Pinning is a constant hazard and creek boats will help keep you on the surface, on line and out of trouble. Also, if the inevitable happens and you do get into trouble, you'll have a much better chance of getting out of your boat. Take a hybrid boat and increase the risk or miss out all the 4+/ 5 classics. For those inclined, there is supposedly a classic playspot near Portland on the Clackamas River, 'Bob's Hole' - but let's face it, it isn't going to be as good as Hurley.

Other activities

Hood River is a great base for non paddlers and other activities- when it's warmer! Rafting companies and kayak schools operate in the area and sea kayaking is available on the coast. The Columbia Gorge is a World renowned windsurfing and kite boarding venue and in July every year they host the 'Gorge Games', a week long extravaganza of outdoor pursuits competitions and events. The area also offers excellent ski-ing, mountain biking, climbing and hiking. It's also surprisingly attractive just to look at. Beats Berkshire, hands down.

Insurance

I'm insured through Activcard. 120 provides me with year round multi trip full cover including the USA and medical, baggage and cancellation (activity level 3 white water). No one trip can last more than 31 days. Comparable cover for 2 weeks in the USA costs around 60. Check out www.activcard.com. Some group members swear by BMC insurance, www.thebmc.co.uk. There are alternatives so ask around but this is one of the most popular options.

The cost

The total cost of the trip worked out at around 1,200 each. Not cheap, but then the motels and diners probably put 300 on the cost of the trip- the downside of a cold weather Spring trip. Who are we kidding, we'd do it the same in the summer.

Finding out more

White water guidebooks

We used the following two guidebooks:

Washington: 'A Guide to the Rivers of Washington' (2nd edition) by Jeff and Tonya Bennett. $24.95. ISBN 0-9629843-7-X. We found this to be a great, reliable guide and surprisingly up to date - most of the local boaters' top tips were featured. More importantly, the advice on water levels and grades is about right.

Oregon: 'Paddling Oregon' by Robb Keller. $19.95. ISBN 1-56044-533-5. Essential reading for Oregon but not quite as detailed as the above and with a tendency to slightly over grade rivers.

The above overlap by virtue of both covering rivers in the Hood River area on both sides of the Columbia River- providing an opportunity to rate the two books! We tended to go with the advice that fitted in with our thinking! There is another guidebook to Oregon called 'Soggy Sneakers' which you may also want to take along, although it is more detailed for touring and easy grade paddling. Books orderable from www.amazon.co.uk, sadly except for the Bennett guide.

Guidebooks

The usual. Lonely Planet conveniently offers a guide to the 'Pacific Northwest' and glossy picture book style guides are readily available. In practice, all you really need are kayak guidebooks and road atlases.

Web sites

Internet access in the USA is readily available for free in all public libraries, a facility that even the smallest of Hicksville towns seems to provide. This means that you can monitor water levels whilst on tour and modify your plans en route. Try the following web sites:

Masses of information on white water boating in Oregon: www.kayaking.peak.org
Latest news on water levels: www.dreamflows.com and www.awa.org
Weather and snowpack: http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/Portland/ (it'll be raining)
Gossip and news: www.boatertalk.com
Play boating in the region: www.playboatingnorthwest.com
The latest news from Hurley whilst you're away (!): www.thamesweirproject.co.uk

Kayak shops

Hood River town: now known as 'The Kayak Shed' now, formerly 'Outdoor Play' and located in the centre of town, this shop has everything you'll need and a very friendly and informative proprietor, who used until recently to be a Dagger rep.

Eugene: located in downtown on West 7th Street, again, this sells everything you'll need- this is where we re-stocked on throw lines!

Maps

DeLorme Washington and Oregon 'Atlases and Gazetteers'. Excellent 1:150,000 road atlases that are detailed enough to include all those off road tracks that you'll be trying to find to get to the rivers. These are readily available in the USA at all 'good book shops' but strangely not at most gas stations. Alternatively try www.amazon.co.uk or www.delorme.com.

Chris Wheeler.

See Mark Rainsley's trip photos.