Eagle Creek: The Long Way

Matt King
The author and crew prepare to hike in. Photo Isaac Priestly
The author and crew prepare to hike in. Photo Isaac Priestly

STORY BY MATT KING
PHOTOS BY PAUL THOMSON

It was a typical spring day on Eagle Creek. Typical, as in vertical. And plenty of it on this waterfall-studded Oregon classic: In all, 12 paddlers in our crew accumulated over 1,200 feet of freefall, two of us over 200 feet. The now-famous, regularly run drops you’ve surely seen — Skoonichuck, a 50-foot double drop, Punch Bowl, a twisting 35-footer, and of course, Metlako, the perfect 80-foot spout — all saw multiple runs.

Photo Paul Thomson
The hike in, behind Tunnel Falls. Photo: Paul Thomson

What was not typical, however, was discovering how much more there is to Eagle Creek than just those three marquee drops. Back in 2002, when advances in kayak and gear design started allowing bigger waterfalls to be run safely, Isaac and Jordan Priestly, Ethan Smith, Rolf Kelly — all legends among Pacific Northwest kayakers — were the first folks to explore the stretch, shouldering their boats to hike the three miles in to Punch Bowl. They passed Metlako, at that time still conceivably taller than anything that could be run safely. They ventured farther to Skoonichuck, the double that first falls about 40 feet into a cauldron before dropping another 15. It looked good to go, and, sure enough, it was! Considering the quality of the drops, they hiked up some more, finding Grand Union, a sliding 50-foot falls with a fantastic kicker. Three of them ran it with varying results, culminating their first descents on Eagle Creek, and leaving Metlako, and anything else upstream for another day.

 Photo Matt King
One last look at the still unrun drop (Photo: Matt King).

Despite all the kayaking attention for Eagle Creek’s big three, for over a decade, only one group hiked the extra couple miles to Grand Union. That group of three, led by another gorge legend, Ryan Scott, hiked even farther, to Sevenmile Falls, only to get rained on all night. They decided to pass up the first decent on Sevenmile, and the No. 3, 4, and 5 descents of Grand Union.

10 Kayaks

Some friends and I often wonder if kayaking has lost its exploratory nature, the idea of going out and seeing and doing things that haven’t been done, maybe even rarely done. In the age of Vimeo, fueled by Red Bull and stoked by the constant Facebook feed, is kayaking all about adrenaline anymore?

The folks that first schlepped their boats the extra couple miles to Grand Union had a good time of it, so why couldn’t we? The insatiable exploratory curiosity nagged me and my paddling buddy Jacob Cruser for too long. We couldn’t stay away. We started scheming, talking logistics with Scott and Isaac Preistly, scouring local hiking and photography blogs. Was there more waterfalls upstream? We couldn’t find anything. There was only one way to find out for certain.

Below Twister ...
Below Twister …

So we went for it. Jacob, Scott Baker and I hiked to Skoonichuck, camped, and the next morning set out for Sevenmile. The route wrapped behind 140-foot Tunnel Falls on the East Fork Eagle, then passed Twister, a crack-in-the-earth 120-footer. Finally we arrived at the un-run 45-foot Sevenmile Falls. We thought about it. Maybe too long. The drop goes, but unfortunately with the flows a bit too low, we left it for another day. We paddled down to the lip of Twister (a horizon-line like no other), portaged it hiking back around Tunnel Falls, and then warmed up with some nice rapids on the approach to Grand Union. All three of us had good lines, including Jacob’s first inflatable kayak descent.

Jacob Cruser, styling Grand Union Falls
Jacob Cruser, styling Grand Union Falls
The author on Grand Union Falls
The author on Grand Union Falls
Ryan Young on Skoonichcuk
Ryan Young on Skoonichuck

We continued downstream, met nine of our friends at Skooni, some who’d hiked with us the night before and slept in, others who’d just come in that morning. Jacob and I ran all the falls, logging roughly 210 feet of airtime, which also included Jacob’s IK Metlako huck.

Scott Baker drops Punch Bowl Falls
Scott Baker drops Punch Bowl Falls

“I was expecting the hit off of Metlako to hurt a lot, I was surprised when it did not,” said Jacob, who had just gotten off Opal Creek, three miles south of Eagle Creek, on a run that requires a two-mile hike of its own, before he rallied to hike in to our camp the previous night. “It was a violent impact, one of the more jarring I’ve taken kayaking, but no worse than the daily hits that anyone familiar with high school football has taken.”

The impact was powerful enough to turn the front foam-floor segment of Jacob’s IK upside down. It also flipped him for the first time on our run, though he quickly uprighted it and hopped back in. Claiming a handful of other first IK descents, Jacob thinks of this as the ‘IK roll,’ when a paddler gets back into an IK after a capsize without losing boat contact or compromising a line. “In the IK world,” he said, “This is far less noble than landing upright, but avoids any time actually spent ‘swimming.'”

Jacob Cruser on the first inflatable kayak run of Metlako Falls.
Jacob Cruser on the first inflatable kayak run of Metlako Falls.

I didn’t swim, but rather held onto my paddle and grazed my face with it on impact as I got slammed to the back of my boat. I held my paddle solely because I went first and wanted to ensure being able to set safety for Ryan and Jacob, and to not risking the hand-roll, hand-paddle consequences of tossing the paddle and dealing with the pool’s logjam.

All scrapes and smiles following an exploratory run a long time in the making.
All scrapes and smiles following an exploratory run a long time in the making.

In that final pool, both safely thorugh the final major challenge of a descent I’d had in mind for years, I thought how the river never ceases to amaze me, especially when you put the effort in and go a little bit farther into the outside.

Eagle creek crew

— Watch the Demshitz crew’s run of “Eagle Crick”

— Check out the record 2014 spring in the Pacific Northwest

— Plus the story of the notorious Steve Fisher-Bam Margera tandem run of Metlako Falls.