The first part of this story originally appears in the June 2014 issue of C&K, now available on newsstands.
Photos and text by Keel Brightman and Ryan Scott, paddling with Hans Hooman, Eric Uhlrich, Brett Barton, Jacob Cruser, Matt King, Nate Merrill and Scott Baker.
KEEL: Rock Creek Gorge resides deep in the heart of the Cascade rainforest. The lower river has two waterfall-studded runs emptying into the Columbia River Gorge. But the upper section had not been explored, which is amazing because paddlers have been systematically hunting the Gorge for runnable whitewater over the last two decades.
RYAN: The list of new runs is still growing. But what makes this such a great find is that it's a run paddlers can work on over time.
KEEL: A quick look at the map gave me a good idea of what we would expect to find: cliffed-out portages surrounded by high ridgelines, and questionable whitewater draining into a two-mile-long crack in the earth.
RYAN: The topographical lines were literally off the charts. There were no logging roads and the terrain was so steep we questioned whether portaging would even be an option in the heart of the gorge. All previous attempts had ended before the main canyon. Curiosity is a strong force. You have to see it. Or at least try.
KEEL: The crew came together one truckload at a time. Hans and his friend Eric would raft the run while Brett, Jacob, Matt, Nate, Scott, Ryan and I explored in kayaks. That's a large group for an exploratory first, but we were determined to move fast. We headed down into the drainage at 7 a.m. in a light snow and rain that held throughout the day.
RYAN: None of us could have imagined what we would find. We hoped and dreamed it would be this good, but no one expected it.
KEEL: With water too low to run the 40-footer at the put-in, we portaged, rounding a corner as the bottom dropped out: a 40-foot drop, into a 20-footer that locked you in to an un-scoutable 50-footer.
We made a long, exposed portage on river-right, and then regrouped to discuss our situation. Despite our early start, time was of the essence. We needed an all-out assault to get gradient behind us.
RYAN: The river kept throwing new challenges at us—a must-run slide into a must-make eddy, a few manky boulder gardens, and a boater pinned above a potentially deadly logjam. There was even a landslide, which sent Matt diving and Ryan scrambling and left the smell of crushed rock lingering in the air. Yet everywhere we needed it, the river gave us an option to keep going downstream.
KEEL: Finally the smooth, dark basalt face stretched up to the river-right rim: We'd arrived at the main canyon, each ridgeline dropping a hundred feet lower than the next. Light snow fell as we peered past the bottomless horizon line, the winter daylight fading fast. We had to act. We had a known option: a sketchy ferry and an arduous four-hour hike out with gear. But looking at the immediate falls, a manageable 30 feet into a small pool into another horizon line, we all knew that no one was hiking back. We committed to the canyon. There was only one way out.
Hans took the lead and went down to catch his raft off the first waterfall. After another steep scramble down the river-right bank, we discovered the raft had dropped over a 50-foot perfectly vertical falls and luckily was caught in the eddy below it. The pool was deep and again looked possible with more water.
To save time, we started throwing the kayaks off the falls and collecting them at the bottom. Next came a dynamic and perfectly clean, sloping 15-foot waterfall that most of the group ran blind with verbal beta. This lower canyon was incredible, it just kept dropping and dropping through deep canyon walls with clean but powerful character.
KEEL: Then came another big waterfall dropping around 40 feet with a tiny pool in between two tiers and a nice deep landing—a truly amazing drop that was good to go, but not today. We had documented enough and were now on a mission to get out before dark. One hundred yards later came another big drop, 50 feet again, with a pinching entrance and slightly turning launch pad. If the stuff upstream was looking good to you, then this was good to go, with a deep landing and an acceptable lip. If it were off Highway 84 in the Gorge, it would have been run hundreds of times.
We had another round of tossing boats and sketchy hiking, rallying to the bottom to continue the race against fading light—the most frustrating and dangerous wintertime factor. No one was equipped with good overnight gear. We moved toward the takeout as fast as possible. Hans knew we were out of the canyon’s most serious section, so we broke into a smaller groups and started boat-scouting. Hans and Eric, however, abandoned the raft about 3/4 of a mile before the Pacific Crest Trail, beginning a personal epic of their own: a two-hour bushwhack in the blackness with no flashlight, a dense forest canopy with overcast conditions, staying on the hard trail by feel alone, not straying onto the softer virgin loam of the forest … It is amazing how the senses hone in on the smallest of changes when you have no other options …
Like our paddle into the darkness. Fortunately, the river cleaned up and we enjoyed the easy Class II-III paddle. The PCT trail was our marker that we were one more mile from the takeout. The rest of the team began the hike out on the trail, but Jacob knew this section well so three of us pushed on as he guided Nate and I past numerous unseen logjams, paddling by feel for the last 10 minutes as we arrived at the car in true dark.
RYAN: None of us could have imagined what we would find, we hoped and dreamed it would be this good, but no one expected it. Rock Creek has protected its last great find. Locked away high up on the creek in a canyon so that deep logging roads don't even penetrate the landscape. In this case Jacob had honed in on possibly the last great first descent run in the Gorge. Researching the landscape, the access, roads, gradient of the creek, portage options at each major gradient change, rainfall and water conditions, etc… It's an estimated guess on an adventure. We had the unforgettable day with all of the ingredients we were looking for in a quality first descent. I'm looking forward to see the progression of this run over the next few years.
KEEL: As we drove back into our daily lives, I couldn't help but wonder what inspires us to proceed into these forbidding places. Testing ourselves with the classic struggle of man vs nature and accepted real danger, not the convoluted sense of danger that our lives and financial responsibilities create. The sense of reward and accomplishment is immediate and fulfilling. It teaches us about true hard work, humility, respect, friendship, trust–things that are the most simple and valuable to us as people, but get lost in the tempo of our lives.
Is it all just a cheap thrill, or so-called adrenaline rush? Does it have a deeper purpose and meaning? It feels deeper to me. It gives me something to dream about when I’m stuck in the mundane moments of life. Something to remember that took everything I had in me to accomplish. A rich sense of camaraderie and friendship that lasts a lifetime. This time we experienced it on Upper Rock Creek.