Sunday, August 06, 2006

Grand Canyon of the Elwha

Mitch in Goblin's Gate, Rica Canyon

"This run is so special it goes beyond words. The whitewater ... the canyons ... the wildlife ... the riverside camping ... it's the Elwha! It has canyons so beautiful yet dangerous that it gives you a sacred almost forbidden feeling. A group could find the river blocked by logs or rock and be forced to leave the river ... IF possible!!
--Gary Korb
A Paddler's Guide to the Olympic Peninsula

Thanks to everyone for helping out with cameras. I've tried to note Mike Hoovers photos [MH] as well as Mitch MacDougall's [MH]. I'll get some video posted one of these days ...

I still remember the first time I looked at the reports on the GCE at oregonkayaking. I lacked the right gear, a crew, and the paddling skills to visit myself, but I quietly vowed to visit ... someday. Well, someday was in August 2006!

After spending a quiet Friday night breaking straps, throwing out every extraneous piece of gear, and trying to figure out who to blame for having hike my gear in 8.5 miles, the trip was underway. We caught an early ferry, made a few brief stops in Port Angeles, and were at the Whiskey Bend trailhead by 10. Around 11 everyone had their packs together, including Hoover's 20-lb gear sack. Having a modicum of common sense, Hoover hoofed his boat in the previous weekend, making his pre-run hike as easy as possible.

Lillian River Rest Stop (MM)

We made good time on the trail and up the first hill before dropping down to Lillian River for a short rest break. Shortly after Lillian the trail takes the big climb, up and over the ridge near Nightmare. Mitch and Hoover were out of sight fast as we grovelled up the hill, eventually making camp a solid half-hour later than our two leaders. We had survived nonetheless! A relaxing fire, good dinner, and a well deserved night of rest were in order.

Camp along the Elwha

David has serious fun.

Sunday dawned a lovely, clear day. We got things put together fairly quickly, getting on the water by 8:30. At the putin, the Elwha looks to be a gentle stream flowing through a cobblestone-lined river bed of low gradient. Fun class III drops started emerging out of the bedrock in short order however, and we got down to business right away. After several fun warmup drops, we found ourselves in the pool above Eskimo Pie.

Warm up drop above the Grand Canyon (MM)

The canyon below the drop deserves the moniker "grand" -- everything about this gorge is amazing. The fluted bedrock walls tower out of the water in many places, often overhanging and trapping travelers to river level. The whole run is through virgin old-growth, and the sections of canyon not steeply walled are amazing rain forest scenes.

My attempt at Sam Drevo's great shot at Eskimo Pie

David above the SCARY eddy, Eskimo Pie

Nobody liked the look of the half-boat eddy at the lip, so we scouted from the left. Chatham opted out of the scout, choosing to follow Fish's hand signals despite safety not yet being set. Lining up for the meat of the first ledge, he dropped in, and rode a huge brace through a tailstand that ultimately ended in a flip. David took a long swim, spending several minutes in the hole getting recirced. He lost his paddle somewhere along the way, but kept a hand on his boat and had air the entire time. Our position above the ledge made a throwbag useless, so we were relieved when David found solid footing in a pocket to the left of the ledge hole. We quickly moved to river right, the rest of the group portaging. Scott got a line to David and he cleaned the rest of the drop using his own spare paddle.

David probes the Pie

Eskimo Pie, entrance to the Grand Canyon Elwha.

Eskimo Pie from below

Once the group had re-assembled, we headed down to the next drop, a left-right-left move through a hole studded boulder field. Two more swimmers in this drop further added to the sense of high consequences in this canyon. I was glad to get through the drop without swimming, but our progress quickly ground to a halt. Portaging the next rapid was the only option, as a cat's cradle of logs had collapsed into the rapid. From the highest of them, we could glimpse the leadin to Nightmare, the psychological crux of the Grand Canyon Elwha.

Ledge in the canyon below Eskimo Pie [MH]

Fish, Mitch, Hoover, and David

Peering into Nightmare. Sneak plugged with wood

Fish on the scouting logs [MM]

The normal route, a sneak along the left wall to avoid a heinous rock sieve on the right, was plugged with wood. Hoover told us not to worry, he'd hiked in and out of the canyon from this spot before, negotiating a steep and treacherous scree field to retrieve a friend's forgotten camera. We took one look at the slope and decided Nightmare would be runnable. Mitch went down to explore, and motioned us down. While the left entrance was indeed blocked, we were able to catch an eddy on the right below the first entry ledge, then ferry to river left to get back on the safe line past the sieve. Hoover and Fish dropped in, disappearing around the corner, until Fish attained up to an eddy where we could see him.

Mitch and I enjoyed our perch at the lip of Nightmare, a large rock on the right above the entrance that we had scrambled up to see into the rapid. It was an amazing experience to spend half an hour looking at an unscoutable unportageable drop -- this was one of the highlights of my day. At last David came down to join us and we got the rest of the crew through.


Fish probes Nightmare. Sieve on right

David rounds the corner in Nightmare [MH]

It was now three hours into our day and we had negotiated roughly a mile of canyon. We had had four swimmers. We started to wonder if we had left ourselves enough time for the many remaining challenges.

The next section of water was very fun. I remember a fun ledge on the right, lots of III-IV technical boogie, and a fun snaking slot on the right that avoided a river wide rock pile. Great read and run that got us back in the flow and helped us make some time.

Fish opts for the wood choked slot

David and I come through on different lines [MH]

That's me. I love this canyon! [MH]

Somewhere in this section below Nightmare, David gave us the scare of the season. All of us piled into a large eddy above innocuous three foot ledge. Fish dropped in first, running right. His boat immediately pinned in a stern squirt and he dove for the bow to escape a swim. Hoover shrugged. "I'm going left," he said, before disappearing. Not hearing any hits or problems, I followed. After seeing the narrow slot on the left, I knew I wasn't going to make it, so I followed Fish's line, pinning just as he had. As I dove for my bow, David dropped in behind me, and before I could escape, his boat pinned too, but closer to the ledge, which quickly pulled David out of his boat. With his boat taking a beating, no one could see David. Fifteen seconds passed, perhaps twenty. It felt longer than the Nightmare scout. At last, David popped up -- on the other side of the slab rock in the middle of the river. It took some time to free his boat, and we moved quickly down to a sunny spot to regroup.

David swam under this slab

This spot reminded us all of the table-top slab sieve in Elbow Room -- definitely a place to be careful. David was shaken, but did a great job of keeping his head on straight and continuing down the river without losing confidence. I don't know if I could have handled such a swim as well as he did. His perseverance played a major part in our successful descent.

Grand Canyon Elwha above Lillian River

The next major landmark was the Lillian River, which drops out of an intimate and utterly terrifying mini-gorge. Yes it has been run, and no, you don't ever want to do it. Unscoutable, unportageable, log-chocked ledges and boulder gardens fill the lower section of the Lillian River.

Shortly below Lillian, Pebbles and Bam-Bam and Dagger raise the bar for the Grand Canyon's biggest drops. Pebbles and Bam-Bam is a fun sweeping bend through some big holes. Mitch and Fish had great lines here.

David sets safety, Pebbles and Bam-Bam

Fish cleans his line through Pebbles and Bam-Bam [MH]

Dagger was a behemoth of a drop! A manky sliding entry led into a quick-moving pool before plunging off a six-foot ledge. The right half of the tongue pounded into an undercut guillotine rock; the left dropped the boater into a gauntlet of holes. Only Fish was interested in this one, so David and I let him run out boats through -- my favorite kind of portage. Fish found a nice sneak entry boof slot right of center and positively styled the bottom ledge three times in a row.

Fish helps portage Dagger

We stopped for lunch on the pebble beach below Dagger, the last good stopping place in the Grand Canyon, and a potential low-water camp. A short paddle brought us to the lip of Landslide. This drop is below the Grand Canyon and separates it from Geyser Valley. The whole river left hillside has exploded into river. As with most drops called Landslide, this one was chock full of mank -- piton rocks, sieves, syphons, undercuts, and tricky moves. Who loves drops like that? Why yes, of course -- Fish!

I went into instant portage mode to get around the drop and set up with the camera. Fish climbed high to scout from both sides before lining up to run both meaty ledges on the left. He dropped in, made it through the first hole, then got destroyed -- next thing we see is a yellow helmet and an empty boat hurtling towards a 9-foot ledge with shitty rock everywhere.

One of the shitty rocks, a large horn rock left of center, gave Fish just enough time to climb up and secure his boat. Paddle in hand, boat firmly under control, Fish prepared to run the last ledge. Re-righting the boat, he got his footing, then pushed the boat off the rock, leaping after it. Alas, the adrenaline won out and Fish overshot the boat, sliding right out the back to swim the final drop of Landslide. Now that had to hurt.


Fish swimmin' with style, Landslide

Only the first drop in Geyser valley forced us to get creative with low water channel finding -- but everything else was just fine. We chatted with a couple of hikers warning us of "whirlpools" at Goblin's Gate as we floated leisurely through the open valley. Without warning, below a class III- riffle, the river takes an abrupt 90 degree turn to the right as 50-foot walls explode from the river. Welcome to Rica Canyon and Goblin's Gate.

Though Goblin's Gate is the name of the canyon entrance (so named because of the impish faces found in the walls immediately below the Gate) the name has also drifted down to label the first two drops in Rica Canyon. The first drop is a pair of six foot ledges, the first of which sends a third of it's flow into a narrow, scary chute on the left.

First drop of Goblin's Gate

We all portaged this one, lining up for the second drop, a ledge with a great sliding hole on the left. This was one of the most scenic sections of Rica Canyon, and rivaled the generally more austere and narrow Grand Canyon.

David drops in to the bottom of Goblin's Gate

Below this drop, we boat scouted something straightforward then arrived at Secret Chute, finding this too blocked with wood. Fish and Mitch opted for the next door to the left, which had a funky landing. The rest of us made a quick portage on the right.

Hoover scouts the Secret Chute

Fish runs left of Secret Chute

Mitch follows with a nice line

The rest of Rica was class IV and good to go. Some fun ledges, some tight slots, some big holes. I dropped into one curler with the wrong angle and fought to brace out. When I finally swam my boat to shore, I'd ripped the d-ring holding my right thighstrap out of the patch! Good thing we were almost done!

Mitch near the end of Rica Canyon

What a trip! Hoover, David, Fish, and Brian at take-out [MM]

Hoover and Mitch opted for the hike, carrying the boats out up the steep trail at the head of Lake Mills. Fish, David, and I set out for a three-mile battle against whitecaps and headwinds causing swells on the lake. The boys pulled up with rigs just as we reached the takeout, so it all worked out just right. Hoover had cold beers on ice waiting for us, and we sat down to watch the sun and wind play on the lake, left with indelible memories of some of the most pristine canyons in Washington. Korb is right -- the Elwha is a sacred and stunning scenic run, the crown jewel of Olympic Peninsula runs.