Monday, July 02, 2012

Wild and Scenic Chetco: Day 2

Chetco snag

Morning broke with anticipation, finding all of us up early, eager to get on the water. I'd sustained some blister damage from hiking in my river shoes, and was glad to be traveling by blade, not boot.

Rigging the boats. (photo by Doug Soule)

Boats and gear moved down from our camp bench to the riverside. I love this part of a trip: the last minute adjustments to rigging, the quiet little jokes as people prepare themselves to enter a new place. None of us had ever been before, which makes for quite a different feeling than a trip with someone who can lead the river from experience.

The walls begin to coalesce (photo by Bill Tuthill)

The water clarity was stunning.

Entering the Magic Gorge

Boat scouting in the Magic Gorge

The Chetco started us off with a friendly series of boulder bar rapids, class III, which were occasionally too low to cleanly run. We scraped and nudged our way over these obstacles with good humor. We had a lucky pre-trip rain storm that had brought in some higher levels here in the upper river than we rightly could have expected -- and we knew we'd have enough flow below Slide Creek.

But the best part of this upper section of river was undoubtedly the Magic Gorge. The Gorge is the only part of the run accessible by trail. Though the path climbs high above the river, it's deep colorful pools, exceptional clarity, and lovely bedrock walls earned its fame amongst Kalmiopsis scenery.

A steep boulder rapid in the upper river. (photo by Bill Tuthill)

A critical part of multiday boating is a well-trimmed boat.

The Magic Gorge of the Chetco.

The Chetco just above Slide Creek

To experience the Gorge from river level was a rare treat. It seemed we could see 40, even fifty feet into the depths. The water, appearing crystal clear at shallower depths, consolidated into a translucent glowing emerald, now blue, now grey, but mostly, overwhelmingly green. The rock walls plunged sheer into the depths. Flood waters abandoned old growth timbers high, high overhead.

The deep calm pools were interrupted periodically by short, steep drops. Little scouting was needed. We enjoyed the alternating dance of pool, drop. Springs fed moss covered walls amongst the alcoves of the pools. The Biscuit Fire may have tortured the forest, but it could not torch this inner gorge of stone and water.

After a few miles of this lovely mini canyon, the walls peeled back and small boulders began to obstruct the river. The fire damage crept closer to the water line, and then, Slide Creek entered from the right.

Jeff breaks a paddle -- the carnage shop is officially open!

Doug drops in

Immediately below Slide Creek on the left is a long bench that would accommodate a nice camp. We lunched, consulted the maps, and soaked in the natural beauty and isolation. Already it was clear the river had consolidated, becoming more confined and well defined than the gravel bars above the Magic Gorge.

We had rough reports of a class IV gorge below Slide Creek. We set out from lunch eager to see what kind of challenges the Chetco would throw at us.

The Chetco changed character quickly. First came the boulders: no more small gravel bars. Now, obstacles were increasingly huge boulders, some large enough to block all downstream views. The river also got much steeper, creating blind, twisty drops and chutes. The routes were tight, but clear.

Our progress slowed as we scouted many blind drops, but almost all were clean. Somewhere in this upper section, Jeff broke his paddle, a minor inconvenience.

Eventually we came up to a lovely multi-move rapid that ended in a steep 8 foot ramp. The lead in was technical; the line narrow. We had a bonafied classic drop on our hands.

Bill in the classic class IV

The author drops in (photo Bill Tuthill)

This big class IV seemed to mark the beginning of the series of IV-IV+ drops. We found many stellar rapids, a few portages, and lots of fun moves. Most everything was easily scouted and portaged. Though we weren't make fast time, we were making a controlled descent with good spacing and communication. Everyone had big grins on their faces dealing with this lovely and challenging gorge.

One long multi-move sequence featured a very tight constriction on river left. Doug and Bill ran it while the rest of of portaged, not convinced it was clean.

Below here was another great blind steep chute. I caught a tiny little eddy to get a few shots.

Doug lines up on a tight squeeze we walked

A fun tight chute.

Eric enters the flume (photo Bill Tuthill)

The next major land mark was a big rapid with no exit. A steep initial ledge lead into a massively undercut wall on the left, and no exit amongst the boulder jumble at the end of the rapid. We quickly decided to walk, portaging easily on the right. While I didn't see anything that would make this a mandatory portage, every trip report I've come across does note a portage here. With more flow, perhaps that changes.

Looking back up at the big portage

Entrance to the big portage (photo by Doug Soule)

Doug probes a nice ledge

Jason cleans it up

Below the big portage, more class IV stacked up, and we scouted our way down. Often the next scout was visible from the rapid we were looking at -- there were no 1/4 mile long pools or flat sections in this gorge.

Typical boulder garden on the Chetco

I've no idea why this gorge ain't magic too

One of the drops that didn't quite have enough water

Lush jungle? Rainforest? Nope, just Wild Oregon

At last, we were in the Taggart Bar vicinity. We never did see the nice beach camp, but we found a great nook in the boulders. Thought it was not a high mileage day, we'd run dozens of class III rapids, probably 10 solid IVs, and had scouted myriad times with a handful of portages. Everyone was ready for a little R&R, and happy hour cocktails and fly rods replaced throw bags and hand signals as we nestled into the bank for the afternoon.

Jason's catch (photo by Doug Soule)

Our improvised camp at Taggart Bar.

Sunset over Taggart Bar

Debate about the days events turned to gradient, ratings, wilderness, and the many issues we ponder after a challenging day. We thought the river might be in excess of 100 foot per mile in this section. Jason put together a gradient profile that confirms this opinion:

Chetco River Gradient Profile (by Jason Shappart)

We fired up some fish over the fire, enjoyed a stunning sunset, and sacked out curious to see just how much more action this upper gorge would throw at us.