The Upper Clackamas

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When summer arrives paddlers in the Northwest part of Oregon are grateful to have the Clackamas river nearby. This river runs year-round and has easy roadside access. That said, the close proximity of the road never seems to intrude as the river winds down through a beautiful canyon with steep rocky walls, clear water, and nice scenery. In addition to offering many high quality rapids and pleasant scenery, the Upper Clackamas also has Bob's Hole, a roadside playspot that is part of the annual national whitewater rodeo series. I have been boating the Clackamas more than usual this summer because I have been going along with Pete as he commercially rafts this section with his company, Blue Sky Rafting. I do a little safety boating and a lot of playboating, mostly to get into shape for winter..

This report describes the section below the upper upper 'Killer Fang' run described on this site and is much more user-friendly than that higher, more difficult run. We usually put in at the Three Lynx bridge, which is the standard spot recommended by most of the guidebooks. Many paddlers put in a few miles below this spot at Fish Creek, which makes for a good play run if you take out at Bob's.

The only spot to watch out for on the upper part of this run is a rapid known as 'Hole in the Wall'. Here the river flows into a rock wall before turning sharply right into a deep green pool. On the left side the water swirls eternally against the cliff face, forming a wicked terminal eddy at flows above 1500 cfs. A few people have drowned here, so back in the 80's kayakers fixed a chain ladder against the left wall to enable self-rescues. (The number of drownings is directly related to the fact that the river is so close to Portland, which means many inexperienced and ill-prepared paddlers ply this stretch. Most of the folks who have trouble on this river start the day with a cooler full of beer, a Bi-Mart raft, and little or no river sense...)

A Blue Sky Rafting crew makes the move to the right at Hole in the Wall at 3,500 cfs.
The dangerous eddy is visible on the top-left side of this image.
Photo by Pete Giordano

It should be noted the the cliff face at Hole-In-The-Wall is d eeply undercut about six to ten feet below the surface depending o n the flow.A veteran Northwest paddler once told me about a rafting accident he witnessed here. The river was running at medium flows (Over 2000 cfs) and a raft missed the easy move to the right and plowed into the wall. Immediately the water piled up on the stern of the raft, which swiftly filled and then lost bouyancy. Before anyone could react the entire raft and everyone in it was shoved completely under the wall. Almost immediately most of the passengers flushed out, but two remained trapped under the wall with the raft. Two days later they were found in the reservoir.

I am telling this story because it is important to remember that just because a rapid is only rated class III doesn't mean it shouldn't be approached with caution. Of course, it is pretty easy to avoid the dangerous spot by staying right, so don't let my tales discourage you from paddling this excellent river.

The author surfs the Carter Bridge Campground wave at 3,500 on the gauge.
This wave is located just upstream of Carters Bridge rapid.
Photo by Pete Giordano

Below Hole-In-The-Wall are many more fun drops, powerful eddylines, and lots of good playboating. The next rapid of note is Carter's Bridge rapid, a class III+ to IV rapid that drops over a small ledge and through a series of holes downstream. At most flows there are some excellent holes to play in at Carter's if you can catch them on the fly!

Pete Giordano runs the main ledge at Carters Bridge at high water ( 9,000 cfs ) during the epic May 2008 runoff

Pete Giordano runs the bottom Carters Bridge at high water ( 9,000 cfs ) during the epic May 2008 runoff

Downstream from Carters are some mellow spots and a few surprise rapids. I guess I could go on all day with stories about this run, (like the time we watched the drunk people in a survival raft run slingshot and lose a passenger against the right wall who had no helmet, no wetsuit...)

Below Rock-n-Roll is probably my favorite rapid on the river, a drop known as 'Toilet Bowl'. In spite of it's unfortunate name this steep drop is a thrill at any flow, especially for novices!

The author surfs the bottom wave at Toilet Bowl.
This wave is generally only surfable at flows between 2,000 - 2,600 cfs.
Photo by Grace Thompson

At around 3,500 cfs the bottom waves in Toilet Bowl get huge and the final wave becomes more hole-like.
It is super fun!! Here's a little raft carnage at the bottom of Toilet Bowl at 3,500 cfs.
Photo by Pete Giordano

Below Toilet Bowl is Bob's Hole, a classic play spot surrounded by several smaller, playable waves. Bob's is usually best around 2500 cfs, but the the hole changes with every flood so who knows what the next one will bring...

A raft crew ( Chad Belvill, Val Shaull, and Rob Cruser ) tear it up in Bob's Hole during a recent rodeo.
Photo by Brian Massey

One of Pete's rafts (intentionally) pops an ender at Rock-n-Roll hole on the upper Clack. It's pretty cool watching the rafts play in this hole; they spin, surf, and get more ends than most kayakers do!