Lower Opal Creek
Old Mine shaft to Thor's Playroom

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Opal Creek is a local favorite because of its excellent rapids, gin-clear water, and amazing scenery. I think it is safe to say that this is the must-do class four creek in Oregon. The day starts with an easy one-mile carry up to the put in on an old gated road. Look for a small side road going off downhill to the right after you cross Gold Creek, this leads downhill to the put in. The Friends of Opal Creek say that this access road to the mine can be used for put in purposes only.

This stretch of the Little North Fork has been preserved in it's pristine state by primitive mining claims dating back to the 1800's. At the put in are some fascinating relics of that time: an old mine shaft, shed, and a little rail car that once hauled ore out of the side of the mountain.

At the put in note the ledge above the pool. If all parts of this ledge are runnable you are in for an exciting day. If only the far river left side slot is easily runnable and the rest of the ledge looks scrapy you can expect a more reasonable level.

Getting ready for a winter run down Opal Creek.
An 1800's-era mine shaft is visible in the center of the far wall.

For a brief report on what sort of difficulties to expect when the river is running higher than this, check out the "What happens to the Upper LNF at higher flows" link.

Below the put in are many fun rapids, mostly consisting of boulder gardens and a few tight chutes. Once you figure out where the eddies are you can easily run this whole section without ever getting out except to scout Big Fluffy.

Pete Giordano squares up on the first significant hydraulic below the put-in.

Pete boofing a short ledge just downstream..

There is a zig-zag drop that should be approached with caution on the upper section. The river slows briefly then drops off to the left over a horizon line. There are two huge boulders on creek-left which form a sieve here, which can be seen from the eddies above the drop. The river piles into these boulders, then turns sharply to the right, crashes into the wall, and turns back to the left.

This drop is mostly hazardous because of the sieve on the left, so run it tight right and boof into the eddy, then drive across the current to avoid the pocket in the wall where the water is pushing. I have seen several boaters get pushed into this pocket and swim because they couldn't roll against the current. Swims against the wall are harmless, but the sieve could cause big problems for a swimmer.

Nice scenery..

The first tough drop is known to some as 'Big Ugly', which is often run down the left side at 1,000 cfs and up. Just boof right and it will shove you through, or boof and drive right to avoid the slot against the river-left wall. Be careful on the left side at low flows. I ran the left side slot at 700 cfs one time and was wedged in a crack underwater here for awhile, and my boat started to collapse on me before my skirt blew and I washed out. The left wall looks undercut but it isn't..

The author charges over the left side of Big Ugly during a Spring runoff trip.
The left side slot is visible from here (against the left wall).
( Photo by Martin Bauer )

The author, melting through the final slot on Big Ugly as Pete and Gabe watch below.. Elbow pads are recommended!
( Photo by Jurgen Nickels )

Immediately below Big Ugly is a pool that narrows into a nine foot wide chute that has a log running the length of it. At low flows you run this one by angling your boat right and sliding down the length of the log, but at medium to high flows the log is covered. The current piles off the left wall here, so stay right.

Soaking up the beauty of Opal Creek below Big Ugly.

Katie runs the narrow slot below Big Ugly. The log is still wedged under this drop, but it has sunk a little deeper in recent years.

Once below Big Ugly first timers need to be very careful about boat scouting drops because Big Fluffy is just downstream. Look for rock walls on river left and a large bouldery drop that disappears around a right corner. Once you enter this rapid you may be committed to running Big Fluffy, so scout carefully.

Eddy out on the right and portage the falls, or set up a rope and run it. The line over Big Fluffy is harder than it looks, especially when the flows are healthy. The water drops off to the river-left into a narrow slot against the wall. If you get over there when the levels are up you are in big trouble.

We generally don't run Big Fluffy above 1,000 cfs, but it has been run higher. That said, several very good boaters ( including two well-known professional kayakers ) have been mauled by the low percentage hole at the base of the falls at higher water, so be careful here at flows above 1,000 cfs..

Jon Fowlkes drops into Big Fluffy, from the side, at 700 cfs.
(Photo by Pete Giordano)

Mike Long drops Big Fluffy, from the front, at ~900 cfs.
photo by EJ Etherington

This is why we come back. Jon Fowlkes soaks up the scenery in the gorge below Big Fluffy.

Pete below a rapid downstream of Big Fluffy.. the beauty of Opal Creek is truly exceptional.

Below the falls the river mellows out a bit, with a few fun rapids ending in a pool where the river calms briefly above Thor's Playroom. Thor's is a spectacular three part rapid that is dominated by an enormous hammer-shaped pillar halfway down. ( This is also known as three pools, though whoever named it that has never seen it at high water! )

There are a variety of doors to enter Thor's, numbered one through four right to left. We usually take door number one, which is the first drop you come to at the end of the pool. Door number three is also fun, especially when the flows are up around 1,500 cfs.

Once through the upper door the middle section is a fun series of reaction waves and holes.

Kim Bates makes it look easy (as usual) as she avoids the hammer partway down Thors. (Photo by Martin Bauer)

Stay right to avoid the bouldery jumble at the base of the hammer, then eddy out in the pool above the large double drop finale.

The usual line down the final double drop is to run center angling left and boof the second ledge into the eddy below. The hole on the bottom right looks stompy at some flows but it is very friendly. You can also try for a big mystery move into the pool below if you hit the left side of the fold at the bottom..

Pete Giordano runs the grand finale in Thors Playroom.
About one third of this rapid is visible in the photo.

Below Thors playroom is the take out. About a half mile downstream of Thors is Opal Gorge, a section that has gained popularity in recent years. This short but sweet section contains the most difficult whitewater on Opal Creek, and has one un-un rapid (unscoutable, unportageable) at the beginning.

It is possible to run Lower Opal Creek followed by Opal Gorge if the flows are in a medium to medium-low range, say 1,000 - 1,200 cfs. Doing both runs in one day is one of the best days of paddling in the area.

Another great day on Opal Creek..

Use the internet gauge 'Little North Santiam at Mehama' for flows. Generally you want between 1,000 and 2,000 cfs. This section runs all the time during the winter, and briefly in the spring during good snow years. Opal Creek is technically the headwaters of the Little North Santiam river, for more info on shuttle, etc, pick up the latest edition of Soggy Sneakers.

Lower Opal Creek, as described in this trip report.
There is a IV+ upper section that starts at Jawbone Flat.