Gabe Flock had been dropping hints about a steep, obscure creek that had horrible access, high gradient, and unknown character- a perfect way to begin the season! Thrilled to be a part of this madness, I dug through my stuff and prepared for a full blown debacle. From Gabe's description I knew we had to descend into a thousand foot deep canyon which virtually guaranteed we were going to run out of daylight before we reached the take out. I was almost looking forward to it! I packed: A water filter, trash bags to sleep in, cheese sticks, spare clothes, a lighter, a headlamp, and extra rigging equipment.
Of course, this equipment was only adequate for a minor league debacle. For a full-blown, major league debacle I would have needed: A parachute, signal flares, napalm grenades, ice axes and crampons, night vision goggles, and that's just for starters. Also desirable- porters carrying extra boats and equipment along the canyon rim, helicopter support, and dive teams to check the nasty bits...
Soon enough we were flying up a windy gravel road in the truck with Gabe's wife and dog along for the show. We unpacked our stuff at three thousand feet and were surprised that there was no snow, though the heavy gray clouds overhead looked like they meant business. While Gabe got ready I threw rocks for his dog. (no, not at his dog, for his dog. This dog is crazy about rocks. It chews on rocks. It fetches rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks. No rock is safe with this dog around...) Anyway, soon we were ready and we dropped over the edge at 10 am- we had six and a half hours of daylight to complete the run. Our plan was to put in on the steepest part of the creek and paddle approximately two miles down to a bridge where Gabe's wife Doe would be waiting with the truck. As we started the long slither down the slope I only remember hearing Gabe's dog, crashing through the brush, cheerfully pursuing another hapless rock. We worked our way down through the trees and thick ferns that lined the canyon wall and soon broad swaths of rock mossy rock began to rise up around us. We moved slowly because a misstep could have resulted in a long, unpleasant tumble into the unknown.
We had descended about six hundred feet of very steep terrain through trees, brush, and rock when we came to a rocky horizon line. We had been following a small, intermittent creek down the canyon wall and we had reached a small falls. Gabe waited while I scrambled down to find an impassable waterfall. We worked our way around it and then descended another hundred feet when we reached a rock outcropping and were stopped cold. "I've got one of those feelings" I said to Gabe and a quick recon confirmed it- we had reached a seemingly impassable barrier with one helluva view... We could see the creek now but between us and it was a two hundred foot nearly vertical cliff dotted with trees and smothered with moss. The rock walls undulated away on either side, intermittently poking out to form a series of mossy ribs that lined the canyon wall in a spectacular array.
What now? Gabe gets his first glimpse of Elkhorn Creek, two hundred vertical feet below...
While I was gone Gabe fiddled with his throw rope, trying to figure out if we could somehow get to the creek with some creative ropework. Suddenly his rope slipped from his hands and dropped into the void. "Shit." Gabe muttered and eased down the rock wall. No rope. He could see where I had scrambled straight down below so he eased across a rock shelf and gradually worked his way across the wall, headed in the opposite direction I had taken. After about ten minutes Gabe was standing just above the creek, having taken a somewhat circuitous but more or less direct line down the cliff face! Quite pleased with his direct line, he climbed back up to the top of the rib to wait for my return. Soon I burst back into view, covered with scratches and soaked with sweat, exclaiming proudly: "I found a way down!"
"So did I." Gabe said, pointing straight down the cliff face. Of course I was incredibly skeptical, but in the end Gabe insisted that he knew a way so I went along. I found his rope halfway down, and twenty minutes later we were on the creek! Luckily I had brought a water filter along because when I got to the creek I drank like a hard-core alky on a ten day bender. Feeling somewhat bloated, I finally got in my boat and we headed downstream- it was 1 pm, 3.5 hours of daylight left.
After a couple of nice warm up rapids the rock walls closed in and the canyon seemed to darken as the creek dropped out of sight with a furious crescendo. I had seen a fantastic looking boulder choker from high on the canyon wall earlier in the day, it seemed we had found it. "Be careful!!" I yelled to Gabe as we swung into the eddy above the rapid just above the big horizon line. We ran the last ledge before the point of no return and got out to scout on the left.
"Por-taaage" Gabe pronounced immediately, and I heartily agreed. Below us the creek smashed and thrashed it's way through an ugly jumble of huge boulders with a large log jammed in the middle just for spite. I dubbed this one 'Crunch-n-Munch' and we made short work of the portage on the river left side.
Looking down into Crunch-n-Munch...
Gabe balances on a boulder while getting into his boat at the bottom of Crunch-n-Munch.
Below this portage were some more nice rapids, and we enjoyed the wonderful scenery in this incredibly pristine canyon.
Gabe runs Razorback Falls
Gabe above the Potato rock. The right side horizon line has a shallow landing.
Hazards: Crunch-n-Munch. Also, lots of logs in the lower mile.