Elkhorn Creek
Little North Santiam Drainage
December 2000

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The rains came late this year, waiting until nearly the end of December to deliver the creeks from their trickling purgatories. Everyone was on edge from months of driving up to Washington to run the Green Truss or endless playboating on the local runs- it was time to go exploring!

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...

"Well, maybe we can get down one of those draws" Gabe said, indicating the deep cuts in the canyon wall between the 'ribs' on either side of us. Not smart enough to know better, I said: "Hey, why don't you stay here and I'll go see what's what?" Gabe agreed and climbed out to the edge to enjoy the view. I scrambled down the first 'draw' on near-vertical terrain and found that it ended a hundred feet down, totally vertical. I scrambled back up, climbed over the next spectacularly airy, exposed rib, (trying to ignore the unnerving void beneath my feet) and scrambled down the next 'draw'. No luck, and it was the same with the next one over, and the next. In between scrambles I caught glimpses of the creek and was enthralled by the crystal clear water and big, seemingly clean rapids far below. Five draws over and a quarter of a mile away I found a prominent weakness down the canyon wall and I practically rambled down two hundred feet of a steep, fern laden slope, following a line of massive old growths that ended up marching right down to the creek! Soon I was in the water, splashing deliriously downstream to a big horizon line- I was elated! I hadn't brought any drinking water so I was about to pass out from dehydration, but I hadn't expected to be goating for almost two hours, either! A quick scout showed a 15 foot, dome shaped falls with another large drop just downstream. Ignoring the impossibly luscious looking water, I began the long climb back up to find Gabe. It was now 12:20 pm- four hours of daylight remained.

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.

Soon we reached the falls I had seen initially, and Gabe ran it first while I shot pictures. This one had some nasty rocks sticking up, so we called it 'Razorback Falls'. (It should be noted that at much higher flows this drop would be impossible to scout or portage.)

Gabe runs Razorback Falls

Below Razorback were more fun drops- One of these was a ledge preceded by a strangely out of place midstream potato-shaped rock. Just below the 'potato' was a creek-wide ledge that we were only able to scout from upstream. I probed this one on the right and hit bottom, vertically pinning for a few seconds until I could thrash free. Gabe heard the thump and once I popped out he followed my hand signals and ran the much more benign slide down the far left side.

Gabe above the Potato rock. The right side horizon line has a shallow landing.

Soon the creek widened and the wood began to increase dramatically. We portaged a couple of logs and dodged a whole lot more... It was nearly three in the afternoon when we rounded the corner and saw the take-out bridge and the truck; we cheered and charged downstream, happy to be done but happier yet that we had been privileged to visit such a special place!

Flows and Access: Elkhorn Creek is one of the main tributaries of the Little North Santiam, coming into the river just below the Opal Creek section. We ran the creek when the Little North Santiam at Mehama was reading 1100 cfs. Probably 2000 cfs would be better as a few of the logs would be underwater and wouldn't require portages. Gabe and I thought that quite a few of the logs looked like they had come down in the most recent windstorms and would likely be gone by spring. I imagine with the flood power this creek can generate that it cleans up nicely. Snow and ice in this canyon would probably render it inaccessable, assuming you could even get up the road to begin with.

Hazards: Crunch-n-Munch. Also, lots of logs in the lower mile.