The First Descent of Majestic Falls on Mcdowell Creek

By Dan Coyle, March 1997

Mcdowell creek is located northeast of Lebanon and northwest of Sweet Home and flows into the South Santiam. The main section is part of Mcdowell creek state park for which there are signs on highway 20. I ran Mcdowell for the first time solo, in february 1997. I talked to Mike this last monday night about boating Tuesday morning before work. He said he'd been to Mcdowell that day (3/10/97) and it was raging. I had been hoping to attempt a descent of the falls at the put in, Majestic Falls, as the last time I was there with Mike some crude investigation proved that, at some points the depth at the bottom of this drop may be up to 6 feet but probably not a whole lot more. A well-performed boof should keep a big creek boat out of harms way with such depth, I think... hope... wish?

I decided to camp out at the falls that night and meet Mike at Sweet Home in the morning after determining whether the level was 'doable' in the morning. I lost a little sleep that night anguishing over the thought of running the drop and then woke to find that the level had come down a bit I looked at the falls a bit before going to see Mike and was leaning towards giving it a go. I met Mike at 8:30, told him it looked sane and we headed back. Our alternative was to be a high-water run on the South Santiam.

At the put in my dog had the most fun as he frolicked while we got ready. It took fully and hour to dress and, most of all, agonize over whether and where to run the falls. Mike and I stared at it speechless for a good 20 minutes at one point in my deliberation. I got out my 50 foot throw rope and tied one end to an old universal joint and estimated, standing at the top of the falls, the depth was about 6 feet and the drop itself was at least 30 and maybe (?) closer to 35 feet. This served to confirm my earlier investigation of the depth.

Feeling as scared as I've ever felt in a situation I had voluntarily put myself into, I decided to run it far left off a somewaht scrapy approach. Hopefully this wouldn't slow me too much to prevent a decent boof but aside from this it was the place where I had any good idea of depth.

I gave Mike the camera and bode farewell. I ended up sitting at the top finding some more nerve for another 5 minutes and then ran my line. The scrapy line was bad and alowed me down much. After lots of hangtime I actually over-rotated to almost a bellyflop. Upon impact I was washed behind the falls and had to hands roll as the paddle was knocked out of my grip. My skirt had imploded so I climbed out of my boat after a feeble attempt to drag myself out from the rock wall behind the falls. I recovered my paddle on the climb out and upon swimming to Mike I grabbed his rope, swam back in and retrieved my boat.

After a short breather we started down and within 150 meters Mike got himself broached on a big log I had just narrowly avoided. he managed to grapple himself over the top of the log with much effort and a good handhold while his boat got trapped underneath what turned out to be a big underwater mess of wood. For a moment it looked like the boat was pretty happy to stay there the rest of the day but after 15 minutes we were able to extricate it. (Now would be a good time to mention that mike is our wkcc safety offical.)

So, with that done, we headed down through fun steep continuous III+ and IV water to the next big drop, a rocky 13 foot falls with a relatively easy but absolutely necessary right side line, class V. Although mike had run this before at lower water he opted out this day in part due to his recent escapade. In spite of my own earlier mishap I opted to run here and was momentarily thwarted by some overhanging branches that had me wondering if I would end up backwards down the left side. I was able to correct however and ran it clean with an easy boof on the right.

Mike's portage here was a small nightmare but we got back on our way eventually. Again some fun steep continuous water to the only riverwide piece of wood on this run. A small sapling tree that hangs just high enough to limbo. In my freefall I got through and watched from downstream as mike's RPM got its tail sucked under as he tried the limbo. He lost his paddle and had to dump. Fortunately this was all in one of the few decent sized and calm eddies on the run. Next up was the long turning slide for which it is best to stay left. There's a big left turn at the bottom and if missed one could potentially get banged up by a rough wall on the right into which the bulk of the current bunches up into. No problems here and we headed down to a sequence of three ledges. the first is a small 9-10 foot waterfall ledge with an entirely clean line, much fun. the next, 20 meters down, is a right to left twisting 7 foot drop and then one last 5 foot drop another 20 meters down. this is a relatively low stress sequence with which we had a good time hootin' and hollerin' all the way down. From here we had about a mile of small 3-6 foot ledge drops and turns to the take out. despite our troubles it was great fun and I was regretting having to head back to work that afternoon.

Flows: The level in the South Santiam above foster was 3200 cfs this morning and I would call this the best gauge river for this creek with an estimated minimum of 1400 in the South Santiam, although I have done it lower. This creek is in the very foothills and reacts to weather more like the coast range so it wouldn't be wise to depend on snowmelt to do anything significant for this creek. On the other hand you could probably count on cold showers to bring the level up substantially relative to other Cascade runs.

Back to the Mcdowell Creek trip report.