Multnomah Creek
by Jon Loehrke

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Multnomah Creek has always intrigued me. Anyone who has ever driven up the Columbia Gorge has seen where this creek drops over five hundred feet down into the gorge in spectacular fashion. How many times had I driven past the massive spectacle that Multnomah Falls presents and wondered what was above it? This falls is a very popular tourist attraction for your average looky-loo, but to my knowledge no one had ever ventured above it with a kayak.


John Whaley and I had hiked up nearby Eagle Creek and seen the numerous waterfalls that section had to offer, which intrigued us even more. Finally this year we knew it was high time (so to speak) to give Multnomah a try. Of course, the geology indicated that there was a high probability (certainty?) of finding waterfalls...

John hiked up to the headwaters of Multnomah and confirmed that there was indeed a series of waterfalls above the big one. "Some are runnable, some not." He said later. "Should be short but interesting. The last drop is right at the lip of the big falls - this cowboy will definitely be walking that one."

Finally the opportunity came when I was home on vacation from college in Idaho. I grew up near the put-in for the Wind River, so when I came home I wanted to do some paddling! After doing an exploratory run down nearby Oneonta gorge, we packed up the boat and headed up to Multnomah.

We reasoned that we would only need one boat, so we brought my Eskimo Diablo; we figured we could take turns running the section above the main falls. John packed the boat and I carried the paddling gear. It would be easy to take photos due to the trail, and we could set safety as necessary. Because the area around Multomah Falls is so popular with tourists, we knew it would be impossible to keep a low profile. Nevertheless, we figured that if we wore regular clothes maybe we could say the big yellow plastic thingy was a listening device for birdwatching or something.

John, going birdwatching at Multnomah Falls tourist area.

It goes without saying that the hike up to the top of the falls was not fun. On the other hand, it was a nice day and we were about to run some waterfalls, so we were happy to be there. Because the area is so popular with tourists, the trails are very well maintained which made life a little easier for us. Of course, the fact that we were only carrying one set of gear helped a lot too.

Boy, we got some LOOKS on the way up! All the way up people were gaping at us and nudging each other in disbelief. We also got just about every question you could imagine. "Where are you going with THAT?!?" ...
"You going to run the falls?" ... "Heh heh... you boys are crazy!"

A typical tourist, giving us 'The Look'.

Finally the inevitable happened: we were spotted by a Self-Important Park Ranger With Nothing To Do.
(There may not be a more dangerous creature than a Self-Important Park Ranger With Nothing To Do..) John groaned in frustration when he saw her coming and we picked up the pace, but she walks those stairs for a living so she quickly closed the gap. As soon as we saw that we weren't going to lose her we stopped and braced for the inevitable assault. She rolled up, took a deeeep breath, and started crowing at the top of her lungs. I thought her eyes were going to bulge completely out of her head, so I kept my distance...

"What are you DOING?" she cried. "You're not taking THAT up there, are you? Are you going to be taking PICTURES of you KAYAKING this creek? Thats ILLEGAL!" (Ummm, no it's not, but nice try... -ed.). I don't think this is a very GOOD IDEA and frankly it seems like a VERY DANGEROUS THING TO DO."

It took us a few minutes to convince her not to shoot us on the spot or haul us off to jail, but after ranting and raving for a couple of minutes she finally let us off the hook with one final reprimand:

"Don't EEEEVEN THINK about PUBLISHING any of those photos anywhere-
I don't want any other KAYAKERS up here, do you UNDERSTAND me?!?"

Oh yes, we assured her. We would never THINK about publishing the photos; and even if we wanted to, wherever would we publish them??

We breathed a sigh of relief as she bustled self-importantly back down the trail, and resumed our upward trek.

Finally we reached the top of Multnomah Falls, and of course I had to creep right to the edge and get a photo. It was thrilling being at the top of a five hundred foot waterfall, especially considering we were about to run some big drops right above it!

A birds-eye from the top of 550 foot Multnomah Falls. If you look carefully you can see people wandering around on the observation deck far below.

We scouted some of the drops on the way up, and soon determined how we would proceed. About a half mile upstream of Multnomah was an 80 foot falls that we didn't want to bother with, so we figured we would tackle the waterfalls in between. This made for a very short run, but because we would be doing it one at a time and shooting photos it seemed reasonable.

Approaching the put in..

I put in first just below the 80 footer and peeled out into the current. It was a little creepy thinking that just downstream was the end of the world, but I was confident that everything would go well. Almost immediately I encountered the first ledge, a ten footer that led into another that led to the lip of a twenty foot falls. I ran this one middle right and dropped into a punchbowl. The exit from this 'room' was another horizon line, which definitely got the blood pumping as we ran the main falls.

The author runs the twenty foot falls. The next falls blocking the exit of the punchbowl is visible in the bottom of the photo.

I knew that the big one was coming up soon, so I approached the exit drop (another ten footer into a pool) with caution. The water was piling up onto a boulder in the middle of the chute below this drop, but we both avoided it with a few strong strokes.

John runs the exit drop immediately below the twenty foot falls.

Below here was the 550 footer, so I eddied out and handed the boat and paddle off to John. He had a good run, and we then hung around enjoying the view for awhile before heading back down. I guess this 'run' won't be repeated very soon, (if ever) but we sure had fun doing it!

John Whaley's observations of Upper Multnomah Creek:

Upstream of the 80 foot falls where we put in is a short 75 meter section with more class IV ledges, then another ~80 footer. The trail runs along the creek here, so access is easy. When hiking upstream above these unrunnable falls, the creek is perhaps runnable for less than a kilometer. A footbridge crosses the stream from river left to right as you walk upstream.

At this bridge, a potentially higher put-in might be considered someday. All of this can be observed in places 100 feet above the creek on a well-maintained trail. One boulder ledge drop of perhaps 12' is my main concern. It appears to be best on the extreme river right with what appears to be a marginal tiny shallow pool below. The lead-in appears to drive you more left towards an even worse rocky drop zone.

This section is a combination of bedrock and boulders with extremely steep gradient. Not entirely certain just how steep this short section is as the waterfalls below make an honest accurate account difficult. It appears significantly steeper than any other section I have paddled before. It is steeper than Oregon's Christy Creek or California's Indian Creek that head into the 400' per mile range.

Having enough water would also be of concern. The best ideas known yet are either the Bull Run River listed near Multnomah Falls or the East Fork of the Lewis in Washington. Maybe 800 on Bull Run near Multnomah or 1800 on the EF Lewis would be a good estimate.

Above this footbridge, the stream is basically too small without the aided channeled basalt bedrock. Upstream it crashes down through a complete mess of smaller boulders and wood for several miles until becoming too diminutive for further study.