Upper Upper Deschutes: Benham Falls

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The Benham Falls section of the Upper Deschutes is one of the most intimidating stretches of runnable whitewater in Oregon. At medium flows the gorge is runnable V+, very tough but do-able. At high water (2000 cfs and above) this section is fun to look at but becomes exceedingly dangerous and is not recommended. The section itself is fairly short (maybe two tenths of a mile long) but it packs such a wallop it will seem longer to those who choose to run it.

Benham Falls Recreation Area

The fall season for 2003 had gotten off to a good start with some rain, so we headed over to Bend to see what was happening on the Upper Upper Deschutes. Our usual Fall runs on the Deschutes include the Lava Island Falls section (short, but fun), Meadow Camp, the Canyon, and the Riverhouse runs. On this particular trip I was accompanied by Gabe Flock, Grace Thompson, Jesse Coombs, and Jon Fowlkes.

On this particular day we were going to hook up with another group of mixed ability levels, so the plan was to put in at Big Eddy and paddle down through the Lava Island Falls run. The river had about 1000 cfs in it, which is just fine for this section. Jesse was looking for more of a challenge, so early that morning Jesse, Jon, and I headed up to check out Benham Falls.

The 'easy' top half of Benham Falls, also known as 'Upper Benham'.

Jesse scouts Lower Benham Falls, which is the crux of this section. This drop demands a precise, powerful line through three huge hydraulics.
The middle hole in this section is backed up by a midstream boulder and is extremely dangerous.
We had four throw ropes on this hole when Jesse ran it, two on each side of the river.

Upon arrival we took an inventory of our safety equipment. We had a total of four throw ropes, so Jon and I each took two.

We decided to set safety for Jesse at the crux of Lower Benham Falls, because we judged the holes there to be quite dangerous. Jon ferried his boat across at the base of the falls and managed to do some steep scrambling/climbing along the gorge wall to get positioned with a rope above the middle hole.

Jon Fowlkes stands ready with two throw ropes at the nightmarish middle hole on Lower Benham Falls
(Note the boulder backing up the hydraulic.. I estimated that this hole would keep a swimmer for approximately 47 years...)

I traversed along the gorge wall to reach the river-left side of the hole, and got ready. The toughest part about this section is staying on line through the series of ever-larger holes. We knew that the slightest mistake would result in a pounding of epic proportions, so we held our breath as Jesse came charging down..

Jesse Coombs lines up on the belly of the beast: The terrifying middle hole on Lower Benham Falls.
He ran this part perfectly, riding the tongue in the middle of the picture, which lined him up for the bottom hole, two photos down.

Corran Addison once said: "Technique will only get you so far; after that you just have to PULL HARDER.."
Jesse claws his way out of the bottom hole at Benham Falls..


We hooked up with the rest of the group downstream at Big Eddy and continued down through the Lava Island Falls section. This run is short but very fun, with the highlight being the first drop, Lava Island Falls. Everyone had relatively clean lines over the falls, with only one member of the group throwing a few cartwheels in the powerful hole that guards the top of Lava Island.

Jon Fowlkes rounds the corner and turns on the afterburner as he approaches the lower drop on Lava Island Falls.