The Upper Upper Cispus River

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The Upper Upper Cispus is a great run with big, clean falls and steep, powerful boulder gardens all nestled in a wonderfully scenic gorge accessible only by kayak. I first did this run on a cold October Saturday with John Whaley and Phil D'Onofrio, and we had a very exciting, eventful trip. John had been part of a bold team who had tackled this section for the first time eighteen years ago. Unfortunately, he had never been back after breaking his father's kevlar boat into three pieces in one of the big boulder gardens in the upper gorge. Needless to say, John had looked forward to this day for a long time after being thwarted the first time around..

Phil is an accomplished paddler from the Southeast who was chomping at the bit to get out and run something hard after only paddling only a few times this last year. After numerous delays we finally reached the river at noon and we changed in the cold rain. As we wolfed down cheesecake there was tension in the air because we had opted not to scout the unportageable thirty foot waterfall in the lower gorge due to time constraints. We were able to do this with some degree of confidence because we knew some boaters who had run the river the week before who said the falls was clean. Nevertheless, committing ourselves to running a thirty footer sight unseen was enough to get the blood pumping on such a cold day!

John slid into the river and quickly disappeared around the corner while Phil and I got in our boats. John was definitely on a mission as he had spent the last eighteen years wondering what was in the lower gorge and he was eager to see what he had missed so long ago. I followed and as I approached the first corner a hundred yards downstream I saw John's boat on a rock ledge on the left, and as I got closer I noticed that the river was sweeping around the corner over a big horizon line. A thrill of excitement went through me as I heard the unmistakable, thunderous siren song of a waterfall!

My enthusiasm quickly waned as I saw the end of a log waving back and forth at the lip of the falls. John was already portaging due to the vertically pinned log in the middle of this fourteen footer but I decided I saw a line so I jogged back to my boat with growing excitement. By now Phil had joined us in the eddy and was getting out of his boat to scout. "Fourteen footer, vertically pinned log in the middle. I'm going right." I said to Phil, and with that I peeled out of the eddy thirty feet from the lip of the falls. I quickly worked my way over to the right side of the river and then with a couple of strong strokes I was right where I wanted to be, though once I launched off the lip the powerful current funneled me a bit closer to the log then I would have liked. I hurtled into the hydraulic at the bottom about six feet to the right of the log, went deep, and popped up downstream with a yell of exultation. Welcome to the Cispus!! Phil glanced at the falls and soon followed my line.

Pete Giordano accelerates into the 'warm-up' falls on the Upper Upper Cispus.. a great way to start the day.. ( taken on a later trip )

Once below the falls Phil went on a rampage, tearing down through every rapid so fast it was hard to keep him in sight sometimes. "Am I going too fast?" he asked innocently after we joined him below yet another big drop that I would ordinarily have scouted if he hadn't been signaling from the pool below. "Heck no!" I said. "This is great!" As we floated downstream the lush green rock walls soared overhead and I was awed by the beauty of the gorge- this is yet another untouched, primeval place that only a few kayakers will ever see!

Alex Hotze boofs at the bottom of a fun drop ( taken on a later trip )

Pete Giordano enters a typical boulder garden. This drop ends with the river splitting around two large boulders with six-foot pourovers. The left side is usually clean, the middle can be woody; most of the current pushes into the middle, so stay alert here. ( taken on a later trip )

Pete Giordano takes a moment to soak up the view below a typical big boulder garden in the upper section

Downstream the river starts to change nature slightly and more bedrock ledges and slides appear. One of the biggest drops before the waterfalls start again is a complex drop where the river accelerates over some boulders and then splits around a bedrock outcropping. There are two lines here: The left side hero line, which pile-drives paddlers down through a narrow, munchy hole (usually resulting in a flip), or a right-side slide.

Jesse Coombs runs the left side of the split drop, which pile-drives paddlers down through a narrow, powerful hole. This drop somewhat resembles Island Falls, which is located about a mile downstream. ( taken on a later trip )

Soon the rapids started to pile up one after another until we arrived at what had to be Island Falls, an intimidating twelve foot drop that is often portaged. Here the river divides around a rock dome shot through with potholes with a big double drop on the right though a couple of sticky holes and a tricky, shallow, twelve foot plunge on the left. I have seen folks run both sides of this one, but the left is probably easiest.

Phil runs the left side of Island Falls.

Soon the river mellowed and we drifted into unknown territory. John was excited to see the lower gorge as he had been force to hike out before this on his previous trip. For awhile we relaxed and bounced down through some easy class II and then the green walls began to creep out of the deep, clear water and we entered the lower gorge.

After a couple of steep drops the walls again soared overhead and the river pinched down to about fifteen feet wide and charged around a blind right corner. We could hear a roar but we couldn't see what was there, so Phil eased up along the wall and when he reached the corner he suddenly yelled "Shiiiit!!!" and disappeared abruptly, his paddle blades whirling madly.

"Oh, Christ." I muttered as I eased up to the last tiny eddy against the left wall about fifteen feet above the corner, where I could now see a definite horizon line. "What's up?!?" John yelled from an eddy just upstream against the right wall. "I can't see him!!" I yelled back. I eased out of my boat as quickly as I could and balanced on a small, slick shelf just above the drop. Quickly, I pulled my boat up onto the sloped shelf and eased up onto the rock wall, where I could see down into the drop below. No Phil. Relieved, I yelled back at John "I don't see him- I think he's ok." Below me the river narrowed down to about eight feet wide and careened wildly off the rock walls through wild hydraulics down into a green pool below. After a couple of sketchy moves I reached a higher shelf where I saw Phil, sitting in the pool below, looking up at me quizzically.

Relieved, I returned to my boat and yelled back to John: "He's ok. It looks like: 'hey diddle diddle, right down the middle!!' " John peeled out and shot through the drop with ease but as I climbed back in my boat a thought occurred to me: I was right at the lip of the drop now, and I would have about two good strokes before I was at the edge! "Well, it looks like it's flushin'." I reasoned as I pulled my deck on and slid off the ledge. Two strokes later I slopped over the edge of the drop, went deep, and then came rushing down the chute in a huge, sustained tail stand as it 'flushed' me out. I flipped over backwards at the bottom and was swept along the right wall, where I rolled up with a laugh. Phil later said he yelled as he went over because that wasn't at all what he had expected, and he ended up flipping because he, too, had no speed when he dropped over the edge.

Soon the walls began to tower over us as we approached the the 30 foot unportageable falls the guidebook refers to simply as 'The Behemoth'. After a couple of more sizable rapids we reached another definite horizon line. We knew that there was a class IV rapid that led to a small pool right at the lip of the big falls so we were playing it safe. I wheeled into the eddy behind John, who was already out and scrambling along the right wall. As I peered down from the eddy I could see two definite drops below me, and then the river turned right and disappeared again. "This is it." I said to Phil, who was sitting in the eddy next to me. "I can feel it."

A quick scramble downstream along a narrow, crumbly ledge on the right wall confirmed it- below that last rapid the river dropped out of sight with a tremendous roar into an eye-popping, steam filled punchbowl far below. After watching John pull off some gnarly rock climbing moves further downstream on the right wall trying to get a better look at the falls I decided it was time: I was going to commit.

You see, that last drop above the falls should be known as 'The rapid of no return' because once you run it you have no other option- there's only one way out! I got back up to the eddy and joined Phil, who was calmly sitting in his boat. "This is it." I said simply. "I'm going down to take a look."

I peeled out of the eddy and dropped over the first part of the rapid above the falls. Before I knew it I was floating in the small pool above the edge of the world, and an eerie calm settled over me. I glanced to the right and saw John, who had reached the limits of human rock climbing ability and was perched twenty feet from the lip of the falls on the right wall. As I got out of my boat on the tiny rock ledge on the left he was vainly trying to see over the edge, but to no avail.

I eased up the slick rock to the edge of the drop and suddenly I felt very small. Below me the river dropped three stories into a raging, swirling pool which rushed downstream into a riverwide ledge drop that I had been warned about. Lots of folks run the falls ok only to be devoured by the hole below that ledge- you have to stay left as you come off the falls or you're gonna get hammered! Below the ledge the river dropped away into a big class V boulder garden with a couple of logs jammed in the middle of it.


"What's the line?!?" Phil yelled, shattering my reverie. Surprised, I spun and saw him sitting in the eddy next to my boat. He had run the last drop above the falls while I was looking downstream, and I hadn't heard him come down.

Phil in the eddy below 'The rapid of no return'. The lip of the big falls is twenty feet downstream from here.

"Left." I replied. "Start middle and charge left. About ten feet down the water is hitting a rock sloped like this." I indicated with my hand. "When you hit that rock, boof hard and you should land on the left side of the pool. Stay left to avoid the bad hole in the drop below the falls, and then there's some class five with wood below that."

Phil nodded.

Then, to my surprise, he said calmly: "Well, I'm gonna go."

And with that, he whipped out of the eddy and tore down and dropped out of sight. I scrambled madly down the rock shelf just in time to see him drop off. He sailed off the lip perfectly in a smooth, clean arc, and when he hit the rock ten feet down he careened to the right and plunged out of sight down into the mist.

Phil, boat scouting the thirty footer on the Upper Cispus.

For a long moment I held my breath as he failed to materialize at the base, and then he popped out upright and paddled over to the right side of the ledge below. As I watched as he ran the ledge right down the gut, clawed his way through the hole and then spun into the eddy above the big boulder garden, where he looked up at me expectantly.

"What happened?" John yelled as I scrambled back up to my boat. "He's ok!!" I yelled back. I described the line to John and then I said: "I'm going- see you at the bottom!"

I slid into the river and charged downstream with all the speed I could muster. As I dropped over the ledge the world spun wildly away below me as I sailed through the air, struck the rock, and plunged twenty feet down into the pool below. As I flew through the air I realized I was going to land totally flat and I thought: "This is going to hurt." but when I landed the highly aerated water absorbed the impact and I didn't feel a thing but wild exultation!

"Nice line." Phil said once I got below the ledge. "How'd I look?"

I laughed. "Great, considering you ran it blind." I replied. "How was that ledge?" (I had taken the sneak line against the left wall over the ledge) "Man, that thing surprised me a little." He admitted. "It was pullin' hard- I really had to work to get out of that hole!" With that I scrambled up onto a boulder in the middle of the river and waited for John to come down. A few minutes later he came flying down, shot out over the edge and plunged into the pool below. A second later he charged triumphantly out from the base of the falls and whooped. "Eighteen years!!"

A good line over the big one, hitting the boof just about perfectly. ( taken on a later trip ).

Pete and Jesse wait below the Behemoth while others pick their lines. You can look at it all you want, but you can't walk around it! ( taken on a later trip ).

Pete Giordano guts the ledge guarding the exit of the punchbowl below the Behemoth. At higher flows it is essential that you get left after you run the Behemoth (not easy because of the huge boils) to hit this ledge on the far left side, or risk getting beaten up in this hole, which gets very sticky!

The last big boulder garden went smoothly, except that I dented the bow of my boat pretty good in the very last drop. Below there the river mellowed to class II all the way to the take out a mile below. We sat back, enjoyed the scenery, and counted the days until we could come back...

Looking downstream at the boulder garden below the Behemoth ( taken on a later trip - clockwise from the top: Pete Giordano ( yellow boat ) Jesse Coombs, Alex Hotze ( standing ), and Jonathan Fowlkes.

FLOWS: The pictures in this report were taken when the internet gauge 'Cispus at Randle' was between 650 and 750 cfs. Because the gauge on the Cispus is located far downstream from this run, the gauge readings mean different things depending on the time of year you do the run.

In the fall and winter, when the river is fed mostly by rain, a good first-time, kind of mellow and forgiving flow is 650 cfs on the 'Cispus at Randle' gauge, 1200 cfs is medium and faster, and it gets tougher from there, very fast with fewer eddies and big holes. Remember that the gauge is located far downstream of this section, so when it rises due to rain, much of the rise can be attributed to tributaries downstream, which means less water in the Upper-Upper.

In the summer, when the flow is primarily snowmelt, 700 cfs is medium (probably equivalent to about 1000 or more cfs in the winter when the river is rain-fed, because in the summer all of the water is coming from the snow at the headwaters, not from the tributaries downstream as it does in the winter). Low water runs are possible ( but not recommended ), down to about 450 cfs (from rain) and probably lower from snowmelt.