Coal Creek Canyon on the SF Coquille
Copyright © 2001 , Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of the Oregon Kayaking Webmaster.

Coal Creek Canyon (also known as section 4) on the South Fork of the Coquille is a dangerous run at any flow. The objective hazards presented by wood and undercuts on this section are severe- life and gear could easily be lost under many of the boulder jumbles in this section. At lower flows (500 cfs) this section is barely runnable and at higher flows (2000 and up) this stretch is pretty hair raising due to the size of the boulders and numerous undercuts.

Did I mention the undercuts? The massive sandstone boulders that clutter the canyon in this stretch are very soft, which leads to huge, unnerving undercut-sieve-siphons everywhere you look. This is clearly evident at higher flows when the eddies behind the boulders get 'soft'- they are hard to catch and harder to stay in due to the water rushing up from underneath...

I first did this run after we scouted Cataract Canyon on this river in the winter of 2000. We had hoped to do an exploratory run down this upper section but found it to be unmanageable so we did Coal Creek instead. I was feeling strong and boating well, and I was with a strong group. Of course, how could I know that by the time the day was over I was going to come terribly close to dying? Thinking back, I didn't have any kind of premonition of doom or anything when we entered that canyon...

The entrance to the canyon is signaled from upstream by a significant narrowing of the river and a huge, house sized boulder on river left. Soon the river dropped out of sight between an enormous boulder jumble and we got out to scout.

Pondering the jumble of boulders leading into Coal Creek Canyon

We slowly worked our way downstream, keeping a sharp eye out for wood. I probed ahead on one blind drop and got a nasty surprise.. I could see that there was a short, class III lead in to a twisty, narrow, blind drop around a large boulder. There was a small eddy just at the lip of the blind drop so I worked my way across the river to the eddy. As I slid into it a chill went up my spine- just below me the river dropped down into a large log that had been invisible from above! I yelled to Gabe and signaled that there was a log in the bottom drop. He opted to paddle down to the eddy anyway so I set up safety above the log while the others portaged.

Gabe Flock portages the hidden log...

After that nasty surprise we were considerably more cautious downstream- "I guess aggressive boat scouting is a bad idea on this run..." I commented when we got back in our boats.

Tom Powers works his way through Coal Creek Canyon, dwarfed by the huge boulders. If it looks like there is no water that's deceptive- the river had 1000 cfs on Pat Welch's internet powers gauge when this photo was taken, it's just that most of it is going under the boulders rather than over them!

Eventually the river narrowed dramatically and most of the water funneled down to the left. Basically all of the water was going down a fast, bouldery chute on the left and then charging across a 20 foot pool into three boulders. The boulder in the middle of the river that the water was flowing into was relatively small (car sized) but it was dwarfed by two massive boulders on either side. Much of the water was going into a 12 inch wide crack between the boulders that was jammed with wood. In addition, there was no pillow where the water was hitting the boulders- it was all going under. Basically you had to cut right to avoid this mess at the bottom of the boulder slalom or you would get pushed up against the boulders. It was an 'easy move', or so I thought.

"Looks like a death trap from up here, huh?" Gabe said grinning when we caught the eddy in the pool above this drop. We scouted and Steve portaged while Gabe got ready to run it. Gabe did fine but wobbled a bit just above the sieve in the weird currents as he turned.

Now, Gabe has been paddling class V for over ten years and is a far better boater than I, so his bracing should have set off alarms in my head, but it didn't. It looked like such an 'easy move'.... John went and did ok as well. Steve and Gabe headed downstream to scout the next drop while I came down.

It was a deceptively difficult drop, and I missed a key paddle stroke. I misjudged the speed and power of the current, which was a lot stronger than it looked. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the boulders were so undercut that they weren't slowing the water down much, so it was counterintuitively powerful current- (ie: there was no reaction pillow at all to slow the water). Anyway, before I knew what was happening I was pushed up against the boulders right at the crack. As I flipped I thought: I'm dead.

I tried repeatedly push off of the boulders but the current was too powerful and said a little prayer and pulled. I would have been gone for sure if I hadn't hung onto my boat- I was going under the boulders but I grabbed my boat and pulled myself to back to the surface. I could hear John yelling "Hang onto your boat!!!" My kayak was between me and the crack but it didn't matter- the current was going under the boulders with such force it pulled me under again (my legs actually went completely under the boulders and there was nothing there) and again my boat saved my bacon as I used it to pull myself to the surface. My paddle was swirling around next to me and then suddenly it got sucked under the boulders and was gone, never to be seen again.

The wood saved me. There were several pieces of wood stuck in the top of the crack and I grabbed onto them and held on for dear life. Now my boat was stuck sideways between me and the crack and I was now stable so I decided to wait until someone could get a rope to me. I could hear everyone yelling and whistles blowing but they seemed far, far away now. Unless someone got to me quickly, I had seconds to live, and I knew it.

As is the case in paddling accidents the river grew impatient and decided to finish me off. As my boat filled with water it lost floatation and abruptly went stern up and started to go into the crack with me close behind. Trying not to panic, I pushed my boat ahead of me into the crack, where it stuck solidly. Now I was stable again but there was still a terrifying suction coming from under the boulders so I took my chances and climbed up onto my boat. I slowly eased myself out of the water, climbing up on the top of the boat onto the smaller boulder. After I got it together (it took a minute or two, I'll tell you what!) John threw me a line from upstream which I attached to my stern, which was sticking out of the water. I then attached my throwrope to my grabloop as well and while Steve and John pulled from upstream I pulled at an angle, and rocking it back and forth we popped it free.

Gabe makes 'the move' at the bottom of the rapid to avoid the sieve/undercut. The sieve/crack that I ended up in is highlighted. You can see the small pieces of wood that I held onto when me and my boat got stuck in the crack. If that wood hadn't been there, you might be calling this one 'Lost Paddler'. One more thing: Steve later mentioned that one thing this photo doesn't show very well is how fast the water is going into those boulders...

The same rapid shot from upstream. As you can probably see from here the river funnels you right down into the sieve. This is an easy portage, and since my near miss I have gotten several emails from good boaters who said they ALWAYS portage this drop.

I was still not totally safe though. I had to swim to shore and then walk upstream between rapids and swim across the river again, which was not fun... I suppose this incident (which is about as close as I have ever come to losing my life outside of the military) does prejudice me against coal creek a bit, but I think it also clearly demonstrates the penalty for a missed line or a swim here! (We have since named this drop 'Lost Paddle' in honor of my lost blades..)

Below this rapid is one more very dangerous drop to watch out for. Here the river is almost completely choked off by a boulder fence that forms a very dangerous sieve/suckhole combination. This drop can be sneaked on the far right, but watch the hole that forms over there at higher flows! After this last boulder choker the river mellows out to the take out. The day of my accident I was glad to be alive, and not a little bit embarrassed that I missed such an 'easy' move... Gabe told me later that someone always gets into trouble on that rapid, and I know Steve had a bad experience there as well. (luckily he flushed right- if he had been pushed left he would have ended up in the crack as well...)

Mike Haley exits Coal Creek Canyon