Opal Creek Headwaters

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Ever since I started paddling the upper reaches of the Little North Santiam (most commonly known as 'Opal Creek') I wondered what lay upstream, above Jawbone Flat. Finally in the summer of 2002 Pete Giordano, Steve Stuckmeyer, and myself spent a weekend hiking and scouting the upper reaches of Opal Creek in preparation for a winter run.

We found much of what we expected: Waterfalls, great scenery, and the crystalline water that Opal Creek is known for. Access was a major concern, because the area above Jawbone always get snow early, which blocks the hiking trail. We decided that we would need at least 1500 cfs on the Mehama gauge, and we waited in vain until the weekend of December 28th, 2002, when Josh Knapp and I teamed up for an exploratory descent of the Headwaters of Opal Creek.

We met at the Swiss Village restaurant at 8 a.m. and drove straight to the trailhead. We both had packs for our boats, so we rigged up our gear and started hiking. We reached the community of Jawbone Flat (headquarters of the Friends of Opal Creek Conservation Group) after an hour or so of hiking, which meant we now had about a mile to go. We began to get a little concerned at this point because we had finally hit snow, and we knew the final mile on the trail would be somewhat unpleasant.

Josh enters Jawbone Flat.

The final rapid on the Headwaters Run is The Opal Gorge Narrows, the runout of which forms Opal Pool at very low water. Opal Pool is a popular hiking destination in the summer, when the narrows are but a trickle and the stunning emerald waters of the pool reflect the mountainscape in spectacular fashion.

At higher flows, the Opal Gorge Narrows are a deathtrap for kayakers; here the river roars downstream into an ever-narrowing horizon until the entire river dives under a large boulder wedged between the walls. Paddlers venturing onto this section need to be exceedingly careful while running the drops above this gorge; there are few eddies and a swim or missed eddy above this drop would likely be fatal. Luckily this entire section is visible from the footbridge.

The deadly boulder sieve in the Opal Gorge Narrows, where the river drops about ten feet with a boulder halfway down. (shot from the footbridge). This is the last rapid on the Headwaters run and should be approached with caution. (Or better yet, not approached at all... smart paddlers will start their portage a safe distance upstream to avoid entering the Narrows by mistake.)

As soon as we crossed the footbridge, our progress slowed to a snails pace as the trail started to undulate through the woods, climbing up ten feet, then down ten feet, repeat ad nauseum. If there hadn't been any snow on the ground this would have been a minor annoyance, but with snow it was very difficult and strenuous. Soon we reached the log-bridge above Jawbone flat and entered the home stretch.

Josh crosses the log-bridge above Jawbone flat. There is a nice class III drop visible under the bridge.

Soon we passed the first falls visible from the trail, a nice 12 footer, and started looking for the second 15-foot falls which would mark our put-in.

"This is getting harder." Josh said with considerable understatement about a half hour later. The snow was so deep I had lost the trail a few times, and we were navigating more or less by the location of the river. "Yeah." I said. "We'll put in above the second falls, which should be just upstream..."
Soon we sighted the second waterfall and started looking for a place to put in. By now we were both very cold, and the temperature was dropping precipitously. While Josh got ready I gnawed on a frozen Powerbar and tried to remember what my toes felt like.

"This is getting harder..." The snow got deeper at an alarming rate...

We put in right below a large log that was blocking the river and rounded a corner to find our first horizon line. "Holy Hidden Drop Batman." I said. "We never saw this one while we were scouting.." (That wasn't the first time on this day I would be surprised by drops we had overlooked during the summer..)
A quick scout on the left revealed a dangerous-looking slot with high pin potential, so we both portaged this one. Downstream were a series of fun little ledges, and then we rounded the corner above the first falls.

Josh runs the first falls on the headwaters section.

Just downstream of the first falls the river bent to the left and dropped out of sight with an impressive roar. We scrambled into a small eddy on the left and slogged up through the snow to scout. "It's like the Ultimate Corkscrew." Josh said, and that just about said it all. Below us was a large, twisty ledge that had a log vertically pinned in the top of the drop. The water powered left and then down into the right wall with tremendous force, then dropped left into the pool below. Unfortunately the log blocked the only safe line, so we had to portage this one on the left..

Josh ponders the 10-foot Corkscrew Falls. This drop would be more easily runnable if it weren't for the annoying log in the bottom of the picture, which blocks the preferred line and forces you to brave the "Mosh Pit" against the river right wall...

Just downstream an enormous old-growth log blocked the flow, and we got out to scout. From above it appeared that we could limbo under the log, but a rather unpleasant slog through the snow/logs/boulders/unidentified sharp things under the snow on the left revealed a bouldery mess formed by a small landslide. The water appeared to be shooting over two boulders with a creepy gap in between that screamed "PIN!", so we began to contemplate the unpleasant portaging options. (I have found that rapids formed by recent slides are far more likely to contain sieves and pin-spots; I almost always portage drops like this.)

Well, the portaging options were pretty bad, but we finally opted for the right side, which was slightly less awful than the left. At this point it might be useful to point out that none of the portages or scouting would have been that bad if it hadn't been for the SNOW on the ground, but as it was everything was twice as difficult..

Well, we groveled and slithered our way up the cliff face on the right and soon enough we were back on the water. We rounded a corner downstream to find the second falls, a twelve footer that we both ran on the left side. Downstream were more fun drops and ledges until we passed under the log bridge. Just below the bridge was a significant horizon line, so we got out to scout. I had seen this drop with no water in it, but I wasn't prepared for the superb chunk of whitewater that our scout revealed!

Below use the river narrowed and tore down a steep slide into a scoop in the bedrock that was causing the water to arc spectacularly through the air and then down into a substantial hole. Once committed to the slide Josh ripped down, melting through the huge arc of water and reappeared in the pool below, laughing with delight.. This is one of the most entertaining drops I have run in a long time; if we hadn't been so concerned with time I would have hiked up to run it again and again!

The author runs the superb slide falls just below the logbridge.

Below the slide the river bounced through some nice boulder gardens, and then we eddied out above a drop we call "Log Leap Falls". Here the river divides around an rock outcropping with a pool formed by a logjam on the left and a blind, narrow slot on the far right. The far right side slot has a dangerous log with an upstream rootwad pinned in it (the right side is unscoutable when there is water in the river, but our summer scouting trip revealed the log.) while the left side sluices over and through a large logjam into a bouldery jumble below. The 'line' (and I use that term loosely) would be to power over the far right side of the logjam pictured below and drop fifteen feet onto a boulder pile where you would probably vertically pin, explode on impact, or both. Needless to say, we hiked up to the trail (which was very close to the river at this point) and portaged this one. At much higher water I think that this drop might clean up considerably, or maybe not..

The view of Log Leap Falls from above. It should be noted that once you catch the eddy against the left wall above this drop, you either have to run it or someone with a rope will have to rescue you due to the overhanging walls.

Downstream was a short gorge then we portaged the Narrows section with the boulder sieve. Below the narrows the river opened up considerably and we enjoyed some nice splashy drops while cruising though some awe-inspiring stands of old-growth cedar and pine below Jawbone Flat.

Josh approaches a fun slide just below Jawbone Flat.

There were a few nice slides and other interesting drops before we arrived at Cascada de los Ninos', the falls that marks the put in for the uppermost Opal Creek run described in the guidebooks.

Josh soars over 'Cascada de los Ninos', the falls that mark the put-in for the Upper Opal Creek section covered by the guidebooks.

Flows: I have highlighted the period when we were on the river on the image below. The headwaters seemed to have about 20% of the flows on the Mehama Gauge. I think you could double the flow we had and not have any significant problems, though the run would become class five at much higher water, with no way to scout the waterfalls, scarce eddies, and lots of hectic moments I'm sure.


1) Expect a long hike that is remarkably unpleasant when there is snow.

2) There is almost always snow when there is water in this upper section.

3) Therefore, expect a remarkably unpleasant hike through the snow. (did I leave something out?)

Oh yeah: snowshoes might help a bit in the flats (which are few and far between), but the trail is fairly primitive so you probably wouldn't get much advantage out of them once the going gets rough. In fact, you will probably just end up cursing me for suggesting it or for giving you the idea to do this run in the first place. When you do that remember one thing: I'M probably someplace warm and comfortable, drinking milk and eating crackerjacks...