The Middle Santiam

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The Middle Santiam below Green Peter reservoir is one of Oregon's only 'turn-on' rivers. We should consider ourselves fortunate that we only have a handful of rivers in the Northwest that run at the dam-keeper's whim; in places like the Southeast rivers like this are much more common.

The two miles of riverbed below Green Peter dam is a dry jumble of boulders until the balance between demand for electricity and water levels in the reservoir allow for releases. This run is often runnable year-round, depending on the need for power.

Either way, once the dam is opened up, a fun (but short!) stretch of whitewater springs to life where there was none before. This run is rated class IV in all of the Oregon guidebooks, and given the character and nature of the final two rapids I think the rating still holds up to modern standards. It should be noted that the Soggy Sneakers 3rd edition description of Concussion is no longer correct; this rapid has changed since that description was written in the early eighties. The newest Soggy Sneakers (The fourth edition, by Pete Giordano) has an accurate description for Concussion.

This two mile section of the Middle begins at a dam and ends in a reservoir, so you can collect any lost gear at the bottom if someone is having a bad day. It should be noted that the water is always very cold on this run as it comes from the bottom of the reservoir, so come prepared.
The amount of water on the Middle is measured in 'units', with one unit ranging between 1800 and 2100 cfs and two units ranging from 3600 to over 4000 cfs. This feels like a heckuva lot of water after paddling low water runs all summer! To me, the Fall Releases on the Middle represent a prime opportunity to run some quality rapids that actually have some Push in order to get ready for the winter season. All of the photos on this report were taken at 2100 cfs, or one unit.

From the left, Steve Stuckmeyer, Jon Fowlkes, and Gabe Flock at the put-in for the Concussion run.
This was during the summer releases of August 2004, from 6 pm to midnight.

The run begins immediately below Green Peter Dam with some small holes, waves, and great eddylines for playboating. There are some surf waves, but they are big and fast and generally hard to catch unless you are really on the ball. There are several small rapids leading up to the final three drops, and if you are attentive you can always find some really nice playspots.

The first rapid of any consequence is known as 'Swiss Cheese', which forms some large holes at two units. At one unit this is a III to III+ rapid that has a nice surf wave about halfway down (best around 1800 cfs) and is generally run on the right. Swiss Cheese empties into a large pool, giving paddlers time to regroup above the two big ones.

The first class IV rapid is Scrawleys Wall, the first definite horizon line. This 100 yard long rapid has been the scene of swims and lost gear, which is always a serious event because Concussion lies just below. The close proximity of these two rapids is the primary reason this stretch deserves a class IV rating. Paddlers who don't have a strong roll could get into serious trouble here as Concussion essentially begins at the runout of Scrawleys. That said, if someone swims at Scrawleys get them out of the river as quickly as possible!

At Scrawleys the river drops into a large hole in the middle of the river, which can be avoided by staying left. However, if you get too far left, you risk getting plastered against the cliff wall on that side. This is classic class IV whitewater, with must-make moves and big, exciting river features. The runout at the bottom of Scrawley's is a long series of big waves, which make for some great surfing if you don't mind getting pasted against the wall every so often.

Steve dodges the big hole in the middle of the river at Scrawlies Wall. The entrance to Concussion is visible just downstream.

Immediately below Scrawleys lies Concussion, a drop that is certainly one of the finest class IV rapids in Oregon. This is a GREAT rapid, but must be approached with caution. First timers should scout this rapid on the right side over a big pile of boulders. Concussion has been partially portaged, but it is not easy.

At Concussion most of the flow in the center of the river crashes into a huge pile of rocks, forming a very dangerous boulder sieve that has almost taken the lives of two paddlers that I know of. The guidebook 'Soggy Sneakers' recommends running the central chute at one unit, which is totally wrong. This line is very dangerous, and nobody that I know of ever takes it. It is likely that the rapid has changed since that description was written in 1981.

This sieve (Also known as the 'room of doom') is pretty easy to avoid if you stay right, but if you are swimming or miss the line it could get ugly in a hurry. Of course, on the right side the entire flow goes into a munchy, twenty-foot-wide hole that has separated numerous paddlers from their gear, so the trick is to thread the needle between the two hazards.

Steve Stuckmeyer lines up on Concussion. It is easy to see here why the center line is not recommended; much of the water goes into the boulder sieve. The big hole is visible on the right hand side of the river.

A few years ago some friends of mine were paddling the Middle for the first time. When they arrived at Concussion they decided to take the center line as recommended by Soggy Sneakers. Mike went first, and had a very hard time avoiding the sieve. He was trying to signal the next person to go right, but the runout from this rapid is long and he couldn't catch an eddy in time to signal. The next person down followed his line, and the third (Tom Powers) decided to go right. When Tom got to the bottom of the rapid he screamed at Mike: "WHERE IS SHE ?!?" because the second paddler was nowhere to be seen.

She had followed Mike, and was flipped by the powerful cross-currents in the center chute.

She told me what happened next, and it still sends chills down my back every time I think about it. In short, she is very lucky to be alive.

She hit one of the boulders forming the sieve while she was upside-down and swam. Before she could react both her and her boat were sucked into the sieve, surfacing inside a small 'room' formed by the boulder pile. She was clinging to her boat for floatation, but the violent currents quickly tore it from her grasp. There was a crack on the south side of the 'room' that most of the water was exiting out of, but she was too terrified to swim through it. Of course, she didn't really have much of a choice, and as in most situations like this the river made the choice for her.

After a long ten seconds of attempting to cling to the far wall the water surged violently she was sucked down into the crack and under the boulders. As she went under she knew it was all over, but to her credit she didn't give up; she swam like hell!

"I went completely under the boulder." She said later. "I could feel it bumping on my back as I swam.." The powerful currents drove her down to the bottom of the river, and she ended up surfacing about thirty feet downstream from the sieve. Needless to say Mike and Tom were tremendously relieved that she was still alive, but now the hard part began: The boat recovery. They had to wait until later that evening when the dam keepers turned off the water in order to climb inside the sieve and get her boat.

What they found was disturbing. The boat (a Perception Corsica) was wedged tightly into the crack that the water had been exiting out of. They had a very difficult time extracting the boat, and everyone was thinking the same thing: If the kayak had gone into the crack first, there would be one less kayaker in this world.

I know this is a scary story, but I told it so people will take this rapid seriously. Once again, if someone swims at Scrawley's, get them out of the river immediately. Also, do yourself a favor and don't run the center line at Concussion.

On a lighter note, my friend Gary Cook decided to take the bold line at Concussion recently and ran down the far right side, straight into the gut of the big, munchy hole that dominates that side of the river. Of course he got thrashed in his Wavesport EZ, but he didn't swim out of it! It was a great ride, with several violent speed-of-light cartwheels, a couple of mystery moves, and several rolls. We were all cheering downstream and of course I got photos...

Gary, lining up to run the right side. The sieve is in the center of the river. Scrawlies Wall is visible upstream.

Now these are combat rolls... This is after the second cartwheel; I think at this point he was getting recirculated back into the hole (upside down) for some more rodeo action...

And out!

Flows: Call the Foster dam streamflow number at 1-541-367-5132. Listen for the "Green Peter Discharge" (no pun intended, I'm sure) information. Usually they release from about noon to 7 p.m. You can only get flow information a couple of days in advance, but releases are usually pretty reliable starting in September.