The Seattle Times Company

NWjobs | NWautos | NWhomes | NWapartments | NWsource | Classifieds |

Thursday, July 12, 2007 - Page updated at 05:48 PM

E-mail article     Print view      Share:    Digg     Newsvine

Salmon River Canyon: "the Mount Everest of Oregon kayaking"

The Associated Press

PREV 1 of 3 NEXT

Enlarge this photo


Chris Korbulic runs Frustration Falls.


Oregon kayaking: www.oregon

Chris Korbulic blog: http://

ZIGZAG, Ore. — The rest of the crew already had done the throw and go — tossing their kayaks and paddles over the 80-foot falls and jumping or rappelling down the rock face to the pool below.

Chris Korbulic stood at the top of the last big drop, his hands hooked in the shoulder straps of his life vest, and stared a long time at the cold green water flowing over hard black basalt and the places it frothed into white.

He had spent all day to get to Final Falls and half his life to build the skills he needed to run the last in a series of big drops in the Salmon River Canyon and get a shot of a feeling he can't find anywhere else.

He knew right away in his gut he could run it. He was waiting for the others to get into position in the pool below, in case something went wrong, and memorizing the line he would paddle to get to the exact spot he needed to go over safely.

He closed his eyes and visualized himself paddling to the lip, sliding over, bending flat over the front deck, paddle in line with the boat, falling, falling, falling to plunge bow first into the soft white water below, and coming to the surface in his boat.

"You can't even explain it," Korbulic said afterward, eating summer sausage and cheese on a cracker from the hood of his buddy's van.

"You're up at the lip," he said. "You look down and you see the pool. You see how far away it is. And not a thought goes through your head. It's like you're just there. You're in that moment and there's nothing else. That's all you see. That's all you know at that point."

Korbulic, 21, and his friends are Class V creek boaters, on the extreme edge of white-water kayaking. They had come to test their skills against the Salmon River Canyon and immerse themselves in a rugged wilderness on the flanks of Mount Hood.

"The biggest falls"

Supercharged by snowmelt from the Palmer Glacier, the Salmon River flows down the mountain's southwest side through a deep basalt canyon in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness in Mount Hood National Forest.

The canyon is just a 90-minute drive from Portland, home to many expert kayakers, but the first known run of the seven-mile slot didn't occur until 2001, though that descent didn't include Final Falls.

"It's the Mount Everest of Oregon kayaking," said Jason Rackley, webmaster of who made his descent of the canyon later that same year.

"It has the biggest falls. All the falls are clean and runnable. It has an 80-foot waterfall, which is about as big as they get run. People have run 115-foot falls, but that's extremely rare. Eighty-footers are extremely rare. It's just too big. Anything over 30 or 40 feet ... it's a car crash, basically. You're going 50, 60, 70 mph when you are hitting the water. I broke my back off a 35-footer."

Modern kayak design made the Salmon Canyon run possible, he said. As recently as the 1990s, boats were 14-to-15-feet long, made of fiberglass and more likely to make a bone-jarring flat landing and break. Now the boats are much shorter, and each kayaking discipline has its own design. For creeking — running small rivers with steep drops — kayaks are short and fat, with upturned bows, so they surface quickly in churning white water.

Creeking is the part of kayaking Korbulic loves. He dropped out of Oregon State University to spend five months running creeks in Chile. This summer he is working for a U.S. Forest Service forest-research crew and getting ready to apply to nursing school, preferably one near good kayaking.

Korbulic took his first shot at the Salmon last year along with OSU grad students Chris Gabrielle and Jeff Hazboun. They hiked in about three miles to Frustration Falls with their boats over their shoulders but were turned back by high water.

A big crew

This year, they assembled a bigger crew and planned to put in higher, at Split Falls. They recruited software technician E.J. Etherington and Ryan Scott, who works for an online kayak-gear retailer in Hood River and had been down the Salmon four times. Scott brought along pals Jay Gifford and Keel Brightman.

Scott led the way, dropping into a narrow side channel, ducking under a log, pausing in a churning pool, then disappearing over the next drop to reappear in the broad pool below. He hauled his boat out on a rock and took video while the rest followed. Then they all got in their boats and disappeared into the canyon.

Nearly two hours later, after a series of logjams and waterfalls, they were at Frustration Falls, a series of three drops — 15 feet, 20 feet and 40 feet. Korbulic, Brightman and Gifford decided to run it. Hazboun was on the fence but saw Korbulic have trouble with the first drop and decided to leave it for another day.

"They are better boaters than me," Hazboun said. "They couldn't style it through there, so I wasn't sure I wanted to go there. ... "

Korbulic had trouble with the second drop, too, having to roll up in a pool so small that the sterns of each of the three boats hung briefly over the lip of the falls as the paddlers turned and gathered to prepare for the last drop.

Final comes right after Frustration, and only Korbulic decided to take the big one.

After giving a thumbs-up to those waiting in the pool below, Korbulic hiked back up to his boat, twisted right and left, jumped up and down a few times, then put some water in the cockpit that would go to the bow when he went over the lip, helping to keep the boat vertical during the drop. Then he secured his spray skirt around the cockpit, pushed into the pool and began paddling for the falls.

The boat nearly rolled over as he approached the last turn, but he braced and held it upright, then turned hard right and lined up perfectly, sliding over the lip and falling, falling, falling with the water. Near the end he twisted a little past vertical and threw his paddle just before impact, then disappeared into the boil. Seconds later, the orange bottom of his boat showed on the surface. Gabrielle paddled over and helped him roll up. Korbulic punched the air and slapped high-fives with Gabrielle.

"It's the only way I've found to get that kind of feeling," Korbulic said afterward. "It just seems like there's nothing else. There's right now."

Copyright 2007 The Seattle Times Company



Best Northwest employers - the results are in!

The 2007 NWjobs People's Picks winners have been revealed. See which companies won.

More Outdoors