Sunday, July 16, 2017

Eagle Creek Canyoneering

As I catch up on my blog in mid-September I write this as the massive Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, started by a 15 year old with fireworks, burns over 43,000 acres of old growth forest and treasured trails.  In July Emily and I had the good fortune to join a rowdy group of friends for our first Canyoneering trip down the creek that is now completely destroyed by human carelessness.  Looking at these pictures as I write this my eyes fill with tears knowing that nobody will be able to partake in this adventure for decades to come as the landscape slowly heals.  Read on and enjoy the photography, video and memories…

Emily and I had been looking forward to this trip for weeks.  We each had purchased new thicker wet suits, booties and gloves in preparation for the frigid creek water despite summer temperatures.  Our friend Ian Roth had organized the trip and there was some worry about water levels being too high for short people like Emily but 11 of us met up anyway at 8:30am at the trailhead.  Chris and Paris had stayed over at our place the night before and we were glad to have slept in longer than Dev probably would have liked ;) 

We were on the trail by 9am and even though I lagged behind to get video and photos in preparation of a planned video documentation of the trip we still made it to the rappel down to the creek by 10:15 am just below Skoonichuck Falls.  We all changed into our warm wetsuits and one-by-one rapped down into the river bed below with the help and guidance of Ian who set up all the ropes during our adventure and has far more climbing and rope experience than Emily or I.  

Once all of us were at creek level it was a full-on blast floating down the creek.  About half the group had brought cheap inflatable tubes while the rest of us used our tightly sealed dry bags to float down the creek in whatever position best helped our forward progress.  Ian had suggested we wear old clothes over our suits to prevent them from being torn so I brought along full jeans and a long sleeve hiking shirt to wear.  Others just wore shorts so I looked pretty silly.  We all had life vests and helmets on as well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t protect my life vest so the front mesh pockets got pretty torn apart by the rocks… whoops!

We poured ourselves rapid over rapid down the stream towards the narrow slot canyon underneath one of the trail bridges where I paused to take out the Mavic Pro and fly a little.  Being so deep in the canyon I didn’t have very good GPS and it was a bit of a sketchy flight, narrowly avoiding the side walls a few times but I’m glad I got the footage now of course! 

We soon came to Loowit Falls and the waterworld of fun surrounding it including a hollowed out cave, multiple waterfalls flowing into it and of course the climb up to stand under Loowit Falls itself (the one thing I regret not doing because I was too busy filming everyone).  We stopped to play there for nearly an hour taking turns going through the rapids into the pond below while I filmed from the side and above with the Mavic Pro.  I’m so sad wondering what this location looks like now after the fire.  

From there it was a pleasant float down the creek to an unnamed 10 foot drop in the creek to a pool below.  Ian had brought along goggles so he ventured down below to check for any wood debris in pool below the drop.  When we got the all clear everyone again took turns inching up to the edge and then plunging over the falls while I filmed from above.  Ian grabbed one of the multiple GoPro’s and got some epic footage of everyone plunging underwater below (even caught a fish in the footage!).  

The next stop was famous Punchbowl Falls.  Going over this falls had been on my bucket list of things to do around Portland for years but we had recently heard of wood under the falls from the spring high flows and that someone had been badly hurt.  But, further research may have concluded that posting to be fake in an attempt to dissuade people from doing it for their own safety.  Half of our group was on the fence about it but again, someone (Kalin I think) repelled down with goggles to take a look and gave us the all clear.  

In an unusual scenario for me, this time I let someone else guinea pig the huck for me while I filmed with the drone.  I think it was Rob who took the first plunge for us all.  When he came up just fine laughing it was go time for me.  Emily, Chris and Paris had decided to rappel down instead but I was hit with a hard case of FOMO which prevented me from following.  After packing up my gear and sending the dry bag of our stuff and my drone down with Emily on the rope I was one of the last to go over the falls.  

I leaned back as Ian had told me to do but even bending myself backwards like a banana over the 35 foot drop the water still pitched me forward slapping my chest when I came down a little.  Not too bad but enough to jar my back a little.  I could see why someone would perhaps post a fake story to warn people away and I know for sure that people had died there cliff jumping.  Somehow I think going over the falls with the water was a bit more gentle than smacking a flat plane of water jumping from a cliff.

Once together again we made our way past the crowds of people milling around below Punchbowl falls deeper downstream into the canyon, again finding ourselves completely alone below towering cliff walls.  Just half an hour later we found ourselves at the top of Metlako Falls.    The river was pretty slow here but if you weren’t paying attention I could totally see someone being swept over the 100 foot falls!  Thankfully, we had plenty of room to crawl out of the river on the rocks to the side to set up our final rappel over the largest drop of Eagle Creek.  No one in our group was hucking this falls!

I must say that rappelling down next to the thundering Metlako falls was nearly as thrilling as going over Punchbowl falls just an hour earlier.   Just as thrilling but a bit safer too :).  Once down safely to the wide pool below we all watched as each of us rappelled down, some (Paris) moving a lot faster than others down the rope.  

Floating in that pool watching friends rap down the cliff next to Metlako falls with Sorensen Creek Falls just beyond it into the huge volcanic amphitheater below was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve seen in the Columbia Gorge and the Northwest altogether.  I hope that 15yr old asshat with fireworks someday reads this…

Just past Metlako falls we came across the massive landslide from last December after heavy rains that took out the entire Metlako Falls viewpoint that was just off the main Eagle Creek Trail.  This was a massive landslide that took out tons and tons of rock and trees depositing them into the creek below for us to crawl over and through.  Between this and the current fire Eagle Creek has certainly had a bad year… 

It took a little bit of effort to work our way through the landslide debris but soon we were back on the undisturbed creek making our way down stream.  Towards the end the creek widened a bit and thinned out which made floating become more difficult so we ended up walking the last quarter mile or so to where Ian indicated we should head back up towards the trail.  It was a steep climb back to the trail but once on it, it was a short 20 minute walk back to the trailhead to our cars and a waiting bottle of champagne Claire had brought to celebrate.  Little did we know it may have been the last Eagle Creek Canyoneering celebration for us… :(

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