Aug 20, 2012

Upper Middle Fork of the Willamette

Another gorgeous weekend on the water...
Mmmmm, packrafting!

On a beautiful day
Two weeks ago we camped on the Middle Fork of the Willamette and made a mental note to come back with packrafts. Our water adventures have been on hold for a few weeks to let Kirk's arm heal (a nasty slice on a piece of metal from work that could have used stitches, but he decided to tough it out instead).

As we drove over Willamette Pass from Bend the skies opened up and dumped rain, but in an unlikely weather flip-flop, the skies were blue over the Middle Fork of the Willamette Valley. (most of the time the West side of the Cascade Mountains is rainy, and the East side is dry, not this weekend!).

We drove up the Middle Fork Valley  past Hills Creek Reservoir to the point where the river becomes lake and dropped off my bike so I could bike the shuttle up to the car after we finished on Sunday. After diving up ten miles, Kirk said he did not want to go up further then ten miles on a river he had not boated, had no information about anyone ever boating it, was hidden from the road and may be full of logs and lengthy portages so we parked the car and prepared for our overnight on the water. As we were in the process of unpacking, a caravan of fire vehicles and trucks sped past us and up the dirt mountain road. Interesting as we hadn't seen any smoke or fire, but there had been lightening in the area the night before, so we assumed a small fire may have been in the vicinity.

The water levels were low. Much lower and the river probably wouldn't have been float-able, but we were able to glide along for the most part, bumping and scraping in a few areas here and there. There were a number of logs in the river within in the first few miles: we had about five portages that first day, but with the nimbleness of a six-pound boat and lightweight gear, the portages were cake.
Break on the rocks

There were lots of fun little rock slides to bump down

Kirk enjoying his float

Clear water, only a few fishermen and a hot summer afternoon made for a glorious day...until...
Fire on the mountain!

We were scouting around for a good place to camp in the late afternoon when Kirk noticed the fire. Smoke was billowing up from the top of a ridge-line. We had been hearing and seeing helicopters with their water buckets all afternoon, but this was the first time we had seen any evidence of a fire, and all of a sudden the air took on that hazy look of a forest fire.

"Isn't that the ridge right by where my car is parked?" I asked.
"Yeah, it is," said Kirk.

With visions of my car becoming a charred blob, I decided to head to the road and walk the five miles back to where the car was parked and drive it down the river valley, just as a precaution. I know how fast these fires can spread and for all we knew the road was closed or we were in danger.

We floated to a bridge that was half-way along our trip and I scrambled up the bank to walk the pavement to the car. I was in such a hurry that I didn't even take water or ID or anything. About a mile up a cop from Oakridge stopped to ask if I was ok, it being unusual to see anyone walking along the road, and he gave me a ride to my car. He didn't seem to think there was any imminent danger, and was out to check on the status of the fire. Lightening from the night before had set off seven fires in the area. I still wanted to move my car as it was on the access road to the drove it up and parked near where I had gotten out. Mind at rest.

We soon made camp on a rocky bank and enjoyed a rich deep pink sunset courtesy of the fires.

Sunday morning we thought the four or so miles to the end would go quickly, but again, we had a number of log jams to navigate around.  In one spot the jams in the main channel seemed to be one after another for a good half mile with no easy way to portage, so we took a side trip down a beautiful little channel that was well worth the diversion. Eventually it returned back to the main channel right below the last set of logs we needed to portage.
Portage fest

Hmmm, where does this go?

Ancient trees clogged the waterway

Lots of little rock ledges to boat down, deep clear pools where we could see HUGE fish and an Osprey fishing were some memorable moments from the morning's journey. As we approached the reservoir, the wind picked up and we had a good half-mile paddle-fest directly into the wind in order to get to the boat launch where I stashed my bike.
Hills Creek Reservoir

All in all, a wonderful adventurous weekend. The whole stretch was along a paved road (although you cannot see the river), there was a popular trail on the otherside, lots of established and free car camping, but the river seemed remote all the same. Very nice suprise! We had maybe 10-15 portages and they were all super easy at low water (250ish cfs). Higher water may be a problem as the spring melt (up to 6-8,000 cfs) usually doesn't get big enough to clean these big boys out of the river corridor and at moderate flows (1500-3000cfs) the portages could be quite grueling.
Being the only people on many of the waterways we have been packrafting truly makes for a solitary and deeply peaceful journey. I am so addicted.