April Fool's weekend was bound to go down in the history books. All week I had been trying to figure out what may be in for the weekend. I had been talking mainly with my buddy Kris who lives out there. We knew something would go, but you have to understand one thing about the land of a 1000 rain storms... nothing is "for sure" out here.
Several factors go into making a great trip in the Olympic Peninsula. First, you need a crew who is willing to deal and gamble a little. Many rivers are rain dependent. Few rivers have gauges on them. This spirited genius combination makes things adventurous. The weather is a whole nuther matter. It can do anything. One weekend it poured all night just to be sunny and 60 the next day.
We left Seattle Thursday night. JP brought his weather radio to listen to the updates. So far the rain was to start Fri and storm off all weekend, with a lot of rain falling Fri. Bonus points for the winter storm warning. JP was lovin' it. The wind was howling as we headed out from Kris's place the next morning. Snowing. Hmm. Should we have a saw with us as we venture off into the scathing wild unknown known as the deepest darkest? I am new to these lands, but I hear the call. And I see the "leaners" that didn't quite make it all the way down last storm. We drive on in search of Matheny Creek. We figured it would be low.While the Sitkum, which had been first on the list, could be blown out with trees down. No gauges anywhere that tally the number of trees across the road.
I had heard Matheny was a beautiful canyon with lots of fun drops. We showed up at the takeout bridge and the water looked kinda.. dark. Now everybody knows the brown, the brine, the brinn, the hotel-charley bank-full expressway freight train straight down to hymie-town nonstop hell billy deluxe ride. The O P serves up something a little different. A little sinister is what I'm talkin' here. The dark leads down into places that make for cool stories when things go right and quiet moments of contemplation. The O P will teach you to listen to your gut. And sometimes... to do it anyway.
Running new rivers always adds to the excitement of it. Matheny was no disappointment. The put in was an old bridge that had partially washed out. Got down to the river. It is very cool down in this place. Matheny starts in a small streambed working it's way around some cool pieces of wood and some boney drops. We made one portage around a grungy marginal slot that puts the paddler right up close and personal with a huge rootwad. We got out to the main river and had 400-500 cfs of nice flow. One of the first drops has two logs wedged into the rocks making a strange tight ledge boof into a foamy hole. At high water this thing would be a stomper. Other sweet drops followed. Nothing overly difficult, nothing too difficult to scout. Although, at high water I could see this section pushing class V. The Korb guidebook divides this run into an Upper and Middle section. The middle section is the easier 2/3 of the trip. Never dull, the Middle Matheny cruises right along through endless III/III+ fun drops one after the other. Shark Fin Falls and all, Matheny is one to hit!
After wrapping up on Matheny we continued north to Quinault Lake where we spent the night. In the morning, after good eats at the Quinault Internet Cafe we rallied up to the Sitkum. It was cold out and the closer we got to the Rugged Ridge Road the happier I was we had borrowed a saw from Kris's buddy, Clay. This thing was burly. With 40 inches of madness spraying wood chips everywhere, we would probably make it to the river. Mitch was coming out from Port Angeles. As we started up the road the forested views were simply magnificent. Then the river began coming in to view. The Sitkum is a tributary of the Calawah. The Calawah (as luck would have it) has a number of boatable tributaries. We saw some sweet drops on the way up. The further up we went, the darker things got. The snow fell heavier as we drove, then it began sticking. We stopped a couple times to look at some cool drops not even on the run. Finally we arrived at the confluence with Brandeberry Creek. The dividing line for the Upper Upper and Upper runs. The first drop on the Upper looked to be all of the darkness the O P is known for. Not a super hard lead in, but one requiring precision so you don't get stuffed into the gruesome hole at the bottom. The whole drop poured off of a 12 foot ledge into a 7 foot wide crack, backed up by the opposing wall. The canyon made a hard right here. Looking down from the top of the gorge that hole looked burly. I figured if it looked big from up here it would be a Mack truck down in the canyon.
As I watched the water pour off the ledge into the hole I thought I heard something... a deep sort of low gurgling, a little menacing and too coincidental for me to let it go unnoticed. I asked Kris if he heard anything just then as we scouted. He said he had and indeed there may be a Gorge Beast down in there. Me: What the hell is a Gorge Beast? Kris: The Gorge Beast, some say, is a mythical creature that lives far into the deepest darkest behind curtains of waterfalls waiting for the missed boof or sloppy brace. The Gorge Beast grows in strength and and size as the years go by. I know the Little White has one that lives behind Spirit and Wishbone. Sometimes it gets tired of waiting and will simply reach out a tentacle and grab at sterns and paddles.
Sheee-oot! If there was such a Gorge Beast, that first drop sure had potential for one, and getting pushed left into the death-pocket-beat-down for bonus rounds was not my idea of a good way to see one. Maybe we do the Upper Upper today. Everyone liked that idea. Boats on rigs, we continued to the top. It was slow going and by the time we got to the top 3 inches of snow was on the ground. Darkness is. We finished getting dressed and got down to the river. It was apparent what we were hiking into did not have enough water to boat. Interesting. We continued walking until we got to the confluence with the main Sitkum. Still low, but just enough. Never know what you're gonna get out here. Very quickly we were rewarded with really fun ledge drops in a surreal bedrock canyon. Classic pool drop one after the other. Many fun drops. We all were loving it. Boofin' the crap outta everything, we portaged one ledge upon discovering a strange looking mankosaurus and once due to wood. Nothing overly beastly in here. The takeout was short and steep. Don't miss the eddy. Be careful during high water events above 5000. Eddies would be small and holes.. not so much.
Good times. By the time we left it must've been 5:30. Rallied in the morning for the Upper. Met up with Ryan Scott who had been up rafting with friends. Ate some breakfast and headed back to the crack. It had been pretty cold, in the 30's, but what we were all thinking about was that ledge. Showed up and got dressed. Some of the stuff we had looked at the day before looked pretty much the same. I don't know if the level was different on the Sitkum, but that first drop looked good, if not still slightly dark. Ryan smoothes it. Feeling good about the beast. No one has problems. Boof out into a short slot canyon, then it opens up into a punchbowl. O P slot canyons usually have pretty unbelieveable scenery. Typical. Soaring vertical gorge walls in places. Beautiful clear pools. We scout a lot. Plenty of tight slots and powerful currents slamming their way through. Can't remember if the 20 footer was on this run or the Upper Upper. Sweet drop. Think it was the Upper Upper.
It looked like the rebar hazard Korb talked about is gone now. More cool drops. The main 15 foot ledge in Severe Reality lands on a bed of rocks with one spot just big enough to land a boat in. Take a good look at this one. The lead-in is not a gimme. We eddy hopped down to scout. It's an amazing bit of rock and water. Cool gorge walls with unique little pockets and configurations through here. Everyone made it through without problems. Couple bumps in the landing zone. At one point we came to a sort-of twisting double drop. The bottom ledge looked straight up gangsta with a little piece of rock sticking out in the middle maybe you could slide down. Kinda looks like someone givin' the finger straight out of the middle of the ledge. Kris and I watched JP style it. Sweet! Kris goes and gets through after thwarting a tractor beam attempt by the hole on the left. Note to self: fall off the right side of the finger. Is that Beast stew I smell? In the book, Korb says they walked this second ledge. I'm amped to run it! I go up and get in my boat, run the twisting entrance okay, but get pushed left. Trying to get back to the finger I come off a bit less than straight, flip. Beast? I roll up and paddle away. The Beast smiles. It must have plenty of Green boats and elbow pads already.
Continuing on we run more great rapids walking only one, The Big Ugly. It's just junky and I can't see more water really helping out. It's been run, but c'mon. It's not gonna make the boat feel better. More of the same through The Boulder Factory. Other fun drops line the way to the flats. This run is 9.6 miles and one thing I've noticed about some of these O P runs is a certain amount of class II. I guess a lot of creeks are that way, the O P is just a little more pronounced about it. Soon enough, though, we paddled by the NF Sitkum confluence. Kris had spoken of a waterfall just upstream we should check out. Sure enough, it was a pretty sweet drop falling about 28 feet that rolled right off the top. Pretty sweet and a perfect opportunity to huck the delightful darkness. Who was I to deny my fate?
A rope was laying down the wall right next to the waterfall. Excellent. Clipped the boat up and for some reason I thought it would be easier to climb up the rock outcrop which seperated the NF and Main Sitkum. I got about half way up with my paddle and realized it really wasn't that easy. Got up about 40 feet to find I had to walk across an apex, which was not quite a foot width and fell away on both sides to each fork, respectively. From there it keeps going up. I make it across the apex to find what I was about to climb up is loose rock continuing up the ridge. Things are lookin' sketch. I'm not even holding my paddle anymore, I'm pressing it between my arm and the loose bit of rock I'm clinging to. I need both hands and feet at this point. Falling would suck and be a major let down considering I still have a bunch of class II AND I haven't even run the drop yet. 60 feet up now. I finally get to the top and discover I am now about twice as high as the waterfall. Maybe I'll use that rope next time. Getting down to the top of the drop isn't so easy either. Get the boat up and into position. I study the lip, get in my boat and roll off. I'm not really paddling, just floating the same speed as the water, roll off, tuck, and land slightly off axis into the fluff below. No beast, just fluffy. I was the only one to run, so we made haste getting on down to the take out.
There is a lot of action in that canyon. The O P does not disappoint. Those guys took off pretty quick to run shuttle and I waited with the boats. A few minutes after those guys left it started raining, blowing, and temps dropped. Classic. I'm in my boat, skirt on, staying warm. After a while, the boys get back and we all load up and head for some food!!
We drove around a little looking for a good place. Luckily, our hunger induced indecisiveness didn't last too long (Forks is a small town). Ham and Cheese, with Clam Chowder and fries for $6? I'm in!! During dinner JP started talking about what we had planned for Mon. I think we were all feeling a little ragged. Me probably the most.
Ryan mentioned something about a hot shower and his own bed. That sounded like a good idea. I figured it was going to be a long drive, but I had no idea. We all parted ways and JP and I headed for Seattle. We rolled in about 1am. I was tired. An awesome weekend enchanted with snow, rain, good people and the darkness that is the O P.
I'm wondering what's gonna go next weekend...