Kayakers push envelope in Salmon River Canyon
ZIGZAG, Ore. (AP) — 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 whitewater 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.”
The 21-year-old Korbulic and his friends are Class V creek boaters, on the extreme edge of whitewater 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.
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 http://www.Oregonkayaking.net, 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 whitewater.
Creeking is the part of kayaking Korbulic loves. He dropped out of Oregon State 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, who wears body armor like Barry Bonds to protect him from rocks when his boat flips, can reel off the names of the four paddlers known to have run the 80-foot drop at Final Falls: Ben Stookesberry, Ian Garcia, John Grace and Fred Coriel.
The Salmon River Canyon “represents at this point the new level in extreme kayaking – huge waterfalls and this committed gorge with steep rock walls,” where there is no way out except to float out the bottom, said Stookesberry.
Stookesberry, who travels the world making videos of paddlers running rivers, ran the canyon in 2002 and was the first to run Final Falls.
“It certainly goes way beyond drinking a few Budweisers and jumping off a bridge,” he said. “It’s more like mountaineering, demanding specialized equipment, a high level of skill and commitment, and intense preparation. The goal is not only to make it to the top, but also safely to the bottom.”
Grace, who also makes kayaking videos, feels “any idiot” can run a waterfall, but the sport has a natural filter that keeps out most cocky jerks.
“Most people who have a paddle and strap on a sprayskirt never got into it for glory,” he said. “They are just grit-capitivated by it. It’s the only sport with two moving mediums. In mountain biking or skiing you are moving down the mountain. But in kayaking you are moving down the mountain and the water is moving with you. For people who get it and feel it, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for being cocky.”
Korbulic took his first shot at the Salmon last year along with OSU grad students Chris Gabrielle and Jeff Hazboun. They hiked in about 3 miles to Frustration Falls with their boats over their shoulders, but were turned back by high water.
Frustration Falls is the roadblock to running the canyon. Higher water levels make running Final Falls easier, but make Frustration Falls impassable.
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.
The crew met early in the morning on May 27 at the takeout outside Zigzag. After a stop at a grocery story for candy bars, they drove two hours — stopping once to haul a downed tree out of the way and build a rock ramp over another only to find they were on the wrong road. Finally, they got to the end of another gravel road, hoisted their kayaks on their shoulders and hiked 2 miles to the rim of the canyon above the put-in. Inside their boats, they carried cameras and climbing ropes.
At a meadow, they turned left and bushwhacked down the steep canyon wall through fir, cedar and rhododendron to the river, reaching the top of Split Falls by about 11:30 a.m.
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 everyone ran the first 15-foot drop. But only Korbulic decided to take the big one.
Camped out the night before on the side of a logging road, Korbulic, Etherington and Gabrielle talked about the equation they run through their heads above each waterfall – balancing the risk of death or injury against the reward of making it.
“A lot of kayaking is about progression,” Etherington said. “I’ve come to a point where to really progress at creeking I have to scare myself more and I don’t know if I want to do that.”
There is no shame in deciding to portage, and no smack talk.
“Every kayaker at some point in their career goes through what we call the head game,” Gabrielle said. “You can definitely tell your boating is affected by whether you are in your head or not. The river is pretty quick in telling you whether you are having a good day or a bad day.”
It can be just as hard to decide not to run a waterfall as to jump in and run it, Korbulic said.
“You want to run it so bad,” he said. “You know you can. But you just don’t feel like it’s a good day for it.”
At Final Falls, Korbulic knew right away in his gut he could run it. The biggest danger was a large flake of rock on one side of the lip. A lot of water was running over it, making it hard to avoid. Going over the lip would launch him away from the soft frothy water of the boil to land flat-bottomed in the hard green water of the pool. He’d risk breaking his boat — and maybe his back.
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.
“When you’re in the water, you’ve made the decision,” Korbulic said. “You’re not doubting it. You’re just like, ‘OK, I’m here. I know where I want to be. I’ve got my line picked out.’
“It’s just like having a song in my head. That’s just all I’m thinking. Life’s got a beat. I’m singing along. I’m seeing the line.
“So you just see the reference points you’ve taken note of when you were scouting. You can see this wave and you’re just to the left of it. And that’s just where you want to be. And you see the hole. And you’re just to the left of it. And that’s where you want to be. And you just go.
“Too far right and you go over the flake. Too far left and you land in green water.”
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.”