When folks ask me about rafting or kayaking options close to home, I never hesitate to recommend a look at the Upper Clackamas River.
It’s but sixty minutes from Portland, so it’s an easy day trip that also offers scores of campsites that can be found in this part of the Mt Hood National Forest near Estacada.
Recently, I joined a hearty group of water-lovers who gathered along the Upper Clackamas River near the Three Lynx Power Station to celebrate their passion for adventure on one of the most exciting stretches of whitewater in Oregon.
Many in our small party were pros who guide for a living and take to the water with the ease of a water otter – our trip was to be a warm-up training run for them beacuse they compete in the upcoming Clackamas River Whitewater Festival that’s slated for May 15 and 16.
Bob Mosier, the President of the North West Rafters Association said one thing was on everyone’s mind: “There’s a whole group of people who come out the third Sunday just to raft the river, get their feet wet and keep excited about the water.”
It’s an incredible adventure that no one should ever try alone, and I was lucky to join this group of pros who’ve a passion for running whitewater.
We were dressed for the occasion in drysuits, gloves, booties – plus, helmets and Type III PFD’s to take advantage of a rare sunny break in an otherwise soggy spring season.
Karen Driver, owner and operator of All River Adventures told me: “It’s little more than seven miles to our take-out, but I do believe the rapids’ names say it all. So get ready for the likes of the Maze, Big Swirly and Rock and Roll, to name a few. It’s going to be wet, wild, and a whole lot of fun!”
With that our team of four stepped and rolled aboard our fourteen-foot paddle raft with our guide, Larry Firman. He started us out with team paddling techniques of going forward and then in reverse.
To go left, the left-side paddlers dug in, while the right-side paddlers backstroked--faster and faster and faster--until Larry had us operating together like a smooth, well-oiled machine. “It’s critical practice,” he said, “that will pay off down the river when we encounter rapids we’ll need to thread like a needle.”
“Easy, easy--forward paddle, forward paddle!” he commanded, and we were off through the bumps, jumps, and starts that jolt and jive you down the twisting, winding, bucking river.
Longtime local river runner, Sam Drevo, noted the care and caution you must have in this part of the river. “You are required to focus on what you’re doing and before long everything else just fades into the background. It’s that focus and attention to what’s going on in the here and now that really attracts to me to the sport.”
New this year to Oregon rivers is a mandatory PFD rule for all river runners: all Class 3 or higher whitewater rivers (rivers are classified on a scale of 1-6 with 6 being un-runnable) boaters must wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) at all times. In addition, the PFD must be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Type I, III, or V personal flotation device
It’s also important to remember that Class 3 Rivers like the Upper Clackamas are not for beginners. Boating safety is critical! The river is so strong and conditions can change so fast, the experience requires a breadth of whitewater knowledge and experience that only a professional guide can provide.
Broken by boulders and frothy foam, I quickly learned that teamwork was to be the secret to keeping the boats afloat atop the cold, dangerous water.
Karen Driver added, “We keep an eye on the weather and keep an eye on the water levels. It takes a long time to keep track of all those things, but it’s essential because the river level can change in heartbeat if we have a heavy spring shower.”
Ryan Seaton, another longtime guide said that there’s no room for mistakes on the roaring rapids. “When we are in a scary spot, I always remain calm – everyone in the boat looks to the guide to remain calm and keep things in control – Even when I am scared – keeping cool – goes a long ways to reassuring my people.”
As we sped along on the face of the current and approached another rollicking, rolling drop, Larry Firman added, “United we paddle – divided we flip!”
The payoff for our hard physical efforts was heart-soaring and huge; to feel the power of a roaring river on its terms and then to succeed.
One of my boating partners, Gina Kelly-Smith said, “Actually I prefer it when we go thru the rapid water and hit a really big hole and spin a bit. I like that – I think that’s the most fun of the ride.”
Sitting next to her was her husband, Don Smith, who wore a huge smile and heartily agreed: “What I get out of it is just this big smile I have the whole time. It’s like a kid’s smile – just brings me to life.”
“Okay, everyone, hang on to the boat with one hand and your paddle with the other . . . whoo haaaaa,” shouted Firman. “Now dig in and paddle forward. Everyone paddle forward!”
And so it went for two and a half hours!
In between the hair-soaking rapids, we had a moment to regroup and Bob Mosier offered:
“The water’s flowing off the mountains, the rivers are foamy – water is rushing thru these canyons; it’s just the most beautiful experience you can think of.
You start seeing the buds on the trees, leaves coming out – It’s the re-invigoration of our forest and just a wonderful time to experience it.”
The Clackamas River rapids will cool you off, lift your spirits and even take your breath away for their awesome power.
“When you get on the river,” added Karen, “your stress just goes away and you get to be a kid – and we all need to be kids – We don’t want to grow old. We want to grow happy!”