Clackamas River Thrills, Chills and Spills
Trying something risky takes courage, but if you’re convinced that it’s right for you, the risk can pay off with adventure.
I joined a hearty group of water-lovers who gathered along the Upper Clackamas River to celebrate their passion for adventure on one of the most exciting stretches of whitewater rivers in Oregon.
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 a newcomer should never 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!”
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.
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!
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!”
Northeast Oregon’s Powder River is a small cool, quiet and refreshing stream, but not so long ago, it was a river under siege.
It’s a landscape where monstrous gold-dredging machines ravaged the river valley floor.
Square-bowed and built of steel and wood and iron, three giant dredges lifted and sifted the terrain, reaping a golden harvest worth $12 million during the peak of the depression era.
Today, it is a park that holds on to history and takes visitors aboard to see and touch the past at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area in Sumpter, Oregon.
I hope you will be as awestruck as I when you come face to face with the Sumpter dredge, whose massive boom bears seventy-two 1-ton buckets.
Rella Pfleeger-Brown is the Assistant Park Ranger and guides visitors aboard the dredge. She pointed out how the buckets moved like the chain links of a chainsaw, bored into the riverbank, and carried loose rock back into the dredge’s hulking interior.
“When you stroll into the heart of the dredge – it’s as big as a barn and filled with gears and belts, winches and pumps – where the rock passed through steel cylinders, separating rocks by size.”
Water and sluices separated the gold from the sediment and the spoils from this process were discharged behind the behemoth as it moved across the valley.
Nine tons of gold in nineteen years!
If you are lucky, you may meet some of the men who lived the history; like brothers Wes and Paul Dickison – they grew up in nearby Baker City.
In 1947, the two teens worked on the dredge for highest wages around: $1.35 an hour.
“OSHA would have shut this thing down the very first day they stepped on it,” noted Paul. “There were all kinds of hazards; cables, open gears that weren’t guarded. And if the power went out – watch out!”
Wes recalled that happened twice! When the electric power that ran the dredge failed and everything stopped on the night shift:
“We didn’t have lights,” said Paul. “We didn’t have nothing and it was the spookiest place you’d ever been in your life. All these pumps running, pipes running, water running, mud everywhere and boom - power went off and it was coal black. You’d hear a splash over here, splash over there – something there – real spooky!”
But the lure of golden profit (the dredge made more than 4 million dollars in profit) was strong and repairs were made quickly so operations could continue.
Jerry Howard’s father was a winch-man in the 1930’s who operated the dredge from three stories up in the winch room.
He had a commanding view of the entire operation.
Inside the room, handles moved cables that moved the buckets down below that gouged out the ground.
“I can still hear the rocks hitting the tailings,” noted Howard.
He recalled bringing lunch to his father and said it was a real boyhood adventure to go aboard the dredge.
“The digging of the bucket line was something – 72 buckets going round and round 24 hours a day. It dug up a lot of land.”
The Sumpter Dredge ravaged the Powder River Valley for miles around and all these decades later, the tailings undulate like snakes across the valley.
Ranger Rella Brown added that it remains an important Oregon story that she enjoys sharing with park visitors.
“The telling of Oregon history is an important mission for Oregon State Parks. By virtue of the dredge’s presence in the valley, many visitors ask those questions and then you can teach them about that time. It really does provide the opportunity to share that chapter of Oregon’s past – and it’s really fun – it’s really fun.”
Afoot and Afloat
The Tualatin River is born high in the Oregon coast range and it flows nearly a hundred miles through the heart of fast-growing Washington County on the western edge of the Portland Metro area.
Brian Wegener, the Watershed Watch co-ordinator for Tualatin RiverKeepepers, said that canoe paddling “puts him in touch with his neighborhood.”
“The Tualatin is a great place for beginners,” noted the longtime conservationist, because most of the year there is little or no current. There’s not much traffic on the river either and as you can see, at this time of year, it is carpeted with the golden leaves of the ash trees that fall on the river.”
Wegner and the small party of friends who joined our paddle trip near Sherwood, Oregon are all members of the Tualatin Riverkeepers.
The organization centers its activities on recreation and protection of the watershed.
It is a grass roots conservation organization that puts the paddles of their members into action to help the river.
For example, on a recent fall afternoon, scores of volunteers gathered and walked the talk of caring for the stream. They gave up their time to pickup up boatloads of trash from the river’s shoreline.
“Garbage of all kinds,” noted Wegener. “Lawnmowers, garbage bags, plastic, all sorts of stuff - even a 30-year-old car chassis.”
Tarri Christopher, a longtime TRK member, added “This is the source of our drinking water, so it’s important for us to keep it clean. We take a recreational aspect and we turn it into an educational component too.”
Paul Whitney, another longtime Riverkeeper, agreed with the conservation aspect of their group and added that paddling puts his mind at ease as the fall colors come into their own.
“My blood pressure drops and I can feel the calmness with each paddle stroke. I consider it undiscovered wilderness that most people in the Portland area aren’t aware of…maybe you don’t get the diversity of colors that you do in New England – but it’s certainly a show of yellows and oranges.”
The most common tree along the river is Oregon Ash and when they drop their leaves, it’s as if a bright yellow carpet had been laid down across the water’s surface. It is really beautiful!
Not only on the river, but ashore at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge where many people stop in at this time of year to gaze across more than a thousand acres of protected landscape near Sherwood, Oregon.
“It’s a gem and it’s an unusual situation where people can take a bus and go to a wildlife refuge, noted longtime paddler and Metro Councilor, Carl Hosticka. “When you get out on this river, you see you’re out in nature, but you go only a mile in any direction and there’s the city and people and development.”
It’s a remarkable contrast and the sort of place that may leave you wondering, ‘Why haven’t I been here before?’
The refuge was established in 1992 and it opened to the public in 2007.
It is vast for an urban wildlife refuge at more than a thousand acres.
The site is best enjoyed on the “Refuge Trail:” a mile long, wheelchair accessible ribbon of wonders that skirts the wetland’s perimeter and follows the river too.
There are plenty of stops along the way including a river overlook where you may spy waterfowl during the fall and winter seasons.
It is a fine place to escape the city rush for the rush of wings.
Christopher noted that most people who live in Washington County, one of the state’s most populous counties, don’t even know about the river that they live near.
“And that’s okay because we love to introduce folks to it. The refuge offers that opportunity and the Riverkeepers really encourage people to visit it.”
Wegener added that he and other members (there are nearly 1,000 Tualatin Riverkeeper members) are pushing hard for more river access closer to the refuge so more people can explore – mile by mile – the river’s beauty and adventure.
“When you’re out on a day like this and it is so quiet, you can’t really see much human influence – it sure feels like what it must have been 200 years ago.”
Oregon Birding Trail
There’s a new way to explore Oregon and this one is really for the birds!
But it’s designed for people – especially folks who like to explore new destinations where half the fun is in the getting there.
The first “Willamette Valley Birding Trail” is a new partnership between varied birding groups and Travel Oregon.
It offers people a chance to explore 130 legitimate birding sites in a region that is home to 70 percent of the state’s population.
Joel Geier and I recently met at William Finley National Wildlife Refuge where he told me that variety is the spice of his birding life along the new Willamette Birding Trail.
“They’re such fascinating creatures; they’re feathered and for me, they have a little more variety than mammals.”
Geier knows his birding game well! After all, he’s a longtime member of the Oregon Field Ornithologists. His organization along with several others including Travel Oregon joined to identify 130 birding trails in the Willamette Valley.
“We’ve set it up as 12 different loops in the valley so that if you live in one of the communities in the valley, you can go out on a weekend and visit a loop that includes 10 or 12 different sites.”
It’s easy to locate a trail online. A click of your mouse takes you inside one of the dozen different loops where you’ll find directions to the sites plus photos of the species that you’ll see along the way.
“On each of those loops,” noted Geier, “There will be sites that you never thought about visiting before and you’ll be surprised that they are pretty special places.”
Sallie Gentry and Molly Monroe agree that the new Homer Campbell Memorial Boardwalk at William Finley Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis is one of those special places where you can go birding.
“The boardwalk is on pretty level, even terrain and there are two benches along that they can rest if they get tired,” said Gentry.
It’s an astonishing trail that is wheelchair accessible along 1700 feet of elevated boardwalk that leads to an observation blind that overlooks a small pond that attracts many different birds.
“It is a magnet for wildlife,” noted Monroe. “We’ll have thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese and swans here within the next few months.”
Gentry added, “We’re kind of a little known secret right now, but I think we’re going to become more well known because there are such excellent wildlife viewing opportunities here and you can get relatively close without disturbing the wildlife.”
Not only wintering waterfowl, but also raptor species like bald eagles make the Finley Refuge their winter homes.
“It’s one of the easiest birds for most people to identify so it’s fun for them. Often, you just look out on a tree line of snags and say, ‘Oh, there’s an eagle perched right there.’ Eagles are good because they’re well known by most people and they’re recovery from near extinction is such a success story.”
All agree that wildlife viewing along the new Willamette Birding Trail is just the ticket to see Oregon from a different point of view.
“Oh, I think it’s a huge deal,” exclaimed Monroe. “Birding is a growing pastime – and it is one that brings a lot of enjoyment to a large variety of people of all ages.”
New Trailhead at Banks-Vernonia Linear State Trail
Lots of folks will enjoy this bit of breaking news from the outdoor world; especially if you like to bike, hike or horseback ride on an Outdoor Tip of the Week:
Finishing touches are underway at a new trailhead in Banks, Oregon – it’s the new launch point for a 21-mile mile paved adventure called the Banks-Vernonia Linear State Trail. The trailhead features a new 10-foot wide paved path, plus a 4-foot wide equestrian path, designed to match the existing trail north of Banks.
The $1.4 million project provides safe access for trail users and parking for 27 vehicles, as well as a new pedestrian bridge that crosses over the west fork of Dairy Creek.
OPRD Ranger, Steve Kruger, said the project completes a paved trail system for all sorts of non-motorized use.
“It’s a nice cruise on a bike, easy ride on horseback or just an easy going walk with little gradient change along the entire route. For the most part, the entire trail is also ADA-accessible for all types of folks.”
The grand opening is at 11 am on October 29 in Banks but you can check it out anytime!
Perhaps take your two-wheeler or use you two legs for a test ride or walk along and easy to reach and gorgeous state park trail.