2012 Drift Creek
January 28, 2012 at 10:00 AM
By Tom Riggs
We couldn’t find Amundsen, Livingston, Cook, Armstrong, or Polo, so our avid exploration group had to settle for the likes of Glen Chapman, Richard Riggs, Brian Albers, Chip Sell, Bruce Ripley, Kyle Riggs, Kory Donahue, Brian Riggs, Roger Finger, Paul Morin, David Allen, Bob Hunt, Ryan Rose, me, and our faithful man-servant (shuttle driver) Adam Riggs. This journey would take the five inflatables and one kayak into the depths of the Drift Creek Wilderness along the Central Oregon Coast.
This trip was originally going to be a typical Siletz run but the stars were lining up right to give us what we thought would be a good water level for a trip down Drift Creek, the Alsea tributary. I had driven down two weeks before our launch on Jan 28th to reconnoiter the situation. The Roads in this part of the untamed West are confusing at best but with the modern aid of GPS and of all things, driving in the daylight I was able to mark some waypoints for a suitable campsite (there may be some discussion on what is suitable and my definition starts with the term “level” with rocks and mud being minor inconveniences to the hearty men of the “Drift Creek” Expedition) and the three potential put ins. The three possible launch points are all at concrete bridges with the uppermost having the easiest carry. During the pre trip scout I drove the Forest Service/ Georgia Pacific/ State roads to the “Soggy Sneakers” take out and found where the “Drift” portion of the creek got its name. The last 5 miles of flatwater could be really flat I thought, especially if there were an incoming tide from Alsea Bay coupled with an upstream wind.
I drove upstream along the county road fenced in on both sides by No Trespassing signs along the way. The wooden arched bridge about ½ mile from the roads end gave me some pause but I figured the rancher must use it to access his cattle in the upper pasture so what the heck and proceeded to the end of the road where there were two locked gates that would lead to the river’s edge. I vaguely recalled this take out on a previous trip back when Joe Montana was QB for the 49ers.
To get access was key if we were going to do a same day shuttle and make this a day run, so I queried the semi permanent trailer resident about securing permission to have boaters take out on the property in two weeks. He said I would have to check with the land owner who lived down the road about a mile. He was not home but I did get a phone number and called and got an answering machine. No return call after four days, so I called again and got a live body but she said I would have to talk to Bill and she would have him call me back. Well another four days passed and he returned my call and pondered the details of my request. He asked if we were a bunch of kayakers and I said we would be in rafts and have several vehicles at the take out for the day. He agreed and let his son know so we would not have any issues. I got the feeling he would have suggested we go to the further takeout had we been kayakers. At the time we did not have a kayak in the group but cancellations made room for our fantastic probe and photographer, kayaker Chip Sell. Rafters consider kayakers as cannon fodder expendable for the “cause”.
Anyway, the Siletz was going to be above 6 ft and the ground was fairly saturated so I estimated the flow on Drift Creek would hold to a runnable level and made the decision to raft it. A bonus was the forecast for one day of sunny weather. Surely the gods were enticing us. Like any professional sports outfit, it is paramount to have a deep bench and when three of the original five boats had to cancel due to injuries, illness etc, we called up the willing and the dumb to take their place. What people will do for glory.
We loaded up the motor home and utility trailer with two paddle rafts, and made stops in Portland, Lake Oswego, and Corvallis to pick up our crew. Because we thought we needed some more nautical experience we also invited Captain Morgan, Admiral Nelson, Sailor Jerry and their landlubber counterpart Jack Daniels. Boris and Ivan (aka Bob hunt and David Allen) met us at the camp site along with Glen Chapman where Roger got introduced to the river rowdies and some songs that make sailors blush. Amazing what the ambience of a campfire can do; but that is not our style, so it is good that there are places far far away from others where societal mores have little meaning and beans and burps and beer can run rampant.
The next morning, those who made it to bed crawled out of the sack and helped those who could not find their tent or sleeping bag or who had to abandon their sleeping bag. Paul provided his massive breakfast sandwiches and we were breaking camp when Brian Albers, Chip, and Bruce found us only to be directed back up stream to our launch point. We drove the other rigs to the put in and rigged boats for the next hour then caravanned the 1:15 to the take out. Those not shuttling were left behind with firewood and too much beer which “had too be depleted because it would not fit on the boats”.
Upon returning from the takeout we zipped up our wetsuits and drysuits and battened down the hatches. Bruce, Chip and I came up with signal protocol and gave a safety talk. We had pin kits, ropes, a defibrillator, food, not enough headlamps, but the vigor and vim of the First Crusaders headed to the Holy Land. Our enthusiasm was drenched as our shuttle car disappeared out of sight and we came around the first bend not 250 ft from our launch to see a tree spanning all but 5 feet of the left bank. Our two paddle boat crews were still trying to figure out right from left when we saw this. Given that there was no room to fit the paddles in and squeeze by the tree we opted to line this. Could this be what we would be in for the next 11 miles? If so it could mean a long cold night in the Drift Creek Wilderness.
Chip was up front pointing to “the good stuff” and we still rocked up quite often when we weren’t ducking overhanging branches. The paddle boaters would look back with envy at Bruce in his purple missile boat outfitted with a narrow frame. It looked like Brian was having similar ease in his cat boat where he could Fred Flintstone over several rocks. Even Ivan and Boris in their paddle cat were able to straddle many boulders that acted as brakes for the round boats.
We passed under the second bridge and then the third one zigging and zagging. The last chance for an easy hike out would soon be behind us as the abandoned logging road that paralleled the river gave way to wilderness. While Bob and David appeared to have the teamwork down to the point of non verbal cues, the two paddle rafts were experiencing a fusilade of commands that would leave one to believe Larry, Curly, Moe, and Shemp were controlling the destiny of the boats. Actually they would have been an improvement.
Eventually the crews decided it was easier to paddle the raft than to drag it across every possible route combination that involved going over a rock. We actually made it though some rapids without rocking up only to come to another situation where there was an island that had a small log jamb on one side and insufficient water on the other side. Dave and Bob said there might be a way to get by the log jamb if you could make the cut over the pour over rock. Given that we were into the wilderness section I opted to line this one as did the others. Everybody out of the boats for this one. One of the important aspects of running rivers in the winter’s limited daylight is to make decisions relatively fast after assessing the situation. If you spend too much time debating you usually end up going with your first instinct anyway and burn 15 more minutes. There was pretty good consensus on these types of issues especially from Kory as we were figuring to eat him first if we needed to spend the night.
We played bumper cars down the river and were doing about 3 mph on what Pat Welche’s River page estimated at 1000 cfs. I would put it closer to 700 cfs where we were. Given our speed and the time of day it looked like we were doing fine by the clock. Uh Oh! Two blasts from the whistle. Pull out. I knew the river had swollen to about 8000 cfs during the previous week’s storm and I hoped it had flushed everything out but that theory went to hell in a handbasket.
In front of us was a river wide log jamb about 12 ft high. It was quite impressive to see the large trees stacked in a tangled mess with the river sieving through it. Chip scouted the right bank and I scouted the left for a portage route. His side was flatter compared to the Cliffside course I was surveying. Richard, Brian Riggs, and Ryan dragged our boat back up stream to give us a better chance of crossing to the right bank where the other boaters had landed. By the time we secured our paddle raft to the bank, the paddle cat had been portaged by Bob, Dave, Brian, and Glen.
On of the problems with portaging west side rivers is trees and we had a 6” diameter alder that was just plain old in the way. Glen had packed his saw so Paul, Kyle and he took turns doing some lumberjacking to make for an easier raft route. On the far side of the tree the bank dropped off about 6 feet then to the river. We basically dumped to boats onto those who were below, knocking Brian Riggs onto his back in the process, and then they diverted them back into the creek where we lined them to a tie off point. One paddle was lost during the bounce but recovered in an eddy 200 ft downstream by Chip. No worries mate, we carry a spare.
The river seemed to widen but how many more of these portages would we encounter? It was about 2:45 and the sun was hiding behind the hills already.
The technical nature of the river picked up and we found ourselves navigating boulder gardens and enjoying some short wave trains. Some one even found a beer or two and since we did not stop for lunch we figured “steak in a can” to rejuvenate some calories. There was significant paddle commands calling for changes in directions and eventually some of us swapped sides to even up the workout we were enjoying. Some pain is good. This stuff is good pain.
Look ahead; the river has a mini horizon line and a nice drop. This must be the one class 3 mentioned in Soggy Sneakers. As I recall we would not be too far from our take out. The Sitka spruce were big but even more impressive were the massive moss draped maples that reminded one of the Spanish moss that drapes the Florida Cypress.
Ivan and Boris decided it was time for a chewable lunch and pulled over on a beach on river left where everyone decided 3:45 pm was still within the socially acceptable time frame to eat a sandwich. The map shows the Harris Ranch Trail coming down in this vicinity and we walked up the bench a little way to see a dim trail donned with lots of elk droppings. There was a cedar tree 25 ft from our rafts that had a riverside plaque in memoriam of the Richard Clellam and his son who both loved to fish this area and passed away in 1996 and 2006 aged 32and22. Supposedly the trail fords the river near here and scoots up the north side of the canyon. Must be a summer route. Richard did pack out the nice pair of 10-1/2 tennis shoes Bruce found for him.
After our 20 minute lunch we got back in the saddle, which apparently after about 3 hrs is not so fun in the paddle cat, and headed downstream. The river had more volume but the Russkies found a way to bury one tube of their non conventional cat craft on a rock. Give them credit though because they stayed in the saddle and freed themselves from the grips of Drift Creek. The two paddle rafts rocked up on river left then river right and by then the deleted expletives were really given no heed. We did notice we had lost our edge during our brief lunch break.
Signs of civilization were on river right. There was no road over there according to the map but Chip was posing next to a side bar hay cutter from the horse drawn era. Anything over 50 years old gets designated as an artifact in the wilderness and has to be left alone. Yikes, that means at least four of us would have to be abandoned out in Drift Creek. Better not to share that law with the rest of the folk on this trip.
Well it looks like we would not have to eat Kory as we came upon the end of the ranch and the two locked gates that separate us from our vehicles. It turns out that Adam used his dog as a guinea pig to test the electrification of the fence. No voltage, so the dog turned out to be useful after all. Hiking the boats the 300 feet to the vehicles was an exercise in mud travel. The deepest bog was knee high but only for the length of a car.
After packing our gear up, a bottle of schnaaps came out to warm the souls of the soggy explorers knowing we had successfully braved the depths of Drift Creek.
On the way out we stopped at the landowner’s ranch house and after a less than warm greeting by his dog he stepped out to talk to us. He was wondering if we were going to make it out that night given that it was 5:30. We expressed our thanks for his permission to pass on his land which saved us 5 miles of flatwater by giving him a half gallon of Jack Daniels. I think he appreciated it. I know we did.