Wilson River March 12, 2017, By Chris Paine
Those that boat with me often know that I try to do a yearly Wilson river float ever since my first run on the 2013 OWA trip. In fact, since that trip, I’ve been obsessed with coastal rivers in general. After discussing with a few friends and a post on the OWA Facebook page, I managed to sucker enough people to make a group of ten people on eight boats: Mark Wheeler, Michele Gila, Shakya Baldwin, Shannon Scroggins, & Bob Smejkal on catarafts; Chris Massey rowing solo in a raft; Julie Nathe and Mike Brown R2 in a 12ft raft; Martin Orlik and I R2ing a 14ft raft.
We would be floating from Jones Creek campground (~MP23) to Mills Bridge (~MP6). The river was flowing at 4,800 cfs on the Wilson Tillamook gauge, and at this level Soggy Sneakers rates the river as class 3+(4). We arrived early at Jones Creek at 8:30AM. It seemed crazy early due to the clocks “springing forward” that morning, but I always opt for an early start here due to the long mileage required. Fortunately, everyone seemed just as excited as I was to be there and didn’t seem to mind the early start. Everyone arrived within just a few minutes of each other and immediately got to work lugging the boats through the trails and picnic areas toward the river. If you haven’t been there, it’s a bit of an obstacle course to get boats to the river here, but the teamwork on display was incredible and we were ready to begin shuttling just after 9AM.
After a few scouts on the way back to the put in and a quick safety talk we were off and on the river by 11AM. Martin and I led the way with Julie and Mike close behind. We were instantly aware of the fast moving water. Gone were the slow moving pools of water between rapids from prior trips (done at 1,250 cfs and couple other trips around 2,600 – actually at 2,600 the water isn’t all that slow until the last six miles). There were a few eddies around, but eddies large enough for the entire group were few and far between, making group communication a little difficult during the upper half of the run. Within a few minutes we were greeted with frequent class 2-3 rapids. At one of the first larger rapids we managed to hit a wave a bit sideways and got surfed briefly and somehow avoided joining the Wilson swim team. The upper part of the river has a small gorge with multiple rapids in fairly quick succession, keeping everyone busy and alert. Julie and Mike made good use of many of the waves in their small boat, providing entertainment throughout the day.
After a quick stop or two for a brief rest we quickly arrived at milepost 15, which is identified by a large rock outcropping on river left, on a right hand bend in the river, where you can easily see the highway. This spot is used frequently by kayakers as an alternate put in/takeout to split the run into shorter segments, but I don’t recommend it for rafts. It also indicates that we are approaching the first of the two major rapids, the Narrows, which is roughly a half mile or so downstream. Martin and I headed out first, with each boat leaving plenty of space for the next boat….or so I thought. We enter the Narrows lead in rapid which we ran with no issue at all. We rounded the sharp left hand turn at the bottom and the current is quite swirly, and not offering the usual pool to regroup before the narrow slot, which on that day was at least twice as wide as previous trips where it was only 6-7ft wide. We lined up for the slot, aiming left to avoid a guard rock on the right, and bumped the left bank a bit, before dropping a small hole at the slot. The hole itself presented no real challenge but we got stopped in the whirlpool current below, which sucked us back toward the hole and spun us around a couple times. During our second or third spin, Julie and Mike came flying through the drop and rammed right into us, where we were rudely blocking the entire channel. A quick bump, a shove, and some serious paddling and they got around us easily. Moments later we made it out and got to shore on river right and made our way upstream with throw ropes, just in case. During the time it took me to pull the boat to shore, get my rope and climb the rock wall to see the action, I missed what happened next: the catarafts each suffering the same fate as us in the whirlpool. First one, then two, three and finally four catarafts are bouncing around in the whirlpool. This would later be referred to as the “cat fight”. With some help from Martin and Mike on shore, or possibly just allowing some time for the river to do its thing, everyone made it through unscathed.
Perhaps another ½ mile or mile downstream is the only other major rapid, Ledges (I have an older book that calls this Ledges, but the 5th edition of Soggy Sneakers refers to this rapid as Yardsale). At lower flows it’s a bit of a rock garden with small, near river-wide ledge drops. At higher flows it’s a relatively straight forward wave train (okay, a big wave train), where the normal route is right of center, where there are fun standing waves to punch through. The river gets “munchier” the farther left you go here, with plenty of opportunities to flip a boat. At this flow it looked like the first series of waves could be avoided entirely on the far right, but where is the fun in that? At the end of the rapid the river takes a left where the largest part of the drop occurs. Everyone had an exciting run through and we were on our way.
From here, the river typically eases up quite a bit until the takeout, save for one bigger, straight forward rapid through a narrower chute identified by a small bridge crossing the river just downstream. To our surprise, we found a lot of interesting rapids at this flow, but really, you go out of your way to hit the bigger waves and the river gets a bit wider, so everything can be avoided easily if desired.
After another quick stop to enjoy the sun, we casually floated the last couple miles to the takeout at Mills Bridge, soaking up the sun and 60 degree temperature along the way (all previous trips I’ve been on were very cold and rainy). All said and done we reached the takeout at 3PM, making all 17 miles in only four hours, including the stops along the way. Given the amazing weather and excitement upstream, no one seemed ready to be off the river. Special thanks to all that joined me on the river that day on short notice. I hope to make it again next year. I suggest the Wilson as an alternative if you are looking for new rivers to explore. Video from this trip can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbUu_eOnFRo