Salmon River Canyon
the first known class 4 descent

I've been poking around in the Salmon River Canyon long before I ever thought about paddling it.   Every few years in late August I head out there with an ultralight climbing kit to explore some obscure side tributary in search of hidden basalt gorges and waterfalls.   There are hard-earned splendors awaiting the intrepid canyoneer in the Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness.

Every time I'd hike out though, I thought to myself,  'I really should bring a small raft and try to float out one of these times.'    My life took different turns, I forgot about it, years past.   Then this winter, with my cranky shoulder at least servicable for the first time in a decade,  I started creeking again in earnest,  which also meant spending an inordinate amount of time in the evenings dicking around on Jason Rackleys site:  I stumbled across the trip reports for the Salmon river canyon and it lit my imagination on fire, I had to do it.  There was just one small problem,  I'm not a class 5 kayaker.  

I guess maybe I could be a class 5 kayaker,  I never swim, I can control my boat most of the time, and I love steep boulder gardens.  The problem for me is that bad stuff happens on class 5;  people break boats and bones, they get worked in evil holes,  they get stuffed under rocks and behind waterfalls.  Having suffered such abuses in my early twenties,  I've decided there are certain risk I'd rather not expose myself to, ever.   Translation:  I'm a wuss.  That said, one unfortunate fact of boating life is that so many of the truly amazing places are Class 5.   It didn't seem fair to me that only class 5 dudes should get to go to the cool spots,  so I hatched a ridiculous plan, and on a hot July weekend in 2010,  my buddy Don and I fired up this rare Oregon gem.

I showed up at Dons house on my bike with a backpack bulging with gear.    "You mean you don't have a car?"  he asked.
 "Nah, I thought you'd have one.  Wait, isn't your brother in France right now?  Go get his car, he's never gonna know it's gone!"   An hour later we were the proud temporary owners of a Subaru Forester.  Thanks Harvey!

We made a quick run downtown where we purchased the Intex Challenger 2 raft (for use only under adult supervision) for $36.   A pool raft may seem a bit insane for tackling one of Oregons hardest creek runs, but they are surprisingly tough and we weren't planning on running the truly hard stuff anyways.  For an exploratory run it seemed like a 10 pound boat would be easy to portage the significant obstacles.  

Next we headed over to Next Adventure where the guy behind the counter gave us a few of his own pitons to add to my very meager protection kit.  With nothing but crumbling rotten rock, you'd be lucky to find anywhere in the entire canyon to pound in a pin or sink a nut, the bat hook however, is very useful, and also very scary, as anyone who has ever rappelled off a bat hook will tell you.

An alpine harness, 3 locking biners, a non locker, an ATC, and 3 prussik cords was all the weight we could afford.   You could go a biner and a cord lighter, but I didn't know what we'd face in there and I wanted to make sure we had a bit of extra stuff.   Prussiks are an awesome piece of kit.  By wrapping them around a rope with a constricting knot, they work as rappelling safeties or ascenders on double or single ropes of any diameter,  they weigh next to nothing, and with a 1250lb rating for 5mm you can even use them as slings.   I also brought 30 feet of 3/4" webbing.

We were pretty dissapointed when we opened the box to discover that our pool raft didn't come with any oars!  Luckily Don had this 2 piece wooden sea kayak paddle from the 70's. 

We arrived at the lower trail head at 7am,  and after a gear check and a bit of repacking, we were on the trail by 8am. 

Don needs to lose a bit of weight.

I felt my hip groan as I shouldered the 45lb pack.   About ten years ago I took a nasty climbing fall when I pulled out a rusty bolt while hauling a cooler of beer (and ice) up an aid route.  I zipped two pieces of protection out of the wall before landing on a piece that held about 100 feet lower.  Now with a seriously tweaked SI joint, my body isn't real keen on carrying loads anymore.   It's a pretty 6 mile hike that gains about a 1000 feet of elevation.   Not too bad.

Topping out at about 10am, we get our first look down into the canyon.

Once you get heavy it's hard to move in a canyon, so I try not to bring anything I don't absolutely need, and that includes water.   If you only drink from small seeps and trickles you can usually forgo purification.

Higher up on the trail bedrock started to appear.  To a kayaker bedrock is synonymous with gorges,  which means good whitewater.

Alright, maybe it's a little gay, but I like flowers.

Finally we started our descent down through the brush toward the bottom of the canyon.   Really it wasn't too bad,  probably harder with creek boats.    "I can't see bringing a creek boat down here."  Don said.   "The guys that come down here," I explained,  "are not like you and me, you saw the trip reports, they're not normal." 

We reached the bottom of the Canyon at noon and took a moment to mow down a couple bagels before we set up the gear.

We brought a 200 foot 6.5mm spectra 'escape' rope,  and a 120' 8mm polyester canyoneering rope that was pretty thrashed from sandstone in Utah.    The 120'  is by far the most useful rope I own and I bring it everywhere with me.

The 'trail' leads you down to split falls, this is log-choked left side.

I was interested in the right side though, so I pulled on my wetsuit and rappelled off the falls and swam underwater to take a look at the landing.

The transition from rope to water needs to be managed carefully,  it's easy to get tangled up in the pool, especially if there is current.

One of my main objectives, and the reason I was wearing a wetsuit, was to swim under many of the falls in the canyon and get a look at the landings, both for running them and for throw and go's.    It doesn't get much cleaner than this,  a deep pool with the falls punching a nice aerated hole down into it.    Guys have been running and jumping into all this stuff for years, but like I said, I'm a class 4 kind of guy, I like to take a look before I huck anything.   Unfortunately this was the only good look I got on the trip.  Most of the falls were still too turbulent to see anything.   I might head back in late September to check it out.  

I climbed out...

...and set up the boat for the first ever pool raft run over split falls.

After hiking the boat down into position and jockying around a bit,  I jumped in the raft and sailed over the lip landing is a loud splat as I backflopped into the base of the falls while the raft washed over to river left.

I swam over to Don and asked excitedly "Did you get that?", to which he responded,  "My camera died."  I gave him a very stern look before we turned to focus on the rest of the canyon.   Split falls is a super fun waterfall,  no need to boof hard on this one, if I were in a kayak a bit of a stroke to get things angled right is all it would take.    Someone should bolt a ladder to the side of this falls and leave a boat there so I can hike in and run this falls all afternoon long!  The canyon was gorged out so a second lap wasn't really practical.

Below split falls is about a hundred yards of runnable class 3 boulders that feeds into a log choked drop, don't miss the eddy.   We ran about half of it in the raft.

Portaging over the log choked drop.

We loaded the packs into the raft,  unsure how much runnable water we'd find downstream.

The next few miles are fun, pretty class 2+.   This was much lower than what is considered an acceptable hardshell kayak flow, so everything was pretty boney.  A pool raft is not exactly the most dynamic vessel, so we ran a lot of stuff sideways and backwards.

A typical Oregon rapid ;)

At the end of the class 2+ section you arrive at Little Niagara falls,  Don gets ready to ghost the raft over.

Don swims the pool below the falls,  he jumped off the rock in the foreground, the falls behind him land onto rocks.   The river left side of this drop is runnable but it probably develops a meaty hole at high water, the falls is backcut, and some of the flow feeds into a cave on river left,  making this a very class 5 drop.

Stoked, Don climbs out of the pool.

Visible from Little Niagara is the horizon line for Vanishing Falls.   Vanishing drops into a dark gorge with overhanging walls.  My feeling is that with all that flow and no obvious undercuts, it would just blast you through, probably upside down.  It's likely that it's good to go, but pretty darn intimidating.   

According to Luke these two logs just beyond the base of the falls have caused a couple of swims after boaters pinned.  The walls here lock into a tight gorge with a moving pool that feeds into a small ledge and then very sticky looking boxed-in ledge drop.  

We looked at it and decided we could make the eddy in the raft, so we rappelled right down into the base of Vanishing Falls.   On rappel I moved slightly sideways and dislodged a baseball sized rock the above me that came flying down and hit me in the knee,  ouch.

There was nowhere to really go so at the bottom I cowered off to the side while Don rappelled down, kicking loose this basketball sized chunk of rock that landed in the raft ripping a huge hole in the bottom!  Scary!  I really want to swim this gorge at low-low water to check for shallow spots,  a throw and go is probably safer than a rappel!

Don coils the ropes while I deal with the rock.  We're now committed to the gorge.

Don paddled the next fifty yards and I swam it and we made the eddy easily before reaching the boxed in ledge.

Another rappel (which we were way more careful on) brought us past the box ledge.  The hole in here looks like it would POUND you if you missed the boof,  yikes!

The very narrow gorge feeding out of the box-drop is calm and reminds me of the gorge at high bridge on upper Eagle creek.

Now here is a ledge I would run!  About the same scale as Climax on the Upper Wind, maybe a bit taller.  I was actually going to run it in the raft but the lead in doors were too narrow,  and honestly, rafts just creep me out,   I like to be IN something when I'm running drops.   We chose a pool raft for our first descent because we didn't know how much we'd be able to run at all and we didn't want to hike a heavy boat for miles.  Now that I see how much is runnable, (for me) in the future I'll be thinking of something more like a kayak.

Next up is this rapid.  The situation here is less than ideal because this is in an unportagable gorge,  we are in a freaking pool raft we can barely control, and most of the flow pushes into the log strainer.   It didn't stress me out though.  If you have to run something, you have to run it, period, just make it happen.  In this rapid I developed a much better way to steer the raft,  I would lean way over the front of the raft and paddle like an eggbeater on methamphetamines to pull the raft in any direction I wanted to go.   We missed the strainer and afterward we used that technique on the rest of the river which allowed us to run much harder rapids than we were willing to up to this point.

Chillin' out in the long calm pool after the strainer rapid.

I knew Frustration Falls was right around the corner so I kept a tight leash on the raft.

Pulling the raft over a rock in the lead in rapids to Frustration falls.

I crawled through the portage cave.

...but the raft wouldn't fit so we pulled it over instead.

The log infested first tier of Frustration Falls.

A short rappel or downclimb is required to portage the falls on the right.   Somebody left this bag tied off,  it was fine but the mess upset my sensibilities as a climber so I untied the whole thing and retied it as a double line to make it a bit safer.   The line is spectra so it should be safe to climb or rappel on for a few more years.

Don contemplates the impressive multi-tiered Frustration Falls.

One thing you don't see in any of the trip reports is the beautiful 300 foot waterfall that pours in behind Frustration falls!

Another view of the amazing Frustration falls.   It horrifies me that people actually run this waterfall in kayaks!

A crumbling portage route along the bench adjacent to Frustration falls leads to the lip of in between falls, (not really visible), and behind that, the lip of the massive Final falls (the visible horizon).

At 6pm we were both feeling a bit shaky, so we decided to eat a crude facimile of dinner (bagels, beer, and chocolate), and camp for the night at the lip of Final falls.

This is In Between Falls,  right after Frustration, right before Final.   Reasonable lead-in, clean drop, deep (looking) pool,  not too big.   This is another falls I would definitely run in a kayak.  Swimming is of course not an option here, the water falls from this pool over Final falls.

  Ample time was spent in contemplation of the massive Final Falls.

It was only a matter of time before Don said, "hey, there's a log up there..."  and because all guys are mentally 5 years old, you can see what happened next.

After a productive evening of pushing logs over the falls and then trying to hit them with rocks from above, we were all tuckered out.   There are no flat spots here in case you were wondering.

I slept pretty well on the bumpy rocks and woke up stoked and ready for more at 6:30AM.

My stoke faded considerably as I pulled on my cold, wet, wetsuit.

This little tree is the ONLY possible rappel anchor (aside from a bat hook)  on the right side of the falls.   Despite what I've read in other reports, I'm sure the tree itself is bomber,  what concerns me is that it's roots find purchase into a crack that appears to seperate this massive overhanging chunk of rock from the main wall.   It's impossible to say how well the rock is attached.   It'll probably hold for another 2000 years but it also might peel off the next time someone stands on it.   Breaking the tree off over the pool would be psychologically damaging, but physically non-consequential if you didn't land on your stomach or back,  peeling the car sized rock off is another story.


I took a moment to cut off the old sling and replaced it with a new one.

Setting the rope.   I doubled over the 200'  6.5mm spectra rope here.  To do it again I'd probably just double the 120 and drop the last bit into the pool.    There are some very important considerations for that manuver,  so if you are reading this and thinking about doing that in this canyon or another,  email me before you try it, seriously.

Stepping over the edge.

One of the most amazing rappels of my life,  hanging next to the falls getting blasted by the wind and spray generated by the falls.

This scenario is a common cause of canyoneering deaths,  people getting blasted by water, unable to release a rappel.   It's important to keep your head straight and work through the system without dropping your ATC or getting tangled up.   Another common issue is rappelling with a pack on.  You need to rappel with the waist strap on otherwise the pack flips you upside down and peels your hands off the belay device as it slides over your shoulders,  but as soon as you hit the water you gotta release the waist to let the pack float up, otherwise it ends up pushing your face down into the water.

Don carefully sorts out the lines in the cave under the falls.    It's very important not to pull twisted ropes,  otherwise they can get stuck and if you have another rappel and no more rope, you're pretty much fucked.

Somehow I don't think they were picturing this when they sold me raft at Andy and Bax.

After Final falls is a 100 yards or so of class 2.

Just around the corner lies this narrow slot.   Class 3 at this flow, not sure about higher flows.   Portageable on the left with a throw-and-go.  I forgot to mention that before this trip Don had never run ANY sort of whitewater,  he's a pretty resiliant dude though and by the time we got to this spot he was like:  "Let's run it!"  I once took Don on an open coast sea kayaking trip and despite not having been in a kayak in 4 years,  he was snapping off rolls in the surf like a pro.  He's that kind of guy so I trust him.   He was also the only person I could talk into doing this trip.

This beautiful pool on the other side marks the end of the crux section of the canyon.

There is still fun, (and dangerous) rapids waiting downstream though....

I would call this mile long boulder garden a 'runnable sieve'.    There are lots of fun drops and doors that go,  and some that go nowhere.   What is more concerning is that much of the water that pours through this section flows under the rocks,  meaning that if you end up swimming a line in here you have a big chance of getting sucked under something.   Even at low flows it only takes a pitiful amount of water to hold you under a rock.   Scouting, setting safety for each other, and taking it a few drops at a time we ran about half of it in the raft.

The worst sieve, about halfway down.

It wouldn't hurt to just run one ledge blind right?  Wrong!  See that giant rooster-tail? 

This is what it looked like right before we dropped 5 feet right onto this pointy piton-rock,  followed by a stream of profanity, a quick eddy out, and two guys hopping around like fools moaning and groaning.    Don's knee took a direct hit, as did my tail bone,  which still hurts as I write this,  and made walking very painful the rest of the day.    It's not customary to name single drops in long boulder gardens,  but at least to me,  this rapid is now known as 'The Ass-Reaper'.

The water in here is so cold I couldn't feel my feet, but somewhere in here I also broke my big toe, adding to our ever increasing list of injuries.    Walking at this point was getting pretty hard for both of us.

Luckily the rest of the canyon was runnable, if not a bit shallow in places.  There is a few miles of worthy class 3 in here, worth a hike in trip at higher water for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

There is a priceless look on peoples faces when they see you float out of a place like this in a yellow pool raft.   We are trained idiots, don't try this at home.

Of course there were still a few logs to go over....

...and under...

...and around.

In the lower canyon I passed this cairn on a very enticing looking nearly-dry tributary.  Definitely something to explore this next winter.

Don arrives triumphantly at the bridge...

...but I had one last matter to attend to.

I reached under a rock to retrieve my cold beer before we packed the gear back up to the car.


Hiking the Salmon River Canyon at river level is at least as dangerous as running it in a kayak.   The crumbling slopes and slippery rocks almost guarantee some sort of injury.   We ran about 80% of the canyon in the raft and without it we probably would have broken more than a toe.  For a first descent the pool raft was adequate and a bit of fun at times, and it gave us plenty of room for camping gear in our packs.  I ran a lot of class 4 in pool rafts in my late teenage years,  usually after 2 or 10 beers,  and I can tell you that they get the job done pretty well once you adjust your thinking.   The other cool thing about taking the raft was being able to do the whole thing from one trailhead with one car and avoiding the 4 hour shuttle.   This would still be possible with a 30lb IK,  and that would make almost the whole thing runnable and a lot more fun.   I would actually like to run the whole thing in a creek boat at normal flows, skipping little niagara, vanishing, frustration, and final falls.   That still doesn't make this a class 4 run though.  You really don't want to screw up in here, a stumble or a swim in the gorges could put you and your buddies in very bad rescue situation.   The main skill for these sorts of missions is to consistently make careful, cautious choices.   I don't want my trip report encouraging class 4 boaters to flock to the canyon with pool rafts.   Finally, there is simply an inherent level of risk in visiting these sorts of places.   It's up to you to decide if that's worth the reward.   For me it was, although my ass and my toe might not agree.

Thanks to Luke Spencer for giving me important beta on the run and being open minded enough not to just shut down the idea of a pool-raft run.   I still can't believe you guys run Frustration, sick!

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