Whitewater Brutality on the Clackamas River's Fish Creek Run
By Natasha Nowakowski
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Ready to go! Eric Echoff prepares to run the Carter Bridge rapids.

I've been paddling for four years, and still my stomach clenches into a thousand little beaded knots when I run a new river. When I paddled Oregon's Clackamas River a few weeks ago it was no different. My friend Eric and I ran four soul-squelching miles of whitewater known by local kayakers as the "Fish Creek" run. This section is notorious for what I call "slammers," rapids where massive piles of water slam into a headwall as the river bends into a crooked S. There was also Toilet-Bowl rapid to think about a satanic carnival of chaos funneled into a narrow chute.

With its genesis in the high alpine tarns of the Cascades' Olallie Butte at 6,000 feet, the Clackamas descends and meanders for 83 northwesterly miles towards its confluence with the Willamette River near Oregon City. Its lower 50 miles have been designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, a title that you can see is deserving once you have chanced its waters. Although the main artery of the Clackamas may not be particularly long, its entire river system drains more than 930 square miles southeast of Portland. Much of the river runs through the Mount Hood National Forest.

So named after the Clackamas Indians who once occupied the banks of the Willamette River from its junction with the Columbia River to the falls at Oregon City, the Clackamas River is a rain river and can be run year-round. Flows range from 750 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 3,000 CFS. In the spring, the combination of rain and snowmelt run-off often swells the river beyond 3,000 CFS. In 1964, such a catastrophic mix raised the Clackamas to an astounding 120,000 CFS, breaking the Cazadero Dam.

Wedged in a steeply forested canyon, the river is lined with steel-grey basalt crags and looming stands of old-growth Douglas fir trees. Because it constantly twists and turns in a deep gorge, many sections are shaded by the early afternoon—a relief for boaters and wildlife in the summer months when the sun becomes intense. In the treetops, bald eagles and northern spotted owls can be seen swooping and flittering to and fro. Deer often take refreshments by the riverbanks. And Steelhead, Coho, and Chinook salmon spawn in the tributaries.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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