Eagle Creek has been on my list for a long time; ever since I saw it in Full Circle way back in the early 2000's, I've been getting more and more interested. The stars finally aligned on our last paddling day of the break (with the help of a 10 hour drive) and Natalie, Dave and I got to fire up some sweet drops.
First off, here's a slideshow of our best shots:
Some people say that Eagle Creek is one of those "once is enough" kinds of creeks. The drops aren't all that hard, and there are really only a handful of "real" rapids. But of course, the run us about more than just the whitewater. We had perfect weather for the 4 mile hike in, with intermittent sun and light rain to keep us cool but motivated. The trail was beautiful, even with a boat strapped to your back. When we finally made it to our putin at Skoonichuck falls, I was feeling pretty pumped up.
Skoonichuck is an awesome way to start the run. It's a little stressful to put on your skirt and have the first four strokes of the day be:
draw stroke out of eddy
40 foot boof
15 foot boof...
|From Eagle Creek|
...but it's totally worth it. There's a 40 footer (I could be wrong about the size) which lands in a moving pool immediately above a 15 footer. When you first scout it, you might think that there's time to recover between the two drops, but the water is moving a lot faster than it seems.
We all ended up running it. I had a nice feeling line off the first drop, but resurfaced backwards over on the right side and wasn't able to spin around before dropping the second ledge. Dave followed, staying more online through the first drop, but flipping in the landing. He was just barely able to pull off a roll as he went directly off the best part of the second drop. Then I ran (well, walked... ok... crawled) back up the hill to film Natalie's run. She scouted it very carefully and planned every detail (even which side to tuck the paddle off the big drop). Her scouting paid off with an incredible clean run. She barely even got her head wet, and stayed straight and upright for a late boof off the second ledge. I was hooting and hollering, but typical of Natalie, all she could talk about was how she hadn't stomped the second drop hard enough.
|Dave on the second ledge. Eagle Creek|
Unfortunately, since I was trying to film and take photos at the same time, I got terrible shots of Natalie's line. Wait, not terrible... artistic. That's right. It's an abstract shot capturing the of the spirit of the waterfall and rocks.
|Artistic shot. Not bad aim, artistic.Eagle Creek|
Below Skoonichuck, we tried to move fast, since we had sort of a late start and wanted to catch up with another group. We sent Natalie off to boat scout the next little ledge/crack thing. I got this nice calm shot of her paddling towards it, then she had that telltale too-fast correction stroke as she went off the lip.
|Trouble behind, trouble ahead... Eagle Creek|
She vanished off the lip, but a couple seconds went by without seeing her paddle out the bottom. Dave hurried up to the lip, and sure enough, she had swam. The drop, which looked ok at first glance, actually fell off to the right into an hourglass crack. There was a line, but we had just assumed that since it was so small it couldn't be anything major. Natalie had ended up sideways in the hourglass part, which was also sort of a hole. It was too narrow to paddle or brace, so she got flipped and decided to swim. Fortunately, it was flatwater below, so it was a quick self rescue. Past there, we were a lot more careful about boat scouting.
The rapids continued at a pretty fun difficulty level for another couple miles. There were some very narrow gorges, which were awesome, and a couple short wood portages.
|Dave on one of the in-between rapids. Eagle Creek|
Then a strange ledge drop with a diagonal log through it signaled the approach to Punchbowl falls. We had been paddling alone through the upper canyons (apart from a couple motivated groups of hikers that worked their way down to river level). When we got to Punchbowl, we were the third group of paddlers to show up. There was us, the Wheels and Water crew, who we had been trying to catch up with since putin, as well as a crew of paddlers from Montana.
|Natalie gives Eric Arlington (W&W crew) a couple pointers on the Punchbowl line. Eagle Creek|
The punchbowl for which the falls is named felt like an arena as we all scouted and fired off the drop. There were paddlers at the lip waiting to run it, hikers on the rim watching and cheering, and paddlers down below who had just finished their laps. After my run, I was waiting down below to get a photo of Dave, and I was worried that I wouldn't have enough warning before he came off the lip, but the crowd started cheering a couple seconds before he fired it off, and I had plenty of warning.
I had always been curious about the exact geometry of the falls. In most photos, the drop looks like a steep and walled in twisting drop, but it's actually relatively flat, and you can walk around on the rocks on river left at the lip. It might not be quite as scary as it looked, but it is still a very dynamic drop. You boof onto a diagonal hole that then falls off a 30 footer. After looking at it carefully, I decided that I wanted to climb up and over the pile and run left, since that was actually where the majority of the water went. The surface looks like it curls to the right, but that's actually just the aerated pile from the diagonal hole. The heavy green water keeps pushing through to the left, so I think that's where the soft landings are hiding.
We watched a couple runs from above, and then Natalie geared up and fired it off, hitting a sweet line and landing with perfect angle. I followed her off, with a similar line that felt great, and then got a shot of Dave from below.
|Natalie perched on the lip of Punchbowl falls. Eagle Creek|
|Dave tucks up for a nice vertical entry. Eagle Creek|
Below Punchbowl, there is one last 10 foot ledge where most people get out, then there is a quarter mile of flatwater before Metlako falls.
Metlako might or might not have been a world record waterfall, depending on how you define things. When Dave Grove first descended it back in 2004, only a couple really tall waterfalls had been run. There was Tao's 98 foot Upper Johnston falls, which had been the clear record for quite a while. But then there was Ed Lucero's descent of 108 foot Alexandria falls in the Northwest Territories, as well as Tim Gross' run on 101 foot Abiqua falls. However, along with the usual squabbles about the exact heights of these waterfalls, there was the important fact that Ed Lucero and Tim Gross were both ejected from their boats when they landed. Dave Grove stuck Metlako. This didn't settle the matter, though. Metlako slides down a nearly vertical slide for the first part of the drop. The overall height is in the neighborhood of 100 feet, but many people say that that's actually a 20 foot slide to 80 foot falls, putting Metlako way below the other potential record drops. This debate raged for a few years until Paul Gamache and Perdo Olivia both ran even taller drops, each within a day or two of each other. Those descents (especially Pedro's) seemed like a clear record, but then of course Tyler Bradt had to go run Palouse falls (187 feet) and stuck it, which pretty much obliterated any other contenders.
World record or not, Metlako is pretty tall. However, it's a very simple waterfall. The slide part of the drop helps you set the perfect angle for the landing, and there are nice pools above and below the waterfall. As Clay Wright put it, "Metlako is the new Celestial" (I'm not going to explain the history there, we need to get back to the action). Natalie, Dave and I were all feeling pretty fired up after putting on a show for the big crowd at punchbowl, so we decided to join Darwon and Jared of the Montana crew and fire up the big one. Elisabeth and Madison (the other two Montana paddlers) hiked around the falls to take photos.
It was pretty intimidating at the lip. I climbed out while everyone else held my boat in the eddy, and took a look at the tongue. It was every bit as simple as everyone says; just two boils and a solid flat slab of current rolling off a 5 foot wide lip. No weird waves or even any splashy edges, just a solid bluegreen tongue dropping out of sight. The landing was so far down that it was actually pretty quiet up there in the pool above.
I climbed back into my boat and we all started working through the inevitable politics involved in running a drop this size. Who would go first? For those of you that don't know, this is usually sort of a pissing contest. There's kind of a dubious honor to running it first. If you're first, that might mean that you're the least scared. Of course, once you're run a couple frightening drops, you start to realize that actually the scariest position is last, since you'll be all alone with the monster, but usually nobody debates who will go last. Everyone talks about who will be first. It's kind of rare to straight up say that you want to go first, or that you don't want to go first. Usually it's debated in terms of other, more important reasons, like safety and such, or even photos.
In our case, we started the debate by talking about paddles. See, some of us planned on tossing our paddles (myself included). This clearly meant that I couldn't go first, since I needed someone down there to chase down my paddle once I landed. It wasn't that I was scared, of course. Not me, no no. We had just started really warming up the debate when Natalie snapped in and called us names.
"You're all acting like a bunch of little boys! I'll just fucking go first." She broke in. "This whole thing with the paddles is just a bunch of posturing. Good god."
So she did.
|Natalie "mans up" off Metlako. Photo by Roman Androsov. Eagle Creek|
Sometime during the beginning of our aborted debate, Jared or maybe Darwon had climbed out onto the ledge to try to keep an eye on the landing. Natalie vanished off the lip very quietly, and a few seconds later our spotter reported that she had been ejected but looked ok. We had decided that we would follow the usual "lemmings" safety plan, so I followed Natalie off the lip with little delay. As I tossed the paddle and tucked up, I had plenty of time to think about that logical argument where someone at the bottom had to be there to catch my paddle... but Natalie was out of her boat... Well, whatever. I had an H2O paddle with bright green blades. It would be easy to find.
|Hucking the paddle. Eagle Creek|
The hit was not as bad as I thought it would be, but I could feel the power involved when I went deep. I resurfaced and handrolled on the boil, stoked on life. There was no sign of my paddle. After Natalie and I came Darwon and Jared. Darwon stuck it and chased off downstream after my paddle, but Jared went a little over the bars and got ejected. Then there was a long wait for Dave. He said later that he got a little nervous up there, all alone in that quiet little pool, about to fall 100 feet. He made a couple false passes before finally going for it. When he did go, he also went a little over the bars, and got ejected. His boat got launched almost 20 feet into the air when it rebounded from the landing. We were all a little curious as to exactly how that had worked.
After we got everyone back in their boats and collected what gear we could, we headed downstream and hit a couple bonus rapids on the way back to the car. Darwon was able to recover my paddle, but we ended up losing Jared's paddle, although we did recover his shoe, about half a mile downstream.
All in all, it was an awesome day. There may have only been a handful of actual drops, but it was well worth the hike and even worth the long drive. I can't wait to go back.
Thanks to all the other paddlers from that day. The Wheels and Water crew took some of the photos of Metlako, and it was good to have Darwon and Jared along for Metlako itself. Now go watch that slideshow for a bunch of extra photos.