I’ve always admired the Pacific Northwest for its plethora of talented female kayakers. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to join four of these ladies – Jo Kemper, Lori Turbes, Nicole Mansfield, and Lisa Byers – on one of the most challenging and rewarding trips I’ve ever done: the Upper Chetco.
The Chetco River lies between the Illinois River and the North Fork of the Smith River in southern Oregon. It is completely free flowing, running undammed all the way to the ocean through Oregon’s pristine Kalmiopsis Wilderness. My first glimpse of the Chetco was several years ago in an American Whitewater photo, where a kayaker appeared to levitate on an impossibly clear stretch of crystal blue water. It’s been high on my list ever since, and this was an impossible chance to pass up.
There’s a caveat to this trip, however: the put-in lies at the end of a grueling 9 mile hike through an old burn area that, despite semi-regular trail maintenance, is a maze of new understory growth and downed trees. We got an early start at 9 am, but this beast of a hike took us nearly 11 hours. 4 out of our 5 kayak packs broke along the way, and we became frustratingly familiar with “turtling,” a term we coined as we fell repeatedly backwards onto our top-heavy boats, looking absurdly like helpless, overturned turtles.
We reached the put-in at Carter Creek the next morning after sleeping in the middle of the steeply sloping trail; we hiked well into the dark and were too exhausted to safely finish the 1,500 foot descent to the river. Despite our fears that the river level might be high, we rounded the last bend in the trail and saw the river at what looked like a perfect medium-low flow!
The run begins with a spectacular class III stretch appropriately called the “Magic Gorge” before picking up gradient and entering a steep, rugged canyon. We took our time through this first section, scouting many of the drops and making two portages (one around a boulder-choked class V rapid) before making camp on a rock bar with just enough sandy spots for 5 sleeping bags. We got a lazy start the next morning, drinking tea in our sleeping bags before paddling the rest of the run: fun, mixed class III-IV in a lush green canyon all the way to the takeout.
We’re lucky as modern river runners to have guidebooks, run descriptions, online gauges, and numerous other resources available to us when stepping up to paddle new rivers. This means, however, that the challenge of exploring new drainages relatively blind is all but unknown to many of us. This was a huge learning experience for me, and it would have been immensely (more) challenging without such a solid crew of women. The support, teamwork, and laughs on this trip were phenomenal and a great reminder why I love paddling with such hardcore and talented ladies. I’d repeat this adventure in a heartbeat…or at least as soon as my sore legs and patchwork of bruises heal up!
The flows for our run were 2,300 dropping to 1,800 cfs on the Brookings gauge, which was a great medium-low flow for hard shell boats. The hike in was signed, though a few key turnoffs wouldn’t be hard to miss. I would highly recommend having good topo maps and a GPS if possible. The trail was cleared again this past weekend by the Siskiyou Mountain Club, so many of the trees we climbed over and under may have been removed. The river itself was remarkably clear of wood, but I’d definitely advise a cautious approach due to the recent fires and narrow gorges.