Kayaking Joseph Creek: Tamarack Creek to Heller Bar June 18-19, 2011

My long time friend, Trever, today described me to someone we were talking to as being highly functional OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).  He was describing our travels when we were travelling all over the Northwest and Canada competing in rodeos and the fact that I would plan our trips to compete in the most rodeos possible every weekend for as many weekends out of the year as possible.  Apparently I wore him out and to be honest I was often a little wore out myself.  But perhaps his description of me today explains why I have obsessed over floating Joseph Creek since I bought my first kayak last year.

I have obsessed over Joseph Creek, wanting to know and walk each trail or ridge that leads there, wanting to fish each and every bend in the creek that was on public ground, and as a grand finale to float the creek.  I have asked each and every person I have met that kayaks over the past year whether they would like to float Joseph Creek with me.  Most laugh me off after I describe it a little.  Others had questioned whether I was ready to float it myself since the first time I sat in a kayak was last October.

I took the criticism seriously and have made every attempt I could this spring to spend time in my kayak gaining a good feel for it.  I trained hard last year so that I could easily hike into and more importantly out of Joseph Creek.  I have tried to approach kayaking Joseph Creek with similar diligence and preparation.

I began kayaking the Walla Walla River from Milton-Freewater almost to Lowden.  Here I learned an important lesson, primarily not to go over dams.  It is extremely dangerous.  To be honest, I nearly drowned myself.  It was a dumb mistake that I made out of ignorance of the power of water when they channel a river to a narrow width and then make it drop over concrete.  Since then I look at big holes with more than a healthy fear.  I struggled for my life that day and it has absolutely had a profound effect on me.  I will never look at water the same way.  The Walla Walla is fairly small, but it still has the power to kill in certain situations.

Since then I kayaked the Grande Ronde and Wallowa as much as possible.  I also made a trip down the Powder River.  The Grande Ronde and Wallowa are good rivers to learn on.  There is quite a bit of room and you have ample room to get a feel for a kayak.  The Powder River below Thief Valley Reservoir has a rapid that goes for 1 ¼ miles from start to finish.  That is better training for the continuous nature of Joseph Creek.

But as I said I have been obsessing over kayaking Joseph Creek since sometime last summer.  It became something that I felt I needed to do similar to hiking the Chico, Davis Creek, and Swamp Creek Trails all the way to Joseph Creek.  The first person I got interested in floating Joseph Creek with me backed out when he had an opportunity for a remote float on a different river.  I then found another person who wanted to float Joseph Creek, but we could never make the timeframe work.  If we hadn’t had such a wet spring I would have missed out on floating Joseph Creek for sure.  But each morning as I drank my cup of coffee this spring I have looked at what the flow was on Joseph Creek.  It got big.

Most years Joseph Creek peaks somewhere around 1,000 cfs.  Some years it doesn’t even get that high.  This year it went over 2,000 cfs.  And the rain continued and kept the flows up for a long time.  Most years you could not hope to float the creek when the fishing season is open.

Last year I had fished Joseph Creek when it was around 150 cfs and thought that the section I was on was floatable at 150 cfs and so used 150 cfs as my minimum floatable flow.  Studying the flow charts from years past I saw that once the creek got down to 280 with no rain, it would drop to 150 within about 5 days.  When the rain finally stopped this spring Joseph Creek began to drop fast.  The snow had already melted on its headwaters.  It began dropping 50 cfs or more a day and the weather forecast did not show any real forecast for rain in the distant future.  Time was running out.

I felt a little let down.  Although I do many things on my own, I didn’t think I should float Joseph Creek alone.  I had floated the Wenaha alone, but I knew the Wenaha well and hiked all of it many times and knew exactly what trees were down where.  With only a few days left I decided I would float it alone anyway.  I would just have to be the model of caution.  Not take any chances what-so-ever.  I called Jeff and let him know, hoping that he might change his mind and agree to go.  And thankfully he did.  Jeff didn’t feel as comfortable as me floating it, but given the flows we both felt we would be able to beach the kayaks easily and scout any blind corners.

I only had the weekend to get the kayak to the creek, float out and drive home.  I knew I couldn’t do it from county road to county road, a distance close to 40 miles that would require permission from Dub Darnelle owner of Ninebark Outfitters to put in on the upper end.  I decided to try and kill two birds with one stone.  There was supposed to be a trail on Hunting Camp Ridge that led down the East Fork of Tamarack Creek.  I had wanted to hike it and after reading the Nez Perce Precious Lands Management Plan, I learned that this was actually a road going to some buildings on the Nez Perce ground.  They welcomed hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders, but did not allow motorized vehicles.  It sounded like a good route for an inflatable kayak.  The road was a little over 3 miles which left almost a mile to Joseph Creek from there.  I was hoping there was a decent trail the last mile from the buildings to Joseph Creek.

Floating Joseph Creek requires some planning and help from others.  I got my wife to shuttle Jeff’s mini-van to Heller Bar late in the week.  We then had Don, one of our drivers for the Minam Shuttle Service, ride with Jeff and I to the beginning of our hike down the road.

You begin on highway 3 going north from Enterprise before turning off onto Forest Service road 46, a good road.  When you get to Coyote campground you take a left onto 4650, another pretty decent road.  Soon after that you take a right onto 4655.  4655 starts out decent but deteriorates fast.  The 30% chance of rain for Saturday was upped to 40% that morning when I looked at it and it began raining on the drive over.  We were soon going over a “road” not a Road.  In many places it was merely a dirt track where people had driven over the years.  In these spots I often tried to straddle the ruts to prevent any further damage to the road.

We eventually made our way to Hunting Camp Ridge.  The public road was supposed to go down it a ways, switching back once or twice before coming to a gate that entered the Nez Perce’s Precious Lands Unit.  Just as we began to descend Hunting Camp Ridge there was a good spot to turn around.  I decided we should park there to make sure that Don had no problems driving our rig out.  The road had been rough, but perfectly drivable so far with 4×4 and decent clearance.  We got out my new kayak dolly that I hadn’t used yet and began trying to arrange two kayaks and gear on it.  Don said he would wait to leave until we were out of site just in case something went wrong with the dolly.  We started down and pretty quick I thought I could hear the wheels rubbing against the bottom of the kayak.  We tried to shift things around, but we weren’t successful at stopping the rubbing.  I wanted to get out of sight so Don felt comfortable leaving so kept gong the best I could until we got to the first bend.

Jeff and our shuttle Driver Don on Hunting Camp Ridge

Jeff and our shuttle Driver Don on Hunting Camp Ridge

 

We then reconfigured everything on the kayak and kept the kayak from rubbing on the wheels almost all the time.  For the first mile I continued to modify our pile of stuff on the dolly and how best I could wheel it down the road.  After a while we had the kayak dolly loaded good and I had two straps around my shoulders pulling the kayaks down the hill like a mule.  This actually worked quite well.  If you ever try this only put one kayak per dolly and it will work much better and wear you out much less.  After two and a half miles one of the tires on the dolly went flat.  This tipped the dolly and the kayaks began to rub again intermittently.  Jeff began trying to hold the kayaks a little more level, a process that was physically harder for both of us and began to wear us down physically a little more.

We arrived at the buildings and I was a little surprised and disheartened to find the road dead-ended with a little drop-off.  After looking around at a log barn and peaking through the windows of the house/lodge I began to try and find a trail that went the rest of the way down.  Jeff didn’t seem real impressed with me that our road disappeared.  We walked around peering through the brush, but could not see a trail anywhere.  At this point I suggested we take our drybags, paddles, and flyrods and try to find a game trail along the rims of the canyon.  Unimpressed with the solution Jeff grabbed his stuff and followed.

Lost the Trail

Lost the Trail

 

As we were slipping and sliding trying to gain a foothold on the canyon wall, Jeff questioned how we were going to get the kayaks through this.  “A little at a time,” I told him a little unsure myself.  My rimrock trail ended at a cliff and I had to backtrack and try to find us a way down through the rocks.  It is a little difficult trying to climb down rocks with a drybag hanging off your shoulder and so I tried to drop my dry bag about ten feet below me where I thought it would plop and maybe skid a little before stopping.  Instead my bag began to tumble and gain speed as it did somersaults through the air several hundred feet down the canyon.  I was not impressed with myself at all at this point.  My bag was now in a brush pile somewhere a few hundred feet below and I may have just put several holes in my dry bag the way it was flying through the air and hitting the ground.  I was trying to keep up a good spirit as Jeff looked unimpressed with the adventure I had gotten him into.  With Jeff in mind, I only cussed and worried under my breath.

I made my way to the bottom of the canyon trying to spot my dry bag.  Eventually I found it right in the middle of a wide trail.  The trail was covered over with vegetation so that you could not see it from up above.  I was pleasantly surprised and happy that I had sent my dry bag flying down the side of the canyon now.  We once again had a trail.  I hollered at Jeff and he soon joined me.  We left the drybags there and walked back up the trail to bring the kayaks down.

Found the Trail

Found the Trail

 

The road we followed down to the old house was on the right of the house, the trail was on the far left of the house.  There was no worn path down the trail and it looked like it has seen little use in the recent past.  We started the kayaks down the trail feeling somewhat foolish for not finding it the first time, but glad we finally did.

The trail was pretty darn good for a half mile.  It then began to get narrower and overgrown and it began crossing back and forth over the creek a bunch.  The Nez Perce had obviously done some work to clear it in the past and I was glad of that otherwise it would have been nearly impassable.  The further we got the worse it became though and soon I was putting my head down and just pulling like a mule.  The last two tenths of a mile became really bad and we pulled our drybags off and took them with our paddles and other gear.  I had to take a stick and beat the brush down to get to Joseph Creek for the last little bit, but we finally made it.  We went back and pulled the kayaks through, lightened without our gear in them.  We were finally at Joseph Creek at five o’clock, it only took us 4 hours longer than I had planned.

Almost to Joseph Creek

Almost to Joseph Creek

 

We paddled three and a half miles that evening before we stopped to make camp.  The creek was running at 200 cfs and it was a rock dodging contest.  We were both tired and hungry by the time we made camp.  It continued to rain on and off like it had all day.  Jeff was in his sleeping bag and asleep before it was dark.  I had brought my latest issue of Northwest Flyfishing and read for a while.

I read a story about a guy first packing his 3 year old kid to the river and then later packing freshly butchered rabbits and other groceries with him to the river.  I thought to myself that this guy probably wouldn’t make it hiking out of Joseph Canyon, at least not with all of his luxury gear.  He must have been “hiking” some pretty easy ground to be packing that much stuff.  When I hike into Joseph Creek I think twice about carrying a second pair of socks, let alone all the other niceties.  I have seen what happens to all that extra stuff when people try to pack it in and more importantly out of the places I love in Eastern Oregon and I am not real thrilled at cleaning up their mess when they can’t make it out with it.  Jeff and I have found sleeping bags left at camp and thrown down the side of canyons along with shoes, beer, garbage, and the rest left behind.

The next morning the dreary weather continued.  I made a fire to try and dry out some of our clothes before we put them on for the day.  After getting almost everything packed, I put my hat on a large rock beside the fire.  My hat was still soaked in sweat and rain from the day before.  I was rotating it as Jeff and I enjoyed the scenery and birds singing despite the overcast sky.  Jeff pushed the last bits of half burned wood into the fire and stirred things up.  Soon after that he was pointing at my hat and yelling as it was going up in flames.  I threw it in the dirt and then dunked into the creek to try and salvage it.  Despite several burned holes and not much Velcro left on the back for adjustment, it still went on my head and provided some shade although it was a little spotty in the back with the new ventilation holes.

We began the rest of our journey down Joseph Creek.  It was continuous technical water at 200 cfs.  We were constantly dodging and weaving our kayaks through paths that were only as wide as our kayaks.  We stopped and scouted every blind corner as we went and there were several good sized drops where the creek hit bedrock, was channeled and turned its course.  They were not difficult at 200 cfs, but I think Joseph Creek would be highly difficult and dangerous at peak flows.  The trees and brush line the bank and lie low over the water.  We were constantly laying down against our kayaks to get under branches.  At higher flows you would probably be plowing right through them.

Kayaking Joseph Creek

Kayaking Joseph Creek

 

Despite the continuous nature of Joseph Creek there are sections that contain a lot of pools.  We came upon one of these sections of continuous pools and runs and decided if we were going to stop and fish, there was no better spot.  Jeff knocked them dead with an orange stimulator and prince nymph dropper.  Most of the fish were in the 6” range, but he landed one around 10” and hooked one a little bigger than that.

Joseph Creek Rainbow

Joseph Creek Rainbow

 

The sucker and squawfish spawning run that I had encountered the year before seemed to be over and we didn’t catch one sucker, squawfish, or smallmouth bass although the water was probably still a bit cold for smallmouth to be real active.  At the bottom of this series of pools was a good sized pond.  I watched a beaver swim across it before splashing his tail loudly.  I assumed we would find a log dam at the bottom of this but only found a rapid drop.  This beaver pond seemed to be a natural product of the canyon, but the beaver didn’t seem to mind that he hadn’t dammed the creek to make a home.

A unique natural pond on Joseph Creek

A unique natural pond on Joseph Creek

 

We stopped at many of the best looking meadows searching for signs of past human activity.  We finally found a big meadow when we were nearly to Cottonwood Creek.  The meadow had many artifacts including the remains of two old stoves surrounded by an old rock foundation for a home.  There was no wood from the house left, so it must have burned or have been salvaged at some point in the past.

The last several miles of Joseph Creek was bordered by a county road and the canyon became very wide compared to the nearly vertical canyon we had just came through.  When we arrived at the Grande Ronde it felt huge.  We had just spent two days constantly maneuvering through the smallest of pathways and the Grande Ronde seemed expansive in comparison.  We had about 4 miles of the Grande Ronde to float before getting to our takeout at Heller Bar.  There was a fun wave train near the bridge that crosses the Grande Ronde and a few fun, large waves that we sought out on the remaining corners of the river.  We quickly came to the even bigger Snake River and with it our take-out.

End of the journey at Heller Bar on the Snake River

End of the journey at Heller Bar on the Snake River

 

After this trip I personally will not try to float Joseph Creek below 200cfs.  For me, still a newcomer to inflatable kayaks, I will not try and float the Creek any higher than 400-500 cfs.  In years to come I will shoot for 400 cfs when the creek is on its final drop for the year which should put you floating between 300-400 cfs.  You can get a kayak down the East Fork of Tamarack Creek trail, but it isn’t easy and I wouldn’t recommend it.  If you want to float Joseph Creek the best way would be to call Ninebark Outfitters and see if you can put in on their ground.  It will make life much easier.  Joseph Creek is certainly not an easy float and I would not recommend it to anyone who feels lacking in their abilities to navigate in an extremely steep canyon a long ways from a public road.

More photos

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