Packrafting Joseph Creek . . . Almost: March 2012

Part One:  Scouting the trailhead

Since my first float trip down Joseph Creek last year, I have looked forward to doing a second trip.  The first trip was in inflatable kayaks at 200 cfs.  It was a fun and challenging trip, but I wouldn’t want to float it lower than that and the access point we used was not the most convenient.  Since purchasing two NRS packrafts last fall, I have only taken them on one test trip on a short float down the Wenaha.  The packrafts held up OK and I thought a really good test for it would be Joseph Creek.  The water is continuous and challenging with a few rapids approaching class IV and what better place to hike in a small inflatable boat than a 2,500 foot deep canyon.

I wanted someone to go with me and I thought my chances of convincing Jeff would be best if I could get an inflatable kayak down ahead of time for him and then I would take a packraft for myself later.  Joseph Creek had its first spike on the charts in mid March and my wife, kids, and I headed out on a Sunday scouting trip to see if the road to the Warm Springs Trail was good.  I loaded up five packs figuring that Lottie, our 3 boys, and I could pack almost everything down so that if flows cooperated Jeff and I would have everything staged for a float out the following weekend.  I kept the kids packs super light for the hike down and they would only have water to pack on the hike out.

The day did not go according to plan and we weren’t to the trailhead until early afternoon.  If I went down with the kids I wanted plenty of time so they wouldn’t have to be pushed on the hike out.  I have taken them on lots of hikes building them up to steep ridges that gain close to 2,500 feet in a mile or two.  When we began a few years ago it was a real challenge for them, but now I often wish they would slow down a little.  I knew they would have no problem hiking into and out of Joseph Canyon.

The first good news was that the road to the trailhead was passable by car.  When we arrived I still wasn’t sure if we were going to make the hike down or not and I thought we should walk down the trail a little ways and have a look first.  There is a wire gate at the trailhead and Mason tried to open it in a very odd fashion.  I wasn’t looking until I heard him give a yell out.  Apparently he stood in the fence line with his face behind the piece of wood that was wired to the post.  Normally a person pushes on the piece of wood with one hand to put slack in the wire loop that is holding the gate closed.  Then you can take your free hand and lift the wire loop off the piece of wood and let the gate down.  Mason however grabbed the wire loop with both hands and began jerking it up over the piece of wood until the gate was free and smacked him in the face.

I did not notice what he was doing until he yelled and blood began pouring from his nose.  After he calmed down I had to deduce what happened from the clues he gave me.  We then took a moment to demonstrate the right way to open a wire gate so it doesn’t smack you in the face.  Of course an adult would not be hit in the face.  At my height, if I had opened the gate the same way I would probably be wounded severely as well, but the injury would have been inflicted on a different body part.

Mason at the top of the Warm Springs Trail

Now with a late start and Mason already bleeding badly at the gate, I did not feel it was the right time to take the boys on their first hike all the way into Joseph Creek.  I thought we should simply walk down the trail a little way and have a look around.  I forgot the camera after Mason’s bloody encounter with the gate and frankly missed out on taking some really good pictures.  We hiked a good two thirds of the distance into Joseph Creek anyway and other than a bit of mud, the trail wasn’t too bad.

We made our way back up the trail and I pointed out the wild onions that like to grow all over in the rocky soil.  After everyone gave them a taste test the boys decided they should pick a couple to take home.

Back at the car we all got in, everyone except Mason that is.  He stood beside the car waiting for his brothers to get in with his hand on the car body between the two doors.  Lottie got in and swung her door shut.  Mason then hollered out “OOOOWWWWWW!”  and gave his mother a disgusted look.  Lottie looked surprised and then asked, “What?  Is your hand in the door?”  Mason replied by saying  “YEEESSSSSS!”  Poor Mason.  He was getting beat up right and left.  At least he didn’t do somersaults down the hillside in the rocks.  After the throbbing in his hand subsided he was able to laugh about the beating he had taken that day.

Part Two: Staging for the float

After we got home I continued to watch the flows.  Jeff and I were both a little concerned and we decided we would choose 600 cfs as a maximum flow with no significant rain forecasted while we were supposed to be on the water.  During the intervening week it rained hard several days in a row and a lot of new white stuff was appearing in the mountains.  Then three days before our possible float the satellite that relays flow data for most Eastern Oregon rivers went out.  Normally this would not be a big deal, but Joseph Creek is remote, hard to get to, hard to get out of if something went wrong, challenging to float, and I didn’t want to kill my friend off if the flows had spiked up to 2,000 cfs and I convinced him to go with me even if we didn’t know the flow.

Jeff and I’s tentative float was for Saturday and Sunday.  The website with streamflow data said the satellite might be up by 10 am Friday morning.  The plan was for me to hike in gear Friday if the flows looked good and Jeff and I would hike in Saturday and float out by the end of the day Sunday.  Friday morning at 10 I still had no streamflow data but decided to hike an inflatable kayak in anyway.  I was worried that new snow on the road might not allow my car to get through so I decided to take my pickup.

There was 4”-6” of new snow and I was glad that I had my pickup and four wheel drive.  My car may have not made it to the trailhead.  I was feeling unsure about our trip but decided to start hiking down with the inflatable kayak and gear.  The snow disappeared after losing some elevation and soon the snow turned to a light drizzle and then to a beautiful sunny day.  I was now glad I did not turn around at the top.

Inflatable kayak on Paragon Pack at Warm Springs Trail

Inflatable kayak on Paragon Pack at Warm Springs Trail

Scanning the canyon I saw a black spot that appeared to dark to be a rock or a tree stump.  I squinted my eyes and waited for the black spot to move.  It didn’t so I kept on walking, keeping my eye on the black spot waiting for the spot to reveal itself as the first spring bear in the bottom of the canyon.  After making my way down the canyon some distance the spot became slightly elongated and I knew it was a black bear for sure.  I began to curse myself as I had brought a telephoto lens with me but left it in the pickup telling myself it was too early for any bears to be out and it would simply be unnecessary weight.  Making my way down the ridge I had to make a decision: go down the right finger towards the bear, a path I had not taken which kind of looked like it ended at a cliff or take the finger of the ridge that led to the left where I knew I could get down and stash my kayak for the float out the next day.  I chose the sure path to the left thinking that I would swing back by the bear on my hike out and see if there was a  hikeable path and hopefully get close enough for my wide angle lens to get a recognizable picture of the bear.

Taking the path to the left meant I lost sight of the bear pretty quickly but my last sight of him had him heading down the creek towards me so I was pretty confident I was going to get a closer shot.  I found a nice nook on a small rock bluff just above the creek that felt like a safe distance off the creek from any hungry spring bears willing to taste test anything including an inflatable kayak.  It was also a long ways from the trail and no reasonable person would have any reason to hike there.  Feeling my gear was safe for the night I headed upstream to find my bear.

As I was walking up the canyon I was also scouting the creek trying to decide if the flows were OK for Jeff and I to safely float.  I was feeling pretty comfortable with what the creek looked like although I was up the canyon wall a little ways which made it look smaller than it really was.  About a quarter mile upstream of where I left the kayak a helicopter appeared out of the blue and buzzed the canyon.  There goes my chance of getting a picture of my bear I thought.  I had never seen any helicopters buzzing the canyon before so it seemed a little odd on top of it being annoying.  My bear was gone.  I walked straight across from where I had spotted him before but I am sure the helicopter made him run for cover.

Molly at Joseph Canyon overlook on Warm Springs Trail

Molly at Joseph Canyon overlook on Warm Springs Trail

I got home fairly late but there was a small blurp of data on the streamflow chart showing Joseph Creek to be flowing a little above 700 cfs.  The blurp was so small I couldn’t tell if the creek was going up or down, but it hadn’t rained hard for almost a day and the weather forecast looked especially good for the weekend.  I called Jeff and we decided floating Joseph Creek was a go.

Part Three: Floating Joseph Creek to the takeout . . . almost

Saturday was filled with many delays and