North Fork of the Wenaha: Hiking Down Indian Tom Trail and out Elk Flats August 27-29, 2010

I have heard that the first step in overcoming an addiction is to admit that you have a problem.  So here it goes.  I am addicted to fly fishing.  In particular I am addicted to hiking into rivers where few other people go.  Although my addiction has an emphasis on fly fishing, I do not fly fish easily accessed places on a regular basis (steelhead fishing is the exception to the rule here).  For me, the place holds equal value to the quality of fishing.  Therefore, if the place is truly beautiful, I am usually OK with the fishing not being great.  But, typically when you get to where there are few humans, you usually find better fishing as well. 

The North Fork of the Wenaha has held a special allure for me.  I went into depth explaining this in an earlier post, so I wont go into all the detail here.  For many people the main Wenaha with its maintained trails is really getting out there into the Wilderness and its good enough for me most of the time.  But sometimes I feel the need to go where I am virtually guaranteed not to see another human being.  The North Fork of the Wenaha is such a place.

I hiked into it last year and found a canyon whose beauty for me has yet to be surpassed.  There is spring fed waterfall after waterfall.  There is about a 2 mile section of river that it is hard to go around the bend without seeing some sort of water coming off the basalt cliffs.  For me it was paradise.

Waterfall on the North Fork of the Wenaha

I sometimes will search for studies online that talk about my favorite rivers or fish.  In one of these searches I read a paper on the North Fork of the Wenaha that said there was an impassable set of falls on the Wenaha  and that bull trout above the falls looked visibly different than bull trout below the falls.  This set of falls had been in the back of my mind for the last year.

I finally decided that I wanted to see the falls and then hike down the North Fork to the confluence of the North and South Forks.  I tried in vane to find the study that had mentioned the falls.  I was hoping to get a location of the falls so I would know how far upstream I would have to hike from where the unmaintained Indian Tom trail came down to the river.  The only thing I could remember was that the study had mentioned them being above Deep Saddle Creek.

I was able to finish up work early on Friday and got a ride to Indian trailhead.  After being dropped off I made my way down the ridge to the North Fork of the Wenaha.  It was late afternoon by the time I reached the bottom.  I was hoping to be able to hike upstream that afternoon and evening, find the falls and then maybe even make it downstream a little ways toward the Forks.  I left my pack at the bottom of the old trail, put on waders and headed upstream.  On a side note, I have had people often ask me whether it is necessary or worth it to pack waders into the Wenaha.  That all depends on how cold of water you can handle wet wading in.  The North Fork was running a cool 45 degrees that afternoon.  The weekend before the water temperature at the forks never got above 47 degrees in the North Fork or the South Fork.  So if wading in 40 degree water doesn’t bother you, don’t pack waders.  But the extra clothes you have to carry will probably make up the difference of not carrying waders.

The North Fork here is a very small stream.  Just upstream from where Indian Tom Trail meets the North Fork is Deep Saddle Creek which contributes about a third of the flow down to that point.  So hiking upstream you are quickly hiking an ever smaller creek.  This weekend was more of a hiking and exploring trip.  I did take my fly rod but I did not even fish on Friday.  As I was walking upstream there was a big bull trout sitting right next to the bank.  We saw each other about the same time and he went hydroplaning across the creek and hid under a log.  There was a fairly deep spot beneath the log and it looked like there were two bulls under it.  I got out my video camera, set it to underwater mode, and stuck it under the log.  After 30 seconds or so of video I pulled it out and watched the video.  To my surprise there was only one bull trout in the video.  I thought I must have not started the camera back far enough, because it looked like there were two bulls down there, although I could not see well.  I turned the camera on again and started the camera recording further back along the log to be sure I captured both of the bull trout.  Again I pulled it out and reviewed the video and again there was only one bull trout in there.  Wow, I said to myself.  That is one big bull.

A ways upstream of Deep Saddle Creek I found what looked like a pretty good passage barrier, though it did not look like falls.  I would have described it more as a log dam than falls.  There were two large bull trout in the pool below and I got some more great underwater video footage of the bulls.    Looking at the log dam I did not think that the bulls could get over it though.  I continued on my way upstream unsure if the log dam was what was being described as the falls in the study.  I hiked upstream until I only had enough time before dark to get back down to where I had left my pack.  I had made it about a mile and half upstream before needing to turn around.

I saw no Chinook, spawning redds, or big migratory bulls above the log dam, which makes me think that this does pose a barrier for fish passage.  When I got to the log dam on my way back downstream I stopped to spot the big bulls that I had seen earlier.  As I was standing there watching, one of them made an attempt at jumping the log dam.  The fish did not make it though.  There is one log and several branches sticking up over the log dam that makes it virtually impassable, even if they could jump high enough to get over the logs making the dam.  I tried pulling the obstructions free, but they were buried deep in the gravel.  I think it will take an abnormally high run off to clear that log dam or the logs will eventually rot away.

At the bottom of Indian Tom trail I found two good sized ponderosa pines that were about the right distance apart for my Hennesy Hammock Tent.  I tried to string them up, but the trees were too big.  I decided to try and tie the two nylon straps together so I could get around one of the big trees and I then tied the other end of my hammock to the roots of an old tree that had blown over.  The roots were now about five feet in the air on one side.  I thought my hammock looked fairly flat if not a little higher on the side my head would be, but thought it would suffice for the night.  I was wrong.  I woke every hour or two either because one side of me was cold or I was in a ball at the bottom of the hammock.  The weather forecast for the weekend had called for lows in the 30’s and 40’s in the mountains and it was in the mid 40’s when I crawled into my hammock that night.  When the sun came up, it got a bit warmer and I slept in a bit when I could finally stay warm.  Even getting up at eight, the air temperature was still only in the mid 40’s.

I was heading down the North Fork by nine with my pack on my back wading the river.  This is the part I wasn’t sure about.  I was not sure if hiking down the river bed, with a full pack was going to work very well.  For the most part it worked fine.  I really didn’t feel it too much, although my progress was much slower than I had anticipated.  The first half of the day, I couldn’t resist taking lots of pictures and video of the many waterfalls.  The canyon proved to be exceedingly beautiful once again.

By mid day I didn’t think I had made it half way, so I tried to pick up the pace.  I had only stopped and fished a few spots.  If I stopped it was mainly to take pictures or video.  When I first started, I tried to keep track of the number of Chinook and redds I saw, but I gave up keeping track after 15 or so redds.  The Chinook use the North Fork quite heavily for spawning.  I came across two more larger log dams on the North Fork that I could not see a good path over or under for fish.  But there were big migratory bulls and Chinook above both of these, so they must be able to find a way through.

About two and a half miles upstream from the forks I saw 7 mountain goats on a ridge over looking the river.  I videoed these as well, but they didn’t appear as much more than white specks in the video.  A mile or so upstream from the forks I ran across a bear with a cub crossing the river.  The cub must have been from this year as his head was all that was visible above the water in the deepest part.

I reached one of the campsites at the forks around six.  Most days on the Wenaha I will wade about 3 miles in a day and hike anywhere from 6-9 miles.  Wading those 6 or so miles with a pack on really wore me out.  I had twisted my ankle a little bit the weekend before and my ankles were really feeling it after sliding around on slick rocks for 6 miles.  To say the least, my feet were glad to see the forks.

The plan had been for Jeff to hike down Saturday and meet me at the campsite.  After a 30 minute rest, I began walking up the trail to see if he was close.  I barely got out of camp when I saw his big black lab come bounding down the trail.

The next morning the air was cool.  I looked at my thermometer and it was a cold 36 degrees at eight in the morning.  Jeff and I enjoyed a casual morning at camp with an extra pot of coffee and a fire to warm up the morning.  We fished leisurely downstream that day, not wanting to go too far since we would be hiking the five miles out as well.  As we were walking down the trail beside the river a good sized black bear stood up and watched us for a minute before her and her cub went running off through the trees.

When I got home from this trip Jason Shappart, who studied bull trout on the Wenaha for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, was kind enough to send me a copy of a late 50’s paper that has a map showing the falls about two and half miles upstream from where I turned around.  This would put the falls about 4 miles upstream from the bottom of the Indian Tom Trail.  It also says that the falls are about twenty feet tall.  I will have to plan another trip to try and find the falls.  The next time I will have a better idea of how far I need to go though.  The North Fork has provided many adventures for me, many of them did not go as planned.  It looks like it will provide at least one more for me in the future.

Trip Notes:

Indian Tom Trail

-Length: about 2.6 miles

-maximum elevation 5,820 ft

-minimum elevation 3,540 ft

-elevation change 2,280 ft

Bottom of Indian Tom Trail to Wenaha Forks

-Length: about 6 miles

-maximum elevation 3,540 ft

-minimum elevation 2,800 ft

-elevation change 740 ft

Elk Flats trail

-Length: 5 miles

-maximum elevation 4,970 ft

-minimum elevation 2,800 ft

-elevation change 2,170 ft

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