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Kayaking Waterfalls: No Way Out But Down

OPB | March 19, 2014 2 p.m. | Updated: May 29, 2014 5:04 p.m.

Producer - Ed Jahn
Editor/Videographer - Michael Bendixen
Videographer - Todd Sonflieth
Post Audio Engineering - Steven Vaughn Kray
Rigger - Sean O’Connor
Porter - Leif Erik Smith
Additional Video - Sean O’Connor, Ryan Scott, Keel Brightman, Matt King, Willie Illingworth
Pilot - Ned McCall
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Kayakers call it the SRG — the Salmon River Gorge. A place that roars with the thunder of nearly a dozen waterfalls. A place so steep, treacherous and inaccessible that no trails lead there.

The only way in is by boat. And the only way out is down.

Boating the two miles of the Salmon River Gorge takes courage. To make it through the heart of the canyon requires the skill to navigate a series of 10-foot to 80-foot waterfalls in a kayak.

The Shangri-La of Oregon Kayaking

What kind of person would boat down a river so dangerous that it was considered un-runnable as recently as the 1990s? Luke Spencer, for one. He says the excitement and beauty of the place combine to make it, as he puts it, “the Shangri-La of Oregon kayaking.” “When I got into it I’m like, ‘Sweet, I’m kayaking, it’s thrill seeking’ … but there’s so much more to it than that.”

None

The world inside the Salmon River Gorge is not unlike that of the Columbia River Gorge. Water pours in from every direction and moss dangles from basalt protrusions hundreds of feet above the river. It’s a photographers’ delight. But seeing it requires kayaking, and kayaking the Salmon River Gorge is a class V-VI adventure with life-and-death consequences. That no one has died here speaks only to the fact that the run remains something of a secret among expert boaters. While not the first to run the Salmon River Gorge, the regulars — people like Luke Spencer, Ryan Scott, Keel Brightman — each spend upwards of 200 days a year running some of the toughest whitewater in the Northwest. And, like surfers, they keep the keys to this kingdom close at hand. The faint, unmarked game trail used to access the river remains a well-guarded secret.

Kayakers carry their boats for miles to reach the goat path that will take them to an access point upriver of the Salmon River Gorge.

Kayakers carry their boats for miles to reach the goat path that will take them to an access point upriver of the Salmon River Gorge.

Ed Jahn

Since the run was first pioneered in the early 2000s, Spencer says probably no more than a few hundred kayakers have successfully run the mile-long gorge and its more than half-dozen waterfalls ranging from 10 feet to 80 feet high. But as thrilling as the adventure may be, the 35-year-old Spencer says the experience is as much about being in a place as seeking a thrill. “The inaccessibility of the canyon itself — part of its beauty is that people can’t get in there … unless you’re a kayaker, you will never see the innards of that canyon.”

So Close and Yet So Far
Locations of key points within the Salmon River Gorge.

Locations of key points within the Salmon River Gorge.

Jason Bernert

The Salmon River Gorge is only an hour from Portland and its existence is by no means a secret. Hikers, though, can only get so close. The popular Salmon River Trail closely follows the river through the Salmon-Huckleberry wilderness for miles before it ascends steeply, veering away from the water and up into the dense cover of forest. From the trail, the part of the gorge that contains the densest cluster of waterfalls looks to be little more than a dark, distant crease framed by basalt cliffs plunging into blackness. To break away from the trail to get a closer look requires goatlike footwork across unconsolidated rock and loose moss that gets progressively steeper, and progressively more treacherous, until there is no going further. Obstructed views of two of the falls can be seen from one difficult to reach off-trail meander, but the meager and uninspiring vantage is not worth the effort.

As close as most hikers can get to the Salmon River Gorge.

As close as most hikers can get to the Salmon River Gorge.

Ed Jahn

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Major Support Provided By:

  • Dorothy D. Gage and Dan Stanton

Additional Support Provided By:

  • Kay Kitagawa and Andy Johnson-Laird
  • Christine and David Vernier
  • Coit Family Foundation
  • Greenfield/Hartline Habitat Conservation Fund of the Nature Conservancy
  • Lois E. Jones
  • Bonnie and Peter Reagan