NF Clackamas River
3.75 above reservoir to North Fork Reservoir
Length: 3.75 miles
The North Fork of the Clackamas is one of those "love it or hate it" runs. Nearly continuous rapids in the harder sections, loads of places to pin, and the constant threat of wood, make the NF a potential nightmare for some boaters. However, I'm one of the boaters who thinks all of that just adds to the fun. Throw in a 20-ft. waterfall and a take-out 35 minutes from Portland and it means the NF Clackamas is one of my favorite runs.
One of the nice things about the NF Clack is that is gets progressively harder as boaters work their way down the river giving everyone a chance to get warmed up. The river is tiny throughout the run but most of the major rapids have a couple options. The first significant drop is an obvious horizon line on a sharp left turn. There is a second more difficult ledge just downstream so be sure to scout carefully. This rapid will give you a general idea of what to expect throughout the day. If you don't like this drop, seriously consider hiking out as it only gets harder downstream.
After about a mile and a half be on the lookout for a gradual easing of the gradient after a sharp left turn. After this short break the river starts to enter some shallow bedrock slides on a gradual left bend. These slides end in a 10' waterfall which is shortly followed by a 45ft. unrunnable waterfall. Look for a faint trail on the left before the slides to portage both watfalls or scout the first.Take out on the left above the flagging and look for a faint trail that leads up and downstream. If you miss the trail and find yourself scouting a clean 10-ft. waterfall you have a couple options. Either run the waterfall and hike up the left bank from the pool below and then down a steep gully below the 45' watefall or work your way back upstream to find the trail.
The portage trail takes you high above the river before heading back down and downstream. The best way back down to the river is down a steep trail about 25 yards downstream of a steep creek coming in on the right side of the river. This puts you directly above a sweet 20-ft. waterfall. Needless to say, this section needs to be scouted carefully or go with someone who knows the river the first time.
The 20' waterfall, Stairway to Heaven, is one of my all time favorites. It is a wild ride through a big hole at the bottom but I haven't seen any mishaps yet. It is fairly easy to put-in at the base of the waterfall to set safety or to portage.
Below this waterfall is where the real action begins. The rapids get steeper and trashier than the upper section. Very tight lines between boulders, logs and bushes make for some interesting boating. Most of the rapids are cleaner than they look but that's not saying too much. Just after you think you've had enough, keep your eyes peeled for a dangerous ledge drop. This is Storm Drain and is almost impossible to recognize your first time down the river. There are a couple small eddies above it which can be difficult to catch at almost all water levels. Do your best to scout this one as it pushes into an undercut on the left, drops onto a shallow shelf on the right and has a very powerful hole in the middle. Oh, and it can often have wood at the bottom. I ran it once without scouting and surfaced with a log across my cockpit that I couldn't see until I was committed to the drop. I was lucky I didn't get pounded in the hole. If you catch one of the small eddies on the left it is very easily scouted and/or portaged on that side but there is a good last chance eddy on the right as well.
Below Storm Drain is Double Blind Date, an exciting rapid where the river drops through some funky hydraulics and exits through a narrow slot and then careens over a steep, trashy boulder jumble. Anywhere but middle on the boulder jumble seems to be o.k.
Don't start celebrating quite yet as most of the logs on the run are from here to the end. The rapids, however, ease considerably until they end completely as you abruptly enter the reservoir after a sharp left turn. If you made it to the reservoir with all your gear intact consider it a good day.
Basically the whole run is chock full of hazards. Although the rapids, with the exception of the 20-ft. waterfall, don't quite make it up to Class 5, bring your A-game. There are tons of opportunities to lose gear and cause bodily damage. At high flows things get very interesting and the difficulty increases dramatically. Watch out for each other. There is a decent trail on river right from Storm Drain to the reservoir.
How to get there
Take-out (GPS: 45o13.994'N, -122o15.198'W)
Take Hwy. 224 east out of Estacada for 6 miles. There is a parking area on the left before you cross the NF Clackamas. It is about at MP 30.
Put-in (GPS: 45o13.475'N, -122o13.230'W)
From the take-out, continue east on Hwy. 224 another mile to Forest Road 4610 (across the highway from the entrance to Promontory Park. Follow 4610 3 miles to an old road on the left. Hike down this road about 3/4 of a mile to the river.
Clackamas River gauge should probably be at least 2000cfs unless it has been raining really hard. The NF Clack will come up very quickly but also drop pretty quickly. The best way to really judge the flow is to hike up the trail from the take-out on river-right and look at the small rapid before the creek hits the reservoir. You want the rocks in this rapid to just barely be covered or somewhat exposed. You can also look at the small rapid immediately at the put-in. If it is scrapy but boatable you are probably at the minimum. If there are waves or small holes then you are at a fairly healthy flow. Best to do this one at low water first if you aren't completely comfortable.
Check out Jason's description of this run.