Back in the days before Instagram, Oregonkayaking.net was arguably the best internet kayaking content, and as an aspiring kayaker in Colorado, I spent countless evenings drooling over their trip reports, plotting an eventual move to the PNW. More than any others, their 2007 Salmon River Gorge trip report stands out in my mind, with an iconic shot of Frustration Falls that forever changed my perception of kayaking.
(The Website and Image that sealed my fate for paddling the Salmon River Gorge. The photo above is of Todd Anderson and Ryan Scott paddling Frustration Falls. This image was captured by Lana Young Photography)
“The Everest of Oregon Kayaking” is what they called it, and by that they meant the pinnacle of whitewater kayaking in the state. It’s remote, committing, and entirely focussed on steep, low-volume waterfalls, which at that time, was the cutting edge of whitewater kayaking.
But since then, the sport’s changed, and boats have changed, and runs like this are viewed differently now. With the right equipment, planning and mindset, it's more of a “plop and drop” type run to some, or a scenic novelty to others.
With a tight flow window, and difficult access, the Salmon River Gorge can easily become a “maybe next year” type of run, and stay that way for an entire decade. So when Anna Wagner suggested it earlier this year, I knew I was overdue.
(Looking up into the gorge on hike in.)
It had been exactly 10 years since my last trip down the Salmon Gorge, but this trip was different in a couple ways:
First off, Evan Smith and I had gotten a hold of a new packraft design with some intriguing similarities to the newest crop of whitewater kayaks. The Alpacka Valkyrie is described as “a kayaker’s packraft” and promises “modern creek boat styling and rocker” in a 13.5lb roll-up package. We had planned to hike in the entire 6.5 miles of the run, and were hoping that these boats could skew the suffering to reward ratio in our favor.
Secondly, Sam Swanson's college roommate (Sam Forsyth) was in town after summiting Mt. Hood the previous day, and was interested in tagging along with whatever adventures we had in mind. He’s an accomplished mountaineer with a cultivated appreciation for type-2 fun, but when it comes to whitewater, he described himself as a relative novice. After weighing the options, we figured that with some determination and creative portaging, he’d be ok joining us in a borrowed Alpacka Gnarwhal, a more traditional packraft, with a self-bailing floor and increased stability.
(Sam Forsyth hiking in his gear and packraft.)
(Anna Wagner "shouldering" her Pyranha Kayaks Scorch up the trail.)
So we all met at the Salmon River trailhead at 7am and began our hike up the gorge from the bottom. On the way up, it took some restraint to not gloat too much to Sam and Anna, who were carrying their 50+ lb 9’ boats while we skipped along with average “backpacking sized” packs. The packrafts probably saved us 30lbs of gear in total, but by the time we reached the top, we were all hot and tired.
The run begins with Split falls, which is a beautiful waterfall you just want to run over and over again. I definitely wanted another go at it after nailing the boof then tipping over in the pool and swimming.
(Niko's line on Split Falls. #Treat)
(Niko with a nice capsize in the pool. #treattoswim)
Lesson #1 of packrafting is to keep the tubes taught and the straps tight. On landing, the boat folded slightly and allowed my feet to slip forward and out of the thigh straps, rendering my roll attempts useless.
Evan Smith made it look much cleaner though and restored the pride of team packraft.
(Evan's line on Split Falls. #treatlaid)
The next drop involved a tight peel out of an eddy at the lip of a 10’ waterfall. Here, I was impressed with how easy it was to quickly turn and lift the bow of the Valkyrie in a single stroke. Surprise and delight was a theme that would continue for the rest of the day.
(More airtime in the Valkyrie.)
(Easier to boof than my creek boat? Possibly so...)
(Evan Smith's line on this drop. Big packraft guy now.)
As Evan and I gained confidence in the Valkyrie, Sam F found his comfort in the Gnarwhal as well. The Salmon river is mostly class 2 boulder gardens between waterfalls, and he kept up easily, portaged quickly, and styled a small waterfall midway through the run.
(Sam F. runs his waterfall blind.)
Vanishing gorge is the start of the crux of the run, and begins with a questionable 25’ waterfall we all portaged. A throw and go into a pool below leads to a deep water-boof that I wasn’t too confident about. The packraft’s lack of rigidity concerned me here and there were some powerful boils below to contend with. Evan gave it a whirl, and paddled out with ease.
(Evan Smith boofs over a consequential hole.)
This brought us to frustration falls - the main event of the Salmon River Gorge. It’s a three tiered layer-cake of basalt that drops into a narrow channel with a spout of water blocking the exit. The middle drop is the most consequential of the series, and given my lack of confidence in rolling the packraft, decided to run the first and portage the last two drops. In retrospect, they probably would have gone just fine, but the weight of these boats makes portaging an all-too-tempting option. Sam and Anna cleaned them all, reminding us that hard-shell kayaks are still the craft of choice for tall waterfalls.
(Anna Wagner runs the 1st drop on Frustration Falls as Sam Swanson watches and provides safety above drop 2.)
(Anna Wagner boofing the 2nd drop on Frustration Falls. PC: Evan Smith)
(Sam Contemplates before dropping the final part of Frustration. PC: Evan Smith)
(Anna Wagner descends the final sequence on Frustration Falls. PC: Evan Smith)
(Anna battles through the exit of Frustration. PC: Evan Smith)
Below Frustration, the Salmon river plummets off Final falls, which is the culmination of the run. Being 80+ feet tall with a ski jump flake at the top, it was completely out of the question for us and presented the choice to either jump into a pool of questionable depth, or rappel off a small tree near the lip. We all opted for the rappel, which ended up being the most nerve-racking part of the day as a bunch of kayakers tried to remember how to use ropes.
(10 years ago, I remember this tree being a spindly twig. Has it grown since then?)
(Anna double, then triple-checks her harness before dropping over the edge.)
Paddling out below Final Falls, the river eventually eases back to class 2 boogie, and the long shallow paddle out into the sunset gave us plenty of time to weigh the pros and cons of these new craft:
(Evan Smith in the pool below Final Falls.)
Takeaways from the day:
- The Valkyrie is a truly capable whitewater craft. It’s fast, stable and just as easy to boof as my hardshell kayak.
- Packraft outfitting could be improved. The thigh-straps are ok, but need to be tight to be effective. No hip pads make it hard to direct the boat with your body, so your arms do most of the work. The spray skirt can be frustrating (as I discovered at the lip of Frustration Falls) and is not that great at staying put. I’m looking forward to improvements here from IR as they develop a packraft specific spray skirt.
- Hiking with a packraft saves you 30+ lbs over a plastic boat, but it’s still heavy. This was ok for a day-run like this, but for longer trips with more gear, I would start looking at ways to shave ounces and pounds.
- Packrafts are better than hard-shells for low-volume rivers. They float higher in the water and smooth out the bumps over rocks. The Valkyrie was a pleasure for this day, and after subsequent trips down the Little White Salmon, it’s now my boat of choice when that river drops below 3’.
- Hardshell kayaks are still better for waterfalls and big water rivers. The squishy feeling of inflated rubber tubes does not inspire confidence in big chaotic rivers or on waterfalls you’d want to plug. These things could change of course.
- Packrafts make remote rivers accessible to non-expert paddlers. The self-bailing designs are intuitive to use and easy to pack/portage, opening the door to incredible river experiences for paddlers lacking a solid roll.
I’ve been singing praises of these boats for a while now, and this day reinforced my faith as a packraft evangelist. The designs have been steadily improving since Alpacka launched their first boat in 2000, and the Valkyrie seems to be the one that could finally tip the scale for adoption by the wider whitewater kayaking community. It’s relatively expensive ($2250 MSRP), and fits a niche of paddling needs, but for certain runs, it skews that suffering to fun ratio enough to be a worthy investment. For me, it has opened up the possibility for exploratory river adventures with my non-kayaking partner, and has added new excitement to runs that I might be reluctant to take a hardshell kayak down. It’s motivated me to start looking beyond the classic kayak multi days and I’m excited for some big adventures with it in the coming years. At the very least, I think this boat will make the Salmon River Gorge more than a once a decade run for me.
Do you like packrafting? Do you like access to paddling in cool places with others?
Join The American Packraft Association
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