White Salmon - 5 - Buck Creek to Columbia River (Lower Gorge)


White Salmon, Washington, US

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5 - Buck Creek to Columbia River (Lower Gorge)

Usual Difficulty II-III+(V) (for normal flows)
Length 5 Miles
Avg. Gradient 50 fpm

Steelhead Falls


Steelhead Falls
Photo of Susan Hollingsworth by Thomas O'Keefe taken 11/11/12

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
WHITE SALMON RIVER NEAR UNDERWOOD, WA
usgs-14123500 300 - 1000 cfs II-III+(V) 01h14m 1010 cfs (too high)


River Description

With a gradient comparable to sections upstream and a dramatic basalt canyon, paddlers wondered what whitewater treasures were buried beneath the waters held back by Condit Dam. With that in mind and recognizing the opportunity to restore this great river to free-flowing magnificence, American Whitewater formally requested a dam removal study in 1992 and was a party to the 1999 negotiated settlement to remove Condit Dam and drain Northwestern Reservoir (photo). This reservoir buried the river for a century blocking fish migration and innundating a whitewater run. The dam was breached in October 2011 (photo) and opened to paddlers in November 2012.

From the put-in at Northwestern Park near the Buck Creek confluence, the river flows through the historic reservoir descending into a basalt canyon. Vertical basalt walls rise on river right as you enter the Lower Gorge with a great series of class III rapids. Constructed fish habitat in the first mile, and naturally deposited wood throughout require that paddlers keep the alert level high for strainers.  The former Condit Dam site is easy to miss. Waterfalls cascade in over sheer basalt cliffs making this one of the most beautiful and dramactic sections along the entire river--a section that was hidden from view for over a century below the waters of Northwestern Reservoir. The dam was built in a bedrock notch with a nice pool downstream. It makes a great spot to stop and marvel at the scale of the restoration effort (historical photo prior to damphoto of dam, photo as it looks today).

The reach downstream of the dam has been paddled prior to removal of the dam.  In 1992 American Whitewater volunteers paddled for a study as part of relicensing with PacifiCorp and the National Park Service (study photo).  This relicensing process eventually resulted in the removal of the dam, and the recovery of significant salmon habitat.

First timers should attempt this run at lower flows (around 2 feet) and work their way up.  Summer groundwater flows tend to be steady and cold, making this another ideal run for the dry season in the Pacific Northwest.  It is highly recommended to get current information about wood hazards from local regulars.  Class IV skills are useful here, as mistake in class III could have significant consequences.  Rapids in the gorge sections are difficult to scout due to steep walls.

Leaving Northwestern Park the river is open with a series of class II and then III rapids, some of which are long.  As of 9/9/14 a riverwide log has lodged against a fish habitat construction within 1/2 mile of the launch.  Basalt cliffs rise along the right bank, showing bathtub rings from the former lake.  When the river begins to gorge up, the whitewater stays class III with occasional pools.  The dam site is at the second major constriction in the gorge, and is easy to miss.  It is 3.3 miles from here to the Columbia.  The gorge continues to deepen.

The first mile below the dam site is characterized by fun series of class III rapids with pools at lower flows. Proceed cautiously.  A mile or so into the main gorge watch for right bend leading into a stout class III+, and below that a hard bend to the left.  This rapid has some big holes at higher flows and can be somewhat sneaked on the left at most levels.  Setting safety below it to prevent swims through Steelhead is reasonable.  Looking downstream, the right bend leading into this rapid is in the distance (photo).

Stop on river left before the blind left bend, because just around it is Steelhead Falls which is significantly harder and more dangerous than the rest of this run.  There are several eddies along the left bank before the bend, but no pool.  There is one last eddy on the right at the outside of the bend, but from here one has no choice but to run the drop.

Steelhead Falls marks the entrance to the White Salmon Narrows (photo) and is a class IV/V rapid.  It is often portaged, and sometimes run, both on the left.  The river pours over a ledge creating a beefy hydraulic with a boil pushing to the right. At moderate flows (around 2') route options include a chute down the left side or a boof towards the center. In either case you want to be sure and avoid the hole. As flows increase the drop increases in power and intensity. Above 3 feet or so on the stick gauge the scout/portage option closes off, and the hole takes on serious proportions.

The portage is a wading scramble along the left cliff, holding on to a rope bolted to the cliff with one hand while floating your boat alongside with the other.  When you reach the point where you can see around the blind bend, there is a shelf you can pull your boat up on and finish the portage out of the water.  It's the kind of scout/portage that class V creek boaters do on creeks throughout the region, but it can present a challenge for class III paddlers.

There is a nice bedrock bench downstream of the Steelhead Falls on river left that provides a great platform to set safety and take photos. A swim at Steelhead Falls will likely result in getting recirculated in the hydraulic and sucked over to the right wall.  A good rope throw from the left shelf can reach a person here.  If you are get shoved deep enough by the hole to get out, you are headed for the Narrows and its wood hazards. 

Below Steelhead Falls the river flows through the narrowest part of the White Salmon Narrows (photo from very low water). In the past wood has collected here and this could be an issue in the future so be sure to get a recent report from locals, especially if there has been a major storm (photo).  Below Steelhead the current is fast and eddies are few down to a blind right bend.  Around the right bend the water slows and as of this update (9/9/14) there are several large logs there which are passable by boat.

About 1/2 mile below the Narrows you will reach the powerhouse (photo). There is more whitewater downstream, starting out as class II (photo) and finishing with a bang with a series of three long III-III+ drops. The last of these is great fun (photo). The river quickly goes flat and you can either hike up the fishermen's trail to Highway 141 (the last one before the bridge is easiest), or continue another 1/2 mile downstream to the Columbia.


StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2014-09-09 20:03:59

Editors


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-3.3Condit Dam SiteN/AAccess Photo
-2.7Steelhead FallsVPhoto
-2.0Condit PowerhouseN/APhoto
-1.3Final RapidIIIPhoto
0.0Fishermen's AccessTakeout

Rapid Descriptions

Condit Dam Site (Class N/A, Mile -3.3)

Condit Dam Site

Condit Dam Site
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe taken 11/11/12

Looking back upstream towards the site of the former Condit Dam.



Steelhead Falls (Class V, Mile -2.7)

Steelhead Falls

Steelhead Falls
Photo of Susan Hollingsworth by Thomas O'Keefe taken 11/11/12

Steelhead Falls marks the entrance to the White Salmon Narrows.



Condit Powerhouse (Class N/A, Mile -2.0)

Powerhouse

Powerhouse
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 07/30/06

The powerhouse that has since been shut down and no longer diverts flow from the river.



Final Rapid (Class III, Mile -1.3)

Final Rapid

Final Rapid
Photo of Megi Morishita by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 07/30/06

Final Rapid on the White Salmon is one of the best class III rapids on the whole river.



Fishermen's Access

This access comes at the end of the whitewater. You can hike up the trail here or paddle the flatwater down to the Columbia River and take-out at the confluence.




User Comments


2014-09-09 03:49:28 (52 days ago)
T4eresa (153294)
As of August 2014 the only riverwide wood on this section was a new piece in the class I-II section
immediately below Northwestern Park. The log jam below Steelhead has cleared, but could reform
after any high water. The wood in the narrows after the right bend below Steelhead is still
present, but can be avoided.

2012-11-28 12:07:14 (701 days ago)
Thomas O'KeefeDetails
From Todd Collins: WARNING, There is a river wide log jammed in the narrows, immediately below
Steelhead Falls. At todays level, about 3.75 ft, it is super hazardous. It's big and right at river
level. If you ran Steelhead without scouting, you would be in serious trouble. At the water level
we saw it, it was impassable. Just a few feet too far downstream to get past on land. While I would
not say that it is impossible to get a boat past the log, it would definitely put you and your gear
at risk to make the move. We had a very strong team of paddlers, and decided as a group that it was
too hazardous to get past. We ended up hiking out. We all felt that, in its current state, this log
makes the Lower Lower unrunnable. I'm not sure how a change in water levels will affect the
situtaion. I think we hit pretty much the perfect water level to make it as bad as possible. Higher
or lower water might actually be better. However, I wouldn't recommend being in there at higher
water right now. Missing the eddies above Steelhead would be very bad.

2012-11-18 08:42:10 (712 days ago)
Gardner (153659)
Please note there is potentially dangerous wood throughout this section. Wood conditions will
continue to evolve as the river keeps changing in response to the dam removal. As of November 18,
2012, there is a nearly river-wide log just upstream of the powerhouse. The log is in a relatively
straightforward section, but don't let it take you by surprise. It can be easily passed on the far
left or far right. It's position could very likely change after high flows.
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Documents

Associated Projects

  • Volcano Country (OR/WA)
    The rivers of Volcano Country within and surrounding the Gifford Pinchot National Forest represent some of the nation's most spectacular whitewater resources.
  • White Salmon Restoration (WA)
    American Whitewater has been engaged in a long-term effort to protect and restore one of the Pacific Northwest's most spectacular year-around whitewater rivers.