The following is a (rare) trip report by Ken Giles. Thanks very much for your beta, Ken!
JOSEPH CREEK, OREGON : From headwaters to its confluence with Grande Ronde River
LENGTH: 48 miles, (3 days / 2 nights)
RECOMMENDED BOAT TYPE: Kayaks and IK’s. Not suitable for rafts or even small catarafts.
DIFFICULTY OF RAPIDS: Continuous Class II increasing steadily to continuous Class III; several short Class III+ or Class IV- drops easily portaged.
HAZARDS: This run is not for novices; it contains many tree blockages, debris piles and sweepers, often located on blind tight turns in fast-moving Class III water. We portaged a number of river-wide tree jams and took sneak routes around and under at least a dozen other blockages that we would have had to portage if we were in IK’s. The waters are frigid on the upper section of the river. Much of the river’s banks are lined with brush or small trees whose low branches hang out over the water, at about the height of a kayaker’s head, often interfering with maneuvering and making it difficult to eddy out. Springtime high water undermines some of these small trees which then collapse across the stream and block it. The river frequently divides into channels around small trees growing in the streambed, splitting the river into shallow channels with one or both channels clogged with debris. At the beginning of the run, Joseph Creek is only about 10-15 feet wide and 12" deep (using my paddle blade as a measuring stick). It gradually grows in size from the half dozen small side streams coming in so that it is about 20-30 feet wide and about 24" deep at it’s confluence with the Grande Ronde. (See comments below for estimated depths at higher and lower flows.) The hydraulics don’t have enough punch to knock over an experienced kayaker; however, the river is so shallow that you are constantly bouncing off the bottom and it would be easy to get banged up doing a roll in the shallow water if an unexpected boulder caused an upset.
TRIP DATE: Put-in was April 26, 2008 at 400 cfs, take-out was April 28, 2008 at 500 cfs.
AUTHOR: Ken Giles
SEASON: Joseph Creek is only boatable during a brief two- to three-week window in April or May immediately after the snowpack in the surrounding Joseph Creek drainage melts. The river drainage covers a relatively small area and lies at a modest elevation of around 4,500 feet or less, so the snowmelt occurs sooner than most people think and does not last very long. It is difficult to plan a trip because the season is so unpredictable. Historical hydrographs dating back to 2004 are available on the Washington State Dept. of Ecology website.
GRADIENT: 50 feet per mile. The current is fast and continuous, there are no pools nor eddies nor flat sections, nor are there any drops that produce fun rapids. The river speed is astounding; we boated the 48 miles of river in a little over 11 hours including portages and scouts, averaging about 3 mph on day 1, increasing to 3.7 mph on day 2, and increasing again to 5.2 mph on day 3.
CHARACTER: This is a rarely boated river, located in a very remote and isolated deep canyon--forested at the put-in, changing to semi-arid high-desert at the take-out. The attraction is its remoteness, not its whitewater. If you are interested in running whitewater, there are many better and logistically easier rivers than this one.
LAUNCH ACCESS: There is no public access point at the put-in. Nearly all the property on both sides of
CAMPING ACCESS: Although Joseph Creek is a designated “Wild and ScenicRiver”, nearly all of the land in the bottom of Joseph Canyon is privately owned by ranchers who have run cattle and maintained a handful of cabins along the river for generations since it was homesteaded in the early 1900’s. The Wallowa Whitman National Forest map suggests that only about 12-15 miles of the river bank is in BLM or US Forest Service ownership, and these miles are spread out in bits and pieces and difficult to identify as you paddle past. From the point of view of the landowners, Joseph Creek may not meet the legal requirements of a navigable river, in which case the public would not have an inherent right to kayak though the privately owned sections to get to the publicly owned sections. The ranchers are well aware of boat traffic down at the bottom of the remote canyon--we passed two horseback riders and an ATV carrying two people along the section of river accessible by way of the Paradise pack trail, and Dub Darneille knew within a few days that two kayakers had hiked in down the Paradise pack trail the prior weekend and boated the lower half of the river. The point is that boaters should exercise discretion and attempt to camp on public land if they can figure out where it is, and when they encounter a local, to be polite and recognize they are treading on thin ice because they are most likely trespassing on someone’s land.
TAKE OUT ACCESS: The take-out we used is a public park on river left on the Grande Ronde River about 2 miles downstream from the confluence with Joseph Creek and a mile or two from the confluence with the Snake River. Our shuttle service says this parking area is safe and they use it routinely for their summer shuttles for boaters doing the lower section of the Grande Ronde River. Note that you need to buy a state of Washington parking pass to park in any of these areas. We passed another public parking area on Joseph Creek about a mile or so upstream from the confluence, which would shorten the trip by a few miles if you took out there, however it may not be as safe to leave your car there overnight.
SHUTTLE: Boggan’s Oasis did our shuttle, located where Oregon Highway 3 crosses the Grande Ronde River about an hours drive north of Enterprise. The owners/managers are Bill and Farrel Vail, contact them by phone at 509-256-3372 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The have done shuttles on the Grande Ronde River for years, but had never done a shuttle on Joseph Creek until us, which gives an indication of how rarely Joseph Creek is boated. We paid $160 for the shuttle and felt it was well worth it. Our shuttle driver was Dell, about 70+ years old, whose grandparents homesteaded in the Paradise area; his father made a living trapping and so did Dell up until WWII. Dell knew the history of every homestead and kept us entertained with stories during the 1-hour drive in. Note that the shorter Elk Creek road in was blocked by snow about 2 miles from its turn off of Highway 3, so we had to drive to Enterprise and then take the longer way in by way of Crow Creek Road.
NO PACK TRAIL: The map shows a pack trail starting at the locked gate and winding its way down the canyon and crisscrossing the river frequently using low water fords. At the trip beginning we did see a trail along the river down as far as Swamp Creek, but I don’t think there is no way for the public to access the trail because of the locked gate at the end of the road. We did see an ATV trail crisscrossing the river in the Rush Creek area (private property), apparently heavily used in the summer at low water and accessed by dropping down off the rim from above. I asked the forest service about the trail and was told that much of the trail has disappeared over the years, it has not been used or maintained and public access is difficult...the only access is from on top from the Chico trailhead. After we passed by Tamarack Creek, the canyon walls closed in and there was no evidence anywhere of a way to walk down the canyon, unless you walk down the middle of the stream bed at low water. So if you get in trouble below Tamarack Creek, the only way out is to climb the canyon walls 2,000 to 3,000 feet to the top.
Mile 0 Put-in on shoulder of road next to creek on publicly owned stretch of land, after talking to local landowner. The next 5 miles are meandering shallow stream among the willows in privately owned ranchland. Within a mile of the put in, we encountered a log blocking the river which we could pass under at one end. This was followed by numerous partial blockages including a small beaver dam which we passed over. No whitewater in this section, fairly slow speed. Boring.
Mile 4.8 Pass under bridge to NineBark Outfitters, ranch buildings on both sides, we are now downstream of the locked gate. Private property on both sides of river for the next ¾ mile according the USFS map, then public land almost to Swamp Creek. In this next section of the river we had to portage around one log that blocked the river and snuck around 2-3 partial debris blockages. Shallow, hit lots of rocks, average depth about 12", river is about 10-15 feet wide. Water is frigid. Beautiful stands of tall ponderosa pines on grassy benches along the river that would make wonderful lunch or camp spots. Very scenic, class II water, pleasant boating in the forest.
Mile 10.0 Swamp Creek on left. Private property on both sides of river, NineBark Outfitters cabin on left, abandoned barn on right, intermittent private and public lands next 3-4 miles according to USFS map. Swamp Creek adds enough water that the river is a few inches deeper and moves a bit faster. Continue to encounter partial blockages from debris and wood. Narrow winding river canyon with poor down steam visibility in many places from overhanging branches. Saw two groups of mountain sheep, bald eagles, hawks, ducks and deer. From memory (not on my notes) I think there is a log across the river about 5 miles below Swamp Creek that we were able to pass under. About 6 portages to get to this point if we were in IK’s, only one if in kayaks. Overall very scenic, class II water, easy boating other than dealing with the debris and wood.
Mile 15.5 Abandoned and collapsed building on right with shiny metal roof visible through the brush, old farm implements (rake, plow, wagon bed) on river left, not clear from USFS map whether public or private property, assume private. 5 hours on the river (excluding lunch stop) from put-in to get to this point, average speed 3.1 mph despite portage and very slow water at beginning. Canyon has opened up a bit, no more tall ponderosa pines, becoming more arid and open as we drop in elevation, nice flat grassy benches along river in many places. From this point downstream to Rush Creek, we encountered 3-4 log jams, portaged one and should have portaged another that involved somewhat tricky move. At about mile 16-17, we encountered a sharp drop where river turns 90 degrees and crashes into the wall on river right in a tight turn….the first true rapid we encountered on the river. Stopped to scout and decided to just drag boats around instead of spending time to climb the steep bank and do a proper scout--could have run it in hindsight after seeing that the downstream runout was clear of debris. Also in this section, or perhaps in the section below (my notes are not clear), we encountered two more short drops, one where river crashes down into large boulder(s) on river left forming a boulder sieve, another with logs and large boulders clogging up the river. We found sneak routes around both, did not scout. From this point all the way to the take-out, have to fight overhanging branches and poor downstream visibility on tight turns with debris and brush. Class II whitewater overall, other than the specific drops mentioned, not difficult from a whitewater perspective.
Mile 16.6 Old camp trailer visible on right bank. Just downstream on river left, a trail winds down from the rim 2,500 feet above and joins the well used ATV trail which runs downstream all the way to Rush Creek. (Wonder if the camp trailer somehow was towed down that trailhead years ago?) The marks on the river banks beginning at this section of river are where ATV’s climb in and out of stream bed as they ford the river in the summer.
Mile 17.8 Peavine Creek enters on right.
Mile 26.7 Rush Creek enters on river right just downstream of a nice fenced cabin located on river left, which had two saddled horses in front yard as we went by. Abandoned two story farmhouse on river right at mouth of Rush Creek on private property. The map shows another trail coming down from canyon rim 2,500 feet above on river left across from Rush Creek, but we did not see it. The ATV trail peters out 3-4 miles below Rush Creek. After Rush Creek, river becomes continuous class III whitewater with interludes of class II+, very technical pushy water, lots of boulders, overhanging branches, water up the tree trunks on shore, logs and debris hung up frequently in mid-channel and on trees, very dangerous section, must pay attention, but only a couple of spots where hydraulics have any punch, not big water. Average water depth has increased to about 24" because of added flow from side streams and river velocity has increased significantly. River is perhaps 15-20 feet wide. Water is not as frigid as at put-in. ATV's passed by twice on opposite bank carrying two people, we waved to each other. ATV trail looks heavily used in Rush Creek area. Water is currently too high for ATV's to cross the river, so they are stuck traveling up and down the west bank until water drops. On river left about 2 miles below Rush Creek where river makes hairpin bend on map, watch for a small warm springs dripping down the left bank marked by lush green plants, the remains of an old rock enclosure around the spring source are about 20 feet up on the steep bank, located at the edge of the barbed wire fence line, it's all tumbled in and nasty/mucky from heavy use as a wallow by cows and elk.
Mile 32.4 Tamarack Creek enters on river right. The next 9 miles of river are my favorite; this is the only section with no evidence of people or trails and is the only truly remote and inaccessible part of the canyon. The USFS map shows private property from the mouth of Tamarack Creek downstream about 3 miles, public property then begins and continues all the way off the margin of the map into the State of Washington. The canyon gradually narrows as you move downstream from Tamarack Creek and becomes steeper with sections of vertical rock wall for the first time on the trip; there is no evidence of any trail on either side of the river. It would not be possible to walk out along the river banks for help if you got in trouble. If the Nez Perce Indians used this canyon as their annual migration route for hundreds of people and livestock, they must have walked up the river bed at low water or just bypassed this section of canyon. We camped on river left at river mile 35.8, about 4 miles below Tamarack Creek, on a lush grassy bench next to the river. We passed terrific campsites on both sides of the river beginning about midway down this section. Saw wild turkeys, eagles, river otters and fish jumping. Beautiful warm weather. The added flow from Tamarack Creek and narrowness of the canyon causes the speed to increase yet again and produces fun continuous Class III water from here to the bridge, but the rapids still lack punch and there was no risk of being knocked over. We paddled the 12.1 miles from our camp to the takeout in 2.3 hours for an average speed of 5.2 mph in this section. We encountered two more trees across the river, found a sneak route around one and had a near disaster on the other one. The river spits around a midstream island and we took the left channel, mistakenly thinking the tree blocking the channel did not extend all the way to the bank. It did. I managed to jump my kayak over the mostly submerged tree trunk, then paddle back and grab the nose loop on my companion’s kayak which was stuck on the tree and yank him across before he was pinned. In this section there are many small islands dividing the river, with one or both channels full of wood, blind corners, tight turns and low visibility from the overhanging branches, with little time to make choices because of high speed of river. You should not commit yourself down any blind corners in this section unless you can see an eddy to safely stop in should the channel turn out to be blocked with wood.
Mile 41.2 Bridge over River. Beginning of agricultural land which runs on both sides of river from bridge to confluence with Grande Ronde. Encountered a tree blocking the river in this section just upstream of next bridge and dragged our boats around blockage. Saw large herd of elk (about 70 head) crossing river in front of us, about 100’ away.
Mile 43.7 Bridge over River and parking area on right bank. Potential place to leave car. The two miles from this bridge to the confluence with the Grande Ronde are fun class III water, would be a good training ground for local beginning kayakers.
Mile 45.6 Confluence with Grande Ronde River. Nice wave trains on corners, class II to takeout. Saw eagle in tree.
Mile 47.9 Takeout at parking area on river left. Car is easily visible from road, lots of homes nearby to provide sense of security.
Latitude / longitude coordinates of the putin are from Google Earth; the coordinates of the takeout are from GPS.
I've run Joseph Creek 3 times and with proper care and handling, have had cooperation not conflict the local landowners. Trespassing is not an option and you need to respect their land. As far as wood goes, there was plenty of warning in these reports - so take heed!. Class IV skills and safety procedures needed for a safe run.
5 years ago
by Troy Langley
8 years ago
by Brian Vogt
The Washington State Department of Ecology maintains a Joseph Creek gauge near the mouth at the Grande Ronde River.
GAUGE: Washington State Dept. of Ecology, River & Stream Monitoring, Joseph Creek near Mouth, located 2 miles upstream from confluence with Grande Ronde. Note that this monitoring station apparently did not exist prior to June 2003, so any trip reports dated 2003 and earlier are likely based on someone’s personal estimate of the river level and do not necessarily relate to the flows in this trip report.
FLOW: 400-500 cfs on the dates of this trip. My recommended minimum flow is 300 cfs and recommended maximum flow is 1,000 cfs. (See comments below for estimate of river difficulty at higher and lower flows.)
PEAK FLOW: In 2008 Joseph Creek reached its peak flow of 1,100 cfs twelve days before our trip. At peak flow, based on the debris line left on shore, I estimate the river was still only about 2 feet deep at its beginning, growing to about 4 feet deep at its end. At the peak flow, I believe most boulders are covered up and many of the class II and III rapids become washed out and the river could become fairly boring to run from a whitewater perspective, with the exception of one or two drops which may become class IV. The extra foot or two of water level is not enough to cover the trees and debris blocking the river, nor do I think the flow is sufficient to wash them away since some of the debris looks like it has been there for years. It will be a lot harder to slow down and scout and eddy out in the faster moving water. The bottom line is I believe as you approach peak flows the hazard factor from blockages will increase and the fun from running whitewater will decrease. However, it would have helped us to have a few more inches of water covering the boulders on the upper half of the river, so I think the ideal flow is in the 500 to 800 cfs range.
MINIMUM FLOW: The upper section of the river is only 12” deep at 400 cfs flow and you bump across a lot of rocks. A few inches lower and we would have been dragging our boats in places, or spending a lot of time dislodging ourselves from midstream boulders. The river can certainly be boated at much lower levels, perhaps down to 200 to 250 cfs, but it will take a lot longer to run the river and be a lot more work; I would allow an extra day. My minimum flow cutoff would be in the 300+ cfs range.
Permits are not required for this reach.
SHUTTLE: Boggan’s Oasis did our shuttle, located where Oregon Highway 3 crosses the Grande Ronde River about an hours drive north of Enterprise. The owners/managers are Bill and Farrel Vail, contact them by phone at 509-256-3372 or email at email@example.com. The have done shuttles on the Grande Ronde River for years, but had never done a shuttle on Joseph Creek until us, which gives an indication of how rarely Joseph Creek is boated. We paid $160 for the shuttle and felt it was well worth it. Our shuttle driver was Dell, about 70+ years old, whose grandparents homesteaded in the Paradise area. His father made a living trapping and so did Dell up until WWII. Dell knew the history of every homestead and kept us entertained with stories during the 1-hour drive-in. Note that the shorter Elk Creek road in was blocked by snow about 2 miles from its turn off of Highway 3, so we had to drive to Enterprise and then take the longer way in by way of Crow Creek Road.
Typical Scenery along Joseph Creek
Old Cabin along Joseph Creek
Class-III+ Rapid on Joseph Creek
Class-III Rapid on Joseph Creek
Class-II Rapid on Joseph Creek
Camp on Joseph Creek
Another Log on Joseph Creek
Joseph from the Road
Log on Joseph Creek
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