Johnson Creek

Class V (V+), 174fpm, ~600cfs (3000cfs Cispus at Randle, 4000cfs Cowlitz at Packwood)

March 22, 2003

Ben, Travis, Leo, Bill

Travis boat scouting a typical drop somewhere in the seemingly endless canyon.


It would be easy to compare Johnson Creek with its neighboring Upper Upper Cispus, Ohanepecosh or Clear Fork of the Cowlitz; not because of the similarities but because of the differences. The guidebook describes it as a good warm up for the areas more difficult runs but I found it to be in a class of its own. To put it simply, there's nothing like it.

Overnight rain called for a change of plans. A 6am phone tag between Travis, Leo and myself opted out of Clearwater Creek (a 30-minute drive) in favor of something in the Cispus or Cowlitz drainage (a 4-hour drive). Normally I wouldn't mind the mini road trip but a late start put somewhat of a damper on things. Nevertheless, I planned on a full day of paddling Sunday so I threw in the sleeping bag and deemed it worthwhile. The rest of the group was 1-2 hours closer so I packed with haste to avoid spoiling their patience. We met in Puyallup around 9am and were reloaded and in route within minutes. I was bent on checking out Johnson Creek but common sense suggested that we try something shorter like Silver Creek. Both were unfamiliar Class Vs but after reading the guidebook and convincing the others that we had enough daylight, the choice was obvious.

The take-out is off HW12 a few miles west of Packwood. Bennett's book describes the obvious and good parking can be found despite the trash. At first glance we were unsure of the gravelly flow, however it was much more than I had ever seen and appeared to be plenty.

A quick change and short shuttle led us to the put-in around noon. Another half-hour was spent outfitting the boats and bodies. We estimated 500cfs which was a tad higher than the 250-400cfs that the guidebook recommends. No problem, more water meant a quicker run and we were short on time as it was. More thought and time would have probably changed our minds but when facing an uncharted creek after driving 4 hours, who could resist? I say uncharted because we knew of no recent descents and our only beta was "lots of wood."

The first few rapids were the pushy warm-up type -- Class III and IV boulder gardens with eddies-a-plenty. I recall one log portage before the walls close in. We questioned our sanity at least once but I soon realized that there was no turning back as I scrambled along the right wall above the first Class V. The others had eddied out several hundred feet upstream on river left. My first impression was holy *$%#. I had reached the limits of scoutability less than a quarter of the way down frothing madness. Closer inspection revealed few if any keepers and a cliffed in pool at its base with just enough length to warrant a probe. I signaled left of center and could only imagine their thoughts as they plunged from one horizon line to the next. Left of center, right of center… it didn't really matter as we all got tossed throughout. Scouting was of little help as I flipped early in the rapid resulting in a backwards bumperboat through the narrow exit. For better or worse, we met up in the canyon with drymouth drools.

Many more boulder gardens and a log limbo led to the second mandatory portage. We eddied out left and discovered a significant log-choked drop. It appeared to loose 10-20 vertical feet over a similar distance. The slippery wood provided an exciting portage but the subsequent ledge drops captured most of our attention. We set up safety but the most either hole provided was a tailstand and grin.


Bill eddies out below the log limbo.


Leo running the first of two ledge drops below the second mandatory portage seen in the background.


I don't recall what happened next other than a myriad of intimidating boat scouting. We took turns leading but oftentimes the only signal worth giving was roadrunner blades meaning paddle like mad.

Most rapids could be scouted from above but setting up safety would require days and portaging was next to impossible.

Eventually, we reached the large and highly anticipated horizon better known as Gutter Ball, an 18-foot waterfall that gave us all the shivers. We caught the frantic left eddy and did our best to scout from the loggy shore. Most of the current was flowing left into a log-choked chute while the right side appeared to be a clean boof. We had all read the guidebook but neglected to remember that the right side is shallow and the portage route is 200-yards upstream. What mattered was that the line was obvious and the portage would take time. Leo was in… Bill, sure… Travis, why not… Me, yea.

Before I continue, I'd like to mention that a throw and go hadn't even crossed our minds. Wading to the center boulder was impossible at this flow and scouting the narrow canyon was more than intimidating in our boats. We certainly had no intention or desire to swim.

Leo went first. His plan to give it some left angle turned out to be a boat and body tangle with the center boulder. We cringed with each crack but he emerged with enough breath and brains to battle the undercut rock and log on the left side of the exit where most of the current was flowing. Bill went next. His plan to hug the right wall turned out to be another folly. He faced a similar beating and flush into the undercut. Ok, so the boof rock slopes to the left and right. How about center? I went next and found the perfect line, a painless boof down the center, landing flat and paddling under the log with ease. Travis went last and with hopes renewed, he followed my line. Unfortunately, he neglected the element of speed and it ended up being the worst line yet. His foot pegs gave out during a painful pencil and he came up cursing. Adding insult to injury, he flushed into a series of rolls against the undercut. Ouch!

This was probably my favorite drop of all time but I felt bad for not taking part in the angst.


Trial and error. Travis about to experience a painful pencil in Gutter Ball. (My camera accidentally switched to panorama so that is why this and the following photo look different.)


There was no time for looking back so we made a quick fix of Travis's boat and focused our attention on the remaining river, pardon me, creek. Numerous side streams had contributed to a healthy 600cfs and we were becoming more concerned about the infamous logjams. None of the drops were terribly difficult but their consistency and the likelihood of wood made for some stressful scouts.


Travis and Leo portaging a small logjam below Gutter Ball.


Perhaps my biggest shock came when Leo decided to run a small ledge with a not-so-small hole and a riverwide log hovering 2-3 feet above its base. To me, that spells trouble but Leo worked his magic and emerged with enough distance to roll and paddle his way out of the cage. Travis, Bill and I weren't in the mood to eat wood so we made the short portage on either side.


Leo taking cover in the log ledge that the rest of us portaged.


Many more fun rapids led to the mother of all logjams. Leo? I don't think so. A toothpick would be lucky to make it through this one. We towed our boats to the top and slipped our way down the center. The take-out and portage weren't too bad but the put-in was kinda sketchy. After dropping a good 20 feet, we wedged our boats between logs, rock and whatever else we could find and wiggled our way past the rest. A small waterfall pelted us from high above but it was only a temporary chill because there was more Class V to come.


The mother of all logjams.


With less than an hour of daylight remaining, we started to wonder if and when the canyon would end. Our haste was treated with mishap as Leo missed a critical boof, got pounded in a hole and ended up swimming. Fortunately, we had scouted the drop from shore and ropes were within reach. He emerged against the opposite cliff with boat in hand but his paddle wasn't so lucky, emerging beyond reach and taking off down the next drop. I felt it best to give chase so I made a quick portage, only to be frightened into a shore scout above a blind corner. Adios. Unfortunately, my breakdown was safely stashed in my truck at the put-in and given that we were still well within the confines of the canyon, Leo had no choice but to handpaddle. I waited there while the others helped Leo into his boat and down the subsequent Class III. Bill and I ran the next IV+ and I hiked back up to help Leo with the portage. It never occurred to me that I should have shuttled my paddle but we found a suitable portage on the left shore so it was only a matter of time and the ever-present enemy, darkness.

With no end in sight, Leo began to lean towards the steep and lengthy hike out. I had reason to believe that we were close so we talked him into continuing despite his humorous argument, "I've climbed El Cap 8 times, I think I can handle it."

Several blind corners and a bow rescue later, we spotted a white Werner waving at us from midstream. Sure enough, Leo's paddle was wedged above a log extending from river left to high above the right bank. Three of us were so shocked that we blew right by and Travis's attempt to free it was a long shot. Bill, Travis and I eddied out for a second chance while Leo waited anxiously on the opposite bank. Unlike getting wedged on a log blocking roughly 5 of 50+ feet of river, the recovery was guaranteed. We finished the gravelly Class II and III with just enough time to give thanks to the remaining daylight and that which allowed us safe passage through the dark canyon.

That's it. What will likely be my most fun and epic day of boating this season. I'm not sure what to expect at recommended flows but one thing is certain -- the rumors and comparisons are unworthy.