Trip Report: Grays River - Feb 10, 2018 - 1230 cfs

Grays River Trip Report

Submitted by Jessie King

The Grays River in Washington is one I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. So, when I heard that Mike Evans was looking to run, I jumped at the chance. It’s one of those finicky rivers you want to hit at just the right water level. Too low and you’ll be dragging your boat more than rowing it. Too high and it can be deadly. Now the range I had heard was 1,100-1,400 cfs on the Naselle gauge. But, there is a newer gauge on the Grays near Rosburg, WA. There was some discussion back and forth on how the new gauge related to the old gauge, but in the end, we decided it was up enough to go take a look. Before we launched, the Grays gauge read 1,230 cfs.  It’s a 5-1/2 mile run, and you can only see a little bit of it from the road. I had heard it can be pretty nasty at times, so I was a little nervous. Especially because it was just Mike and I. But two is better than one, so off we went!

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The author at the put in

To get to the put in you take Highway 4 west until you get to the Greys River. At that point you head north, up Fossil Creek Rd, until you reach a locked gate. There’s a little pull out with a trail leading down to the river. The short trail takes you to the confluence with the South Fork of the Grays. It’s a pretty little spot, with a nice beach to set out from. The river starts pretty tame with a few riffles. As you work deeper into the canyon the rapids start to gain some teeth. As we got a little deeper into the canyon we found our first obstacle. 

Mike was leading, and he noticed what he thought might be a river wide log, so we stopped to scout. From our vantage point it was hard to tell, but it sure looked like it, but it also looked like water was flowing over it. Because I had tied off to the back of Mikes boat, I got to go first! And boy was I excited… Well, there was enough water flowing over it, and the log was smooth enough, that the boat didn’t hang up too bad on it. At higher flows this log would not be an issue at all.

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Scouting Super Bowl

Mike and I leaped frogged each other most of the day, trading off who lead. At one particular spot, Mike was in front, the bedrock pinched down so there was a slot just a little narrower than his boat. He got hung up, but was able to bounce his way out of it. Now this had me a little worried because Mike’s boat in narrower than mine! Not by much, but enough. I stuck pretty hard, and there was no bouncing it out of there for me. So, I came up with an idea… I put both feet on one of my scout bars, leaned over and grab frame on the other side of the boat. I was able to get the boat to tilt enough that it slid right through the slot! I amaze myself sometimes. Again, with more water this spot would not have been an issue. 

The river continues along for a while, becoming more and more mellow. Eventually you come to a big pool, and if you’re like me, you so caught up with the beauty of the place, you almost forget there are Class V’s waiting around the corner. As mike was pulling over he said, “I think this is the big one.” We scrambled over boulders, and up onto a house size rock to take a look. At the flows we had there are two distinct drops, each 6 to 7 feet high. There was about a boat length between the drops. The bottom drop has a large shark fin rock in it. Most of the water goes left of the rock, and into a large hole that looks like it could be sticky. To the right of the rock, is a very narrow channel that doesn’t look like a boat will fit in. The cleanest rout we could see was to run right at the first drop, and work back to the middle at the second drop. Easier said than done! The water is going to want to push you into the narrow channel. As I was standing there looking over the line, I began to get more and more nervous… let’s be honest, more and more scared! And then I had a thought. I turned to Mike and said, “You know Greg Senior is up there laughing his ass off right now!” Without skipping a beat Mike says “Yeah, he’s got a good view!” That was it, that was what I needed for reassurance. I walked calmly, and confidently back to my boat and got ready to run it. I lead, and made my line to the entrance and hit the first drop perfectly. My momentum, and the force of the water shot me right at the shark fin rock! Crap…CRAP! My tubes split the rock… my frame might have touched the rock… I’m not sure because I was too busy pulling on the oars! I pulled so hard that the back of the boat hit the drop behind me, which forced the back end of my boat down the second drop before I knew what was happing. So, I ran the bottom drop backwards. Dang it! But I was still up right, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I caught an eddy and waited for Mike. He too styled the entrance and first drop. Then things got interesting! He shot straight for the shark fin, he didn’t get an oar stroke before his boat went right. Oh crap… His boat ended up getting wedged almost vertical. Mike was standing on the foot bar with his boat suspended behind him. It was pretty impressive! We got him all straightened out and took a little break in the eddy below.

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Super Bowl Rapid from below and way below  


Next up was Picnic. Actually, next up was the challenge of getting to Picnic. I’m guessing it’s about 500 yards between Super Bowl and Picnic. And I’m guessing that at any lower flow and this would turn into one giant rock sieve. Mike and I managed to find a way to get close enough to try and scout. I opted to wade out to the gravel bar in the middle to take a look. Now when I say gravel bar, I really mean a bunch of boulder sticking up out of the water with some gravel here and there. After watching me do my best impression of a billy goat, a few times, Mike went the long way around towards the bottom of the drop. A classic case of age and experience beats youth and enthusiasm. When I finally caught up with him back at the boats he looked fresh as a daisy. I, on the other hand, was sweating profusely in my dry suit, and huffing wind. 

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Looking back up at Picnic Rapid

We decided our best bet was to work our way through the tight boulder garden, staying towards the middle as we approached the drop to avoid a sieve on river left. This would hopefully set us up square for the 8 to 10 feet drop at the bottom. Luckily Mike went first so he could show me which rocks to avoid. No sooner than getting off one rock, he would be stuck on the next rock! Finally, he made some headway, and made his way towards the middle to line up for the drop, but got hung up on some more rocks and had to run the drop backwards. I was able to sneak along behind him and avoid most of the hang ups. As I watched him go backwards I thought to myself “I’m not going to let that happen to me!” Ha! The same rock that spun him around got me too. But instead of completely turning me around, it let me go sideways. Yikes! I took one big oar stroke and pivoted the boat just in time to get the back end downstream. I was two for two running the big drops backwards! Oh well, it could have been worse… a lot worse.

I was amazed at how clear the water was. As we made our way through one of the pools, approaching one of the lower rapids, I happened to spot some movement in the water off to the side of Mike’s boat. Three steelhead darted upstream, apparently very much annoyed by our passing. I was constantly in awe of the raw beauty of the canyon. The way the sunlight filtered down through the green moss-covered trees at the top of the canyon, onto the rock walls that defined the rivers passage, was mesmerizing. I loved the way the river transitioned from the utter calm silence of the pools, to the deafening chaos of the rapids.

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Entrance to Broken Paddle Rapid

As we made our way out of the canyon, the tone of the river changed. It became a nice quite stream with shallow riffles. The riffles were so stupid shallow, we had to drag our boats across a couple of them! About a quarter mile above the take out there is a large, manmade, wood pile boaters should be aware of. It’s not difficult to get around, but could be nasty if you weren’t paying attention. It’s not clear what it’s for, maybe fish habitat, or maybe stream mitigation. The take out is a nice level gravel bar, with a short and steep trail up to the road. It made carrying a couple cat boats up it a bit of a challenge. Mike and I both used a few choice words before we were through. On the way home we stopped at the Duck Inn in Skamokawa for burgers and beer. The band Sucker Punch was setting up to play that night. They looked like they would be plenty loud, but Mike and I decided we better get home instead. On the drive up the Columbia we were treated with a stunning sunset, and a beautiful view of Mt St Helens in the fading light.

It’s funny how the mind works. I had heard stories, read reports, and dreamt about all kinds of hellish whitewater nightmares that would be waiting for me deep in that canyon. But in the end, no matter how vivid the pictures your mind can muster, you just have to see it for yourself. This trip is not for the faint of heart. Good technical boating skills, and the ability to self-rescue is a must. Consider this, it took us 3 hours to go 5-1/2 miles. When I go back to do it next time, I’ll be looking for a couple hundred more cfs on the gauge. While it will make some things easier, it will make others more of a challenge. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what it’s like when I get there!

Photo Credit: Mike Evans