Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Graves Creek

Kayaking is by its nature, fickle. Which is a bit of a dichotomy. The people I run rivers with are some of the most determined, steadfast people I know. At its core, running a difficult river demands these characteristics. But the same people whose devotion and focus is without question on a river become erratic and capricious when making kayaking plans. Water levels are hard to predict, and every bet is hedged.

The people closest to us are the ones who suffer the most during this time of year as plans are made and changed with reckless abandon. As kayakers we reap the rewards of incredible days of whitewater, those not there with us only bear witness to our fickle nature beforehand.

Droughts only compound the matter, by forcing the cost benefit ratio of each trip to be weighed carefully. And so it wasn't all that much of a surprise to me that I ended up in Reno, Nevada with everything needed for a 5 day kayaking expedition only to watch the river level go down instead of back up. True to form, the next day I was back at the airport with a changed ticket to Portland, Oregon.

I'm as fickle as the worst of em. But I know when to throw in the towel. So instead of camping on the Middle Kings I found myself holding my newborn niece. It wasn't class V, but it was pretty cool.

Uncle O

After obsessing over water levels and trip logistics it was a relief to be with family in the lush and beautiful pacific northwest. But after a few days I was restless. Paul Heffernan had a day off of work and we made plans to drive north to Ernies only to have it spike on us. My mom wondered why we didn't paddle "the one that's closer" (Little White Salmon). 

"The one that's closer" wasn't going to do and Paul and I sat around the living room in the early morning throwing out ideas and making calls, looking as fickle as ever to the rest of my family. Salvation came after a phone call to Colby Mackley who lives on the Olympic Peninsula.

Colby is quite possibly the most naturally gifted paddler I've ever met. He lives near Port Angeles on the northern side of the Olympic Peninsula, with his wife and four kids. Paddling partners are hard to come by on the OP, especially of Colby's stature. This doesn't stop him. Over the years I've heard him tell terrifying stories - alone in box canyons being forced to run marginal rapids. Colby loves to explore and he's explored an impressive number of OP rivers alone. 

Colby is always full of energy and he was so exuberant on the phone that I could barely get a word in. He'd just run Graves Creek (alone), a tributary of the East Fork Quinault. He'd found quality whitewater and big rapids, including a 35 foot falls and a few 20 footers. Paul and I were sold.

Colby Mackley

Colby may claim that he's a father now and the torch has been passed to a younger generation of kayakers. But don't be fooled. You will always be one step behind and you will notice half of what he does. He is in tune with the world in ways the majority of us are not.

Paul and I have both kayaked extensively in the Quinault drainage. The North Fork of the Quinault is the ultimate self support trip of the OP and one Paul used to do yearly. You cross Graves Creek on the way to the East Fork Quinault. We always wondered what was down there, but we never tried to find out.

View of Graves Creek from the Bridge (Takeout)

Paul Starting the Hike

It's was a short hike to the put in and we spent some time doing what scouting we could.

 Paul Takes A Gander From One of Our Best Scouting Locations

View of the River from Said Gander

The Quinault Rain forest receives 12 feet of rain per year and scouting the depths of the gorge below was nearly impossible. We made an effort to see what was above where Colby had put in but it was fruitless. Roping our boats down into the gorge we were immersed in the magic of the OP.

My Favorite Shot. Paul Above the First Rapid.

Huge Logs Are Mere Sticks For These Rivers


After numerous fun ledge drops we were scouting a rather large rapid above a huge horizon line. From Colby's descriptions we recognized it as the rapid above the 35 foot falls.

 Paul Running Said Rapid

The 35 footer looked clean and it was tempting for both of us, but 35 feet is 35 feet no matter how you cut it. We broke out the ropes and headed up and around.
 Spider Web

The portage was difficult and scary. We were clinging onto dense foliage on steep hillsides raising and lowering our boats. It was grueling for two of us and we could not imagine doing the portage alone. We kept saying to each other, "How did Colby do this?!" But it made sense. It's Colby. He's not like anyone else.

 35 Footer From Below

 Adrenaline Falls (Lime Creek, CO) on Steroids

Plenty of quality, difficult rapids ensued including this beautiful 20 foot falls. I gave my camera to Paul and he shot the following photos.

Colby had explored this entire section the day before, after work. We had started hiking in the early afternoon and the light in the canyon was starting to fade. Once again we were stunned. We had Colby's advice, and there were two of us. How could it take us so much longer? Oh yeah, it's Colby. You never assume when Colby's done something that you can do the same.

 Paul in one of the Final Rapids

We made it out before dark and started the long drive back home, exuberant. We called Colby to congratulate him on his find and express our bewilderment at his achievement. When asked how he completed such an epic adventure, alone, in three hours he had this to say, "Well, dude, it's like when you corner a raccoon. Sometimes she turns into a bear!" Adventure like this is why we paddle. "The one that's closer" was going to be acceptable again.

The lower part of Graves Creek had been run once before, by Scott Wickstrom, about 15 years ago. But he walked all the major rapids. There was a lot of work still to be done and Colby was hooked. 

Upper Graves Creek

A couple weeks after I left Paul, Colby, Lane Jacobs, and Chris Clark headed back for an attempt at the upper section. I wasn't there so I can only post their photos and pass on what they described. Lane and Colby were the only ones to run the upper section which included this 50 - 60 foot entrance falls into a boxed in gorge.

Lane Jacobs

The hit at the bottom of the falls was big enough to rip Lane's Helmet off. It's a good thing it was recovered because this is what follows.

Falls from the Lip and Walled in Gorge Below

Below this I heard of numerous "throw and go's" (throwing your kayak off a cliff  into a pool and jumping in after it), some close calls with dropped boats, and huge drops. At one point Lane and Colby were forced to climb over a house sized chunk of ice perched over a 25 foot falls. Lane and Colby emerged, battered and elated. The next day Lane ran the 35 footer in the lower section, finishing the first complete descent. 

 Lane is in There Somewhere

 Colby Charging the Exit Falls after the 35 footer

 Lane Jacobs


Colby Mackley is a living whitewater legend. While I was learning how to roll, 14 years ago he was already at the cutting edge, twirling his wooden paddle as one of the stars of BJ Johnson's Falling Down Productions. He hasn't ever stopped. Graves Creek has been waiting for his prowess and vision. 

Colby had this to say:

It is really hard to find words to describe Graves Creek and its surroundings. The waterfalls coming into the canyon and the vegetation clinging to the walls, is standout scenery even for the OP. On my last run I followed bear tracks right to the lower put in trail. The rivers we paddle and the places they take us refresh our souls, setting us free. Graves is a place that sets you free and leaves you soaring for days after.

Enough said.


  1. The OP really seems like the place to be for hardened expeditionaries like yourselves. I had wondered about Graves looking at it on topos. I suspect there is more to be done up there.

    Congrats on a killer run. The hucker come latelies will surely follow suit.