"Ernie's is an incredible chunk of whitewater. It's pool drop rapids pack a heck of a whollop. You can slice every one of 'em and walk away thinking this river's just another challenging Class V trip, or you can miss your line by two feet and get permanently stuffed into an undercut. That's what differentiates Ernie's from other runs." -Jeff Bennett, A Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington, Second Edition
"Is this gonna be a really epic day? You know, with the raft?" -Chase Nobles, to Willy Dinsdale, upon learning he was going to be running Ernie's Canyon with a couple of yahoo rafters.
Ernie's Canyon of the North Fork Snoqualmie is a difficult section of river to write about. If you've heard of it, chances are you have an opinion about it already, whether you have run it or not. The amount of lore surrounding it verges on being a stigma. Most of the beta people have comes from a few sources. Jeff Bennett, in both editions of Washington Whitewater, essentially says the run is worth doing once, and mostly if you are pro level and a little crazy. American whitewater's page on the run has more information including rapid names and descriptions, but holds to the standard that it is a very difficult and dangerous run. The two articles linked from their site tend even more towards sensationalizing the dangers of the run. Professor Paddle, a modern, user updated river database and forum, is probably the most useful resource. It describes current conditions and dangers but even the tone there is that Ernie's is "a very gloomy, spooky place to be having 'fun'... A few scouts into the run, you'll see literally hundreds of good reasons to scout". Even with all of the warnings, Ernie's has risen to the status of a northwest class V classic over the last 20 years or so. That being said, the descriptions are correct. It is absolutely no place to develop your skills or be out of control. It is the place to go if you are confident in your ability to paddle hard class V and honest with yourself about the risks you are willing to take.
Dan and I started rafting together over three years ago. Our first run was the Green Truss run of the White Salmon. It was a bit of a circus and I almost lost my job but we immediately started talking about running the Little White, Columbia River Gorge's class V Jewel. We did so a few weeks later and paddled great, even though we flipped in a twenty footer called wishbone we neglected to scout. Thus began a rafting partnership that has taken both of us down many of the hardest runs in the northwest and beyond (see past blog entries for some more good ones). Early on we set our sights on Ernie's Canyon. It seemed like a perfect challenge for a couple dudes who wanted to run the hardest stuff in the area. The stigma and warnings I think only added to the allure. The fact that such a high profile, difficult run had gone so long without ever seeing a raft descent didn't hurt either. Whenever we had a bad line on a rapid on a familiar run one of us would say "This is the type of paddling that will get us killed on Ernie's!" We had built it up so much that it almost seemed like it would never happen. At a certain point it came down to just doing it. Dan got in touch with some Seattle area kayakers who knew the run and we decided to make it happen.
We met up at the take out bridge the next morning on a cold February day. The flow was on the low side of medium, and the kayakers were worried the raft wouldn't fit through some of the slots. We decided to go anyways and had a great, if stressful, day. We portaged six times, had one pin, no swims, and finished in the dark. Our skills proved to be adequate, and the sense of accomplishment was extreme. Though we had done first descents on some small local creeks, it felt like the first major one we had done together. Burgers and beers in North Bend that night felt triumphant.
It's been a few years since that day, and Dan and I had not made it back until recently. The stretch did see one other raft descent, documented in the film Habitat. We had talked about it a few times, but were never quite able to make it happen. This December, stymied by poor flows near our homes in Portland Oregon, we made the trek up there twice and were able to reduce the number of portages to two on our second descent. Both trips we had higher water than the first descent and they very much reinforced my opinion that the run is incredibly worth doing for the right type of paddlers. The run starts out shallow and wide, without much in the way of rapids for the first mile or so. The river character changes in an instant when you get to the canyon. The riverbed narrows, the boulders become house sized and numerous, and the whitewater vaults into the realm of technical class V. The first half mile or so are nonstop ferries with big holes between the rocks. Raft Catch is the first named rapid (don't know how it got the name) and it is one of only two rapids we have portaged every time. The kayak line is only about 18 inches wide and drops about nine feet into a slot, just too narrow. Below this the rapids keep coming. There are a few awesome double drops in here and some great continuous sections with big, constricted holes. One thing to note is that with all the huge boulders, there are dangerous sieves in almost every rapid, sometimes with a good portion of the flow pouring into them. The run starts to feel much longer than it really is, especially your first time down.
A ways into this section you come to a rapid that the current guard of Ernie's kayakers call "Go Hard Left", a description of the line. I believe this is the rapid that is described in the American Whitewater article and the guidebook as "Cluster". It is a quick entrance to a six foot ledge. Unfortunately, most of the flow pours onto a boulder with a bad sieve to the right. The exit is wide enough but almost ninety degrees sideways to the current. On the first descent Dan and I portaged this due to a piece of wood. Going back we ran it on verbal information from Brad X. We had great lines both trips but what an intimidating rapid! I don't know if we would have ran it if we scouted it first, but it's great if you hit your line. A great section of read and run Class V follows and drops you in a beautiful spot. A calm pool with a huge old growth log leaning from the bank into the river and a side creek cascading down the left bank feels like an ample reward for making it this far into the trip. It's a truly special place.
After a short section of class III you come to The Big Three. Here the rivers goes through three rapids which are bigger, and also more distinct, than much of the run. The first one is variously called "Cool Rapid", Big Nasty", or "The Slide". Cool Rapid is the perfect, if uncreative, name. This rapid is just freakin' cool. It starts with a slide down the right into a BIG diagonal hole, which you want to punch going left into a boily channel which spouts you over a ledge into an even BIGGER hole. From here you turn ninety degrees left into a vertical walled hallway with another ledge and some cool reactionary waves off the walls. It's an incredible piece of whitewater.
The next rapid is Split Falls, possibly called Little Nasty back in the day. The main line involves dropping over a ten foot, narrow drop into a big hole with a rock downstream perfectly positioned to flip a raft. There doesn't seem to be much finesse to rafting this one, and we have always come through the bottom on one tube, though upright. I feel like it's a little bit of a roll of the dice, but fortunately it is probably one of the least consequential spots on the run; it actually drops into a pool.
The third of the big three is Toilet Bowl, which is the second of the two drops that has not been run in a raft. Again, the line seems too narrow and the consequence too high to risk a flip. If you don't want to rappel the portage is very exciting, involving a climb down a far right channel with water trying to wash you off your footholds. Our last trip was the highest we have run it and any higher we might need to rappel. From here it eases to very technical class IV, then the canyon starts opening up, leading you to believe it might be over...
It's not! The biggest and baddest of the Ernie's canyon rapids is still yet to come. Even with all the lore surrounding the run as a whole, Jacuzzi still remains a step above in terms of stigma and danger. Most kayakers who do the run make Jacuzzi their only portage, even though it was first run on an early descent in 1994 by Pete Flanagan. The problem is not necessarily the drop itself; it's a beautiful, sloping, twenty foot, near vertical tongue into a deep hole. The entrance is fast class IV and it sneaks up on you. If that was all there was to the rapid, it would probably be run more often. The landing, however, is not any place most people would ever want to put themselves. It does kind of look like a big Jacuzzi with all the jets on full. Extremely aerated water is boiling up all over the place and none of it seems to go anywhere. It drops into in a forty foot deep gorge and there is a large cave under the left wall. It's no place for a swimmer, or a kayak or raft really. The second American Whitewater article details a dangerous and difficult vertical extraction after a kayaker could not paddle out of the room. He sustained kidney and nerve damage from hypothermia, dehydration, and exposure. Fortunately it is possible to set up safety across from the room if you have the time and know how to get there. With multiple people roped in strategic locations with throw bags, four people were able to safely and successfully run Jacuzzi our first trip in December. Willy Dinsdale and Chase Nobles had inspiring lines in their kayaks and Dan and I had a great line in the raft. No one wound up in the cave. It was a great day.
Below Jacuzzi there are still a couple good Class V rapids. Vertical Vortex is a double ledge with some radical hydraulics. It is low stress and really fun. Manky Mannequin is a technical challenge, with a difficult left to right move to avoid a bad pin spot. Once you are through these it's time to relax. Hope you brought a celebratory beer, it's about two or three miles of flat-water to the take out bridge.
Since the first descent over twenty years ago, Ernie's Canyon has a reputation that has been built over the years by the people who have paddled it. It has always been there beckoning the best to see if they have what it takes. It also provides a playground for expert paddlers to keep their skills sharp, challenge themselves, and experience a unique and beautiful place. It is made all the more special by the skills necessary to access it. It has relatively easy access and consistent runnable flows. If you are a paddler in the northwest intent on running class V it is something you aspire to do. Unfortunately it might not always be there. Weyerhauser and Pacific Hydro have plans for hydro development on this stream which would leave it with only 53 cfs for the majority of the year, not nearly enough to boat on. It would also impact other recreational activities and permanently alter the natural character of the area. American Whitewater has information on groups working to slow or halt this process on this river and others around the country. http://www.awa.org
~ Jeffrey Compton