Saturday, April 30, 2005

Oregon Cup - Canyon Creek Extreme Race

I've got a bunch of new friends at Next Adventure, a sporting goods store in Portland, Ore. Among them is Luke Spencer, and he's really into whitewater kayaking.

Luke invited me to come along to the first two races in the Oregon Cup (presented by All Star Rafting and Kayaking and Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe), a whitewater kayak racing and rodeo competition. I'd never shot whitewater, so I was excited to give it a try. I borrowed a Necky flatwater kayak and other necessary gear from Next Adventure's demo program in advance, then met up with the organizers and racers on Saturday, April 30, where the bridge on Washington Highway 503 crosses the upper reaches of Lake Merwin. From there, several observers were going to padde up to the place Canyon Creek dumps into Lake Merwin, to watch the most dramatic part of the race. There were two big "class five" waterfalls in sight of the finish line, and participants were going to have to run them to complete the race.

I carried my boat, paddle and Pelican camera case to what I thought was the water's edge, and discovered the lake was at least 30 feet below. The obvious access point was a chute of rocks and mud, bodererd on both sides by moss and ferns. A canoe was tethered to a root at the bottom of the chute. This must be the place, I figured. I decided to take it really slow. About a quarter of the way down, the chute sort of flattened out, so I let go of the boat to go back for my camera case. Suddenly I heard knocking and scraping, followed by a big splash. My boat was gone! And it still had pretty good speed as it continued out into the lake. I scrambled down to the water and wondered what to do. How would I get the boat? I climbed into the canoe and tried to reach my boat with my paddle. No good. I climbed out of the canoe and thought a little more. Looks like I'm going swimming. The water was so cold I could hardly breathe. I got to the kayak, pulled it toward me, then gave it a good shove back to shore. What a way to start a day!

After a soggy paddle along the righ-hand bank of Lake Merwin to Canyon Creek, some spectators helped me beach my boat, and told me which waterfalls the spectators and photographers usually sat in front of. We started the short hike to that area, which required some tricky hiking on slick, steep terrain, or tricky wading on slippery boulders in fast water. I'd watched others go in front of us, and they'd hiked, so I did the same. At one point, I had to jump from a fallen tree to a muddy bank. Again, I'd watched others do it, so thought nothing of hopping across the two-foot gap. In a flash I found myself scraped raw by the face of the cliff I'd tried to land on top of. I looked up, and realized I'd fallen nearly 10 feet. My Pelican camera case had taken much of the fall for me. I sort of rode it down like a sled. Battered and humbled, I opted to carefully wade to the place I needed to be to take pictures.

Lots more spectators arrived, and soon, racers were appearing at the top of the waterfalls. Participants were timed as they sprinted through boulder gardens and waterfalls. The course was not particularly long, with most athletes finishing in less than four minutes. Despite my serious setbacks earlier in the day, I got some memorable images. I need to rest up. Tomorrow morning I'll be back at it again, shooting pictures at the second race in the Oregon Cup series, "Boater Cross," at the Hyacinth Bridge on the East Fork of the Lewis River.

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