Sunday, April 15, 2007

Upper Seneca Creek

Matt Walker, Upper Seneca Falls (photo: Jay Ditty)

Sunday, 6:30 AM, phone rings...

Jay: "Things are running, let's go"

By "things" he means Upper Seneca Creek, the holy grail of northern WV whitewater. Long (13 miles), remote, beautiful, and painfully difficult to catch. Two inches of rain had been predicted for the the Judy Springs / Spruce Knob area. After a failed attempt a month prior, the two hour drive would normally not have been too appealing. But after watching the rain Saturday in Morgantown and hearing it pound on the roof for the better part of the night things were starting to look promising. Finally an accurate prediction. 2 inches of rain, everything would be super high. Seneca could very well be the only thing runnable.

Matt and I arrived at the takeout around 9 am and surveyed the situation. It was most definitely running. Question was, how high? There was actually a fair bit more water coming out of White's Creek (which joins Seneca at the takeout). We drove up the road a bit to check it out. Looked like a pretty fun run, and relatively wood free and roadside. Probably worth doing.

Shorty after people started to arrive. Our group ended up consisting of a total of 13, a rather ridiculous number for a creek like this. Another group of 5 or 6 had also arrived and went off to the put in ahead of us. There would be close to 20 people on the river that day. What a zoo. We loaded gear into 2 vehicles and drove the 45 minutes to the Judy Springs Trailhead. There was a fair bit of speculation as to how high the flow would be.

To get to the put in you have to hike a few miles (on a nice flat clean trail) through gorgeous evergreen forest. You arrive at the creek (which is barely a few feet wide at this point) quickly but as it tends to be very small and full of wood here you have to walk along it till it looks good to put on. "If you can put on with the first 50 feet then it is way too high". Making it down a short way we were starting to see that the stream was quickly becoming runnable. At the point we put on the creek already had picked up enough water from tributaries to have some decent sized surfing waves, and we had not reached the main branch yet.

We continued paddling down, portaging / ducking under wood along the way. Once we did hit the main branch it was quickly becoming clear that this was going to be very high flow. Eventually we all got out and began assessing the situation once again. The group ahead of us had already chosen to turn around and hike back out and not everyone was keen on the high flow.

We had already paddled about 3 miles of class II-III and hiked in another 2 miles or so before that. The last 3 miles of the run consist of a junky class II-III dredged out channel so of the total 13 miles total run that left about 7 miles of class IV-V. So the choices was to hike back UP the trail for about 5 miles. Or else continue on DOWN, paddle / hike as necessary for 7 miles. We would certainly be able to paddle the last three. Seven down vs five up certainly sounded a lot more appealing. We had started down the trail at 11am and still had plenty of daylight but needed to make some decisions quick.

We had two vehicles at the put in. One option was for anyone who was sure they wanted to hike back to turn around right then and there and take one car. Everyone else could continue paddling to the first rapids and make their decision then. We would then have the second vehicle still at the put in in case anyone decided to hike out at a later point. But the idea of paddling more and hiking back up any longer distance was not appealing to anyone. Four people decided they would simply leave their boats there and hike down to Upper Seneca Falls to at least get to see it, then hike back out. The rest of us would continue paddling.

After arriving at the first set of rapids it was becoming clear that things were really big. The first drop would not have been bad except for the need to duck under rhodo branches to get far enough left to avoid the nasty hole at the bottom. Half of us chose to walk. The next drops also looked pretty big. Pretty much what we saw: big drop, nasty hole, followed by runout the ended in wood. After looking at several of these I was quite sure I would not be running any of the major rapids that day. In fact Jay, Matt, Justin, Ed and Brad would be the only ones to try to actually do most of the run. We split up into two groups. John, Ryan, Dave and I would hike down and possibly run some of the easier stuff while the rest would try for the bigger drops. After some hiking though we found that we were pretty much keeping pace with the rest of the group as they paddled down.

The trail mostly followed right along the river with a few exceptions. The major one was at Upper Seneca Falls (the 30 footer) where we had to hike a fair way up the hillside and then scramble down a very steep, loose slope. By the time I got myself and my boat down to the bottom again I was fairly exhausted and needed a rest. I got to watch Matt and the rest of the guys run the falls but ended up getting separated from my group. They were in more of a hurry to continue hiking down and had paddled out of sight. Not sure how far ahead they were I chose to wait. The falls looked nothing like the low water photos I'd seen before. A massive amount of flow formed a huge hole and nasty pocket on the right side.

Ultimately I ended up mostly sticking with Matt, Jay et al which worked out a lot better for me in that I actually got to paddle a fair bit of class III-IV whitewater. At that flow what would normally have been relatively small rapids actually turned into pretty good whitewater. So even after walking all the class V drops I still got in a pretty fun and exciting run.

Even with our now much smaller group of six things got a bit hectic on occasion. At one point I was following behind Matt. He passed by Brad and Ed who had eddied out above what was clearly the entrance to a fair sized drop. But all the eddies were taken and there really wasn't room to stop. He caught the last eddy above the drop. There did not appear to be room for two of us to effectively stay in the eddy so instead of risking getting flushed down backwards i pealed out and hoped for the best. Not entirely prepared to run the drop blind, but had to make the best of it. I heard someone (Jay or Justin?) yelling instructions behind me: "Center left!!". Pretty late though as i was starting off far right. I came down, hit the left side of the hole and got flipped but was able to roll up fairly quickly. Just in time to hear the next instruction: "Paddle left!!!". So I did, catching the eddy just in time to avoid hitting the river wide strainer (though thankfully the flow was pretty slow there, making it easy to avoid).

Wood quickly became a major problem. Seemed like every other rapid had a log in it. Some were avoidable, others were not. At one point I flipped on some reactionary wave and rolled up just in time to catch an eddy before yet another river wide strainer. Portaging wood quickly became the theme of the day. At lower flow some of it probably could have been ducked under but this day the logs were creating new features within the rapids. One drop literally looked like it was made up entirely of wood. Daylight was starting to become scarce and the temperature was dropping (it would hit the mid 30's by the time we took off). It was time to get out of there. Eventually everyone was walking the bigger rapids regardless of if they looked runnable or not. There simply was not enough time to scout or set safety. We were either running it or walking it.

The good news is that the trail does pretty much follow right along side the creek the whole way. The bad news is that with the high water the trail was underwater in places. This required some careful scrambling along the hillside and on slick rocks making for slow progress at times. Putting back in after wood portages did provide some entertaining rock slides. It seemed like we'd barely paddle a few hundred feet each time before we had to get out again. A few times we'd set our boats down, get ready to get in, look around, realize that there was yet another log within sight, shoulder our boats and keep walking. But even so we had no trouble getting to the finally, dredged out section of the creek and paddling out the last 3 miles with a few more wood portages. At this flow at least we did not have to scrape our way down.

Overall I have to say that I did enjoy the trip very much. I did not get to run any of the big drops and wished the level had been lower so that I could. But Matt and the others had a great time with the high flow so I was happy for them and enjoyed what I did get to run. Just getting out there and seeing the beauty of the creek was worthwhile. The wilderness setting, fantastic rapids, big drops, cascading waterfalls flowing into the creek all made for an amazing day. We'd started hiking in at 11 am and took off at about 6:30 pm.

Matt checking out the scenery

Matt on Seneca Creek

Upper Seneca Falls horizon

Upper Seneca Falls

Portaging wood

Portaging Knife's Edge (full of wood)

More wood portages

Hiking down

Standing Rock Falls

Scouting the last big drop

Standing Rock Falls

Matt and Maggie hiking in

For more photos see the Seneca Creek Gallery

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