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Dreams really do come true in this sport. For as long as I’ve considered myself a whitewater kayaker (going on 8 years now), I’ve fantasized relentlessly about running the pristine waterfalls of Eagle Creek, OR. Some of the first kayaking videos I watched included those of Rafa Ortiz and Aniol Serrasolses hiking up the densely forested trail, along sheer cliffs, to the crystalline waters above Punch Bowl and Metlako Falls. It was, it appeared to me, the ultimate expression of the art of whitewater: a river accessible only by foot, enjoyed by many from the trail, but fully appreciated by a precious few at water level. For years I pictured myself approaching the lip of these drops, staring down the boils below. Sometimes I could lose myself in a daydream only to realize minutes later that my heart rate had shot up to the low 100’s while sitting in class or lying in bed.

Dreams do Come True

Early on, sheer inexperience kept me from pursuing these gems buried in the Oregon wilderness. I could barely control my boat in class III boulder gardens, let alone over the edge of a waterfall. Slowly, as I progressed on the water, I started to feel my dream becoming a possibility. That is until the devastating Eagle Creek fire ravaged the surrounding area in fall of 2017. Nearly 50,000 acres of forest were burned, the Eagle Creek trail shut down, and the river deemed likely unrunnable due to the inevitable deadfall and landslides that would follow. So began the (not so) patient waiting.

Dreams do Come True

It wasn’t until late 2021 that I again heard whispers of people venturing back to Eagle Creek. Even as day hikers returned in droves to the popular trailhead, a tone of apprehension remained amongst whitewater fanatics, largely due to a number of log jams and landslides that had obstructed the river. Eventually, a small group of kayakers made the trek up to Punch Bowl and navigated slowly down the river through Metlako back to the trailhead. Of note (I was told) were a massive landslide which forced a portage just below the first falls and a sizable wood pile in the landing of the second – neither of which lent themselves to the dreamy mission I had envisioned all these years.

Dreams do Come True

In late January, 2022, I got a brief text from Axel Hovorka – a Bend local and easily the most fearless 17-year-old I’ve had the pleasure of paddling with. Axel was keen on a Punch Bowl mission. A number of crews had run both Punch Bowl and Metlako in recent weeks, and while they all reported great lines and (relatively) easy access to the upper falls, none had shared any inspiring stories about the pool below the taller, more consequential drop. Many, perhaps most kayakers would scoff at the idea of hiking more than two miles to run a single 30-footer, especially if it involved hiking the same two miles back down the trail while shouldering a boat. But Axel and I were ready to be done waiting, we agreed to meet at 10am the following day.

Dreams do Come True

The parking lot shimmered with frost as I rolled up to the trailhead, greeted by a near hundred gawking faces from people who clearly expected to see anything but a couple of kayaks heading upstream. We wasted no time getting started. Half wearing our drysuits with the arms tied around our waists, PFDs and sprayskirts around our necks, boats on shoulders, we started up the muddy trail. It didn’t take long for me to realize I’d worn too many layers (this damn hiking stuff is hard work), but encouragement from some friends that joined us and the abounding PNW beauty made the trudge go by quickly. The area had clearly changed from pictures I’d
seen, scorched tree trunks and fallen old growths replaced what was once dense, green walls of forest.

We stopped briefly at Metlako Falls to catch a glimpse of the pool below. It looked surprisingly good given the jumble of wood to the right of the boil – we decided to plan on hiking out before the lip. Better to leave wanting more than wishing we’d done less. Another half mile or so up the trail we came to the overlook we’d been anticipating. Axel reached the horizon line before me, taking all of three seconds to size up the drop before deciding out loud that it was good to go. “Perfect flow, let’s do it” he said before I’d even caught my first glimpse.

He was right. As I gazed out across the pool from our vantage point, I couldn’t help but smile. Punch Bowl looked exactly as I’d always imagined. The river poured in from the right side of the lip, forming a huge foamy pile which boiled off the left wall before plunging 30 feet into a deep green pool. We took no more than 5 minutes to gear up and hike the remaining quarter mile to a less than ideal access point. Shuffling my boat down a loose skree field, I focused my mind on the line I’d envisioned hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. Finally, we reached water level, hopped in our boats, and began paddling downstream.

We stopped just above the 10-foot entrance ledge which feeds the pool at the lip of the falls. Here, we jumped out of our kayaks to make one final scout from the lip. The first thing I noticed was the surprisingly powerful boil in the pool above the drop which pushed hard into the right wall. The second thing I noticed was that the foam pile at the lip of the drop was actually about three feet tall, more than tall enough to make me worry about getting swallowed in the seam and losing control of my angle on the descent. Regardless, there was no way I was about to hike out – having carried all my gear this far, there was only one way down.

Dreams do Come True

We launched into the pool above the falls and took a moment to recite some of Axel’s favorite advice: “Go with the flow, keep your bow low, do what you know… a little past vert won’t hurt.” Axel volunteered to lead the charge. I blew my whistle to signal to our audience that the show was about to start (we’d amassed quite a group of spectators while gearing up) and watched as Axel paddled towards the lip. He had to work a bit harder than I think even he’d anticipated to get through the boils and onto the foam pile. He planted his last stroke and glided over the horizon line. I counted five or so seconds until the crowd let out some whoops of celebration – just long enough to make me wonder how Axel’s line had gone. I blew my whistle once more and focused.

I lined up about a boat-width higher than Axel had, anticipating that I too would have to paddle hard to overcome the current. I charged hard to build up speed, planting one final stroke as I rode down the greenwater ramp onto the foam pile. My bow rose effortlessly over the turbulence as I turned my shoulders to face the horizon on my right. There was a moment of weightlessness as I bounced off the foam and separated from the water. I kept my right paddle blade in the flow, easing into a sort of low brace and pushed shoulders to my knees. I watched as my bow dropped to meet the pool below, tucked my paddle to the right, and closed my eyes to enjoy one of the purest thrills one could ask for.

It felt as though the boil in the landing had reached up to welcome me. I almost couldn’t believe it. Punch Bowl is renowned for dishing out some savage hits as the pool is mostly green, the aeration from the veil extending only a couple feet in any given direction. The water felt strangely warm as I landed. I felt the bubbles on my face as I resurfaced upright in the pool. Axel was grinning nearly as wide as I was, his line had gone just as well. After a few more hoots and hollers from the spectators, we took a moment to enjoy the majesty of our surroundings before continuing downstream, portaging over the landslide, and hiking back up to the trail just below.

Dreams do Come True

I must’ve replayed the brief seconds from lip to pool another hundred times on the hike out, reveling in how well they aligned with my dreams from years prior. Axel and I linked up with our friends just below the overlook at Metlako. They’d been exploring the cliffs below the trail, trying to get a better look at the landing of the 80-foot falls. To my and Axel’s surprise, it appeared that a recent high water event had pushed some of the logs higher onto the riverbank, away from the landing. As tempted as we were to hike back upstream and get both drops, the sun was dipping behind the pines and my shoulders were aching from the hiking we’d done already. We agreed to save it for another day.

Shoulders thoroughly bruised, still smiling wide, I rounded the last corner on the trail and dropped my boat next to the car. As I changed out of my damp layers, I couldn’t help wondering if we would’ve had as much fun on Metlako as we did on Punch Bowl. It’s easy to focus on what you may have missed at the end of the day. Through my meandering thoughts of bigger drops and longer spring days, I decided our mission had been exactly what I needed. With one day on Eagle Creek under my belt, I could feel the anticipation building for another trip up the trail to the stouts above. Loading up, I let my mind start to wander, imagining the adventures that await. Let the daydreaming begin yet again.