Kayaking fun on headwaters of an iconic Oregon river
Just don’t try to say it too fast: the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River.
If you go
Westfir, Ore. (40 miles east of Eugene, off Highway 58)
Hiking or mountain biking along the North Fork Trail and whitewater kayaking the river.
About the river run
Class III/III+, open after enough rain or during spring snowmelt. For more information, see “Soggy Sneakers: A Paddler’s Guide to Oregon Rivers”
WESTFIR, Ore. — Every now and again, you come across a place with such a wonderfully absurd name you can’t help but smile.
Such is the case with — take a deep breath now — the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River.
That’s 10 words and 14 syllables. Brevity, it seems, is not a priority where geography is concerned.
The name was one reason I loaded up my kayak and headed east of Eugene on a recent weekend, but the real motivation was exploring Oregon’s most iconic river at its beginnings.
The Willamette River is slow and plodding by the time it rolls through the state’s largest cities and a valley home to 70 percent of the population.
But paddling its unspoiled headwaters, emerald green and bouncing down the Cascade Range, was not something to be missed.
“It’s a classic Western Oregon river run,” said Mike Penwell, who lives in Eugene and has kayaked it a dozen times. “Beautiful forest, fun whitewater and nice sunny weather in the spring. I never get tired of it.”
The centerpiece of recreation along the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River is the Office Covered Bridge, a bright-red, 180-foot truss in downtown Westfir that serves as a jumping off point for hikers, mountain bikers and kayakers.
North Fork Trail No. 3666, which runs about 12 miles upstream and connects with a network of mountain trails, begins at the bridge parking area.
Westfir Lodge restaurant is just across the street, and the area makes a good meeting spot, whether you’re traveling on wheels, in boots or a boat.
The trailhead was packed when I arrived on a sunny Sunday morning, full of vehicles with racks and people in spandex and neoprene.
“This is the most beautiful river in the world!” one enthusiastic biker told me.
By the time I took my kayak off the river, it would become tough to disagree.
An Oregon classic
When you’re carrying a kayak through a mossy forest lit with sunshine and the trees open on the gravel shoreline of a crystal-clear river, it’s difficult to imagine living anywhere except Oregon.
That was the feeling from our group of six upon reaching the put-in for the NFMF, after parking at a pullout on North Fork Road 19.
When it comes to kayaking this stream, there are two distinctly different options. The upper stretches of the river include two features — Miracle Mile and The Gorge — that are playgrounds of steep boulder gardens, drops and expert-only rapids that have been a training ground for countless professional kayakers.
We put in below The Gorge for a stretch open to mere mortals that still features four distinct Class III/III+ rapids named Shotgun, Bullseye, Typewriter and Ledges.
“Each rapid has a different character — I really like the variety — and the river doesn’t have any slow or flat sections,” Penwell said. “You can bring people of different ability levels because even after the bigger rapids, there are nice pools to recover in. Even if you get into trouble, you probably won’t pay much of a price.”
The scenery was the main attraction the first few miles. Because the river has Wild and Scenic River status, there are no houses or business along the riverbanks, just deep-green forest and a sparkling water that brought postcard-worthy sights around each bend.
The first rapid of note, Shotgun, required launching off a fun 3- to 4-foot drop. But the most enjoyable stretch was Bullseye and Typewriter. The former drops and swoops around a big rock — the Bullseye — forcing boaters to swing right or left. (There’s an easier option in the middle of the rapid as well).
Typewriter, my favorite rapid, gives you the feeling of swinging right-to-left and back again. This apparently mirrors the motion of a typewriter, but having been born too late for that technology, I’ll have to take the older generation’s word for it.
Downstream came the final rapid, Ledges, and more great scenery.
By the time we took out, I’d decided this stretch of river could use a new name. It deserves more than a collection of “middle” and “north” jumbled together. My suggestion: “Emerald Fork of the Willamette River.”
Either way, whether you’re biking the trail or running the rapids, it’s one heck of a way to spend a sunny spring day.