The Cliffs of Tay Creek

I wouldn't call Tay Creek the perfect whitewater day trip close to my hometown. It's a narrow stream that is runnable usually only early in the spring, or after a substantial rainfall in the summer and fall. The high water will only last at most one day after the rainstorm anyway.

launch (138K)
These gents launch into the Tay on a warm summer's day.

Wood can be a hazard too. It's unsettling to be rushed around a tight blind turn and confront a fallen tree spanning the stream. This predicament usually calls for a split-second decision to gun your boat for the near shore, or plow nearly helplessly into a tangle of sharp and unyielding sticks. But I guess trees can, and do, fall into just about any stream.

But if you catch it just right, and warm sunshine and deep water come together for you, Tay Creek can be bliss. That spring a few years back was one of those freaky El Niño events, when late season rains and warm, sunny next-days provided for great paddling long after the last dribs and drabs of snow were history.

My brother Paul and I put into the South Branch of the Tay by the Royal Road, and the water was several inches above the bridge pediment stream-side. Local paddlers agree that when the water laps against the top of the pediment, it's the best water level for running the Tay. Much lower, and you're scratching. Much higher, you're rushing hell-bent through (or over) rock gardens, perfect for intrepid risk-takers.

My brother is a bit like that. He will take the steepest run on the ski hill, edge out on the narrowest high ledge on the mountain-side, and seek the skinniest vee through the river's rapids. So this personality trait of his was what got us into a pickle on this day. Note I didn't say “flaw.”

We were enjoying warm late spring sunshine, sliding down smooth ledges and ghosting past or over gnarly rocks with abandon. Perhaps it was too perfect.


The Tay is wild and cold in the spring freshet. Spray skirts, wet suits and caution are mandatory.

Paul decided to head for the outer rim of the river bend, hoping to catch a seductive sluice and bob down a sweet wave train. Just as we skirted the gateway stone, a trailing alder branch reached out for us and flipped our canoe into the stream. In a heartbeat, our boat swung sideways and inwards, presented its innards to the current, and pasted itself onto a large rock. It was turned completely inside out, broken-backed and splayed, with its aluminum keel, thwarts and seats mangled beyond recognition.

Away downstream forever went my spare paddle, my prized flannel jacket, my cooler with our lunch and beverages. No amount of poking and prying could lift our boat off the rock, pinned as it was by the unrelenting power of the current. Luckily, we managed to gain the bank without being swept downstream ourselves. We were deep in the steep canyon, kilometers and hours far from any road.

Tay Creek
The Tay is a pleasant paddle
if the water level is not too high.

What now? Walking up- or downstream along the shore was out of the question. We would have to go into the river over and over again to avoid the steep banks on either side. We would have been carried helpless far downstream if we ventured out even a few feet into the raging torrent.

We briefly contemplated jumping into the river and floating down on our backs until we came to a road, but realized right away that was tantamount to suicide. Despite the buoyancy of our life-jackets, just one pin on a rock or one jolt on our unhelmeted heads would be the end of us.

So we started up, through the alder jungle at river's edge and onto the steep hillside into the thick forest. It seemed we were climbing close to perpendicular on the cliff for the longest time, trusting our weight upwards by grasping exposed tree roots even as our footholds gave way. Loose rock slid underfoot and downhill under our sneakers. Don't look down!

Finally, we were able to stand hunched over, and then upright. We padded along a faint game trail that gradually morphed into a path, then a logging road. As we emerged onto a genuine navigable dirt road, we managed to flag down a big old black car, almost full of young men driving aimlessly, out for a spin. The good ole boys to the rescue again! We were most grateful for the lift back to our own car at the put-in.

So that was the death of my first canoe, a stubby Coleman. I really didn't miss it, the aluminum inner framework had all been bent before the crash, and the gunwales of the same metal were cold and hard on the hands. I did try to recover it, but I realized I really didn't know where it was, and no paths led into that stretch of the river anyway. Good riddance, Coleman.

I've been back on the Tay several times since, and hope to run this stream again next spring ... on an El Niño sun-drenched day.

The Flip and the Swim


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