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Winter brings thrills and chills to NW kayaking

DETROIT — Amid the chaos, Stephen Duff made sure not to panic.

The 53-year-old professor of architecture at the University of Oregon just had been knocked upside down in his kayak, flipped underwater by the churning, boiling waves of a Class III+ rapid called Bodacious on the upper North Santiam River.

His helmet smacked against a rock as the river pulled his capsized boat (and upside-down body) downstream, past boulders and swirling water during one of the most disorienting moments in all of outdoor sports.

"It's unsettling to get hit on the head, but I have confidence in my roll," he said. "I have a bit of patience when I'm upside down. I focus on my technique and wait for the right moment."

When that moment arrived, Duff set his paddle and rolled upright, just in time to navigate the lower half of the rapid and exit into the mellow pools below.

"It's obviously quite exciting," he said. "There was a lot of relief and satisfaction in getting back up."

Despite the knock on the head, Duff was thrilled with his first trip down what's known as the "Bruno Mountain Run" — the North Santiam River above Detroit Lake.

A nonstop ride of Class III and IV rapids, Bruno is challenging, scenic and runnable only when rainfall or snowmelt raise stream levels high enough to weave through the playground of boulders.

"I love the numerous and very fun rapids — I can't help but smile at the bottom of each one," said Laurie Pavey, who's paddled Bruno Mountain around 100 times and wrote the run's description in the Oregon kayaking book "Soggy Sneakers."

"The rapids present themselves in quick succession, which really is a bonus."


The best season for kayaking arrives with late autumn rains and lasts until the snowmelt of spring.

Kayakers pull on layers of clothing with a drysuit, gloves and neoprene head warmers to explore tiny, hidden rivers and creeks that rise during the season's saturated months.

The appeal is part whitewater thrill, part discovery of new streams.

And just about anyone can do it. By teaming up with experienced local boaters — in groups such as the Cascade Paddlers or Willamette Kayak and Canoe Club, or working with businesses such as Portland's Next Adventure and Alder Creek — it's not hard to get started.

Take Duff. At 53, and without much experience, he started kayaking five months ago. Because of his focus and willingness to learn, he's already taking on runs as challenging as Bruno Mountain.

"It's something you can learn even when you're not a young person," Duff said. "I'm a big skier, but this is a very different skill set. You have to understand the force and movement of the water and develop the ability to deal with it. It's a fascinating challenge."


We'd been kayaking for about an hour on the 7-mile Bruno Mountain Run when our group leader, Pavey, told us to turn around and look upstream.

Like a bright white beacon, Mount Jefferson stood high above the river, framed by moss-covered trees and greenish-silver boulders.

"The scenery is superb," Pavey said. "There are tall firs, maples and cedars all along the run, and the views of Mount Jefferson from the river are outstanding on a clear day."

Although Highway 22 follows the North Santiam for much of Bruno Mountain, it's hardly notable. The river sneaks below huge overhanging walls draped in moss and into caverns where the rock is emerald green.

Even so, enjoying the scenery is sometimes difficult with rapids arriving in back-to-back bursts.

At Class IV Ricochet, you must navigate a drop and punch through a hole before weaving right-to-left through a metropolis of boulders. At Class III+ Lunch rapid — there's a good snack spot below — you must slide through a narrow opening before turning left down a big drop.

And at Bodacious, well, just staying upright amid the chaos of rocks, waves and frothing holes is the name of the game.

Yet even if you do flip — and feel your head go "bonk" against a rock — remember to keep cool, wait for the right moment and, just like Duff, roll on up and cruise on down.

Zach Collier, owner of Northwest Rafting Co., gets geared up for some winter kayaking in Hood River, Dec. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Statesman Journal, Zach Urness)