Thrills and chills of winter kayaking

By Zach Urness / The Associated Press

Published Jan 29, 2014 at 12:01AM

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.

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.

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 only runnable 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.

Getting in the water

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. “You have to understand the force and movement of the water and develop the ability to deal with it. It’s a fascinating challenge.”

Seven miles in on Bruno Mountain Run, Mount Jefferson stood high above the river like a bright white beacon.

“The scenery is superb,” Pavey said.

Enjoying the scenery is sometimes difficult with rapids arriving in back-to-back bursts. 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.