The Little North Santiam River is one of Oregon’s most beautiful streams, with waterfalls, old-growth forest and mossy canyons.
But that is just the view from land.
Dive below the surface with a snorkel and fins, and you will discover an entirely new side of the Little North. It is an emerald world teeming with wildlife, hidden caverns and no shortage of surprises.
River snorkeling is a somewhat under-the-radar form of outdoor recreation in Oregon. But it does seem to be growing in popularity, said avid river snorkeler Conrad Gowell, who helps manage a Facebook and Instagram group that highlights pictures and trips.
“It seems to be gaining momentum,” he said. “More and more people are reaching out for gear recommendations and trip reports.”
I decided to get into river snorkeling after hearing the stories of wildlife biologists, who use snorkels to count fish in Oregon’s rivers and creeks. Coming nose to nose with a steelhead or salmon seemed like a lot of fun. And, as a whitewater kayaker, I have long wondered what lay below my boat.
I purchased my first snorkel setup (mask, breathing tube and fins) in July and was ready for action.
The Little North was the first place to visit, because I have always loved its clear water and glorious deep pools for swimming. But I knew there was more to see.
And so, on one of those boiling hot days last week, I loaded the snorkel and fins into my backpack and headed out.
I was joined by Salem adventure photographer Jeff Green, a certified scuba diver. Our plan was to hike into some of the larger, less-traveled and more interesting pools along the Little North Santiam Trail.
Call it snorkel hiking, or “snorking.” I’m still working on the name.
From the trailhead, Jeff and I carried our gear a little more than a mile before we found a hole worth exploring, right below a small waterfall.
I had practiced setting up the equipment beforehand, which was nice, because it did not take much time or effort to get in the water. That is actually one of the things I have enjoyed about river snorkeling so far — it is pretty simple to get started.
Jeff wore a wet suit, and I wore my kayaking dry suit, but that is not necessary. In the heat of the day, the Little North swimming holes are the perfect mix of refreshingly cool without being frigid, and you could go in a swimming suit.
From the first moment I dove into the water, I wondered why I did not pick up snorkeling sooner.
My view below the surface was emerald glass, with numerous trout darting among giant boulders. The best part was below the waterfall, where I was enveloped in so many bubbles it felt as though I was inside a freshly cracked can of soda.
But that was just the beginning.
After the first hole, we headed to a wider section of the river and swam out into a canyon filled with deep pools. Some of the holes were shockingly deep, as though a grand canyon was spreading out below the water.
We continued up the canyon, climbing above waterfalls and jumping into the pool above, each new pool bringing something unique.
Our favorite moment was swimming into a small cave, deep in the canyon.
“You could take a picture of this place and tell somebody that it’s from Tahiti,” Jeff said. “But it’s right here in our backyard.”
The worst part was coming across trash at the bottom of what feels like a pristine river. Jeff picked up a long, plastic hose, and I nabbed a few beer cans.
Gowell, also a conservationist with the Native Fish Society, said river snorkeling provides a real window into the health of a river system.
“I’ve snorkeled some of the most degraded watersheds in Oregon trying to figure out how to restore them,” he said. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to see fully functioning rivers complete with species some people have never heard of.
“For me, it’s a way to go to the river without needing to extract something from it, a way to figure out what’s below the water’s surface and learn to coexist better within my environment.”