I first heard of Oneonta Gorge shortly after I moved to the Portland area four years ago. The place is like catnip to local photographers. A non-photographer had billed it as a “fun hike,” a designation that doesn’t even come close to describing just how amazing the scenery is and how immersive (no pun intended) the Oneonta hiking experience is.
With its storybook (or, more likely nowadays, epic fantasy film) setting, Oneonta gives off an in media res vibe as soon as you’re between its tall walls. Except that Oneonta itself is the star of the show, and you’re simply a hiker-photographer sent from central casting.
At mid-day, sunlight sets the mossy walls aglow, salamanders can be seen crawling near shadowy pools, and a cool oxygen-rich breeze blows through the canyon–and all of this is set to the echoing score of an endlessly cascading waterfall.
Although Oneonta can be crowded in the summertime, particularly on warm weekends, there’s usually not a lot of foot traffic in there. Part of this is the barrier to entry: a large, oddly stacked logjam. At 10-12 feet high and 30 or more feet deep, the logjam is not to be taken lightly. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how dangerous a slip and fall could be here: One good clunk of your head on the way down, and you’re unconscious in ten-feet-deep water, with no way for anyone who witnesses the accident to give you a hand, much less recover your body. But in the summertime, when water levels are low, the rest of the hike is easy–save for “the deep part.”
About halfway back to the falls is “the deep part,” an area about 20 feet long where the water gets, well, deep. In the summertime this area rarely requires a swim, even for short adults. This place can be tricky for photographers like me, though, who ford this area while carrying thousands of dollars of gear over their head. On all my trips into and out of this area, I had never really had problems going through this part. Until recently.
On my way back from the back-area waterfall, while carrying my pack and all my gear over my head in armpit-deep water, I bumped into a rock with my foot as I was stepping. Unfortunately my momentum continued carrying my upper body forward, and I attempted to take one more step to correct my balance, again encountering the same rock that impeded me the first time. Apparently it was a much larger rock than I realized. Despite frantically kick-starting a large underwater rock in an effort to catch my balance, my entire gear bag (water-resistant but NOT waterproof), which was safely overhead, ended up going in the water. Somehow, against all odds, this 20-pound-bag managed to float long enough for me to quickly retrieve it after resetting my feet.
As I lifted the dripping bag over my head I was doing a mental tally of the cost of replacement, the photographic equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes, and I noted how much heavier my bag was now that it had taken on water. As soon as I had the opportunity I got to a semi-dry place (not easy to find in Oneonta), and unzippered the bag so that I could check the contents and begin properly weeping. To my surprise, even though the entire outer nylon shell was soaked with water, only a few drops of water had actually made it in, probably through the zipper itself.
To say I was relieved was an understatement.
Anyway, the rest of the hike out was uneventful, and I’ll be rethinking my no-drybag-needed policy for future outings in that gorge. If you live in the Portland area and haven’t checked out Oneonta (and have good enough balance to climb over the logjam unassisted), I urge you to do so before the autumn rains begin. You won’t regret it. Unless you drop your electronics in “the deep part.”