How Tacoma Power Plans for the Cowlitz River Inspired One of the State’s Greatest Adventurers Into a Career of Conservation

By Dameon Pesanti /
wolf3The Cowlitz River was once a favorite recreation spot for Wolf Bauer, a man many consider the father of mountaineering and kayaking in the Pacific Northwest.
Although his efforts to stop the construction of the Mayfield and Mossyrock dams were in vain, the experience was the catalyst for his efforts to protect the Green River Gorge and other waterways around the state.
Born in 1912, Bauer was in his 20s when he made the first accent to Ptarmigan Ridge on Mt. Rainier and then began teaching the first generation of American mountaineers the basics of European-style high elevation summiting. In the 1940s, Bauer was considered one of the best climbers around when he shifted his gaze from the mountains to the rivers.
wolf2After World War II, he and several friends brought the sport of foldboating to the Pacific Northwest. Designed in the Bavarian region of Germany in the 1920s, foldboats were essentially the forefathers of the modern whitewater kayak. They were long, made with a wooden frame wrapped in a rubberized canvas and made to be disassembled and folded into two or three small bags. To build interest in the sport, Bauer taught foldboating classes at local YMCAs for over 25 years.
With a snorkeling set and belays from climbing friends, Bauer taught himself about river currents at different depths. Later on, he and his mountaineering friends made the first descents in many of the major rivers around Washington. He mapped many of the rivers around the state and applied the now-standard river rating system (class I-V) to every section they encountered. In 1948, he founded the Washington Foldboat Club, which later became the Washington Kayak Club.
wolf1Below what are now Riffe and Mayfield lakes in the Cowlitz River Basin were Mayfield and Dunn canyons. Together they made up more than 40 miles of intermediate whitewater rapids. The canyons were unique in that while most rivers in Western Washington run on a bed of glacial till, the Cowlitz had dug itself deep into solid bedrock, forming walls 80 feet high in some places.
The Cowlitz River Canyons were rare geographic beauties that were favorites of Bauer’s.
In 1946, the city of Tacoma had started planning to dam the Cowlitz. The project was mired in controversy from the beginning. Fishing organizations, both commercial and private, tried to block the construction of the Mayfield and Mossyrock dams, citing the impact they would have on fisheries. But construction went on anyway, officially beginning in 1955.
In “Crags, Eddies & Riprap: The Sound Country Memoir of Wolf Bauer,” written by him and Lynn Hyde, Bauer was described as “an engineer who liked to play in the mountains” who was concerned about natural resource exploitation.
According to the book, he would later transition into one of the state’s biggest environmental advocates, but first, “It required a catalyst to galvanize his thoughts, turn his energies to conservation, and change the direction of his life. That catalyst was Tacoma City Light’s plan in the 1950s to dam the Cowlitz River.”
In 1958, Bauer and the relatively small Foldboating Club threw themselves into the mix. He invited Bob and Ira Spring, two renowned photographers, to join him and several others on a trip through the canyons to document the splendor that was within. The Seattle Times ran a full-color Sunday edition about the trip on July 13 of that year. Some images featured boaters wearing enormous old Army surplus lifejackets while floating through large wave-trains beneath abandoned railroad bridges. Other pictures show them camping along the shores and huddled around a campfire. The whole spread ended with one kayaker sitting at what was the start of a Tacoma City Light cofferdam.
It was too late for Bauer to save the Cowlitz, but it galvanized his resolve to spare other rivers from the same fate.
In the mid-1960s, he focused on the Green River Gorge. He and his wife explored and photographed it, then showed the images in a slideshow to the Washington State Parks Department. Later on, he penned an article for The Seattle Times about the gorge called, “A Ribbon of Wilderness in Our Midst” in which he described the canyon as a remote and beautiful place within commuting distance of a million people.
Public pressure moved the state to set aside money to buy the surrounding land from a number of stakeholders and thus protect the gorge.
“Recalling the high points in one’s life becomes a growing pleasure with age. There are those that you cherish, and those that others have recognized. Of those I own, the Green River Gorge experience overshadows all the others,” he wrote in his memoir.
Bauer sought to capitalize the success by rolling the momentum into other conservation projects around the state. Troubled by unregulated development along the state’s waterways, Bauer drafted the “Natural Shorelines Act” in 1969 as a softer approach to erosion control. The measure didn’t pass, but the ideas were rolled into into the powerful Shoreline Management Act, which was passed in 1971.
His conservation work inspired him to shift careers from engineering into an influential shoreline resource consultant and became a founding member of the Washington Environmental Council.
In a 2005 interview for the article “Wolf Bauer, Eighty Years on the Sharp End” in Northwest Mountaineering Journal, Bauer said, “I think my most lasting contribution will be my work in ecology, since I switched from engineering to environmental education.”
The Chronicle tried to get an interview with Bauer, but at 103 years old, time has robbed him of many of his memories and the invitation was politely declined. An acquaintance of his referred the newspaper to his book and a few of the clubs and organizations he founded. Our pursuits of those people were also mostly fruitless since Bauer has outlived many of his contemporaries.
To the people that knew Bauer, he is a living legend.
As a sidebar to the story about him, the Mountaineering Journal ran a quote from Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest.
“Wolf Bauer has been an inspiration to me and my brother Lou, a real hero for us. I can’t say enough about him. Wolf brought mountaineering from Europe to the Northwest — skiing, climbing, mountain rescue — the whole ball of wax… As a mountaineer, you climb on the shoulders of your predecessors. When I stood on the summit of Mount Everest, I was standing on the shoulders of men like Wolf Bauer.”