Editor’s Note: Reporter Dameon Pesanti and Visuals Editor Pete Caster are traveling the entirety of the 105-mile Cowlitz River.
Day 2: The Wild Roots of the Cowlitz River
As they say, the devil fools with the best laid plans. Pete and I planned on getting to the office early and finishing our work by noon to get to Mount Rainier National Park fast on Wednesday. That didn’t happen.
By the time 4:30 p.m. rolled around, I had finally finished my second story and we still needed a few more supplies and groceries. Also, occasionally I smoke a tobacco pipe, because I’m a bit of an old man at heart (or just too much of a hipster for cigarettes) and this seemed like an ideal time for it.
Unfortunately, mine disappeared over Halloween and it hadn’t occurred to me to replace it until our drive. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a corn cob pipe between Chehalis and Packwood. What has our society come to?
After all our meandering, we hit La Wis Wis Campground at 8:30 p.m. with just enough time to pitch our tents before sunset. After setting up camp, helping Pete pitch his tent and gathering firewood, I had just enough time to roam the campground.
In spite of the asphalt, neatly organized campsites and faux log cabin bathrooms, La Wis Wis is a splendid place. The grove of massive old-growth trees in which the grounds are nestled harken back to a time before wood was a commodity and these coniferous giants covered the Pacific Northwest.
Come dark, I built a fire as any camping red-blooded Montanan would, and set to grilling dinner. The U.S. Forest Service was kind enough to weld grills onto their fire rings, but chose ones just wide enough to send a bratwurst to its fiery doom. Leave it to government to find solutions that are so close to right but still so maddeningly wrong.
Fortunately, what Pete lacks in tent assembly skills (employers take note) he more than compensates with pointy-stick whittling. With the Caster-made custom Douglas fir poker, our sausages were saved and we were back to the races.
We hit the sack around 11 p.m., a bit too late, considering we planned on being up at 4 a.m. and, weather permitting, getting some great sunrise shots in the park. Thanks to the Ohanapecosh River whispering at my side, I was out cold in a matter of minutes. I could live 100 years and never tire of a rushing stream.
Day 3: Once More Into the Tributaries
As much as I’d love to hike to the Cowlitz Glacier, or as close to it as possible, time (and probably physical fitness) is not on our side. As a compromise, Pete and I explored the headwaters in and outside of Mount Rainier National Park.
Our first stop was the Ohanapecosh River just outside of the park boundary. I don’t think I could have prepared my brain for what we were about to see: a deep, mossy, stone canyon cradling a crystal clear river. There are several tight rapids and steep drops on the Ohana, making it off-limits to all but the most advanced kayakers.
It cuts through a mountain of bedrock and meanders around hundreds of boulders along its way to the Big Bottom. There was no soil to be had near the river; the riparian plants had only the moss and bit of hummus to thank for their lives.
I simply don’t possess the language to lasso such natural beauty without resorting to old cliches that have since been torn down and robbed of all their might. It’s a great tragedy that more people can’t feast their eyes on this place.
I had a fascinating conversation with a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist this week. She told me the volcanic rock around this section of Rainier is some of the oldest in the entire region. At several points through history, glaciers filled nearly half of Lewis County — somewhere between 12,000 and 35,000 years ago, by the best estimates.
There’s no reason, she said, not to believe that the Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz didn’t create Box Canyon while the glaciers were still sitting above. Since the Ohana isn’t too far downstream, I presume it had much the same history. (Please, correct me if I’m wrong.)
While Pete was off shooting photos, I couldn’t help but stare into the waters and think of our paralleled histories. While water was presumingly just beginning to trickle down through the bedrock in this area, humanity in Eurasia had just finished the earliest known piece of human figurative art, domesticated dogs and invented needles and saws.
Humans came to North America 25,000 years ago. In half that time, we’d start domesticating sheep and goats. Ice would still be just outside Riffe Lake. Maybe I was caught in the moment, but in a way I felt we’ve made this journey through time together, these waters and us. Both progressing toward some great other beyond ourselves. For these waters it has been the sea, but for us it was new lands and ideas.
Now, thousands of years later, the Ohana continues its journey to the Pacific, wearing an ever deeper groove into the canyon, while we turn our eyes to space and dream of inhabiting new planets. Oh the things that come to mind after a few hours in the forest!
A few hours later we moved up the mountain toward Box Canyon, one of the least visited sides of the park. The Muddy Fork rages through the slot canyon there about 180 feet below the bridge. Despite the beautiful weather, only a trickle of tourists drove into the area. Unsurprisingly, they were all out on family vacations, and this was just one of several stops. As of this trip, one family from Tennessee had visited every state in America, save New Mexico. Regardless of where they were from, the sentiment was the same: This place is beautiful.
Today was our last visit to the park for this trip. Admittedly, I’m a little sad for it. There’s so much to see here, I have to come back soon.
Day 4: Oars Up, We’re in the River
For whatever reason, neither of us slept much last night. It wasn’t worry, at least on my end, that woke me up at 4 this morning. It was anticipation that kept me up.
After waiting for Pete to finagle the perfect shot of us before we left camp, we shoved off at about 9 a.m into the Ohanapecosh River, which eventually joins the Muddy Fork to create the Cowlitz River.
I wasn’t sure what was downstream, but I was transfixed by everything we came across.
The lower canyon is no less stunning than those closer to the National Park entrance. The rapids are only smaller. The bedrock walls cloistered the river into a narrow pinch and were covered by large cedars, rooted into whatever hospitable crack they, as seeds, were fortunate enough to fall into.
As pleasant as it was, the canyon was short-lived, and before we knew it, we found ourselves at the lip of the Big Bottom.
Just past the final wall, we drifted through the canyon’s end and met two 20-something guys off the shore. There are dozens of primitive grounds just off the beaten path in the Gifford Pinchot, and these guys were taking full advantage.
They were traveling up from the Oregon coast after finishing up seasonal jobs in Colorado. These next few weeks, they planned to spend a couple days exploring Mount Rainier while they’re between jobs. We chatted easily, as people in nature do, about other parts of the country we’ve seen and how gorgeous and strange their landscapes were.
After handshakes, we were off again and rolling downstream.
The Big Bottom awaited.
Here the river splits numerous times into a maze of braids and dead end channels. Navigating this was like running a maze where turning back wasn’t an option. We could hardly ever see what was around the bend until we were right upon the curse.
Still, most of the time, our guesses were correct and we avoided log jams and dead washouts. We did get stuck several times, but only twice did we have to get out, grab the ropes and hulk our craft over the stones.
Several times, the channels we chose were barely wide enough to fit the raft. Squeezing in both oars was nearly impossible.
Even into Big Bottom, the Ohanapecosh is as crystalline as water comes, a stark contrast to the slate gray slurry that is the Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz. Their confluence comes at a small bend just outside of Packwood, and from there on the Cowlitz itself is turned a luscious aqua blue. Now, sitting here outside the Skate Creek Road bridge in Packwood, that color has carried us downstream.
The world is an entirely different place from in the center of a river.
I think I drove Pete crazy by asking him at least a dozen times if we had passed Packwood. We saw several animals along the way.
There were at least two river otters lolling in the current ahead of us, though they were swifter than Pete’s draw for his camera. We also were graced with the presence of two eagles and a number of ducks. The avians seemed annoyed we were coming down the river, spiraling into the sky at the very sight of us.
Now into the main Cowlitz, the river is solid, albeit a bit lazy.
There’s a window of high water and, like Indiana Jones diving into the gap at the last second, we’re doing this float just before it closes. I was grateful for the rain earlier this week. It pushed the river up just a few inches, just enough, I’m guessing, to help us through. If we were to start this again, I think I would have started about a month earlier. Sure, the weather wouldn’t have been as ice, but the river would have been more swollen and the rapids more entertaining.
Here’s hoping for a wet summer and an even wetter winter.
Dameon Pesanti / email@example.com