Thursday and Friday, June 11-12: Below Mossyrock Dam Is a Canyon So Stunning

Editor’s Note: Reporter Dameon Pesanti and Visuals Editor Pete Caster are traveling from the headwaters of the Cowlitz River to its confluence with the Columbia River in Longview. They reached the Barrier Dam near Salkum Friday, and will continue their trip beginning Monday. They are also posting regularly to Twitter (@JourneyCowlitz) and Instagram (journey_on_the_cowlitz).

Dameon checks his phone while we were being towed across Riffe Lake on Wednesday morning.

Dameon checks his phone while we were being towed across Riffe Lake on Wednesday morning.

From Randle down, everything about the Cowlitz River changes.

At this point, the wild spirit of the river is broken by human ingenuity and yoked into obedience. Trees and pastures give way to lake houses, resorts, boat docks and a whole new kind of recreation for which a whitewater raft is ill-fitted.

Early Wednesday morning, we caught a ride from Riffe Lake around the Mossyrock Dam from Tacoma Power. Cowlitz River Project Manager Larry Burnett and Assistant Project Manager Chad Chalmers gave us a tour of the powerhouse at the bottom of the dam. Looking up at the 606-foot-tall behemoth, I thought of the James Bond movie “GoldenEye” and half expected Pierce Brosnan to come leaping off the top.

Geese fly towards the west end of Riffe Lake at Mossyrock Park on Wednesday evening.

Geese fly towards the west end of Riffe Lake at Mossyrock Park on Wednesday evening.

Tacoma Power was more than generous to the two of us.

Getting across and around Lake Scawena, Mossyrock and Mayfield was by far the most challenging part of this entire journey. Not only did Tacoma Power make time to show us the inside of their facilities, but they also sent employees Chad Taylor and Rick Hill with a trailer to move us around the Mossyrock Dam on Thursday and the Mayfield Dam on Friday.

I’m not sure how we would have done it without them, though at one point the idea of lowering us over the dam in a crane was mentioned (in jest I’m sure).

Geese wade in the water on the western shore of Riffe Lake near Mossyrock Park on Wednesday evening.

Geese wade in the water on the western shore of Riffe Lake near Mossyrock Park on Wednesday evening.

I’m very ambivalent about dams.

I recognize electricity as the cornerstone of modern life and all its benefits. As an environmentally conscious person, I much prefer hydropower to coal. But seeing the river choked reminds me that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Blocking off the Cowlitz effectively halted salmon and steelhead runs that had been moving up stream for a millennia or more. It’s true that in recent years Tacoma Power has done well with their hatchery programs to restore some of what was lost, but nothing replaces Mother Nature.

The tree covered hills on the south side of Riffe Lake

The tree covered hills on the south side of Riffe Lake

As a boater, I can’t help but be sympathetic to the “never forget, always lament” kind of attitude held by the state’s kayaking and rafting communities about the 42 miles of white water rapids now sitting beneath the lakes. Whitewater types are like the spicy food lovers of the world. It’s a taste not commonly held, but the people that like it really like it and they’re disappointed when their tastes aren’t met.

Water splashes up onto the front of our boat as we get towed across Riffe Lake by Don and Kathy Lund on Wednesday morning.

Water splashes up onto the front of our boat as we get towed across Riffe Lake by Don and Kathy Lund on Wednesday morning.

For everyone else, the lakes and the surrounding parks and campgrounds created since the dams were installed have created a world of recreational opportunities much more accessible to the general public than a deep and narrow river canyon. Riffe and Mayfield are loaded with boats used by anglers, family vacationers and water skiers all enjoying the water, not to mention the dozens of businesses that have cropped up to cater to them, bringing much needed dollars to the east end of the county.

A butterfly sits on rope in the back of Don and Kathy Lund's boat on Wednesday afternoon along Riffe Lake.

A butterfly sits on rope in the back of Don and Kathy Lund’s boat on Wednesday afternoon along Riffe Lake.

On Thursday, Tacoma Power’s Chad Taylor dropped us off at Ike Kinswa State Park. While loading up at the dock, we met Dan Barton, an Onalaska resident with a day off and a mind to slay some fish. Seeing that his battery was low and we were about to row across the lake, he gave us a tow. Not only did it save us work, but it charged his boat up enough for a day of trolling. With the wind still low, Pete and I rowed west until Dannie Richardson met us about midway. He volunteered to tow our raft back to his place, the Lake Mayfield Resort and Marina, and give us a place to stay for the night.

Richardson is a character as kind as he is entertaining.

Danny Richardson keeps his eye on the water as he drives us back to the Mayfield Resort from the gorge below the Mossyrock Dam on Thursday afternoon. Richardson is a retired helicopter pilot and his stories along with the slow trip of the gorge made for one of the most pleasant afternoons so far on the trip. Richardson, 65, has traveled all over the world as a helicopter pilot and had a plethora of stories for two open eared journalists.

Danny Richardson keeps his eye on the water as he drives us back to the Mayfield Resort from the gorge below the Mossyrock Dam on Thursday afternoon. Richardson is a retired helicopter pilot and his stories along with the slow trip of the gorge made for one of the most pleasant afternoons so far on the trip. Richardson, 65, has traveled all over the world as a helicopter pilot and had a plethora of stories for two open eared journalists.

A former helicopter pilot who in the military flew missions in Vietnam, then, as a civilian, flew professionally to remote locations around the world, Richardson divides his time between running a resort and fishing the lake in his new boat. He has a rare skill to tell stories of his world traveling experiences that are engaging without being braggadocios.

He took us deep into what remains of the Cowlitz canyon below the Mossyrock Dam, a world virtually unseen to those without a boat, and one I’ve been dying to visit since I moved to Lewis County.

Though I’d become jaded by our perceived return to civilization at the lakes, I was awestruck by what we found below the U.S. Highway 12 bridge. The water, which upstream ran with a turquoise hue, has been filtered by the dams and now looks like over-steeped green tea.

A man and his dog head out fishing early Thursday morning on Riffe Lake near Mossyrock Park.

A man and his dog head out fishing early Thursday morning on Riffe Lake near Mossyrock Park.

With a fish finder, you can see where the river channel snakes between underwater cliffs. Often in just a couple feet toward one bank or the other the depth goes from 12 feet to around 80 the entire way up to the dam. Gradually, the lake’s shores squeeze inwards and upwards and the banks reach high overhead. In this place, all traces of humanity are gone. Despite the prominence of the Highway 12 bridge, it makes only a short appearance before being lost behind the canyon walls. Life here thrives in green abundance as moss, ferns, wildflowers and trees cling to the cliffs and compete for the sunlight (see photos on pages Main 8-9). If brought to this place blindfolded, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a tributary deep in the Amazon.

Danny Richardson keeps his eye on the water as he drives us back to the Mayfield Resort from the gorge below the Mossyrock Dam on Thursday afternoon. Richardson is a retired helicopter pilot and his stories along with the slow trip of the gorge made for one of the most pleasant afternoons so far on the trip. Richardson, 65, has traveled all over the world as a helicopter pilot and had a plethora of stories for two open eared journalists.

Danny Richardson keeps his eye on the water as he drives us back to the Mayfield Resort from the gorge below the Mossyrock Dam on Thursday afternoon. Richardson is a retired helicopter pilot and his stories along with the slow trip of the gorge made for one of the most pleasant afternoons so far on the trip. Richardson, 65, has traveled all over the world as a helicopter pilot and had a plethora of stories for two open eared journalists.

“If this were the Blue Nile that’d be the perfect place for an alligator,” Richardson said as we cruised past the small coves that dot the gorge.

Bird songs filled the air. At one point, a great blue heron stood perched on a rock and warily watched us roll by.

“If he’s here you know there’s fish here,” Richardson said.

Within a couple miles of the dam, the current gently returns and licks tiny swirls past gentle upwellings. It begins to knock the boat around in rocky channels almost too narrow to turn back. Unexpectedly it all opens up again about a mile from the dam. There was still lots of water to explore, but Richardson’s responsibilities forced us to turn around. 

People canoe next to the shoreline of Mayfield Lake on Thursday afternoon.

People canoe next to the shoreline of Mayfield Lake on Thursday afternoon.

We spent the afternoon on the flat, comfortable and grassy shores of the Lake Mayfield Resort. Sleeping on a leaky bedroll gives you a whole new appreciation for even ground. As nice and luxurious as these campgrounds are, I’m dying to return to the moving water.

We’ll do that when we return to the river early Monday morning after a brief return to civiization over the weekend.

We plan to reach Longview in the coming week.

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com