Journey on the Cowlitz

By The Chronicle & SeeSouthwestWA.com

Dena Niemi, of Glenoma, left, and her friend, Kim LaFrance, of Mineral, were planning on going paddle boarding on Riffe Lake on Tuesday evening, but their plans were altered because of the choppiness of the water. Instead the pair set out lawn chairs and enjoyed the sunset.

Journey on the Cowlitz: From Randle to Riffe

Monday, June 8: Randle to Scanewa Is Hot, Flat, Beautiful and Tiresome

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. Follow their journey online on Twitter (@JourneyCowlitz) and Instagram (journey_on_the_cowlitz).

Damean takes a break from rowing on Monday afternoon to check his phone for service while outside of Randle. Monday's hot weather mixed with the river current slowing to a near halt and a nasty headwind made for a tough day on the river.

Damean takes a break from rowing on Monday afternoon to check his phone for service while outside of Randle. Monday’s hot weather mixed with the river current slowing to a near halt and a nasty headwind made for a tough day on the river.

Forgive me dear readers, for I have lied to you.

Although it wasn’t intentional, I sold you a bill of goods when I said Sunday’s trip was the most difficult. The truth is, Monday was the worst. Unless we end up having to row across Mayfield Lake, I can’t foresee any future days on this blessed journey becoming more difficult.

“I sold you a bill of goods when I said Sunday’s trip was the most difficult. The truth is, Monday was the worst.” — Dameon

A cow dips its front legs in the Cowlitz River on Monday afternoon outside of Randle.

A cow dips its front legs in the Cowlitz River on Monday afternoon outside of Randle.

I wish I could tell you about how I physically prepared for this trip months in advance. I’d claim I passed the weeks before departure with a banner of the word “Cowlitz” high over my home gym as I exercised as if I were reenacting a Rocky movie, but alas, that would be a lie.

If it were on film, my exercise montage would definitely have “Eye of the Tiger” playing in the background, but instead of me jogging around Philadelphia and punching sides of beef, I’d be jogging to this tasty Indian restaurant just around the corner from The Chronicle’s office and shamelessly devouring massive quantities of food at the all you can eat buffet.

A large unrooted tree sits in the middle of the Cowlitz River west of Randle as cattle meander up the bank after taking a dip in the water on Monday afternoon.

A large unrooted tree sits in the middle of the Cowlitz River west of Randle as cattle meander up the bank after taking a dip in the water on Monday afternoon.

My cut scenes and B-roll would be a mix of my biceps flexing as I heaped huge piles of food onto my plate, my face froze in a sweaty grimace as I hauled the load back to my table, my jaw muscles clenching over and over, and the whole thing would end with a closeup of the buttons on my shirt stretching to their maximum.

I did go for a few intense bike rides from time to time. If you saw any of the photos or videos of me doing back flips off the raft these past few days, you should be as impressed as I am that my legs were able to get that belly of mine over my head.

With all that work I did, I’m still trying to figure out how it got there.

A view from the Cowlitz River looking north outside of Randle on Monday afternoon.

A view from the Cowlitz River looking north outside of Randle on Monday afternoon.

Visuals Editor Pete Caster and I started our day with two massive breakfasts, coffee and a bit of work at the Mount Adam’s Cafe in Randle, and we left feeling pretty good.

That all changed when we returned to our beach campsite below the Cowlitz River bridge. It was a million degrees outside, I swear. It was so hot that neither of us could do anything to put our camp away for about 15 minutes; we just stood there paralyzed by the blistering heat.

Once I did get moving, the sand burned my knees and the palms of my hands, and the surface of our rubber raft all but took off the first layer of our skin.

A tree leans towards solidarity and sun at one of the bends of the Cowlitz River near the Cowlitz Falls Dam Park on Monday evening.

A tree leans towards solidarity and sun at one of the bends of the Cowlitz River near the Cowlitz Falls Dam Park on Monday evening.

The heat made every minor detail a huge issue. A couple empty Gatorade bottles and a few plastic bags on the floor of our raft got me so annoyed with the perceived haphazard condition of our boat that I just started tossing things out and repacked it all over again.

As is almost always the case, life was better on the water.

It was still very hot, but I oared us under the shady overhanging trees for most of the float, which made a world of difference. The cerulean current carried along gently. Song birds called out at every bend. Calves and cows greeted us by the riverside, until we got too close and they scampered up the bank. A bald eagle taunted us by launching out of the trees, flying over the river and hiding somewhere in the timber ahead.

Dameon's oar splashes against the Cowlitz River as we row Cowlitz Falls Dam Park on Monday evening.

Dameon’s oar splashes against the Cowlitz River as we row Cowlitz Falls Dam Park on Monday evening.

But about 2 miles after leaving Randle, the current slowed and then stopped entirely as the headwinds laughed upstream. Even with me putting my back into the oars and Pete paddling hard, we moved at a snail’s pace.

If we stopped, the raft stopped.

Either that, or it turned sideways and drifted a little upstream. It was this way for about 11 miles. We estimated our pace to be about 6 feet per stroke, a rate we figured would get us to Lake Scanewa sometime next month.

Dameon performs the Patented Pesanti River-Raft-Backflip into the Cowlitz River on Monday afternoon.

Dameon performs the Patented Pesanti River-Raft-Backflip into the Cowlitz River on Monday afternoon.

The seemingly endless flat water and mild sun exhaustion trapped me in a philosophical quandary that typically only comes up on late nights in a college dorm.

“When is a river a lake?” I wondered.

I mean, if it’s blocked by a dam, isn’t a river just a faster flowing part of the lake? Where is the defining line? How slow does it have to be before it’s considered lake water? Lakes have currents, why aren’t they rivers? What do the words “water” and “current” actually mean anyway?

Clearly, I’m not a scientist.

It wasn’t long before the evening set in. We hadn’t seen a person in miles. Our conversations slowed to a halt and the world was silent, save the rhythmic squeak and splash of my oars at work.

A trip of ducks skim across the water as they fly low along the Cowlitz River Monday evening near Cowlitz Falls Dam Park.

A trip of ducks skim across the water as they fly low along the Cowlitz River Monday evening near Cowlitz Falls Dam Park.

As we got deeper into the lake, the shore pulled away from us a little more with every stroke. At one point near a boggy spot of the lake, a splash broke the silence and Caster exclaimed he saw what he was sure was an otter.

Hoping for a photo, I oared as hard and quiet as I could toward the ripples.

Behind us, I saw another brown head flick the surface before diving again. We sat with bated breath, waiting. Then some grass rustled near the shore, sounding like something ran off. Feeling a little defeated, we rowed on, only to hear another splash upstream.

Dameon checks his phone on Monday night at Cowlitz Falls Dam Park.

Dameon checks his phone on Monday night at Cowlitz Falls Dam Park.

I spent more time on the phone than I care to admit. Back in cell service, I volleyed calls between my editor, Tacoma Power, the U.S. Geological Survey, Lewis County PUD and another reporter.

Somehow, Pete and I had to get ourselves around the Lewis County PUD’s Cowlitz Falls Dam at the west end of Lake Scanewa and meet with USGS for a story before 9 a.m. the next morning.

Later, we’d also have to meet with the dam operators for another package. With the newsroom on deadline Tuesday morning, a ride from Editor Eric Schwartz wasn’t an option, and PUD wouldn’t help us get our raft around the dam. Apparently, the Risk Management Department thought we were too much of a liability.

As usual, when we finally landed at about 8 p.m., Pete and I were exhausted.

Monday night's sky seen from Cowlitz Falls Dam Park

Monday night’s sky seen from Cowlitz Falls Dam Park

Then things got complicated on the shores of Scanewa.

Initially, I improvised a plan for reporter Justyna Tomtas to pick us up where we camped at 8:30 the next morning. Then we’d all go to the dam and divide and conquer the stories.

But that didn’t solve our raft issue.

There’s only one boat launch on Scanewa, and it’s a busy one. We didn’t want to leave our rented raft and all of our other equipment tied up for three hours in such a busy location unattended. Plus, the grounds are covered with signs that say “day use only.”

Low water levels along the Cowlitz River expose the roots of an alder tree on Monday afternoon west of Randle.

Low water levels along the Cowlitz River expose the roots of an alder tree on Monday afternoon west of Randle.

I hiked around looking for a spot to camp, but thought better of it for fear of our stuff getting stolen.

We needed a better plan.

We called Justyna and had her come get us and the gear and the three of us checked into a hotel in Morton just after midnight.

It wasn’t an easy decision.

In fact, it was pretty frustrating, but we got the stories taken care of and the raft moved around the dam.

Still, it meant missing the Cispus River confluence and a little bit of the lake. Given our other responsibilities, it seemed like the correct call.

The Cispus and I aren’t done.

We’re pressing on for now, but I’ll be back before this series is finished.

 

Tuesday, June 9: Far, Far From Glamping at Riffe

USGS hydrologic techinicians Tom McKenna, left, and  Dan Restivo, collect information on the water flow of the Cowlitz River below the Cowlitz Falls Dam on Tuesday morning.

USGS hydrologic techinicians Tom McKenna, left, and Dan Restivo, collect information on the water flow of the Cowlitz River below the Cowlitz Falls Dam on Tuesday morning.

Our Tuesday morning started with a trip up Riffe Lake to see how the U.S. Geological Survey measures water levels below the Cowlitz Falls Dam.

We rode with them deep into the canyon and were back onshore before 1 p.m. There was ample time for us to get on the oars and row out, but Don Lund, the owner of the Mount Adams Cafe in Randle, offered to give us a tow across the lake the next day.

Staring out at that 23 miles of choppy, windswept water, it was a ride neither of us wanted to miss.

For at least one day, we were stuck.

Grass along the eastern shore of Riffe Lake blows in the wind as Larry Frantz, of Graham, windsurfs on Tuesday afternoon.

Grass along the eastern shore of Riffe Lake blows in the wind as Larry Frantz, of Graham, windsurfs on Tuesday afternoon.

There’s a free camping area just before Taidnapam Park on Riffe Lake that we decided to stay at. It’s a known and popular spot for hang gliders and campers who aren’t willing to pay for the more developed campground down the road.

For the purposes of our trip, on Tuesday night the price was right and the view was great.

Unfortunately, it was the worst camping spot so far.

Evidence of human carelessness was everywhere.

Just off the road, there’s a big parking lot area and an outhouse surrounded by huge bags of garbage and glass bottles. Move down to the lake, and at several places you’ll see where people had ignored the “no vehicles” signs and driven off the road and through the marsh areas lining the water.

Campers walk by as Larry Frantz, of Graham, windsurfs along the eastern shore of Riffe Lake on a windy Tuesday afternoon.

Campers walk by as Larry Frantz, of Graham, windsurfs along the eastern shore of Riffe Lake on a windy Tuesday afternoon.

Down at the shore, there were tags from this and pieces of that poking out from the rocks. Without trees, there was no shade to escape the midday heat. Pete and I just set up our tents and did what we could to stay cool.

It wasn’t until after we broke camp that we realized there was a dirty diaper and several baby wipes sitting in our fire pit. Needless to say, we didn’t have a campfire.

I feel like you see peoples’ true sides in extreme, or at least abnormal, situations.

The Cowlitz Falls Fish Facility is seen on the left from a view from the control deck at the Cowlitz Falls Dam on Tuesday. The facility is downstream from the dam, and is owned by Tacoma Power.

The Cowlitz Falls Fish Facility is seen on the left from a view from the control deck at the Cowlitz Falls Dam on Tuesday. The facility is downstream from the dam, and is owned by Tacoma Power.

This campsite is a prime example. Of course, if you chide them and have a garbage can every couple feet, people will clean up after themselves, but left to their own devices, they’d much rather just leave their garbage everywhere than be inconvenienced with having to carry it out.

Shame on all who think it’s fine to leave garbage lying around.

Maybe the blame can’t be entirely on the litter bugs, because aside from the two outhouses and a few signs preaching responsible recreation, there were no dumpsters or facilities to speak of.

Diesel, a 3-year-old yellow lab, runs back to shore after his owner, John, of Puyallup, tossed the ball into Riffe Lake on Tuesday afternoon.

Diesel, a 3-year-old yellow lab, runs back to shore after his owner, John, of Puyallup, tossed the ball into Riffe Lake on Tuesday afternoon.

There were several other people camped near us and more than a dozen day-use types came and went, but none were all too friendly. One couple even parked their SUV about 10 feet away from our tents, stared at us for a few minutes, then set their lawn chairs on the other side of their vehicle. Maybe they thought we were traveling salesmen, religious fanatics, or saw our raft and thought we were pirates.

I’m not sure. Either way, none were interested in conversation, except for a couple ladies.

Dena Niemi, of Glenoma, left, and her friend, Kim LaFrance, of Mineral, were planning on going paddle boarding on Riffe Lake on Tuesday evening, but their plans were altered because of the choppiness of the water. Instead the pair set out lawn chairs and enjoyed the sunset.

Dena Niemi, of Glenoma, left, and her friend, Kim LaFrance, of Mineral, were planning on going paddle boarding on Riffe Lake on Tuesday evening, but their plans were altered because of the choppiness of the water. Instead the pair set out lawn chairs and enjoyed the sunset.

Near the evening, Kim LaFrance, of Mineral, and Dena Niemi, of Glenoma, came out to try their new paddle boards, but the wind and high waves put a stop to those plans. So, rather than get out on their boards, they watched the sun sink behind the hills.

“It’s not like it’s wasted time,” Niemi said.

In spite of it all, she was right.

 

Wednesday, June 10: Hang on and Stay Warm for Riffe Lake Haul

Boaters fight through the choppy waters of Riffe Lake on Tuesday morning along the North Taidnapam boat launch.

Boaters fight through the choppy waters of Riffe Lake on Tuesday morning along the North Taidnapam boat launch.

Our ride was coming at 9 a.m. and we still weren’t packed, but we didn’t panic until they drove past with a friendly honk and wave on their way to the boat launch on the opposite side of Riffe Lake.

Not wanting to make the Lunds wait, we scrambled to throw everything into the waterproof bags and then into the raft.

A01_150611What had been just days ago a neatly packed, highly organized excursion craft had morphed into a floating version of the Clampett family truck. But we got it out on the water and rowed into the waves with plenty of time to spare.

We met the couple in open water.

They had just recently purchased a handsome mid-80s boat named the Mer Sea and were taking it out for only the fourth time. Determined to say we were in our raft for as much of the Cowlitz as possible, we roped the raft to the Lunds and hung on for the ride. Because the raft has a soft rubber floor, neither of us could move around too much, Pete sat on one of the thorts and I perched myself on a tube.

A09_150611For the next two-and-a-half hours, Pete and I bounced and splashed along behind at the mercy of the Mer Sea. Don pulled us at only about 8 knots, a pace comfortable and safe for all of our equipment, but just fast enough to be a challenge.

It kind of reminded me of trying to pin down a giant fish in really shallow water for about two and a half hours.

Nearly every wave was coming over the top and nailing us in the face while simultaneously hitting the tubes with enough force to make the whole raft bounce.

A08_150611Although we weren’t doing any rowing, the ride was a lot of work. However, it was much better than the alternative. Riffe Lake is 23 miles long, and a brutal wind likes to blow east across it, kicking up sometimes 3-foot waves. In a boat, that would make for an uncomfortable afternoon, but in a raft, it would be nothing short of an exhaustive nightmare.

Without the help of the Lunds, I figure it would have easily taken us three days to get to the other side.

A07_150611With about 20 minutes to go, Don called us up into the boat with them and we had some sandwiches and talked of life in East Lewis County.

I can’t thank the Lunds enough for their kindness, which mirrors much of what we encountered as we traveled from La Wis Wis Campground to Randle those first few days.

We landed at Mossyrock Park just short of 1 p.m. to find the place largely empty.

We set up camp and spent time talking to Tacoma Power, trying to organize a visit and shuttles around the dams.

You’ll see how successful we were in the coming days, as we prepare to cross Mayfield Lake before setting our raft in the direction of Longview and continuing our journey.

It’s still Columbia River or bust as far as we are concerned.

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com

 

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Cowlitz Falls Dam: Low Flows, High Fish Counts

1 Comment

  1. Margie Trentlage

    Beautiful pictures and a fun read.

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