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 at Cowlitz.SeesouthwestWa.com. They are also posting regularly to Twitter (@JourneyCowlitz) and Instagram (journey_on_the_cowlitz).
Friday-Saturday, June 5-6: A Long Day’s Float Followed a Campground So Sweet
Possibly the best element of a trip like this is falling into the rhythm of the natural world.
Sure, I’m still working just as hard — if not more so — as I do when I’m in my office back in Centralia, but the hours are more fluid and take on a different meaning.
Whether it’s self-created or an adaptation to someone else, I think there’s harmony lying below the surface. You wake up at this time, go to work at that building with these people, pick the kids up at this place, go to that store before it closes, pay your bills on this day, go to bed at that hour.
In my life, those behaviors are so far below the surface they’re practically automatic. But for these two weeks on the river, those routines have gone out the window and I’m left with the cycles of the sun and the tendencies of the river.
As I’ve said in other stories so far, we rowed hard from the morning well up to dusk on Friday after departing from La Wis Wis Campground along the Ohanapecosh River.
Part of the joy in exhaustively pushing myself through a long day’s work is savoring the flavors I otherwise wouldn’t give much thought to. Realistically, yesterday wasn’t so much about pushing as it was pulling — pulling our raft through the canyon, over rapids, around rocks, onto shore — but mostly down the lazy upper Cowlitz River by about 6 feet per stroke.
As far as rivers go this time of year, she’s a lazy, wide-mouthed stream, now that humans have anesthetized her fiery personality with three hefty concrete dams.
But that doesn’t mean she’s without risk or personality.
While most of the time the Cowlitz is slow to anger, all in Southwest Washington know her fury.
Each river has an attitude.
Any river rats worth their neoprene will tell you of the polite but antagonistic relationship we have with the water. A stiff current is always great when you’re seeking a little excitement, but can also be absolutely maddening when you need to slow down or get back up stream. Even the smallest currents can drive you nuts.
Ask anyone about their first few days at the oars.
I think of rafting and kayaking as dancing with a strong-willed partner. It’s best to understand right away that she will do whatever she darn-well pleases, and the best way for you to get what you want out of the engagement is to make your move around hers. If you don’t like it, then you can just prepare to die.
The outcome isn’t always that severe, but make no mistake: the river will always win.
If you’re too bold with her, she’ll pin your craft against a logjam with the force of all the water she can muster from upstream, or she’ll trap you in a recirculating hole from which escape is not guaranteed. Sadly, even those who do pay her the respect she commands still occasionally are found on the wrong side of the surface.
Washington state is full of angry waterways. Fortunately, for the purposes of our journey, the Cowlitz is a kind mistress — save the occasional snarl and snag.
We had every intention of stopping for camp around Packwood, but we couldn’t find a worthwhile spot. There was a god-awful wind blowing upriver. Every beach was a rock garden, and most of the forested sides looked like private land.
I’m a pretty charming guy, but I’m not sure I could talk my way out of a confrontation with an East County rancher who spotted two trespassers squatting on his place.
So on we rowed, and rowed, and rowed and rowed toward what we knew was a campground somewhere up ahead.
By the time we saw the RVs poking out of the trees near the U.S. Highway 12 bridge between Randle and Packwood, my back muscles were ready to slip off my spine. We stopped just upriver of a few campers and scrambled up the bank and through the brush to get to the property.
When an older woman sitting outside her camper spotted our rough mugs coming out of the trees, she turned to her companion and said, “Oh, look. Bush people.”
We found Jim Shepard, one of the employees of the Cascade Peaks Family Campground, and explained who we were and what we were doing. He lit up at the idea of our journey and offered us a free place to stay for the night.
Under typical circumstances, receiving gifts as a journalist is a huge no-no, but because this trip and this diary is not a typical pursuit of journalism, I felt in this instance it was acceptable.
As dusk settled in, I set to build a fire, but we didn’t have paper to start it. My trip companion and Chronicle Visuals Editor Pete Caster tried to use some moss, but it proved too damp to catch.
Here, dear reader, is where I give you a bit of knowledge.
Tortilla chips are excellent, if not the best, fire starters. I can’t speak to all chip varieties, but the grease left over from the creation fryers of those crisp, golden, triangles of deliciousness is enough to ignite, with the drop of a match, a flame that burns large and hot enough for even the thickest of kindling.
Even in spite of a fire, you don’t realize the vacuous dark of the night sky until you escape the city lights. As much as I wanted to savor it, after I got some food in my belly, it wasn’t long before I hit the sack.
Sunday, June 7: A Hot Sun and a Daunting Task
As fun as this trip has been, it was hard leaving that campground. We floated from Cascade Peaks down to Randle. By car, you could make that drive in under 10 minutes. Take a raft down this slow and incredibly meandering section of the Cowlitz, and plan on spending about eight hours pulling at the oars.
For the first few miles, the river banks yawn wide, the current relaxes and gravel bars snake just a few inches below the surface before suddenly giving way to deep, turquoise channels.
Buzzards hovered in the breeze around us and occasionally flocked to the dead trees scattered along the shore. I didn’t know Washington had buzzards until recently, and I think they stared at me just as curiously as I stared at them. They’re oddly beautiful animals. Even in the wind, the scavengers glide easy on ebony wings, their red heads seemingly the only things that distinguishes them from ravens. A couple bald eagles combed the water, as did a number of low flying osprey.
At one gravel bar, we met a group of people standing around a couple quads and admiring the water. Ken and Karen Egger were over from Yakima, visiting their in-laws Don and Kathy Palen.
As soon as the good weather hits, the Palens leave their camper at the river and visit nearly every weekend. The Vancouver residents aren’t allowed to build a permanent structure on their property — it’s in the flood zone — but they make maximum use of their little slice of the Cowlitz Valley each year.
Ken Egger said it’s a welcome reprieve from the pace of life where he lives in Vancouver and owns and operates a mobile RV repair business.
They were all too happy to tell us stories and point us in the direction of a few elk upriver.
Our chance encounter with the group highlights what we have seen throughout the early portions of this journey — absolute, unfettered kindness.
Having exchanged names and information, we turned our raft west and again began the slow journey downriver.
At midday the current picked up, but the trees and submerged logs became so thick I almost thought the river had swallowed a forest. So far, no area has tested my oarsmanship as much as this one. The bossman himself, Chronicle Editor Eric Schwartz, joined us for this leg of the journey. He and Visuals Editor Pete Caster acted as lookouts for the many sunken lurkers that threatened to slice our floor in two. Heeding their warnings, I bobbed and spun from one side of the river to the other. More than once, we collectively held our breath as I missed some logs by only a few inches before spinning us back around to dodge another.
The trees begin to clear where the river twists into such tight serpentines that going around a bend almost feel like going backwards.
I spun the nose upstream and put my back into the oars. Eric and Pete sat on the tubes in front of me and paddled between my strokes. Despite our efforts, we moved at a little more than a crawl. If there was ever a time for chain gang work songs, something to imply finality to seemingly endless and futile work, this was it.
Salvation came in the form of a big steel and concrete bridge in the heart of Randle.
Burnt, dehydrated and exhausted, we scaled the sandy bank and headed for town. Maybe it was a trick of the brain or some vague hallucination, but I swear I heard angels at the sight of the Mount Adams Cafe.
With its classic diner feel and tasty American food, the place is a gem on U.S. Highway 12. The food was delicious, but I hardly had a chance to taste it because I ate so quickly. We chatted and swapped river stories with the owner, Don Lund. He, too, tried to float the Cowlitz years ago, but a nasty encounter with a logjam cut his trip short.
In a fortuitous twist, Lund offered to haul our raft across Riffe Lake in the coming days. Not looking to waste unnecessary time but still hoping to travel along the entire course of the river, his kind offer provides a compromise of sorts.
In one last gesture of the friendliness we absorbed from Packwood to Randle, he picked up our check, scrawling a note across the top.
“Thanks for not misquoting me,” it said.
Still hungry, and itching to write a bit later, I went across the street to the Big Bottom Bar & Grill, another Randle gem, for a mountain of curly fries, a glass of beer and a couple hours at the keyboard. After a game of pool, I was too tired for more than just a few sentences. So I crossed the highway and pitched my tent on a sandy bank of the Cowlitz River.
In the coming days, we’ll approach the three dams that give the Cowlitz River its form.
As daunting a task as this 105-mile journey seems, the events of the last few days have given us the mental fuel to move forward.
By Dameon Pesanti / firstname.lastname@example.org