June 15, Monday: Barrier Dam to Toledo Is a Step into a Wholly Different Type of Cowlitz

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.

People take a trip down the Cowlitz on Monday morning near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery in Ethel.

People take a trip down the Cowlitz on Monday morning near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery in Ethel.

It’s hard to ignore the pungent smell of dead fish at the Barrier Dam boat launch and even harder to escape it. For fishermen, it’s a sign of a promising hole. For three sleepy newspapermen, it’s good incentive to blow up the raft and get to better-smelling waters.

On Monday, Visuals Editor Pete Caster and I were joined by Sports Editor Aaron VanTuyl to kick off the final third of our journey down the Cowlitz River. We were greeted by grumpy fishermen, fellow adventurers and a number of beautiful homes.

In order to keep things as live as possible, we took the weekend off and started anew Monday morning. With the speed Pete and I have moved down the river, we would have finished this trip before today’s newspaper was printed. It felt like cheating, but sleeping in my own bed was a refreshing experience.

Anglers fish at the base of the Barrier Dam on Monday morning in Salkum.

Anglers fish at the base of the Barrier Dam on Monday morning in Salkum.

We also skipped the mile or so of water between Mayfield Dam and Barrier Dam. Rebuilding and breaking down the raft for such a short trip seemed like far too much effort for such little reward. And, while it’s true Barrier Dam is small enough to float a raft over, traversing a low head dam is a wholly stupid and extremely dangerous idea. They don’t call them “drowning machines” for nothing.

Everything about the Cowlitz changes below the Barrier Dam. The river’s spirit returns again, but it’s not the beast it is at the mountainous upper reaches. For better or worse, the metered discharges from the dams and reinforced banks are like fluvial Prozac; they do away with the river’s hostile behaviors and bring it down to manageable, predictable levels. Side effects may include swollen reservoirs, increased energy, unnaturally consistent flows and decimated fisheries. Talk to your power company for more information.

A man casts his fly fishing rod along the shoreline of the Cowlitz River on Monday morning near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery in Ethel.

A man casts his fly fishing rod along the shoreline of the Cowlitz River on Monday morning near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery in Ethel.

I don’t think I have to tell you about the number of fisherman that flock to barrier dam when the fish are running. Even on a Monday morning the place was full of anglers — most of whom weren’t very friendly, on this day at least.

At one point, we floated past three chubby guys in their late 50s fishing out of a drift boat who chuckled at us and made feeble cracks about “the dangerous falls” up around the next bend.

“We almost lost grandpa up there years ago,” one said.

A boater heads up stream on the Cowlitz River on Monday morning near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery in Ethel.

A boater heads up stream on the Cowlitz River on Monday morning near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery in Ethel.

While some fishermen could be obnoxious, there were none worse than the client-carrying fishing guide. This is not true of all, but some think they own the whole river — especially the prime fishing holes. It was nothing for them to scream upstream at full speed just a few feet away from us, but God forbid our non-motorized craft float within 30 feet of them when they’re floating in the center of the river with poles out.

I get it, it’s a service job and they’re out there to ensure customers have the best possible experience, but a little consideration!

Aside from us, the only other floaters out there today were a group of four people in a very stout drift boat. In the center was one man in a red life jacket pushing hard at the oars, treating his job like it were an exercise regimen, not a joy ride. Turns out, it was both.

People fish along the shore of the Cowlitz River near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery on Monday morning.

People fish along the shore of the Cowlitz River near the Blue Creek Trout Hatchery on Monday morning.

They all declined to give their last names, but two couples — Jeff and Betsy and Miller and Sharon — were all in their mid-60s with a host of shared wilderness adventures under their belts. Monday they were warming up for a 211-mile excursion down one of the most famous and wild waterways in the West — Idaho’s Salmon River.

Their boat was a handsome silver and red aluminum drift boat, welded and reinforced into a white water basher named “Latikuf.”

When asked about the name, Jeff just laughs and says it was his midlife crisis boat and leaves it to you to figure out.

A deer walks through the Cowlitz River on Monday morning.

A deer walks through the Cowlitz River on Monday morning.

“When there’s kids around I tell people it’s an old Norwegian name with all of these special meanings,” said Betsy. “But it makes more sense to the dyslexic.”

The closer you get to Toledo the shallower the river becomes, but there’s always at least a few feet beneath you. The submerged forest groves of the east are non-existent, but a few trees have tumbled off the hills to spend their final days reaching out to the middle of the river.  Dozens of homes, some of which resemble mountain chateaus, also start to appear along the banks. Occasionally we saw people lounging on their porches, sipping at drinks and gazing onto the water. Some didn’t notice us, but others offered full-arm hellos as we drifted by.

A water snake slithers through the rocks along the shoreline of the Cowlitz River on Monday morning.

A water snake slithers through the rocks along the shoreline of the Cowlitz River on Monday morning.

We completed the day in Toledo at about 1 p.m., much earlier than I anticipated, but still with plenty of time to file this report. Tomorrow we’ll head to Castle Rock to find what awaits us at the Toutle’s confluence.

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com

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