Journey on the Cowlitz, The Chronicle, June 2, 2015 / TDC-150602-A008

Journey on the Cowlitz, The Chronicle, June 2, 2015 / TDC-150602-A008

The View from Above the Basin

news.150528.cowlitz.aerials.upper.phc0867From about 1,500 feet up, the cities of Lewis County look like toy villages built into the threadbare patches of an old scrunched-up shag rug. Descend any lower and humanity’s imprint becomes more real and you see how we’ve imposed a geometric order over the natural world. Trees, like green starburst sentinels, stand in checkerboard formations, often abutting sprawling green fields or housing developments at the edge of town.

Climb higher and the cities begin to lose their character to become gray and black webs floating in a choppy green sea. 

Soon, the curve of the Earth becomes apparent and all metaphors are lost when Mount Rainier comes into view. 

news.150521.cowlitz.aerials.phc0363In preparation for a two-week float down the Cowlitz River, The Chronicle took two exploratory flights over the waterway, from where it pours into the Columbia River up to its glacial origins in the Southern Cascades. 

Our pilot was Dave Neiser, a former deputy with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office who spent the majority of his nearly 40-year career flying over the county looking for illegal marijuana grow operations. 

He retired in 2009, and the state legalized pot just three years later. 

Now, he enjoys his retirement exploring the Pacific Northwest with his wife in his 1972 Cessna Cardinal. 

When the weather broke, Visuals Editor Pete Caster and I met Neiser at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport for our first flight. I’m a pretty experienced rafter, but if we are going to float down this entire river, I needed to be above it and see what obstacles (aside from three dams) might be standing in our way.

news.150521.cowlitz.aerials.phc0403On the first flight, the weather stopped us from going too far up river. Huge stacking clouds loomed in East Lewis County and none of us wanted to risk flying into a lightning storm. Instead, we flew near Mossyrock Dam and then followed the river until it met with the Columbia at Longview.

I’ve never been the type to get motion sickness, but I didn’t anticipate our pilot’s ability to maneuver his plane like he was the Red Baron. But with every mile my lunch stayed down and my spirit soared as I saw the world below us. From the tree farms and ranches, to the mills and ports, it was obvious how humanity has benefitted from living along such a waterway. 

Small rapids form under a bridge at the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center at Mount Rainier National Park. The river is a major tributary of the Cowlitz River.

Small rapids form under a bridge at the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center at Mount Rainier National Park. The river is a major tributary of the Cowlitz River.

The river is long, mostly lazy, and cuts through a mostly bucolic landscape, but that’s only what I saw on the lower section. 

I couldn’t make it for the second, and arguably most important, flight to the upper section of the river up into Mount Rainier National Park. Aside from some of the state’s best kayakers in the uppermost headwaters, few people float the Cowlitz above Salkum, so there isn’t much information in the rafting community. 

Fortunately for us, Caster mounted a camera to the plane and recorded the entire river. For this journey to be successful, I need to know how choked the Cowlitz is. 

I have a lot of footage to watch.

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com