Paddling: Cowlitz Tributaries Offer Extreme, Virtually Unspoiled Whitewater

By Dameon Pesanti / dpesanti@chronline.com

Travis Lee paddles down a small ledge in the Ohanapecosh River in late June. LeeÕs 8-foot kayak is a Òcreek boatÓ meaning itÕs designed to plow through steep shallow rapids and remain as upright as possible.

Travis Lee paddles down a small ledge in the Ohanapecosh River in late June. Lee’s 8-foot kayak is a “creek boat” meaning it’s designed to plow through steep shallow rapids and remain as upright as possible.

The uppermost reaches of the Cowlitz Basin has a landscape like that from another time in history. It’s virtually untouched by the modern world, and the waters tumbling off the shoulders of Mount Rainier are seen firsthand only by the most experienced whitewater explorers.

The Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz, Ohanapecosh, the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz and even the uppermost stretches of the Cispus rivers often run through old-growth forests and into deep craggy canyons that offer class V rapids and waterfalls sometimes up to 40 feet tall. In some places, the trunks of petrified old-growth trees with some bark still remaining poke out of the water.

Travis Lee drops into one of the falls on ÒPetrifiedÓ a class V feature on the Ohanapecosh River named for the petrified tree that sits near the shore of the rapid. The river is a favorite among extreme kayakers in the Pacific Northwest, but it is often avoided at low flows due the increased danger boaters face of being pinned against a rock or tree.

Travis Lee drops into one of the falls on ÒPetrifiedÓ a class V feature on the Ohanapecosh River named for the petrified tree that sits near the shore of the rapid. The river is a favorite among extreme kayakers in the Pacific Northwest, but it is often avoided at low flows due the increased danger boaters face of being pinned against a rock or tree.

“It’s one of the most scenic places out there, completely beautiful in every way,” said Dan McCain, a rafting enthusiast from Portland. “The whitewater — especially on the Clear Fork — is just amazing, it’s nonstop whitewater.”

McCain is a rare breed of rafter in that he runs parts of rivers that are typically reserved to kayakers only. Rather than using oars, McCain and just one other person sit on opposite sides of the raft and paddle their way through the rapids. When they drop over waterfalls they quickly lie back in the raft and hang onto a strap running through the center of the boat.

Travis Lee scouts “Petrified” — a class V whitewater feature on the Ohanapecosh River named for the enormous old growth tree that juts out of the stone walls. The tree is visible now, but under typical June conditions, it and much of the surrounding boulders would be submerged.

Travis Lee scouts “Petrified” — a class V whitewater feature on the Ohanapecosh River named for the enormous old growth tree that juts out of the stone walls. The tree is visible now, but under typical June conditions, it and much of the surrounding boulders would be submerged.

McCain has run the Clear Fork, which is considered to be the most difficult navigable stretch of all the tributaries, in a raft. As with all of them, many places in the canyons are very narrow and choked with boulders, but the Clear Fork is notorious for its logjams, which can change dramatically on a year-to-year basis.
“There’s been a couple years that no one even ran it,” he said. “The Ohana you can hike out of, but in the Clear you’re pretty much committed. I don’t know if I’d go in on a first descent of the season.”

Travis Lee paddles into a small slide on the Ohanapecosh River on June 26. The 16-mile-long glacial river is widely known and loved in the extreme kayaking community of the Pacific Northwest.

Travis Lee paddles into a small slide on the Ohanapecosh River on June 26. The 16-mile-long glacial river is widely known and loved in the extreme kayaking community of the Pacific Northwest.

Jared Page, 35, and Travis Lee, 39, are two well-seasoned kayakers who, despite coming to the upper basin for years, had never paddled the Muddy Fork. But what started as an afternoon boat trip quickly evolved into a two-month expedition involving helicopters, rappelling spotters and ziplines to complete what they believe was the first descent down the highest reaches of the river.

Between the two of them they have been kayaking for about 25 combined years. Page has lived in Centralia for most of his life. Lee lives in Mukilteo, but comes down to the Cowlitz Basin on a regular basis. The two of them run the Ohanapecosh on a near weekly basis when it’s at the right levels.

Travis Lee acts as a spotter for Jared Page as he descends the 18-foot Ohane Falls on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park. At higher water levels the river pours over most of the rock Lee is standing on.

Travis Lee acts as a spotter for Jared Page as he descends the 18-foot Ohane Falls on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park. At higher water levels the river pours over most of the rock Lee is standing on.

The two read about the trip in “Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington,” a book commonly used by kayakers and rafters in the state.

“I read about this run in the book. I wanted to go check it out because I like the Cowlitz,” Page said. “It said put in (at Nickel Creek), it said easy class V. We put in and all of the sudden it looked more serious and committed.”

The first drop was about 5 feet, but it seemed too big to fit the description of what was in the book so they stopped to scout.

Travis Lee maneuvers though a class IV rapid on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park on June 26. The river is an extremely popular run among top-tier kayakers around the Pacific Northwest but few run it when itÕs this low due to the increased danger of being pinned against an obstacle.

Travis Lee maneuvers though a class IV rapid on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park on June 26. The river is an extremely popular run among top-tier kayakers around the Pacific Northwest but few run it when itÕs this low due to the increased danger of being pinned against an obstacle.

“I don’t like the fact I was so trusting of the book because it wasn’t at all what was in there,” Lee said. “It looked good. There was a 20-foot waterfall, then further down was a 40-foot waterfall. It was, ‘Holy … this looks doable, but this is not at all what we signed up for.’”

They hiked out and returned to civilization to plot their course.

Page describes the river as something like an angler fish and they as its prey. Although it was incredibly dangerous and required a huge amount of effort, they couldn’t help but be drawn to it.

“My sister says I was possessed for a while,” he said

Travis Lee paddles out from a small pool and down a small drop on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park on June 26. In a typical year the boulders around him would be submerged, but the dry weather has put the Ohane at  water levels usually not seen until early August.

Travis Lee paddles out from a small pool and down a small drop on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park on June 26. In a typical year the boulders around him would be submerged, but the dry weather has put the Ohane at water levels usually not seen until early August.

A friend who happens to be a helicopter pilot made a couple passes over the river and shot footage of the water for them, but it didn’t show everything. From August to early October in 2009, they spent the weekends at the Muddy trying to run just 6 miles. They hiked along the river, studied its features and ran it when they could.

When it was time to go home, they’d leave their boats in the water like a bookmark in a novel so as to not lose their place along the journey.

“A few times we had to walk out of the river because something went wrong” Lee said. “It took us a long time to break it into pieces that were runnable.”

Travis Lee maneuvers though a class IV rapid on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park on June 26. The river is an extremely popular run among top-tier kayakers around the Pacific Northwest but few run it when itÕs this low due to the increased danger of being pinned against an obstacle.

Travis Lee maneuvers though a class IV rapid on the Ohanapecosh River just outside of Mount Rainier National Park on June 26. The river is an extremely popular run among top-tier kayakers around the Pacific Northwest but few run it when itÕs this low due to the increased danger of being pinned against an obstacle.

At certain points their friends repelled into the canyon for safety and to shoot video. One particular feature was so bad they had to run a zip line across it to ferry their gear and themselves to the other side. At one point the canyon twisted and hid the river from view.

“That canyon is very committing and from the top it, deceptively, looks like it’s runnable,” Lee said.

“It’s about 100-feet deep and there’s a point at the top it’s like 5 feet. You can’t see the sky from the inside.”

The canyon featured several big drops before the gradient relaxed. But just when they thought they were in the clear, they came around a corner to find the river swirling into a giant hole.

“I didn’t know what it was; I’d never seen anything like that before but I knew it was bad,” Page said.

The canyon formed a roughly 15-foot toilet bowl, at the back of which the water disappears underground. They thought the water might just pop out below. After all, they could see another pool just beyond the one they were in. But a closer look revealed that it was basically standing still.

If the water was coming out there, it likely was deep below. They had to paddle against the current as it drew them toward the hole. Fortunately they found a small ledge that ran around the pool just beneath the surface and were able to rock climb their way over the whirlpool and out to the next pool.

The final day came in early October. It took the entire day to make it through the gorge, and they had to find their way to camp in the dark.

They’ve never gone back to that section of the Muddy. Running it was just too hard and took way too much planning for such a short run. Instead, both of them make regular trips down the Cispus and the Ohanapecosh. Those rivers are relatively well trodden and offer terrific paddling just a little ways off the beaten path — no helicopter required.