June 16, Tuesday: The Big Push from Toledo to Castle Rock and on to Longview
Editor’s Note: Reporter Dameon Pesanti and Visuals Editor Pete Caster finished traveling from the headwaters of the Cowlitz River to its confluence with the Columbia River in Longview Wednesday.
In its continuous march to the sea, the Cowlitz River has meandered like a snake slithering through the grass. Winding through Southwest Washington, it has eroded curved stretches of the shore while leaving rocky banks on the other side.
In the handful of places along its path the earth has resisted and the vegetation has held firm, but, undeterred from its path, the river simply captures bits of land in a watery embrace, forming long slender islands along the way. In the area around Toledo, people block its path with great piles of jagged stone and built houses above the banks.
Downstream from the Interstate 5 bridge, the slow pools begin to grow, the little slides of swiftwater that follow get shorter and I found myself leaning hard into the oars.
About a dozen fishermen were out trying their luck. All were friendlier than what we encountered earlier, but none reported catching anything. One such duo, Tom Staudinger, 60, and his grandson, 16-year-old Kaleb Carroll, were out chasing steelheads. Staudinger, a Castle Rock native, has fished this river all his life and knows it well. He’s passed on his passion for the sport to his grandson and it has become something for the two to bond over.
“All I remember is fishing with him,” Carroll said.
“We go together as much as we can,” Staudinger said. “With weather this nice, we should be out every day.”
The swift river we found ourselves in between Barrier Dam and Toledo lost its momentum, slowed to a crawl then practically a dead stop for several miles around Vader. Locals call it the frog waters, because unlike the rest of the river, the water is supposedly slow enough for a frog to live in. I couldn’t see the bottom, but I knew it was deep. Floating through here I understood why paddle boats seemed like a viable business so long ago.
With the nose of the raft faced upstream, I pulled hard on the oars while Visuals Editor Pete Caster and Reporter Kaylee Osowski, who was visiting with us for the day, sat in the front and paddled along. Our efforts fell in and out of sync and the raft sort of twisted and waddled its way toward Castle Rock. The going was slow and the sun was hot, but our time was made easier by the frequent deer, low-flying eagles and the osprey nests we came across.
The water remains virtually motionless until the Toutle River pours in and reinvigorates the current, but with the extra flow comes a ton of silt from Mount St. Helens. Seeing the two rivers merge is like staring into a sink as someone rinses paint from a tray. We’re all thrilled for the extra speed, but I was made nervous by the lack of visibility. There are still a number of trees and a whole host of new sandbars lying invisible below the surface. I would have hated to float into the wrong branch, so I asked my friend Alexis Eggertsen to sit behind me and probe the waters with a paddle so we could feel our way through the murk.
When we came upon the Al Helenberg Memorial Boat Launch in Castle Rock at about 4 p.m. we smiled at the docks as if they were old friends awaiting our arrival. Osowski and Eggertsen headed home. Caster and I camped on the sandbar that, to the dismay of the city, has built up between the shore and a dock. We rested that night and pushed to Longview the next day.
June 17, Wednesday: The Final Push
I expected to be awoken early by a stream of boats pouring into the river at Castle Rock and motoring out for the catch. Instead it was the sunshine that got me.
This section of river has been long on my mind. I’ve fished here once before and I’ve seen how congested it can be, but I was pleasantly surprised to find only one guy working his boat out of the water.
Chronicle Reporter Justyna Tomtas joined us for the final stretch. She took to the oars quicker than anyone else and rowed us for quite a ways. To save energy and move faster, she came up with the idea of putting one person on each oar and rowing simultaneously. It was such a simple but effective plan that Caster and I couldn’t help but wonder why, in two weeks, we had not thought of that before.
In these roughly final 13 river miles, the current is slow and the river is wide. Of all places, I don’t think humans put more pressure on the Cowlitz anywhere else. During a fish run, boats zig zag all over the water and people line the banks, houses become a more frequent sight and noise from I-5 is constant. Yesterday though, we didn’t see another boat until Kelso, and before that there were only a couple fishermen standing on shore.
Tomtas and I were rowing while Caster paddled at the back of the boat when we came upon two men fishing from shore. They were sitting in lawn chairs on a beach with their poles in the water and Jeep parked behind them with tire tracks leading up the dune behind them.
“You guys look like you’re working too hard,” one of them said.
“You guys look like you’re in a Jeep commercial,” Pete called back.
After sharing in a good laugh the same man yelled, “Watching you is wearing me out, I think I’m going to have to have another beer.”
Silt from the Toutle deposits in big banks all over the lower portion of the Cowlitz and the entire river shallows up dramatically. Close to Kelso the natural world is left behind and the river feels like an inconvenience on man’s meticulously planned communities. Bridges span the Cowlitz at several points, houses fill the shore, trash floats in the water and fills the banks. The trees all but disappear. We see several homeless encampments tucked into the bushes and under the bridges. At one spot a younger couple was digging deep into the sandbar as if they were installing a basement for their tent.
In Longview, the water starts to stink, going from a swampy odor to that of garbage, depending on how the wind blows. In its last few miles, the Cowlitz drifts through an industrial part of town and past a garbage transfer station, a junk yard, a lumber mill and a paper mill. For the first time since departing from the La Wis Wis Campground east of Packwood two weeks ago, I started to question the quality of the water floating at the bottom of the raft and wondered about pollution. Seeing the area just before confluence while remembering the beautiful headwaters was a staggering and unpleasant juxtaposition. I know people have to make a living, but there’s nothing beautiful about it.
About a mile away from our destination an old spray-painted flat-bottom boat rambled toward us. A man in greasy clothes, who appeared to be in his 20s, was at the back operating a loud and smokey old engine, while a pit bull looked out the front.
“Ya’ll gotta light?” he asked, flicking his thumb up and down to imitate a lighter.
“Sure, man, come on over,” Caster responded.
The man pointed our way and cloud of smoke plumed up from the engine. Seeing us, his dog started pacing the boat, barking and yipping in anticipation.
“Quiet, Sophia!” he yelled. She was having none of it and continued to jump around wildly. He tried to slide in alongside us but overshot our raft and drifted away by about 30 feet. Then he tried to motor back to us, but the engine kept lifting out of the water which clearly made him nervous.
“Just a sec, I’ll get it,” he said gunning the gas and hugging the motor with both arms to keep it in place. In no time he was just a few feet away and I could see his prop whirling toward our rubber raft like the blade of an overturned lawnmower.
“Hey, watch your motor!” I yelled.
He grabbed the throttle but killed the engine and then drifted off even further away than before. He made several other passes, but couldn’t get within 20 feet without killing his motor and yelling at his dog to quit barking. Seeing this was going nowhere, Caster threw the lighter to him.
“Just keep it,” he said.
“Thanks! My old lady kept mine and left me at the launch. I’ll get you back someday!” he said before lighting a cigarette. With a final yank to the pull cord the engine coughed to life and he was back on his way upriver.
Burnt, exhausted and anxious for home, the spectacle was exactly what we needed for the final mile.
At about 4 p.m., Chronicle Editor Eric Schwartz and Sport Editor Aaron VanTuyl met us at the take out just a couple hundred feet before the Cowlitz pours into the Columbia. Although we’d floated nearly all of the 105-mile-long river there was little fanfare to mark the occasion, we just loaded everything into my truck and headed back to the office.
Driving home I tried to replay it all in my head, tried to mark where and when the river changed, but it was impossible to do. There were no defining transitions, just one constant flow following gravity through the landscape.
Still, even though the Cowlitz is one river, it’s a river with a thousand personalities.
By Dameon Pesanti / firstname.lastname@example.org