Friday, September 15, 2017

Pack Rafting the Grand Canyon of the Elwha

I first heard about the Grand Canyon of the Elwha in about nineteen hundred and ninety two.  At that time I was an enthusiastic kayaker who - along with Mike Elovitz and Michele Martin (Gray) and other pards - was paddling all sorts of class 3 and 4 rivers in northern Oregon and southern Washington and theoretically was aspiring to do harder rivers that were farther afield but never really got the experience or confidence to do them.  And one of the mythical rivers was the Elwha:  deep, dark, difficult, and foreboding, with must-run, difficult-to-scout class 5 rapids and  - gasp - you had to hike every inch that you paddled!  There were so many great rivers to do that had easy access to the put ins and takeouts that the concept of carrying your empty kayak more than a couple hundred yards was never really considered, much less carrying a kayak loaded with gear and food for overnight trips.  One of Michele's friends was a top level paddler at the time and definitely had the temerity and skills to tackle something like the Elwha and dragged his boat the 9 miles in, only to find that he had ground a substantial hole in his boat; self-bailing kayaks don't really work that well.

Lo these many more years hence and I've paddled a fair number of challenging rivers, tho not so many over the last few years, and even though I've done a number of trips to Washington, the Olympic Peninsula was just that much farther than the rest of the state, and the Elwha only really "goes" in the summer after the snowmelt and rain that feeds the other rivers that lured us to the area, so it had pretty much fallen off my radar.

That said, the Elwha did make national news in the late 90's and early 2000's when it became the first American river to be seriously considered for the removal of its ancient dams.   The river flows off the northern side of the Olympic mountains down to the Straight of Juan de Fuca:
the square is where the Olympics are

some detail:

and is only 45 miles long, but its presence in one of the world's great rainforests made it an early target for dam builders, and starting around 1910 an individual built two dams on the lower reaches for hydro power.  This was devastating to the watershed; the Elwha is one of the only rivers in the country that supported all the big salmon species of the Northwest:  Chinook, coho, chum, steelhead, pink, and sockeye, as well as bull and cutthroat trout.  The pre-dam salmon runs were thought to be in the 400,000 fish range; post-dam this number had dropped to a dismal 3000, and the effects on the watershed (salmon predators, the riparian environment that depends on fish poo and carcasses, and the lack of a sediment-deposit delta at the Strait) were considerable.   Washington state actually anticipated such a scenario, and according to an 1890 statute:  "Fish passage devices must be built wherever fish are wont to ascend" but the dam builder ignored this (they pursued him, and he tried to mitigate by building a hatchery, but it was a shit show and never worked).

The dams generated about a third of the power needs for a mill in Port Angeles, but under pressure started by the local native tribe and then pursued by the likes of the Sierra Club, American Rivers, and others throughout the 80's the concept of dam removal became more realistic.  It finally became a hot political topic in the late 90's with Washington's two senators being strongly split on the subject, but ultimately Republican Slade Gordon - who had actively campaigned against removal - relented and the land was conveyed to the Department of Interior which was to organize the removal.  It was at this time that I was reminded of the Elwha, since I was working at Patagonia and Yvon Chouinard - who hates dams more than most folks - got involved in the effort as well.

It took another decade to get the project going, and $300M+ later (the 2nd biggest renewal project the National Park Service has ever undertaken, after the Florida Everglades restoration) both the dams were taken out, which set the stage for a cascade (if you will) of dams to follow:  Marmot on the Sandy in Oregon, Condit on the White Salmon in Washington (the link is a video; the first two mins are really cool), and - this summer, with a huge effort by one of my Arctic pards Brad Meikeljohn - the Eklutna river dam near Anchorage, among others (the Matilija dam, near Yvon's house in Ventura and another worthless piece of shit dam, still stands, despite his efforts there).

All that said, the dams did not affect the dramatic canyons upstream; Lake Mills - formed by the Glines dam - came up to the mouth of the canyon, but not into it, so paddling the stretch has always been an option for the intrepid.  

Which led to a couple of weeks ago when Mike Curiak asked me if I was interested in the GC of the Elwha, and instantly it came back on the radar.  The new generation of pack rafts are absolutely viable for class 4+ whitewater, and combined with the packability of them makes them the perfect craft for and adventure like this, and I felt a little sheepish that I hadn't thought of it myself!  The online videos that we found made the canyon sections indeed look pretty intimidating, but we were planning on being in there with about half the flow that we saw in those videos, which we hoped would enable potentially-less commitment to the unportageable/unscoutable gnar.  And Mike - being at the nexus of many strong adventurers, also had another good pard in Thor Tingey, one of the owners of Alpacka pack rafts, so we had a good threesome.  After a surprisingly-little amount of emailed organizing conversations, we were headed for Washington, with our incredibly-compact crafts in our checked baggage.

Our first adventure started at the trailhead, when in the gratuitious gear clustering Mike gave one of those sort of desperate "ooohhh" sounds that makes your heart sink, 'cause it's bad.  No spray skirt. But another great benefit of having Thor along is that not only does he have a good solution to the problem, he is probably the only guy willing to do it:  cut holes in the bottom of his boat!  Though kayaks can't be self-bailers, rafts can, and one of the models that Alpacka sells is indeed a self-bailer, so Thor just cut holes in his floor and gave his skirt to Mike.
Mike anxiously watching Thor cut holes in (Thor's) boat.  
And with that we were marching happily up the trail!

I grew up in Oregon and "know" rain forests, but it still always amazes me at how green it is up there, how big the trees get, especially on the Olympic Peninsula.
It's kinda hard to be a Tree Hugger when the trees are this big!
a crazily-barked tree
Mike tried to count the rings but got tired....
something tells me that even if no one was arounds, this one made a big noise when it went down....

You don't see funghi like this in Utah....
And after a few hours of hiking (on the trail high above the river) we were at the river's edge, which made for a nice camp.
Looks pretty mellow; how hard can it be downstream? 

Shortly below this the walls rose up abruptly and - as nearly is always the case when that happens - the rapids began. The first rapid of note is Eskimo Pie, likely named for its mostly-white (water) filling that's punctuated by black ledges.  Scouting only happens from above, and if you don't want to run it....well, you probably shouldn't have gone there in the first place.  That said, the water was low enough that we were able to delicately portage the first ledge hole, which had a ferocious boil coming up from the tumult of the ledge drop, and the move was to slide off the rock and  - again, delicately - slide across the top of the boil with the intent to come off of it going downstream and not get sucked into the hole you just portaged.

Fortunately the remainder of the ledge holes downstream were not as sticky and we were able to bob down them with only a couple of boof strokes to sail over the holes.
all of the good pics here are Mike's; mine are the blurry/poorly composed ones!  
clearly my photo, but barely worth including to prove that indeed Alpackas boof!
The next obstacle was the one we were most worried about:  any rapid called "Nightmare" probably isn't one that river runners will be keen for.  Again, only really scoutable from the top and a mandatory run due to the vertical walls, but Nightmare has the added bonus of a bit of a web of big logs at the bottom.  Helmet cam video we'd seen on the interwebs at high water made it look like you had to try to literally crash through a hole between logs and was unnerving at best.  But from our vantage point above it appeared that at our lower water level the rapid ended just above the logs and not only was there only just current there but also possibly an eddy, and again the top of the rapid was the gnarliest bit that was portageable so we could slide into the heart of the rapid with confidence that we wouldn't be heading into the log fence out of control.  And thus it came to pass:
Thor boldly charging towards the fence

getting closer.....
Mike's POV as he's blasting towards the fence. 
indeed there was much rejoicing at having cleared what we thought would be the most challenging part of the journey.

After paddling another half day of great class 4ish rapids in the beautiful gorge the walls suddenly fell away and we were in the canyon between the canyons where it was open, inviting, and campable.
The next morning we paddled another short distance downstream and again the walls rose up abruptly and we entered another deep and darkly-greened gorge.

 "Goblin's Gate" was the first rapid, which - yet again - had the gnar up top, but this time the scout came with a price tag; the "eddy" to get out was basically a packraft-sized bit of still-pretty-swiftly-moving water right at the horizon.  With the information from Mike (who had waded downstream a bit, which itself was not an insignificant move) Thor was able to drive into another mid-river micro eddy and then drive across the current and - taking advantage of his skirt-less boat - leap out of it and onto the rocks.  A solid, bold, and necessary move, done at the lip of the drop that we indeed did portage.  But the rest of the rapid went just fine, as did the good number of class 3-4 rapids downstream that were exciting enough to keep us on our toes but let us look up and marvel at the gorge that indeed Goblins most certainly love.
Mike getting a faceful

and keeping those paddle strokes in tight!

Based on the height of the logs above the river, there has clearly been some real water flowing through here.... 

Only in the northwest are the slugs keen to pack raft....

And soon enough we popped out of the canyon.

I felt pretty giddy; not only had we successfully gotten through a challenging section of river that I'd heard about for about 25 years, but we were bobbing merrily down a river:
that used to be a lake.
It's not a section that is "worth" paddling on its own, but the presence of moving water and the clear ability of the river and the riparian environment to have repaired itself so much in such a short time made me pleased that the federal government can indeed do good deeds and also validated the financial support that I've made for lo these many years to environmental activist groups.
silt buildup behind the old dam. 
Approaching the old dam
Unfortunately, the section below the upper dam is apparently filled with riprap from the broken dam itself that has been taken downriver during floods and thus is dangerous to paddle; the irony of this was not lost on us (the class 2-3 canyon used to be rafted commercially).  A cost for sure, but the various salmon species are no doubt charging up past the debris with nary a slight deviation from their spawning missions.

Thanks again to Thor for the idea, Mike for spearheading the trip (and letting me poach his great pics), inviting me along, and both for being great pards on a challenging excursion.
our favorite shot from the trip: clear water, great rapids, and beautiful rock in a stunning gorge

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