The Upper Cle Elum River (China Gorge)

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When my friend John Whaley talks about his favorite Washington Rivers he mentions runs like the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz, the Little White Salmon, and..... the China Gorge section of the Cle Elum. This run isn't as difficult as the aforementioned rivers but it still packs a punch and has some really spectacular scenery.

John has run this river at least fifty times and this trip marked fifteen years almost to the day since his first run through China Gorge. This is a great Memorial Day weekend trip, because the weather is usually good and there is plenty of water! On this same trip we scouted the nearby Cooper River Gorge, which is a great class V run. Unfortunately when the Cle has lots of water the Cooper is much too high to run (by mortals, anyway) so we had to catch that one on another trip.

At the peak of spring snowmelt the Upper Cle rumbles to life and tears down through Washington's Northern Cascades like a drunken giant. Like I said before, the scenery alone is worth the trip with majestic snowcapped mountains, thick forests, and of course, great whitewater! The take out at Salmon Le Sac campground gives little indication of what the Upper Cle has in store for you. The river rounds the corner with small class II rapids and meanders downstream in no particular hurry. I was a little skeptical of the river when we got to the put in and saw kids unloading triple tandem canoes, but they were running the lower section...

Great views from the Salmon Le Sac Campground, which is the take-out for China Gorge.

We only had one car, but John was confident we could find a shuttle at the end of the day. We drove upstream and stopped to scout Triple Falls, the first class five rapid on the Upper Cle. Unfortunately there was a small log stuck in the second drop so we decided to put in between the second and third ledge.

This area is popular with hikers and campers and as we were getting our gear on a couple of guys pulled up and got out of their truck. One of them walked over and peered downstream into the canyon and said stupidly: "Are you guys really going to paddle this river?" I was pulling on my elbow pads and nearly laughed in his face, but instead I said "Yeah.." He grimaced, shook his head, looked downstream again, and said rudely: "Are you f--king nuts?!?" I fought back the urge to laugh as I looked him straight in the eye and said "YES."

We had scouted the nine foot bottom ledge on Triple Falls before we put in and saw that we had to run it left in order to avoid getting trashed in the churning hydraulic and the terminal-looking eddy against the right wall.

John scouts the last nine foot ledge drop on Triple Falls. Far left is the only option here, but most of the current goes right. Paddlers who miss their line here are in big trouble as getting someone out of that pocket against the right wall would be nearly impossible without a harpoon gun.

We put in above the bottom ledge and John peeled out of the eddy and whipped around the corner. I followed after a few seconds and had to fight the current which was pushing hard into the right side of the ledge. For an instant I thought I was going to end up against the wall but a second later I was sailing over the left side with no problems. From here the river never stopped- the average gradient on this run is only about 110 fpm but it feels much steeper. There are no pools to speak of and the eddies are small an hard to catch. Like most Cascade rivers logs are a constant threat and we had to portage a couple. Most of the bigger rapids were boulder gardens, but there were a few ledgy drops and some wild corners. The main thing to watch out for are the holes- every single rapid was punctuated by big, churning hydraulics and after I clawed my way out of one early in the day I was on my best behavior!

John cruises into a boulder garden on the Upper Cle.

Eventually the walls of the canyon began to close in and as we approached the biggest boulder slalom on the river, known locally as S-turn. As we crowded into a small, surging eddy along the cliff face John yelled to me over the roar of the river: "I remember that I was so nervous the first time I came up here because everyone had told me about the unrunnable S-turn and how hard it was to portage.." I peered downstream. "Can we scout it?!?" John shook his head and peeled out of the eddy and my stomach turned over as I followed. (Turns out we had miscommunicated- the drop below was relatively small and was NOT the S turn, and when he said the S-turn was unrunnable he meant that it used to be choked with wood, forcing an arduous portage up the cliff face- of course, this did nothing for my blood pressure, which remained elevated for the rest of the trip...)

Finally we got to the S-Turn. The top of this drop was blocked by a line of logs but the rapid itself is totally free of wood. The first part of the rapid is a little tricky- the river rushes past some smaller boulders then piles up onto a very large boulder in the middle of the river. Here the current divides and the right side strains through a line of boulders that look ugly and the left side twists down into a large hydraulic. Below this first move is a short, fast recovery pool and then the river narrows down and drops over a second, narrower horizon line between a large boulder and the left canyon wall. We got out on the right and saw another group of paddlers about halfway through the rapid. One boater had already run the rapid and was standing on a large boulder in the middle of the river immediately above the bottom drop. (Pictured)

If you look carefully far downstream you can see a paddler standing on the boulder scouting the bottom drop.

One by one the other members of his group dropped over the narrow horizon line between the boulder and the rock wall and after two or three seconds they were each spit out into the pool below, some upright, some not, though they were all flailing wildly! "What the hell is in there?" I asked John, who was enjoying the show. "It's just a hole..." he replied innocently. Soon the group leader below gave us the 'all clear' signal and disappeared.

John went first. He blasted down, careened off of the top boulder, and shot out into the eddy behind it.

John plunges over the first drop on the S-Turn. (I was standing on the logs when I took this photo).

I followed, and though I twisted past the first boulder successfully when I landed below it the water crashed down on me seemingly from everywhere at once and it knocked me over before I could react. I set up my roll as the powerful currents tossed me around and I thought "man, I don't want to go over the next drop upside down!!" It seemed like I was upside down forever but I rolled up quickly and caught the surging eddy next to John. He grinned as I shook the water out of my ears and then shouted "Follow me!!!" as he peeled out into the current and shot down over the horizon line, paddle flailing wildly.

I waited for him to start throwing ends or something but nothing happened after he disappeared over the lip of the drop. Hoping he was clear, I worked my way up to the top of the eddy and I felt the river surge beneath me, propelling me forward as I peeled out and tore downstream into the gut of a huge hole! I blasted through it, submarined, and popped up downstream upright! John was sitting in the eddy below and we whooped. What a great rapid!

Below here there were more fun drops below the confluence with Waptus, until we rounded the corner and saw a warning ribbon hanging from a tree branch and spray shooting up into the air below a definite horizon line. We eddied out on the right and scouted the lower falls. John had run this one many times before but he was paddling a new boat and didn't feel comfortable trying to hit the line. Personally, I just didn't want to get anywhere near that hole- I've run my fair share of waterfalls but I didn't want any part of this one at this flow!

Below the bottom falls the river gets much larger but the rapids are easier. The river has a big water feel all the way to the take out at Salmon Le Sac, with some nice big surf waves scattered here and there. I must say that now that I have done this run I understand why many Washington boaters speak so fondly of it!