The Grand Canyon of the Elwha River

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The Grand Canyon of the Elwha is simply magnificent. Fueled by a potent combination of snow, rain, and glacier melt this river is usually too high to run except in the late summer and early fall. Located in the rugged, mountainous northern Olympic Peninsula, every trip through the upper canyons of the Elwha provides an unforgettable class V wilderness experience. The first time I did this run was in the summer of 2000 and the river was running about 1200 cfs, which made for a very exciting day!

The Grand requires a very high level of commitment as the soaring vertical rock walls make scouting or portaging many of the class IV-V drops very difficult. The canyon walls are so steep that escape is nearly impossible if something goes wrong, and in many places the walls rise right out of the water. As if all of that weren't enough, there is one unscoutable, unportagable rapid known as 'Nightmare' which is IV+ to V depending on flow and route.

Every trip down this section starts with an 8.5 mile hike up into the mountains that only has one really steep part. John and I blasted up the trail in about four hours and put on the river at ten in the morning. It was a beautiful day and we quickly paddled down the mile or so of class III and arrived at the entrance to the canyon. Immediately the rock walls closed in and we were committed, but I was so enthralled by the spectacular green water and the soaring rock formations I hardly noticed. The first couple of drops were nice class III's and then there was a longer, narrow twisty class IV drop between large boulders that had a very dangerous log wedged at the bottom that we boofed over on the left. This log is impossible to portage and is only visible at the very last second as you round the corner so be sure you eddy hop down this one! Immediately below this drop is a short pool above 'Eskimo Pie', the first of many large, powerful class V drops in the canyon. This rapid was named for the interesting black and white striated rock walls that soar overhead here, but once you get a look at the rapid it will command your full attention!

John leaps over the log at the bottom of the first class IV rapid. The top of Eskimo Pie is just visible downstream.

Above Eskimo Pie I caught a tiny eddy against the right wall and eased out of my boat in deep water right at the lip of the drop. Ten feet downstream the river dropped out of sight into a huge class V maelstrom and as I clung to the wall I knew that if I slipped I would be in for a helluva swim! Once again my years spent rock climbing paid big dividends as I slowly, carefully traversed across the horribly slick and steep rock wall to a small ledge at the lip of the drop. This was very difficult and stressful but it is the only way to scout Eskimo Pie! (The Korb guidebook describes scouting this rapid as quote: "SCARY" unquote- and I couldn't agree with him more!) I quickly grabbed my boat as it drifted by and John ferried across while I stood at the lip of the drop and I held his boat so he could get out without doing the traverse. We portaged the top drop on Eskimo because at 1200 there is a fearsome hole there that looked like a prison to us.

Below Eskimo Pie are more long, blind, complex rapids which must be scouted your first time down, generally on the right. None of the scouts are very easy- we had to catch very small eddies and scramble around on steep rock faces. Good footware with sticky rubber is mandatory if you plan on scouting or portaging in the canyon- we carried a couple of drops and it wasn't easy!

John runs a typical Grand Canyon rapid- most involved threading the needle past huge holes and other hazards in pushy water.

Eventually we arrived at Nightmare, which is the psychological crux of The Grand. I remember that I as I ran the drop above Nightmare I hardly noticed it I was so focused on what was just downstream! Soon we were in the pool above Nightmare and the walls closed in, rising out of the deep green water and overhanging a hundred feet above us. I grew increasingly anxious as we drifted slowly towards the inevitable horizon line and the roar downstream intensified, reverberating between the rock walls and making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I looked everywhere but there was no way out, no way to portage, nothing to do but run it and hope for the best!

Nightmare was named by Sprague Ackley and Jordan VanVost on their bold first descent of the canyon. The story goes that they arrived in the pool above this drop and despite their best efforts could find no way to determine what was downstream. Unwilling to take the chance that the rapid might prove to be unrunnable the two spent the rest of the day working their way back upstream until they found a spot where they could scale the rock wall and scout the drop. (It was a good thing they chose to run this section for the first time at low water- if the flows had been higher going back upstream may have been impossible!) After a difficult and dangerous ascent to the top of the canyon they ran out of daylight and had to abandon their boats on the river, returning a week later to complete the run after scouting the drop from far above.

John (bottom right hand corner) scouts the rapid above Nightmare. The top of nightmare is barely visible downstream.

"There's no way I'm running this thing blind." I said to John as we sat in the swirling pool above Nightmare. Twenty feet downstream the river disappeared into a very steep jumble of huge boulders that could easily have logs wedged in them, and I just knew I could find a way to see at least the first part of the rapid...

I paddled back and forth across the river as I tried to find a place where I could get out and at least see the top part of the drop. Finally we settled on a small grotto in the wall on the river left side of the pool just above the lip of the drop. The walls were vertical but there were some holds so I pulled my skirt and while John pushed my boat against the wall I seized a hold and swung out of my boat onto the rock face. This first move was pretty scary because if I fell in the water was so deep I might not be able to get out again! Clinging to the rock face I carefully wedged my paddle between the walls of the grotto and then I swung across and traversed fifteen feet downstream and up about ten feet above the water and suddenly I could see into Nightmare! Below me the river thundered through the boulders for fifty yards and then tore around a blind corner between vertical rock walls with no eddies in sight! "It's clean but I can't see around the corner!!" I yelled to John over the roar of the river. Carefully I reversed the moves back to my boat and as John paddled his boat into the side of mine to hold it in place I eased back into my cockpit and quickly got my skirt on. John hit my paddle with his and knocked it down from where it was wedged overhead and as I caught it I breathed a sigh of relief! John peeled out and dropped out of sight into Nightmare as I tried to watch from above. He disappeared abruptly and then I was tearing down after him along the left wall though a gauntlet of big boulders and holes. As I rounded the corner I caught a brief glimpse of John sitting in the eddy below and then I plunged into a couple of big, riotous holes and then I was through! We whooped with relief and then got out to look at the bottom of the drop from the cliff above.

In retrospect this drop wasn't that hard (maybe IV+ to V- at 1200 cfs) but it was scary to run it blind because of the wood potential!

John in the pool below Nightmare.

Below Nightmare the river keeps coming with more large, powerful drops that kept us on our toes and scouting regularly. Eventually the rapids cooled off and the walls opened up, but we knew there was one more class V waiting downstream.

John below the last rapid in the canyon proper.

Soon the walls opened up and we arrived at a large pool above Landslide, the last big drop. This is the only place where we had a very easy log portage as the landslide forming the rapid dammed up the river and drowned some trees, some of which later fell in the pool. Landslide rapid is the last class V but it is also the longest and most intimidating rapid in the Grand Canyon. Be very careful when you scout this drop as the slide is still active and it may throw a few rocks at you. (Keep moving so you make a harder target...) I ran the top half of this rapid and portaged the burly triple drop at the bottom while John portaged the whole thing.

John above Landslide rapid. Only the relatively easy lead-in is visible is visible here.

Once below Landslide we camped above Rica Canyon, which is a smaller, easier version of the Grand. Rica was fun, but it should be noted that once you enter the canyon once again you are immediately confronted with a marginally scoutable, unportageable rapid which I think is called 'Goblin's Gate'. This triple drop is not that hard (maybe IV to IV+ at 1200 cfs) but is a bit unnerving as you peer downstream and try to divine where the gnarliest parts of the holes are. Generally staying right on this one is best, though I got a huge, sustained tail ender out of the bottom hole because I had so much camping gear in my stern!

Below the entrance of Rica are two more big boulder gardens, one of which is best run along the right wall, dropping eight feet into a small pool to avoid a gnarly pin spot in the center of the river. Below this spot you can boat scout the whole way until the lake.

If you are unlucky, there will be a killer headwind across the reservior, forcing you to hug the bank and turning an easy paddle out into a three mile battle. No matter, this run is definitely worth it!

The section under the surface of the reservoir has never been run but will be soon with some luck. John has seen photos of what the canyon looked like before the dam was built and he said that it will definitely be a class V run. The dam is supposed to be removed long ago but the project was blocked by Washington's Republican Senator Slade Gorton. Happily Slade was defeated in the 2000 election, so perhaps the dam will finally be destroyed... Stay posted!

Access and Flows: See Gary Korb's 'A paddlers guide to the Olympic Peninsula'. Also, for just about everything you could possibly want to know about this run check out the American Whitewater Streamkeepers link for the Elwha.