The Little Wenatchee

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It was the second day of our trip to the Skykomish drainage, and we decided to run the Little Wenatchee. Jurgen and Martin had flown in from Germany, Ian and Mark from Scotland, and we had a large contingent of Oregon paddlers as well. It was Memorial Day weekend, and there was plenty of water in all of the rivers. Our plan was to warm up on some easier rivers (in the IV to IV+ range) before hitting the classics like the Green Truss and the Little White the following weekend.
The day before we had run the Foss, which was fun but woody. (later I found out about an alternate put-in for the Foss which avoids the class II woody section at the beginning, see the Foss report for more details).

We headed up into the mountains to check out the Little Wenatchee, and as usual the mountain scenery in that part of the Cascades was awe-inpiring. Soon we turned off the highway and headed up a side road into the mountains, making pretty good time. The road eventually turned to gravel and we crossed the river, which appeared to have plenty of water.

After about a mile of driving on the south side of the river, we hit a snowbank. At this point it was getting kind of late and we were pretty sure we were at the take-out. That meant about four miles of hiking up through the snow if we wanted to do the run. That didn't seem too bad to me, but I was the only one who thought it was a good idea. Steve broke out the map and found an alternate route up the north side of the river, so we re-crossed the river and drove off into the unknown.

We made better time on the North side, and everything seemed to be going well, that is until we hit the first log across the road. We broke out the handsaws and made short work of that one, and then we hit another, and another, and another. We were cutting logs off the road as fast as we could, but we were running out of daylight in a hurry.

Finally we came to a huge log that seemed beyond our saws. I was optimistic that I could squeeze my little car under it though, so we sawed off all of the branches and I eased under the tree while everyone watched in disbelief. I made it with a few inches to spare, and we piled as many boats and people as we could in my car and headed up the road. We had to cut three more logs out of the way before we hit snow again, but at this point we deemed Steve's north side decision a great success. We had gained several miles, and now estimated that we only had about a mile to hike up through the snow to reach the put-in!

My little commuter car does it again, going where no big rig has gone before.. portaging a big log on the Northern Little Wenatchee access road..

That night we camped under a gorgeous starlit sky, and by morning we were psyched to do some paddling.

Sweet camping overlooking the Little Wenatchee drainage..

The next morning we quickly ran shuttle and got ready to go. I stripped to the skin in spite of the cold, following that old tried-and-true infantry rule that you should Never be warm before you start a road march..

The author, starting the day off right with a little hike through the snow..
Photo by Martin Bauer

Now, I was in the Light Infantry a long time, so I move pretty fast. I quickly outdistanced everyone else, and soon was by myself, breaking trail up through the snow as fast as I could. Soon the road leveled out and I estimated that I must be nearing the put-in. I kept going another couple hundred yards, and then I dropped my gear and started scouting the put-in.

I couldn't see or hear the river when I dropped off the side of the road, so I knew I was in for a bit of a hike. The terrain was pretty rough, and very, very steep. After about ten minutes I could hear the river, but soon came to a hundred foot cliff, which blocked access to the river. Undeterred, I worked my way upstream until I finally found my way down to the river, and then I climbed back up the road. I had been gone about a half hour by the time I reached the road, and everyone was waiting by my gear. I burst back onto the road about three hundred yards up the road from where I had left my boat, and yelled that I had found a way down.

After fifteen minutes we were all on the river, and by this time we were ready for some whitewater! I was sucking down water like a fish after all that scrambling around, but soon enough we were on the river and headed downstream.

Soon we arrived at the first horizon line, and we got out to scout on the right. It was a sweet six-foot ledge, but unfortunately it was full of wood. You could run the right side by squeezing past a log at the top, so most of the group did just that...

Gabe subs out in the foam on the right side of the first ledge.
Photo by Martin Bauer

Ian McKendry and Mark Hargraves below the wood-filled main drop..

I guess at this point the alarm bells should have been going off, considering all of the downed trees we had encountered on the road, combined with the fact that the first major drop was clogged with wood..

Soon we entered a kind of a gorge and were faced with another horizon line. A quick scout on the right revealed another sweet drop that was jammed full of wood. "I've got one of those feelings.." I muttered to myself as we all made the sketchy move into an eddy above the logjam. At this point the river was really moving, and the healthy flows made the prospect of more wood downstream seem very unpleasant indeed!

A second, rather unpleasant portage...
Photo by Martin Bauer

Downstream we ran some smaller drops before we were forced to portage another great-looking drop that was also jammed full of wood. This was really shaping up to be a bit more of an adventure than we had bargained for, but nobody grumbled as we did yet another portage around what must have been a great drop at one time.

Downstream I probed a drop around a blind corner and had to scramble into an eddy on the left to avoid yet another river-wide logjam. This one was pretty nasty because it presented few portaging options. The walls were pretty vertical here, and it didn't look good. Josh, Ian and I tried to do the tightrope portage down the left wall, which involved a climb down a narrow ledge on the left that ended right at the logjam (of course!). Ian then climbed across the jam and we roped his boat over to him, but this took a lot of time. Finally Gabe had seen enough and went for the tiny eddy against the right wall, making it with a few inches to spare and quickly clambering out of his boat before he could get swept down into the wood. We all ended up taking this route, except for Josh and Martin, who both rolled the dice and powered over the logs on the right.

The tightrope portage on the left...

After this portage (in what would have been a class II drop) we were all feeling a little frustrated. We headed downstream and soon encountered the largest drop yet. A lengthy and difficult scout on the left (we were very jumpy about the wood at this point) revealed a long lead-in to a nice ledge drop, which we all ran on the right. The guidebook refers to this rapid as 'Let's make a deal' and we all thoroughly enjoyed it!

Steve Stuckmeyer runs the lead-in to 'Let's make a deal'. There is a small surging eddy at the bottom on the right, which is where you can get out to scout the main ledge-drop. If you look carefully you can see a couple of boats down there.

Mark runs the main ledge on 'Let's make a deal'.

At this point we were all grateful that we were able to run at least one rapid without encountering a pile of wood, so we moved downstream in somewhat better spirits. We knew from the guidebook description that there was another gorge downstream with a class V rapid that "We used to portage, but is run more frequently now.." according to the Bennett guide.

Soon we stopped above a significant narrowing of the river. Below us was a class III lead-in to a blind corner, and by the time I arrived Brad and Josh were already out and scouting on the right. The rest of us stayed in our boats, and soon enough Josh was back with the good news.
"It looks pretty good" he said. "Go around the corner and stay left, about six feet off of the undercut rock on that side. Right is no good, kind of drops into a bad spot... It's flushing..."

That last part should have caused my ears to perk up, because when Josh says "It's flushing" that means you've got yourself one heck of a big hole...

One by one I watched everyone disappear around the corner, until it was just me and Steve. "I'm going" I said, and I peeled out into the current..

Now, what I didn't know was that this was indeed the class five drop the guidebook had talked about, it had munched everyone so far (only Jurgen had run it upright) and...

I rounded the corner with Josh's words echoing in my head "Stay Left.... It's flushing... and all hell broke loose. This was a Big Drop! Just as I realized HOW big I dropped into a huge diagonal hole that spun me sideways and surfed me into the left wall, and then I dropped over the horizon line below sideways, into a huge hole!

I subbed out, somehow managing to pop out upright, but backwards! Everyone was cheering as I came out, even though I thought I had totally blown it.. Steve came down next, flipping on the lead-in and running the main drop upside down... I found out later that everyone except Jurgen ran this drop upside-down, but I think we would have done better if we had actually looked at the drop before we ran it..

Uh oh... The author, about to have a very bad line through a very big hole...
Photo by Martin Bauer

OoooF !! The author drops into the biggest hole on the river, sideways...
Photo by Martin Bauer

After that final drop the river mellowed somewhat and it was class II all the way to the take-out. We were pretty stoked after the last rapid (too bad there weren't a lot more like it!) and the scenery was so nice we couldn't help feeling good in spite of all the portaging.

All in all the Little Wenatchee had the potential to rank among the best class IV rivers I have ever done, but it is totally ruined by wood right now. I'll probably go back once I hear it's cleared out (the run is well worth the drive) but you won't find me anywhere near it until I know it is wood-free....