When most people talk about the Grand Canyon, they tend to be speaking of the Colorado river in the Southwest of the United States. For those of us residing in the pacific northwestern states a few other rivers come to mind. While the Colorado tops many lists, a different Grand Canyon has called out to me for many years.
The Elwha river runs through one of the most breathtaking canyons you can reach, with relative ease, in the northwest. Relative being a tricky word. The Grand Canyon of the Elwha requires a strenuous hike in as well as the skills to navigate its class IV-V whitewater. There are harder runs out there, both in logistics and technical skill requirements, but that's what makes the Elwha amazing. It is just hard enough to reach, and hard enough to paddle, to keep a fair number of paddlers away. Paddlers usually complete the trip in two days, mostly to enjoy the beauty of the canyon. After lugging your kayak and food for eight and a half miles, taking time to enjoy the spectacle is worth it.
This summer marked my first trip down the Elwha. The timing was perfect! The Glines Canyon dam had recently been removed; exposing new lengths of water and canyon that had been submerged for years. I first read about the Elwha on Jason Rackley's website Oregon Kayaking. Packed with trip reports, photos, videos and local lore, the website fed many late night planning sessions and dreams. One particular report, titled “My Everest”, described his group's attempt to paddle a first descent of the north fork of the Quinault, a river that flowed into the Elwha further upstream. His description of the Elwha at extremely high flows (a helicopter scout and climbing portage may have been involved), emblazoned the Elwha in my mind as a place of high adventure, yet one that might be attainable to a city bound non hardcore lifestyle kayaker.
As I progressed at kayaking the Elwha was never far from my mind. The crew I paddled with changed as the years went by with some more interested than others. Who would want to take on the savage hike in and then the even more intimidating whitewater? The Elwha is replete with unportageable (you can't walk around them) and unscoutable (no looking ahead either) ) rapids.That means dangerous obstacles--wood flotsam and strange geological forms that suck deep into unpredictable undercurrents--lie in wait within deep pools and in pitch black canyons. It was a waiting game for the moment when our skills finally matched our desires.
A few months ago the moment finally came. I was texting my friend Whitney about paddling Thunder creek, a drainage a ways outside Seattle. The water level was a bit higher than we would have liked but I was slowly trying to convince him that we could handle it. Based on beta from other paddlers in our group and social circles it was not outside our capabilities even if a crew of two would've been a bit; sporty. Our egos knew when to walk around rapids even if they grumbled heavily to do so. We went back and forth, both knowing we disliked portaging but recognized that run might require it. The Elwha came up in passing as another group had paddled it the weekend before. As always the discussion turned to the wood situation in the unscoutable and unportageable rapid named Nightmare. Was it clean enough to warrant a trip this year? Would we have to run it truly blind? Our friend Joni was also keen to paddle that weekend and after sending a few more texts into the ether a plan started to form.
Friday night we met in Vancouver and drove straight north to our takeout of the Elwha; it was that easy. Years of thinking and planning and a simple aside of “maybe the Elwha is in” had made a dream reality.
We had several seasons of class V paddling under our belts. We felt confident enough to take on the Elwha without a guide (someone who had run it before). All the beta, or information, was good and easily accessible. Real time beta can be acquired since paddlers constantly update wood situations, safety info and run information via phone, Facebook, and email. Even with all of that info and skill we were all nervous. It was the Elwha. As luck would have it another group of kayakers from Seattle also wanted to paddle it,with one of them having run it already this season. The week before in fact. The plan was coming together!
Fast forward back to the take out. We met up with the Seattle crew. Once we set our shuttle, a car to pick us up when we were finished, we began to pack our kayaks with our gear and figure out the best way to carry 60-80lbs of kayak,food,and paddling gear the 8 miles to the put in.
Kayaks are not meant to be hiker friendly. That is they are not designed for any modicum of comfort whilst hiking. There are systems you can engineer or purchase that get the job varying degrees of success (discomfort). A backpack system is probably the best way to go for any distance over two miles. Regardless, to hike with kayak is to contemplate suffering. It makes you ask the big questions, like, how badly do you really want to get there?
5 hours later we arrived at our camp, a small cutout between the trail and river. We lumbered into camp one after the other; taking the last available daylight to make camp. As the weight came off, vacant stares turned to relief to excitement before exhaustion set in. The trip wasn't over, not even the truly “hard” part. But the suffering was. The whitewater couldn't be worse than the hike.
Jet boils fired up, burritos and whiskey were unearthed from hiding spots within dry bags and the food was set upon with gusto. By the time the light had vanished behind the ridge we were firmly ensconced in our bivy sacs Half hearted conversations flitted across the few feet that separated us until we fell asleep. All at once, the skies opened up and the first rain of the summer decided to visit us. We were too tired to care.
Early the next morning, seven dark shapes stirred and peeled out of sleeping bags The plan for the day slowly formed over multiple cups of coffee. Most crews take two days to paddle the canyon, camping within its depths to prolong the experience. We had arrived Friday night, hiked in late Saturday morning and now it was Sunday. Each of us had to return to work Monday morning at something close to nine. The plan was to paddle the Grand Canyon proper then stop for lunch at the entrance to Rica canyon which was guarded by Goblins Gate, the second hardest rapid of the trip. There were only a few rapids on the trip that we were concerned about, Eskimo Pie, the first large rapid on the main canyon, Nightmare, an unscoutable and unportageable rapid and Goblins Gate in the second canyon.
Our friend Michael who had paddled the run before assured us that the run was well within our limits. With such a vote of confidence, Whitney ended up leading most of the run, you can only run it blind once!
Having a paddler who is adept at giving beta, and knows a run, is a boon in situation like this. Each rapid proved to be well within the limits and in line with what our group of paddlers consider class IV/ V fun boating. That is; difficult and consequential but not at the upper end of the spectrum. This allows for skilled and confident boaters to play in what otherwise might be a more strenuous environment.
Michael’s beta made our single day trip possible. We routed the Elwha, stopping long enough to gawk in wonder at the deeply lined walls, streaked black and white at Eskimo pie. The high water lines were littered with massive trees uprooted onto the banks above.. The entire canyon was a vista of Middle Earth blanketed in soft moss. Tiny yellow flowers dotting the patches of moss on mid river rocks. .
Michael led at first, rotating out with Whitney, myself and others as we leap frogged down the canyon. Our guide never strayed too far from the front of the pack although everyone played an equal role in starting and stopping the fun train.
Proper safety on any run means you wait for paddlers above and below rapids. What each paddler considers a hazard is subjective, so this means some folk may not stop above the same things you will. A consensus is usually reached and signals agreed upon to avoid confusion and unnecessary danger.
The seven of us worked well together; Whitney, Joni and I complimenting Michael, Nick,Garvey and Christian so that we basically just laughed our way down the river, stopping to discern whether we had reached a named rapid and consulting Michael for the best line. We rarely ventured out of our boats other than to take photos or portage the odd sieve.
After awhile we reached the mental crux of the Elwha, Nightmare. The walls narrow at the top of the canyon; plunging the waterway below into semi-darkness. Even at midday, Nightmare looms dark and ominous. Then there’s the mental game: wood usually lies somewhere below in the unportageable, unscoutable section of the canyon which must be run blind.
Once Nightmare was run the tenor of the trip changed back to pure fun We stopped for lunch outside Rica Canyon and admired the goblins gates from afar. After hopping out to take some photos we paddled through Rica canyon and onto the Glines canyon reservoir.
Due to a misunderstanding, we did not know that here is where we should have taken Out. Instead we paddled down through a spectacular river valley--the remains of the dam ahead of us and navigated the class v rapid located therein. This is illegal and we were informed so afterwards by the ranger.. Regardless it did not diminish the trip. Nor the beauty of that special place.
I'd dreamed of the Elwha so many years and the experience lived up to expectations. The trip was a whirlwind:water levels had been perfect, allowing for an easy trip. I am well aware that higher water could've led to a much different outcome.But as it stands my first trip down the Elwha will be on of my favorites. The spontaneity, the company, the ease all combined for a dream trip. There will be higher water years, more adventurous moves but sometimes just routing a river with friends, staring up from its depths marveling how grand it is that you can all be there, that's enough.