Encountering trees on rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest is as common as finding rocks. Wilderness areas surround the headwaters of nearly every major river in the Columbia River Gorge, each full of old and new stands of trees. Heavy winter and spring rains cause dramatic erosion, often in the form of landslides. Add the occasional snow and ice storm into the mix and suddenly there are downed trees everywhere.
It seems appropriate to update the many Portland and Gorge kayakers and rafters with the location of every major wood hazard on the most popular runs in the region. At first, this sounds like a good idea. Paddlers need to know the hazards before they paddle down a river and what better way to find out this information from those who have already ventured into the wood-filled rivers.
However, there is also something incredibly dangerous with this.
As much as we seek to inform the boating population, we also do not want to paint a false picture of the dangers inherent to paddling on rivers with new wood. Rivers are dynamic, that’s why we love them so much. This constant change means that even if you have a wood report from a recent decent, the river may have already changed. Wood from one rapid may have shifted into another or disappeared entirely only to reappear several weeks later farther downstream.
To compromise, we offer several basic pointers for paddling rivers where wood may be an issue. Finally, you’ll find a brief description of some popular Columbia River Gorge kayak runs to give you an idea as to what kind of day you might have.
How to Kayak and Raft with New Wood
1. Scout everything as if it was your first time down the run.
Even if you paddled the run recently, the wood in rivers constantly changes. Logs that once blocked one rapid may have flushed, only to become lodged in the next rapid. Local White Salmon paddlers ventured into the Green Truss section after January’s crippling ice storm only to find trees in every rapid. Only a week or two later, the same paddlers report that some rapids had cleared while others became clogged.
2. Carry a pin kit and throw ropes.
The first river trips after the winter storms often end up being more “exploratory” than usual. Approach the river as if no one has ever run it. Boaters may encounter heinous portages around easy rapids, or even be forced to hike out early. Proper whitewater rescue gear makes everything easier, and might even save a life if something goes wrong.
3. Communicate with your team.
Know the hand signals needed to communicate on the river and speak up if you do not feel like something is safe. Develop a working strategy of eddy hopping, boat scouting and setting safety by discussing what you are doing with your fellow paddlers. For example, “I’m going to that eddy there and will signal to you to come down if it is clear.”
Wood Report on the Gorge’s Best Kayak Runs
Middle White Salmon River
It seems as though the “eye” of January’s ice storm centered right over our precious White Salmon and Little White Salmon Rivers. Accounts of the wood in the Middle White change with each new surge of high water, although certain spots continue to inhibit (but not necessarily prohibit) easy passage. The most notable trees are in Top Drop, the Cave, Boulder Garden, Stairstep and a handful of no-name rapids. Several river-wide logs exist, some may require portages especially at lower flows. (For more photos of the wood on the Middle White, take a look at Todd’s wood on the White Salmon photo report blog.)
While groups of paddlers could not stay away from this favored kayak stretch, each member seems to emerge (often from somewhere above the normal take-out) shaking their heads discouragingly. However, with such a narrow gorge, this section of the White Salmon River experiences dramatic change with even the smallest fluctuation in river levels. While wood accounts name specific locations, better just enter the river with the idea of scouting absolutely every rapid (yes, even the first few class III warm-up rapids which are known to contain wood).
The Wind River is miraculously free of wood. With the exception of a few downed trees in the class II warm-up stretch, no new lines are required.
West Fork and Main Hood River
The Hood River does not appear to have been hit as hard this winter, thus far at least. However, trees have been reported in the upper West Fork section. At the time, no portages were necessary, however kayakers predict that portaging may be required for future runs after high water events. The section from Dee to Tucker falls into the same category. The town run, Tucker Park to the Marina, remains relatively clear, with one tree in a mellow stretch a few miles up from the take-out. However, wood moves downstream so keep your eyes peeled.
Little White Salmon River
You can’t keep northwest kayakers away from the Little White. Hearts from Hood River to Portland to Eugene broke a tiny bit when word of the ice storm spread throughout the paddling communities. “But what about the Little White?” they sorrowfully asked, half not wanting to hear the answer. Thankfully, they are getting out there, but not without significant more work. Heavy amounts of wood exist above Island, with occasional surprises below. Because of this, the run is significantly harder than it was a year ago and should be approached with extra caution. It is recommended to either go with someone who has been paddling on the run with the new wood, or scout absolutely everything.
No matter where your kayak takes you, it is always a good idea to stay aware for new obstacles and features while out on the rivers. A rescue that never has to happen is the best kind of rescue. Be prepared and use caution when out on Columbia River Gorge white water this spring!
Author Susan Hollingsworth writes for Wet Planet Whitewater, Canoe & Kayak Magazine, American Whitewater, and any other river-related publication she can find.