I was standing precariously on the edge of a 300 foot over-vertical cliff. A delicate bench-press out onto the trunk of a large Douglas Fir that tilted over the canyon allowed me to pitch my upper body slowly out and into oblivion, all in the service of catching a glimpse of the unseeable. I was almost in the perfect place for a view, but being on the inside of the bend of a particularly overhung slot canyon, I couldn't get a glimpse of the river below, where a potentially dire collection of logs had supposedly collected. For a split-second, I weighed the value of utilizing the sound that was hitting my ears from the torrent below, in some desperate hope that through echo-textural analysis, I could divine the shapes below without benefit of sight. Perhaps the elongate, cylindrical shapes of old growth giants, stripped to their core, would emanate a unique tonal signature. I presently snapped out of my desperate musing, then stepped back from the edge and realized that I was hosed.
I had just spent over an hour toiling down through 800 vertical feet of thick under-story rife with bear tracks, flirting repeatedly with a perilous cliff topped with loose scree that promised views it didn't reveal, with the simple goal of being able to see a specific location within the steep confines of the Grand Canyon of the Elwha. Only just last season, this dark corner was inhabited by a dubious logjam that produced a terrifying experience for a crew of accomplished paddlers. I could see the canyon downstream, and the rapid above, but the one little spot that had to be checked before committing to the river, had no vantage point.
I've made a lifelong habit out of stubbornly pursuing my whims, despite the obstacles and the doubters, and somehow have managed to maintain a fairly prolific record of coming out ahead, be it in service of a bold river mission, or simply trying to hit the post office, recycling center, and bank, all 18 minutes before close of business day. Going for it despite the details often yields less than stellar results for many people, but I just tend to get that lucky, that often. I'm grateful for the forgiving portfolio of results I've been granted by the universe, but have no expectation of it holding for much longer. Every new day presents the potential for total implosion, where the bluff gets called and I end up stranded in a river gorge of my own choosing, proverbially or literally. A self-shuttle, solo mission into the Grand Canyon of the Elwha under complicated circumstances seemed like the perfect setting for things to take a turn for the worse. One slip, one oversight, one blister, one logjam, and things could immediately and irrevocably become "complicated."
Despite lining up a good first time flow and a great weather forecast, a weekday mission to a multi-day Class V river with a long hike-in and mandatory whitewater didn't exactly pull folks out of the woodwork. I checked with a few friends who quickly declined due to obligations, and I balked at the notion of trying too hard to recruit from facebook for a suffer-fest such as this. Additionally, spending the last five weeks with friends and family day in and day out had admittedly left me in need of some personal time. It was settled. I'd solo the Elwha for 3 days, and then drive home. The elephant in the room here was that due to the main entrance road being wiped out by flooding earlier in the year, the otherwise 8.5 mile hike to the put-in had been increased to over 15 miles, since I couldn't drive anywhere near the trailhead. I needed some portage wheels, and fast.
Despite bearing accountability for what I consider a substantial increase in division and strife in our world, social media is great for buying used phones, borrowing a shop-vac, or any number of purposes. And it proved just that useful for arranging last minute use of a set of lightweight portage wheels. Minutes after posting on a local facebook paddling page, Rob Scanlon, someone I had met the month prior on the South Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, piped up that he had something that might work. Rob happened to have the exact set that I thought would work best. When I met him to borrow the cart it was then that he informed me of the experience last year's crew had at Nightmare, the crux of the Grand Canyon. A quick youtube search uncovered gopro footage of a group paddling through a rowdy boulder field, around a blind corner, and into a pile of trees. Luckily, they were able to quickly pick the one passable gap through the gruesome collection of logs, but it was a scary thing to watch. Furthermore, since the river spiked to flood stage the following winter from heavy rain on snow, the logjam could have easily flushed or even gotten worse. Regardless, the river conditions in the Elwha's dark canyons were completely unknowable.
It seemed like the complications kept stacking up. After dropping Laura and Alex off at the light rail station in Pioneer Square in order to catch their flight out of Seattle, I quickly skipped down the hill to the ferry terminal and hopped aboard one of WDOT's finest, which was headed for the Olympic Peninsula and a river I'd been dreaming of for the better part of two decades. Once across Puget Sound and on the tail end of a 2 hour drive to Port Angeles, I stopped at an outfitter to get some water purification tablets. After mentioning that I'd be leaving my car at the Madison Falls Trailhead, the owner stressed that my car WOULD be broken into, and anything of value stolen - Port Angeles is the primary location on the Peninsula for treatment services related to mental illness and heroin addiction, which is an epidemic there. After a short moment of wondering aloud how to proceed, he was gracious enough to offer for me to park my car at his house. This generous act wasn't without complication though. His house was around 15 miles from the trailhead. After finding out neither Uber nor Lyft operated out that far, I called a cab service and arranged for a pick-up from the kind man's house in 3 hours.
Three hours sure seems like plenty of time to get ready, but after an hour of waiting in line at the park's backcountry office for a wilderness permit and convincing the ranger I knew what I was doing I had to drive to the trailhead, get my boat installed on the cart, stash and lock it in the woods, drive back to town, shop for a little food, pick up a sub for dinner later that night, then drive to my parking spot, where an old police-issued Crown Victoria turned cabbie waited for me with the engine running.
It was coming together! I couldn't wait to start walking and leave the outside world behind for a few days. After a quick ride to the trailhead I retrieved my boat and wheels, geared up, and started up the road. The occasional backpacker and road worker gave me peculiar glances I wish I could say I hadn't seen before. They weren't sure what I was doing, but generally were sure they didn't want to ask. Eventually, a park geologist couldn't help but inquire on the details. My cart was listing badly, and he pointed out that the left wheel bearing had come loose and was clanging on the inside of the axle. After a brief conversation I re-strapped the boat, banged the bearing back in place with a rock, and slung my drybags onto my shoulder, which took a lot of weight out of the boat and seemed to keep the bearing secure. It was 4pm and I had just started towards the trailhead at Whiskey Bend, some 7 miles and over 1000 feet of elevation ahead.
A few miles into the hike I stopped to look down into Glines Canyon, a defile that just a few years ago was partially submerged under a man-made lake. The Elwha, formerly home to one of the largest salmon runs in the northwest, made big news a few years ago when plans were revealed for the biggest dam-removal project in US history. Through the efforts of local tribes, conservationists, and American Whitewater (you're a member, right?), the Elwha now flows free from its headwaters to the ocean, and the salmon runs can begin to recover. Staring down into the darkness below, I felt a sense of gratitude to experience this re-born river, and resumed my walk into the mountains.
My feet were starting to pulse with aching pain around mile six, but I pushed on and made the trailhead at 6:30. Phase one was successful. I took a break and then backtracked half a mile with my wheels and hiked down the Lake Mills Trail to stash them near the river, whereupon after finishing the Class V stuff, I would then strap them to the deck of my boat for the paddle out of the park. Once I had staged the wheels at the river, it was now 7:30. At this point I was just starting the 8.5 mile hike to the put-in, one that has brutalized a handful of kayakers over the years. I had lofty plans of making it as far as Lillian River Campground, 5 miles of strenuous hiking ahead, but I didn't have a lot of time. I didn't have a backpack system, and was just going to alternate carrying my boat and gear on my shoulder and my head. Not 10 minutes in I started suffering, already at the end of a long and exhausting day. Two miles in I ate a footlong and some cookies, and prepared for the long, dark approach to camp, which I stumbled into around 10pm. I was completely wrecked after 14 miles of hiking, and went straight to bed.
Morning came early as I had set my alarm at 6am in anticipation of another long day. I had plans of finishing the remaining 4 miles of hiking to the put-in, and of paddling the Grand Canyon proper - the longer of the two canyons on this river, before setting up camp in Geyser Valley, an open valley where the river gently meanders two miles before dropping into the second intimidating section, Rica Canyon. This seemed like a reasonable amount to tackle, but a big question mark surrounded the fact that before any of this I planned to attempt to drop off the trail and down into the heart of the canyon in order to get a view of Nightmare and the spot where the logjam resided. If this spot was impassable I wouldn't be able to continue, and there was definitely no way it was a good decision to simply drop in sight unseen.
The climb out of camp at the Lillian River is a steep and relentless slog, but the magic of the early morning light and the promise of an unforgettable adventure kept my spirit sailing. I hammered out the climb in an hour, and I found the spot where I would drop down to scout Nightmare when a large landslide afforded a glimpse of the canyon far below. Staying to the right of the bluffs surrounding the landslide, I began toiling down through the thick rain forest, occasionally sneaking out into the open rock to my left to get a glimpse of the river. I could see upstream where the river came out of a narrow slot canyon that must contain Eskimo Pie, the hardest must-run drop in the Grand, and I could see the two big rapids below, which lead into Nightmare. After dropping around 600 feet I cornered out onto an airy prow on the left and caught a decent view of Nightmare itself, confirming that the main rapid was clear of any debris, and was able to pick my line out. I would drop through an entrance slot in the middle, then charge into the burly collection of boulders and holes immediately below. However, I couldn't see the pinch in the turn after that, which is where potential disaster lurked. I dropped as far as I could to the edge of the overhung canyon, and traversed downstream, hoping a promontory would extend just far enough out into the canyon to give me a view, but the shape of the walls and the bend in the river just weren't going to give me a visual. I looked across the canyon to the south side, where I could see many rocky points and large trees clinging to the slopes that almost certainly offered a view of the missing piece of the puzzle, but there was no way there from here.
I can't tell you how often carrying topo maps has payed off for me in situations like this. I had my phone with me, and always carry downloaded maps of the places I explore. I pulled up the quad I was in, confirmed my location, and noted that the rocks that offered a view on the other side appeared to be easily reachable if I were to paddle the first mile or so above the canyon, eddy left just above the start of the walled in section, and hike up a gentle ramp a quarter mile and then scale just 50 feet or so up to the divide, which I had just stared at from my first vantage point. With this option, I could continue, though if I discovered an impassable log jam at that point, I'd still have to hike back out and around the Grand Canyon. This would be beyond miserable, but how could I give up now? I was optimistic I would like what I saw, so I climbed 800 feet back out of the canyon and up to my boat, and shouldered for the final 3 miles down to the river. The trail cuts through some of the most enchanting forest I've ever seen, and as the river started to gradually make its voice known, my excitement started really kicking in. The suffering was potentially over, and I could finally get into the meat of this expedition. The forest was dazzling, and my approach proved an easy way to lose 7 lbs after eating greasy food at the Banks Cafe for 10 days, but the Elwha itself was obviously the reason I was here. And here it was!
It's impossible to describe the feeling of having hiked your boat many hard earned miles to put in on a special river. It's never the easiest, most convenient, or expedient way of getting to the put-in, yet there's no other method that produces such gratitude. I could feel my heartbeat pulsing through every part of me. Every drop of sweat carried its vibration to the rocks underfoot, and the rocks transmitted their cold indifference to and through me. I was completely connected. All that is, is all there was, and being alone with all this reality was just what I had been seeking. With the gratitude of being there, and the taste of seriousness in my mouth, I peeled out into the Elwha.
There's no subtle transition from canyon to valley and vice versa here. After one braided rapid the river dove right into an impressive, narrow canyon. The walls throughout the Elwha are composed mostly of smooth gray rock that is occasionally packed with thin, white, linear striations. It is this rock, in combination with the lush vegetation surrounding it, as well as the deep, narrow channel, that give the water the most beautiful electric blue color I've ever seen on a river. After chasing rivers in the Northwest for years and seeing the wide range of hues conditions can create, from the swollen gray glacial swill of the Elaho, to the magical turquoise elixir of the Ohanapecosh, I think I've found my favorite in the Elwha.
Even in the warm-up canyon there were some spots where I had to make some tight ducks under logs spanning from one wall to the other. This is pretty typical for the Northwest, but definitely reminded me that downstream it was more likely than not that I would find myself in a no-mistake environment.
After a mile and a half of splendid Class III-IV boating in a breathtaking canyon, I came around the corner and saw where the river cuts hard right and plummets out of sight into a vertical canyon with walls soaring skyward. I eddied left, hopped out, and began hiking up the ramp I had seen on my map. I entered an open forest of ancient Douglas Fir, some specimens of which were as big as I have ever seen. The comparative quiet of this stoic forest calmed my soul and encouraged my curiosity to keep moving. Ten minutes of this led me to a steep embankment that took a little creativity to ascend. Once topped out, I found myself on a narrow knife ridge that dropped 300 feet down to the Elwha straight below. At first I could get useful views of the canyon downstream but not of the corner I needed to see, but as I worked up the ridge to my right and upstream, I found a prominent tree a ways below that appeared to allow a view down into the canyon right above the pinch. I tied into another tree further up the slope and carefully descended to the large tree and was able to lean out over the canyon and get a full view of everything. A huge wave of stoke rolled over me as I discovered that there were only two trees lodged in the canyon, and they made an X from one side to the other, with what looked like plenty of room to paddle underneath. The other debris had been washed clear of the area, but these two colossal logs remained. It was quite an affirmation to know that my prudent plan to look before I leaped bore fruit. It's not convenient, but we have to adapt to the conditions we find and not let our egos or laziness get us into trouble. Sometimes it's a pain in the ass to descend hard rivers with a margin of safety. What choice do we have though?
With the discovery that I would be able to paddle safely through Nightmare and the drops above and below, I walked back to my boat, devouring a patch of salmonberries along the way, which are like raspberries but better! Following a quick scout of the entrance rapid I dropped into the canyon, whose walls soared overhead and almost overlapped, making for an almost subterranean feel. Right off the bat I encountered what would have been a Class IV drop were it not for the old growth log stuck in the only runnable channel. A steady touch allowed me to get out on a rock pile in the center. I held my breath as I carefully entered my boat and seal-launched into the tight, boiling corridor below. This put me right above Eskimo Pie, the first unportageable Class V in the Grand Canyon. I could see from my view above that the rapid was free of wood, and knowing the line from a few videos, I went for it, roosting a big air boof 8 feet over a juicy walled in hole. After bashing through the run-out I eddied below, mesmerized by this canyon, a mere 10 feet wide, with blue fizzing champagne bubbling up, tickling my ear drums with its sonic texture. I'm not sure I feel more alive than in moments like this, where each breath feels better than the last, as I move through places that require care and attention, humility and respect. The roar of the gradient downstream echoed violently off the overlapping walls, and I headed on down into the next big set, which consisted of powerful read and run combinations of holes, diagonals, wall shots, and tight boofs. Paddling around another corner I found myself in the pool above Nightmare.
Rolling into Nightmare with bonafide knowledge of what was around the corner left me without the slightest concern, and I was able to really soak in the full experience of committing to the drop, entering through the top slot, and then charging through the big holes and laterals above the spot where the river calms and flushes under the logs. As I rounded the corner, I discovered that the trees were 12-15 feet overhead, completely out of play. I grabbed an eddy below, and got out to re-energize in the most audacious of cafeterias.
Once below Nightmare I knew there were more big rapids downstream but that the river would mellow a little until the Lillian River confluence. It's amazing how efficiently you can move when not distracted by anyone else. I made quick work of the section below, encountering ultra-classic Class IV-IV+ whitewater with nice holes, boofs, and wall-shots. After the Lillian River came in on the right, the river amped up again, with some stout rapids increasing in size, eventually to where I had to hop out for a bank-scout. Not far below, a towering landslide on the left marked the last big rapid, a long Class IV read and run boulder field. The canyon walls abruptly peeled back below and the river opened up into Geyser Valley. Not far down I found a perfect flat beach on the right and decided that this was the place to stop for the day. I crushed the Grand Canyon with time to spare and probably could have pushed through to Rica Canyon and beyond, but sometimes when you have a great camp spot, you don't push your luck!
It was pretty hot at this point, so I built a sunshade with my tarp to hang out under. For a moment it felt odd to not have anything to do while the sun was yet fairly high overhead, but before long I settled into a groove. I took a nap, listened to an entire album on my phone, then got into a repetitive rhythm of swimming in the frigid water followed by brief tenures sitting in the sun. The numbness of the cold and my weariness from the long days hit me like a drug, and I took another nap. I couldn't help but wish I had some good friends to share the cheer with when I woke. There's trade-offs to every experience, but the key is to enjoy every moment for what it is. My brother-in-law always says "If we had ham we could have ham and eggs, if we had eggs." With this in mind, I got busy with dinner and setting up my bed, and eventually fell asleep before the light fully faded. I was awoken not much later as the full moon rose into the clear night sky and lit up my world anew. I took in my silver surroundings, the river a quilt of chrome ribbons before me, and fell back asleep.
The next morning I was up early, made coffee, ate some breakfast and hit the water at 7am, which had me floating through Geyser Valley and hitting the entrance to Rica Canyon, known as Goblin's Gate, around 7:30. Without the sun to cheer my optimism, I took an ominous right turn into the Goblin's Gate, the hardest rapid on the Elwha. I hopped out to find wood blocking enough of the rapid to not want to run it solo, so I portaged on the left and slid back in for the run-out. The canyon here wasn't as deep, but almost as sheer, and packed full of Class IV-V action for over half a mile.
After another scout I routed through the rest of the hard water and the gradient eased, and soon enough I found myself being whisked through the bathtub ring of Lake Mills and through some more beautiful canyon scenery before opening up into the Mills Valley. I grabbed my portage wheels that I had stashed, and strapped them to my bow deck, figuring that there wasn't any hard whitewater left. I then floated 3 miles through what used to be a lake, finding fascination in all the recently disturbed and sorted sediments that had been exposed and rearranged by the river. Soon enough I could see the remains of Glines Canyon Dam ahead, and a considerable narrows surrounded by 200 foot walls. I entered the canyon to find that there was indeed one more Class V drop, which I ran with wheels protruding from the deck of my kayak. I couldn't get my forward strokes in at my toes, which was interesting to work with in the turbulent, boulder-filled torrent, and probably looked pretty damn silly. Below, the canyon opened up and I paddled several more miles out of the National Park and down to the Highway 101 bridge. Immediately I wished I was back up in the Grand Canyon, but it was time to start heading home. It was 10:30 am. I had 1% battery and 1 bar of service - just enough to call for a taxi back to my van. Once loaded, I drove down south, hit the ferry to Seattle, and began the drive on I-90, making the Alberton Gorge in Montana before crashing in my van.
I had dreamed it, fought to make it work, lived it, and just as the rest, it evaporated into the ether of my memory. I can't recommend solo boating, but then again there's a lot I can't recommend, and there'd be a lot I wouldn't have the ability to have as memories if I wasn't willing to do it. It's not for everybody, but it's for nobody to judge. I really hope to go back to the Elwha one day - it's too good to only do once, but who knows.
Paddle every river as if it's the only lap you'll ever get.