Upper Upper Cispus River

Class V, 130fpm, ~400cfs (500cfs Cispus at Randle)

October 17, 2003

Ben, Justin

Author: Justin


I'm alone, floating on a crystalline pool of water along a small creek somewhere in the vicinity of Mt. Adams, looking up at the Class IV rapid I just ran. It reminds me a lot of most of the rapids on the Farmlands section of the White Salmon, which was one of the last stretches of whitewater I had paddled before selling the old Necky Blunt. Back in those days we would crash merrily down the friendly cascades of little waves and holes, without an ounce of worry, laying down strokes here and there to entertain ourselves.

Today was a little different. Of course I was paddling a new kayak, a Perception Java I scored a couple of weeks ago for 25% off (OutdoorPlay). Plus, up until last weekend, I hadn't touched or merely even glanced at a river for at least a year. Then there was Ben, a new paddling buddy of mine, who was serving as my guide today and without whom I wouldn't even have found myself on this nice little creek or writing this little trip report. But at this moment, compared to what lay between myself and The Future, none of these details seemed too important.

Something was thundering deafeningly, and It wasn't coming from upriver.

Paddle into the flow, begin a bit to the right, charge left with left angle, fly down a steep eight-foot slide while trying to claw my way up onto a boof flake, hit the boof stroke while trying to keep up my bow, freefall 20 or so feet into a frothing cauldron of fluf, avoid joining the small community of wood stuck in a long-term relationship with the swirling womb of an insatiable whitewater bitch, attempt mach 7 leftward across her rejected sputum, and wear my scariest stinky-face as I submit myself to the recirculating maw of the local scavenger as it lies in wait for the regurgitated scraps from its thundering mother.

And it all seemed so much simpler from the cockpit. But this was my first run down the Upper Upper Cispus, and dammit I have the right to talk it up some. Or a lot. In any case I felt pretty damn amazed at my fortune for being able to paddle a solid stretch of river without involving myself in some sort of debacle. After all, a year ago I felt like The River was out to get me.

But enough about my twisted little psycho-reality. The Upper Upper Cispus was the first stop on our three-day tour of the Upper Cowlitz drainage. Ben had Friday off from work, and would you know it I did too (let's just say, I get a lot of days off), so we were set to get serious about beginning the creeking season. We had run the MF Nooksack and Clearwater Creek the previous weekend, which provided me with a brisk opportunity to remember how to paddle, wake up the paddling muscles, learn how to paddle the Java, and deal with 250-300 fpm, all at once. I also got a bloody mug-shot and sexy shiner in the deal.


Clearwater Creek at lower than recommended flows.

Photographer: Justin


Justinís head after running Clearwater Creek at lower than recommended flows.

Photographer: Justin


I called down to PDX to bring in the cavalry. Jon, my old paddling buddy and fellow Reedie from PDX counted himself in lickety-split, and he would bring along Jessie Coombs, who I am told will volunteer as probe as long as you give him a broken paddle. They were due to arrive Friday night at the Secret Camp. To complete the group Ben's buddy Leo would come from Tacoma Saturday morning.

Ben and I had originally planned on running the Ohanepecosh on Friday, but it looked too high when we got there. Next we checked out Johnson Creek, or "Big Johnson" Creek as Ben referred to it. I saw about 40 cfs so I looked for the main channel for a while. I didn't find it. Finally, after over four hours of driving, we arrived at the Cispus and it was just right. It was already 2 pm but Ben was pretty sure we could be off before dark. I didn't really know much about the Upper Upper except that Jon had run it, and said that there were a couple of waterfalls. The first one, which comes just moments after the put-in, was good for getting my blood pumping, and finding out how the Java would handle off of a big drop. The flow was low-medium and the drop was wood-free, so the agreed line was a little boof on the left side. I felt like the Java almost boofed itself. Better than the Blunt for sure.

(Whitewater Falls, Film: Ben, Paddler: Justin, 2.6MB)

Next were some boulder gardens, if I remember correctly not too scary as boulder gardens go, and then an interesting little drop with a tight slot on the left with a rock wall on the left and a small hole coming in on the right. I was a little apprehensive during the scout, but the drop turned out to be more friendly than it looked. The same goes for Island Drop. The left was scrapy so the line was through the two holes on the right. The bottom hole sketched me out because in the Blunt I had a history of spending some extra time in sloping holes like that. Ben's line went smoothly so I decided my chances were good. It turns out it was the top hole that put me in a tail stand, while the bottom one felt like it wasn't even there. I'm really starting to like the Java.

Eventually we made our way down to the top of The Behemoth, not without my little rodeo demonstration in the rapids just above the falls. Having already described this drop, I'll be brief. You want to find your way to some part of the boof flake at the end of the slide on the left. This will put you on line to sneak the next drop on the left, or deposit you in the big swirling eddy on the right in pool next to the falls (we both ended up on the right). The small hole that follows directly after the falls is stickiest on the right. If you find yourself visiting the woodpile in the swirling eddy, you can either paddle your ass off to the left in an attempt to reach the sneak, or you can pick a spot in the hole and try to punch it. Ben punched the deepest part of the hole, flipped, rolled up, and paddled out. I tried to ferry a couple of times (nearly impossible), then just charged in a straight line toward the left wall and ended up punching the left side of the hole without too much trouble.

(The Behemoth, Film: Ben, Paddler: Justin, 2.8MB)

The next series of drops were fun boulder gardens which ended too quickly, and then there was a considerable flat stretch for the rest of the run down to the takeout. I think the lines on these last boulder gardens were generally on the right. We finished in about 3 hours, and got back to camp just after dark. We spent a long time trying to start a fire with wet wood. The first trick was using toilet paper, followed by white gas, more toilet paper, the finally a paper towel dabbed with a little motor oil. That seemed to do the trick. The cavalry arrived around 9:30 pm in the campground assault vehicle a.k.a. a Westfalia van complete with a stove and two beds. Food and drink were enjoyed, followed by sleep.


Day Two: Clear Fork of the Cowlitz River


A note from Ben on the Cispus at Randle gauge:

I believe this gauge only registers when the flow is above 500cfs. Readings at or below should not be trusted. The gauge was replaced several years ago and is now located above the confluence with Yellowjacket Creek so Bennett's percentages no longer apply. Since then, it's been recalibrated at least once so your best bet may be to follow the visual recommendations. If the gauge reads above 500cfs my experience suggests that you'll find 70-90% on the Upper Upper (~70% during the winter and ~90% during the summer). Good luck.