Clear Fork of the Cowlitz River

Class V-V+ (P), 236fpm, ~100cfs

October 13, 2002

Ben, Josh, John

Author: Josh

Josh and Ben back at it.

Photographer: John


As the story goes, we were looking for something just a bit more exciting. The Upper Upper Cispus had staved off our hunger for Saturday, but Sunday needed a willing participant for the Cascade Classic slaughterhouse. The problem was water to wash down our rocky meal or to flush out our addled minds. Rivers in the Pacific Northwest were at a shortage. The Clear Fork of the Cowlitz seemed like a good choice for a low water descent/scout, but was it too low? All of us had wondered on the way up to White Pass skiing, what was down in that deep, dark valley. This was our chance to find out with less danger (less water). The stories and pictures had left us wanting to see for ourselves. Ben thought the Clear Fork would go, John was willing to try, and I was a bit suspect leaving my choice until the put-in.


Josh and Ben at camp the night before.

Photographer: John


We talked little on our way up White Pass realizing that we were in for an adventure. The walk down to the river involved twenty minutes of our time. The trail was so good (too many switchbacks) that we just had to cut it short by walking the normal route to rivers, straight down. My first look at the Clear Fork got me thinking that we could run it. Ben was up river waiting for John. Down river looked pretty tame so I shuffled my boat over some boulders (I was in my boat) and eventually made it to a pool sheltered by an overhanging rock formation. When Ben went by it he said, "cool rocks". The sights would continue and multiply enough to become the norm in the dark haze of boulder gardens and dizzying horizon lines that were to come.

After a couple of 3-5 foot drops we came to Entrance Exam. The first drop was ugly. We portaged it on the left, but only half of it. Entering the river via a deep crack in the cliff that led back to the river, but the meat of the drop. By the end of the day far worse drops were ran by each of us. Ben went first and got pancaked into the left wall, John went next after seeing that Ben had made it out whole, and I went last getting worked the mostly due to my boat. The next part of the exam consisted of two consecutive drops both adding up to over 20 feet. Ben scouted on the right. The drops looked good so John went for it. At the bottom he prepared to take some photos.

The first drop got me wishing for more. The second drop left me content, but afraid of what lay around the corner. The scenery was breathtaking and these drops were the embodiment of what creeking is all about. As I watched Ben take the final exam and then continue on I could barely get myself to follow. Soon I had to leave for there was much more river ahead.


Ben running the final drop of Entrance Exam.

Photographer: John


As we tore around the next corner we entered a section of slides and drops. They all were no bigger than 10 feet. Just after these slides there is a small drop that squeezes tight to the right. Luckily, we scouted and portaged around this bony log choked drop. With some teamwork we were soon around the rapid and back in our boats. What we encountered next was a boulder garden that would not end until we got out of our boats and walked up to the road. All our comparisons of this river to others soon vanished. We had entered another dimension. Even at such a low flow the drops were hard, as well as dangerous. At higher flows this river would become easier in places, but much harder in many other places. The huge horizon lines never eased. If anything they became larger.


Ben landing a ledge below Entrance Exam.

Photographer: John


Minutes turned to hours that passed by in seconds. At some point we came to the largest drop of the day, an 18-foot vertical drop. We got out and looked at it and looked at it and then portaged it. Due to the low flow the entrance was a toss of the dice. To successfully run the falls one would have to shoot out left, lean left, and far enough left to miss the rock wall that you would hit if you did not go left. Did I mention go left? None of us liked the odds, and there was a whole lot of river ahead. The decision was easy, but the portage was not; after about 15 minutes from first contact we were on our way again.

The boulder garden that followed was hard. We ran everything in an odd formation. Whoever was first would boat scout then run it. If there wasnít a cry out for help the next person would run it. If one of us came to a drop that looked too big one person would get out and scout/direct. If it was still too scary, or the first subject did not come out all together happy, we would portage. Only once did I fall into the latter description, the one about the unhappy boater. Ben was the first to get out and therefore scout/direct. When he looked at the drop I could tell that he was unsure. Boof hard was his advise. I tried to, but not enough. I went off of the 6-foot drop but did not come out. I found myself pinned with water pouring down on me hard. I could feel that my boat was stuck, but my boat was not what I was worried about. Getting out of my boat whole, as in, with all of my limbs intact, was my top priority. I pulled, quickly knowing that the water would rush in and push me over before I could get fully out. Luckily, I made it, but my boat was another matter. After some tugging and pulling by Ben (about 20 feet up a cliff) and myself we were able to work the old Gliss out. Unfortunately, this rapid could not be portaged without a throw and go so John and Ben ended up wet as well. Fortunately, it looked like you could blow right through at higher water.

This section was fun and the views only got better. The Palisades soon came up and they were amazing. The day was wearing thin so we did not spend much time lollygagging. Ultimately, we came to the Class VI. At the time I was the point man and so I scouted, but did not direct. This drop would be portaged. There were some ancient logs pinned in a tight series of drops that winded around the corner and out of sight, out of mind. The portage took about 20 minutes. We hiked up over some sharp loose rock, and then across some large boulders until we got to a point were we decided to run the rapids rather than walk.


Ben running a series of fun slides while Josh waits his turn.

Photographer: John


Sometime during this section John got pinned between some rocks and pulled. He had little choice. In the aftermath his boat left him and his paddle (Jasonís paddle) was nowhere to be found. Ben and I pushed Johnís boat into an eddy were he brought it to shore and drained it while Ben recovered the paddle that had to still be pinned in the rocks, and so it was.

Soon we came to a 15-foot drop. We got out and again looked and looked and then ran it. I went first and shot out center towards the left. It was very fun. John went next since he had the only camera. Ben smiled big and over he went, surprised but safe.


Ben running the 15-foot drop.

Photographer: John


We were lacking time but couldn't help but stop at a beautiful falls that cascaded into the river on the right. John's paddle was snatched from his hands so he had to stop anyway. Afterward, on the other side of the falls some of the lingering rays of the late afternoon sun brought up a shimmering rainbow that Ben and I watched until John was ready to go on. The sight was timeless.


Ben putting in with the falls behind him.

Photographer: John


The end of the trip was as the rest a long never-ending boulder garden. The bridge was a sight for sore eyes, but even sorer from squinting. Damn that bridge was a long way up. We continued down river until we came to a ridge that led, we hoped, back to the bridge and the highway. At the bottom of the hill we ran into an old wooden road and a trail. We followed the trail and then strayed because our path lay up to the road and not down river. The path played a disappearing and reappearing act on us all the way to the highway. It was steep, but direct, as all trails to a river should be.

With only one car at the put-in we had to hitchhike. Ben had brought some shorts and a shirt and soon he was off to show his stuff and get a ride. Eventually, it was John who got Ben a ride from some people who had already rejected him. While Ben tested his fortune on the highway John got to talking to a family who were waiting for some more of their family to show up in another car. Anyway, the other car showed up and seeing Ben was having no luck they broke down and gave him a ride. In the mean time, the other car stayed. John showed them some pictures and soon Ben was back with Johnís truck.

So as the story comes to an end I can tell you that two weeks later I still cannot get the Clear Fork out of my head. I will run it again at higher volume (not too much higher), but after this trip I know I will be better prepared for the next and I will know a bit more of what, adventure, I am about to get into.