Clear Fork of the Cowlitz River
Class V-V+ (P), 236fpm, ~200cfs (1000cfs Cowlitz at Packwood)
October 18, 2003
Ben, Justin, Jon, Jesse, Leo
Waking up is never fun when it means becoming aware that you've been freezing your ass off all night. I thought I had woken up just because it was so damn cold outside, but no, somehow morning had snuck up on me and my campmates were doing their damnedest to make little annoying sounds to prevent me from going back to sleep. Seems like Leo had arrived on time at 7:00 am and everybody but me was raring to go. I ate a quick donut breakfast and soon we were off to try our luck on the Clear Fork.
We had to park off of Highway 12 at the bridge over the Clear Fork because the La Wis Wis Campground was closed for the season. Glancing down into the deep canyon, we didn't see a lot of water but Ben assured us that it would definitely be a go. The shuttle went quickly, while putting on my wet gear went slowly. There was a short hike down into the mouth of the canyon from the road, and we all took our own separate ways while listening to loud crashing and cracking noises coming from Jesse's general direction. It sounded like he had inadvertently discovered some cliffs but turned out to be okay.
The run starts with a three part drop called Entrance Exam, which is the cleanest section of big drops on the Clear Fork and will test your decision to commit to the depths of the approaching canyon. The first drop looks really gnarly as it slides about 10 feet and slams directly into a wall before exiting at a sharp angle to the right. Luckily it is just big enough to allow a modern creekboat to sneak through with minimal abuse. I had pretty much decided I would portage before I even got there, but seeing some relatively clean lines suggested I ought to give it a try next time.
Leo running the first drop of Entrance Exam. Listen closely and you can hear his boat getting friendly with the cliff.
The rest of Entrance Exam is composed of two super-clean 8 to10-foot waterfalls that are pretty easy at lower flows but could easily become carnage factories at high water. Nobody had problems with these although I ended up testing the depth of the first pool, disappearing for a moment and then rocketing up in an aerial stern ender. It was a great start to a long and awesome day of creeking.
Justin in-between the second and third drops of Entrance Exam.
Just about every corner of the river was blind and steep, so we were quite lucky to have Ben to guide us through the easier stuff. There were plenty of eddies for checking things out, but the creek drops 240 ft/mile for 5 miles so scouting around every corner would have meant finishing in the dark (despite our early start). There were ledges upon ledges, chutes and corners galore until we came to the first of several small 8 to 12-foot waterfalls. There are four or five such waterfalls along the run and for the most part they consist of narrow entrances between large boulders, with small landing zones often occupied to some extent by outcroppings of the canyon walls. If the bewildering complexity of the river ever waned, we would stare up for as long as we dared at the awesome palisades of the towering canyon walls.
Jon running one of several ledges below Entrance Exam.
Jesse running the 12-footer.
Jesse running the 18-footer.
Soon we discovered the meatiest of the small waterfalls, which had a horseshoe shaped landing and was located directly above another very menacing wood-choked drop. The hole at the bottom of this one had some considerable backflow, as our probe-boater Jon discovered in the midst of trying to keep it together above the extreme wood hazard sitting just downstream. The entrance must have been tricky because he landed a little bit awkwardly and got turned sideways. He held on for little bit but the canyon walls were making things difficult, so he bailed quickly probably thinking that he would need his wits about him to avoid the gnar below.
Jon getting worked above a wood-choked drop.
Jon didn't have any trouble getting himself to the left bank but his boat showed no signs of coming out of the hole. After watching it get pummeled for a few minutes, we knew a boat rescue would be in order and Leo volunteered to lower himself down to clip a rope onto the boat. The boat rescue went smoothly and all of Jon's gear was recovered. Unfortunately the bow of Jon's boat had taken a beating and was sporting a long, wide crack through which water would constantly enter for the rest of the weekend.
Leo clipping a rope to Jon's boat.
Shortly after this drop and the subsequent portage, we arrived at the Landslide rapids, which are a steep set of continuous bouldery ledge drops with lots of wood that would be a step up in burliness from anything else on the run, if they were free of wood. The portage of this section along the right bank is quite long. Jesse was the only one of us to run the last set of rapids in this section and he did so quite well.
A few more boulder gardens led to a horizon line that from my boat looked to me like the entrance to yet another steep boulder garden. Jon scouted and said right down the middle just as Ben paddled through, and I quickly followed. To my great surprise I found myself staring 15 feet down into a fluffy pool with a sweet boof flake right in front of me. Nothing like a friendly surprise waterfall after several miles of steep creekin'! Everybody was bubbling with joy over this, in my opinion, the most lighthearted of drops on the Clear Fork.
Jon getting smothered at the bottom of a fun slide.
Jon boofing into a chute below the slide below the waterfall…
Another half-mile or so of boulder gardens followed before the river flattened out and we saw the bridge hanging high above. The hike back up to the highway was a pain but we had great sunny weather at the takeout, for which we considered ourselves extremely lucky given the time of year. It took us around 7 hours to complete the run, which is a testament to the complexity of this section of river considering that we had a guide and were moving at a pretty good pace except for the one mishap and boat rescue.