Class III-IV, ~200fpm, ~150cfs (4000cfs Sauk at Sauk)
August 14, 2001
Ben, Josh, Jason
Josh aiming for the pool. Halfway through our 1 mile adventure.
Record rains had brought area rivers and creeks back to life. It was as though a winter storm had dumped several feet of powder on a crusty base. Instead of grabbing my fat skis and heading for the slopes, I grabbed my creek boat and headed for the valleys. Similar hazards exist. Just as you wouldn't want to ski a steep open slope for fear of avalanches, you wouldn't want to kayak a steep closed canyon for fear of floods. I was astounded as I watched gauges such as the MF Nooksack go from 250cfs to 2500cfs in less than 24 hours. I can't imagine being in there with 10 times the flow. We needed something a little more predictable.
The Hummels and I had kayaked the Suiattle River at least once a month since we bought our boats in January. We were familiar with every rapid on both the upper and lower sections. Most of our trips were pretty bony so we welcomed the additional flow. The first of our two-day trip was spent playing on the upper section. The flow was near the middle of the recommended range so there were plenty of waves and holes to choose from.
We camped at the Downey Creek trailhead while the skies cleared. The Hummels were planning to look for a job in Tacoma the next day however sleeping next to a steep uncharted creek changed their motivation. We decided to make exploratory run of Downey Creek. This meant that we had to wake up early and put on our cold wetsuits. That wasn't so bad but none of us were looking forward to the hike.
After hiking 3 miles on the Waptus River and 2 miles on the Cooper River we discovered that shouldering our kayaks is a pain. Unfortunately, there are no roads or put-ins along this captivating creek. One must hike in order to earn some churn.
We woke up at 7am and were hiking by 8am, taking only what was needed for our descent. It was midweek so we didn't have to worry about anyone questioning our sanity. Most hikers understand summer skiing but would they understand a spray skirt, life jacket and helmet? Kayak on one side and paddle on the other. Needless to say, I felt like a misfit.
The trail climbs a gradual switchback before traversing several hundred feet above the valley floor. We caught glimpses of the creek during the traverse but we had no idea what we were getting into. The roar of the rapids made us want to continue although the traverse kept leading upward. We knew that the trail dropped to creek around 4 miles but we had no desire to carry our boats that far. After what seemed like forever we decided to cut down a steep slope and intersect the creek wherever it may lead, coincidentally abandoning the trail near some survey tape. Inspection of a map led us to believe that we had hiked approximately 1 mile along the trail. The creek was approximately 500 vertical feet below.
The descent was a pain. There were many downed trees and it got bushy down low. Mud and branches made the slope slick although we were covered in kayak gear so stumbles were relatively painless. It seemed like an hour to reach the cutoff and half as long to reach the creek.
Josh in the bushes near the creek bed and Jason near the base of the slope.
Things did not look good when we reached the creek bed. The water was shallow and there were enormous logjams above and below. Nothing I could see was worth paddling but we decided to head downstream hoping that things would get better. They did.
We carried our boats a couple hundred feet around the last logjam and discovered that the creek narrowed and came to a corner. We dropped our boats at the obvious put-in and climbed on top of a rock to see what lay ahead. It was steep and deep as far as we could tell. I was relieved but became even more anxious.
I stayed on the rock to get a photo while Josh and Jason headed back to their boats to run the first rapid. There was no warm up. It was only a Class III drop but we ended up starting right in the middle of it, literally. We each waded to a stance in the middle of the creek -- a good boulder platform right below the last jogjam.
Drift from the boulders, shoot through the rocks and punch the reversal. We were in for a treat.
Josh getting busy. The put-in is no further than you can see.
A bit of Class II pool drop led to the first boulder garden. We got out to scout and everything looked good. There were a variety of lines and no wood. This was the case for several Class III drops that followed.
Jason on the first of several boulder gardens.
The drops continued to get larger and faster. The first Class IV involved a technical boulder garden ending with two small drops above a diagonal tree. The best line was far right. Josh and I hit it perfect. There was another line down the middle but it looked like you could get pinned beneath the tree. Jason rolled on the final drop and had no choice but to find out (fortunately upright) that you could make it through.
Jason testing the middle line by accident. Imagine the flow it would take to rip the bark off that tree.
There were several other Class IV drops. We scouted each of them not knowing what to expect. Our hopes came true not having to portage. There were 3 logs that we went under and several that we went around. Some of these would have to be portaged at higher water.
Myself on one of several fun ledges.
Photographer: Jason Hummel
Myself about to squeeze through on the left. There were two logs above me that I was able to squeeze under. Jason took this photo from the lower one. Both would be easy to portage on the left at higher flows.
Photographer: Jason Hummel
The action never let up. Jason ran a few Class IV drops that we should have scouted. Josh and I followed with some screams from below. There was a messy logjam near the take-out but we were able to squeeze through near the middle. This would be an easy portage on the right at higher flows.
Josh at the take-out. The messy logjam is above and out of sight.
All in all this is a great creek. We managed to find a perfect put-in for a short but classic float. The upper section might have some decent rapids but it flattens out above 3 miles and I imagine that there are quite a few logjams in-between. The gradient for the 1 mile section that we did is close to 200fpm.
I've since been told that the first descent came in March of 1996 when John Whaley did it solo. I doubt that it gets paddled more than once a year so if solitude, beauty and adventure top your list, you've come to the right place. You're more likely to see a bear on the banks than another boater.
The put-in is approximately 1 mile from the Downey Creek trailhead. Hike the trail until you see a piece of survey tape tied to a tree on the left then descend a steep slope for approximately 500 vertical feet. Hike downstream until you pass the last logjam.
The take-out is at, above or below the bridge across Downey Creek. This is just below the Downey Creek trailhead (a common put-in for the Upper Suiattle approximately 2 miles below the end of FR 26).
4000cfs for the Sauk at Sauk would be a good flow for a no portage descent. Expect to scrape at lower flows and to make at least 2 portages at higher flows.