Grand Canyon of the Elwha

Class V, 70fpm, 850cfs

July 25, 2003

Ben, (Eric Schertzl)


The Grand Canyon of the Elwha. With a name like that, who could resist? Well… everybody it seemed.

True, it was a Friday and true, it's a 1 to 3-hour drive and 30-minute ferry from the I-5 corridor and how could one forget, the mandatory 8-mile hike to get to the put-in. Numerous calls and emails led to one hopeful. I did my best to convince Eric to join me but he spoke of obligations, girlfriends, parties and such. My interpretation of the gauge led me to believe that this would be the final weekend within the recommended 800-1200 cfs. The present 850 seemed like an ideal flow for the first-timer and was enough to convince me of my destiny. I sent a final email to Eric, asking Elwhatareyouthinking, even offering to carry his boat. He replied, asking if I'd Ricasider, offering to run the Elwha's lower canyon (Rica) that afternoon. Obligations, compromise… my unfamiliar vocabulary.

My plan was put into motion Thursday after work. I was able to sneak out a few hours early allowing me enough time to pack and catch the last ferry from Keystone to Port Townsend. I made a few calls along the way. Eric, who planned to meet me for an afternoon run down Rica (should I survive the Grand) and John, who planned to paddle that weekend but wasn't sure when or where. Both seemed concerned for my safety, paddling solo Class V with several "must run" rapids, but I was confident with my ability and told them not to worry.

I had no plans for the weekend but threw in my overnight gear to add to the endless hiking, climbing and camping options on the peninsula. A spectacular sunset got things off to a good start.


Sunset from the ferry leaving Keystone.


From Port Townsend, it was another hour or so to the Elwha Valley trailhead. I made several stops along the way and didn't get to bed until 11pm. My alarm was set for daylight but I awoke slightly before and was on my way by 6am. The guidebook recommends this as a 3-day trip but with a mere 8-mile hike I figured one day was plenty. The challenge was shouldering my 40-odd pound boat which, with gear and a breakdown paddle, tipped in well over 50lbs. I rigged a nifty backpack with the rear grab loops on my Gus and used a runner and paddle to hold it steady above my head. I've always wondered what could be more awkward than skis, boots, and an overnight pack and those first few miles provided my answer.

The trail maintains a slight incline before descending to Lillian River. Another couple miles of uphill and a gradual descent lead to an obvious put-in. I towed my boat for roughly 2 miles of downhill, which saved some time and backache. It took 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach the put-in but I took no breaks and kept a steady pace. The brisk morning made me question my decision of shorts and a drytop but once in my boat, adrenaline provided all the warmth I would need.

I neglected to bring my camera so I'm unable to show you the highlights but rest assured, there were many.

Some gravelly Class II led to the canyon where bouldery ledge drops become the norm. I'm more accustomed to low-volume creeks so the swells and swirls took some getting used to, not to mention the hydraulics.

The first Class IV is a trashy boulder garden that I scouted from the center. A narrow chute on the left and a ferry back right to a log ledge. Quite enjoyable despite its appearance. Next comes Eskimo Pie. I didn't know it at the time but this is the drop that the guidebook describes as a "SCARY" scout on the right. I found an easy scout on the left but there was little I could do besides stare into the meaty, riverwide hole that forms the first of two ledges. The only way to portage or set up safety is on the right so I made a feeble attempt to probe the eddy. With a partner to corral my boat I'd have made a better attempt but after weighing my odds, I decided to go for it. This took all of two seconds as I turned my boat and aimed for the hole. I made it over with no speed to spare and the second ledge was a quick flush. Afterwards I thought to myself, what am I doing? The subsequent pool helped calm my nerves but if the last rapid was any indication of what lay ahead, I was in for some serious stress.

The next rapid was a long Class IV that I scouted from the left. There were a variety of lines. I chose to begin right and end center. My first and only flip of the day came midway but provided me with enough time to eddy out right above the next drop. This is the rapid above Nightmare and looked pretty trashy at this flow. The majority of the current went left over some sharp rocks and funky hydraulics. After a lengthy scout, I chose to scrape down on the right.

"Nightmare, the highlight of the Grand Canyon run. To see this drop you must commit yourself to it. Proceed with extreme caution." With this description from Gary Korb's 1997 guidebook and limited knowledge from recent descents, I continued. Nightmare isn't the most challenging rapid on the Grand but its difficulty to scout and inability to portage makes it the most dangerous. As the walls close in your views are blocked by a large midstream boulder. There's an eddy on the left but it isn't much use. I chose to dock my boat in the right channel and was able to climb atop the midstream boulder for a decent look into the maw. Far left I was told and far left looked best. It was a slippery launch but I managed to put in and paddle my way upstream to the left eddy. One should note that this may not be possible at higher flow. I recall two tight chutes against the left wall before joining the main current beneath a log. Afterwards, you can eddy out behind another midstream boulder for a look back or to scout the final drop. The remaining canyon rapids are fairly easy to boat scout.

Lillian River enters from a spectacular gorge on your right. Soon after, you'll come to Pebbles and Bam Bam. I scouted both of these rapids together on the right but the left shore appeared to offer a better portage. They looked good at this flow so I ran Pebbles center left and Bam Bam right. Next comes Dagger which you'll want to scout on the right. Korb says to run it on the right but as of 2003, the only line was on the left. There, I found a series of boofs and waves, similar to the rapid above Nightmare but cleaner.

After the canyon opens up you'll come to the Landslide rapid. I ran the upper section and walked the lower. Had there been safety I would have run the lower at this flow but I had little desire to test my luck. Below Landslide you'll pass beneath a bridge which marks the beginning of Geyser Valley and several miles of gravelly Class II. I passed a few fishermen near its end and stopped along the left bank to wait for Eric.

It was roughly noon. Eric and I had planned to meet in the vicinity between 1 and 3pm so I stripped down to my shorts and took a nap. Stretching my back on my boat in the sun was just what the doctor ordered. Looking back I'd say this moment was the highlight. Of course, it wouldn't be the same without a Class V canyon above and below.

Eric arrived around 12:30 and although I could have laid there another week, we were both glad to see each other. We hadn't paddled together since his shoulder surgery so there were many-a-tale to be told. After an hour of telling we were on our way.

The wood above the entrance to Rica Canyon has cleared leaving a large eddy on the left. The first rapid, Goblin's Gate, is encountered a short distance downstream. We found an eddy on the right that we were both able to scout from. The key to this rapid is to be right center on the final ledge to avoid a meaty hole on the left. We had no trouble making it there but at higher flows it may be more difficult, keeping in mind there is no way to portage or set up safety. The next significant rapid offers a sneak route on the far right over a small ledge. Afterwards, some Class IV boat scouting leads to what I consider the most significant rapid of Rica. We ran the first part and eddied out right to scout the remainder. All of it could be scouted and portaged on the left if necessary. We climbed down the right bank as far as possible and spotted a red Salto in the worst possible spot at the bottom of the rapid. It was wedged in the center of the river near undercut rocks, logs, the works. Obviously abandoned with little choice but to climb out and return at lower flows for a recovery. Despite all this, I saw my line and went for it, center then right of center. Eric opted for center then left of center. Both lines worked as long as you didn't end up center. A bit of Class IV and some flat water led to the lake. There we spotted two fishermen who helped guide us to the trail.

The hike up to the road wasn't so pleasant with the heat and bugs but it beat paddling 3 miles of lake with a headwind. We ditched out boats near the pullout at Whiskey Bend and hiked the remaining half-mile back to the trailhead.

Eric wanted to do a play run down the lower Elwha but after scouting it from the dam we agreed that the flow was too low. Instead, we dreamt about what a complete run of the upper and lower gorges would be like. With any luck we'll know soon, with ongoing plans to remove the dams. For now, we had the remainder of the weekend to deal with. Eric left for the beach for some surfing with his lady and I ended up doing some hiking with my brother and the Hummels. Not the most adrenaline filled finish but a good way to unwind from the nightmares and dreams.


Sunset on Rialto Beach.