Little Nisqually River

Class IV+ (V), 108fpm, ~800cfs (4000cfs Tilton at Cinnebar)

November 15, 2001

Ben, Josh, Jason

Jason getting worked on the last Class IV+ (V) rapid in the gorge.


The guidebook calls for "good rains." Well, lets see. It had rained around 10" in Seattle over the past few days. There was a flood warning in effect throughout western Washington. They Skykomish was flowing over 30,000cfs, the Snoqualamie over 20,000cfs and the Tilton over 7,000cfs. Sounds good to me.

The Little Nisqually is one of those rivers that gets flipped past in the guidebook. The Carbon River had captured my attention although its Class V rating and inability to scout or portage kept me at bay. The Puyallup Gorge seemed like a worthy IV+ alternative although I was told that a few of the drops had wood and again, it's difficult to scout or portage. Hey, what's this? Little Nisqually Riverů "at least five nice Class IV to IV+ rapids, with a couple of big ledges. Each one can be scouted and portaged if necessary."

I gave the Hummels a call the night of the floods and convinced them to join me. The take-out is on Alder Lake, a 30-minute drive from Tacoma. If it had been any further, the Hummels might have bailed. I told them the rain was going to stop and neglected to mention the 3-mile paddle across the lake so they dug up some change for gas and agreed to meet me in Alder at 9am.

I was unsure of the take-out so I left a little early. I arrived in Alder with no time to spare thanks to the generous hoard of midweek commuters. Fortunately, Alder Lake Park is as big as the town itself so I had no trouble finding it. The Hummels were about 15 minutes late. I waved them down and we continued to the boat launch where I left the Mazda and reloaded the gear into the Sport Truck. The park closed at 6pm, an hour later than the expected dusk. We continued along HW7 through Elbe and took a right (west) on Pleasant Valley Road. So far, the drive was pleasant but that quickly changed. The pavement ended roughly 8 miles from HW7. Normally a dirt or gravel road isn't that big of deal but in this case, it was a potholed mess. If the road had anymore water it would have been IV+ itself. Some of the holes could have swallowed a Geo. In fact, we even saw a few in the ditch. We figured they must have tried to portage.

After a long 3.5 miles we caught a glimpse of the river. Soon we crossed the first bridge. The river was in plain view for a mile or so until we crossed the third bridge and began to climb. We noticed a riverwide log below the third bridge. We had already begun to question ourselves but at that point we began to worry. This sucker was raging.


Some rafters put in ahead of us. We caught a glimpse of them on their way down.


Ok, so we didn't see any rafters and the river wasn't quite that high (65,000cfs on the Salmon River seen above). However, the flow was definitely higher than the recommended 200-500cfs.

We continued about 1 mile beyond the third bridge and pulled out on the left to look for a suitable put-in. I got out and ran a couple hundred feet to a grassy area with a nice launch. I signaled the Hummels down but they were still huddled in the Sport Truck trying to stay warm. They eventually turned off the engine as I started to get dressed. I was a little concerned that the rain hadn't let up. The forecast called for clearing skies but we were all beginning to wonder. Nevertheless, we shouldered our boats and headed for the bank.

The river didn't look nearly as bad as we had expected. There were several logjams ahead of us but the flow was a reasonable 300cfs. We squeezed past the first jam on the right and pulled out in an eddy on the left to scout the second one. We could have ducked under the second jam on the right but there were quite a few branches to dodge so we decided to carry our boats over the 20ft heap and put in below it. Soon we were on our way.

We boat scouted the first several rapids. There was an occasional log to go under or around so we approached each corner with caution. We found plenty of eddies despite the fact that the banks were flooded. I got out once to take a photo of Josh ducking a log. The ground felt like an ankle deep sponge and the hillsides were gushing with water. Little did we know, the biggest gusher was yet to come.


Josh limbos a log a short ways below our put-in.


I don't recall exactly when or where but the river doubled in size somewhere between our put-in and the third bridge. A creek entered on river right and things really started to pick up. Fortunately, there were no hazards to speak of except for the riverwide log that we knew to portage. Still, I got out several more times to poke my head around the corner and take photos.


Josh picking things up.


The third bridge marks the first mandatory portage. We eddied out beneath the bridge and carried our boats a short ways down the road and put in below the log. You could paddle beyond the third bridge but we saw no eddies above the log and both banks were covered in brush so I wouldn't recommend it. The log is easily visible from the road so make sure to take note of it on your way to the put-in.

The river eased up briefly until we reached the first bridge. There is a camping area on the right that gives you a chance to rest or bail before you enter the canyon. Next Stop Alder Lake. We considered abandoning ship but the adrenaline crew in the back of our heads told us to keep going. Besides, everything could be scouted and portaged, right?

We were overwhelmed with anticipation until we reached the first drop. It didn't look too bad so I went for it. A diagonal wave took me down hard but I recovered in time to watch Josh and Jason run it clean. It wasn't so bad. Jason even hiked up for seconds so I could take a photo.


Jason takes seconds on the first drop of the canyon.


Soon there is a right turn followed by a left turn. There is a riverwide log in the middle of the left turn that is difficult to see from above. We eddied out on the left and portaged on the left. It looked like you could roll under it but it wasn't worth the risk. This was our third and final portage.

There were several fun rapids before the ledges started to increase in size. Some were quite long and all had a variety of waves and holes to keep you on your toes. Generally, one person got out to scout and direct. I usually went first for photos sake.


Jason gets buried in a hole (upper right).


Josh goes deep beneath a wave.


Our first major obstacle was a ledge drop with a riverwide log hovering over its base. We all got out on the left to scout it. The majority of the current was going left but it looked like you would come too close to the log if you ran it that way. There was a line down the center but it would be difficult to nail. I decided to run it far right. I got back in my boat and ferried right. My line was perfect but there was a pool above the drop that stopped me so I couldn't resist getting out to set up safety and a photo. Josh followed me and ran the drop clean while I stood by with a rope and camera. Jason's line wasn't quite as clean. He rolled in the hole below the drop and had some trouble crossing the current that was pushing strongly from the left towards a wall on the right. I nailed the drop but the cross current also gave me some trouble.


Josh running right on the log ledge. The next photo was taken from the log.


Jason running right on the log drop.


So far the river felt no harder than Class IV. The rain had stopped and our outlook had improved. The rapids were fun and less scary than we had imagined. We were pleased that the higher flow had not punished us too bad although that was about to change.