Upper Suiattle River

Class III+, 66fpm, ~8,000cfs (25,000cfs Sauk at Sauk)

April 13-14, 2002

Ben, Jason, Josh, Troy

Josh and Jason entering the Upper Suiattle from Downey Creek.


The Upper Suiattle was our training ground during the winter and spring of 2001. The flows were embarrassingly low, but it saved us from drowning (not knowing how to roll) and kept others from witnessing our scratches and swims. In fact, we never saw another boater during the 20+ days and 100+ swims. I recall an eddy that we tried to play in where Josh must have pulled at least 20 times. The worst part is that the eddy was behind a rock in the middle of the river. The funniest part is that he dialed his roll about 1/2-mile downstream.

I find it difficult to imagine that we could have fun at anything less than 6,000cfs on the Sauk at Sauk. The flows during winter and spring of 2002 had been much more inviting. Unfortunately, we'd been too busy stressing about Class IV and V creeks. It was time for a change.

Why not spend Saturday morning scouting the Class IV Buck Creek, Saturday afternoon on the Upper Suiattle and Sunday doing whatever looked good. A weekend of guaranteed survival. How bad could it be?

I left Bellingham around 7am, planning to meet the Hummels near Darrington at 9am. I got there about 30 minutes early. No biggy, I'll just re-read the guidebook. By 9:30am I was anxious, by 9:45am I was concerned, by 10am I was pissed. My stereo got jacked a few weeks prior leaving me with empty ears and a sore neck. If I had a list of the most painful ways to spend a Saturday morning, turning my head at the sound of passing cars would be near the top. I knew something was wrong but how long was I to wait to figure out what? The drive from Tacoma is about 2 hours so I figured I'd give them twice that -- an hour to sleep in and an hour to get lost. They arrived around 10:45am. Traffic was their excuse but I imagine that it was a combination of the above. Jason managed to forget his paddle somewhere along the line. He wanted to drive back to Seattle and buy one but Josh and I wanted to kayak so we put him on a leash and continued to the put-in. We stopped a few miles short for a look at Buck Creek. The lower section was similar to Downey Creek except it had a few more logs. Somewhat inviting but not worth shouldering our kayaks without a trail. Jason returned in search of one while Josh and I downed some Class III on the familiar Suiattle.

The first few miles went well. Endless wavetrains and reversals were a pleasant surprise. A not so pleasant surprise came at a familiar bend where I spotted a riverwide log a couple hundred feet down. I wasn't sure how deep it was or what was below it so I attempted to eddy out left. The guidebook says this section is devoid of eddies and I was about to learn why. To my dismay, there were no eddies. The best chance I had of stopping was to start grabbing shrubs. The first few came with me and I almost considered running the log. About then I found a root that slowed me enough to abandon ship. Josh had a different plan. He saw me flailing in the twigs and decided to run it center over the log. In all my year kayaking, I had never seen anything like it. How the heck? I could see him clearing the first log but a couple feet below was a second, deadlier log creating one of the ugliest reversals that I've ever seen. Somehow he made it.



How the heck? This is the logjam that Josh ran center. Don't ask me how.


I caught up with Josh a short ways down and asked him how it felt to cheat death. He said he would have tried to eddy out had he known there was a second log. We agreed to scout any suspects from then on.

The next few miles were uneventful. We tried to surf but found ourselves racing for the finish -- a sandbar roughly 6 miles below our put-in at Downey Creek. Jason was supposed to pick us up but he wasn't there when we arrived. After a few minutes my brother showed up. He bought a Micro 250 that morning and drove up from Tacoma to give it a try. He also happened to notice Jason's paddle in his garage. We decided to run the remaining 4 miles to the bridge. It wasn't the best float of my career but it was fun to have Troy with us again, having finally found a boat that fits. With 80 some gallons of space, how could it not?

We spent the night at the toe of Downey Creek. It rained pretty hard but Troy brought a tarp so we chilled by the fire well past dark. Normally, I sleep well in the rain but when you are parked between two uncontrolled rivers, you begin to wonder. The next morning I saw good reason for my insomnia. The Suiattle had risen over 2 feet and I had difficult telling Downey Creek from the previous day's Suiattle. We considered running Downey but doing so would have meant certain death (stay tuned for our May 5th trip report). The Upper Suiattle was very tempting so the Hummels and I decided to give it a go. Troy had no confidence in his roll so he drove home after helping us clear the road (several logs had fallen across it that night and he happened to have a chainsaw). It was snowing hard by the time we finished the shuttle. Jason and I didn't mind the weather but Josh had no gloves so he was feeling it. Running Class III near floodstage is a lot of fun so long as you know the hazards. I eddied out nearly a quarter-mile above the logjam, requiring a long portage, but the rest of the river was a kick in the pants.


Jason and Josh put in below the bridge on Downey Creek.


Cold air, slippery banks and face plaster are the main problems with kayaking in snow. I could deal with the cold temps and slippery banks but getting plastered on a bankfull 10-20mph river made me wish I had goggles. We managed to squint the 6 miles at a record pace.

The shuttle was a bit slower with slippery roads although we were in no hurry behind the wake of a warm engine. On the way home, we stopped at Big Creek for a look at some unrunable.


The entrance of unrunable.


The exit of unrunable.


For those who are wondering, Big Creek is roughly 6 miles up the Suiattle River Road. Unrunable is where it crosses and my reason for calling it that is obvious from the bridge.

The drive back to b-ham was painful without music. Silence gave me too much time to think. I was frightened by the what ifs of the logjam but mostly, I worried about the future. It seems that our survival is never guaranteed.