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Upper Chiwawa - As Fun as Ebola

Earlier this summer we decided to paddle the Upper Chiwawa River. It isn’t in any of our books on Washington rivers, but is listed at the American Whitewater website and in the WenatcheeOutdoors paddling guidebook (which links to American Whitewater website) as a Class II. We sent out a variety of emails to paddlers to gather more information but received no substantive information about this stretch of river (between Schaeffer Creek and Huckleberry Campground), so we set out on June 24, with two friends to explore the river the old-fashioned way—on our own. With two trucks topped with two solo canoes each, Dick and I were looking forward to adding a new river to our list of 152 different rivers paddled. The weather was fine-- and that proved to be the highlight of the day. 

The American Whitewater website says that the run is from “Schaefer Creek to Huckleberry Campground near Brush Creek”. A look at the National Forest map told us that there is no Huckleberry Campground in that area. Brush Creek is near Grouse Creek Campground, so we stopped there to look for a take-out. We saw a sign saying that the campground was reserved and a hand made sign said, “Please respect our privacy”. The gate was open, so we drove in and saw one man there. Dick started walking toward the vicinity of the river. The camper came over and asked if we were with the camping group. We said no, we were looking for a river take-out. He became angry that we were there. We felt that we had a right to take-out, if that was where the take-out is located. Angry words were exchanged. Dick returned and said he’d not found a take-out. We said we were leaving. The camper said he would call the ranger and lock the gate so we couldn’t get out. He hopped onto an ATV and at the gate more words were exchanged, but he opened the gate.

 About 50 feet farther on the Chiwawa Road, we found an unmarked road that did go to what had all the markings of a take-out. The Chiwawa River was very clear and inviting at that spot. We left a vehicle.

Photo: Where the Spencers left their vehicle for the take-out where paddlers put-in to the Lower Chiwawa. The USGS topo maps call this place 'Huckleberry Ford Campground.'

Next we needed to find our put-in. Schaefer Creek does not come very close to the Chiwawa Road, so we decided to put in at Riverbend Campground. We paid for parking, ate lunch, and got our boats ready.

After a couple of closely spaced river bends, we came to one that had a large logjam and the water was deep next to the shore everywhere we looked to get out. We had to paddle our canoe, one at a time, onto a sweeper (tree that had fallen into the water, but still had the base anchored on shore). Then, holding onto branches, we crawled out of the canoe. Short and rockered, whitewater canoes are much more stable when you are kneeling on your saddle than when you are trying to get in or out of them and you are limited in where you step by airbags. 

Our friends are more experienced rafters than canoeists and decided not to continue. Ahead of them was the challenge of crashing through the thick forest back to the road, which was not in sight. We had our own challenge of getting our canoes around the log jam. The plants and fallen trees were so thick that we couldn’t see dirt. The bank beyond the log jam was so steep that it was hard to get ourselves to a spot where we could be back on the river, not to mention getting the canoes there.

It was about 3:30 p.m. by the time we got around that log jam. There were many other log jams, each seemingly more difficult than the last to negotiate. Mosquitoes were delighted to have fresh blood.

We came to an area where there was a log across the river, then a log jam on river right, then a sandbar, then a larger island with log jams in each channel. We scouted the left channel, but it looked like a long way to get around that log jam. We crossed over and tried to get around the log jam in the right channel. Carrying one canoe, we fell about four times each, from stepping in holes or tripping on fallen trees or vines, etc. After about an hour at this log jam complex, we discovered that we were at the Schaefer Lake Trail crossing. Any of you who have backpacked to Schaefer Lake know that you normally walk cross a log jam. This year half of the log jam moved on downstream. Anyone who wants to cross there will have to wade, if the water gets low enough.

Photo: Some of the logjams where the Schaefer Lake Trail crosses the Chiwawa 

We had already decided we would not be making it far enough down river to make it to our vehicle and that we would would end today’s misadventures at the Schaefer Lake Trail, so we now needed to paddle back to river left to exit. The current was swift, so we had more trials finding a place where we could get back across the river.

Photo: A day of 'paddling' on the Upper Chiwawa

Finally we got back across onto river left and from here it was a quarter-mile slog by trail to the road. Dick started walking the road to the takeout. He had walked about a mile when along came our friends. It was now 7:15 p.m. and they had been driving the road, making sure we got out. We had paddled about 1.5 miles in almost 4 hours.

To top the day off, we found that the sheriff’s deputy had placed notes on both vehicles requesting that we call him. When the deputy heard our version of the confrontation with the camper he was satisfied with our report. 

Later a response to one of our emails requesting information about the Upper Chiwawa revealed that one contact had paddled the Chiwawa from Huckleberry down but not the section we had just bushwhacked down. I reported our experience to Jim Greenleaf, the person credited with providing the information on the American Whitewater site, and discovered that he had not paddled this stretch of the Chiwawa either. Jim said that when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was new, paddlers got together and wrote down all the river sections they could think of. He was involved in making the list and ended up being credited as having run this section of river. He suggested I contact Martha Parker, who with her husband Ray pioneered a lot of canoeing stretches back before the time of guidebooks. She wrote back that she’s never done this portion of the Chiwawa and does not know of anyone who has.

We posted a warning at the American Whitewater River Info web page for the Upper Chiwawa and contacted the Forest Service. The Forest Service updated their recreation report on the Internet, stating that the logjam crossing on the Schaefer Lake Trail is gone. 

We doubt that this section of river has ever been paddled. Sometimes an unexpected adventure is fun, but this is a stretch of river we wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

Map of the Upper Chiwawa River.

Info from AmericanWhitewater.org

Rating: Class 2 with more wood than water.

More Whitewater:
 Maps and details of over 35 regional whitewater trips in this guidebook.

Leave It Better Than You Found It:
This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…

Disclaimer.
Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers--they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.

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From the Editors of WenatcheeOutdoors. The run down the Lower Chiwawa leaves from the Huckleberry Ford Campground (noted as such on the USGS topographic maps, but not on Forest Service maps). This is not a formal Forest Service campground but an unofficial camping site just past (upstream) of the entrance to the Grouse Creek Campground. Our Lower Chiwawa paddling info describes the driving access in detail. We ran the Lower Chiwawa in 2008 and 2009 and while logjams are an ever present danger, none blocked this stretch of river at that time. We’ve updated the Upper Chiwawa description as a run that is best avoided.

There are 6.6 miles of river between where the Spencers exited the Upper Chiwawa (at the Schaeffer Lake Trail) and the Huckleberry Ford Campground. Some paddlers might be tempted to explore this stretch of river. We’re inclined to believe that the first five miles of this run will be more of what the Spencers experienced. There is very little gradient to the river here (6 feet per mile), it meanders a lot, and we suspect there will be many logjams completely blocking the river. It’s only close to Huckleberry Ford that the river picks up gradient and is more likely to flush logs floating down the river.