An unexpected crack in the family schedule springs me free for the afternoon. The Chiwawa River is running at 1,400 cfs (an excellent level), and I find a paddling partner after one phone call. Thirty minutes later as I’m headed out the door my wife asks, “When are you going to be back? Everyone’s schedule is hectic the next few days, so it would be nice to have dinner together tonight. ”
‘Dinner together,’ those are code words for ‘don’t be too late’, and ‘be back when you say you’ll be back.’
I calculate out loud so Jan knows what’s ahead. “We’ve got two hours for the round-trip driving, two hours of paddling, one hour of shuttling, and an hour for transitions…that puts me back at 7 tonight.”
I head out the door with the clock ticking. I pick up Paul and he’s talking more than moving as we add his gear to the car. “Got family commitments tonight,” I tell him. “We need to move things along.” He understands the intricacies involved in balancing the domestic front while trying to feed one's feral impulses and jumps into action.
As always when you try to micro-manage the clock, Mr. Murphy makes an appearance. Having not paddled this section of river before, we mistakenly choose a longer driving route to the take-out. Meanwhile, the map we consult confuses us and we waste an additional 20 minutes finding the put-in. We’re nearly an hour behind schedule as we suit-up at the put-in.
Paul senses my anxiety. “What time you need to be back?”
He thinks a bit. “There’s no way we’re making that. We better abort.” He’s completely serious.
“I’m not wasting your entire afternoon,” I tell him. “I’ll take my lumps for miscalculating when the time comes.”
We squirm into our kayaks and Paul is still looking for ways to lessen my liability. “We can pick up half an hour if we ‘paddle’ the river rather than float it.”
I tell him there’s no surer way to make stupid mistakes or contribute to an accident than to rush. “The way to keep from falling farther behind is not by rushing -- it's by being steady and avoiding mistakes.”
We shove into the current. The water is saturated with glacial flour that gives the river its milky gray-green hue. That flour makes some of the shallow rocks harder to detect. It also makes a hissing sound as the suspended sediment sands the hull of our boats.
For a minute I’m still consumed by the race and I contemplate the wisdom of Mark Shipman’s home-arrival strategy. He purposely goes way long on his estimated return time. If troubles bog him down, he doesn’t compound the problem with a self-imposed need to rush. And if he arrives home early, he’s a hero.
The onslaught of the river's rapids drags me into the moment. The whitewater is only of intermediate difficulty but it comes at you in quick succession. There's little else to think about other than lining up for the wave trains, threading gaps between boulders, and dodging logjams. When the current temporarily slackens, I enjoy the lushness of the alder, cedar, Douglas fir, and wild rose lining the shorelines.
About an hour into our paddle, we pass under the first of two bridges. Downstream of here the river ratchets up in difficulty and, for a few miles, our boats get slapped around in the waves of class 2 and class 3 rapids.
Two hours after starting, we finish. We haven’t lost time on this leg and I make a fast transition to the mountain bike where I push my heart to the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. We still haven’t actually figured out the shortest route to the put-in, so I ride a 12.5-mile course rather than the 9.5-mile one described in the ‘access’ information below. Nonetheless I’m back at the car in 50 minutes and have picked up a little time on the shuttle leg. I know I’ll be donating this time back to the drive.
At 7:10 p.m. I call my wife from Cole’s Corner on Highway 2, I’m still an hour from being home.
“Where are you?” she asks. I brace myself for angry words as I tell her.
"Was it fun?” she asks.
“Really fun.” I give her the quick synopsis. “We’re running late,” I tell her. “I underestimated the drive time.”
“Glad your safe,” she says.
Paul gives me a questioning look as I hang up. Like all husbands he knows what it’s like to have survived the Chiwawas of the day only to have your treasured lioness rip you apart for your shortcomings …or your late comings.
"She must think she’s married to the perfect guy," I tell Paul. "Either that or it’s the other way around."
Paddling the Lower Chiwawa: Details
Attractions. The Chiwawa offers fast-paced action that’s exciting but not too scary. It also delivers wild scenery with very little development over the first two-thirds of the trip. There are few eddies to play in, but this stretch of river does have many small holes and medium-size waves to surf.
Distance. From Huckleberry Ford (river mile 12.75) to the second bridge (river mile 2) is 10.75 miles.
Average gradient. From the put-in (elevation 2,370’) to the take-out (el: 1,930’) the average gradient is 41 feet per mile.
Difficulty. Mainly class 2 whitewater with some class 3 for added spice. This segment of river is best suited for intermediate and advanced boaters. It is not a safe stretch of water for inner tubes or recreational canoes.
Map. Print our map on 8.5” x 11” paper in portrait mode. Use ‘Print Preview’ to properly scale the map before printing.
Recommended Water Level: 1,100 to 2,000 cfs at the Chiwawa River Gauge near Plain.
Hazards. Log jams, sweepers, and strainers are prevalent on this river and their presence or absence can change dramatically from year to year, season to season, or even storm to storm. Be prepared for the possibility that the river could be completely blocked and, when going around bends and islands, look carefully for hazards. As of early July 2008, this part of the river had no complete blockages but had several partial blockages to be skirted.
Reaching the take-out from Leavenworth. Drive the Chumstick Highway (Highway 209) north out of Leavenworth. About .25 mile north of Plain, veer right onto the Chiwawa River Road. Follow this for 3 miles and, just past Clear Creek, turn left. Drive .4 miles to the bridge crossing the Chiwawa. Leave a shuttle vehicle on the far side (west side) of the bridge or leave a bike chained to the sign directly under the bridge on river right (west side).
Reaching the take-out from places west of Leavenworth. Follow Highway 2 to Coles Corner, then drive 4.4 miles on Highway 207 in a northeasterly direction past Lake Wenatchee State Park to a bridge crossing the Wenatchee River. Shortly past the bridge, leave Highway 207 by staying right at a fork and then veer right again at the next fork. About 5.75 miles from Coles Corner, the Chiwawa Valley Road branches off to the left. Keep going straight and, in another 3.5 miles, (9.25 miles from Highway 2) reach the same bridge as described above. Leave your shuttle (car or bike) here.
Reaching the Put-In. Head northeast across the bridge (toward the river-left bank) and drive .4 miles to the Chiwawa River Road. Turn left and drive 9 miles upriver to the entrance of the Grouse Creek Campground. Staying on the Chiwawa River Road, drive .1 mile past the campground’s entrance and turn left onto an unmarked dirt road. Follow the dirt road .3 miles to the river and put-in. You’ll find easy access to the river and primitive camping spots where you can leave a car.
Trip Description: The rapids on the Chiwawa are often grouped into three long sets of whitewater, each named for the creek that enters just above the area with rapids.
- Gate Creek Rapids run from river mile (RM) 12 to RM 10 and offer a string of class 2 rapids that don’t require a huge amount of maneuvering.
- Between RM 9 and RM 7.5 you’ll encounter the next string of class 2 rapids: Big Meadows Creek Rapids. These, too, are waves and don’t require too much maneuvering.
- The Goose Creek Rapids start shortly beyond the first bridge (RM 6.75). The power of the waves, number of boulders, size of holes, and amount of maneuvering all pick up between RM 6 and RM 4. We encountered three or four spots with 2-plus or 3-minus rapids.
- The takeout is at the second bridge (RM 2) and we took out on river-right underneath the bridge and just below the logjam piled up on the pier of the bridge. The logjam makes the exit tricky so, when you drop off your shuttle vehicle, it’s worth looking at how you intend to catch the small eddy without getting tangled up in wood.
More Information. For current info about log jams or sweepers blocking the river, call Leavenworth Mountain Sports (retail store, 509-548-7864) or Fluid Adventures (kayak school) in Leavenworth and ask about conditions. More information about the river can also be obtained from the American Whitewater website and from the book Washington Whitewater, by Douglass A. North.
Leave It Better Than You found It. This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, disperse old fire rings (they encourage more fires), throw branches over spur trails and spurs between switchbacks (make it harder to do the wrong thing than the right thing).
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Things change, conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers--they may make mistakes, fail to give complete information, or may not know all the issues affecting a route. If things go wrong, you are completely responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won't accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.