Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Waterfallin: The Clear Fork Cowlitz

A lava flow, which is believed to have been dammed up by a glacier, yielded these amazing basalt walls through out the canyon.

The Clear Fork of the Cowlitz is a run that is held in high regard amongst the who's who of the PNW creeking scene. With a glowing endorsement from both the guide book and the page on Oregonkayaking, the Clear Fork certainly possess a fair share of 'hype'. That being said, there is a relative dearth of recent information on the run. In a time when social media and online trip reports are at an all time high, the Clear Fork still lingers in obscurity. I think part of this has to do with the fact that it's a difficult and committing run that keeps a large number of folks away. Secondly, the run has been chocked with wood for the last few years (since the online media craze really hit) Thirdly, the mission is such an undertaking that crews often become focused on finishing the run before dark and conserving energy (not so much on getting video and photos.)

Alex Kilyk dropping into the top tier of 'the brain'. I was told later that this rapid is called actually called Furious in the guide book.

Dan Rubado's got boofing on the brain.

All of this being said, it's been at the top of my list for the past few seasons and a few weeks ago, I was finally able to put to that proverbial check-mark in the books. With much trepidation over the water level Alex Kilyk (a Clear Fork vet), Dan Rubado, Stephen Cameron, and I departed Portland at 5:30 AM. Reached the pull off (where you start to hike) at 8:30 AM and put boat to water around 9:15. We didn't reach La Wis Wis campground until 5:30 PM that evening! A long day for sure, but what an amazing creek! With only 6 wood portages, plus the mandatory portage at the Palisades and a few other drops we didn't want to run, the Clear Fork is no longer on life support. That is to say that the work to fun ratio is right where you want it to be as someone who enjoys exploratory kayaking. It's not the Little White, where you drive to the put-in walk 30 feet and don't get out of your boat till the take-out, but its certainly worth the effort. For every portage, there are 3-4 great drops!

Rubado with a text book line: lead in to Bitch Slap Falls

After our initial trip, I was really anxious to get back on the run before she dropped out for the season. This past Sunday I was able to do just that! Again, a group of 4 rallied from Portland at 5:30 in the morning and after a quick run-in with the law (no citations issued) we were hiking our boats down into the canyon. Ryan Cole, John Edwards, Jacob and I put-on around 10 AM this time and reached the take-out around 3:45. Having done the run a few weeks prior, we were able to shave a few hours off the total. We took the time to grab some media and Ryan put together an amazing edit! In my opinion, it's the most complete guide to the Clear Fork that's out there right now. Although he forgot to the turn the camera on for the legendary "bitch slap" falls, he did an amazing job of capturing what the canyon's all about! Unfortunately, my GoPro, along with all my footage is currently at the bottom of the river. Always tether!

Check it out!

The bottom of the Palisades Portage

Quick Hits:
Flows for both my trips were ideal. The reading on the Cowlitz @ Packwood was 3200 cfs on the first trip and 2500 cfs on Sunday. Despite the 700 cfs difference, the creek felt about the same. Go figure?

The white-water isn't as hard as something like the Little White, but it's incredibly committing. There are several blind corners and unportageable drops. Complete with at least one Un-Un and lots of spots where "you want to be on your line."

The nature of the river changes dramatically below the Palisades. The bedrock ledges of the upper portion of the run give way to giant boulder gardens between vertical walls in the second portion of the creek.

The canyon is absolutely one of the most beautiful places that I've ever been.

Bring a lunch!

Ryan's video is below.

Clear Fork of the Cowlitz from Ryan C on Vimeo.


The typical take out is at La Wis Wis Campground.  To get there from Packwood continue up Hwy 12 7 miles and turn left into the campground.  Turn right at the bottom of the hill.  Most people make another quick left and leave a vehicle by the large covered structure and take out at the confluence with the Ohanapecosh River.  If you want to check levels don’t make that left and you will quickly cross over the Clear Fork. 

If La Wis Wis is closed (it often is when the Clear Fork is running), backtrack towards Packwood 2 miles and drive down NF-1270 to where it ends at the river.  This adds on 1.25 miles of class II+, but it sure beats hiking out from La Wis Wis. Tip:  Mark the take out when you drop vehicles so you don’t float past at the end of the day.

To get to the put in return to Hwy 12, turn left.  In 4.9 miles there is a pull out on the left to park in.  A decommissioned road heads off toward the river on the other side of the freeway (next to the mile 143 marker). As soon as you see a gully heading down to your right, leave the old road and descend the gully.  Following the road would put you in above Entrance Exam, which has had problematic wood since Iv’e been keeping tabs on the Clear Fork.