By Tom Potter
As winter nears its end and temperatures in the Wenatchee Valley start to rise, the snow pack of the Cascades begins melting into its respective drainages.
While most see this as a simple transition of seasons, whitewater kayakers flock to the Pacific Northwest to challenge themselves on some of the most pristine whitewater in the country.
From steep, remote creeks, to high volume rivers, the Wenatchee Valley hosts a variety of river characteristics that will keep even the most traveled paddler coming back year after year.
I was introduced to the whitewater scene in 2009 when a friend invited me to join him in a six-week whitewater raft guide-training program in Leavenworth.
As we had both recently been laid off from our commercial construction jobs in Seattle, moving to Leavenworth for a summer of whitewater adventures seemed like a logical move. What I didn’t know is that I was embarking on a life-changing journey that has molded me into who I am today.
My first season of whitewater paddling was full of pushing my limits as a person and truly learning the technique of navigating rivers in ways I didn’t know were possible. There were countless moments of fear, intimidation, and exhaustion followed by celebration and a level of camaraderie that I had only found on the river. I was hooked.
After finishing my undergrad in 2011, I moved to Leavenworth with one goal, to really learn the rivers in the area. With Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River literally flowing right into town, I figured Leavenworth would be a good base camp for an aspiring whitewater kayaker.
I spent most of my spare time paddling laps on Tumwater Canyon of the Wenatchee River and learning the ins and outs of the steep and technical Icicle Creek.
As spring of 2012 came around, it was game on. This was the first spring that I had several months of continuous paddling under my belt and I was ready to get after it.
While working with several river recreation companies out of Leavenworth, I was able to spend almost every day on the river. My knowledge of the area became surprisingly valuable as I found myself showing some of the best kayakers in the world down our backyard rivers during the juiciest time of the year.
Spring flows are difficult to describe to the non-paddler.
The amount of power in the water coming down all of our local rivers is humbling to anyone laying their eyes upon it. As paddlers, our intention is to immerse ourselves within that raging power.
It takes years of training, both mental and physical, to look at a river at its max flow and say to yourself, “Yep, that looks like fun!”
Tumwater Canyon of the Wenatchee River in particular, has become the go to training ground for big water paddlers looking to test their abilities.
Hosting five miles of class IV-V whitewater along the highway, Tumwater Canyon allows paddlers to select specific sections that are within their comfort level.
When kayaking Tumwater Canyon during spring runoff, 20-foot waves, 10-foot tall pour overs, and hydraulics the size of small homes are the norm. The river is literally moving so fast that when you get a second to take your focus off the water in front of you and look at the shore, rocks and trees are buzzing by at an alarming rate.
The amount of control it takes to safely navigate a kayak down these massive rapids could be compared to a Giant Slalom skier flying down a racecourse or a downhill mountain biker putting together a perfect line on unbelievably steep terrain. After all, we are downhill kayakers.
A lot of thought and planning is put into each descent of a challenging river. By no means do we get in our kayaks above a big rapid and just hope for the best.
Paddling big water requires a cohesive team of kayakers that have a significant amount of paddling skill and technical rescue training.
The most important part of any difficult river descent is scouting the rapids. From shore, a group of kayakers will analyze a rapid and discuss the features, obstacles and hazards.
For instance, a freshly fallen tree over hanging the shoreline of a rapid would be considered a hazard, as it could be detrimental to a paddler becoming entangled in its branches.
A large wave in the middle of a rapid may be considered a feature, as it is a safe and playful component of the rapid that a paddler may choose to launch off of as they come downstream.
An exposed rock in a rapid would be considered an obstacle as it poses no real threat, but the team of paddlers will have to find a safe route around it.
Regardless of what features, obstacles, or hazards are in a particular rapid, it is important that the team of paddlers comes to an agreement of who is taking what lines, where safety will be set, and what alternate options are available if things go differently than planned. The river is such a dynamic environment that things change quickly. The best we can do as paddlers, is be prepared for the worst.
The Wenatchee River throughout its entire 57 miles from Lake Wenatchee to the Columbia River is considered a pool-drop river. This means the water pools up into a small moving lake before cascading down a rapid into another small moving lake.
This allows groups of kayaker’s ample space and time to regroup at the bottom of each rapid in order to prepare for the next one.
During spring flows, the water is crystal clear and the pools offer a nice break to kick back and enjoy the scenery before dropping into the next chaotic rapid.
Most of our rivers in the Wenatchee Valley, however, have a continuous downhill grade.
Rivers like Icicle Creek, Ingalls Creek and Peshastin Creek don’t let up hardly at all throughout their entirety. This requires a team of paddlers to be very choreographed while working their way down stream.
It is common that kayakers will stop in eddies not much larger than their kayak and signal to paddlers upstream with a paddle signal or a whistle blast that it is safe to come down. This process is repeated throughout the entire run to help ensure a safe descent of the river.
The proximity of our local rivers to each other is unlike anywhere I have traveled. On a peak snowmelt day, in May or June, it is possible to paddle four or five different sections of pristine whitewater in a single day.
My personal favorite way to link up our local runs is as follows.
Starting off at the Tumwater Dam up in the Tumwater Canyon, I like to wash the sleep out of my eyes with some solid big water paddling on the Wenatchee River.
After working our way down to the rusty bridge in the canyon, our blood is flowing and the crew is ready for more.
The next stop is Icicle Creek, which is also a roadside run, allowing us to select a specific section of the class IV-V whitewater to paddle.
Depending on the crew, the flows, and individual vibes of the day, I usually like to bite off a good section of Icicle Creek from the Snow Lakes Trailhead down to the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery. At big flows, this section offers plenty of excitement.
Next, we work our way down valley to the Highway 97 drainage. This section is unique as three rivers are stacked up allowing us to paddle all three without exiting our kayaks.
Starting at the Ingalls Lake Trailhead we bomb down a fast and frothy mile of class IV whitewater on Ingalls Creek before flowing right into Peshastin Creek.
Peshastin Creek at high water is a non-stop freight train of waves and rock dodging with a crux rapid called Fresh Squeezed.
This little creek is not the most challenging river in our area but its continuous characteristic keeps even the most seasoned paddler on their toes.
Several miles after Fresh Squeezed, the Peshastin Creek flows into the Wenatchee River right above the Dryden Dam. Usually, we will stash a few vehicles with our smaller freestyle kayaks at the Dam and switch from our larger creek boats when we arrive.
From the Dryden Dam to Cashmere, the Wenatchee River hosts big volume, low stress, fun class III whitewater. This section of river is a great way to wind down a big day of full on, class IV-V creek boating.
All of these rivers can be run with no more than 15 miles of driving between each put in location.
With a crew of stoked, but exhausted paddlers, it is common that we will make our way back up to Leavenworth and enjoy a couple cold beers at the Icicle Brewery while watching the sun disappear behind Icicle Ridge.
As our wet paddling gear dries in the warm spring air, we rest up for another big day on the river.