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The Rowdy River

Chapter III in Keith McCoy's monthly feature on the White Salmon River

Chapter III


If you have ever tried to envision the White Salmon River drainage -- all that land mass drained by the river and its tributaries -- I hope you have been more perceptive than I have been.

The drainage is a complex area with some unexpected surprises. What the eye may see as we travel across the land may not coincide with the facts presented by a geologist's topographic map.

Our rowdy river is unique. For its entire 45-mile length between Mount Adams and the Columbia, it follows a relatively direct route. It has less bends and meanders than most rivers. This results from its rapid fall and swift current. Once a course was found through the lava formations its course did not vary. It just cut deeper -- much deeper in many places.

Come with me, if you will, and we will take an imaginary helicopter ride for a birds-eye view of the entire drainage. First, let's see the east side.

At the headwaters we note an interesting difference. Even on a heavy snowmelt day, the upper White Salmon is relatively clear as it flows from the mammoth springs associated with the glaciers. But incoming Cascade Creek is brown and murky. It and its tributaries have collected great loads of silt as snowmelt flows through the vast slide area below the glaciers.

As we fly southward down the river, we note some extremely deep canyons before reaching the Trout Lake Valley. Knowing that the river falls as much as 700 feet per mile in places and 500 in others, this is not surprising.

As we then parallel the ridges that separate the Trout Lake and Glenwood valleys, we note no tributaries of consequence. Season snowmelt and storm waters find their way into the White Salmon River.

As we reach the lower Trout Lake Valley and enter an eight-mile stretch known as the gorge we note unusually deep channels and the usually turbulent whitewater that gives this rowdy river its nickname. From the air, as from kayak, we note occasional heavy inflows of water from the steep cliffs. This stretch of river is marked by three waterfalls and much Class 5 whitewater.

Gilmer Creek, entering the White Salmon just north of BZ Corner, drains the fertile valley and hillsides occupied by the Kreps Ranch and the Mount Adams Orchards. Hangman Creek and Cedar Creek are two of its tributaries.

We see no more substantial input until we reach a point about three miles above Husum that the kayakers call the Big Bend. Here we note a gushing creek that comes from a spring pouring out of a field above the river.

At Husum, the Rattlesnake Creek, a main tributary, enters the White Salmon. This drains the fertile Panakanic meadows so rich in camas favored by the Indians. And here is a curious and unexpected view, The Snowden and parts of the Appleton plateaus that dip northward from the high hills bordering the Columbia drain back into this basin. Indian Creek and Mill Creek are the main conduits from this unexpected source.

Nothing more than seasonal drainage augments the river on to its confluence with the Columbia.

As we turn over the Columbia River and head back north toward Mount Adams, we note that the range of peaks on the west side of the White Salmon rise sharply, are heavily timbered and closely parallel and confine the river.

First, we pass massive Underwood Mountain, a prominent volcano that towers above the Columbia. Then we pass a series of peaks known as the Whistling Ridge, then Nestor Peak, Monte Carlo and then the Monte Cristo Range. This range, nearly 20 miles from south to north, has very few year-round creeks that feed the White Salmon. They are Little Buck, Mill Creek, Spring Creek, Wieberg and Phelps Creeks. Seasonal rivulets are frequent.

This is the last regular Cascade barrier that draws rain from marine clouds flowing eastward. It is a distinct "weather-maker." A glance to the right tells us that the rain shadow" of the Cascades begins right here. Balding mountains to the east are a clear signal.

At MP 17.3 the primitive Guler Mountain Road leaves Highway 141. The Monte Cristo Range also turns westward and forms the southern margin of the vast lands west of the Trout Lake Valley that are also tributary to the White Salmon. This area is bounded on the north by the ridges that divide the White Salmon and Lewis River drainages and on the west by the Indian Heaven Wilderness and the Cascade Crest Trail as it winds its way down Sawtooth Mountain.

The several creeks familiar to huckleberry pickers -- Smoky, Little Goose, Cultus and Meadow Creeks -- all drain into Trout Lake Creek and hence through reed-choked Trout Lake and into the White Salmon River.

Some other area creeks such as Lost Creek and Cave Creek drop into lava formations and find their subterranean way to the river.

As we complete our aerial observation of the drainage and circle this last section, we cannot see one of the most interesting tributaries.

We know that this vast area, largely forested, is underlain with a network of lava tubes and is one of the Northwest's premier caving areas. less well known is the fact that subterranean channels other than the known caves conducts water from Indian Heaven snowmelt to the White Salmon River. The geologists call these "interlava flow contacts."

There is a heavy influx of this water in the river between MP 17 and MP 18. While it is a regular source, at times it becomes a spectacular flow as great volumes of water erupt in the woods just west of MP 19.5. I have counted as many as 15 geyser-like outpourings that form a brisk river around the small valley and then dump into the White Salmon River as a major waterfall. One can tell when it is running by noting the amount of water flowing through the wetland at MP 17.5.


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