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The Rowdy River

Chapter X in Keith McCoy's column

Chapter X


A hundred years ago the canyons carved by our Rowdy River echoed with the shouts of the Menominee loggers as they drove the big logs downstream to the Columbia. Today the river resounds with shouts of excitement and pleasure as kayakers and whitewater rafters swirl down through those same rapids.

The White Salmon is considered one of the most challenging rivers in the Pacific Northwest. While the better-known Snake and Deschutes River float trips cover remote waters that fall an average of eight to 12 feet per mile, the White Salmon falls an average of 40 feet per mile. One can enjoy all the excitement of whitewater rafting in a few hours and at moderate cost on the White Salmon River.

It came as a surprise to me recently to hear one of the principal river outfitters refer to me as being one of the first successful rafters on the White Salmon River. Actually I was a tag-along with the adventurous Dr. Ted Lathrop and his equally adventurous sons. The doctor, as deputy county coroner, had investigated the first rafting tragedy on the river. He vowed to devise a safe system for running the Rowdy River.

Our first adventure was a successful float from Husum Falls to Northwestern lake, followed by a much wilder ride from the Condit powerhouse to Underwood on the lower river.

A later attempt on the upper river, too early in the season, resulted in the loss of our outfit -- and near-tragedy. That was in the late 1950s.

While it surprises me to be considered a pioneer of the sport it is partially true. And, as I think about it, the crude boyhood kayak I had on Northwestern Lake in the 1920s was apparently a "first." Bud Shore, son of the Condit manager, crafted a far more refined kayak. These boats took curious boys into every nook and cove of the new Northwestern Lake -- and sometimes into whitewater experiments that we hoped our families never learned about!


Most of the whitewater rafting is done within the Wild and Scenic River boundaries. This is the 7.7 mile stretch of river between the BZ Corner area and Northwestern Lake.

Commercial rafting on the White Salmon began about 1980 with the Phil Zoller family, still the principal outfitters under the name of Outdoor Odyssey. With the creation of the Wild and Scenic River in 1986 rafting came under control of the USDA Forest Service who set up a system of licensure for the river guides. With time and experience the number of licenses originally issued has been restricted to 10. The Forest Service management estimates that 16,000 rafters use the commercial guides each year. Five of the licensed guides handle the bulk of the traffic. Some of the licensees feature raft trips on other Northwest rivers. Many individuals make unlicensed runs on the river.

The 2002 season features some new developments at BZ Corner.

The USDA Forest Service has installed rest rooms and a new no-fee rail tram that will more safely take rafts and kayaks from the parking lot down the cliff to launch point on the river. An improved access trail has been extended about one-fourth mile up the river bank to give pedestrians a chance to view the splendor of BZ Falls.

The prime rafting season is from April through October. The usual raft trip gives one the thrill of rapids classed from 2 to 5 so it is recommended that one go with a qualified licensed guide. Their safety record to date has been excellent.


The White Salmon River draws kayakers from many parts of the world. Their sleek, maneuverable hulls can be seen on many parts of the river -- most every month of the year.

The climax comes in the third week of July when the much-publicized Gorge Games are held. The games feature eight different sports including trail runs, climbing, mountain biking, sail boarding, kite boarding and kayaking. The Columbia Gorge is the playground. The White Salmon River, of course, is the center of kayak events.

Most of the action centers at BZ Corner and the five mile stretch of wild water upstream. This is known to kayakers as the Green Truss section. Runs through this section are exciting. When mid-summer water levels are normal the racers go over Big Brothers falls with its 30 foot drop and Little Brother with a 20 foot drop into its plunge pool. Two fatalities in recent years dictate that the race course be modified in low water years. Still the safer Class 5 waters of Double Dip and Zig Zag make it a hazardous, exhilarating course. National television brings the event to many viewers.

Access to the advanced courses is via a tortuous at-your-own-risk trail over private property just below the private gated Weingartner Bridge. At this bridge site one looks down on the swirling river as from the window of a seven story building. Some wit has augmented its "No Trespassing" sign with one that states "No Diving."


Beginning in 1995 the Underwood Conservation District spearheaded an annual cleanup of the river. Joined by the U.S. Forest Service and the area's AmeriCorps unit, the cleanup has been a great success. The Bonneville Power Administration has provided a helicopter to lift old car bodies and other heavy debris from the scenic watershed.

Other agencies such as both state and federal Fish and Wildlife units volunteer their help. Many other volunteers, particularly the kayakers who use their river, guide special collection barrels through the rapids to a collection point.

Hard, exciting, dangerous work!


Parts of both the White Salmon and Klickitat rivers were designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers concurrent with formation of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The USDA Forest Service was designated to manage the river program.

In general the local populace has accepted their management favorably. The increased recreational use of the river and the cleanup events have been a bonus. Federal regulation applying within the Wild and Scenic corridor is even more protective of the river than are the state and county shoreline management acts that apply to the rest of the river's course.

The Forest Service has made an extensive study of the entire White Salmon River system from Mount Adams to the Columbia. They recommend that another 30 miles of the river be included in the Wild and Scenic designation. We will have to wait and see the further changes time and the Congress bring to our Rowdy River.


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