Saturday, December 02, 2006

Wilderness on the Calawah River

I look forward to Thanksgiving every year and our annual trip out to the Olympic Peninsula to explore rivers and enjoy good times with friends and family. I've been heading out there for about ten years now and working my way through Gary Korb's guidebook to the whitewater rivers. I have always thought of my kayak as a way to experience the rivers and forests of the Olympic Peninsula in much the same way that others hike the trails.

Some of our experiences on the OP's "blue trails" are better than others but it's always an adventure. Last year we got on the Lyre, which drains Crescent Lake to the north and is a relatively young river that formed following the landslide that separated Lake Crescent from the Elwha Drainage. As it turns out the river does not have the transport capacity to move wood downstream and we proceeded to hike down the river with our kayaks as we made our way over, under, and around dozens of log jams.

Most of our trip down the Lyre went something like this as we didn't actually spend much time in our boats.

I'm not sure I'd call what we did on the Lyre a paddling trip but it was certainly an adventure. This year we turned our attention the South Fork Calawah. This river flows through a corner of Olympic National Park which offers some of the region's most incredible opportunities to explore wilderness rivers. With my friends Mike and Omar we set out for the river which requires some effort. You have to drive to the Rugged Ridge Trailhead on National Forest land and then hike approximately 3 miles into the river. The trail was in good shape but we quickly realized that it had not received recent maintenance. We had to hike over some downfall and the trail was washed out at most of the stream crossings. After traveling about 1/3 of the way, and with memories of last year's experience on the Lyre, Mike decided to turn back.

After about 2.5 hours of hiking Omar and I were finally at the river. We took a break for a quick lunch and then launched off downstream. Within a short distance of the put-in the river squeezed between the narrow walls of a bedrock gorge that defines so many of the classic kayak runs on the Olympic Peninsula. Korb calls this drop West Virginia and we were able to boat scout our way into the canyon. Polished sedimentary layers towered overhead as waterfalls cascaded off the rim of the canyon walls.

Omar makes his way downstream after emerging from West Virginia.

In the canyon with waterfalls coming in from the sides.

More beautiful river in the canyons of the Calawah.

The bedrock canyons only last for a 1/4 mile or so before the river opens up and flows through beautiful old-growth forest. Impressive sitka spruce tower above the river on either side. The river itself remains interesting with fun boulder garden rapids that continue down towards the confluence with the Sitkum where the river begins to open up. Once we joined the Sitkum we were on a slightly bigger river and out in the National Forest. We continued on to the confluence with Hyas Creek where our car was waiting.

The South Fork Calawah was a great trip and a beautiful wilderness river that is accessible to intermediate paddlers. It does require significant effort to get in as the hike is moderately strenuous with some up and down over half a dozen small tributary drainages you need to cross on the way to the river. For a wilderness river experience the river itself is amazing and although it's a short trip, I would highly recommend it for those who enjoy exploring the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula.

While the trip on the river was memorable the real adventure was getting back home. Although my Prius provides great fuel economy it is not a snow car. With 6-8" of snow along Highway 101 we only barely made it home. We had to get a pushed out of the snow three times, and just making our way the 15 miles along Lake Crescent took about 3 hours. We did make it home though and I'm sure we'll be out again next year for a new adventure I have in mind.

Cars lined up along Highway 101 by Lake Crescent.

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