Monday, November 06, 2006

Beyond the Guidebook

Exploring the Upper Sultan Drainage.

One of the great things about living in the Pacific Northwest is the thousands of river miles available for exploration and adventure. While I have been a lifelong paddler, that's just a means to the end of my real passion which is exploring rivers.

While the classics of the Cascades have probably been discovered there are still some nuggets to be found here and there. Over the past few years groups have explored upstream reaches of Canyon Creek on the Stillaguamish, Lightning Creek in North Cascades National Park, North Fork Tolt, and the North Fork Skokomish in Olympic National Park. These explorers have returned with reports of sections of rivers few have seen. Over the past couple years I have been a stakeholder in negotiations over the future management of the Sultan River which provides water and power for Snohomish County. Andy Bridge, who designs paddles for Werner Paddles, lives on the river and has been the primary local volunteer engaged in this effort. While our focus has been on the incredibly scenic gorge reach below Culmback Dam, Andy has been exploring the upper reaches of the watershed where steep creeks emerge from some of the most rugged terrain in the Cascades. So when Andy called me this past weekend to say levels looked good for an exploratory on Elk Creek, I knew it was time to dust off the creeking gear and call a start to the fall boating season.

Shuttle logistics are easy on Elk Creek: you hike up as far as you want to paddle. The road ends at the bridge across Elk Creek and the wilderness of the Upper Sultan begins. This is not true Wilderness as the drainage shows past evidence of harvest activity, but as you step off onto the old road up the valley that is being reclaimed by the forest you quickly realize you are entering a region where few individuals pass. On the borders of the proposed Wild Sky Wilderness this is rugged terrain without maintained trails but here you find opportunities for exploration less than 2 hours from downtown Seattle. Remnants of old-growth remain and high bedrock walls tower overhead. Thick tapestries of moss hanging down from trees along the trail were clear evidence of the more than 15' of rain this valley sees.

We hiked for about two hours up the old road bed and over a couple of creeks where concrete crossings provided evidence of a past era. As the road further degraded we hiked down the hill to the creek. When we arrived we found low water and were immediately faced with a large log jam to portage. As we shouldered our boats and began hiking downstream, we were left wondering if we had put in too high.

Andy Bridge at the put-in for Elk Creek.

Our situation quickly improved though as small tributaries poured in from the sides and the creek grew in volume. We had a couple more wood portages interspersed with some fun class IV. Impressive scenery bordered the creek as mountains disappeared up into the clouds and captured the moisture that fueled waterfalls hundreds of feet high.

Elk Creek with Red Mountain towering up into the clouds.

After a couple more log limbo moves we started to really hit a groove as the creek began to weave its way through boulder gardens and dropped over a couple of ledges. We portaged part of a three tiered ledge although it did appear there was a line. We then came up to a rapid with a large boulder on river left. It looked like a fun drop but a few strategically placed logs, including one pointing straight out into the current, made the line just a little too tight. We opted to walk it but put in below to run some of the best rapids of the day.

Looking downstream into a fun class IV stretch.

We were crusing along when we came to a class 3 rapid that disappeared around the corner. It looked good but we could not see our next eddy so I hopped out for a look. I quickly realized that the river plunged into a challenging class V gorge. The entire river, squeezed between narrow bedrock walls, churned violently in a big hole at the entrance. Downstream we could see at least 5 more challenging holes. It was probably not unrunnable but it looked like potential trouble at this level so we began the difficult scramble along river left. From the bottom of the gorge we encountered great continuous whitewater including one of the best stretches of the run which begins upstream around the corner above the bridge and finishes off just below the bridge.

Looking upstream from the Elk Creek Bridge near the take-out.

After passing under the bridge we continued on downstream as the river tapered off to class III and once we hit our first log portage we decided to take-out and hike back up to the road.

Was Elk Creek a new classic? Not quite, but it was certainly a fun way to spend the day and great way to explore a hidden river valley that few people have seen and probably nobody else has paddled. Sections were reminiscent of the Foss or the Rapid in the Skykomish drainage but this run is shorter and with the hike in the run is more work to get to. Levels were about right for an exploratory (the nearby South Fork Sultan was at 300-400 cfs). It was a little low for some of the rapids but just right for others.

Labels: ,