Editor’s note: On Thursday evening Chronicle reporter Eric Schwartz and photographer Brandon Swanson began their kayak journey down the Chehalis River. They put in near Rainbow Falls this morning, and will report on the life surrounding the river basin from this unique vantage point. They hope to make it all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the coming week. Each day The Chronicle will publish a part of their travels. Go to Chronline.com and look up Assistant Editor Brian Mittge’s blog about this trip.
DRYAD — The Chehalis River is notorious for its ability to destroy and alter lives each time it leaves its banks and swamps surrounding communities.
But while it unleashes a violent impact to surrounding homes and businesses only a dozen or so times a century, it sustains countless forms of life along the 120 miles that comprise the Chehalis River Basin all year round.
Rob Schanz, a resident of River Road just off state Route 6 near Dryad and chairman of the Chehalis River Council, has seen the best and worst the Chehalis River has to offer. He sees a habitat for fish and wildlife, interesting geological features and a sometimes dangerous body of water all at the same time.
In December 2007, he watched as record rainfall caused an unprecedented flood that left his home submerged under 10 feet of water. He, his wife, children and mother were evacuated from a second-story window by helicopter that day. About $100,000 worth of repairs later, Schanz has returned to his home and doesn’t plan on leaving.
It’s a stance shared by many of his neighbors up and down River Road, most of whom still have fresh memories of loss and despair following what has been identified as a 500-year flood. It’s the same road where Nancy Punches clung to a floating bookcase for 36 hours before being rescued, and where Dil Griffiths and his wife escaped from the attic window of their home next door.
“I hope it was just a freak thing,” Schanz said of the rare flooding of the upper Chehalis basin. “We thought about (moving) but we’re too heavily invested.”
Schanz, a hydrologist who works for the Washington State Department of Transportation, has a broad perspective of the river as chairman of the Chehalis River Council, a Centralia-based non-profit group that advocates and implements habitat restoration projects up and down the Chehalis River Basin.
Walking along the rocky shoreline just outside the backdoor of his two-story log home, Schanz can quickly point out several sections of Columbia basalt that allude to the area’s wealth of geology. The section of river, known as Little Rainbow Falls to local residents, is sandwiched between two quarries where the rock used in concrete is prevalent. The northern portion of the river differs from even the Twin Cities area only miles downriver, he said.
Near Centralia and Chehalis, the river twists and turns through agricultural land and often is banked by sandy shores.
The geology shows signs of flooding as well, he said. Erosion has taken its toll on nearby banks, the result of seasonal flooding and the great flood of 2007.
“You can see some significant changes,” Schanz said. “It really reamed the river out here. It scoured the banks down to bedrock in some places and it’s wider in some places. Overall we have a bigger river than we used to in this area.”
Schanz’ observations and experiences are just one example of life on the Chehalis River, a body of water that begins on two forks, one above Pe Ell and another south of the Boistfort Valley.
Over the next several days, Schanz and others will have the opportunity to tell their stories as The Chronicle makes its way down the river.
The Chehalis River stretches from its origins in Lewis County to Grays Harbor and the Pacific Ocean. According to the Chehalis Basin Partnership, a taskforce comprised of experts and elected officials from around the basin, the river impacts 140,000 people who live along its shores and tributaries.
The Chehalis River Basin comprises 2,700 square miles with land in Lewis, Grays Harbor, Thurston, Lewis and Mason counties, including major urban areas such as Centralia, Chehalis, Hoquiam and Aberdeen.
It’s the impetus for millions of dollars in studies and projects, ranging from flood mitigation to habitat and species restoration. It is relied upon by farmers, fisheries, tribes and governments alike.
Recreation is another benefit of the river, with Rainbow Falls State Park acting as a chief example. The park was battered and beaten by the same 2007 flood that turned Schanz and hundreds of others into temporary refugees.
It, too, has recovered, though the scars are still evident in the twisted logs and debris that comprises the shoreline and the lack of a bridge leading across the river to state Route 6 — one of three bridges decimated in the area.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Vince Palme, a visiting camper from the Littlerock area, “But this place was a disaster a year or so ago.”
For the people living in and around the Chehalis River, it’s not so hard to believe.
Chehalis River Basin Facts
Size: 2,700 square miles
Counties with significant land: Lewis, Grays Harbor, Thurston and Mason
Major urban centers: Centralia, Chehalis, Aberdeen, Hoquiam
Major tributaries: Black, Humptulips, Satsop, Wynoochee, Wishkah, Hoquiam
Tribal nations: The Confederates Tribes of the Chehalis, The Quinalt Indian Nation
Major fish species: Fall Chinook, Coho, Steelhead Trout, Chum
—Source: The Chehalis Basin Partnership
Eric Schwartz: (360) 807-8245