Chronicle reporter Eric Schwartz and photographer Brandon Swanson just returned from a week on the Chehalis River, kayaking from Rainbow Falls State Park to the choppy waters where Grays Harbor meets the Pacific Ocean. Here, in words and photos, is a look back at their trip.

Six Days, 90 Miles and Zero Stabbings

By Brandon Swanson,

   I lost my voice. Everyone at the Chronicle says the Chehalis River took it. Six days paddling in a kayak from the headwaters of the Chehalis to Grays Harbor slowly sapped me of my ability to speak. I can still talk, but I sound like fried hell.

   “You have river AIDS,” says Visuals Editor Dan Schreiber. “We all got it after the flood. There’s something in that river.”

   Since people now cringe every time I try to sum up the river journey, all that’s left is to write about it.

   I wasn’t the only one who left the river in ill health. Reporter Eric Schwartz is currently nursing an inner-thigh sunburn that would make Edgar Winter wince.

   I don’t want to make it sound like a chore because it wasn’t. From the moment we put our kayaks in at Rainbow Falls State Park east of Pe Ell, we were amazed by what we saw: a battle between an eagle and a mother duck trying to get down river while protecting her ducklings. In nature programs, you can tell who is going to win by the type of music playing in the background. If it’s a Joplin rag, the ducklings get away. If it’s the theme from “Psycho,” the ducklings become dinner.

   Here, though, on the river, it was anyone’s guess. I was pulling for the baby ducklings because that’s the kind of guy I am. Eric was pulling for the eagle because, well, you do the math.

   But the thing about human nature is that anything unique becomes white noise after a while. This is great when you are suffering, but bad when you are enjoying yourself. I went from “Good Lord, that’s a bald eagle!” to “Good Lord, another bald eagle?” in a matter of hours.

   Early in the trip, Eric literally pointed to a piece of trash on the bank and said, “Do you want to shoot that?”

   “Sure,” I said. “That would be great.”

   Late in the trip, we saw a sea lion baking cranberry muffins for a baby Vietnamese river porpoise.

   “Do you want to shoot that?”

   “Nah, I can probably get it later.”

   Still, there are lessons we can all take away from the trip:

1. Cars used as riprap, while technically doing a fantastic job of supporting a weak river bank, may not be the best long-term solution.

   Whoever decided to prop up the banks of the Chehalis near the Twin Cities by using junked out cars probably regrets the decision. He or she succeeded in doing two things: Making sure the bank didn’t move and making sure that no one will ever again want to look at this part of the river for the rest of the millennium.

2. Technology is not that bad.

   This trip could not have been done 10 years ago, at least not as easily as we did it. We typed stories and edited photos underneath bridges and e-mailed them back to the newsroom. We found our location using maps on cell phones. And I was only able to paddle three hours against the tide into a 20-mile-per-hour wind because I was able to listen to Tower of Power on my headphones.

3. People are a lot nicer than we give them credit for.

    One super wimpy guy and another guy named Eric floated down a river with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, camping in open areas, and no one stabbed us and took our stuff.

   What’s more, we got a lot of help from random strangers along the way. To the gentleman who let us drive his car from the boat launch west of Oakville into town to get some food, thank you. To the woman at the Riverside Golf Course who sold us sandwiches even though we looked like we just got tipped over while inside a port-a-potty, thank you. To the women at the Wobbly Cart farm who brought us a fresh salad when we’d been living on a steady diet of Pop Tarts and granola bars, thank you.

   I could go on, but you get the idea. People who knew about our trip were happy to help us make it happen. And — this point can’t be overstated — no one stabbed us and took our stuff.

Five Lessons Learned While Kayaking the Chehalis River

By Eric Schwartz,

   • Always wear sun block: I don’t care if you are paddling through the middle of a monsoon. Lather on sun block. Because just when you think you’re in for a cool, breezy overcast day, the sun will emerge from the clouds and backhand you with extreme fury. Believe me. I’ve got the third-degree leg burns to prove it.

   • Go with sandals: Resist the urge to wear shoes down the river. In the end, they will get wet. Then muddy. Then stinky. Before long, you’re going to be scaring away wildlife (and perhaps your travel companions) with the smell of mildewy tennis shoes. Your feet will thank you too.

   • Ignore advice from land dwellers about river travel: No offense to the dozens of people who offered us advice from the banks of the river, but it does us no good to hear “yeah, that town is only a mile up. You’re almost there,” when the river has more twists and turns in it than a Stephen King novel. One road mile can mean up to five or six river miles. Don’t listen to landlubbers. Don’t get your hopes up.

   • Wind is a kayaker’s worst enemy: How did that Jim Croce song go? “Don’t tug on Superman’s cape, don’t spit into the wind” — the crooner could have easily added kayaking into heavy wind to his “not to do” list. Doing so is tiring and difficult, like trying to paddle upriver with a monkey on your back. Not enjoyable. Not in the least.

   • Sandy shores are a kayaker’s friend: Camping is allowed along the banks of Washington rivers, as long as it is below the median high-water mark. This narrows down the habitable real estate considerably, but there are still many places to camp along gravel bars. The key is to find the sand. Your feet will be the benficiary, and your back will not be imprinted with the outline of a rock garden. 

The Chronicle’s 2009 Chehalis River Journey By the Numbers

115 - Length, in miles, of the Chehalis River

90 - Approximate number of miles kayaked on the river

6 - Days of paddling

2 - Opportunities to take showers

40 - Approximate number of bald eagles spotted

40 - Approximate number of junk vehicles spotted

4 - Nights of camping on the sandy banks of the river

1 - Brief layover in Centralia

6 - Cans of tuna devoured

8 - Deer spotted

5 - Trips beyond the banks to civilization in Adna, Claquato, Porter, Montesano and the Riverside Golf Course in Chehalis

1 - Sunken kayak (recovered)

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