CISPUS — There are many reasons why Michael Deckert continues to go to the effort to tote his kayak from Tacoma to East Lewis County in order to enjoy the clear waters of the Cispus River. However, one of those reasons stands out above the rest if for no other reason than he’s prone to repeating the phrase each time he resurfaces from beneath the crest of a whitewater wave.
With foamy river water bubbling in his eyebrows, Deckert repeatedly casts his glance around the river valley at the boulders and timbers and branches full of birdsongs, and motions grandly as he declares, “It’s primordial!”
Deckert, a 57-year-old substitute teacher from Edgewood, has been making the trek to the Cispus River for several decades, and he has no plans to stop anytime soon. He and the rest of the Cispus Kayak Club, of which he is a prominent member, regularly ply the waters upstream of the Cowlitz Falls Dam where the water undulates back and forth between frothy whitewater and clear rolling slackwater that allows boaters a few moments to slow their heart rate and breathe in the scenery.
Recently, Deckert and a gaggle of his river running pals set out on an overnight trip down the Cispus River where they packed all of their camping gear inside dry bags in their vessels and enjoyed the full spectrum of what that particular channel of nature has to offer.
“We camped out on a nice beach and watched the sun go down. The birds stopped flying and the moon and stars and the Milky Way came out,” Deckert said. “It’s a lot like backpacking but you carry a little bit more stuff.”
For Deckert and company, the Cispus River has a siren call that, classically, cannot be ignored. What makes the group of river enthusiasts different from other backcountry groups is that they strive to share the space with as many people as possible rather than trying to hide their secret section of river away for their own personal enjoyment.
“It’s just got a really great combination. It’s an easy river to take people down and teach them to kayak and it still has enough stuff for me to play on and be really happy at the end of the day,” said Deckert. “And it’s not that far. I used to drive all over the state every weekend to paddle. As I’ve gotten older, this is my retirement river.”
One of the factors that makes the Cispus River so attractive to rafters and kayakers alike is that it has a knack for holding its water. Other rivers may run high and wild for a short time before turning into a trickle as the weather begins to warm up, but the Cispus River, which feeds into the Cowlitz River near Morton, can handle recreational river traffic for nearly 10 months out of the year.
“It’s got this amazingly long season. It’s just in this niche of elevations where it’s not too dry and it’s not too low where it just flattens out a lot,” Deckert said.
He noted that two weeks ago the river was running at about 900 cubic feet per second. An early summer heatwave has dropped the flow down to roughly 700 cfps this week, but that’s no problem for a paddler such as Deckert, who says he enjoys hitting the river anytime the flow is between 700 and 1,600 cfps. Typically, the boating season for the lowest stretch of the Cispus River begins in late fall when the rains return and then continues into the summer when the snowmelt peters out. Still, even when the river runs low, there’s nothing much to stop a person from taking their chances on the water.
“As the water gets lower below 700 cubic feet per second, it gets a little bit harder to miss rocks, but the water drops so much that there aren’t as many consequences,” said Deckert, who has run the Cispus River when it was as low as 368 cfps. “Those levels are a nice thing to do on a summer day. Not a lot of whitewater adrenaline, but it’s still better than mowing the lawn or doing hay.”
Rebecca Post is a raft pilot who often tags along with the Cispus Kayak Club. She has more than 20 years experience navigating all classes of rapids on an assortment of rivers. With all of that prune-fingered experience, she still finds the Cispus River, along with the people who regularly float it, to be one of her favorite destinations. One tradition that earned her respect right away is the annual New Year’s float that typically entices several dozen kayakers to brave the mid-winter elements for a baptism by mountain water.
“The kayak club has a New Year's float on January 1 on this river and it’s often in the snow They’re parked in the snow. They’re launching in the snow. Everything is frozen as was the case this year. I think there was 8 inches of snow on the road,” said Post. “In a dry suit, it’s not bad, but it shows the dedication of the people in this sport who want to use this river.”
The New Year’s tradition typically kicks off with a group breakfast at the Mt. Adams Cafe in Randle before the group sets out in a caravan on the backroads to reach their preferred launch spot they call “Twin Cedars.” The designated pullout spot, known as Copper Canyon, is located at the upper end of the Cowlitz Falls reservoir.
The river winds for about 7 miles from the Twin Cedars launch spot down to Copper Canyon. That section includes most of the whitewater features on the lower Cispus River. Deckert says his favorite spot is known as Paul’s Playpen. That spot, about a mile or two below the Forest Service Road 25 Bridge, consists of a series of river riffles suitable for “surfing” in a kayak.
“It’s a beautiful ledgeway with a wave behind that and a wave further down and the guys get in there and surf, and it’s so much fun to watch. It’s above my skill level, but it’s really fun to watch,” said Post. “For those of us who are down here, south of Puget Sound, this has probably some of the cleanest water. The Toutle is always murky. The Nisqually is always murky. But this has some of the most beautiful scenery and great play waves.”
Even more extreme whitewater options can be found higher up in the river system. On the contrary, many rafters such as Post have a preference for launching just upriver from the Cispus Learning Center. The water is a little more flat and braided on that 8-mile stretch back to Twin Cedars, but the landscape vistas are rewarding in their own rite, including an unparalleled vantage of Tower Rock.
Deckert insists that the Cispus River is an attainable destination for most kayakers or rafters, so long as they are prepared with equipment and experience.
“I would not recommend somebody to do this in just a recreational kayak. This is a real whitewater river that would need a real white water kayak, helmet, life jacket and spray skirt,” noted Deckert. He also recommends dressing warm in clothes not made from cotton, including gloves and boots for the colder months.
“Dress warmly. Dress appropriately. Dress for immersion, especially in the winter.” Deckert said. “Summer time makes it a little bit easier because you can get out and dry off in the sun a little bit. That’s the other reason that I really like the Cispus is that it’s generally safe.”
Deckert then circled back around to make sure that anyone considering running the river remembers to respect the inherent power and dangers at play.
“You definitely don’t want to get out there if you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re not going with somebody who knows what they are doing. Be safe and be aware. Understand rivers and river hazards,” Deckert noted. “If they are really interested in beginning kayaking, they should do an internet search and find some classes. Quality instruction is really important.”
Most importantly, Deckert says it’s imperative to remember to pack a good attitude before hitting the water. The official motto of the kayak club reflects that mindset.
“It’s always sunny on the Cispus. Even when it’s not, it’s just a state of mind,” said Deckert.
If You Go
Head east on U.S. Highway 12 toward Taidnapam Park. Turn south at Kosmos Road 5 miles east of Morton. Turn left after a couple hundred yards onto Champion Haul Road. Continue past Taidnapam Park over the Cowlitz River and turn left on the gravel road. Signs will direct you toward the 300 Road and the Copper Canyon takeout. Stay left at the intersection and continue over the river and past the Cowlitz Falls Dam and reservoir. Take the first ungated left onto the 340 Road which will deliver you to Copper Canyon pullout.
Take Highway 131 south to the Forest Service Road 25 junction. Turn onto FS 25 and continue up and over the pass and over the Cispus River. Take a right as soon as you cross the Cispus River onto 300 Road and follow for about five miles until you reach 340 Road. Take 340 Road to the Copper Canyon pullout.
From Copper Canyon Pullout to Twin Cedars Launch:
Take a left onto 300 road and follow to intersection with FS 25. Once you’ve past the Iron Creek Campground turn left on 73 Road and follow for roughly a mile. When you cross over a concrete culvert a campsite will become visible on the left which marks the Twin Cedars launch spot. Many cedars are visible in this spot, although it is not altogether obvious which one are the twins.
*No special forest passes are required.