Commentary: How to Stay Safe While Paddling the Chehalis River and Beyond


Luna Leopold, a leading U.S. geomorphologist and hydrologist, said this of rivers: “We must let the river teach us. Not just a few of us. Let the river teach all of us.”

Like many readers, I was impressed by The Chronicle’s recent series of articles about the Chehalis River. I hope the articles inspire basin residents to learn more about this special river.

In over 50 years of paddling kayaks and canoes on streams, rivers, bays and oceans, it is rivers I have learned most from. Rivers transport more than water. They move sediment, wood and more.

They constantly transform the landscape, sometimes to an almost unfathomable extent, and especially after floods. For this reason, safe paddling a small craft on rivers requires an awareness of the hazards and a willingness to learn about rivers and how to stay safe on river adventures.

Here are some descriptions of several stretches of the Chehalis River along with some safety tips to get you started.


Chehalis River Offers a Paddling Experience for Everyone

Some rivers are safe at most flows, and others are not. For example, the Chehalis. I’ve found that you want at least 700 cubic feet per second (CFS) on the section between Pe Ell and Rainbow Falls. If the flow is less, and you’re not paying serious attention, it’s easy to hit rocks and capsize.

Above Pe Ell, the Chehalis has sections of class three and four whitewater rapids. These should be navigated only by very skilled boaters. From Pe Ell to the South Fork confluence, there are some class two rapids. These usually have wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily avoided by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.

From Porter to Grays Harbor, the river is tidally influenced. On a day with a large tide difference, (up to a 14-inch difference), I’ve paddled upstream from Aberdeen to Elma on the incoming tide. That’s the fun part of paddling tidal rivers. On the other hand, if there’s a strong ebb tide, and a strong upstream wind (which is usually the case in the afternoon), the opposing forces of flow and wind can be treacherous.

A few words about season and temperature: I paddle all year. I love winter paddling. In winter, or in cold water or weather, dress for immersion. A waterproof breathable drysuit is the garment of choice for most paddling enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest, where rivers run cold virtually all year. Neoprene works well as an insulator, even when wet, but most wetsuits don’t offer the same level of comfort or safety as a drysuit. You never know when you might need immersion clothing, so it’s an excellent idea to wear it from the start. If you get too warm, go for a swim.


A Word About Wood

Large wood, sometimes called “sweepers” or “strainers,” in rivers can be deadly. These are the large trees that have recently fallen or been transported by high flows. Strong currents can take you directly into a sweeper, which can easily trap and drown a paddler.

Keep your eyes peeled for wood hazards if you are paddling after a flood, when trees can fall into the river and logjams can shift and move. If you’re about to enter a blind river curve, get out and scout it. Use that long rope to “line” your boat around the bend instead of heading into a blind curve.

If the river has recently flooded, try to get a wood report from someone who has already paddled after the flood. The more access and knowledge we have about the river, the more likely we will act to protect it. Be safe and have fun. Let the river teach you.


River Safety Tips

Make sure you have the right gear and know how to use it.

Be prepared for your boat to capsize or swamp (fill with water) by having the proper gear and knowing how to use it. To prevent losing a canoe or kayak, the craft should have flotation to displace water, which can be as simple as a large piece of securely lashed styrofoam.

It’s essential to have a life jacket, a spare paddle, and if your boat is not self-bailing, a hand pump or something to bail water out after capsizing or swamping. A throw bag, or a strong rope at least 50-feet in length is the Swiss army knife of boating gear. You can use it to tie off your boat to shore, pull it to shore if it capsizes or help pull a person to shore in a rescue situation. If not using a throw bag, stow your rope in a stuff sack of some kind. Loose ropes can be entanglement hazards, wrapping around arms, legs, necks, etc.

Before setting out, check the flow using the system of USGS gauges, or other methods. Look for the NOAA forecast for the gauge nearest the stretch of river you want to run. The Chehalis has gauges at Pe Ell, Adna, Grand Mound and Porter, among other places. Pay attention to the trend. Use extra caution if the river is already high and/or rising. High flows mean fast current, fewer rest spots (eddies) and more likely you will confront wood in the river.


Practice and Be Prepared Before You Get Out on the Water

I’ve had my share of capsizing small craft by accident, and also on purpose. Capsize your boat in safe water, like a nice warm lake, to practice rescue techniques. Consider taking a two-day “swiftwater” rescue course. Swiftwater training was developed for firefighters and other first responders, but anyone can take the course.

Always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be home. Measure the distance of the section you’re planning to paddle. Carry a map. Have a person on land that you can call if you get into trouble. Keep your phone or other signaling device in a high-quality waterproof bag. Always carry at least one extra set of clothing (wool is best), and extra food and water.


Always Wear Your Life Jacket and Know What’s Right Downstream

My friends all tease me because the first thing I do when I prepare to launch is tighten up my life vest. I learned the importance of that when I got thrown out of a kayak on a huge rapid in the Grand Canyon. My vest was loose. After being seriously tumbled by an enormous wave, the vest slipped up making it difficult to breathe. I usually leave my vest on all day, and don’t take it off until I’m about to get back into the car. Besides, vests are warm.

You should never be looking away very long from what is downstream. Obviously, that helps you stay on your line, but more importantly it will prevent you from getting surprised by an obstacle. Rocks of course pose obstacles, but wood, particularly downed trees and log jams, are the greatest hazards on a river.


Lee First is the Twin Harbors Waterkeeper. Twin Harbors Waterkeeper, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, is a leader in the effort to prevent pollution in the Chehalis River, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay watersheds. Its mission is to protect and improve water quality and marine and freshwater habitats. Twin Harbors Waterkeeper works to address environmental health disparities that are driven by historic and current pollution and systemic inequities that disadvantage communities of color and lower income populations in the Chehalis River, Grays Harbor Estuary and Willapa Bay Watersheds.