‘Not a Race, It’s Just a Party’: Pe Ell River Run — an April Tradition — Returns for 44th Year


When Shawnell Pilz and Luke Harris moved into their new place in Pe Ell, the previous homeowner had one unusual stipulation for the new residents: They needed to be ready to welcome Pe Ell River Runners to the property on the second Saturday of April, every year, indefinitely.

The annual event is open to all people. Folks in vessels of all kinds — including canoes, dinghies, homemade rafts and kayaks — ride the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Rainbow Falls State Park. Many pull out before the falls, while others brave the rapids from beginning to end.

The riverfront home at the end of Queen Avenue in Pe Ell has now been the launching point for the River Run for 44 years, said original event founder Jim Merrill, who has been dubbed “King of the River” by some participants. His T-shirt also labeled him as such.

Reflecting back on the first River Run in 1978, Merrill said he and his buddies were partying in the 70 degree weather, asking, “What should we do today?”

“And somebody said, ‘Let’s go ride the river,’” Merrill said.

Somewhere down the decadeslong line, the River Run became a community-wide event. But it never lost its laid-back vibe.

“It’s not a race, it’s just a party,” Merrill said. “There’s no prize, nobody has to be proud. It’s because we can. That’s it. Of course, I say if you don’t shoot the falls you’re not a real river runner.”

Pilz, who attended Pe Ell School, just moved back to Pe Ell within the last year because of how much she and Harris love the community.

“There’s nothing like it. There’s such a connectivity. Like, later tonight, we’re gonna go to the fire hall and do bingo,” Pilz said.

Though she and Harris didn’t do the run themselves this year, they drove from Pe Ell to Rainbow Falls with many stops along the way to wave to runners.

Staff from The Chronicle at the event successfully made it down the falls without injury. Though, a reporter did return with a sunburn. Merrill agreed: the river gives and it takes away.

“I think it’s really good to continue to ride it, ‘cause a lot of people really want to preserve the river. And it’s been damaged by different environmental impacts,” Merrill said.