tippin’ on the toutle

Differing from the snow fed rivers and moss-covered forests that surround many of the area’s raftable waterways, the Toutle river has its own flavor, and tastes like pumice.  Higher volume and wide, it cuts through indecisive landscape, stuck between a moonscape or post-apocalyptic forest land, eventually flowing downriver into brittle looking cliffs that loom above the water.  With large, flat floodplains and crumbling cliffs of volcanic ash, it isn’t surprising to learn that the river itself is fed by the Mt. St. Helen’s watershed–a fact made obvious with one look at the water.  While many Washington rivers become laden with silt during high runoff, the Toutle is a sediment bed that sometimes has a moisture problem.  Navigating a tributary, we entered the confluence and shot the seam of the dual-toned river where the clear green water we had ridden over met the chocolate milk of St. Helens’ aqueous ash deposits.

The round river rocks themselves were buried in the fine grit being carried downriver by the water:

Today I’d been invited to paddle with Troy and Gabe, another set of guides who had done the river once before and who had been running rivers together since they’d finished their training years ago.  They had a calm, matter-of-fact nature about them, coupled with the cutting criticism and stern talk that comes from spending years on the river together.

The river was sneaky.  Aside from a few logjams and the occasional stray piece of wood camouflaged in the grey water, the river had a tendency to mask the force of its currents and the sheer power of some of the holes until either one had a hold on the boat.  Troy and Gabe ran fairly conservatively, which isn’t a bad thing in a new river where hazards are so easily concealed, especially with an Aire raft that seemed eager to roll.  As a green guide with experience on Avon rafts, which are like tanks in whitewater, I was prepared to charge into any and everything we came across just to see if we could. It’s the kind of recklessness that fades with age and experience (or so I’m told), and given the way I was salivating at the holes we were skirting, I need to gain some experience quickly.

Even experience can’t save the best of guides, however, and after scouting and finding a good line through Hollywood Gorge, the river’s largest rapid, Troy, Gabe, and I got stopped in a hole, surfed for a few seconds as we were plucked out by the river, one by one, and were sucked downstream with a speed that still seems faster than it should have been.

It’s humbling to remember that we had run the Toutle at a moderate level; it still runs much higher and the holes get much bigger.  It’s interesting to see that while the look and feel of rivers varies greatly, the rules rarely change; respect is key, and moments of indiscretion lead to minutes of swim time and buying your rescuers beer after the gear is put away…by you.  If there’s anything river running can teach us, it’s a little humility.

Ready to have a blast and get some St. Helens grit in your teeth?  It’s a drive from Seattle, but you’re in luck-not only does WildWater River Tours and a few other commercial groups run the river, but it’s a favorite because when rains come, they keep the river up for a while afterward, offering the potential for a few good days of rafting. 

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