Canyon Creek Gorge
( South Fork of the Stillaguamish Drainage, Washington State. )

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Pete Giordano and I headed up to Washington in February 2005 on a water quest. Oregon was experiencing one of the worst rain years on record, caused by a strong El Nino event that was diverting the big storms away from the state. Our primary target on this trip was Robe Canyon, but we had two other runs we wanted to do as well.

We camped on Friday night in the Sultan River drainage east of Seattle, and we got up early Saturday morning and set off to run both the Sultan River and Canyon Creek Gorge, which was to the north in the SF Stillaguamish drainage..

Saturday morning, first run of the day: The Sultan River
On Saturday morning we ran the Sultan River, a river whose tragic story is not often told in modern paddling circles. Back in the seventies and early eighties, local paddlers like John Whaley and others used to run the Sultan in it's entirety, enjoying one of the best class IV - IV+ canyons in that part of the state.

Then the dam-builders came, fueled by the enormous energy appetites of Seattle and the surrounding metro area. In 1984 Snohomish County Utility District raised Culmback Dam, converting uppermost reaches of the Sultan River into a lake. They then diverted the water away from the Sultan River Canyon into a pipeline, limited access, and generally ruined the Sultan for future generations of paddlers.

I would like to think that this sort of thing can't happen anymore, that paddlers, fishermen, and all those who love free-flowing rivers would be more organized in their opposition if this were to happen today.

Back then, there were only two letters sent in during the 'public comment' period mandated by the federal government. John Whaley was one of those who wrote in, but two letters opposing destruction of the Sultan was not nearly enough. John lost one of his favorite rivers, and the Sultan today is a shadow of it's former self.

We put in at the powerhouse and headed downstream. The first big rapid on the lower Sultan is the last rapid on the original run, known as 'Last Nasty'. This rapid is fairly consequential and can be scouted with a little effort on the right. The main hazard here is the nasty boulder-sieve on the bottom-left side of the rapid, which is visible in the photo below..

Pete Giordano enters 'Last Nasty', the first big drop on the Lower Sultan. The large boulder-sieve is visible on the bottom-left side of the photo. A paddler drowned running this rapid back in the day, so be sure to scout carefully.

The rest of the Sultan is fun, kind of like an easier, pool-drop version of the upper Wind River. We saw some huge Bald Eagles, which was pretty amazing; I have never seen one that close before. When we got to the take-out Pete fired up the Moped and tore off on the shuttle. We were planning on running Canyon Creek as well, so there was not a moment to waste!

A note on the Sultan sent from Thomas O'keefe: The current license for the Sultan River hydropower project is set to expire in 2011. American Whitewater has already begun working with the local paddling community and other members of the Hydropower Reform Coalition with the combined goals of improving access (gate closures related to perceived security threats have been an ongoing issue), development of flow management that effectively balances recreation with other project needs, and transfer of information between the utility and the general public.

If you would like to be more involved please contact local American Whitewater StreamKeeper Andy Bridge ( ) or WA American Whitewater Regional Coordinator Tom O’Keefe ( ). Meetings with the utility to discuss relicensing have begun and the public is invited to participate. Future updates and information on how you can become involved will be posted on the American Whitewater website.

Pete, running the shuttle on the Sultan..

Saturday afternoon, second run of the day: Canyon Creek Gorge, SF Stillaguamish drainage.
After getting off the Sultan we hit the highway and headed north up into the Stillaguamish drainage. We were hoping to run Canyon Creek gorge, because it was short ( 1.3 miles ) and fairly near Robe Canyon. At this point the rain was falling hard, and we made it to the town of Granite Falls ( which is the take-out for Canyon Creek, and Robe Canyon ) in about a half hour.

The area around Canyon Creek gorge is a little trippy, lots of houses and people, and the area around the gorge itself is actually kind of a private club of some sort. Nevertheless, we drove onto the bridge and peered down into the gorge and were VERY intrigued by what we saw..

We just had to do this run!

At this point it was getting late and we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, so Pete dropped me off with the gear and drove back to Granite Falls to figure out the take-out situation. After about a half hour he reappeared, and we got in and tore downstream, racing against the fading light..

Pete Giordano enters Canyon Creek gorge.

Typical gorge views on Canyon Creek. The Bennett guidebook describes the overhanging walls on this run as 'paddling through a terrarium..'

The rapids in Canyon Creek were fun and clean, all in the class III-IV range at this flow. I suppose they would probably get significantly harder with high water, which is why the guidebook gives this section a IV-V rating. I highly recommend this creek if you are in the area, the gorge is really cool and the water quality (at least on the day we did it) is clear and green.

Canyon Creek felt like a shorter, more gorged-out version Oregon's Opal creek.. very fun stuff.

Pete Giordano drops into one of the bigger rapids in Canyon Creek gorge.

Another fun rapid downstream..

After a few more fun drops the gorge opened up and we joined the SF Stillaguamish, which was heavy and brown with glacial silt. Both of us started getting psyched up when we saw the Stilly, because we knew that Robe was coming up the next day and it was supposed to be epic..

FLOWS: We had 4.7 feet going straight up on the SF Stillaguamish gauge just after a big rainstorm. This was a fine medium-low flow for this run, though you could definitely go a lot higher and still be just fine. The entire run took about 30-45 minutes because most of the rapids can be boat-scouted.

ACCESS: See the Bennett guide to Washington whitewater, 2nd edition. The take-out is at a public park on the SF Stilly, but the put-in is on this sketchy little road sandwiched between two houses. The sign says you have to buy some sort of creek access permit in the town of Granite Falls to park there, but it was getting late and we didn't have time to try and track one down.