The Lost River

Thomas O'Keefe

The Lost River is one of Washington's finest wilderness trips. Although the whitewater is a half notch less demanding, it's even more remote than the Elwha and tucked away in one of the most impressive river canyons in the state. You'll find some enjoyable whitewater on this run, but the real reason to experience the Lost is for the wilderness adventure. There is no trail along the river and aside from a few folks who hike and wade up the stream in late summer, a kayak is the only way to see this river valley deep within the Pasayten Wilderness. After recently moving to Washington, Andy Bridge had been looking for an adventure close to his new home and we started making plans for a trip to the Lost River. Although I couldn't find anyone who had run the river recently, rumors started to emerge of several trips that were in the works. In early June we started calling the Forest Service office in Winthrop for road and trail conditions and anxiously watched the nearby gauges, waiting for the Methow near Mazama to stabilize around 2500 cfs. This gauge is just downstream of the Lost confluence with the Methow, and the Lost represents approximately 40% of the Methow watershed at this point (there's also a USGS staff gauge on the Lost River at the take-out bridge, but it's not a realtime station).

We were glad we decided not to run on the weekend of June 15/16 as the following message board post made it clear this river is no place to be in high water: Saturday the Methow at Pateros was 10,000 cfs [it was 5000 cfs at Mazama] and on the Lost this meant an eddyless flush of exploding holes around blind turns in to piles of deathtrap wood. Walked more river than ran. Two boats and 3 paddles were lost in horrific swims. If anyone encounters a Pyrahna Micro 230 lime green and black with or without overnight gear in it and a Werner paddle with asymmetric blades in the basin or Methow I would love to hear from you. We all ended up leaving our boats behind, hiking out up the canyon walls to the basin rim, and made it out a day later. The river was bank full in to the shrubs with no eddies. It was not class IV at this level, but class IV-V with class VI consequences an many locations.

With that in mind we decided to wait a couple weeks and with a heavy rain falling on the west side of the Cascades we drove over the North Cascades Highway on Friday evening. Omar Jepperson and Pete Mattson joined Andy and I for the trip. We dropped a shuttle car off at the take-out bridge in Mazama which provided our first check of the flows. The staff gauge was at 9.1' and it looked to be right around 1000 cfs or possibly a touch more--exactly what we had been hoping for. We then drove to Winthrop and took West Chewuch Road and FR 5130 to the Billy Goat trailhead. Most of the shuttle is on paved road but it's slow going and takes about an hour.

We awoke on Saturday to sunny skies and mild temperatures. Conditions looked perfect as we began our hike up to Eightmile Pass and then down to Drake Creek. These first few miles are on a horse trail so it's pretty easy walking with a nice downhill section as you arrive at Drake Creek (note: there is good camping here if you're hiking partway in). From this point on however, the character of the trail changes significantly as it is an unmaintained path through the forest and across some long talus slopes before you reach the Lost River. A solid pair of footwear is a must in this section.

Andy begins the last push into the Lost River Canyon.

It's in this final section that you can expect to put some wear and tear on your boat. There's really no easy way to do it--the unstable footing on the tallus slopes would make traveling with a yak pak challenging, dragging would rip your boat to shreds, and a cart is out of the question. Prepare yourself for some sore shoulders. As I was pulling my boat up over a log, it abruptly stopped. I tugged again, but the boat would not move. I backed it up and turned it over to discover I had pierced the bottom of the boat with a branch. The hole was large enough to pass an egg through the bottom of the boat. This was bad. I had been planning several months for this trip and it was pretty clear that this was going to be the last opportunity for the year. It seemed absolutely absurd to attempt an 11 mile run with the boat, but I kept working my way downhill figuring I'd come up with something at the put-in.

It was early afternoon when we arrived at the put-in (note: there is not much good camping here). We all took a much needed break as I set to work on my boat. The hole was beneath the seat so I unbolted that and tried various patches before finally settling on a couple layers of Pete's sleeping pad. Once I put the seat back in it effectively pressed down on the foam and sealed the hole. We were all a bit skeptical on how this would hold, but with knowledge of replacement boats somewhere downstream we set off.

Tom's boat after the repair.

The bedrock walls were truly impressive, but our attention turned to the river as we began our journey. The first section was swift class II with a few log portages. None of these were too bad and I was happy to learn that my boat wasn't taking on any water. It was soon evident that I was now committed to the run.

The put-in with a view of pink granite cliffs up the valley.

The pace begin to pick up a bit as we approached the first significant rapid, where a talus slope entered the river from the right creating a technical boulder garden rapid. The line started right, then swung back to the left before the river disappeared around a bend. We all ran it clean and then boat-scouted our way down to the next significant drop which was a ledge formed by a debris dam.

The first rapid to scout.

The river kept us entertained until we reached the lake. The lake is formed by a massive rock slide that entered from the left and effectively dammed the river. We paddled across the 1/4 mile lake and peered over the lip at the outlet. The river disappeared into an obvious V+ rapid. Andy and Omar pulled out for a look and confirmed that we'd be portaging this one through a big boulder field. The thought of putting a boat on my shoulder for even a moment was highly unappealing and the others all agreed that the nice campsite on an island at the head of the lake looked much more inviting.

Looking down towards the lake outlet with bedrock walls to the right and a massive dam-forming debris slide on the left. Below the slide Auburn Creek enters from the left and the Lost makes a hard bend to the right.

The geology at our camp was truly impressive and the setting sun bathed the bedrock walls in a warm light. We were in the middle of the Pasayten Wilderness camping at a spot several miles from the nearest trail. We all made dinner and then drifted off to sleep before it was even completely dark.

Omar, Andy, and Pete at our camp on the lake

The next morning we awoke to start the portage. The first ledge drop at the outlet of the lake is inviting but then things start to get a bit more complicated. I wouldn't say it's unrunnable, but then it's not the kind of thing you want to mess with when you're on a wilderness trip with a fully loaded boat. The river drops about 70 feet through a jumbled pile of boulders. There were plenty of good pin spots and it's probably the most inaccessible part of the canyon. If you lost a boat in this drop--which appeared likely--it would truly be an epic affair. We spent a good hour portaging and taking breaks to discuss our imaginary lines.

Omar and Andy take a break to scout the drops while portaging the drops at the lake outlet.

We put in to run the last couple ledges created by the boulder slide and then picked up a bit more flow as Auburn Creek entered from the left and the river took a hard turn to the right. The quality of the whitewater picked up and we finally approached what was probably the most challenging drop on the run. I pulled out for video and watched Andy make it look easy as he paddled the lead-in rapid, slipped into an eddy, took an elegant line to the right, ducked past a log, and finished off by swinging into an eddy on the left. Andy dominated C1 wildwater competition for more than ten years as national champion, but he's one of those guys who lets his paddling speak for itself. The rest of us proceeded to make things look ugly down what appeared to be the "easy line" on river left. Pete went first, but skipped the eddy and the line along the right to take the meatier line straight down the left. It went fine until he hit the first of two holes which slowed him down just enough to create problems in the second hole. Pete finally clawed his way out in time for Omar's attempt. He didn't make it look any better and now I was up. I had intended to follow Andy's route and caught the eddy, but then changed my mind as I looked at the move you had to make to avoid the massive log jam on the bottom right. I pulled back out into the main current on river left thinking I could make it if I just gave it more power than the others had, but I was immediately stopped in the first hole and floated into the second with no speed. As vision's of a similar experience on the Ocoee's Double Suck danced through my head I began the task of working myself free. I went through my bag of tricks and was still in the hole as I saw Andy running upstream with throw rope in hand. I was starting to get tired though and I remembered the advice of one of my early mentors who always reminded us to keep some energy for the swim. I had given it a good ride, but I was out. To keep it handy for filming, I had been keeping the dry box with the video camera in my lap. I wedged the box between my legs as I ejected from the boat and then quickly grabbed it and the paddle as Andy pitched the rope. The boat tumbled about in the hole before finally washing free leaving a trail of drybags as it floated off out of site.

The moral of the story is if you see a former national champion set a line, you might think twice before trying something different, but then that assumes you can make the line he set. My boat became hung up a short distance downstream and Omar and Pete were able to get it back to shore by the time I was able to scramble down along the tallus slopes. On its short journey without me the boat's foam patch had washed free, the hole had further enlarged, and the screws holding the seat in place were hopelessly bent making a similar repair difficult. Pete pulled out his sleeping pad again and I cut some new patches, but since I couldn't remove the seat it was not possible to set them in as snuggly as we had before. There was little I could do but continue downstream and empty the boat every few hundred yards.

Andy paddling through the impressive lower canyon.

Paddling the lower canyons with a 3" diameter hole in my boat proved to be a challenge. Each time I launched, my boat would immediately start filling with water. It was a trade-off between pushing further downstream and dealing with a boat that became increasingly more difficult to control. We found some of the most enjoyable drops in this section however and frequent scouting opportunities allowed me to empty my boat.

I knew the remaining boats from the group who had hiked out were somewhere near Monument Creek so we stopped there for a snack break and combed the forest near the confluence for stashed boats (note: there are some good camping possibilities here). With no luck, we continued downstream and just as I was giving up any hope of finding a replacement we stumbled across the stash. I gazed up the canyon walls and could only imagine, or rather I couldn't imagine, what it would be like to try and hike out of the canyon. I would have thought it impossible if not for the evidence of boats left by the side of the river and the story from those who left them behind. It's a couple thousand feet up tallus slopes to the canyon walls. Then you'd somehow have to find a way up the walls and travel overland to the trail, which was still several miles from the nearest road. I quickly swapped boats, thanked the gods that I was traveling by river, and we continued downstream. For the first time on the trip I could relax and enjoy the river without having to worry about the integrity of my boat.

There are couple nice class IV drops in the lower canyon.

Although there are some nice drops and good continuous action between the lake outlet and Monument Creek some of the most enjoyable whitewater on the trip comes once you pass the confluence with Monument Creek. Consistent gradient provides for great continuous boogie water all the way to Eureka Creek with a couple fun drops thrown in. We spaced ourselves out and just waltzed our way down the river for the next few miles taking in the scenery as we made our way along.

Some of the great continuous action below Monument Creek.

Once you pass Eureka Creek, the gradient tapers and it's more class II through braided channels. At recommended flows it's not too bad, but you can expect to encounter a few log jams that will require portages. There's one more short class III section and then you'll soon be at the take-out bridge. For all of us the Lost River was one of our paddling highlights for the year.

Notes: Although most of the whitewater on this river is class IV or IV+, this run is very physically demanding and it's not for everybody. There are plenty of runs with better whitewater in the area and while some might consider a run on this river one of their favorite trips, others might have a miserable time. This is an expedition trip that demands careful preparation and the commitment of a strong group. Everyone should be solid class IV+ or V boaters. You can expect to find a few spots where trees will form significant hazards around blind corners (we probably made a dozen portages, mostly at the beginning and end). The ability to catch micro eddies on a moments notice is mandatory. In many areas, escape from the canyon is impossible and in those where it is you can expect to take at least a day or two. This is not a river you want to be on when flows are on the way up. Watch the weather forecast carefully and catch it on the falling limb of the hydrograph. For our trip, the USGS staff gauge at the take-out bridge was 9.1' on Friday night, dropping to 8.7' by Sunday. This was just about perfect and aside from the lake outlet and log portages (mostly in the class II sections) we found all major drops runnable.

For more beta on the run and some video clips of some of the best drops, check the American Whitewater StreamKeeper page for the Lost River

If you're interested in footage of the run, Tom has a 20 minute DVD on the trip described here