Shrouded by early May mist and Oregon ash, the Black River on Tuesday morning swallowed up our shadows as we paddled downstream.
Honks of Canada geese and trills of red-winged blackbirds tuned out the noises that remind us of civilization.
But peaceful darkness turns a sludgy shade of green where the river meets its main stem.
As we neared the confluence of the Chehalis and Black rivers, the sound of a chain saw revving is the first foreboding sign of challenge to come.
As I watched Chronicle photographer Jared Wenzelburger make his way down the Chehalis River with a half-broken kayak paddle, I thought to myself, “somewhere in here there’s a joke about being up a creek without a paddle.”
His paddle broke just moments after he tried to take a photo of a bald eagle sitting on the river bank maybe 40 yards away from us, but the camera lens was waterlogged.
Though scrapes were among the least of the day’s concerns, the lump on my knee from falling out of my kayak on the concrete boat launch was about the size of the cherry I’d put on top of our amatuer mistakes. With no extra paddle, no waterproof camera, no pump for a flipped kayak and next-to-no experience with river kayaking, I learned plenty — even if some of it was the hard way.
Lee First, an environmental activist through a nonprofit called the Waterkeeper Alliance, has paddled most of the main stem of Chehalis three times, navigated many of its tributaries and taken around 50 day trips on the river. On Tuesday, she guided us from the Oakville boat launch on the Black River to the Oakville launch on the Chehalis in her canoe alongside fluvial geomorphologist Paul Bakke. There will be a story on these two people later.
Several people directed me to Lee when I told them about the plan.
Sometime around May 20, Wenzelburger and I plan to take on the main stem of the Chehalis in kayaks, starting in Pe Ell.
We are aiming to interview as many folks along the way as possible, highlighting the people and projects of the river. Along with traditional stories, we’ll also share our perspectives through first-person accounts. It will all be published as we travel downriver, with staff from the newsroom meeting us each day to collect content and deliver supplies.
The Chronicle is calling this journey “Headwaters to Harbor,” though some say the actual headwaters of the Chehalis begin all the way in Wahkiakum County in the Willapa Hills. It’s a bit of a misnomer, but so were all the other ideas. “Pe Ell to the Pacific” wasn’t quite true, because we don’t intend to kayak beyond Grays Harbor. Willapas to Wishkah? You get it.
Our trip comes about 13 years after The Chronicle completed a similar endeavor, with former photojournalist Brandon Swanson and Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Eric Schwartz playing the roles of adventurers in 2009 and traveling from Rainbow Falls State Park to Grays Harbor.
This time around, the plan is to take about 10 days paddling downstream from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor. This should allow us plenty of time to get out and smell the cow manure. Lee says the journey takes her about six days of serious all-day paddling.
We’ll camp on riverside beaches and campgrounds. When we hit Centralia, we may even hop out for a night in our own beds. The plan is subject to change in case of injury, weather or other unforeseen challenges.
You can experience the journey beyond the pages of The Chronicle, too. Along with daily river diaries, pre-written stories focused on a variety of issues linked to the river and accounts of folks we meet while traveling the state’s second-largest river basin, we will provide frequent updates on The Chronicle’s social media channels. Look for photos, videos and more on Twitter (@chronline), Instagram (@chronicle_photos) and Facebook (@thecentralichronicle).
We’d love your help. If you have story ideas, advice, gear, maps, tools or anything else you’d like to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.