Editor’s Note: This story is part of "Headwaters to Harbor," a project by The Chronicle to document the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor while highlighting people and issues connected to the river along the way. Our coverage is compiled at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River.
Saturday was the first day of what was to be The Chronicle’s 10-day Chehalis River journey. Chronicle photographer Jared Wenzelburger and I managed to stuff a tent and gear in dry bags behind our seats. Around 2 p.m. we were in the river at Pe Ell, drifting lazily in the sun.
There were a few moments of magical bliss. Cottonwood snowed, mergansers took flight just feet from our vessels. Afraid our voices would break the spell, we communicated only with points and mouthing words.
But water is the element of change, and conditions on a river change faster than even the most prepared adventurer could predict.
Wenzelburger was the first to go down. This one, I’ll admit, was completely our fault. Distracted by a particularly stunning log jam, he didn’t notice — and I didn’t warn him soon enough about — a stump behind him. His boots surrendered to the clay riverbed and the rest of him was soaked.
Besides his footwear, all was recovered.
As he dried off on shore, thunder cracked loudly behind us. I decided I’d rather be behind schedule than caught in a storm, so we hauled downstream to find a soft bank for camping. Though it was close enough to witness columns of rain pouring from the thunderous clouds, somehow, we were spared from a single drop.
This felt like a good omen, and onward we went.
We had just passed the USGS Doty Chehalis River gage. I took a deep breath. This would be the hardest part of the river, and it was only our first day. Though we were there in April, Rainbow Falls and the rapids before them are a different beast a month and a half later. During the Pe Ell River Run, we were in an inflatable kayak, not unlike a raft, with no gear. The falls that day were a breeze.
On Saturday, we didn’t even make it to the state park.
In the middle of the river, in strong rapids, I hit a rock that was just dark enough to hide underwater. With my kayak firmly pressed up against it, I managed to stand, using all my strength to stay upright.
Wenzelburger floated past me.
“Keep going — don’t worry about me,” I said.
He didn’t seem to receive that message, because he quickly struggled to get to shore just downstream from me. Though he successfully maneuvered himself out of the center of the stream, his kayak also tipped.
I was preoccupied with getting my boat upright. But to flip it meant to dislodge it. Once it was freed, it was gone. To dive after it would have been an unnecessary sacrifice, so I tried to get my balance instead. All I had left was a paddle.
The next time I looked up, Wenzelburger’s kayak was drifting downstream and he was on the phone waving his arms at me. Over about 50 yards of roaring rapids, I couldn’t hear a word he was shouting.
I later learned he had called Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Eric Schwartz and said something to the effect of: “Mayday! Mayday! We both lost our kayaks and we’re stuck in the middle of the river.”
Schwartz and CT Publishing Vice President Franklin Taylor were on their way to us moments later.
So there we were, Wenzelburger barely able to keep his footing near the riverbank, myself smack in the center of rapids with nothing but a paddle. Both kayaks — which belong to The Chronicle’s publisher and CEO — lost, along with all our gear.
Wenzelburger and I attempted to gesture back and forth at one another, but no message could be communicated over the sound of the rushing rapids. I was freezing and struggling to stand, and I decided I needed to get out of the river as soon as I could.
I separated the paddle in two sections. With the paddle parts facing up, I took both poles in my hands and used them as walking sticks.
I think it took 10 minutes, but reaching Wenzelburger felt like ages. I lost my footing a few times and got a little banged up. All in all, we lived to tell the tale with minor scrapes. Thank you, life jackets.
We got to shore and made our way up a gravel road in Doty. Remember how Wenzelburger lost his boots earlier? Now with freezing cold feet, he was barefoot on sharp gravel. He described the feeling as like walking on glass.
We both took our life jackets off and he held them under his feet so he could continue walking. That’s when I started laughing. Shortly after, I was crying.
I thought to myself, “It’s only the first day and we failed.”
Schwartz showed up soon after. Soaking wet and defeated, I sat in his backseat between his kids, 7 and 5, on the ride home.
The goal of this journey was — and is — to represent the diverse stakeholders of the Chehalis River. To connect communities rarely thought of as neighbors — Adna and Montesano, for example — showing the shared humanity of places separated by county lines. Explain points of views and important issues such as water rights, climate change and conservation.
It’s lofty, but we’ve decided to keep trying, even if in a slightly modified form.
On Saturday night, we both got a message from our boss that his 7-year-old son, Bauer, thought we were brave. I’m going to try to believe him.
On Sunday, we rested. On Monday, we were back on the river with Chronicle columnist Brian Mittge. You can read more about it in Thursday’s edition of The Chronicle.
Also, if you find an unmanned kayak in the Chehalis River — or want to take part or offer information for our project — please email me at email@example.com.