Sunday, May 30, 2010

Yakima River - Day 1 - May 24, 2010

The Yakima River runs east about 180 miles from the Cascade Range of Washington State to the Columbia River at the city of Richland. Parts of the upper 50 miles are frequently used by rafters, fisherman and floaters, but we found almost no information on major portions of the lower river nor did there seem to be any written record of anyone canoeing the full length, although, someone must have done this before - it's too obvious of a route. Today's photos by Mike Plahuta

Mike and I set out just before noon at Ringer Road near Ellensburg, 148 miles from the Columbia River. We know what is ahead for the next 20 miles. From here, we paddle through the last of the Ellensburg range country, the river banks lined with trees with open land beyond. Soon, we enter the Yakima Canyon with its 1000 foot high hillsides, a combination of rocky land with the barest of vegetation, basalt outcrops, castles and cliffs, and river banks with straggly trees if any, but with beautiful patches of tule reeds. The current is moderate and the bends in the river broad so that we can see well ahead of us. Occasionally, we pass through some standing waves that are just large enough to splash a little water into the canoe. We see eagles and magpies, a few kingfishers, many red wing blackbirds, some yellow song birds (warblers or goldfinches?), some mule deer and Mike spots a handsome western tanager with its yellow body and red head. Our first portage comes at the Roza Diversion Dam. It is a low, but dangerous overflow dam that diverts water to an irrigation canal. The portage is safe and easy on the river-right bank just upstream of the dams warning sign. It is an easy 250 yard carry back to the river below the dam. We have no information on this next section of river so we move ahead alert and with caution. It is quite beautiful with basalt cliffs running directly down to the water. The river alternates between flat slow sections that are a few feet deep and steeper fast stretches with only six inches in water where we frequently feel the cobbles bump the bottom of the canoe. The bottom is paved with basalt rocks and unlike many rivers, it is uniform in depth from side to side. Soon, the canyon opens up into a more arid eastern Washington and the cliffs are replaced with outcrops and brushy riverbanks. Here, the water becomes more challenging. The rapids are minimal, but some of the bends are quite sharp and quick and accurate maneuvering is required to keep from piling into the cut banks, banks that would make it difficult to exit the river in the event of a spill. We hit some larger standing waves that splash small amounts of water into the canoe.

As we near the city of Yakima, the current picks up speed and when the Naches River enters, the volume of water really increases while the water temperature drops 10 degrees or more due to the snowmelt water. We pass an eagle nest, we see ospreys, herons and the first white pelicans. We have permission to camp in the rough at a state park along the river, but cannot figure out where it is. Around 8pm, we know we have missed it by a mile and pull the canoe into a small channel on river-left where we find a nice spot to camp.
While we can hear I-82, it would be miles of walking and wading for anyone to reach us. It is a good spot. Pelicans fly past often and a hawk calls repeatedly from a nest just upstream of us. There are also many common mergansers around, with their newly hatched ducklings.

We are somewhere near mile 111 - distance for the day, about 37 miles
The Ellensburg-Roza Dam section is beginner-intermediate water at this water level - Umtaneum gauge 2400 cfs. The Roza-Yakima section is intermediate paddling - Below Roza guage 1300 cfs

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