Crunch Time for September 20, 2012
You're rafting what river and where? In September?
Tieton River is a tradition that lives on and on and on after years and years
By PAUL DELANEY
It's not often you'll hear where dams and river rafting are a compatible pair.
Streams like the White Salmon and Elwah in Washington State have had, or are in the process of seeing ancient dams removed to return the rivers to as natural a state as is possible following a century of inundation.
But when virtually every other river in the Northwest has dried to a trickle by mid-August, one final run remains. And it's a dandy.
Strangely enough, come Labor Day weekend each year, the gates of the Tieton Dam that hold back Rimrock Reservoir are opened. And the river which has Washington state's steepest commercially run gradient – 54 feet per mile – rocks and rolls glacial green for practically the entire month of September.
The dam releases are not intended to be a boost to the adrenaline junkies, but the byproduct is certainly welcome.
When you tell people there's the perfect hole in your football coverage schedule that offers a rare weekend off, and you say you're going rafting they shake their heads wondering: Where you going to find water this time a year?
Tell'em the Tieton and usually the response is: Never heard of that before.
You have to tell them that if they've traveled off the I-90 corridor in trips to the west side of the state, they may have seen the Tieton before. But since it might just have been a trickle for all but a month every year, those traveling U.S. 12 towards White Pass and Mount Rainier might never have known it simply as a creek.
Not for the last few weeks of summer. The Tieton consists of nearly 20 miles of non-stop drop. The run includes a number of Class III to IV rapids like High Noon, Pin Ball and Waffle Wall – plus running an irrigation dam in the middle.
The 2012 release of water on the Tieton, which is intended to keep irrigators in the Yakima Valley happy while flows on the Yakima River are reduced to aid the fishery, marked the 25th straight year I've trekked into Cascade foothills.
Tieton time is an event for a dozen professional rafting companies whose seasonal businesses running the state's major whitewater streams, the Wenatchee and Skykomish, gets a boost because fruit growers need water and Yakima steelhead not so much.
It is estimated some 6,000 people will jump in rafts and have a guide teach them the paddle strokes that divide the customers from the swimmers.
Judging from the jam-packed campgrounds up and down the entire length of the Tieton, the commercials are not the only ones roaring down the river. At times, sections of the river can resemble your most hated commute to work with bumper-to-bumper rafts as far as the eye can see.
But the rush of roaring down the river's approximately 14 miles in less than two hours – especially on weekdays when most everyone is at work and you have the waves to yourself – has an attractive magnetism attached to it.
The first time my group of rafting buddies decided to try the Tieton, things were decidedly different. We found the river in a guidebook on Washington rivers, but the trip description had its warnings that made us all wonder.
No big rafts and watching out for the mandatory portage of diversion dam certainly brought questions to the minds of a group of guys who had the equipment, but at the time maybe not the experience.
In 1987 the “Warning: diversion dam 1,000 feet. Must exit on left,” and a companion sign 500 feet downstream, was especially disconcerting. Ironically, these signs could be easily seen from the highway, but the dam was hidden around a twisting blind corner and a locked gate keeping the curious away.
But way back when, the number of boaters – the generic term we use for the many variations of craft that whitewater – was a comparative trickle. So the paddle club volunteers who stood on shore with “stop” and “go” signs in order to regulate portaging did a pretty good job of traffic control, and helping rookies like us safely portage the 8-foot drop.
We all survived that first time on the Tieton running one raft with scavenged paddles. Not one of us held a “stick” with a matching blade. We were also smart enough to have a second raft just in case there were swimmers. But a rescue rope? Nope!
The dam was later reconfigured to make it safe to run. And that's a good thing because I cannot imagine how 100 rafts could ever fit into the tiny eddy above the dam. It's tough enough to jam in a half-dozen.
Like anything else does in the span of a quarter-century, things have changed a lot. In 25 years on the Tieton I've seen a lot and rescued a few paddlers that inadvertently became swimmers as rafters sometimes do.
But the strangest was the day I took passengers around a bend and there sat a car in the water. It made a new temporary rapid, and it was good to find out the driver walked – ‘er waded – away after losing control and sliding into the water.
Our bodies no longer desire to “play two,” and take multiple trips in a day. Sometimes even guiding a single raft down the river is plenty for the old muscles and joints.
More people and popularity sometimes make me ask is Tieton time worth it?
I think I was having that one-sided conversation with any number of the dozen different dogs that raced through camp in clouds of dust, defecating at will.
The canines of course likely had more intelligence than their indifferent owners so “returning the favor” to respective tent entrances by the light of the starry, starry sky would have probably meant undeserved punishment, for the dogs that is.
Regardless, I'm thinking the Tieton will be worth its whitewater while for years to come.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.