When snowmelt sets the river raging is when Wenatchee River outfitters woo whitewater enthusiasts back every May. But May is also time to start planning and maybe issuing invitations to friends and family for a more leisurely approach to the river in coming months.
When I was a teenager, the best part of summer was the annual float trip down the Wenatchee. Some family friends owned a small cabin on the banks of the river, and they would organize a hundred-person rafting adventure every August.
It was a ramshackle affair, with families crowding into cheap rubber boats, always filling the air with laughter and constant water fights. There were plenty of girls to flirt with, and the Central Washington temperatures routinely passed the “scorching hot” mark, making the Wenatchee the perfect place to spend a hot summer weekend.
In light of those memories, it should come as no surprise that I wanted to carry the tradition of an annual float trip into my adulthood.
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While it’s risky to try to recapture your best memories by repeating them (they’re seldom as good the second time around), I understood that the river was likely to enchant my current community of friends.
And contrary to popular belief, a weekend on the river doesn’t have to involve raging whitewater — or cost a small fortune.
On the river, time slows
Here’s my more recent memory:
It’s the sixth year of my revived tradition and sharing the moment are 14 of my closest friends. Our collection of rafts is clipped together with cheap carabiners so that we form a “ninja star” shape.
I lay on the bow of the newly christened “Sloppy Swish” — a two-person inflatable raft making her maiden voyage down the Wenatchee. Below me, the water is so clear I can see spawning salmon darting among the rocks, just out of reach.
The hot sun bakes us as we drift, and I let my fingertips dangle in the deliciously cool water, tracing ripples over the fish below.
Occasionally one of us has to paddle to avoid a rock or pick the best fork in the river, but the upper Wenatchee is mellow, and you rarely have to worry about navigation. For the most part, we just drift and let the sublime river take us where it might.
There was a time when we rafted more-challenging sections of the Wenatchee, but these days we prefer the calmer stretches — those near the headwaters, at Lake Wenatchee, and around the town of Plain, where the fast water is usually less than waist deep and the long, lazy sections in between are deep and cool, perfect for a refreshing plunge.
We pull inexpensive river beer from the cooler in the tiny barge clipped to the Sloppy Swish. We float for the better part of a day, forgetting time and letting the current, and the occasional breath of wind, guide us past arid canyons, cabins and cottonwood trees that line the banks.
For a lunch break, we beach on a sandbar and by late afternoon we’re a very merry band of river rats.
These are still my favorite hours of summer. I rarely think about looking at a device or checking something, unless you count the next turn in the river. Far more interesting is the osprey shrieking overhead and the way rock slabs seem to form a staircase beneath the flowing water.
Minimum organization, maximum fun
Organizing a float trip isn’t as hard as it seems. For starters, we look for a big cabin near Leavenworth, Lake Wenatchee, Plain, or on the river itself.
Many of the bigger cabins sleep 12 or more and are stocked with full kitchens and hot tubs. VRBO.com and ComfyCabins.com are good sites to begin your search. On average, we pay about $125 per person for a three-day weekend.
To simplify meals we divide our group into teams, with each team responsible for cooking and cleaning a meal for the entire group. The rest of the time, you’re allowed to relax guilt-free.
Three-person rafts cost $80-$120 including paddles, a pump and a patch kit. Sevylor is a common brand, although we’ve learned that they’re not as durable as the Intex SeaHawk II. Inflatable kayaks and even stand-up paddleboards work well on this river, but inner tubes are not recommended because you’re likely to hit your bottom on rocks.
And I can’t stress this enough: Make sure you have assigned designated drivers before setting out to ensure everyone gets home safely.
Jeff Layton is a Seattle-based freelance writer. For more rafting photos and videos, see www.MarriedToAdventure.com.