NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK — Deep in the North Cascades, a waterway carves through remote, rugged terrain that few will ever see. What starts as a creek barely big enough to float a kayak gives way to Class V rapid, with raging waterfalls and steep drops, with the waterway terminating at Lake Chelan.
The route from Bridge Creek to Stehekin, Chelan County, navigating the Stehekin River and the whitewater of Tumwater Canyon, is typically completed over three days. On July 30, a Seattle-based team of five kayakers ran the 25-mile run in 15 hours.
Austin Amon, Sage Ebel, Rob Scanlon, Nick Terry and Non Worasilpchai set a new fastest known time on the route, beginning the hike from their campsite to the water at 4 a.m. that Saturday and paddling into Stehekin that night at 7 p.m.
July’s Western Washington heat wave forced the team to skip a scouting trip they had planned for the weekend, realizing as they monitored water conditions that their window of opportunity would soon close. It was now or never.
Nautical suffer fests
Terry and Scanlon, the leaders of the endeavor, have a predisposition toward what they call “suffer fests”: challenges they don’t necessarily enjoy in the moment, because they are pushing their minds and bodies to the limit, but feats they remember ecstatically in retrospect. So instead of planning a leisurely three-day paddling trip down the expert-level run, the duo decided it would be more “fun” to try and complete the journey in one day.
Having targeted late July, a little further into summer due to this year’s high snowpack, the team of five Seattle friends set out from Rainy Pass in North Cascades National Park at 4 a.m. July 30 with the goal of reaching Lake Chelan that day. The team netted $2,000 for the adventure as inaugural recipients of the Punch Gunk Go Get It Grant from performance-therapeutics company Punch Gunk (which will open applications for another grant in January).
The biggest planning hurdle for the rugged kayaking crew was finding a window when the water levels would line up.
“There’s a Goldilocks zone that you’re trying to hit which makes it hard to pull off,” Terry explained. Too much water (high flow) would mean that the crux lower portion of the run, with its Class V section, would be too dangerous. Not enough water (low flow) would mean that the start of the trip would be impossible because there wouldn’t be enough water to float a boat.
Christian Knight, a prolific local kayaker with an extensive list of first kayaking descents (who has completed the journey himself), called the trip “one of Washington’s best adventures.”
“The river has a short window, usually the first two weeks of July, and a crux gorge,” Knight said. “It’s beautiful and committing and challenging.”
From creek to waterfalls
Starting off as the sun was just bringing light to the sky, the goal was to get to Tumwater Canyon, the hardest section of the route, before the hottest part of the day. That’s when the water is at its highest with snowmelt from the surrounding mountains.
Before the team could even dip their paddles into the frigid water, they had to walk a few miles south on the Pacific Crest Trail, carrying their kayaks and gear on their backs.
The trickle of water, if you will, builds as the South Fork Bridge Creek tributary flows into Bridge Creek, followed by the North Fork Bridge Creek. The waterway passes several backcountry campsites, with hulking Goode and McGregor mountains looming in the distance.
As Bridge Creek becomes more like a river, challenging sections of whitewater arise. The kayaking team worked together, scouting ahead by walking along the riverbanks to make sure each section was runnable and free of hazardous logs that could damage or sink a boat.
Near popular backpacking hangout Bridge Creek Campground, Bridge Creek joins the mightier Stehekin River. Quickly, the rapids became even more serious.
Ebel, a highly experienced kayaker paddling a bright yellow canoe, said she was ready for the challenge, but the crux of the trip had been weighing on her mind.
“Mentally [the expedition] was as challenging as I thought it would be because the hardest part is at the end,” Ebel said.
After navigating the raging river, she was overjoyed, knowing the rest of the journey was straightforward and free of major hazards.
As anyone who has visited Stehekin will attest, the town of less than 100 permanent residents comes alive in the summer. The five kayaking companions paddled into town at 7 p.m. and added to the buzz, celebrating with hugs and screams, having completed their journey in a record 15 hours.
“Sitting on the dock in Stehekin, it felt like so long ago since we started,” Terry said. He’s still impressed (and drained) thinking about how many miles they paddled and how much incredible terrain they encountered along the way.
Going home the fastest known
The team’s record-setting feat was successful for a number of reasons: nailing the water conditions; going light on gear (i.e., no overnight equipment); knowing the route (Scanlon had completed the route previously in three days); having the grit and determination to give it their all, even through pain.
“It’s kind of addicting in a way to do this kind of trip,” Terry said. That doesn’t mean he is oblivious to the dangers of whitewater kayaking. “There is something about that uncontrollable nature [of whitewater]; there’s no breaks, when you’re in the water, you can’t stop unless you get out.”
The last logistical hurdle of the Bridge Creek to Stehekin expedition? Getting back home.
Ebel’s partner, who had dropped the team off at Rainy Pass, later picked up the weary comrades at Chelan, the southern tip of the lake. The final, relaxing stretch of the nautical journey was a highlight for Ebel.
“You get to take a ferry out which is so cool,” she said, reflecting on the trip, “and Lake Chelan is so beautiful.”
For leaders Terry and Scanlon, the “suffer fests” continue. Recently, they spent time near Mount Baker, hiking 10 miles with their kayaks on their backs, wandering around looking for mountain water to paddle.
“I find that when I do something hard and it feels good, I’m looking for the next thing,” Terry said.
For some adventurers, like this team of extreme kayakers, breaking records and paddling extreme challenges will always lead to another rapid. Luckily we can sit back from the shoreline and let them do the work, admiring from afar.