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Ohanapecosh

“I am haunted by waters.”

Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

Goat Island Mountain, just east of Mount Rainier. Washington State.

Early spring a year ago, I got the travel bug and decided I would go to the Mount Rainier (Tahoma), Mount Adams (Klickitat), and Mount Saint Helens (Loowit) area to take some late winter/snow images.


Maybe not the brightest idea I have ever had! Winter is serious business in the Cascades, and it lasts a long time. I found closed roads and passes (ice and snow) and campgrounds (ice, snow and Covid), as well as closed gas stations and restaurants. Even the rest areas along the major highways were closed, and while Rainier National Park was open, it was only open for about five miles until a gate, backed by about eight feet of snow, blocked all access. Getting up high and over to the other peaks was likewise impossible.

Mount Adams from Conboy Lake NWR. Washington State.

So, the week before this past 4th of July summer holiday, I headed back. I found closed and/or impassable roads and passes (ice/snow/multi-million dollar maintenance backlogs). I found not closed, but full campgrounds (kind of expected for a long holiday). My bad! I do live here, and I know there is a reason that Cascade wildflowers will not bloom until late July and more often August. Winter lasts a long time in the mountains.

Big Spring Creek, small tributary to Lewis River. Washington State.

But I was happy as this trip took me back to places I had not seen in many years. I found myself travelling up along the White Salmon River in southern Washington State. I sidetracked to the past site of Condit dam (removed in 2011) which I, and my river conservation cohorts and many others helped restore. Driving upstream along the BZ, Green Truss, Farmlands, and Mt. Adams sections of the White Salmon. Then further up the river, to Trout Lake, where in 1995, while we were still living in Maryland, Stephanie, Danna and I visited the nearby Ape Cave, lava tubes, Mount Rainier’s Paradise overlook, and hiked on the back side of Mount Saint Helens a decade-and-a-half after the volcano erupted in 1980.

Foxglove morning along the Cispus River. Washington State.

I remember our first family visit to the Windy Ridge overlook at sunset (just five miles from Mount Saint Helens), with Danna asleep in the back of the rental car. She woke up to a fire-red sunset overlooking the demolished crater, and promptly freaked out. I hadn’t seen her that upset since she was four, when a forty-foot + beaver floated over our heads on the IMAX screen at the National Aerospace Museum back east. On this July trip the road to Windy Ridge was still buried under winter’s snow.


Heading north, I drove through Gifford Pinchot National Forest, crossed over Eckhart Point (4,592 feet), and then dropped down into the Lewis River watershed. Then north again over Elk Pass (4,080 feet) and into the Cispus and Chehalis River drainages. From there, I was headed to the Ohanapecosh River and another memory of one of my very first visits to Washington State.

Silver Falls, Ohanapecosh River. Washington State.

The Ohanapecosh is an absolutely stunning, amazing river, with its headwaters on the Ohanapecosh Glacier on Mount Rainier’s southeast side. The river got its name from the Taidnapum Indians who lived in the Cowlitz Valley. The word Ohanapecosh is believed to mean "standing at the edge."


“At any level, the canyon is beautiful beyond description. From crystal clear emerald waters, to big mossy cliffs, the river is a photographer’s dream.”

A Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington. Jeff and Tonya Bennett.

Eastside Trail along Ohanapecosh River. Mount Rainier National Park. Washington State.

I first saw the river in the mid-1990’s. I had been working near Seattle on river conservation projects, and now on the weekend I was loading my kayak gear into a van along with Pete, Rick, Tom, and Mike. Pete and Rick were whitewater legends in the Pacific Northwest, Tom and Mike were good friends, and all four were expert boaters and much better than I – hugely better! But I was a good boater, with a ton of experience running rivers across the country, I would be paddling with a strong team of experts, and I was looking forward to a great day on the water in Washington.

Cispus River Watershed. Washington State.

Until they mentioned paddling the Ohanapecosh. I gulped “isn’t that a really hard, experts only, do-not-swim expedition run?” I knew the river dropped five hundred feet in roughly four miles and was way above my skill level. Listening to their tales of whitewater escapades on the drive, I quickly decided I was way out-of-my-league and would be running shuttle on this trip. The idea of a full day sitting quietly beside a new river got me calmed down.


That ended when we got to the put-in! The Ohanepecosh was absolutely the most beautiful river I had ever seen. The green waters were flowing, iridescent, and clear to the bottom of the river. The water downstream disappeared into the old growth forest of Douglas firs, western red cedars, and western hemlock, all surrounded by the beauty of Mount Rainier. Seeing it, it called to me, and I knew I had to paddle that river.

Chinook Pass, Cascade Range. Washington State.

To this day, it is one of the hardest, and most beautiful rivers I have ever paddled. The many large drops, the wonderful, beautiful, and continuous views and vistas that appeared with each horizon line (one after another, and another, and another…), the beautiful plunging whitewater capped with ice-cold froth!


Was it worth it? You bet! I had fun, I paddled with good friends and great paddlers, I got a million stories to tell, and I was blown away by the wildness and beauty of this incredible river with every stroke of my paddle.


Last week, my visit to the Ohanapecosh was much tamer, but none the less beautiful. I hiked the Eastside Trail into Silver Falls, which drops ninety-five feet in a narrow gorge (above the section we paddled years ago), I napped in the campground, and I spent the evening watching the sun set along the river. Hard to beat a day like that. Finally, on my last day, up and on the road by 3:30 am to catch the sunrise on Mount Rainier, with Mount Adams sharing that light to the south. Leaving the park, I ran into a heavy fog, then heavy traffic through Seattle, but the smile really never left my face. I am sure it will be weeks before the vison of those rivers and mountains fade away – and then it will be time to plan the next trip to somewhere wonderful or another place with a rich history and/or reminiscences.


End Notes:

  • If you plan to visit the Lewis River Recreation Area in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, be advised that you need a Northwest Forest Pass AND a reservation to access trailheads and day use areas, including viewing any of the Lewis River Waterfalls. Advanced reservations must be purchased on-line via Recreation.gov from June 15th to September 6th. The Recreation area is many hours from the nearest city or town, and there is no internet so you cannot get a reservation when you get there.

  • Various Native American names for Mount Rainier were "Tahoma", "Takhoma", "Ta-co-bet", and several others. The people of the Puyallup tribe have known the mountain as Tahoma or Tacoma since time immemorial. Native American names for Mount Adams are "Pahto" and "Klickitat". "Pahto" and "Wy'east" (Mount Hood, across the Columbia) vied for the favors of a beautiful maiden named "Loowit" (Mount St. Helens). A Gifford Pinchot National Forest "Mount St. Helens" Brochure (1980) tells the story: "Northwest Indians told early explorers about the fiery Mount St. Helens. In fact, an Indian name for the mountain, Louwala-Clough, means "smoking mountain". According to one legend, the mountain was once a beautiful maiden, "Loowit". When two sons of the Great Spirit "Sahale" fell in love with her, she could not choose between them. The two braves, Wyeast and Klickitat fought over her, burying villages and forests in the process. Sahale was furious. He smote the three lovers and erected a mighty mountain peak where each fell. Because Loowit was beautiful, her mountain (Mount St. Helens) was a beautiful, symmetrical cone of dazzling white. Wy’east (Mount Hood) lifts his head in pride, but Klickitat (Mount Adams) wept to see the beautiful maiden wrapped in snow, so he bends his head as he gazes on St. Helens."

Curley Creek Falls, Lewis River. Washington State.

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