Central Washington's Chelan River goes against the grain of typical Pacific Northwest whitewater. It features the same technical slots, big drops and massive boulders of classic runs like the White Salmon, Skykomish and Snoqualmie, but the water is warm and the scenery decidedly arid. And yet today the four-mile section of burly Class V drops from Lake Chelan to the Columbia River—when it has water in it—remains something of a battleground.
Built in 1892, the Lake Chelan Dam is currently the site of a hydroelectric power plant; this has effectively "dewatered" the spectacular gorges of the Chelan River downstream to the Columbia. In 1998, American Whitewater began negotiations with the Chelan Public Utility District to investigate the Chelan's whitewater potential. And in 2000, the utility released water to allow six AW-sponsored boaters to explore the river. According to Thomas O'Keefe, AW's stewardship director for the Pacific Northwest region, the mission "determined that the Chelan Gorge was a viable whitewater resource."
After another eight years of deliberation, the first public release on the Chelan was organized in July 2009, as part of a "three-year whitewater boating monitoring study," according to O'Keefe. Nick Hinds was among the first boaters to get a taste of the flowing Chelan. "It's an extremely gorgeous place," says Hinds, who works for C&K. "It really seems bizarre to be boating in Washington state while dipping your blade in warm water. The quality of the rapids was pretty high, with the Gorge section starting off with a Class V bang called Entrance Exam."
Entrance Exam is the first of a handful of Class V-plus drops in the half-mile crux of the Chelan, where the river goes haywire in a series of tangled, boulder-choked channels, five- to 20-foot falls and powerful hydraulics. "The drops are very technical and demanding, it is very important only very prepared and solid Class V boaters venture inside the gorge," warns Hinds. "Walking a few rapids is possible but there are some must-make moves and rugged terrain which makes walking off the river very unlikely."
Now, it seems, whether or not the Chelan becomes the next Washington classic depends on the response of boaters. O'Keefe says about 50 boaters have taken part in the first two years of public releases, which have occurred on weekends in July and September. But after a solid show of support in 2009, one 2010 release was canceled because the minimum number of boaters (6) was not met. "There aren't many other Class V options in the area," says Hinds. "We just might lose a gem if we don't populate the releases and convince the partners that AW is working with to keep the tap turned on." —Conor Mihell