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Chasing Storms and Atmospheric Rivers Pt II

Can you ever trust the weather?

By: Adam Edwards + Save to a List

After hiking a section of the North Fork trail, we headed over to Graves Creek Campground which is just a few miles down an adjacent forest road. We were hoping to check out and paddle the East Fork of the Quinault or Graves Creek. Our choice was dependent on how the forecasted rain changed water levels. Both waterways passed through steep vertical gorges with very few points to exit other than downstream, so we hoped for lower water over all.

When we arrived at the campground, we found the water level on both sections was higher than we expected, but not so high as to deter us. We bunked down for the night hoping the water level would drop, which would lower our stress about putting ourselves in a gorge run at high water. Instead, it rained all night. We all settled in for a night of the rain on the roofs of our vehicles drumming up our anxiousness to paddle while the damp tempered my drive too.

Ben deciding what to bring

When we awoke at 7:30 the next morning, the river had continued to drop despite the consistent rain. A warm front had moved in ahead of the next storm and seemed to have changed where the rain had fallen during the night. The storm we'd had overnight wasn't the larger part of the front we had chased inland. We checked the forecast over breakfast and found we had a weather window of a few hours before the next downpour began. We decided we could complete the two and a half mile hike and three and a half mile paddle if we left quickly and made solid decisions on the river. But first we needed to see the river at our point of entry into the gorge. The water level was still higher than we'd projected for our first attempt on this run. So we decided if it seemed unwise to commit, we would turn around and hike our gear back down to the trailhead.

Hiking into a kayaking run can be off putting for many paddlers. Combine that with a rappel or the potential for ropework and the number of interested parties diminishes quickly. This style of kayaking is a multidisciplinary approach. It’s a very special way of interacting with our world. It requires chasing storms or snowmelt, learning map work, and using skills and ideas from other sports like climbing to reach your destination. This is why the Olympic Peninsula is one of my favorite destinations for paddling. The Olympics offer an easy entry point to hiking to reach the river, and that walking gives me at least time to appreciate a side of nature I often overlook in my paddling adventures. 

On this trip I was happily tagging along with Eddie Bauer athletes and fellow paddlers Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry. Both are expedition kayakers with a cumulative experience of backcountry travel and whitewater I have a deep respect for. They're also very fun to be around, and I've enjoyed learning other zones of the Olympics with Chris on separate trips.

Taking a break on the trail

Like a number of other trails to rivers I've hiked in the Olympics, the trail used to access the east fork of the Quinault is an old logging road. The grade is gentle for the most part and relatively easy walking for the two and a half miles we covered. Large old growth stands dot part of the trail, and the viewpoint looking up into Graves Creek at the beginning is stunning as well.

Getting down to the river required following a creek bed and some game trails. After scouting the rapid at our point of entry from the cliffside, we decided the water wasn't too high and we searched for a point to drop down into the canyon. After finding a good point of entry, we rappelled down into the canyon. We were fully committed.

Rappelling into the gorge

We spent the next few fours navigating our way down a stunning river canyon. The walls rose up sheerly on both sides at times, sword ferns and lichen creating a jungle-like feel. Each time we got out to check a blind turn or horizon line, we walked on slick rocks carpeted with soft green blankets of moss. 

The first section of the gorge required a few committing moves above some wood and rock hazards. This was followed by the one rapid we portaged, walked around, in the section. A violent crack rapid with water running into shallow outcroppings along the left wall. We skirted this obstacle and tried to get a look at what lay downstream, a boxed in edge that we couldn't get much closer too. After some deliberation we decided it was good to go and we ran it without incident. This set the tone for the rest of the trip though. 

The portage (walked around)
Trying to see the boxed in ledge below the portage

As we scouted horizon line after horizon line, we reached a turn where we could not see past the first sequence of moves through the rapid. Here we considered leaving the canyon as we were also at one of the few weaknesses in the gorges armor, a moderately steep tributary we could climb out and back to the trail. In the back of our minds we had been waiting and watching for discoloration in the water and tributaries. A sign that the water level could be increasing somewhere upstream due to the forecasted storm. The possibility that we continued on and encountered a river blocking a piece of wood or unwalkable rapid we could not run safely was real if the water level increased as predicted and we did not know the run. 

After some deliberation and consulting our watches and the forecast, we decided to try a conservative line through the rapid that would let us get closer to the unseen corner without overcommitting. After arriving there we saw the rest of the rapid was clean enough to run and proceed downstream.

Chris attempting to assess one of the the hard to see rapids
Ben giving Chris instructions for the rapid out of frame

We reached the end of the gorge and confluence with Graves Creek about three hours after entering the canyon. The rainstorm we had chased, and then run from, never quite materialized during the day. As we changed out of our wet gear, we reflected on our trip down the East Fork of the Quinault. We decided while we had built up the run in our minds a bit prior, a committing rapid at the put in helped this assessment, overall it had been a perfect water level for the run and good afternoon. We also discussed if this rosey assessment was because we finished early and were now dry and unworried about the coming storm. In the end it was somewhere in the middle, especially once the ever present clouds finally released their bounty. 

Chris and Ben exiting the gorge of the East Fork Quinault River

The atmospheric river we’d chased all week finally came down on Graves Creek campground. Puddles turned into small lakes and our awnings sagged under the downpour. I fell asleep to the steady rap of rain on the roof of the van and wondered how high the river might be in the morning.

The next day the air was clean and crisp. I stepped out and could barely tell it had rained all night. The ground had absorbed all the lakes and the air temperature was pleasant. The snowline stayed well up the ridgeline across from us indicating that the storm had been at a lower elevation. The river also had not risen as much as the overnight storm drumming on our roofs would have made it seem. 

We took a quick jaunt back up the trail to see if Graves Creek would be runnable but it was still too high. So instead we loaded up our gear and said our goodbyes preparing to return to our respective homes.  While we had not experienced the full brunt of the storm we’d gotten enough to create another singular experience in the Olympic Peninsula. I’m looking forward to my next trip.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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