Canoeing in the desert

Wasteway
If you get lost in the Winchester Wasteway, climb a hill to find the channel, says one guide.

They call it the Winchester Wasteway, which is not a name to put dreams of paddling excellence in the minds of canoeists. But my cousin-in-law saw the sign on his many car trips across Washington state and got curious about it.

So curious and persistent in saying we had to paddle it that an ex-Seattle police officer and an ex-Seattle Times journalist ended up in the same boat.

Officer John and his wife had studied this trip up one side and down the other. Most of what they read said it was a 12-hour – or overnight – trip, which agreed with what I had read in “Paddling Washington.” So we hit the put-in off Dodson Road South with the idea that we were in for a long day on the water.

I had brought two head lamps in case we needed to paddle out under the cover of darkness, and Officer John had carefully chosen the Quality Inn in Moses Lake for our stay the night before our launch. Why? Breakfast served starting at 5 a.m.

Put-in
At the put-in on Dodson Road.

We had our coffee, eggs, sausage, cereal and yogurt and hit the road by 5:30. By 7:30, we had dropped one truck at the old gauging station on Road C Southeast, unloaded canoe and gear and put in on Dodson Road by 7:30 a.m.

And then we were paddling through the desert, which may sound strange but happens because the Wasteway had no water in it until the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, which some today would call “federal overreach” (never mind that it helped the United States win World War II and sprouted a huge ag biz in the state). The dam pushed water into the channel that leads to the Potholes Reservoir. So now there are wetlands, potato fields and desert all mixed together.

SignA current runs through it – thanks heavens. If not for rushing water to follow, it would be like trying to find your way out of a field of 10-foot cane. We only made one wrong turn that I know of for sure, and that was near the beginning when there is a “lake” of still water and no obvious outlet (hint: Turn right when you see the duck blind).

I do suspect that we got off course when we plowed into reeds so thick you could grab handfuls of them on either side of the three-foot wide canoe. I was surprised we didn’t find Baby Moses floating around in there before we got back into a wider channel. That’s also where we grounded a couple of times and got our feet wet.

Grounded
Grounded and Officer John walking toward the opening into the bulrushes.

We saw many species of birds, deer and some very big fish.

John’s GPS said it was 7.33 miles straight line from put-in to take-out, but there is no such thing as a straight line in the Winchester Wasteway. There are S curves, U-turns, switchbacks and bend over backwards (to avoid thorny branches) along the way. But no rough or white water. Nothing to keep a brave beginner away.

reeds
A wide channel through the reeds.

We hit the take-out around 2 p.m. on a schedule that went like this:

Paddle 2 hours

Break for half hour

Paddle 2 hours

Lunch break for 20 minutes

Paddle 2 hours to take-out.

We did not continue past the gauging station, which might account for the longer time estimates in literature about the Wasteway. Going beyond the take-out at Road C means a portage around falls and a three-mile paddle on the Potholes Reservoir, which comes with a wind warning.

I’d say we paddled about 20 miles, just right for two retirees, average age 70, who adhere to the oft-quoted words of Officer John’s father: “Well, she said, as she waved her wooden leg over the door.”

Did I get that right, John?

Officer John
Officer John

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Canoeing in the desert

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