Canoeing: You can get wet – or worse

Canoe on bank
The Winchester Wasteway earlier this month.

An earlier post here told about a canoe trip on the Winchester Wasteway taken by Officer John and Editor John. That served as a practice run for Officer John to take his friend Keith on a return trip to Central Washington’s Wasteway this Memorial Day.

His quick summary of the latest trip: 99 percent perfect.

So what about the other one percent? Here’s his report:

“I paddled the Winchester Wasteway Saturday for the second time in 17 days, this time with my friend Keith, who has a canoeing merit badge.

“We made the trip with a different attitude. When Officer John & Editor John made the trip, we had the attitude that we were to paddle fast — fast enough to make the trip in less than the oft-reported 12 hours. So we paddled fast and did the trip in about five hours paddling time.

“Armed with this experience, Officer John lectured Keith on the attitude of speed: Don’t. Paddle easily. Let’s take our time. Relax and enjoy the scenery. When possible, let the current do the work. Take advantage of the current to rest those tired arms.

“So we paddled for two hours and rested for 30 minutes. Then we paddled for two hours and rested for 30 minutes. Then we paddled for an hour and a half and got within 75 yards of the take-out at the end of road C.

“Remember now, we were taking it slow and easy the entire route.

“Seventy-five yards from the take-out, the current bumped the canoe against the right bank. The canoe flipped over and tossed us into at least three feet of water. We struggled to our feet and stood up just in time to watch our belongings float downstream.

“With tremendous difficulty we were able to walk the canoe past rocks and protruding tree roots to the take-out and, finally, to safety.

“We were not pleased with this clamorous end to an otherwise perfect paddle trip, which Keith estimated with some electronic authority to be 15 to16 miles.”

John and Keith want to remind us all that no matter what the paddle rating is, no matter how placid the situation seems, be careful out there.

They got wet, but their story prompted me to check on an incident where something worse happened. I mentioned that incident in a post on this year’s trip to the Buffalo River in Arkansas. On the day that Kathy and I were supposed to put in, the river at Buffalo Point was at 22 feet – the National Parks System closes the river to paddlers when it is at 10 feet.

Unfortunately for four canoeists farther upstream, they were already camped along the rising river. They tried to paddle out. Some of the four canoes flipped. Three paddlers made it to safety, but one did not. The body of Rick Norber, 65, from St. Louis, was found four miles downstream from where he was last seen. Condolences to his family.

This past week, I joined four others to take a canoe class. I paddled my first canoe more than 50 years ago at Boy Scout camp. Despite my canoe partner Bill Shockey (RIP) and I being ordered off the water for splashing others in the class, I also earned a canoeing merit badge. I have been taking regular water trips these past three years. But the class this past week taught me some new techniques and served as another reminder of how to stay safe and what to do to keep from going from wet to worse.

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