The best Cascades snowpack since 1991 - 110 percent of average - likely means a long season of high rivers, fully submerged hazards and roller-coaster rapids for whitewater rafters and kayakers.
“The outlook for the spring and summer for river rafting is terrific,” said Gerry Michalec, president of the Professional River Outfitters of Washington (PROW). “I just hope the snowpack comes down slowly. We’re hoping we don’t get a long hot spell.”
That’s because a heavy snowpack plus hot weather equals extremely high flows. Rivers that usually are only moderately challenging can turn big and ugly, flowing bank-to-bank with house-sized waves and currents laced with dancing limbs, logs and even whole trees spiked with root wads that rafters call “eddy monsters.”
Prospects for big flows follow a troubling season for whitewater enthusiasts in Washington. Last June two rafters died on the Wenatchee River, the first fatalities for Washington’s commercial rafting industry since 1983. And five whitewater kayakers died last year in Washington - in accidents on the East Fork Lewis and White Salmon rivers in February, the Cascade and North Fork Nooksack in July and the Wind River in December.
Last year’s tragedy during a church outing on the Wenatchee prompted calls by some authorities for state certification of guides. Some questioned the experience level of the guide of the raft, which ran into and wrapped around a bridge abutment, pinning a man and a youth underwater. The rafting company that led the trip is no longer in business.
In British Columbia and Idaho, for example, rafting guides are certified by passing a test and meeting a requirement for a certain level of experience.
However, Mark Kenny of the state Parks and Recreation Commission’s boating safety program said existing state regulations are adequate. Those require safety and first-aid equipment and basic skills.
Of greater concern, Kenny said, are inexperienced private rafters and inner-tubers, who account for two to four fatalities in Washington each year.
“They don’t have skills, they can’t read whitewater, they don’t know how to handle log jams and sweepers (trees extending low over the river),” he said.PROW estimates commercial rafting companies take 35,000 people a year down the state’s rivers and notes the industry went almost 11 years without a fatality.
“Statistically, it’s very safe,” Michalec said. “People want to go out and have excitement. The reverse part of that is that there is some risk that can’t be totally eliminated.”
Nothing illustrates the risks inherent in whitewater more than the five kayaking deaths. Whitewater kayaking is a more dangerous activity than whitewater rafting. But Kenny said all five were experienced paddlers and all had the necessary safety equipment.
“In each case, the rivers were running strong - not flood conditions, but strong flows,” Kenny said.
But the concern over the dangers is offset by the excitement over the solid snowpack, which usually means a longer season - and for commercial rafters, a larger cash flow.
The runoff this year should be a stark contrast to last year, when Mother Nature fooled commercial rafters. Heavy snows in March, particularly in the northern Cascades, raised hope for good flows and a good year. But the snowpack turned out to have a low moisture content and river flows faded fast in early summer.
A report by the Spokane office of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service indicates that while the overall Washington snowpack was 100 percent of normal on April 1, it varies widely. For example, in the mountains drained by the Green River, popular among whitewater kayakers, the snowpack was 69 percent of average. In the Methow River basin in Okanogan County, snowpack was measured at levels 140 percent of average.
Idaho has variable snowpack, too, but generally the outlook is quite good. Many boaters are heading this week to Owyhee County’s Bruneau River, which has been virtually too low to run for years.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.