(By Ryan Scott)
I’d been looking at the description for Tshletshy Creek in the ‘Paddlers Guide to the Olympic Peninsula’ for 10 years now, wondering and dreaming if it really was what I had been imagining. That book by Gary Korb was one of my many guidebooks and I was getting intrigued by the Olympic Mountains, whose unique geology is breathtaking. Looking down on 7,965-foot Mt. Olympus, rivers such as the fabled Elwah and mighty Queets flow out in all directions.
I tried to go a couple times that spring, but since summer arrived later than expected my window disappeared. Surprisingly, my buddy Brett Barton sent a message that said, “Tshletshy next weekend?
After looking over the logistics again and understanding we’d have to deal with six feet of snow at the top of the pass and the water level would be low but worthy of an exploratory trip, we made plans.
To access Tshletshy you have to be ready for a long hike in from the north fork of the Quinault drainage, over the low pass by Bear Creek, and gain about 3,000 feet in elevation heading six miles up from the trail before dropping into the Tshletshy drainage which drains into the Queets in the Olympic’s southwest corner.
Our plan – hike in on Monday, boat on Tuesday, out on Wednesday. It sounded good at the time, but the Tshletshy is a major undertaking. Luckily, we planned for a couple extra days, just in case…
Watch epic video here:
I tried to convince a couple other paddlers to go, but in the end it was just Brett and I. We met up on Sunday and started hiking until dark. After about 4 miles and gaining about 1,400 feet we set up camp.
The next day we hiked up to the snow line at 2,800 feet, many hours later topping out on the low saddle pass at 3,608 feet. Since the snow covered the trail we had to follow the path of least resistance, leading us into gullies and around features that took up valuable daylight. Luckily, the snow was firm so we didn’t post-hole and my Salamander Bak Yakmade the hike easier than my previous long distance hike-ins.
Starting the descent into the Tshletshy was steep. A series of cliffs made us break out our two 70-foot Salamander Throw Bags. I tied them together and lowered the boats 100 feet down to Brett. After doing this a few more times we were finally on somewhat flat ground as we ran out of daylight and had to camp in a bare tree well surrounded by snow.
The next morning we leisurely rolled out of camp listening to elk calls from the hills above us. Having lost the trail in the snow we were going off our maps and GPS to get us down to the put-in.
After finally making it down, the water looked dishearteningly low. Still, we paddled down to the first gorge with high hopes — only to find wood in the inner gorge blocking four of the six drops. We portaged on the right, crossed through the gorge and finished the portage on the left. The second gorge was a series of Class IV rapids that opened into a wide valley, with many signs of massive recent flooding. Many of the tributaries here had blown out and sent old growth trees down the creek placing them mid-flow at the wider sections of Tshletshy.
After a few long portages over massive downed trees we set up camp and rested for our next big day. Our Ultranighter Drybags kept our sleeping bags and dry clothes dry for camp.
On day four we reached the third gorge called “The Tshlasm” within 20 minutes out of camp. Here, the creek dropped deeper and deeper into a gorge over a series of large waterfalls. We portaged on the right, continuing to look into the gorge as we hiked downstream. Nothing looked runnable from the rim of the canyon.
Just downstream we entered a short mini gorge ending with more wood portages. At this point I was beginning to wonder where the Best Whitewater in Washington was. Soon we came around a corner to tight, tall canyon walls. The open valley and rocky beaches gave way to solid bedrock walls that seemed to grow the further we looked downstream. This is what we came for!
The scenery had officially changed, deep in the fifth canyon — miles of read and run, Class IV-V drops in an untouched pristine gorge. While scouting, I looked downstream and saw a massive Roosevelt Elk near water level. He disappeared the second he heard us. Later, we paddled by a bear cub in the deeper part of the gorge.
Near the end of the fifth canyon we came to a rapid with a tight pinch at its exit. The overhanging, hour-glass walls closed off the canyon from our initial scout.
The beauty of the Tshletshy seemed to grow until suddenly the walls opened and we were drifting into the mighty Queets River. We reached the confluence at about dark and set up our last camp on a comfortable gravel bar. The next morning we woke up to light rain and paddled the remaining seven miles of Class II out
to the Sam’s River, where our shuttle car was waiting.
With all of the paddling reports we had heard of from 8-10 years ago, we went in not knowing what to expect. We knew there had been a big wind storm in 2007 that downed many trees and littered the creeks, as well as a major flood. We portaged over and under some of the largest trees I’ve seen in a drainage.
In the end it was an amazing trip, which does hold some of the best whitewater in Washington, and one worth every bit of effort it takes to get there. The scenery is mind-numbing and the overall experience unforgettable. Note to self: I’d highly recommend a map and GPS for this trip; it helped us from walking too far in the wrong direction with a loaded boat a few times, since much of the upper trail was covered in snow. And the proof is in the paddling pudding: Both of us went back again the next year.
Photos: Courtesy Brett Barton and Scott Baker