Cowlitz - 2. Cispus River to Barrier Dam

Cowlitz, Washington, US


2. Cispus River to Barrier Dam (Scanwea, Riffe, and Mayfield Reservoir)

Usual Difficulty III (for normal flows)
Length 42.4 Miles
Avg. Gradient 16 fpm

Dunn Canyon

Dunn Canyon
Photo of Rocky Bauer, Herb Flatow, and Hubert Schwartz (top to bottom). by Bob and Ira Spring taken 07/15/58

River Description

The Cowlitz was arguably one of Western Washington's best river trips prior to construction of three dams that flooded scenic canyon sections that were first explored for their whitewater recreation potential by Wolf Bauer and members of the Washington Foldboat Club (now Washington Kayak Club) as early as the mid-1950's. During the legal battle over the construction of the first dam on the river in 1956, Mary Kiona, a 93 year-old Native American, testified that she had traveled down the river by canoe and that it was used for navigation.

The canyons of the Cowlitz River are now buried beneath three reservoirs. Starting from the upstream end at the confluence of the Cispus River the Cowlitz Falls project was completed in 1994 and now floods the confluence area up to approximately river mile 92. The next project downstream is the Riffe Reservoir which was created by the City of Tacoma's Mossyrock Dam completed in 1969. Immediately downstream of this dam is the remains of Dunn Canyon which is now flooded by the backwaters of the Mayfield Reservoir. This reservoir was formed by the construction of Mayfield Dam which was completed in 1963 by the City of Tacoma. A short distance downstream of this dam is the Barrier Dam at river mile 49.6 which is used to direct fish into the fish hatchery. The Lower Cowlitz continues from this point down to the confluence with the Columbia River.

The first published account of middle reaches of the Cowlitz at its confluence with the Cispus appears in the Washington Standard (Vol. XI, No. 41, page 1, August 12th, 1871) that describes a trip to the site in the summer of 1871.

Standing upon the high bank of the upland that overlooked the bottom below, we discovered the object of our search. In exultation I exclaimed, "Eureka!"... Here it was, sure enough; and one seeing it is not likely soon to forget it. Not often is the strange spectacle presented of two rapid rivers of nearly equal volume rushing together from opposite directions, as in the case here. The Cowlitz approaching from the north-east makes a sudden detour, and comes dashing down over a rocky bed from nearly a west course and is met fully and squarely in the very teeth by this strange river. The shock is terrific; the water is thrown into great commotion, whirling, eddying, and boiling fearfully. So nearly equal is the contest, that the now united waters run off at a right angle with their junction, the direction being southerly...

...We were surprised to find this stream so large, being fully , or more than two- thirds the size of the Cowlitz. From the color we called it White Water River. The Indian name is "Shishpash," [now spelled Cispus] and is not laid down on the large map of Washington Territory. The Indians say it heads in a large lake in the vicinity of direction of Mount Adams. Two and a half days journey from the mouth are high perpendicular falls.

It was another 80 years before whitewater paddlers would discover the recreation potential of this incredible river and by that time plans were already underway to construct two dams to harness the river's hydroelectric potential for the City of Tacoma. Fishery interests, who had already observed the decline in salmon resulting from the construction of Columbia River dams had advanced state legislation to protect the Cowlitz as a Fish Sanctuary. Public support for protecting the river was high and had the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act been in place at the time it would likely have been a good canditate for protection. With only state protection however, the City of Tacoma appealed directly to the Federal Power Commission. On November 28th, 1951, the Commission, responding to arguments based on the need to expand energy capacity in the Pacific Northwest in support of national security needs, issued a license to construct the first hydro projects on the Cowlitz River. Fishery groups would eventually be joined by recreational users in the fight against the dams that lasted over a decade and went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The courts ultimately determined that state laws could not prevent the Commission from licensing a project on a navigable waterway. The Mayfield Dam was dedicated on March 30th, 1963. Construction of Mossyrock Dam began within two years and on May 16, 1969 Mossyrock Dam was officially dedicated.

While these dams elminated recreational opportunities on this section of river for whitewater boaters, the most well-known rapid on the river below the confluence of the Cispus still remained. Throughout the 1970's and 1980's boaters could enjoy a run down the Cispus River that finished with a short stretch on the Cowlitz that included Cowlitz Falls. In the first edition of his guidebook published in 1991, Bennett described Cowlitz Falls as follows, "The Falls begins with an exciting ride over big rollercoaster waves, then through smaller waves before hurling baoters around a left bend and into more powerful higher flows, the big waves that dominate Cowlitz Falls become minature versions of rapids like Granite on Hell's Canyon of the Lower Snake. Construction of the Cowlitz Falls project , which was completed in 1994 by Lewis County PUD, eliminated whitewater recreation on this section when Cowlitz Falls was dynamited and a 140 foot high dam was constructed in its place.

In all 42.4 miles of intermediate whitewater were lost with the construction of these projects which flooded canyon sections with great riverside camping and scenery that rivaled that of other nearby canyon runs like the Green River Gorge.


  • Winn, J.K. 1977. The Cowlitz Controversy, 1947-1962: Politics of Fish and Power. Master's Thesis. Department of History. University of Washigton.
  • Bennett, J. 1991. A Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington: A Compehensive Handbook to Over 150 Runs in the Cascades and Beyond.
  • Washington Kayak Club archives. <>

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2009-11-22 06:44:33

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