Nisqually, Washington, US
|Usual Difficulty||V (for normal flows)|
|Avg. Gradient||153 fpm|
|NISQUALLY RIVER AT LA GRANDE DAM, WA|
|usgs-12086000||800 - 1000 cfs||V||01h02m||36.6 cfs (too low)|
FLOWS: The releases occurred at 800 & 1,000 cfs. It is unknown what the run is like outside of those flows, when the river runs from spills or releases aimed to draw down the reservoir.
SEASON: As a condition of a new license issued by FERC in 1997, whitewater releases were scheduled on two weekends between November 15th and December 31st. After a fatality in 2000, Tacoma City Light decided to halt all future releases and informed FERC of this decision. American Whitewater joined with local affiliate clubs in protesting this action and formally requested summer releases. Although summer releases would have been more convenient and safer for paddlers, concerns were raised over their impact on fish. In December of 2002, FERC issued a ruling that whitewater releases would no longer be a license requirement for the Nisqually project (FERC project 1862). For now American Whitewater and local affiliates have accepted this ruling and opportunities for whitewater boating are not available. There may be an opportunity to appeal this decision but it would require the efforts of a dedicated local volunteer. You would need to review the history of this relicensing through FERC's web site.
Originating on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, the Nisqually River flows through the Puget Sound lowlands where it's diverted at LaGrande Dam (185' high) for the Nisqually Hydroelectric Project. This project provides power for Tacoma City Light but leaves LaGrande Canyon dewatered for 1.7 miles throughout the year except during extreme flood events. In 1994 Tom Wolf, Jennie Goldberg, Steve Uren, Gary Shillhammer, Randolph Pierce, Mike Deckert, Greg Dore, Pete Flanagan, Rick Williams, Shawn Wickstrom, and Tom Baker descended into the canyon for the first descent as part of a flow release study to assess this reach for its whitewater potential. On November 21, 1998 the efforts of numerous voluneteers were celebrated with the first recreational flow release which was enjoyed by 64 boaters. These releases became available through the reliscensing process of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which now requires utilities to consider recreational uses of rivers when they apply for a liscense (renewed every 30 to 50 years). This was one of several rivers around the country that was opened to paddling through the efforts of many dedicated local volunteers. Utilities have tried to deny recreational releases on the grounds that kayaking is a dangerous activity that will expose the utility to liability and place local search and rescue personnel at risk. As with any other demanding run, paddlers should recognize that they must take primary responsiblity for the safety of their group. Should there be a future opportunity to paddle this reach, treat this as an exploratory run and make sure that at a minimum you have throw bags, spare paddle, webbing slings, caribiners, first-aid kit, and food.
During the winter releases that occured in the past, an early start was imperative given the time required to register, descend into the canyon, and scout and portage rapids. All future paddlers who might have an opportunity to explore this reach should note that the video and descriptions based on the 1994 test releases changed significantly as a result of floods in 1996. They will likely change again in the future as water is spilled into the bypass reach when flows exceed the capacity of the powerhouse pipeline. Most consider the run more challenging now and participants should be prepared for a class V expedition-type experience. Be prepared for mandatory portages in a constrained canyon. The brown, silty water is much more difficult to read than the typically clear waters of Pacific Northwest rivers. Those who have seen the river bed without water have reported an exceptionally high occurence of undercut rocks, siphons, and caves--consequences of a swim can be severe.
Physical access to the river is difficult and access is controlled by Tacoma City Light. Entering the canyon requires belaying boats and scrambling down a steep and dangerous muddy gully of nearly 400'. This can be done with two belay stations and climbing ropes are helpful (longer than the standard throw rope). Depending on your group's organization, it typically takes at least half an hour to reach the river from the canyon rim and you will need experience in rigging boats for the descent.
Once on the water, the river starts with an enjoyable class III rapid called Hang Nail and just as the river disappears around the corner from the dam, it drops through a rapid imaginatively named Play Hole. This play spot is as outstanding as the internationally famous Bob's Hole in Oregon. It would be possible to spend hours here at this one spot (as demonstrated by Rick Williams during the flow release study). There are good eddies on both sides of the river allowing access from either side into the play spot. Comparable play spots are rare on other Washington rivers. Descending downstream, the next delightful rapid is called Kissing Comer.
The next rapid downstream is Hammer Slammer. The portage route for Hammer Slammer is on the river right side. The portage starts in a large eddy and is an easy walk over flat shelves of rock. The rapid was named for Gary Shillhammer who spent some time in the hole at the bottom of the rapid. The drop is a 45 degree slide somewhat resembling a low-head dam which drops about 8' (slightly more near the center and slightly less near river right). The entire drop is about 60' feet wide and has some meaty holes at the left and middle. The left line requires a difficult ferry back right and with a center line it's easy to get stuck in the hole at the middle. On the right the drop slides through a six-foot wide slot, then down into a soft hole backed up by a rock wall just downstream where the current shoots back towards the left below the main holes. This right line appears to be the conservative route through the drop but contains a death trap that claimed the life of Chris Ringsven on 2 Dec 2000 (see accident report). There is a boulder (3' diameter) just below the surface here that is undercut. Other boaters have reported momentary pins here, but as Chris went underwater after coming through the drop his bow shot to the left and the bottom of his boat wedged against the boulder pinning him firmly below the surface of the water.
After Hammer Slammer the water flows through the narrowest passage on the river. Following a short pool, the river drops over X Falls. This drop was run over a ledge on the river right side. If the right side of X Falls looks too difficult, another route exists on river left. Triple Slide is an enjoyable collection of three large ledge drops. There are routes available on both the far right and down the middle of the river. Two other named drops, first Indecision and then Bumper Wall exist before reaching the old abandoned civil structure about half-way through the run. Both of these are easy but class IV drops.
When approaching the Civil Structure, the inner gorge unveils itself and the outstanding beauty of the Nisqually becomes apparent. At 1000 cfs the water starts to crest the Civil Structure. While an excellent portage route is available on river right, it is also possible to run the Civil Structure by dropping over on far river right. The main flow runs left through a breech in the structure, where it drops over 15 feet into an undercut boulder, and makes a screaming right turn. If you find yourself in way over your head there is a potential overland exit route here on river right. Hike downstream 50 yards from the Civil Structure and you'll see a path with a rope alongside. It's a long, long hike out but one of the few exit points from the canyon.
Below the Civil Structure, the river enters one of the most beautiful canyons in Washington. This long section boasts 300 foot cliffs rising straight out of the water. The river tapers off a bit at this point giving one time to let the beauty of the place soak in. Narrow channels and cathedral-like amphitheaters highlight the inner gorge between the Civil Structure and the Boulder Field. After the Boulder Field the final major rapid is Boof and Boogie.
Access to the river is controlled by Tacoma City Light and there are currently no plans to allow boaters on the river. The river canyon runs parrallel to Highway 7 just outside the town of La Grande. A service road leads down toward the dam at mile 24 on Highway 7. There is a chairlift leading up from the powerhouse located at the end of the bypass reach at mile 26 across from the post office in La Grande.
with contributions from Mike Deckert
for additional information see
Nisqually River Water Trail Opportunity For Input
October 22, 2015