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The Pacific Northwest, the PNW, #pnwonderland. What river comes to mind for you? For me, being formerly a southeast paddler, I only heard about one river in the PNW, the L Dub, the Little White Salmon River near White Salmon, Washington. It’s as if no other river existed in the Pacific Northwest.

And then I had couple of friends from the Jackson Kayak Team tell me about a stretch of magical class III whitewater, also near White Salmon, Washington. The Middle White Salmon River. “Wait, what?” I thought the only thing connected with the White Salmon River was class V gnar. Oh, and I heard about this silly thing called the Columbia River Gorge. And that it might be one of the most beautiful and most fun places on the planet. Terms like “nonstop smiles” and “class fun” were used to describe this stretch of whitewater. I had to check this out!

Excitement continued to build after watching Dam Nation and hearing about the breach of the Condit Dam in 2011, recovering a section of the White Salmon River. The river has changed significantly since the dam was removed, silt has moved downstream, and the process begins for protecting threatened salmon and steelhead. Prior to the breaching, wildlife officials considered native White Salmon River Spring Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead to be “wiped out”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Condit Dam blocked more than 30 miles of potential Steelhead habitat, 4 miles of Fall Chinook Salmon habitat, and nearly 10 miles of Spring Chinook habitat.

After a shocking series of events, I found myself moving from Asheville, North Carolina to Seattle, Washington. Now when you visit the White Salmon River, you can experience nearly every class of whitewater. Starting from the top, you have the class IV-V section from Trout Lake to Green Truss Bridge (Farmlands) followed by the class V section from Green Truss Bridge to BZ Corner (Green Truss). The Green Truss is a popular section of whitewater featured in PNW paddling videos (possibly some of those good ol’ LVMs). A less known section starts below Zigzag Canyon, named the Oreletta run. A family owns the property and allows paddlers to have access to several high quality class IV rapids. If you run this section, show some love to the family who kindly allows us access to a magical section of whitewater. I find this to be a great all-around class IV run with some high quality rapids from top to bottom including Triple Drop and the Flume. Do your research ahead of time to find the put-in trail and the takeout before BZ Falls. Stay there long enough and you may find yourself watching one of the Truss boaters landing a massive boof at BZ (or enjoying the boils beneath).

Below BZ Falls is the class III-III+ section from BZ Corner to Husum Falls known as the Middle White Salmon River. This section is absolutely amazing! It starts off with a beautiful hike down to the river. Then you have the choice of putting in above or below Maytag rapid, an action-packed hole boofing (or dodging) rapid that’s easy to scout and set safety (and snap photos of your buddies). Just above the rapid was the start line for the White Salmon Collegiate Whitewater Festival Advanced Division Race (read more here).

The next five miles feature continuous class III-III+, with rapid names like Sharks Tooth, Grasshopper, Waterspout, and Stairstep Falls. I found this river to be quite similar in character and difficulty to the Middle Ocoee River in Tennessee and similar in beauty to the Nantahala River in North Carolina. Both of these sections of whitewater offer really fun rapids, great surf spots, and opportunities to try for tricky moves to advance your skills. And the scenery around this river is mesmerizing with so much lush forest surrounding you. The finale of the Middle White Salmon certainly draws a crowd, a rapid called Husum Falls. Husum Falls typically delivers one of two things: an epic boof sailing over a pristine waterfall into fluffy aerated water or a thrashy hole ride. Either way, it is easy to set safety, easy to scout, and easy to take a portage trail around it. Make the right choice for you.

The next section, the Lower White Salmon River, continues above or below the rapid following Husum Falls, known as Rattlesnake. Rattlesnake is a fun place to surf or build up confidence in sticky holes without much consequence. From below Rattlesnake to Northwestern Park takeout is a great section for new paddlers to get some experience on class II-II+ whitewater. It offers plenty of opportunities to work on ferrying in current, eddy catching, paddle strokes, t-rescues, and so much more. Be sure to grab a surf at Cave Wave while you’re on this section!

The section below the Lower White Salmon River, otherwise known as the Lower Lower or Lower Gorge, offers the whitewater goodies buried beneath the waters held back by the Condit Dam. The rapids are different in character from the rapids upstream, but are mostly class II-III+ (with one rapid/portage at the Condit Dam site being class V). Since 2012, paddlers have returned to this section of river and experienced the goods! The Lower Lower features a stunning basalt gorge reminiscent of rivers I paddled in Chile. Around this area, the rapids become class III and mark the lead-in to Steelhead Falls, a class V rapid that’s worth a scout. It’s important to do your research beforehand or go with an experienced guide so that you can locate the portage trail (and ropes) or learn the line. Some folks have ran this one, but has an ugly hydraulic which should be scouted. This is a great opportunity to learn about portaging, wading, and systems that can be put in place to aid others (e.g. bolted ropes). It’s a great place to practice teamwork!

Below Steelhead Falls features more jaw-dropping views of the basalt gorge. The fun isn’t over, as you still have plenty of class II-III+ rapids remaining until you reach the takeout. You’ll get to see the shut down Condit Powerhouse. You also have an option to continue to the confluence with the Columbia River, which is a really fun experience. You may find yourself staring at all the kite boarders and kite surfers. Once I reached the Confluence, I had a strong feeling of satisfaction in paddling so many incredible miles of whitewater. Even though the Lower Lower is mostly class II-III+, it offers a different feel as sections of it are quite remote without immediate access, and some of the rapids are difficult to scout due to the steep gorge walls. This is a great place to learn many of the skills needed for class IV paddling in the PNW. But it’s important to have the right skills to be on this section, paddle with a competent group, and be aware of the challenges.

Be safe, have fun, and go out there and experience the beautiful White Salmon River in the PNW! Class II, class III, class IV, or class V. Experience the White Salmon in the way best suited for you!