By Ashley Lodato
Experienced whitewater boaters don’t often like to share near-miss experiences, but David Clement and Betsy Weiss believe that the educational value of their recent adventure on the Methow River outweighs any embarrassment they might feel about the predicament they found themselves in. “We have egg on our face a bit,” says David, “but we wanted to get the word out so nobody else finds themselves in the same situation.”
First of all, you should know that David and Betsy have many decades of whitewater canoeing experience under their belts; David has canoed all his life. They’re safety-conscious and conservative boaters. They are familiar with the Mazama-to-Winthrop run on the Methow River, and they decided to do it again about three weeks ago, this time with David’s brother and niece, who are also experienced paddlers.
“It was a great run from Mazama until about the Wolf Ridge area, although it was moving very fast,” says David. “The water level was about 6,000cfs. We immediately noticed that there was a lot more wood in the river than we had remembered from last year, probably due to that high water we had in April bringing debris off the shore and into the river.” Still, says David, the debris wasn’t too difficult to avoid.
But at about ¼-mile below the people mover (the little cart that goes across the river on a cable), the river became braided. The channel to the far left seemed smoothest, so David and Betsy in the lead boat took that one. As soon as they got into the channel it took a 90-degree turn and David could see that the entire channel was blocked by a huge logjam. “There was no water going over it — it was all flowing under the jam,” he says.
David was able to signal to his brother and niece, who were upstream of him, to pull over, then he and Betsy tried to back-ferry up and away from the logjam. But the current was too strong; their boat washed up hard against the logjam, tipped, and simply disappeared under the logs. David and Betsy were fortunate enough to be able to climb up onto the logjam as their boat was being sucked under, and that’s why I’m writing a cautionary tale instead of an obituary.
At first, David couldn’t see the canoe under the logs, but eventually he spotted it several feet down, held tight against the branches of a newly fallen Ponderosa. “There were still needles on the branches,” says David. He could also see his dry bag containing extra clothes, his wallet, camera and phone, but everything was too far below the surface to attempt retrieval.
David and Betsy walked the logjam to the shore, bushwhacked downstream, and climbed into the other canoe with the rest of their party, cold and shaken. Between the site of the incident and Winthrop there were two more turns that involved avoiding logs, but the rest of the trip was uneventful. As soon as he could get to a computer, David posted a note on the Methownet bulletin board warning river runners about the large amount of debris in the upper river and the river-wide logjam in particular.
When the river dropped to 4,000cfs, David went back to the logjam to try to rescue the canoe and gear, but the river was still too high. Ten days after the original incident, the river dropped to 3,000cfs and David was able to cut some branches to pull his canoe free.
The most remarkable part of this story is that David and Betsy weren’t swept under the logjam with the boat. Another noteworthy fact is that the canoe — a cedar and canvas model — suffered only a few abrasions and some minor wood damage. And the most astonishing item of note is that although the clothes in David’s dry bag were soaked after 10 days under water, the wallet, camera and phone — which were in a Tupperware container inside the dry bag — were completely dry and fully functional.
After talking with some local river runners and fishing guides, David recommends that people who want to paddle the upper section of the Methow River talk to others who have boated that stretch recently. “Talk to someone who knows the river at this level, this year,” he says. “The river has a lot more wood in it this year. It looks different than last year, and it’s different at each water level.”