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Monthly Archives: August 2014


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The groomed elk path vanished, and we found ourselves in the deep woods, linking passages in old growth forest—wading through huckleberry bushes, sliding down gullies, stepping over and into rotten mossy logs. By moving slowly and carefully, we could make steady progress without undue risk. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of slow caution. Darkness crept up from the depths, and the thought of bushwhacking by headlamp into the Queets River gorge nagged at me with every new horizon of trees unfolding ahead. At least the river chimed encouragement from below, far below.
Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula offer opportunity to float through one of the world’s great forest reserves. When comparing forests of big trees, the Olympic rainforest is unequaled. Nowhere else do so many trees of large diameter—5 to 15 feet—and soaring height—200 to 300 feet—exist in a single unmolested unit. Walking through these forests gets one up close and personal with the giants. Floating here offers longer views to the multi-storied canopy. Our pack raft trip down the Queets River promised a little of both.
Climbing above the North Fork of the Quinalt on day one was a humid, even muggy affair, appropriate conditions for the beefy hemlocks and massive cedars that loomed over our trail. The balmy feel abated by morning, when fog formed before our eyes as the transpiring forest released its moisture with the rising sun.
Up we marched, out of the cloud and into the changing forest of the mid-elevations. The cedars changed from red to yellow, the hemlocks from western to mountain, and the firs from Douglas to silver. The record Alaska, or yellow, cedar, gave us reason to pause for a photo and due reverence, a wonderful gnarly old tree. When we spotted another huge Callitropsis nootkatensis an hour down the trail, we felt compelled to measure it and compare numbers. By my rough measurements, the old champion retains the title, but the two trees are close enough in size to warrant a return with tape and laser to record exact dimensions. A new champion could be on deck!
Emerging from the forest into sunny subalpine parks of distinct Olympic lime-green, we shed our packs for a quick swim in a shallow cool pond. Onward, upward, downward, the “traverse” trail seemed to constantly climb or descend.
We pushed on toward an airy ridge where Mt. Olympus and its trademark glaciers burst into view. The Queets was visible below, glistening like a silver ribbon on the dark woods. A snowfield rested nearby, assuring our water supply. This was camp.
Another long day of up and down hiking along the Skyline Route led to Lake Beauty, and the first other backpackers we’d seen.
Soon we were hustling into the gorge in a race against darkness. With twenty minutes of light remaining, the opaque color of the upper Queets peeked out beneath cedar boughs. At water’s edge, we found ourselves in a gorge of smooth grey walls. Luckily, a mossy camp presented itself, sitting beside a cold spring-fed creek feeding the river.
I hadn’t planned on much whitewater during this almost-source-to-sea mission, but our route into the canyon deposited us farther upstream than anticipated. Although we were below the unrunnable Service Falls gorge, several rapids remained before our deliverance into the valley. Bret had never paddled a pack raft before. His game face was on.
Following a full scale portage (boats deflated in packs) around class V Kilkelly Rapids, we re-launched in late afternoon sunlight and pitched camp amid the wild Upper Queets Valley. Surrounded by old-growth forest in a rarely traveled river corridor, this was the place, the moment I’d been seeking since scanning the map from my living room floor years earlier.
Day five was about making miles. Low water crept us along and logjams forced several short portages. A herd of elk, the first we’d seen despite plentiful sign, crossed the river above camp just as dusk turned to dark. Another small herd crossed the shallow river while we ate lunch two days farther downstream.
It was not elk but fish that the natives were after near the river mouth. From the highway 101 bridge we could see numerous skiffs plying the water between their nets of coho salmon. The river debauched into the Pacific as a narrow stream carving through a fog-shrouded coastline. The humble opening gave few clues to the wild splendor that exists upstream, on the wild Queets.


Josh probing

On Friday, August 2nd, we lost Josh Lowry, a kayaking legend. I make that claim because writing about notable whitewater personalities is my job, and Josh’s story produced perhaps the best profile I’ve ever written. But my professional opinion doesn’t meaningfully identify Josh as a legend, his life’s actions took care of that.

This past winter, I spent a week with Josh at his rafting company in Futaleufu, Chile. His staff of guides, all three of them, had found their way to Josh and his world of idealistic simplicity through various means, but looking back, it was a whitewater pilgrimage for them all. Working for Josh wasn’t a job as much as an apprenticeship in the art of river gypsy, under the master. These young boatmen had no delusions of squirreling away money through guiding. They were there to paddle, to integrate into the relaxed pace of rural Chile, practice their Spanish, sleep in the backyard and eat raspberries off the bush for breakfast—to be Lowry-ites. On days off, they’d go kayaking with their esteemed boss, still one of the guys (but also THE guy) at 61-years young. Their loyalty towards Josh spoke volumes.

When a young traveler stopped by the office wanting a raft trip but having no money to pay for one, Josh took him down his beloved Futaleufu anyway. He simply asked for some help around the property, and called it a trade. He showed the young man how to dig an efficient irrigation trench for a new garden plot. Later, we all transported posts to Josh’s undeveloped riverside property. We placed those posts in a barn that Josh had built with beams acquired in another trade, for his retired ambulance shuttle rig. He’d procured the ambulance, somehow, from a band of true Patagonian gypsies.

This was the flow of Josh Lowry’s life, always seeking a symbiotic solution through his ascetic existence, in harmony with the seasons, in tune with the river. “I am a minimalist, both in life and paddling,” he once told me. With that, I couldn’t help chuckling at the recollection of our West Clear Creek trip, and Josh’s ancient Noah Jeti kayak with stripped seat bolts, his thread-bare wetsuit, his leaky paddling jacket. My wife, Lisa, and I wore drysuits, and even we were cold. Not surprisingly, Josh was always the first to get the fire going at camp. That trip was so epic, hard, and beautiful, so perfect, that I’ll never go back. Yet it was just one small adventure in Josh Lowry’s ledger of “trips of a lifetime.”
Josh and team WCLR 1
He was the first to run Mexico’s classic Agua Azul and Chile’s renowned Baker. His Chilean road trips of 1994 (with John Foss and Clay Wright) and 1995 (with Arnd Schaeftlein, Bernd Sommer, Manu Arnu, Olli Grau, and Dave Kashinski) included many other exploratories in lands that were unknown to the whitewater world, the stuff of dreams. There were also countless trips down Grand Canyon, many summers on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and adventurous jungle romps in southern Mexico. His whitewater Opus was the Rio Pascua. The river has only attracted a couple expeditions since Lowry’s 1999 descent because it is logistically difficult, full of terrifying rapids and grueling portages, and located in remotest Patagonia—Lowry country.

One might think that a nomad like Josh would lack in personal contact, but his voice, his laugh, his looks—his presence—was not easily forgotten. In the little town of Futaleufu, he was an institution. Show up and ask anybody in town, pantomime if you didn’t know Spanish, and you would find Josh before long.
4map plans
When Josh fell off a 50-foot cliff to the rocky bed of the Deschutes River, I can only suppose he was scouting the line through Benham Falls below, transfixed by the intricacy and randomness of tumbling water. That made sense to Josh.

In response to questions I posed for his profile (Kayak Session #35), Josh offered his philosophy on paddling technique. On the surface it was an appraisal of paddling style, but Josh was well aware that his answers ran deeper than that. His approach to paddling mimicked his approach to life, and it was an honorable course worth emulating. “I just place my paddle vertically in the river to feel the water, and hold it there without paddling, with short bursts of pushing or pulling to control angle. I feel that going slower than the current gives me a feeling of timelessness, a chance to look around, scouting, on the run.”