Monday, October 27th, 2014
Whitewater Kayaking the Nooksack River – Horseshoe Bend
Todd Elsworth

If you head East on Highway 542, just past the mountain town of Glacier, WA you’ll find the popular whitewater kayaking section of the North Fork of the Nooksack River at Horseshoe Bend. We went out to see what all the hype is about on a sunny fall weekend.

NooksackRiverHorseshoeBend

I’m looking forward to seeing the river either from a kayak or by taking a Wild and Scenic Rafting Trip on the Nooksack River, someday. The outfit is based in Glacier, so they know the river as their backyard. They say it best, “The crown jewel of the North Cascades – the North Fork of the Nooksack River. Home to all five species of native salmon, this river is born at the base of the White Salmon Glacier, high on Mt. Shuksan. After mixing with many side creeks and tumbling over Nooksack Falls, this river’s glacial silt-laden water enters the upper gorge of the Nooksack where our trip begins.”

While I’m an accomplished sea kayaker, I’m not a whitewater kayaker- yet. Access to the river is easily afforded from the Douglas Fir Campground. We wanted to see boats in action- so we went to the Nooksack River Slalom.  First, we went to the start and watched the racers getting ready- they took turns paddling in circles up the eddies and back down the flowing downstream current.

NooksackRiverSlalomStart

Preparing for the race, the organizers predicted flows were “between ~ 400 to 1,700 cfs. At low water it’s a bumpy class 2. Levels are ideal (class III) at ~ 750 cfs range. The river is high and challenging at 1,200 cfs and levels higher than 2,000 cfs are too high and the river becomes a big flush.” It made some sense to me, with more to learn. I ran into an experienced friend on the trail who gave us a quick overview of running the race: You go downriver through the green gates and upriver through the red.

NooksackRiverSlalomCA

Paddling upstream, like a spawning salmon, the young paddlers made their way up, down and around both the natural obstacles and strategically placed gates. The determination and focus shown in their eyes and they intently placed their paddle blades at crucial points in the river to help them navigate their way through the course.

NooksackRiverSlalomGate

It’s fun to watch to see the different tactics employed. This round of kayakers were younger kids from Chilliwack, British Columbia. Their parents and grandparents cheering them on with clanging cowbells, hoots and hollers from the banks of the river.

NooksackRiverSlalomRapids

The red gates were strategically placed behind rocks in the river where the paddlers could find an eddy to make their way back up stream to run the gate. Paddling up the mighty Nooksack looks like quite a feat- except for when these kids are doing it and falling in behind the eddy.

NooksackRiverSlalomUpstream

The course is laid out days in advance and is an intricate network of cables and guy lines spanning the glacial spill. Below a young man is navigating his way down (and up) river through the slalom course. Off in the side eddy is a safety boat keeping a watch on the sketchy part of the course. This little section of river provided a weekend of fun for the participants and those of us on shore.

NooksackRiverSlalomCourse

Local and regional groups are currently working to protect the Nooksack River through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to permanently safeguard the Nooksack’s unique and treasured natural heritage. The three forks of the Nooksack – the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork – and numerous tributary streams form the upper Nooksack watershed. The full report is about to be published and it has me excited to see the landscape from the river. Soon, I want to be OUT THERE on the river!

 

 

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About the Author:

As the co-Executive Director of Recreation Northwest and the founder of the Bellingham Traverse, Todd promotes outdoor recreation and brings people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where we play. He enjoys biking, hiking, paddling, skiing and will try anything twice. Get connected at RecreationNorthwest.org.

3 Comments »

  1. The North Fork is a jewel, and thanks for sharing the link to a local outfit!

    Comment by Jackie Sentenne Pettit — October 27, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

  2. What is the skill level required on this run?

    Comment by Shane Roustio — November 6, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

  3. Class 2 or 3, depending on the water levels.

    Comment by Todd Elsworth — November 7, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

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