Take me to the river
appeared in Methow Valley News Summer Guide 2016
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
You know all that snow we had last winter? The stuff we broke our backs shoveling? The stuff that collapsed many an old homestead around the valley? Well, guess what that is now folks. That’s right—water. Crystal clear, untainted, freezing cold pure mountain runoff. It’s filling our streams, rivers, and lakes, creating waterways of fun for the summer ahead.
If you’re a swimmer, kayaker, rafter, canoeist, paddle-boarder, angler, floater, or someone who just likes to read a book along the shore while listening to the river’s whisper, the Methow Valley is the place for you. With waterways stretching from the far reaches of Mazama down to the Methow River’s confluence with the Columbia, the Methow can get you waterlogged to your heart’s content.
Before you get started, let’s make sure you are a bona fide water rat. First, pack your sunscreen and PFD. You might think that wearing a PFD makes you look like a goofball, but you’ll be even more embarrassed (not to mention terrified) if you have to be rescued because your raft flipped and left you clinging to a rock in the middle of a rapid. Second, determine which watercraft you will be commandeering: raft, canoe, kayak, inner tube, rowboat, SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard). Third, learn the difference between rowing and paddling. You think wearing a PFD makes you look like a goof? Try referring to “rowing the canoe” and see what people think of you.
It’s an easy to distinction to learn. Are you using a paddle to propel the boat? Then you’re paddling. Are you using oars to propel the boat? Ah, now you’re rowing. In general, paddles are not attached to anything on the boat and are held in your hands to propel the boat forward. And in general, oars are attached to some sort of oarlock and are used to propel the boat backward (the notable difference being when a raft rower faces downstream when guiding a raft through rapids). If you’re in a kayak, a canoe, or a SUP, you’re probably paddling. If you’re in a rowboat you are—yes—most likely rowing. Rafts can be set up for either rowing or paddling.
Ok, now you’re ready to go out on the water with some self-respect. Let’s take a look at the places you might go.
Numerous mountain streams feed into the Methow River to the northwest and the Chewuch River to the northeast of the valley, making the upper reaches of these rivers delightful spots to enjoy the river from one of the Forest Service campsites located along their shores. Small pools, tight bends, and polished river rocks create enchanting options for exploration. Although some kayakers tackle these upper stretches of river, shifting channels and occasional logjams due to spring floods make it daunting for most moderate paddlers. These sections are not recommended for boaters unfamiliar with the river, and certainly not for family inner-tube float trips.
Take heart, however, because there are many other options for those seeking some laid-back river time. Downstream of where the Methow and Chewuch Rivers converge in Winthrop, it’s fairly smooth floating until Carlton. In the heat of summer, recreationalists can be seen in nearly every form of rivercraft on this section, from inner tubes to inflatables to SUPs. Sometimes you even see someone making the journey on nothing more than a pool noodle. Talk about goofballs!
Don’t let the fairly docile nature of this section of river fool you, however. There are still small rapids and holes that can flip you, barely submerged rocks that can pop your inflatable or crack your skull, and occasional branches or other debris in the river. And even on a hot day, the water is pretty darn cold. Smart boaters and floaters always wear PFDs, and those who really play it safe wear helmets as well. (Kayakers and SUP-ers should always wear helmets in whitewater.)
For those looking for more thrills (and possibly spills), the lower section of the Methow River from McFarland Creek on down to Pateros contains fast moving water interspersed with Class II-IV rapids, depending on the water levels (which rise and fall quite quickly with weather conditions). The most formidable of these rapids, those in Black Canyon, have been known to launch even seasoned guides into the froth. To learn about guided trips on the river, contact Methow River Raft & Kayak at (509) 341-4661 or visit methowrafting.com, or Blue Sky Outfitters, (800) 228-7238 or visit blueskyoutfitters.com.
Although the Methow River presents a fun challenge for whitewater canoeists, most who paddle such craft are going to be happiest on one of the lovely lakes that sit above the river. Pearrygin Lake State Park (follow signs from the East Chewuch Road) is relatively warm and has gorgeous grassy camping on its shores, as well as a roped-in swimming area that makes it easier to keep an eye on the kids. Every type of craft is allowed on Pearrygin Lake, so canoeists and SUP-ers slipping silently along must share space with the not-so-silent motor boats and water skiers.
There is a fee to use Pearrygin Lake (those bathrooms don’t clean themselves); you can learn more about fees, camping, and fishing regulations at parks.state.wa.us/563/Pearrygin-Lake. There is also a sweet small private resort with RV hookups and camping on Pearrygin: the Silverline Resort, silverlineresort.com.
If you’re looking for a quieter scene, Big and Little Twin Lakes and Patterson Lake offer fewer facilities and hence fewer people. The Twin Lakes are accessed from—of course—Twin Lakes Road and Patterson Lake, as you might guess, is located on Patterson Lake Road. Discover Passes or Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) passes are required at Patterson’s lone drive-in access point, or you can access the lake from the Sun Mountain Lodge cabins on the north side of the lake by renting paddle boats, SUPs, or canoes from the Lodge. Patterson Lake, in particular, offers the best swimming in the valley, given its combination of reasonable temperatures and minimal boat traffic.
Another place that a Discover Pass or WDFW pass will gain you èntre to is Davis Lake, a small gem of a lake tucked up beyond the Bear Creek Golf Course. You probably don’t want to bother with it during fishing season (unless you’re fishing), but any other time of year you’ll probably have it to yourself.
Backcountry Water Fun
If the frontcountry waterways are not your cup of snowmelt, it’s time to consider a trip into the backcountry. A hike into Lake Ann, Libby Lake, Cutthroat Lake, or Tiffany Lake will reward you with sparkling waters, stunning vistas, and probably very few other people anywhere beyond the shoreline. Although even the most hardy swimmers can’t spend more than a minute in these frigid lakes, if you have a way to remain above the water’s surface you can spend a delightful and solitary afternoon exploring the shorelines. The drawback is that you must pack in your own SUP, tube, or inflatable, but it’s worth the haul; twice the effort, twice the fun.
The Methow Valley may be on the map for its winter trail system and summer hiking and climbing, but it’s its waterways that are the life force of much of the agriculture and industry in the valley. Listen to the sounds of the lakes and rivers, and you’ll be hearing the heartbeat of an ecosystem.