Rafting on Nooksack a cool way to spend a day

Published on Thu, Jul 24, 2008 by Jack Kintner

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Rafting on Nooksack a cool way to spend a day

By Jack Kintner

“All Forward!” yelled river guide Tyler Clabaugh, and we plunged our paddles into the roiling whitewater haystacks and pulled as hard as we could to avoid a sure collision with a looming dark rock the size of a Buick. “Stop!” commanded Clabaugh as the rock slid harmlessly by on the left and the raft plunged four feet into a standing trough big enough to hold a school bus.

Unlike most big waves I’ve seen, this one just stood there waiting for us like a giant catcher’s mitt and we were the ball.

Ka-wham! And we survived! And high-fived! What a blast!
There was water everywhere as we crashed and bashed our way down the North Fork of the Nooksack’s Canyon Run. It was scenic, invigorating, wet enough to cool us off on a hot summer day without being miserable and as accessible as anything else in Glacier.

A mere hour east of Blaine, one of Glacier’s half-dozen back streets is home to Wild and Scenic River Tours run by 10-year river veteran Paul Engle.

“This year’s snow pack has enhanced our season,” Engle said, “since a couple of 80-degree days can really put a lot of water in the river even this late in the year.” The season will conclude with the beginning of the salmon runs in August, so the time to go is now.

Engle started running rivers as a student at Western Washington University (WWU) and has never looked back. He started his own company, Hobo Expeditions, named after an insult hurled at him by a rival outfitter who felt they were too slow getting underway one summer on the Tieton River near White Pass. “This ain’t Hobo Expeditions, ya know!” he yelled.

But for a number of years it was proudly and exactly that. Later Engle bought out Wild and Scenic River Tours and with it their permit to operate on the Nooksack, and is now, with the exception of a couple of weeks, the only active outfitter on the river. With his ability to accept drop-ins and an array of equipment that could outfit the average high school, Engle has made river running as convenient as buying a hamburger at Graham’s up the street.

“I tried going rafting before,” said customer Dick Turner, “but got stood up three times in a row by another operator. These guys are right here all the time, and they like what they do, and they’re good.”

Reservations are still a good idea, especially as the season nears its end, but there’s almost always room. Engle has also has a perfect safety record, never giving anyone so much as a nosebleed in 10 years on the river.

We started by signing releases, paying for our trip (prices run from $79 for a straight run to $89 for a trip with a lunch stop; seniors and youth get a $20 discount) and donning wet suits, booties, paddling shirts, helmets and life jackets.

We piled into “Brown Betty,” one of the vans Engle uses to shuttle people to the put-in at the bridge near the Fir Campground east of Glacier. At the put-in we were advised by a volunteer river steward from the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association to watch out for spawning salmon and not disturb the gravel. Then Clabaugh took over, and any thoughts of these guys being anything but thoroughly professional was quickly put to rest.

Clabaugh, a professional ski patrolman at Steven’s Pass in the winter, gave a 10-minute orientation that stressed survival techniques and ways to avoid falling out of the raft. “But if you should, here’s what to do,” he said.

That finished, we carried the smallish 13-foot raft down to the river. It can hold up to seven but today there were just four of us, including Clabaugh, making it a little more maneuverable and downright fun. Our feet were jammed under the seats or into stirrups, and hanging on was easy. Sort of.

We quickly made our way downstream to the Nozzle, the beginning of the Canyon Run that makes this a Mecca for whitewater types from all over the area. The water was cold, about 40 degrees, and we saw the odd spawning salmon jumping as if to warm up a little in the hot summer sun.

Clabaugh ran us through other rapids with names like the Turtle and the Waterslides. The rapids were a consistent class III, bordering on class IV at times. The scale runs from I, flat water, to VI, unrunnable froth. Rest assured that there’s plenty of action and at the end you’ll be exhausted and happy, like water skiing only warmer.

The day is divided around a lunch stop that features tasty food, a horseshoe pit and a outcrop of “mudstone” that yields leaf and palm fossils 60 to 70 million years old, before there were mountains and the whitewater that goes with them.

We watched raptors, woodpeckers, jumping fish and thought we might just see a bear or two. Too soon we floated down by the Green Bridge and the old railroad trestle bridge piers and the take-out.

The whole trip lasted about four hours including lunch. Shorter three-hour trips without lunch run in the afternoons. For more information call Wild and Scenic River Tours at 360/599-3115, or go to www.wildandscenic.com.