Looking downriver from the Chelan Dam, it’s hard to imagine the volume of water that carved this gorge through Chelan, Washington. For three fleeting weekends last year, paddlers were satisfied to take advantage of a modest 400 cfs release.

Working together to save the dammed

An agreement made in 2006 between American Whitewater, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the local energy agency is the basis for a three-year flow feasibility study that concludes this year. The project’s outcomes will include a recreational resource management plan that directly addresses the needs of whitewater paddlers.

Last July and September, the ongoing work of Thomas O’Keefe and American Whitewater gave paddlers the opportunity to demonstrate safe use of the waterway.

“The utility, federal regulators and the local community will be carefully evaluating the outcome of these releases,” says O’Keefe. “The success of the weekends is judged not on the number of paddlers or the number of trips, but on our ability to be safe.”

whitewater kayakers in the Chelan Gorge in Washington
Easier to get out than in. | Feature photo: Dan Patrinellis

Before putting in, paddlers were greeted by project leader Kris Pomianek and two security guards. They were required to sign in and were issued permits following a briefing on what was expected of them during the day’s descent. Pomianek told paddlers, “Because these releases are part of a study required by the FERC, the local utility takes things very seriously.”

Authorities originally objected to these releases over concerns surrounding hazards known to lay hidden within the gorge. Although short, the run brims with horizon lines, class V drops and vertical walls, constantly reminding paddlers that there is no easy exit from the gorge. At one set of rapids, The Point of No Return is crudely spray-painted on a rock face.

Paddlers can be optimistic about their playgrounds

The initial study only allows access for hard-shelled kayaks. O’Keefe implored boaters to respect the policy and insisted that access for inflatables could be explored when the management plan is revisited at the end of this year.

The efforts of O’Keefe and a small group of Washington boaters resonate with paddlers across the U.S. and Canada who are fighting for shared access to their local waterways. This project makes it clear that with a willingness to work alongside authorities and compromise, paddlers have reason to be optimistic about reclaiming their playgrounds.

Referring to the Chelan Gorge, O’Keefe speaks to whitewater activists everywhere. “Our actions will have implications for the future of this run and other regulated rivers across the continent.”

Dan Patrinellis was thrilled to join a group of paddlers taking part in the test release on the Chelan Gorge last summer. For more info on this and other river stewardship projects visit www.americanwhitewater.org.

Cover of Spring 2011 issue of Rapid MagazineThis article was first published in the Spring 2011 issue of Rapid Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

These swashbucklers make breaking world records seem as easy as crossing the street. | Feature photo: Gabriel Rivett-Carnac



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