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White Salmon and Klickitat Rivers

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Husum Falls whitewater a real rush

By Scott Sandsberry, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: Sunday, July 24, 2011

HUSUM -- There isn't much to this tiny, unincorporated community in western Klickitat County. Its meager population is dispersed in the farmlands up and down the two-lane road, State Route 141, that winds through Husum on its way from White Salmon to Trout Lake.

On summer weekends, though, the shoulders of that road are lined with parked cars and the walking bridge overlooking the White Salmon River is filled with onlookers. The hub of activity: Husum Falls, a Mecca for whitewater rafting thrill-seekers.

With a vertical drop of some 14 feet, Husum Falls is believed to be the largest waterfall commercially run by paddle rafts. In most years it provides rafters a few seconds of high-adrenaline thrills -- butterflies of nervous anticipation, then brief whoops during the descent and, finally, peals of laughter and sheepish relief.

Repeat: most years. That's what it should be like this year. But not two years ago.

In 2009, it got downright scary.

"It used to be really predictable," recalls rafting guide Sean Woody. "It was like, if you do your stuff right and all your people do their stuff right, it'll work out. "Then 2009 came around."

"In O-nine," recalls Mark Zoller, owner and lead guide of Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys, "Husum Falls was treacherous."

During one of the high-water snowmelt runoffs that spring, two dead trees -- one of them quite large -- got jammed into the rock formation at the top of the waterfall. The falls are generally too dangerous during high early-season flows for rafts to run anyway, but the trees created a hazard nonetheless.

"Some people, when they run the falls, they don't scout (downriver) like they're supposed to," says Karen Driver, who operates All Adventures Rafting. "And kayakers are crazy -- they'll do it anyway, even with a tree in it. Somebody would have got hurt if they hadn't taken it out."

Fearful of just such a development, the Forest Service arranged with a logging contractor to bring in a crane and haul out the trees. But the damage had been done. The waterfall had changed.

Sand and sediment, perhaps slowed and blocked by the trees -- instead of flowing through the waterfall as before -- accumulated at the base of the falls. Later that year, one of Zoller's guides took his scuba gear and dived under Husum Falls -- something he did routinely to salvage some of the rings, watches and sunglasses lost by rafters at that spot -- and found that the river base below the falls had risen 6 feet.

In the past, rafts following the classic line along the widest flow between the rocks would slam into the water at the base of the waterfalls, the rafters would all get a little wet -- perhaps one or two might be in for a little swim -- and the raft would bob back up safely beyond the turbulence.

Not anymore.

"You couldn't punch that anymore. It backed you up," Driver says. "And people that were 120 pounds or less, if they fell out, the river just yanked them back underneath the waterfall. It was scary. It never used to do that. The river always used to push you away from the falls, not pull you back into it."

Zoller and his son, Zach -- who's also a guide -- were assessing the waterfall early that summer when some private rafters experienced those hydraulic gymnastics in action.

"We watched this boat come over and they dumped it, and this person got sucked down for 15, maybe 20 seconds," Zoller recalls. "That's an eternity underwater."

Though the person eventually popped to the surface and swam out, the incident heralded the new -- if temporary -- reality at Husum Falls. Rafts flipping over, once a rarity, became commonplace.

Zoller's outfit had been running about 1,600 raft trips down the White Salmon annually, and the number of rafts that flipped per year at Husum Falls was five. "In 2009," he says, "I stopped counting rafts that flipped at 30. It ate us up."

Woody had such a wild ride, he is now jokingly referred to as the only person who's ever gone down Husum Falls twice in 5 seconds. The bow of his raft hit the new sandbar beneath the base of the falls and bounded straight back nearly to the top of the falls -- "like a salmon jumping upstream," Zoller chuckles.

"We'd never seen anything like that happen before," Woody says. "That year, no matter what kind of training you put your people through, no matter how dialed in you were on your line, you could flip. It didn't seem to matter what you did."

Things at Husum Falls got a little more predictable in 2010 and the presumption is that the first big rain event on the White Salmon -- which is fed by a significant number of springs -- will flush out the rest of the sediment backup that caused the problem.

But there's another problem: Another couple of loose logs have gotten jammed onto the waterfall.

And as an officially designated Wild and Scenic River, federal guidelines demand the White Salmon "be preserved in free-flowing condition" -- meaning removing the logs can be a complicated issue.

Two years ago, Wild and Scenic River Manager Sue Baker, based in Hood River, Ore., was hoping for a high-water event to move the logs out before rafters began trying to negotiate the falls despite them. Then, she says, a highly experienced, capable kayaker preparing to run the falls decided at the last moment it wasn't safe and pulled off to the side.

If it wasn't navigable even by an expert's standards, Baker decided, it could be disastrous for audacious amateurs and had the logs removed. Even doing that generated some backlash because of the Wild and Scenic guidelines, but Baker had another mandate she could turn to. "I need to protect the outstanding values of the river, too," she says. "And one of them is its popularity as a whitewater rafting attraction."

Even if this year's jammed-up logs eventually wash through as expected, Baker remains a bit anxious about a possible repeat of 2009 -- and, as such, would much prefer to see inexperienced rafters going with professional guides than try Husum Falls on their own.

"You really have to know how water moves," she says. "That's why I really appreciate that we've got such great outfitters. They do that river every day. They know that river like the backs of their hands. That's the great thing about rivers is that they're living, changing things."

No one drowned that summer of 2009 at Husum Falls -- in fact, it's believed no river runner has ever drowned there -- but a lot of rafting clients swallowed a lot of river water.

"And boy, did we get some great photos," laughs Mark Zoller. "I sold more Husum Falls photos that year than ever before. Carnage sells.

"The guides say carnage pays. They get better tips when their rafts flip. Absolutely."

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