Mt St Helens Cowlitz River Canoeing

And a river runs through it. A couple of rivers, in fact, in the Mt. St. Helens area are interesting paddling. But the Cowlitz is special; a mountain stream accessible year-round. The Southwest Washington Canoe Club recently did this excursion. You are invited on similar excursions in the future.

Cowlitz River
Castle Rock to
Gearhart Gardens Park

Interpretive Canoe Trail

Southwest Washington
Canoe Club Guide
by Richard Irwin

It is very fortunate that Peg Miller (our local canoe partner, contact) is retired as it would be hard to imagine her squeezing anything else in a very active life that includes writing, ballroom dancing, and canoeing.

This sixteen mile section of the river is all flatwater, although the current is strong. There are no real obstructions or hazards; at low water there are numerous sand bars.

The land along the river is more heavily populated and developed; the main line of the Burlington Northem Railroad between Portland and Seattle runs along the rivers east side. Consequently, the wealth of animal life seen on the upper river is not much in evidence here. The lower river is, however, a Mecca for sports fishermen. There are runs of Chinook (King) Salmon and Silver (Coho) Salmon, Steelhead, and the Cowlitz is considered one of the best, in the fall, for Sea-run Cutthroat (Harvest Trout). The river’s most unusual attraction though is the smelt run. Sometime between the middle of February and the first week of April normally, tens of thousands of the tasty smelt (Eulachon) school and run u
p the river to spawn. During this time, local commercial operators ship smelt all over the United States, and people come hundreds of miles to get their share. The tong-handled dip net is the weapon of choice, and people dip from boats or the shore. Occasionally, for mysterious reasons, the smelt do not come at all. According to the Indians, they were once absent for seventeen years.

Castle Rock (Pop. 2,055)

The town was founded by William Huntington in 1852 and named after a large rock, 150 feet high and covering an acre, just south of the present town Castle Rock fairgrounds, at the budge on the west bank, is a convenient launching and takeout point. Castle Rock was just east of the old, original military road between Monticello (now Longview) and Olympia, a major landing for the steamboats between 1852 and 1915, when the Pacific Highway came into use, and an early station on the Northern Pacific railroad, which was completed in 1873.

Along the east side of the river is a formidable dike constructed of rock. This diking at Castle Rock, as well as the other diking downstream at Lexington, Kelso, and Longview, was erected by the U. S. Corps of Engineers following the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. On that day not only an increased! volume of water but also, literally, a river of hot mud, volcanic ash, and logs swept down the Toutle River and into the Cowlitz a few miles north of Castle Rock. This ugly tide lapped at the top of the old dikes and created considerable anxiety. Artificial lakes with unstable debris dams appeared upstream on the Toutle. The dikes were a necessary emergency measure to deal with the possibility of future eruptions and floods.

But an estimated thirty three million cubic yards of ash, sand, and silt had washed into the tower Cowlitz, reducing its channel flow capacity by as much as 80 percent. Elevating dike levels alone would not safeguard the valley and the towns along it. It was feared that the oncoming seasonal winter rains could not be held within the shallow stream bed. So the Corps of Engineers undertook to dredge the entire river from the Columbia up to Castle Rock as a "crash" project. In an extraordinary effort, this was achieved before the end of the year.

From Lions Club Park down to Sandy Bend on the rivers west side huge deposits of these dredge spoils can be seen. They appear as low, flat-topped, gray hills, devoid of trees.

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