Yesterday I watched the cliff I had just paddled under minutes before give way, an avalanche that dammed the entire river with a pile of rocks, dirt, and broken trees. It turned the river off for 15 minutes. The last member of our party to go through there had come out 2 minutes before. We were on the Sultan River, just downstream of Marsh Creek Rapid, which is no more. I will claim the distinction of having the last descent of said rapid, which now lies under 30 feet of water, backed up behind the landslide. It was a good line, worthy of the rapid. When the next group coming downriver arrived, it was underwater.

Just downstream of the rapid, before the landslide occurred, there were some fresh trees in the river. Our group moved through pretty quickly, pulling our boats over the wood without really considering where it had come from. Wood in the river is so common in the northwest that we didn’t bother considering where it had come from. Looking back, it seems obvious that it had come from the right bank, 300 feet up. Probably within the hour.As we were crossing the trees, we noticed some rocks coming off the wall on river right — some of them big enough to kill a person. We got out of there as quickly as we could, and then realized that our friends were still upstream — we didn’t want them to blunder into that, so we hung out just downstream, waiting to warn them. As we waited, more and more rocks came off the cliff, and for moments there it looked like the river upstream of us was being hit by artillery.One of our party started shooting video, just in time to catch the main event. We saw hundreds of tons of the cliff pile into the riverbed, damming the river up to 30 feet above current levels. This sent a 5′ wave headed downriver,and chunks of flying tree and rock flew to within feet of where we were, some 200 yards away.

As the water flowed away, leaving salmon struggling to find the deeper parts, we looked around (pretty much stunned) and then realized that we were standing downstream of an unproven dam, in a gorge, without enough water to paddle away.

We got to higher ground, and I started up the river right wall to be able to signal the group that was coming downstream of the situation. By the time they arrived, the river had crested the dam, and was shedding torrents of mud and mangled trees. The rapid caused by the flow was a nightmare of settling boulders, embedded logs, and just plain bad news. And more importantly, the only available portage route was under this wall, which was still periodically showering boulders. With a little yelling and waving and whistle blowing from my perch on the wall, I managed to convey to them that crossing that slide was a terrible idea.

The next torrent of falling rocks explained to them what I was yelling about. Of course, that left us with one choice — send them up the river left wall and out of the gorge. We split the downstream party, sending 4 downstream to handle shuttle, while Andrew and I cached our boats up a gully and climbed out of the gorge with all of our ropes and rescue tackle — after all, we didn’t even know if there was a place where they could get out without top rope support. Even with the extra help, it took all our remaining daylight to get everyone out of the gorge, at which point we left our boats and gear and began the process of bushwhacking to the nearest road. Several steep pitches later, we spotted a light, and headed toward it — the promise of a road was highly alluring after blundering through blow down areas in the dark, with the temperature dropping to the 30s.

In the dark, we could hear from across the gorge continuing periodic avalanches. Remarkably, we all made it out with no injuries, and in high spirits. The fact that we blundered out of the woods and into a nudist colony didn’t even phase us. A day that began at 5:30 am and a 70 minute hike into the river was complete at 8:30 pm (3 hours after sunset) when we reached our vehicles. Food and beer never tasted so good.

by Greg Paul
From a post on Boatertalk via “Paddle Talk” — newsletter of the Conewago Canoe Club.