Trip Report: High Flows on the Muddy Toutle - Jan 2021, ~6000 cfs

High Flows on the Muddy Toutle

Submitted by Scott Harvey


Steve falls.jpgAfter several days of heavy rains back in January of this year, the Toutle River spiked to a monstrous flow of 20,000 cfs! At which point I was wondering, how high is actually too high for either rafting or cat-boating the Toutle. I’ve run the 10 mile stretch of the Toutle River that includes the Hollywood Gorge section several times between the flows of 2,200 cfs and 3,800 cfs. So obviously, with two steep walled gorges located in this section of river, 20,000 cfs would be thunderous with massive holes and a swim at those flows would be dire. After a couple days, the Toutle quickly dropped to around 8,000 cfs in flows and the weekend was in sight. Steve Oslund sent me a text regarding getting on the water for some boating this weekend. I texted him back saying I was kind of eye-balling the Toutle River. Next thing I knew, Steve replied back saying I’ve never run the Toutle River, so let’s do this! I figured this would be an opportunity to check out some higher flows. So come Saturday morning the flows were hovering around 6,000 cfs. I met up with Steve and five other cat-boaters, Skip Currier, Shane Testerman, Nate Soukesian, Bob and Shannon Smejkal who also haven’t boated this stretch of the Toutle as well.  

staircase.jpgWe ran shuttle driving east on highway 504 and then turning left off highway 504 onto Tower Road. After 3 miles you’ll come to Tower Road Bridge and on the right Woodard-Gould State Park the take-out (Discovery Pass Required). Leaving a vehicle at the take-out, we continued east on Tower Road, crossing the bridge and driving roughly 9 to 10 miles until we came to Hwy 504. Turn right and proceed 2 miles, crossing over the Toutle River again and into the small town of Toutle. Turn left on South Toutle Road and continue a mile or so until you cross over the South Fork Toutle River Bridge, the launch site. 

Photos:  Steve Oslund entering Holly woodGorge Falls, Staircase Rapids at 5600 cfs

skip surf.jpgIt was a sunny and mild day for January as we topped off our boats and dry suited up. Once on the water, it’s a couple hundred yards until we hit the grey, muddy flows of the North Fork Toutle River confluence. Here the volume more than doubles and is a pleasant one mile float until you approach the first canyon section. When the canyon starts closing in you’ll first notice both truck and house-sized boulders. This is where the series of class III to III+ rapids kick-in that consists of Staircase, Teakettle and numerous other rapids. At the higher river flows that we were boating which were around 5,600 cfs, the truck and some of the semi truck-sized boulders were under water which in return created large waves and holes in their place. It was an entertaining and lively section of the canyon, but I was surprised at just how much more powerful this higher flow was compared to the lower flows that I’ve experienced on previous runs.  

Photo: Skip Currier below Teakettle Rapids

boats on beach.jpgAfter the first canyon the river settles into class II rapids and then opens up into a broad valley with numerous braided channels to choose from that shift from year to year. At lower flows there’s a good chance that you’ll bottom out if you take the wrong braided channel. After a couple miles, we entered the lower canyon. The walls closed in and the class II+ to class III rapids started up.

Shannon boat.jpgYou’ll know when you’re approaching the class IV drop of Hollywood Gorge Falls. The basalt cliffs along with a steep walled gorge appear. A distinct horizon line with a deep roar will greet you. Pull off to the right bank to scout and be careful of the quicksand mud and ash along the shoreline. Carefully scout your run. At our higher flows, the large center rock at the beginning of the drop as covered and had created a huge center hole. The best route when running Hollywood Gouge Falls is to run the left side of the entry hole at the beginning of the drop and then pull hard right to miss the lower thrashing hole towards the bottom left. It sounds easy enough, but with the greater river flows it takes some brawn and might to pull away from the powerful suction of the lower hole.  Not everyone made it as the surging hole claimed one victim and two others were pulled in but successfully made it through.  

Shannon upside down.jpgAfter righting the cat-boat and a couple of light-hearted laughs, we were off to run the remainder of the class 3 and 2 rapids in the lower gorge. The river starts letting up and houses start to appear on the right bank. Once the bridge is in sight, be ready to take out just upstream of the bridge on the left. There’s a single lane gravel road that you can back down on to load up your boat.  

Photos: Boats above Hollywood Gorge Falls,  Shannon Smejkal doing a tail stand in a Hollywood Gorge Hole, Not all holes are punchable (Shannon's boat)

toutle group.jpgDespite the eruption of Mount St. Helens was over 40 years ago, the massive mud flows and devastation that accompanied the eruption is still very much evident. Deep ash and silt deposits shift from year to year. The combination of thick grey muddy banks and the equally muddy water creates an eerie yet exciting feel to this trip on a rainy winter day.  

The Toutle River is best boated from November through March or April during the rainy season. The bottom end for rafting is around 1,500 cfs on the USGS gauge for the Toutle River at Tower Road. It’s around 10 miles in length and drops at roughly 32 feet per mile with a river time of 3 to 4 hours to float.

Photo: Toutle Crew.  All photos by Scott Harvey.