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Rain, Rescue and Rattlesnakes


The clouds hung over Vancouver like an early summer cold. The congestion and misery refused to fade even for Canada Day. I wanted out. Reports from a desert-like dry belt running through Washington state seemed too good to be true: "Only nine days of rain a year over the third-deepest lake in America."

 

Brian, an adventurous South African and university friend, and I set out from Vancouver in the middle of a two-week deluge. We took everything we needed to explore the dry shore of 55-mile-long but barely 2-mile-wide Lake Chelan. Little did we know at the start of our journey that we were trading a bad weather system for a very different but worse one, that our lives would soon be in danger, and that we would be hailed as heroes for our part in a rescue operation.

My boat trailered pleasantly over the North Cascades Highway. The rain intensified as we threaded our way up into the mountains in search of a drier climate. Unable to find a campsite in total darkness and heavy rain, we slept in the car.

At night, the Cascades had concealed their secrets, but morning light revealed a waterfall flowing into a rocky gorge. Excited by the full glory of the mountain range, we drove on - past the Dam of the Devil (Diablo Dam) and down into the dry scrub of the Wild West. Winthrop, our first stop, was an old Western town that hadn't changed much since it was a frontier outpost.

The Diablo Dam rises up to block a canyon. My car is the red speck on the left side of the dam.Lake Chelan beckoned us from beyond the heat shimmering roads, apple trees and lakeside village of Chelan. The town had that "stay and play" feel. Tanned vacationers walked the streets, a rare site for Washington, and yes, Vancouver, where skins tend to stay pale all summer. Everyone was friendly and eager to help us, but when we asked a Chamber of Commerce representative where to find an inexpensive boat ramp and parking we came to a dead end. So we turned to the locals for information. One was kind enough to lead us to a free local launching ramp.

Later that afternoon we launched on to the cool waters of Chelan. A stiff wind was churning the water into white caps. Returning boaters told stories of waves so high they would break over the bow forcing them to turn back. No one had made it to the village of Stehekin, 55 miles up lake.

At its deepest point the bottom of Lake Chelan lies 300 feet below sea level. Bathed in beautiful colors and surrounded by wilderness, the lake has the color and remote feel of an ocean.

Our campsite across from 25 Mile Creek. Our first destination was a campground across from 25 Mile Creek (pronounced "Crick" by locals). We set out hugging the shoreline so we could examine the parade of unique houses passing by. Some, like swamp dwellings, were hanging completely over the water and were painted in brilliant colors. Others were stately manors, cabins and seaside villas sitting side by side. One house was surrounded by white sand like a beachfront California residence - so out of place for a Washington lake.

We, too, looked out of place. At a time when few boats dared to be out, our 12-foot white Zodiac put on a conspicuous battle with the cresting whitecaps. At 25 Mile Creek the waves shot spray over the 10-foot cement breakwater. When we finally arrived, we felt like heroes who had conquered a fortress. Fellow boaters welcomed us, eager to hear our story and share tales of bravery upon the lake. Several boats had been stuck there for days, unable to continue but unwilling to be driven back by the wind and waves. Some tried to leave but hastily retreated when hit by the full brunt of the storm. Yet there was hope: dawn would bring peace and renewed attempts by many to reach the now-mythical Stehekin, an isolated community at the top of the lake.

Dawn broke and so did the waves. They were smaller now, but not quite as calm as is typical for that time of the morning. We set out beating into the waves, eager to make headway before the wind picked up. At Safety Harbor, protected from the worst of the onslaught, we docked to warm our numb fingers and stinging faces. It was comforting to feel the firmness of dry land. Our only company was a cabin cruiser holed up for relief on its return journey. We, too, beat a retreat until we found a beautiful spot sheltered by a wooden breakwater called Mitchell Creek. The cost of attempting to conquer the powerful lake was simply too high.The view from the mountain above our campsite at Mitchell Creek

That afternoon, after a moody hailstorm, the lake settled down, though it reflected the angry colors of storm clouds. We made a run for Stehekin. Compared to 25 Mile Creek, nature was in its full glory. The scenery slowly changed from scrub and rattlesnakes to evergreens and grizzly bears as we approached the north end of the lake. The waves grew higher and our stops became more frequent. The occasional hailstorm left red marks on our faces. We explored the bays and campgrounds for relief from the battering lake. Everything was deserted – surprising for the Fourth of July. We stopped at Lucerne, the gateway to the Christian village of Holden, but it was almost deserted. Things had gone from bad to worse and we felt the need to leave for calmer, warmer, southern waters.

We slowly rode the waves for 20 miles without a soul in sight. Immediately beyond Safety Harbor we saw a procession of color in the middle of the lake. We moved closer to investigate and found an overturned boat occasionally disappearing into the troughs of the chilly 5-foot waves. Two shivering souls clutched to the bottom of an aluminum hull rolling in the swell. We moved in and dragged the two survivors aboard our tiny craft. They were too weak with cold to pull themselves aboard, each clinging to a particularly prized or important possession. The lake washed in floating supplies and equipment. Another aluminum boat appeared beside us, the skipper had jettisoned his gear; brought his passengers to shore and returned to aid in the rescue. They had been in convoy and had almost suffered the same sinking fate. Battered by waves and drowning in water, it looked like a leaf on an ocean, trembling in the wind. They were ill prepared for any rescue and once everyone was safe they quickly retreated to shore. With lake water pouring off the clothing of the people we had rescued, we too were starting to take on a little water.

The couple we had rescued had set out with friends in the now-empty boat: five people in two separate boats overloaded with supplies. They had overshot their campsite by five miles, and waves had begun to fill their boats faster then they could bail. Finally a wave swamped an engine and left the boat to the mercy of the wind. It quickly filled with water and capsized. They were not the first casualties that day, many had left the harbor to lose half their supplies to waves that swept like thieves over the decks of boats. Mercifully, our Zodiac took the punishment without so much as a complaint. We were dry and enjoying the rodeo on the high seas.

After dropping our passengers on shore, we set out on a clean-up operation. An empty cooler, a sleeping bag, a life jacket, and a bag of bread: all were collected and returned to their owners. We made three trips in all. Six cans of V8 juice bobbed past us like a row of ducks. We even had to stop once to bail the water and switch gas tanks. A necessary tango in a sea of high drama. Within 15 minutes everything else was lost, either sunken or dispersed too far to find. It was impossible to secure a line to the overturned boat so all we could do was return to civilization and call for help.

It was two hours before a rescue team showed up. By then a local had intercepted the radio transmission and done a rescue mission of his own. Hungry and cold, we retreated to our campsite late that night. We had requested an escort but those aboard the police craft declined. They said they would check on us later. So off we went without running lights, out of the harbor into pitch-black swells. After a slow, cautious trip of slamming into inky black waves that were one with the dark sky we arrived safely and went directly to sleep.

he view from the front of my boat. At this stage the wind had died down.On Saturday we left. The weather was not cooperating and we were gaining quite the reputation with a small bunch of boaters and local rescuers. We followed the famous Cascade Loop home. Lake Chelan had proved too much for us but at least we survived and made a few friends in the process.

Contact Info:

For more information on the lake go to www.lakechelan.com or phone 1-800-4-CHELAN.

And for more information on the beautiful Cascade Loop go to www.cascadeloop.com or phone (509) 662.3888.

The view from the mountain above our campsite at Mitchell Creek

That afternoon, after a moody hailstorm, the lake settled down, though it reflected the angry colors of storm clouds. We made a run for Stehekin. Compared to 25 Mile Creek, nature was in its full glory. The scenery slowly changed from scrub and rattlesnakes to evergreens and grizzly bears as we approached the north end of the lake. The waves grew higher and our stops became more frequent. The occasional hailstorm left red marks on our faces. We explored the bays and campgrounds for relief from the battering lake. Everything was deserted surprising for the Fourth of July. We stopped at Lucerne, the gateway to the Christian village of Holden, but it was almost deserted. Things had gone from bad to worse and we felt the need to leave for calmer, warmer, southern waters.

We slowly rode the waves for 20 miles without a soul in sight. Immediately beyond Safety Harbor we saw a procession of color in the middle of the lake. We moved closer to investigate and found an overturned boat occasionally disappearing into the troughs of the chilly 5-foot waves. Two shivering souls clutched to the bottom of an aluminum hull rolling in the swell. We moved in and dragged the two survivors aboard our tiny craft. They were too weak with cold to pull themselves aboard, each clinging to a particularly prized or important possession. The lake washed in floating supplies and equipment. Another aluminum boat appeared beside us, the skipper had jettisoned his gear; brought his passengers to shore and returned to aid in the rescue. They had been in convoy and had almost suffered the same sinking fate. Battered by waves and drowning in water, it looked like a leaf on an ocean, trembling in the wind. They were ill prepared for any rescue and once everyone was safe they quickly retreated to shore. With lake water pouring off the clothing of the people we had rescued, we too were starting to take on a little water.

The couple we had rescued had set out with friends in the now-empty boat: five people in two separate boats overloaded with supplies. They had overshot their campsite by five miles, and waves had begun to fill their boats faster then they could bail. Finally a wave swamped an engine and left the boat to the mercy of the wind. It quickly filled with water and capsized. They were not the first casualties that day, many had left the harbor to lose half their supplies to waves that swept like thieves over the decks of boats. Mercifully, our Zodiac took the punishment without so much as a complaint. We were dry and enjoying the rodeo on the high seas.

After dropping our passengers on shore, we set out on a clean-up operation. An empty cooler, a sleeping bag, a life jacket, and a bag of bread: all were collected and returned to their owners. We made three trips in all. Six cans of V8 juice bobbed past us like a row of ducks. We even had to stop once to bail the water and switch gas tanks. A necessary tango in a sea of high drama. Within 15 minutes everything else was lost, either sunken or dispersed too far to find. It was impossible to secure a line to the overturned boat so all we could do was return to civilization and call for help.

It was two hours before a rescue team showed up. By then a local had intercepted the radio transmission and done a rescue mission of his own. Hungry and cold, we retreated to our campsite late that night. We had requested an escort but those aboard the police craft declined. They said they would check on us later. So off we went without running lights, out of the harbor into pitch-black swells. After a slow, cautious trip of slamming into inky black waves that were one with the dark sky we arrived safely and went directly to sleep.

he view from the front of my boat. At this stage the wind had died down.On Saturday we left. The weather was not cooperating and we were gaining quite the reputation with a small bunch of boaters and local rescuers. We followed the famous Cascade Loop home. Lake Chelan had proved too much for us but at least we survived and made a few friends in the process.

Contact Info:

For more information on the lake go to www.lakechelan.com or phone 1-800-4-CHELAN.

And for more information on the beautiful Cascade Loop go to www.cascadeloop.com or phone (509) 662.3888.