We float effortlessly, sunlight twinkling off the slow-moving water all around us on this warm August day. The five of us and our big yellow inflatable raft are one with the Wenatchee River as it makes its way southeast toward its confluence with the mighty Columbia some dozen miles downstream.
But just as I’m starting to kick into full-on daydream mode, all heck breaks loose. Our guide, Tom, who has been leading trips down this river on behalf of Blue Sky Outfitters for more than a decade and knows this stretch cold, goes into Incredible Hulk mode, rising up from his previously meditative position toward the stern and barking commands, telling us when and where to paddle as he threads the needle through the rapids threatening to swamp our raft.
As we slip through the day’s first big chute of water, our boat lists to the left and almost sends Max, my 8-year-old son, overboard into the ice-cold river. But just as it looks inevitable that Max will take a dip, the roller coaster ride abruptly ends, and we drop down, leveling off into the slow-running current.
“Better than coffee, eh?” Tom bellows with a chuckle. He’s right, because I certainly am awake now.
Down we float, riding the river at a pace slightly faster than walking speed, our splashed bathing suits starting to dry in the air and sun. Tranquility returns to the boat, and we all settle back again, lazily dipping an occasional paddle into the water and blissing out to the perfect blue-sky, 80-degree conditions. Nothing beats August in Washington state.
The Wenatchee’s popularity with rafters (during the April‒August season, you’ll see dozens of boats making their way down the river) may be because of its unique geological constitution. Sandstone cliffs—not big boulders, like in most rafting rivers—extend across the river as ledges punctuating an otherwise smooth ride. Rafters and their guiding companies typically focus on the rapids-rich 17-mile stretch between Leavenworth and Cashmere, though the river’s entire run, from its headwaters at Lake Wenatchee down to its meeting with the Columbia River, is longer.
The Wenatchee is also a river that allows rafters some flexibility. On this half-day trip, we are spending a little less than two hours on the water, traversing 10 miles and running seven Class III and III+ rapids, which are spaced just right to make you almost forget that another one is coming up.
But another one is coming up. Tom’s posture stiffens and his jokey demeanor turns serious—and we have all been in the boat long enough now to know it’s time to buck up for another wild ride.
“Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” roars our again transformed Hulk-ish guide. “Left side hard! Left side hard!”
The raft sidles against a ledge, and we are momentarily stuck. For the first time in an hour, we are not moving with the river. With tension building as river water rushes in around us trying to pry us off the ledge and into the water, the seconds pass interminably.
But then Tom sticks his oar out and gives a strategically placed shove off the ledge, freeing the boat and its half-ton human cargo—and sending us shooting out of the rapid into calmer waters. I wonder if he does this move every time he runs the river, to give his customers a little extra excitement and a taste for living on the edge.
It may be just another day out on the Wenatchee for Tom, but for my family, it’s an epic adventure we’ll always remember.
If You Go
Blue Sky Outfitters is one of several companies leading trips down the Wenatchee during the April–August season; it offers half-day ($88/adult, $78/child) and full-day ($102/adult, $92/child) trips. Half-day trips travel down 10 miles of the river, and full-day trips, 17 miles. Each includes bus transportation from the parking lot outside of company headquarters (Leavenworth, 900 Front St.) to the takeout spot at Cashmere’s Rive rside Park (where the company produces a post-rafting barbecue) to the launch point, either 10 or 17 miles upstream. 800.228.7238.
Rating the Rapids
River rapids are classified in a standard way, based on the challenge of getting through them, which is largely determined by the speed of the river current, and the obstacles and hazards that must be navigated. The easiest classification is Class I; the most difficult is VI. Class V and VI rapids are considered dangerous to extremely hazardous and should only be attempted by the most experienced paddlers.