The Sultan River has the potential for spectacular whitewater kayaking.
Kayakers have had few chances to take advantage of it for decades, however. Culmback Dam holds back the river for Spada Lake, which supplies drinking water for most of Snohomish County and generates power for the Snohomish County Public Utilities District.
Now, though, kayakers are guaranteed a few chances each year to go play on the river, with advance notice.
When the dam was relicensed in 2011, the agreement included a requirement that the PUD must consider recreation when managing the dam.
For kayakers, that means they will get at least four chances a year to kayak the river below the dam. The first will be April 25.
“It’s 14 miles of class IV whitewater in a pretty spectacular scenic gorge,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater. “There’s really nothing like this around here that has that quality of whitewater.”
And it’s close. It’s just over an hour drive from Everett to the trailhead.
Keith Binkley, natural resources manager for the PUD, says the river has a lot to offer kayakers.
“They get the remoteness, they get the easy access, they get the thrill. And it all can be done in the course of a day.”
Twice each year, the PUD will give two weeks advance notice that water will be released from the dam. In addition, the PUD will inform boaters of at least two other water releases. These releases will be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance to take advantage of heavy rainfall or other times that the utility might need to release water.
“With a natural river, (kayakers) have an idea of what will happen with certain weather systems,” O’Keefe said. “The dam changes that. With this agreement, the utility must give more information.”
Binkley said that before, when kayakers wouldn’t get advance notice of paddling opportunities, people would go to great lengths to go paddling when the weather required the PUD to release water from the dam.
“Even if snow is on the ground, if there was an event, people would even go and call in sick to work,” he said.
The advance notice will give kayakers more chances to paddle and plan ahead a bit.
Back in 2007, the PUD released water from the dam over several days. Kayakers paddled the river at the various flows, and then rated their experiences. Using that information, they worked out a rough range of what is the best flow for kayakers. Too much water and the features get washed out and river is too wild. Too little water and it’s too difficult to get through. Somewhere in the middle is a good balance of technical paddling challenge and the thrill of fast-flowing water.
Balancing water use is a challenge that requires a lot of careful planning. For example, the PUD must release water for salmon at various times. When possible, these releases can be paired with water releases that also let kayakers use the river.
When kayakers head out to explore the river in April, they won’t know what they’re going to find. The river hasn’t been paddled much in years, and a lot could have changed. There’s an area that has had a history of landslides, and that could have changed the river. Also, without the natural flow of floods, debris can build up on the river.
O’Keefe saw a recent video of the river taken from a helicopter. While that can’t show everything, it did assure him there aren’t any massive problems.
That said, it won’t be completely smooth paddling. Kayakers are going to have to work for it in some places.
“There will definitely be wood and a few portages,” he said. “But I didn’t see anything that was going to be a complete disaster. It’s a pretty typical northwest river. There’s a lot of wood and you’ve got to be careful.”
When kayakers head out to paddle the river, they’ll be taking advantage of a new trail. Previous access was on an eroding path. The Sultan River Canyon Trail was constructed to allow access to the river for kayakers and hikers. The trip begins near Culmback Dam. For about 1.5 miles it follows an old road before heading down the trail, which is just over a mile.
“It’s quite a scenic trail,” said Eric Schneider, principal engineer for the PUD, who led the trail development work. “I’m excited about how it turned out. It really turned out quite nice.”
If you go
On April 25, beginning at 7 a.m., water will be released from the Culmback Dam at Spada Lake for five to six hours. The river will slowly rise to an optimal level for whitewater recreation by mid-morning and kayakers will be able to ride that wave of water downstream to a few different options for takeout, including at Trout Lake Road, the Jackson Powerhouse or where the Sultan River meets the Skykomish River. O’Keefe says the trip would take roughly four hours, depending upon skill level and how far the kayaker paddles. The river is class IV and, because it hasn’t been paddled recently, may have unknown obstacles.
Access to the put-in spot requires hiking about 2.5 miles. The access is partially on a decommissioned road and partially on a new trail.
Jessi Loerch: firstname.lastname@example.org, 425-339-3046.