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Lake Chelan Shakedown

Published on 8/9/2014
By Brenna McVety   

 The Plan

Lake Chelan has long been on my list of kayaking adventures. This summer, I finally had the time and weather window to make this trip happen. I checked in with Dave Ortland, WKC President, shortly before departing. I let him know I was heading to Lake Chelan. I would load my kayak onto the ferry and ride to Stekehin, then paddle 50 miles back to Chelan. Simple lake with lots of campsites. No big deal, right? He indicated there was a very good chance I would not make it. I enjoy a good wilderness adventure and am usually not discouraged by better judgement. However, I respect Dave. And he was right. Unpredictable strong winds blowing across 50 miles of fetch quickly create 3+ foot chop. Wind speeds regularly hit 20 to 30+ mph. Combine the wind and waves with glacially fed cold water (approximately 50 degrees fahrenheit), depths that reach nearly 1,500 feet, and steep cliffs with heights of more than 1,000 feet, it is an easy place for kayakers to find trouble. Wind, waves, deep cold water, and long stretches with no place to take out. Damn. I would have to rethink this trip.

 The Boat

A friend with a 15 foot West Wight Potter sailboat presented a solution. We could sail the lake. It took a bit to convince me that sailing on a boat three feet shorter than my kayak would be a safer alternative. However, he sold me on the merits of the Potter (more about Potters). These tough little sailboats have crossed oceans. They are built to handle strong winds. Plus the fully retractable swing keel and kick-up rudder make them ideal for sailing in shallow water, which would be perfect for docking at the campsites on Chelan. He spent a year sailing this boat, Sea Biscuit, down the east coast, from Maryland through the Intercoastal Waterway to Florida, and assured me we would make it across Lake Chelan no matter the conditions. So, I agreed. With the stipulation that we would bring an inflatable kayak to explore some of the more remote areas of the lake. So we packed the Potter with enough food for a week, filled her tiny cabin with camping gear, lashed an inflatable kayak to her bow, and headed off to Lake Chelan.

 The Route

This would be a shakedown trip. We would get a feel for the conditions on the lake, and scope out take-outs and campgrounds for a later kayaking trip. Based on the amount of time we had available, we decided to put in at Twenty-five Mile Creek Campground. My interest was in exploring the more remote areas of the lake. While the southern region did offer interesting wine tasting opportunities, I was eager to put myself in areas less traveled. Twenty-five Mile Creek is the furthest point north where you can launch a boat. From there, it is another 25 miles to Stehekin. We would sail as far north as conditions would allow, then turn around and sail back to Twenty-five Mile Creek Campground.

 The Trip

Day 1- Twenty-five Mile Creek Campground to Deer Point (4 miles)
We arrived at Twenty-five Mile Creek Campground late in the day. Prevailing winds from the NW had whipped-up to over 20 knots and there was a 2+ foot chop on the lake. I noticed a couple of women loading kayaks onto cars and asked about their experience paddling. They were only out for the day and said everything was great - until it wasn't. Perfectly calm conditions quickly gave way to turmoil. They were happy to be safely off the lake and heading home.

Meanwhile, we were assembling the sailboat and preparing to head out - directly into the wind. I looked out onto the mess of waves, listened to the wind howl, and wondered how far two adults and one small dog would get in an overloaded 15 foot sailboat. Plus it would be dark in a couple of hours. I would not head out in a kayak in such conditions. Quite frankly, there was no need to head out in the sailboat, either.

Twenty-five mile creek is a beautiful campground with plenty of sites, a fully stocked market, cold beer, and hot showers. Great place to wait-out weather. The next site, Deer Creek, was only about 4 miles away, but would require a crossing. If we wanted to avoid a crossing, the next campground on the west side of the lake was Corral Creek, 9 miles away. Too far to travel with the daylight we had remaining. We would have to put ourselves into the middle of the lake and make the crossing. If we could motor our way through wind and waves, we could be there in a couple of hours. The problem with such a chop is the motor could wind up bobbing out of the water half the time. Makes for an inefficient and unpleasant trip. We decided to put our nose out into the lake and see what happened. We were eager to get moving.

An older local couple stopped by to see us off. The small size of the Potter attracts some attention, so I thought they came to admire the boat. They pointed out their unsinkable coast-guard-style aluminum motorboat and explained they often handle rescues in the area. I got the impression they expected to meet us again - soon. Great... Actually, it was comforting to know there were a few folks around keeping an eye on things.

No need for rescue.  The Potter immediately proved herself. We put her out there and she deftly hacked through the chop. Not a pleasant trip, but she safely delivered us to Deer Point, a beautiful secluded campground with 5 sites, tables, fire rings, and a clean vault toilet. Easy docking for the Potter and great protection from the down-lake wind. We set-up camp, listened to the wind howl, and wondered how far we would make it the next day.
Day 2: Deer Point to Moore Point (20 miles)
Morning brought perfectly calm conditions. The water was like glass. We raced to break camp and get moving. We were warned that winds pick-up early and we would be lucky to get a few calm hours of motoring in before conditions picked-up again. While the prevailing winds are down lake, we were warned to expect anything. The area from 25 Mile Creek to Stehekin is fjord-like, with steep canyon walls and long stretches where there is no place to take out. Gorgeous scenery. But you need to plan around take-out points so you aren't caught miles away when conditions shift. Also, cell service ends at 25 Mile Creek. Don't plan on using phone apps to navigate. While you aren't likely to get lost on the narrow lake, a GPS device would be helpful to track your location. I include links to maps with GPS coordinates for campgrounds at the end of this trip report. When wind and waves kick-up, it is helpful to know how far you are from the nearest take-out.

We first stopped at Safety Harbor, one of the only campgrounds that offers shelter from both up lake and down lake winds. Good point to keep in mind for future kayaking. We then crossed over to the west side of the lake in perfectly calm conditions and pushed north, having no idea how much time we would have before winds picked-up and forced us to stop. And...they never did. We spent the entire day slowly motoring north, waiting for conditions that never came. We enjoyed a gorgeous day on the lake with stops at Corral Creek, Graham Harbor, Domke Falls, and Lucerne, before finally setting-up camp at Moore Point, just 5 miles south of Stehekin. All of these campsites offer good shelter from down lake winds, clean pit toilets, multiple tent sites, picnic tables, fire rings, and stunning views. Sites are spaced roughly 5 miles apart, so if you were suddenly caught in difficult conditions, you would only need to paddle a few miles to safety.

Moore Point was quiet, clean, and a perfect place to set-up camp, then test the inflatable kayak. The West Marine Scamper II takes only moments to inflate, comfortably fits 2 adult paddlers (plus one small dog), points well, is easy to turn, and is a pleasure to paddle (more about Scamper II). While it isn't a boat I would want take on a major crossing, after spending a full day motoring with a loud engine, it was good to spend some time quietly floating on the lake, exploring the edges and watching the sun set. 
Day 3: Moore Point to Stehekin (5 miles)
We again woke to perfectly calm conditions and quickly headed to Stehekin. We weren't sure what to expect from the weather or the town. Stehekin only has about 75 permanent residents. I was hoping to find ice and maybe some beer. I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely, almost upscale town. Plenty of lodging. Delicious food. Bus tours to lower Stehekin Valley. Bike rentals to tour Rainbow Falls. Public pay showers. And the most unimaginable find that made the entire trip worthwhile: The Stehekin Pastry Company. Yes...pastries. Fresh berry pies. Great coffee. Chai teas. Pizza. Chocolate croissants. Quiches. Ice cream. Sandwiches. Salads. And the most amazing carrot cake with sweet cream cheese frosting. This place is delicious. If you don't believe me, believe Martha Stewart (Martha Stewart in Stehekin). Rent a bike from Discovery Bikes (Discovery Bikes) and go immediately to the bakery. Then visit Rainbow Falls, for a cool walk and take some great photographs.

The weather again remained calm. Later in the day we sailed over to Weaver Point and set up camp for the night. Enjoyed another paddle on the Scamper II, a great hike in the North Cascades National Boundary Park, and fresh berry pie from town for dessert as we watched the moon rise over the Cascades.
Day 4: Stehekin to Graham Harbor (17 miles)
As we packed camp the next morning, we heard the wind begin to pick up. We make a quick stop in town for supplies, then headed down the lake. We watched as a few motorboaters nervously watched conditions and debated leaving the dock. We threw up the sails and flew, wing-on-wing, down the lake. Perfect conditions for sailing. Twenty+ knots of wind and little chop. Would have also been an enjoyable day of kayaking with the wind at your back. We spent the day on the water and camped at Graham Harbor for the evening. This is one of the most beautiful campgrounds on the lake. Gorgeous views. Quiet. Secluded. We docked the boat, pitched the tent just a few feet from the water, and enjoyed the views and a bottle of wine.
Day 5: Graham Harbor to 25 Mile Creek Campground (12 miles)
The winds continued to howl all night. The boat was well protected at the dock, however, I was concerned what conditions would be like out on the lake. There was 1 - 2 feet of chop and 20 to 30 knots of wind. Very gusty. We packed the boat, reefed the main and headed out. I was again impressed with the performance of the Potter. We needed little more than a reefed main to make good progress down the lake. We comfortably sailed 12 miles back to 25 Mile Creek Campground with little concern for safety. However, this would have been a difficult day to paddle a kayak. We were one of the only boats on the lake.  
Do this trip. It is stunningly beautiful. Several years ago I sailed weeks into British Columbia to see the fjord-like beauty of Princess Louisa Inlet. I also kayaked for days on Ross and Diablo Lakes, enjoying views of snow topped mountains and gorgeous glacially fed blue water. The northern section of Lake Chelan offers both, is only a few hours from Seattle, and has world class pastries. Watch your weather. Plan your take-outs. Bring extra everything in case you need additional days to wait out weather. I'm going back to do this trip by kayak as soon as possible.

Federal Docks and Campsites
All public docks north of 25 Mile State Park are managed under a Federal dock fee program and require a $5/day or $40/season fee. Boat-in campsites are first come, first served. Kayakers who intend to pull boats ashore and not utilize dock space do not need a permit.
Chelan Area Fires
We returned to Chelan to find several major fires had started in the area.  At the time I write this trip report, several hundred thousand acres of forest and several hundred homes have been burned.  I provided some links below to check on current fire conditions, and to donate to a fund that is helping those who have lost homes to fires.


Lake Chelan
All images by Brenna McVety

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