How and why we chose the Wild River Life

We get these questions a lot.

Why are you doing this?

What is a Wild & Scenic River?

How many Wild & Scenic Rivers are there?

You really live full-time in the RV? With a dog? Really?

And so, we wrote a response. Check out our article “Creating a Wild River Life” on NRS’s Duct Tape Diaries that describes a little bit about the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and the inception of our journey to paddle 50 of those rivers across the country.

See you on the river!


16/50: Sandy River, OR and the Joy from Mossy Rocks and Rain

The winter RV life has thwarted many of our lofty Wild & Scenic River exploration goals this winter, so when the snow and ice broke down toward Portland, I (Susan) jumped at the chance to explore.

As it turns out, other river adventurers here in the Pacific Northwest have also found a way to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Not surprisingly, Zach Collier, owner of Northwest Rafting Company, NWRC, and his intrepid guides have decided to personally paddle or visit all of Oregon’s 59 designated river reaches before 2018.

Enabling his guides to be explorers naturally makes them better guides. They want to see new places and learn about what makes them special. The rafting guests on the Rogue and Middle Fork Salmon where the company primarily operates can’t help but absorb the enthusiasm and fun facts these guides exude.

Thus, NWRC’s goals exceed selfish desires to ditch work and paddle. Guides will all contribute to the Oregon Wild & Scenic resource website for each river explored. Check it out to follow-along and to add your own river story!

Michael suggested the Sandy River outside of Portland Oregon for us to visit. I’ve paddled some stretches in this drainage, but never knew which carried the honor of a Wild & Scenic designation.

We opted for a stretch closer to the confluence with the Columbia River. Recent snow and ice storms likely left the upper designated stretches full of wood and debris. And today, we just wanted to paddle and enjoy the views, rather than struggle and suffer through winter conditions and potentially impassible waterways.

Bull Run flows into the Sandy, and having 2.5 miles of fun class III whitewater, we decided to start there. The cliff walls must have thought flat was boring, and so instead they allowed weather and floods to carve deep caves and caverns the entire way down. Or perhaps the flows that exited the upstream powerhouse were a little more than the geology bargained for. Either way, Bull Run set us up for a scenic and fun paddle.

We started floating at the farthest downstream point on Bull Run accessible to the public. The entire watershed upstream is protected so that the water quality remains high for the 950,000+ Portland residents who get their drinking water from Bull Run reservoirs. The forests filter the cool water and we collect that water to sustain one of the largest cities in the Northwest. Thus, the Wild & Scenic stretches below Bull Run Watershed are incredibly clear and clean.

At Dodge Park, we floated into the Sandy and the river doubled in flow. Rapids slowly dissipated into fun wave trains and eventually calm meandering river bends.

On NWRC’s Sandy River report page Michael and I both describe our perspectives of this run in a bit greater detail. What struck me the most was my joy at seeing and touching rocks covered in Moss.

“THIS is what winter in the northwest is like!”

The moss seriously initiated a little pulse of nostalgia in me. I realized how much I miss the damp (but relatively mild) NW winter. Oh mossy rock, please come back.

After the reprieve, we returned to a snowy White Salmon. I may crave the rain, but I’ll continue to find joy in the gorge’s snowy landscape. Soon enough, it will disappear and we’ll have our warm river days back.

Susan’s Immersion in Rivers

Some days, it feels like both of us, the Elliotts, have spent more than 7 days a week thinking about rivers. Our relationship with these flowing lifeforms is deeper than our memories even allow us to go. We often remember a moment or a trip that forged a great and impactful lesson upon us, that we had all but forgotten for over a decade. We’ve been swimming through this current for years.

Susan recently reflected on some of that in an article titled “This is Immersion” for NRS’s Duct Tape Diaries. Big steps – like completing a graduate degree in an engineering field with no prior engineering experience – will do that for you.

First grad school class – a tour of Oregon’s geography. Susan stands atop the Steens mountains that drain water in the Wild & Scenic Donner und Blitzen Rivers, and Kinger and Wildhorse Creek.

A view into Bonneville Dam’s fish ladder. These beautiful fish may try to travel all the way to Idaho – if they can get through the gauntlet of reservoirs and fish ladders.

Class in Mt Hood National Forest – home to many designated Wild & Scenic Rivers.

Susan mentored undergraduate research students during their field season at the HJ Andres Experimental Research Station along the Wild & Scenic McKenzie River, Oregon.

Observing rivers in new ways.

A river in a box. This is how Susan described her constructed flume experiment that investigated the feedbacks between a patch of Reed Canarygrass, hydraulics and bedform evolution.

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04/50: Main Smith River, CA – A Babecation Treat

When your cheek muscles strain and ache with pain due to excessive laughter, when your stomach cramps and you have to actively not pee in your pants, you know it is special.  That kind of joy and laughter does not come easy or regularly in our daily lives.  But when my group of river girlfriends comes together, the gratitude, giggles and festivity just flows.

Launching on the high flows of the Main Smith River with the girls. Convenient access to Stout Grove just downstream!

Women gather for many reasons. The strength that comes from these communal experiences offers us support in many stages of our lives.  These days, we find ourselves breaking new trails with careers, or building our own businesses.  We have dispersed and settled in new regions with new partners.  But it wasn’t that long ago when many of us met.  Most, on the banks of the White Salmon River where we worked for Wet Planet Whitewater Center as guides and instructors, sustainability coordinators, marketing staff, writers, gardeners, or baristas. Some girls we saw while in town or out on a paddle after work. From there, the river brought us closer.

The Babes, or at least the ones in time for a paddle on the Wild & Scenic Smith River!

Launching on a river with a group of people, especially a group of women, creates a bond through experience.  We float the same flow, catch the same eddies, see the same eagles soar.  Sometimes we spend multiple days together, cooking as the sun sets and camping under the stars alongside the river that will take us somewhere new and extraordinary the following day.

The river strips us of many cares and worries of the developed world. We struggle some days on the water, sometimes just barely making it with the help of our crew. Most days we find a deep bliss floating on the water. We find each other’s eyes and release a joyful cry at the beauty we are fortunate enough to experience. In this way, we are also stripped to connect at the core rather than superficially at the surface. We are bonded, forever.

Before #RVlife, there was #AstroLife. Kinda miss her some days. Great shuttle vehicle!

After these rich moments, we know that gathering at least once a year will give us fuel and fire to continue to lead our lives this way. And so, Babecation was born.

Babecation: The gathering of babes in a beautiful place, ready to experience the natural world through paddling, hiking, hot springs, etc. Babecation also involves extensive sessions of giving and receiving gratitude and support for each other.  No men allowed. 

Today, January 23, 2016, we are one week away from our annual Babecation.  We’ll unite this year on the banks of the Wild & Scenic McKenzie River in the cascade range of Oregon. Last year, we were here, in Crescent City along the Wild & Scenic Smith River in northern California. While not purposeful, our affinity to Wild & Scenic rivers seems to be a theme, and might be a subconscious affirmation of our untamed and beautiful selves.

Pump, pump it up. Stand up paddle boards were perfect for the Main Smith stretch of river. We love having a few of these around to add to the joy of river trippin’!

A fisherman hoping to snag a steelhead was naturally surprised that we wanted to get *in* the water in January (normal). Upon seeing that we were all female, he didn’t even know what to say (not as normal).

The Smith River, designated as Wild & Scenic from nearly the headwaters all the way to the source, is one of the more completely protected watersheds in the national Wild & Scenic system.

This is a big deal.

Protecting just a portion of a watershed is valuable, but what happens upstream and upslope ultimately makes it’s way downstream. Free-flowing rivers that are protected in their entirety preserve some of the essential functions of river systems that are disrupted when damage occurs up or downstream.

A stout Redwood indeed.

We pull over our kayaks and SUPs while on the river and take a stroll through Stout Grove.  The forest here houses massive old-growth Redwood trees that make you feel small and temporary on this earth.


Classic hug-hug-a-tree-that-is-too-big-to-hug shot. Can’t help it around these giant Redwoods.

River smiles.

We take more time over the weekend to explore more of the incredible forest landscape. The small creeks rushing past gigantic trees, feeding the soil and undergrowth of these lush and vibrant places.

These places make feeling grateful easy.  Grateful for the opportunity to see and tough a tree that is hundreds of years old. Grateful for our friendships that bring us together in places like this. Grateful for those who have fought to maintain these places for future groups of ladies to feel inspired and deeply rooted.

I look up and feel small.


Mostly, we giddily skipped around the forest, like young girls seeing trees for the first time.

Thank you girls for an awesome Babecation 2016! Can’t wait to see you this weekend for Babecation 2017!

02/50: Clackamas River – Portland’s Go-to River

Taking our perspective to beneath the water surface is what Freshwaters Illustrated does best.  They specialize in telling the stories of rivers, watersheds and communities using beautiful cinematography, much of which is filmed underwater.

We joined Jeremy and Dave for a day of paddling and filming so that they could get have b-roll footage of recreating above the water’s surface, and so that we could make our introductory video for the Wild River Life tour.

We headed to the Clackamas River, a local favorite for boaters in the Portland, OR metro region. The river flows into the summer and generally all winter with easy sections for beginners and steeper headwaters runs for those challenging themselves.  The river drains a flank of Mt. Hood, where all the rivers are protected as Wild & Scenic within the National Forest. Thus, the Clackamas ranks high in intact watersheds outside urban areas.

River Name Clackamas, OR
River section Fish Creek to Bob’s
Total Miles  2.5
Wild and Scenic Count 2
Dates October 18, 2015

08/50: OSU Hydrophiles on the North Umpqua River

Two years spent studying all-things-water in OSU’s Water Resource Graduate Program carried the side benefit of a large handful of life-long friendships.  When the Hydrophiles student group dropped hints that my life skill of organizing and leading a raft trip might be a great option for a field trip, I took the bait.

Floating through Oregon’s well-looked-after forests (thanks to bands of protectors who spoke for old growth when the timber industry threatened to level it all)

We met with USFS Watershed Program Manager Cara Farr to explore new fish passage installations on steamboat creek – the famed drainage of the movie “Damnation.” The open culvert allows for not just fish passage, but nutrient and sediment loads as well.  In fact, even wildlife can migrate up and down the stream.  As future river engineers and hydrologists, culverts incite more excitement than normal.

Jeff Dose, a retired fish biologist and board member of the legendary Steamboaters fishing group, explained the history of fishing in the basin, and the remarkable – perhaps Outstanding – fishing resources the basin holds.

Jeff Dose from the North Umpqua’s Steamboaters group tells us the history of what it actually takes to get fish protection in the watershed.

The Ken Carloni took the stage – or the other end of the campfire-chair circle.  Ken’s history advocating for the health of the watershed left us in awe.  Currently, he teaches forestry at the local community colleges and serves as the education chair for the local Umpqua Watershed organization.  Ken experienced the tension and conflicts when old growth trees were being demolished for the booming timber industry – until people like him spoke up for the health of the system.  Sitting in trees, getting death threats, and more, Ken and his friends kept the pressure strong to maintain the health of the forests. We were inspired, to say the least.

Spreading out over 3 campsites at Horseshoe Bend campground, everyone found their corner to enjoy the riverside accommodations. A day full of hiking and speakers can be exhausting, after all.  Plus, we had to prepare for our raft trip on Sunday.

Adam and I shopped for and prepared all the meals for the group of nearly 30 graduate students. Most had never experienced a multi-day river trip and were thus fairly impressed that we could feed that many people.  For us, it was just another river trip.

Board games on a stump. Of course.

Eddy under the table, enjoying the falling food from above.

Making use of the fire and grill for our meals is one of the benefits of designated campgrounds, versus the forest service road pull-outs we typically find.

Fireside vegetarian dish in the dutch oven.

Joe gives the trip talk before our rafting day on Sunday. Animated, as always.

No need for tent – just bring your Eno hammock and a wool blanket!

Bonus snuggling session for those who bring the double nest Eno hammock.

Birthday brownies – dutch oven style. Happy to get to celebrate with Kelsey!

You know you chose a great graduate program when there is a plethora of ex-raft guides willing and able to guide rafts for your field trip!

Caroline, Mark, Joe and I take the raft reigns to guide our friends down the class III whitewater of the North Umpqua River in Oregon’s Cascade mountains.

After cleaning up Sunday afternoon, we couldn’t resist one more dip in the river’s clear, crisp waters.

Always go swimming when the option presents itself. Especially on the North Umpqua River.

Clear and COLD!

View from our kitchen. Not bad.

Thanks Adam for helping me make this experience happen for all my water-nerd friends! You are my favorite adventure team mate!

River Name North Umpqua, OR
River section Horseshoe Bend to Gravel Bin
Total Miles  7.5 miles
Wild and Scenic Count 8
Dates May 28-29, 2016

Winter RV: First Timer’s Learning Process

The Columbia River Gorge has provided some of the most spectacular boating-friendly winters for us since we’ve lived here.  Not this year.  This year, the snow-lovers, the skiiers and snowboarders, the cozy wood-stovers, the knitters and hot chocolate drinkers rejoice.

It is an EPIC winter to be living in an mobile home – and it isn’t even February yet.

Majestic, to say the least.

We flew into PDX airport in December to find the interstate leading to White Salmon, WA just opened up. Our home and boats supported a fresh 2-feet of snow on top, practically burying the boats entirely.

The celebrations and the challenges of winter RVing

The celebration: the pipes didn’t burst!  If they froze, they held strong and didn’t wreak havoc. We blasted the forced-air and wall propane heaters before running any wanter.

The challenge: No power.  Our 3rd battery now seems to be a dud.  Upon further inspection, it seems that our charger-converter may be the culprit.  Perhaps this is a sign we need to overhaul everything to solar sooner than planned?

Adam replaces the battery – again.

The celebration: More reading by candlelight and other cozy winter activities.  Note the foam-mattress on the right side of the photo.  These used to be our bed when we camped in our Astrovan. Now they are handy window insulators. Repurposing pride.

The challenging: Minimal sun for boating.  And, ok, lots of snow and ice for boating.  Both equally challenging.  Plan the day, keep hands warm, and make it happen.

Boater take-out on the Wild & Scenic White Salmon River

The  celebrations: While we were hoping to be checking off PNW rivers on our Wild & Scenic list – we just can’t be mad at the snow.  Just look at it.  I mean, so pretty, right?  We may not have great winter gear, but you can rent it and still play!  Wallace doesn’t need much, that’s for sure.

Backcountry XC ski tour with @mackofalltradez near Crater Lake National Park

Wallace leads the way on trails because he must always know where to go. Wagon Weldon Trail, Husum, WA

The challenge: Less boating than originally planned.  This winter was meant to be one filled with explorations of some of the 59 designated rivers in Oregon state.  Alas, everything is frozen.  Straps freeze and secure boats permanently to the rack. Gear freezes and makes it unwearable. Boats freeze and perhaps increase the chance of cracking?  Not sure on that one.  Just less boating.

Frozen kayaks and straps make boating just a smidge more challenging.

The celebration: There is still some kayaking!  Especially in White Salmon, WA where we based for the winter. Just across the street, in fact, we can jump on the river and paddle 2 beautiful miles of whitewater and even run our shuttle.  No frozen cars needed!

Adam getting ready to snow-launch into the Wild & Scenic White Salmon River in Husum, WA

Snow and ice make for an incredible scene while floating on a river.

The celebrations: Snuggles and coziness.  Living in Gilly, the #roadhome, makes everything just a little more cozy.  Enter low temperatures and the cozy factor skyrockets. Once we figured out how to keep it warm, it has felt like a winter retreat – minus the hottub.

Wallace is our other heating element while wintering in the RV.

Monster puffy!

While winter brings beauty, we still yearn for an early spring.  Until then, may the snow fill the mountains and may the melt be long and drawn-out for our big tour…launching in a few months!

Because Rivers Aren’t Protected Everywhere: Motivation from China

As we plot our route, reach out to locals, and research rivers for our tour of America’s Wild & Scenic River system, our thoughts pull east.  Far east.


Local girls at the put-in for the Zanskar River in India. Photo: Christie Eastman


Susan hiking through the Simien Mountain National Park during her time in Ethiopia – with a mandatory “scout.”


Scouting the Indus River, India. Photo: Christie Eastman

Let us back up.

We’ve been fortunate enough to see rivers all over the world.  Ecuador, Peru,  Scotland, India, Ethiopia and back to Costa Rica.  Sometimes we travel for fun, like to India’s Ladakh region for the Zanskar River.  Sometimes we seek knowledge, like Susan’s internship studying Ethiopia’s Wabe Shebelle.  And often we are working in river tourism, teaching or media, like Adam’s camera job for National Geographic’s Monster Fish show in Brazil.


Meditation caves on the Upper Mekong River, China 2016

Of all these places, we keep going back to China.

It isn’t because it is easy there.  Or because the rivers are pristine. The language, landscape and culture present daily challenges and often we see burning piles of trash cascading into the river.

But we also see potential in the future of China’s river conservation.


Mani carvings (buddhist prayers) in rock faces all along the Zaqu River on the Tibetan plateau in China

This winter, we are contributing to a sustainable framework for river tourism in a new National Park in China’s Qinghai Province.  High on the Tibetan Plateau, China’s national government has determined that the headwaters of the three ‘mother rivers’ of the nation (Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow Rivers) should be protected.

They call this region the “water tower” of the country as it is the source of survival for millions and millions of people.  And they recognize that their current system of parks is not going to protect it.


Last Descents River Expeditions, the only multi-day rafting company in China, happens to offer a wilderness river experience that could be one of the few forms of tourism that supports the goals of ecosystem preservation.


Self-support kayak trip in a rarely paddled gorge on the Tibetan plateau with Last Descents River crew, 2016

And so, our thoughts are pulled between China’s river conservation potential and our own nation’s established Wild & Scenic protection.

06/50: Illinois River, Oregon

Oregon’s southwest Kalmiopsis Wilderness sits quietly and humbly along the coast.  Deep tracks of untouched wilderness roll over mountains, collecting water that drains clearer and fresher than anywhere else in the region.


The currents roll over cobbles and boulders thirty feet below the surface of the water, well within view of the lucky paddler floating over them.  Forests along the mountainsides often burn, but then regenerate in a natural succession process. Other trees grow old and fall to later melt into the forest floor, flush with green mosses and evergreen needles.  The Douglas Fir begin to give way for the Redwoods further south and large bedrock outcrops interrupt the whole process to add drama and severity to the landscape.

20160424_104503The Illinois River is the culmination of this wilderness symphony.  Fifty miles are designated as Wild & Scenic here.  We float the final thirty-five of those to where the Illinois meets the Rogue River.  There are no roads here, and the water can spike quickly.  Both factors preventing casual paddlers from hopping on the run at a moment’s notice.  We watch the weather, we hire a shuttle driver, we gather a group of friends.

Green Wall is no joke. All the groups pile up here, scouting and taking turns running the drop.

Green Wall is no joke. All the groups pile up here, scouting and taking turns running the drop.

And the Illinois played her symphony beautifully.  In these moments on the river, where sight and sound and the feel of the water come together to create a masterpiece, we paddlers are the most fortunate people on the planet.  The Illinois was such a gift for us that weekend.


04/50: White Salmon River, WA

Really, the White Salmon River should be number one on our list. The river feels more like home to us than all others we have visited. Here, we built a community as we lived in tents with guides at the take-out of the Green Truss section. We befriended the farmers in the headwaters in Trout Lake. We worked for the Riverkeeper that stands up for the salmon runs that seek retreat in the glacial water.  We want to buy land here, and call the White Salmon River home forever.

But first, we must explore more.  In the meantime, we visit our home in White Salmon, Husum and BZ Corners.


The White Salmon on a white winter day.

The check on our river list for this run came on a snowy, December day. It was really just passing through town, an act that is hard to ignore the ease of access and quality of whitewater provided by the White Salmon River.  Shuttle is a breeze, rapids are frequent and satisfying.  It is hard to think of a reason not to grab a quick paddle.


Guiding down the White Salmon with Wet Planet Whitewater, Susan spent many summer days sharing this Wild & Scenic River with strangers and friends.

Other days on this run the sun bakes paddlers in the parking lot and then retreats behind bedrock walls down by the river.  The water stays cold, seeping from the aquifers surrounding Mt. Adams, requiring good drysuits and even poagies all year long.  The narrow run opens up in the town of Husum, where it falls over Husum Falls, a 10 foot waterfall suitable for rafting.  It is a thrill that the guides tire of quickly each season as it dishes out a fair share of injuries to those who drop over it frequently.


Always a stop, the lava tunnel offers a geologic perspective of volcanic processes.

The designation of the White Salmon ends abruptly here at the falls. Yet, downstream some of the most incredible scenery has yet to come.  Scenery that was only recently revealed with the removal of Condit Dam.  And upstream further, streams pour out through the bedrock as the river twists and winds its way through even deeper and more magnificent canyons.  Yet, here there is no designation as well.


While ropes are set for safety and swims rarely last long, taking a spin in Husum Falls hydraulic always leaves someone a little breathless.

Why such a short slice of the river?  Why aren’t the newly free-flowing reservoir stretch and the spectacular reaches upstream also designated? Why do we go paddling when we know we will be covered in ice?


The White Salmon River can be cold. Really cold. Warm Thermos full of hot tea and friends required for defrosting.

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