It took me twelve years, but I finally experienced the requisite summer activity for this valley: I floated the river. There are a lot of floating options in the Leavenworth area and I have wanted to partake in this traditional NCW pastime for ages, but something always came up (injuries, smoke from wildfires, pregnancy, smoke, childcare snafus, smoke, smoke, smoke). Finally, it was my time!
Some of our family was in Leavenworth renovating a house they recently bought and mentioned they were going to break up the monotony with a float down the river. Yep, they had only been official locals for a couple of months before floating, making our twelve years of river virginity look even tragic.
Naturally, we invited ourselves along, gathered a couple of inflatables, put our phone, keys, and wallets in a dry sack and were ready to rage…as much as you can rage a super mellow section of the river, that is.
Our motley crew embarked on a variety of watercraft, one of which was aptly named “Quiet Chaos” – it steadily lost air and submerged the teen girls riding on it (fortunately, we were packing a pump). We also had a couple of paddle boards, lounge inner tubes, and a rubber raft.
Holy relaxation, Batman! This floating thing is something I can get behind. I had rafted the river, hiked along the river, swam in the river, but had never plopped myself in an inflatable recliner and set sail. We started at the Icicle Road Bridge and floated toward Leavenworth’s Waterfront Park.
After a quick round of musical chairs, I settled into the experience. It was a little smoky, but not to the point of obstructing our view of the mountains as we meandered downriver. I used my sandals as paddles to maneuver my inner tube around the river while watching fish dart, ducks feed, and humans goofing off. Occasionally, we stopped on the river banks to pump up the Quiet Chaos, grab a snack, or throw a Frisbee. All said the trip was only two hours including several stops.
This was on a summer Saturday in Leavenworth, so we were definitely not alone on the river at any point during that two hours – there was a sea of inner tubes following us as far as the eye could see. Not only is this a popular activity for locals, but several outfits in Leavenworth cater to the floating crowd and provide inner tubes, transportation, and guidance.
However, even though the river and its banks were well-populated, we were always able to pull over to regroup or play without feeling too crowded. Everyone was out there to relax and have a good time.
Unfortunately, with so many people traveling down the river each day, there is a lot of litter left behind. We can all earn a little extra river karma by leaving no trace and picking up any litter we find. We picked up everything from food wrappers to abandoned broken sandals and even an unopened Gatorade. Score!
From Braeburn Road to the bridges at Plain, and the 2.1 miles of the Wenatchee between the Icicle Road Bridge and Waterfront Park are the safer sections of the Upper Wenatchee. A safer section of the Lower Wenatchee is from Sleepy Hollow to Confluence Park on the Columbia (this is still not as safe as the flatwater section of the river at Leavenworth).
The following guidelines are adapted from Andy Dappen’s article, Smart Tubing. Check out library books, watch videos or research articles for further information on river safety.
1) Wear a life jacket, even when floating “easy” rivers. It takes surprisingly little current to suck you under the surface, ensnare you in the bushes and branches overhanging a river or pin you to a bridge abutment.
2) Before venturing into stronger river currents, learn how to paddle your inner tube with hands and feet through slack water. Frisbees also make great paddles and provide some fun at your destination or a beach along the way.
3) If you’ve never floated a particular stretch of river before, do it first with someone who knows what hazards – fallen logs in the river, logjams, rapids, bridge abutments, fish traps – lie downstream. If you haven’t floated that section recently, ask a guide service if there are any new hazards.
4) If you’re going to be out for more than an hour, consider packing (in a waterproof bag) sunscreen, patch kit, pump, sunglasses, first aid kit, hat, snacks, and drinking water.
5) Protect your feet: Wear sneakers or strap-on sandals. If you need to exit the river quickly, fend off rocks, or push away from logs, you don’t want to be barefooted.
6) Don’t go alone. Tube with others for greater safety, but don’t lash your inner tubes together.
7) Keep your eyes well downstream and give yourself plenty of time to stroke away from logjams, fallen trees, and thick bushes flanking a river’s edge. These are all severe drowning hazards if the current ensnares you in a branch.
8) If you are jostled out of your inner tube, your life jacket will keep you afloat. Grab hold of your inner tube and keep it downstream of you where it can cushion you from any obstacles coming your way. Keep your feet on the surface of the water and kick back onto the tube or over to the river’s edge where you can safely stand up.
9) If you’re separated from the inner tube, float with your feet on the surface and downstream of you. Unless you’re really hardheaded you’ll want to fend off oncoming rocks and logs with your feet rather than your noggin. Maneuver yourself to the river’s edge where you can safely stand.
10) In a swift current it is dangerous to stand up in water that is more than knee-deep. People who have gotten their foot trapped between rocks in thigh-deep water have been pushed over by the current and, unable to free their foot, have drowned.
11) If you’re uneasy and believe you might be getting in over your head (a bad thing when it comes to water), take your first outing with a commercial group. Locally, you can float part of the Wenatchee River with several outfits.