Scouting the Dungeness River

Scouting the Dungeness River

The Dungeness River near my home.

I live near the Dungeness River; it cuts right through the town of Sequim, but it’s mostly wild on both sides with few access points until it joins the Strait of Juan De Fuca several miles to the north. I was curious to see what this stretch looked like, and I also wanted to investigate the possibility of using it as a bug-out route from my house. Since I can walk to the river in ten minutes, inflate a raft and float down it where no one is likely to be looking for me, it seemed like a potentially excellent shadow route in an exfiltration scenario. If I could float the approximately six miles to Dungeness Bay, I could then take a hypothetical small boat stashed there or contact a friend with a boat and sail across the Strait to a discreet location on the southern Vancouver coast. From there I could be picked up by a Canadian contact or simply stay in Canada as a lone fugitive for as long as I needed to. Anyway that was the scenario, but first I needed to scout the feasibility of the river exfil.

I put my little two man Intex Seahawk 2 inflatable boat in a backpack, along with the manual pump and a paddle (I considered taking my Intex Challenger inflatable kayak, which is a much better boat, but it’s bulkier to carry and I didn’t want to worry about dragging the skeg on the rocks of the shallow river so I took the raft):

I also packed a few supplies — machete, water, filter, snacks, cell phone, etc. — in a small dry bag and put it in the backpack. Ready to go, I jumped my back fence and made the short walk through the woods to the river. Finding a good spot on the bank, I inflated the raft, assembled the paddle and cinched up the dry bag tight inside the backpack. I didn’t bother bringing any paracord to tie the pack to the raft, and for some reason I didn’t think of wearing the pack on my shoulders with the waist belt fastened so it would be secure to my body. Instead I just threw the pack in the back of the raft thinking I would use it as a back rest. This laziness and inexperience with river rafting would really cost me.

I pushed off into the shallow, fast-flowing river, trying to use the flimsy paddle to guide me. I quickly realized that the current was deceptively strong and I had almost no control over the little raft. It didn’t help that the raft has no skeg, so I would frequently spin around and find myself going sideways or backwards downstream. I flailed around with my paddle, hands and legs trying not to crash into the logs near the banks which could potentially puncture the raft or damage a body part. When I came to a large fallen tree across the river I managed to get to a bank, drag the boat and pack over the log and continue. Soon after that I hit a particularly fast, deep section of water and found myself sucked toward a pile logs. The next thing I knew, the raft had capsized and I was completely underwater. I desperately grabbed the raft and managed to crawl back onto it. To my dismay, I saw my backpack, paddle and hat all floating downstream. Realizing that my only hope to retrieve the pack with the expensive smartphone and other supplies inside was to chase after it in the raft, I set off in pursuit.

I continued my roller coaster ride, bouncing off logs and spinning my way down the river. Once or twice I found myself floating in the water and had to use the raft as a flotation device until I could crawl back on it. I was able to slow and control the boat somewhat by dragging a stick against the river bottom as the boat floated sideways. I had to get to the bank several times to bypass some particularly hairy sections of the river, while looking around hoping I’d find the pack snagged on some logs.

After a little while of this I saw the railroad trestle over the river where the Olympic Discovery Trail crosses and there’s a public access area. Realizing that the pack was lost–probably far down river or sunk to the bottom–and that I had no water or means of communication, which meant continuing down river would make getting back home that much harder, I decided to abort the mission. The only problem was I was on the left side of the river and needed to get to the right bank. I barely managed to ford the waist high water, pulling the raft behind me without getting knocked over or losing the raft. I stashed the raft in some bushes and road-walked a few miles back to my house in the midday sun and soaked clothing.

It was a fun little adventure and I did get some useful information, even if it turned out to be an expensive lesson. I still think this route is doable, but I will need better equipment next time. Here are my take-aways from this mission:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of river water, particularly in the spring.
  • Use a hard-shell or inflatable whitewater kayak, not a cheap inflatable raft, on a fast river.
  • Attach your pack to the raft or wear it on your body.
  • Carry your phone on your body in a waterproof bag — something like this.
  • Wear a hat with a strap on it.
  • Install a tracking app on your phone if you are worried about losing it. These can tell you its current or last known location from the built-in GPS chip. Of course these apps allow others to track you, so I don’t recommend it.