running spirit


kayakers face the smoothest plunge in the northwest at washington's spirit falls.

Words by Claire Holley & Photos by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Knowing his safety depends on focus, Brian Ward’s mind is clear as he positions his kayak and prepares for the 33-foot drop off Spirit Falls. Although one wrong move could be disastrous, he gathers confidence from years of experience as he nears the edge. 

“Spirit Falls is tall, technical and consequential,” Ward says, stressing that if you don’t know what you are doing, it is extremely dangerous.To actually run the falls takes years of experience and practice.”

Spirit Falls has quite a reputation. Known as one of the smoothest plunges in the Pacific Northwest, the free-fall attracts kayakers from across the country. Various guidebooks attempt to describe the falls, but most settle on the same word: indescribable.

“People move to the towns and cities near the Little White Salmon so they can run it,” Ward says, adding, “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s hard.”

The waterfall is positioned on the Little White Salmon River in southern Washington and is in the last mile of about a popular six-mile section of the river, according to Ward. Accompanied by Andrew Morrisey and Liam Fields, the group approaches Spirit Falls in their kayaks.

One by one, the kayakers descend on Spirit Falls, a drop they have studied meticulously for years. As any experienced kayaker knows, the most important part of preparation is to scout the path first to identify hazards in both the falls and the recovery below. Often, the most dangerous aspect of the falls comes after the fall.

Far below is a smaller rapid fittingly named Chaos. Running it wrong can be more dangerous than the falls themselves. Experts caution kayakers to stay to the middle or left of Chaos, even though the strong current pushes towards the right wall.

“You don’t run Spirit Falls not knowing that Chaos is waiting for you below,” Ward cautions.

Ward has run Spirit Falls more times than he can count. At 24 years old he has over 10 years of white water kayaking experience, but still remains cautious about Spirit.

“It’s a little bit different every time,” he says. “It’s about making sure you have your boat in the right position, and just being really aware about where you are on the river. That’s what it’s all about, just being in the right place.”

The majesty of the falls makes it a destination even for those who don’t want to face the 33-foot plunge. There are plenty of viewing opportunities from afar, including a short hike from the road that leads to a breathtaking view of the cascade.

“It’s a remarkable place,” Ward says, “It’s a great little hike, and it takes no experience to go look at a waterfall.”

Maybe it will inspire you to get in a kayak or simply reinforce your comfort in watching from afar; both are memorable experiences that make the trip to Little White Salmon completely gratifying.