Gorging on whitewater along Chelan River

WENATCHEE -- Expert kayakers in July will have their first chance since 2000 to paddle the wild waters of the Chelan River Gorge.

During the weekends of July 11-12 and July 25-26, the Chelan County PUD will release water into the normally dry gorge to give expert kayakers a crack at the short but wild Class 4, 5 and 6 gorge rapids.

During those weekends, the PUD will spill water from Chelan Dam in two volumes of 300 to 375 cubic feet per second on the Saturdays and 400 to 450 cfs on the Sundays, said Michelle Smith, the utility's licensing and compliance manager.

The spill for recreational boating is required by the PUD's federal license to operate Lake Chelan Dam.

The PUD's dam license obliges the gorge kayak events to happen twice yearly through 2011 to gauge kayakers' interest, safety, and liability issues, Smith said.

If deemed feasible, the events would happen twice yearly throughout the life of the 50-year license.

Events would normally happen in July and September.

This year, the kayak event will happen only in July to protect downstream habitat-restoration plantings scheduled for fall, Smith said.

The PUD hosted a "feasibility study" for kayaking in the gorge in 2000, when five expert kayakers affiliated with the lobby group, American Whitewater, did a series of successful test runs to see if the treacherous, three-tenths mile gorge was navigable.

No one was injured during the PUD study, but that same year a kayaker died on the Nisqually River during one of two releases of water required by Tacoma Power's federal license to operate LaGrande Dam. The Seattle Times reported the death.

PUD officials petitioned federal regulators to postpone further kayaking in Chelan Gorge until state lawmakers agreed to extra liability protections.

Via a bill sponsored by Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, the PUD this year sought to modify a state law that protects from liability property owners who give the public access to their private lands for recreation.

Utilities aren't specifically mentioned in the law.

The PUD seeks to add specific language that would extend protection to utilities that have federal obligations to spill water from their dams.