Lake Chelan, North Cascades, WA 13–15 Feb 2021


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on]

Inspired in part by recent trip reports by Pascal and Rick, I paddled the length of Lake Chelan in the north Cascade Mountains of Washington.

Different government sources variously give Lake Chelan’s length as 55 miles, 50 miles, or “over 50 miles.” On Google Earth, I was able to plot a theoretical course as short as 48 miles. The Lake Chelan Ranger District, whom you might think would be likely to know, used to give the length as 55 miles but now gives it as 50.5 miles. No explanation is provided for the change.

Whatever the lake’s true length, it was too far for an out-and-back kayaking trip, so I had my kayak hauled up to Stehekin by water taxi, then paddled back to my car at the town of Chelan.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. A north-to-south route begins at the most remote and wildest end of the lake and finishes at the most densely developed.

Small boats must fear the wind on Lake Chelan. Similar to the inlets on the coast, Lake Chelan experiences strong wind in the afternoons and evenings due to the land-heating effect.

I had thought to avoid such wind by making this a winter paddle as opposed to summer. Colder air might, I assumed, lead to less of a heating effect and therefore weaker wind. Whatever wind did develop, I assumed, would push me southward down the lake.

Both assumptions were wrong. Each day, beginning at 11:00 in the morning, the wind began blowing, not down the lake as I had anticipated, but up the lake, into my face. By 2:00 each day, the wind hit 10 knots, and by 4:00, it was gusting to 15 knots. The wind did not subside until several hours after dark.

In a phenomenon I had previously witnessed on other lakes, the wind on Lake Chelan set up wave trains with extremely short periods, on the order of one to two seconds. Though never more than a foot or two high, the waves struck relentlessly, sapping my speed by ten thousand tiny pushes.

The wind and waves slowed me such that I was caught out on the water after dark both nights, each time a few miles short of my intended campsite, struggling to maintain even two miles per hour of progress in the face of the wind and waves.

Owing to the steepness of the slopes, there are few places suitable for camping along Lake Chelan, so it was not a simple matter of pulling over as soon as the sun set. I had to keep going until I reached a proper campsite, even if it meant landing by the light of a flashlight. Fortunately, the Forest Service publishes an excellent map of the campsites.

I estimate I was in the boat for around 21 hours all told, with 11 hours on the longest day between Cascade Creek and Twenty-five Mile Creek.

01 Kayak on deck of Lady Express water taxi.jpg

01 Kayak on deck of Lady Express. The water taxi was just able to accommodate an 18-foot kayak.

02 Stehekin boat ramp and dock.jpg

02 Stehekin boat ramp and dock. The little town of Stehekin can only be reached by boat, aircraft, or hiking trail.

03 Trumpeter swans at Stehekin.JPG

03 Trumpeter swans at Stehekin. At its deepest point, Lake Chelan is the third-deepest lake in the United States, but there are shallow bays at the north and south ends that attract large flocks of overwintering waterfowl.

Besides wind, the other environmental challenge was the cold. Until now, it had been a very mild winter in eastern Washington, but this weekend overnight temperatures dropped to 16°F (-9°C), with highs in the teens and twenties. My gear became encrusted in ice the first night and never thawed.

My SLR camera? Frozen with the switch in the off position. My binoculars? An unusable block of solid ice. My radio? Inaccessible, sealed into a pocket of my life jacket by ice.

My pogies worked well at first—too well, in fact, in that they kept my hands drenched in sweat even while the outside of the pogies froze solid. Overnight, of course, the sweat inside the pogies also froze, rendering them unusable, as well.

I stayed warm at night with a down sleeping bag and a bottle of hot water tucked down by my toes. Each morning, I would break the crust of ice off my drysuit and booties so I could wedge my body inside.

The freezing temperatures transformed Lake Chelan into a visual pageant. Snow covered most traces of human activity, so the slopes looked like untouched wilderness, beckoning me into the heart of the mountains. Seeing such a sight is worth enduring any amount of ice.

04 Kayaking down Lake Chelan.JPG

04 Kayaking down Lake Chelan. Other than me and the water taxi, I saw no boats the first day, only one boat the second day, and just two boats the third day.

05 Frozen creek Lake Chelan.jpg

05 Frozen creek entering Lake Chelan. The mouths of the various creeks and waterfalls were all frozen over, with cold water still running beneath the ice.

06 Paddling south down Lucerne Basin.jpg

06 Paddling south down Lucerne Basin, Lake Chelan. Except in the bays at the ends of the lake, there was little wildlife abroad, neither on the water nor on land.

After some pre-trip research, I decided to bring my own drinking water rather than drink out of Lake Chelan, even with treatment. Lake Chelan is on the Clean Water Act § 303(d) list for PCBs, DDT, and dioxins, none of which I was particularly eager to drink. There was also the little matter of the copper mine.

Between 1937 and 1957, the Holden Mine was one of the largest copper mines in the United States. After the mine was abandoned, the tailings piles continued to leach heavy metals into the nearby stream and thence into Lake Chelan.

The mining giant Rio Tinto embarked on a cleanup project in 2012. The centerpiece of the effort is a groundwater treatment plant, which supposedly removes heavy metal from the mine’s ongoing discharge to the stream. The treatment plant is designed to have an 85-year lifespan. Unfortunately, the Forest Service notes that management of the mine’s runoff will “require continued operation and maintenance of the water treatment system for groundwater … for hundreds of years.”

Eighty-five years is less than “hundreds of years,” but it’s still a good long time. Can we trust Rio Tinto and the Forest Service to operate an effective cleanup during that period?

Well, in fact, Rio Tinto is very proud of its cleanup efforts on the Holden Mine. The company particularly wants the public to know that the cleanup cost $100 million. No, wait, that’s not right. The company actually wants us to know that the cleanup cost $200 million. No, no, hold on, I’m wrong again. All right, the actual number, says the company, is $500 million.

Rio Tinto does not show the public any receipts to account for this 400% range spread. So, although the company may have lost track of a few hundred million dollars somewhere along the way, the public can rest assured that the company definitely will not lose track of any toxic mine discharge. On this point, the company is very firm, so why ask any more questions?

The Lake Chelan Reclamation District agrees. In fact, says the District, one of whose functions is to source domestic drinking water out of Lake Chelan, “our lake is one of the cleanest in the nation.” Why, just look at the numbers from the District’s own water quality test results: copper measured at .702 ppm, whereas mandatory corrective action under the Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t kick in until 1.3 ppm.

The District describes this result as falling “way below that maximum,” which is a funny way to describe being more than halfway to a dangerously high concentration of copper. The District describes “corrosive water copper piping” as the “likely source of contamination,” but the District doesn’t reveal the data behind that attribution any more than Rio Tinto reveals where the cleanup money went. The District also doesn’t test the domestic drinking water for PCBs, DDT, or dioxins, notwithstanding the lake’s 303(d) listing for those pollutants.

It cost $2 to bring enough water from home to last me the trip. I considered it a small price to pay to avoid relying on the promises of the feckless government agencies and the dishonest mining company.

07 Kayak rounding point Lake Chelan.jpg

07 Kayak rounding point, Lake Chelan. The fog shrouding the mountainsides somehow made this cold, remote corner of the lake feel even more colder and more remote.

08 Ice-lined shore.JPG

08 Ice-lined lake shore. Thanks to low moisture content, snowy patches on shore were not slippery. Icy patches caused by waves or spray were another matter.

10 Steep slopes of Lake Chelan.jpg

09 Rocky shoreline of Lake Chelan. Further south, the mountains become lower and rounder, and the lake becomes broader.

09 Clearing skies and buildng winds on Lake Chelan.jpg

10 Clearing skies and building winds on Lake Chelan. The rolling hills and sparse forests create long, majestic sightlines.

During some long stretches, facing ever-increasing headwinds and consistently falling short of each day’s objective, I considered getting off the lake early. Along the southern third of the lake, roads, houses and farms line the shore, so it would have been possible to hitchhike or even walk back to the town of Chelan to pick up my car. In the end, however, the secret was simply to wake up earlier and make miles before the wind could build.

Early morning paddling had other advantages, as well. In the still fog, with the far shore obscured, the lake felt a vast, mysterious universe of its own. As the mist burned away with the rising sun, the beauty of my surroundings revealed itself.

11 Snowy foggy morning near Fields Point.jpg

11 Snowy foggy morning near Fields Point. Storing my drinking water against the hull of the kayak allowed the relatively warm water of the lake to thaw the ice in the water jugs.

12 Paddling into Chelan.jpg

12 Paddling into Chelan. This soothing, pastoral scene is the kayaker’s reward for three days’ hard effort.

It had been nearly a decade since my last wintertime visit to a large mountain lake. Lake Chelan delivered everything I hope for on these kinds of trips: solitude, wilderness, natural beauty, and just enough of a challenge that it feels like an accomplishment when it’s over.


[Cross-posted on]


Jan 24, 2010
Courtenay, BC
Having worked in mining, I can confirm an abundance of scoundrels, knaves, and varlets ready to twiddle the numbers to whatever advantage will keep the money rolling in.

I note with interest your experience that the rule for lake paddling holds true in winter as it does in summer: get started early and get off the water early.

It does seem to be a higher risk -- no coast guard, no yachts or power boats around with VHF, no water to drink, guaranteed chop to sap whatever energy the cold has not already taken. Wow. Sign me up!


Oct 27, 2020
What a great trip report! Those photos are stunning.

I am impressed with the tenacity demonstrated. I am not convinced I could put on frozen booties with much enthusiasm.

Regarding the winter winds going opposite to the way they do in summer, I've had similar experiences. My thought is that the air at higher elevations is colder, and thus falls down the valleys to replace air that warms up (relatively) at lower elevations. It does seem to start earlier than summer wind, but I'll need more experience to refine my suspicions into anything predictable enough to be useful.

Those short period waves are a real grind, but rewarding to get though.

Just lovely, thanks for sharing.


Nov 2, 2005
Wow Alex. Lake Chelan in the Winter. You are an Iron Man. I’ll pass and be satisfied reading your report. I used to spend a tremendous amount of time at Chelan hang gliding in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. So much so that we named our daughter Kasie Chelanne.
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Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
Unbeknownst to me at the time of my February visit, there are a couple of pictograph sites on Lake Chelan. This past weekend, my family and I were staying at the lodge at Stehekin, so I rented one of the lodge's awful Dagger sit-on-tops and paddled across the lake for a look.

01 Looking up Stehekin Valley.jpg

01 Looking up Stehekin Valley. The town of Stehekin (year-round population 85) can only be reached by boat or plane or by hiking across Cascade Pass in North Cascades National Park.

02 Paddling toward pictograph cliff.jpg

02 Paddling toward pictograph cliff. The most well-known pictograph on Lake Chelan is painted on the steepest face of the cliff, directly across from the lodge.

03 Lake Chelan pictographs.jpg

03 Lake Chelan pictographs. The pictographs include anthropomorphs, fish, and various quadrupeds, along with a series of vertical lines in horizontal arrays. Unfortunately, the pictographs are also marred by decades-old graffiti and gunfire impacts.

04 Pictographs close up.jpg

04 Pictographs close up. The red ochre used in these paintings seeps into the underlying rock, eventually becoming a chemically bonded part of the rock itself.