Seattle, Washington

The Deschutes River in north central Oregon – east of the Cascade Range – is the closest family overnight river rafting trip to Seattle and Portland.  Because it is to the east of the mountains, it is far less wet than the maritime climates associated with Washington and Oregon.  Because it is dam-controlled, the Deschutes is navigable year-round.  Because it flows more than 100 miles through high desert and basalt canyons, it is noticeably warmer than all other rivers in the region.

The Deschutes River is one of Oregon’s designated scenic waterways, one of the nation’s best steelhead flyfishing rivers, and an ideal family river rafting vacation.

Orion River Rafting provides overnight excursions on two stretches of the ‘river of falls’ – or the Deschutes.  We separate the two stretches by calling the southern part the ‘Upper’ Deschutes – from Warm Springs, Oregon, to Sandy Beach/Maupin – and the northern section – from Buckhollow Day Use Area (BLM) to Heritage Landing State Park – the ‘Lower’ Deschutes.  The Upper part of the river runs for approximately 54 river miles.  The Lower part of the river is about 40 river miles in length.

The perfect length of time to spend on either stretch of river is 3 days and 2 nights; however, you can easily spend 5 days and 4 nights on the Upper Deschutes.  Leisurely days on the river, stopping at swimming holes and jump off rocks, hiking out of the canyon for impressive views of the surrounding countryside and floating rapids in just your life jacket help to extend any trip on the Upper portion of the river.

How would I characterize each stretch of water?

The Upper Deschutes River (closest to Bend, Oregon) offers the better white water and manages to dole the white water out slowly, allowing it to build until the climactic last day when you paddle a half-dozen notable rapids and get your image repeatedly caught on-camera.  Commercial photographers camp at all of the larger rapids.  And, as I mentioned earlier, this segment of the river includes rapids suitable for swimming in your life jackets, jump off rocks, pleasant hikes and large, shady camps.

The Lower Deschutes River is very attractive to those who prefer solitude, fly fishing and noteworthy scenery.  Each day of the 3 day trip will consist of a set or two of rapids, but nothing quite as challenging as what you will find upstream.  The lower half of the river would be more suitable for younger kids.

So, if you are looking for a family raft vacation within an easy driving distance of the metropolitan areas of either Seattle or Portland, and you want to get out in the wild for more than a day, you need look no further than the Deschutes River.

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Leavenworth, Washington

I am a white water rafting conservative.  When it comes to white water, I am as cautious as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Not that I haven’t thrown caution to the wind every now and bombed through hellacious rapids just for the thrill of it.  In other words, I am not so cautious I never step outside my comfort zone.  In commercial river running, however, this happens more often than many of us would prefer to admit.  And very few customers ever realize.

Paddling Boulder Drop

Paddling Boulder Drop Rapids on the Skykomish River.

Commercial paddle guiding Boulder Drop Rapids on the Skykomish River in the days of standard floor rafts, also known as non-self-bailing rafts, took a steely resolve, the capacity to quell your inner fears and an ability to hold down your morning fare.  I appreciate our customers, particularly our loyal customers, but even our most avid customers are rank novices when they clamber into our inflatable rafts at the start of every trip.  They come from all walks of life, but, unless they are Navy SEALs, it is unlikely they are white water experts or fully cognizant of the vagaries of moving water.  As such, their performance in difficult white water is unpredictable at best.  In the days of bail buckets, caution was thrown to the wind at the top of Boulder Drop every single encounter.

But even lesser white water runs with commercial (i.e. novice) paddlers in self-bailing rafts can be unpredictably dicey.

I mention all of this because those who hire us to take them rafting, and those who are hired by others to take them boating, need to acknowledge and pay homage to the thin blue line between adventure, adventurous mishap and disaster.  If you are not trained to read and run white water, you need a river rafting guide.  If you are a customer of a river outfit, you would be wise to do your due diligence in advance of booking the trip.  Like most outdoor adventure activities, rafting has a wide margin for error, wider than most actually – until it doesn’t.  Both customers and professionals need to take all of this into account.

Professionals need to boat as conservatively as possible when working with the public.  The public needs to temper their expectations based on their capabilities.  And we all have to keep in mind that nature is wild by nature and rafting a river is not an amusement park ride.


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Seattle, Washington

It was the beginning of a new decade. My partners and I were in our mid-twenties, essentially penniless, living hand-to-mouth. Each of us lived with our girlfriends in their rented houses or apartments. Michael’s wife-to-be, Rosie, was somehow cajoled into allowing her second story two-bedroom apartment near Green Lake to become Orion’s original Seattle headquarters.
At the time, I paid no attention to the Business section of the paper, but I was aware that America was suffering an economic malaise, or a hangover, from the oil shocks of the ’70s. There was a question whether Americans would fork out perfectly good money for unnecessary luxuries like raft trips. Traffic around Seattle was so light, it was possible to circumnavigate the greater metropolitan area in less than a half hour.

I distinctly remember the owner of Zig Zag, Jim Fielder, a quotable character with a mop of hair and a bushy beard, a six foot four philosophizing Lothario, state that he had read that during the Great Depression Americans spent more than ever on frivolous purchases and, in particular, for ‘death-defying’ rides on roller coasters. He had no doubt that raft trips would continue to be popular with the public and, indeed, he proceeded to book thousands of clients, corporate and otherwise, in the upcoming three-month season.

During the early years, Zig Zag was ubiquitous. Jet black cargo vans were everywhere with ‘Zig Zag’ magnified in white and sprayed across their sides like the mark of Zorro. Bus signs with colorful shots of rafters caught in a moment of whitewater ecstasy — mouths agape, water splashing everywhere, huge grins and sunshine — could be spotted all over town. And right beside the beautiful shot of beautiful people was ‘Zig Zag’ and their toll-free number. Zig Zag rented an office space downtown on the 13th floor of the Terminal Sales Building across from the Virginian Inn and installed a bank of phones for their small army of persistent phone solicitors.

When asked where the name Zig Zag came from, Jim Fielder used to explain that he had always been an admirer of Crazy Horse, who was known to paint a distinctive bolt of lightning across his cheeks prior to battle. Fielder claimed his distinctive scrawled Zig Zag logo was reminiscent of Crazy Horse’s markings. Of course, having such a memorable name, usually associated with the tobacco rolling papers, could also be seen as a promotional coup. I think Jim thought of it as free advertising and collateral promotion.

Since Zig Zag was noted for psilocybin mushroom float trips and skinny dipping on the Skagit, being associated with marijuana was not necessarily a negative. Rafting demographics was primarily baby-boomers with newly acquired disposable income who did much more than ‘inhale’ in the ’60s and ’70s. In other words, Zig Zag’s public would not take umbrage to the association with marijuana or any other minor recreational drug.

Zig Zag’s guides sported colorful nicknames and were often as flamboyant and brash as the name itself.

Almost all of the names of the rapids and obstacles on the Wenatchee are attributed to Jim Fielder and Zig Zag — Rock N Roll, Satan’s Eyeball, Gorilla Falls, Drunkard’s Drop, Snowblind, Granny’s.
While the Zig Zag juggernaut concentrated all of their efforts on generating business, and building a formidable, seemingly prosperous business, Orion made a conscious effort to be their antithesis.

Drunkards Drop in the 80s.
Rafting Drunkards Drop on a sunny day in the 1980s.

We copied their sales tactics by targeting corporations’ human resource departments and employee groups — but we never hounded people with sales calls. We copied their classy swoosh-like corporate typeface — but we weren’t willing to pay thousands of dollars to a nationally known designer to create it.  They didn’t offer a meal option — we did.  Their guides seemingly regarded flipping and ‘yard sales’ as part of the package — we took pride in not having any swimmers, if possible, yet still offering a thrilling ride.

Jim Fielder was a master of self-promotion landing meaty newspaper articles on a regular basis and, to be fair, we rode his coattails.  As Luke and the Jedi Knights were to Darth Vader, the rest of the rafting industry were to Jim Fielder in the early days. And just like Luke, if we hadn’t fought the good fight against a worthy adversary, we wouldn’t have been pushed to excel.

It wasn’t until the early ’80s that I brainstormed the slogan “The Good Guides In The White Rafts” (at the suggestion of my father), but the imagery was directly connected to this ongoing adversarial, yet strangely symbiotic, relationship with Zig Zag.

McDonald’s versus the local hamburger joint.

White, as in opposition, to black.

The Rebels or the Federation.

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Leavenworth, Washington

The Wenatchee River Valley, already well-regarded for its playful, as well as exciting white water rapids, is starting to become recognized for its budding wine industry.  Those who have partaken in a day getting soused by the waves on the Wenatchee River, either by river rafting, kayaking, or SUPing, can elect to relax in the evening sampling some of the state’s finest wines.

Here are your options:

Silvara Winery in the spring.


Eagle Creek

Boudreaux Cellars

37 Cellars

La Toscana

Welcome to one fine wine-tasting venue.

Boudreaux Cellars by night.

Icicle Ridge

These are the links to the actual wineries and their tasting rooms.  You should research when they are open and available for tasting before rushing off to visit them.  This link lays out all the various tasting rooms within easy walking distance in Leavenworth, Washington.  Personally, I think visiting the winery in order to get a sample of the wine sounds more adventurous and romantic.  However, from a practical standpoint, a walking progression from one tasting room to the next might make more sense for you.

Bottoms up!

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Seattle, Washington

White water rafting is the ‘everyman’ outdoor adventure sport.  Though there are age restrictions and health considerations, just about everyone can sign up to float a river.  In the Seattle vicinity, numerous options are available from tranquil floats to high risk whitewater adventure.  Just bear in mind that Class I is the mildest and Class V is the wildest.

River rafting on your 80th birthday.

Mom's 80th birthday on the Wenatchee River.

Even when it comes to white water rapids, customers can select from stretches of river where you are more likely to wind up in the water (Class V) to river runs where the odds of you landing in the drink are similar to catching a foul ball at a Mariners game (Class I).  Some rivers are quite suitable for kids under 12 years of age and octogenarians still seeking a modest thrill – like the Skagit River along the North Cascades Highway a mere couple of hours from the Smith Tower in downtown Seattle.  Even the Wenatchee River, at more modest flows in the latter half of the summer, is a good place for those ‘shoulder’ demographic groups.

Groups or individuals with disabilities (deaf, blind, physical disabilities) may also partake in river rafting.  We once took a party of about 36 deaf people on the Wenatchee River when the river flow was down and the water levels lower.  The group’s signers rode in the bow of each raft with their backs to the oncoming waves.  They would relay the guide’s commands to the expectant paddlers and then brace for the splash of cold water.  Folks with disabilities are encouraged to seek river adventures, but also expected to alert the outfitters to their particular needs.  More challenging river runs would not be recommended for parties with disabilities.

Last season we received a call from someone organizing a celebration for their mother’s 80th birthday.  Normally, we’d direct 80 year olds to the easy-going currents of the scenic Skagit River, but this group’s organizer was insistent on the Wenatchee River in late May.  After making certain they were fully apprised of the sort of risks they were undertaking, we made arrangements to deploy a larger raft, manned by a senior guide using oars rather than a paddle.  The point being, with fair warning, a river outfitter can adjust the trip, the gear or the personnel to make trips like this happen assuming other factors (like high water) don’t muddy the water.

Skagit river rafting with family.

Kids love the Skagit River.

If your party consists of a high percentage of people familiar with paddling and rafting through experience, I’d suggest pushing your limits with the Sauk at prime flows or the Skykomish.  It is also suggested that your group members be in good physical condition before tackling those more intense white water stretches.  If your party is a mixed bag of participants, or the majority are new to river running, stick with the Tieton, Methow or Wenatchee.  If the majority of your party, or a healthy percentage, are kids and/or their grandparents, you will want to take a look at an August trip on the Skagit.

In any case, whatever your heart desires in terms of white water rafting and no matter what your skill level might be, it can be found within easy driving distance of Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport.  Sign up today online or by calling 509-548-1401 or 800-553-7466.

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Seattle, Washington

During the last week of March 2013, our river rescue and guide training course will be conducted for the 35th season in a row.  Attendees come from all walks of life and range in age from the late teens to those who remember their teens as the glory days.  Orion’s river rafting guide training program combines practical, technical skills with practical, soft skills.  We are serious about teaching fundamental white water safety techniques, but we are just as serious about making a river trip memorable and fun.

Kenneth Grahame said it best in a much-quoted line from the river rat in  Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing–absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Classroom in session.

White water hydrology miniaturized.

River rafting and river running is so much more than white water rapids.

Our seven day spring river trip serves multiple purposes.  Newcomers to river rafting are immersed in the trappings of what it means to be ‘messing about in boats.’  Instead of merely getting repetitions on one stretch of river, they are getting exposed to a new stretch of water every day.  They are introduced to the whole wide realm of river rafting: rigging, camp craft, a diverse set of knots, rowing an oar boat, environmental stewardship, expedition travel, gear management, cooking for groups, as well as cooking with Dutch Ovens and wilderness ethics.

At the same time, since we wholeheartedly believe that the nature of our company’s culture is so intrinsic to our ultimate success, and the creation of a supportive community is paramount, Orion’s week long river rafting trip provides the student with a chance to evaluate who we are and gives our instructors ample opportunity to assess the students strengths and weaknesses.  On our River Rafting Guide Training course, besides the students and the instructors, there are returning guides who are there to lend support, add encouragement and reinforce the training of the veteran staff.  As a mater of fact, a majority of our students are often enthusiastic referrals from veteran staff — family, friends, guests and significant others.

Under pressure with knots

Tying a bowline under pressure.

Our instructors bring not only dozens and dozens of years of white water experience to the program, they bring a depth and breadth of river running experience having plied their trade the world over — New Zealand, Peru, Bali, Costa Rica, Turkey, Chile and Guatamala to name a few — guiding rafts and even managing and building foreign rafting companies. Orion River Rafting’s trainers not only contribute their vast white water knowledge to the careful instruction of new guides, they bring decades of experience of this particular week of skill-building.

In short, Orion’s students get to take part in a program dripping with tradition while being spontaneous and fun. They get to learn the ‘big picture’ of river rafting and decide for themselves if their romantic notions of guiding coincide with the reality.

Or, are maybe even better than they imagined.


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Seattle, Washington

The Emerald City, also known as Seattle, where it drizzles so much weather forecasters talk wistfully about “sun breaks” during the summer, is wedged between formidable mountain ranges and vast swaths of saltwater and is also the jumping off point for numerous white water rafting adventures.  If you are visiting Seattle, during ANY time of the year, or you have the good fortune to live in the Pacific Northwest, there are river rafting opportunities along just about every route out of town.

Challenging river trips, scenic river trips, boulder-choked rivers, broad, meandering rivers, rivers shrouded in moss-draped forests, rivers sparkling in brilliant sunshine — the Pacific Northwest contains them all within a reasonable driving distance of Pike Place Market.  Due to the unusual quantities of precipitation and the surrounding snow-bedecked terrain during the traditional winter months, the rivers of the Pacific Northwest and Seattle region maintain their navigability throughout the year.  Of course, for the casual boater, the temperature tends to dictate how long guides for hire will take customers for hire.  Few want to experience a drenching on the Skykomish River when the mercury dips well below beer-drinking levels.

So, if you are a family with kids that are knee-high to a grasshopper and adults who think the Six Flags log flume is adventurous, you will want to consider the wide and predominantly gentle undulations of the Skagit River.  The gentle undulations do get punctuated by some respectable white water waves but they are rated “easy Class III beginner-type” rapids.

If you seek the penultimate Pacific Northwest river a mere hour from the Seattle metropolitan area, a river with club moss in the Douglas Firs, glacier clad peaks acting like sentinels and stellar white water protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, you will want to try the Sauk.  Teenagers to adventurous adults will love the splash and teamwork required to navigate the Sauk.

Rafting on the Sauk near Seattle

Sauk River white water is CLOSE to Seattle!

Those who want to test their mettle against the Seattle area’s greatest commercial white water challenge, will want to sign up for a Skykomish river trip that includes Boulder Drop Rapids.  Regardless of the water level, Boulder Drop always presents a formidable obstacle course for novice rafters.  The Skykomish River – along U.S. Highway 2 – is the closest white water to Seattle.  The Skykomish is not recommended for the faint of heart.

And, finally, if you are a visitor to the Great North Woods and you want to shatter your rainy misconceptions, head east over Stevens Pass on U.S. Highway 2 to the charming but faux Bavarian-themed community of Leavenworth for white water in the sunshine on the Wenatchee River.  The Wenatchee River – depending on whether you are early in the season or later – is ideal for 12 year olds to octogenarians in good shape.  We like to say that the Wenatchee River is Class III white water with a Class IV heart because of the size of the rollercoaster waves.

Those are just a sampling of Seattle river rafting ventures ranging from 45 minutes to two and a half hours from your hotel room near Pike Place Market.


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Leavenworth, Washington

I first set foot on an inflatable raft in the ’70s.  It was a product of military surplus, but designed specifically for white water rafting.  The bow was upturned to deflect and plow through waves, the fabric was neoprene reinforced by fabric and there were multiple chambers.  Built by Rubber Crafters in West Virginia, it was one of the best river running crafts being manufactured.

Forty years later, we have inflatable rafts that are lighter and even more durable, self-bailing floors, urethane coating embedded with abrasive substances for better grip, foot cups, rafts that have uplifted kicks in the bow and the stern – basically – all sorts of technological and design advances.  Catarafts, ‘Creature’ crafts and smaller, more maneuverable rafts are exploring and challenging white water rapids, and stretches of river, unimaginable twenty years ago.  What’s “possible” is getting extended every season.

Life jackets are better made as well as being more comfortable.  Some are designed specifically for white water rescue purposes.  Customer life jackets are light years ahead of the old Mae West, kapok jackets of the early days of river running and a few iterations better than the jackets with metallic clips that were prone to getting clipped onto a raft’s safety line.  Extra flotation, crotch straps and shoulder straps in addition to waist and chest straps.

Rafting in the olden days.

Top of the line rafts and gear in 1974.

Dry suits designed for water sports in general (wind surfing, surfing, diving, kayaking, as well as rafting) have become more affordable and more durable and more useable (drysuits of yesteryear would have been a nuisance to wear in a kayak or on a raft).  Helmets, paddles, safety gear – everything river related has been upgraded, redesigned and improved.  Like all outdoor activities reaching ‘maturity’ on an industry-wide level, the advances and various options can be mind-boggling.

In short, the sport has matured and with it the gear and the enthusiasts who dedicate their lives to it.  White water adventurers are venturing into the outer reaches of what is possible and, with the advent of miniaturized video cameras and the broadband capabilities of the internet, all of us sitting in the comfort of our homes can vicariously experience these exploits.  Film festivals, dedicated to envelope-pushing adventures, go on tour promoting death-defying adventure-seeking.

It is enthralling to watch these adventurers sallying forth well beyond my comfort zone.  I like North Face’s slogan, “Never Stop Exploring”.  Always admired the mountaineer George Mallory’s explanation for climbing Everest, “Because it’s there. . .”

But my concern as a commercial river rafting operator is that novice white water enthusiasts (our customer base) will fail to read the disclaimer that ought to be apparent (“Don’t try this at home!”).  Novices watch or read about these extraordinary endeavors and some are enthralled with the notion that is what they should aspire to.  However, what’s possible, in terms of white water, for those with training, dedication, passion and innumerable hours of expertise, is not suitable for the majority of our guests.  What’s possible for kayaks, catarafts and specially-designed white water crafts is – more likely – beyond the realm of possibility, if safety is your top priority, for commercial paddle rafts.

Our customer’s safety, which has to be our foremost consideration, includes, as commercial river outfitters who take beginners for hire through Class III, IV and, occasionally, Class V, making the tough decisions about whether, on any given day, certain guests should tackle certain stretches of river.  If guests come to us with a preconceived notion of what is ‘possible’, it strains our ability to make that always difficult choice.

And it is not just guests, commercial guides need to appreciate the difference between what it means to have commercial paying guests in your raft as compared to having hand-selected friends or other guides.  The fine line we walk every time we launch out onto white water is the line between providing the safest trip possible for everyone in the raft while providing the most exciting trip possible for everyone in the raft.  Erring on the side of caution should be a no-brainer.

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The season on the Deschutes River in north central Oregon is year-round due to dams that lie upstream from the prime overnight stretch that Orion River Rafting utilizes for its multi-day river trips.  Unlike free-flowing and more notorious rivers around the West, the dam-managed Deschutes rarely fluctuates more than a foot or so in height throughout the year.  Consequently, while many rivers in the western United States may be overflowing their banks in May, the Deschutes River is, more likely than not, flowing higher from the spring melt, but in no danger of flooding.

A relaxing river trip.

Chilling on the river.

May and June are prime months for river rafting the Deschutes because the weather in eastern Oregon (east of the mountain ranges) is drier and warmer than the maritime coast to the west.  Even so, the river is running higher than it will at any other time of the year, providing the maximum amount of excitement and adventure out of the numerous Class II+ to Class III+ white water rapids sprinkled throughout the course of the trip.  July and August may have the heat of summertime in a high desert environment, but the months of May and June should be plenty warm without the crowds.

The scenic beauty of the basalt canyons are enhanced by the vibrant green lichen in the early spring and the lush green grasses on the hillsides.  By July, the grasses will be a distant memory.  The solitude of spring is also a primary reason to choose a river trip prior to the end of June, or before school is out across the Northwest.

Another reason to select a May overnight river trip date on the Deschutes is the ability to build campfires (contained by a firepan) and meals cooked by your guides out of Dutch Ovens.  Dutch oven meals can make or break a river trip, and our guides excel in the art of cast iron

Dutch Oven guru

cooking.  On June 1st, a river wide fire ban goes into effect.

Clyde Dildine awarded Dutch Oven Master apron last spring.

A family river rafting trip on the Deschutes River is an excellent choice any time of the year; however, if you have the luxury of opting for a spring time date, you will be pleasantly surprised at all of the pluses – enhanced white water, fine weather, fewer people, verdant landscape accompanying the basalt cliffs, a warming campfire each night and delectable baked meals from Dutch Ovens.


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Leavenworth, Washington

Labor Day has come and gone, the Seahawks are starting the football season, Seattle is in the midst of breaking a record for days without rain and – as I type these words – the Tieton River, a mere 30 minutes from Yakima, begins its annual white water rebirth.  Why, you may ask, is there water sluicing down the red rock canyon on the east side of White Pass, while every other commercial rafting river in the state flows at a trickle?

The Tieton River owes its September existence to two factors: irrigation and fish.  Irrigation needs place a demand on the river late in the summer and that is why, toward the end of August and the beginning of our ‘Indian summer’, the outflow from Rimrock Lake starts to escalate.  But fish are the true driving force behind the September resurrection of one of the busiest Class III white water rivers in the Northwest.

Thanks to our government accommodating the needs of fish every year immediately after Labor Day weekend, white water enthusiasts have – at least – three weeks to get out and play on the busy, fun waters of the appropriately named Tieton River, which is said to be an Indian word for “roaring waters”.  The Tieton River includes a dozen or more boat-drenching rapids and innumerable sets of delightful waves.  The best white water can be found between the dam and mile or so below Rimrock Retreat, Washington, with rapid names like Double Barrel, Dodge City, Grimy Gulch, High Noon and Waffle Wall.

Camping is rarely an issue on the Tieton River because 90% of the land appears to be Forest Service.  Besides the half-dozen established campgrounds along the river, there are another half-dozen on Rimrock Lake and more primitive, undeveloped camp sites than can be counted.  Call the Naches Ranger District (1-877-444-6777 ) in Naches, Washington if you are concerned about reserving a site or reserve online.

So, if your summer just flew by and you were unable to get out rafting, the Tieton River is your last chance for 2012 before the fall rains begin to inundate the region.  Combine your 14 mile river trip with a leisurely drive through Mount Rainier National Park or a spontaneous visit to the wineries around Yakima.  You can also drive up to the artist colony/town of ‘Mighty’ Tieton on the plateau above the river for a dose of creativity with jaw-dropping views of the Cascades.

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