Lake Chelan

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Lake Chelan
Stehekin Chelan.JPG
Lake Chelan with Stehekin on the lower left corner of picture.
Location Chelan County, Washington,
United States
Coordinates 47°50′28″N 120°02′47″W / 47.84111°N 120.04639°W / 47.84111; -120.04639Coordinates: 47°50′28″N 120°02′47″W / 47.84111°N 120.04639°W / 47.84111; -120.04639
Type Fjord
Primary inflows Stehekin River, Railroad Creek
Primary outflows Chelan River
Catchment area 924 sq mi (2,390 km2)
Basin countries United States
Max. length 50.5 mi (81.3 km)
Surface area 52.1 sq mi (135 km2)
Average depth 474 ft (144 m)
Max. depth 1,486 ft (453 m)
Water volume 15,800,000 acre feet (1.95×1010 m3)
Residence time 10.6 years
Shore length1 109.2 mi (175.7 km)
Surface elevation 1,100 ft (340 m)
Settlements see #Cities
References [1][2]
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

Lake Chelan is a narrow, 50.5 miles (81.3 km) long lake in Chelan County, north-central Washington state, U.S.[1] It is the largest natural lake in the state by any measure. With the completion of Lake Chelan Dam in 1927, the elevation of the lake was raised up to 21 feet (6.4 m).[2] Two cities lie on the southern end of the lake, and a third town sits at the far north end, providing a gateway to the North Cascades National Park.


The name Chelan is a Salish Indian word, "Tsi - Laan," meaning 'Deep Water'.[3]


Known to the Salish Indians who made the Lake their home as Tsi-Laan, it is "Deep Water". Wapato, Washington was named for the nutritious tubers that grew there in the nearby Lake Wapato. Also known as Indian Potatoes, Sagittaria latifolia grows in shallow freshwater wetlands.

The myth called "Tsi-Laan" (Deep Water or Lake Chelan) as told by Virgina Beavert:

"Spilyáy (coyote) was the person that destroyed all things that were bad for common people. There was a time that he was going around predestinating things. He knew the animals would be reduced in power. He was going around telling the animal world there was going to be a change. This is what I am going to tell you about.

Spilyáy was determined to destroy all bad things that were destroying people. The animals were the people at that time. He told them, "We are going to be reduced in power. There are others who are going to be rulers over all of us, and over all this country."

This story happens after Spilyáy destroyed the dam the five sisters built at Celilo Falls. Spilyáy came up the river from Celilo Falls, and when he reached the Chelan River he looked it over. (It is buried now and shallow.) He felt there was something he should do here. So he asked his "power" what he should do. The power or counselors were his five sisters which he carried around inside of him. The sisters told him that there were no fish in the Chelan River, that he should fix it so the fish could go up the river. These were the fish that were liberated in Celilo.

The Chelan River was too swift, and the salmon could not go up the river. So he built steps with rocks for the salmon to swim up the river. There was also a deep gorge there that was not wide enough. He widened the gorge allowing the salmon to go through. In the back there was a deep water hole below the falls. He fixed it up so that this would be a place for the salmon to rest before they swam up the Chelan River, because the river was too swift and the salmon became very tired.

When he came up to Mud Flats, Spilyáy found that the river was too shallow for the salmon to go up. So he built a place at the head of the shoreline , a high rocky cliff, and a rapids. Then on the northside where the dam is now he made a little pocket which was like a trap. Here the fish rested as they swam up over the dam. This is where the Indians used to fish for salmon. They would spear and gaff salmon. Also, they would dip out the salmon from the fish trap built by Spilyáy, where the pocket was in the river. He fixed everything up for the people. (He made the falls and everything all the way up the lake clear to the Stehekin River, and on up to the Cascade Summit.) The dam is still there, but it has been covered over with high water. It won't wear down. Now it is like the rapids; you can still see the rocks at the bottom. When the water fills up it still remains wavy where the trap is. This represents the name of Spilyáy, and it will stay there for all time. I can't tell you how big it is, but it was big enough so that we could once catch all the fish we wanted during the run.

When Spilyáy was coming down the northside he made two dry lakes and Wapato Lake. Thos were supposed to be the greatest small lake fishing places in the world. The Dry Lakes were about eight miles long and one and half miles wide. They were planned for small fish, but the lakes have dried up and turned to meadows. Now there is camas and other roots growing there. It is good fertile soil for roots.

When he was doing all this work, making the place for Indians, he camped near here. He drew up his birch bark canoe and made camp. After he finished his work, he had no more use for the canoe, so he turned it into stone. It is still there today, located on the corner of Madeline and Manson road on the shore of Lake Chelan. You can still see the seams on the bottom of the canoe where it is sewed together.

While Spilyáy was working on the northside, he fixed Stehekin River so the fish could spawn there. He came down and fixed other lakes, but there was another small lake, which he fixed for the Indians to fish. They would fish and spear, and dip net there. There was deep water there. When the fish got in they couldn't get away, yet the Indians could not dip them out, because the water was so deep.

There were some places were there were numerous little pockets in the lakes where the fish would go when the water got choppy and too rough. There was a stretch in the water when the the water got choppy and rough, the waves came up. The waves got up to seventy foot high. When you took your canoe out in that water and tried to go through it, your canoe would fill right up with water. Spilyáy wasn't too worried though, because he had a twenty-eight foot canoe.

While he was working on Dry Lake, Spilyáy left his canoe on the shore. He had a motive for what he was doing. He saw a pretty girl, and he told the people, "I want the most beautiful princess you have in your village and I'll fix up a lot of places where you can catch a lot of fish. I'll even fix places where you can dry your own fish." But the people told him, "We don't need your fish. We will not give you our prettiest girl. We have enough game here to sustain us. We have mountain goats, mountain lion, game birds, quail, grouse, and turtle doves, and we have bear and deer. We don't need your fish." Then he started back and destroyed everything that he had done. He destroyed all of the fishing sites, drove out all the fish from the spawning grounds, and he made the water holes dry up. The stones he made for fish ladders stayed where they were because they were covered with water. That's when he left his canoe there. He didn't want anybody to get any use out of it, so he turned it into stone.

The Chelan River shoreline stayed that way all the time, but it remained underwater. It never changed. It is always straight across.

That is when Spilyáy destroyed his fish trap. Some of it turned into sloughs with tules growing in it. He took back everything that was worthwhile. The lakes remained there but the Salmon could not go in there. The only way they get fish anymore is by planting them in the lakes.

Spilyáy went down to the mouth of Chelan River and destroyed his fish ladder that was enabling the salmon to come up the steps into the lake. Now there is only the falls there and the fish can't come up. He destroyed the places he had fixed for the fish to stop and rest while they were migrating up into the lakes. They had no place to stop, and they couldn't come up.

The lakes that he had made became camas grounds for the fishermen. He destroyed all the lakes. When he came to Lake Wapato, he made a barrier there, so that the fish could not go into the lake. Wapato Lake began to grow water grass and lots of food was growing around it, but Spilyáy destroyed that part of it too. He didn't destroy all of it, however. He decided to be generous and he said, "You get a little food."

Spilyáy went on down and destroyed the fish pond. He said, "They can have a few minnows, but there will never be any more big fish." He predicted they would have only small fish in the lake and creeks, but no more big Salmon as before.

There were very good fishing grounds at Chelan. He destroyed it all. The big hole that he made, he threw great boulders down and now nobody can fish there. The only kind of fish they have in the lake today is the small fish, the trout." [4]


On an annual basis, an average of 2,200 cfs flow into the lake.[5] Approximately seventy-five percent of the water that flows into the lake comes from two tributaries.[6] The Stehekin River alone contributes 65% of all water to Lake Chelan, averaging 1,041 cfs annually.[7] The other major tributary, Railroad Creek, averages 202 cfs annually.[5] The remaining water is added via a number of smaller tributaries as well as direct rain and snowfall.

With a maximum depth of 1,486 feet (453 m),[5] Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the United States, and the 26th deepest in the world. At its deepest, the lake bottom is 388 feet (118 m) below sea level.[8] The total watershed of the lake is a modest 924 square miles (2,390 km2)[6][9][10] More than 90% of the watershed is forested land. The remainder of the basin is composed of the lake itself (5.6%) and agriculture (3.5%).[11]



Lake Chelan is composed of two basins. The lower basin, Wapato, is shallower and approximately a fourth the total length of the lake. The upper basin, Lucerne, is much deeper and extends for the remainder of the length of the lake. The two basins are separated by a sill rising to within 122 feet of the surface, at a point known as the narrows, at which the lake is only 0.35 miles (0.56 km) wide.[8] The two basins were created by two independent glaciers that met and then formed the sill when they retreated.[7] First, the Chelan glacier came down from the Stehekin valley and scoured the valley, potentially as far as the Columbia River. Later, the Okanogan lobe came up the Chelan Valley as far as Wapato Point. As the Okanogan lobe retreated, it left huge amounts of debris in the valley originally scoured by the Chelan glacier.[12]

Wapato Basin[edit]

The lower basin, Wapato, is the shallower of the two, with a maximum depth of only 400 feet (120 m). About 600 feet (180 m) of glacial sediment and rockslide deposits rest between the lake bottom and bedrock.[13] This section of the lake is 12 miles (19 km) long, and has an average depth of 190 feet (58 m).[12]

Due to the relatively modest size of this basin, water resides in this basin for only 0.8 years, compared to 10 for Lucerne Basin.[14]

Lucerne Basin[edit]

Lucerne basin, 38 miles (61 km) long with an average depth of 1,148 feet (350 m), is by far the larger of the two basins.[12] It is in this part of the lake that the maximum depth of 1,486 feet (453 m) is found. Lucerne basin contains 92% of the water in Lake Chelan and 74% of the surface area, leaving Wapato with only 8% of the total volume of water and 26% of the surface area.[7][8][13]

The upper basin of Lake Chelan is surrounded by mountainous terrain, resulting in few beaches along the shoreline. Approximately 50 miles (80 km) of the shoreline of this basin are in National Forest lands, and 12 miles (19 km) in National Park lands.[7]


The climate of Lake Chelan's watershed is varied. From the southern end of the lake in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range, to the northern tip of the lake located in the eastern Cascades, the climate of Lake Chelan's watershed is as diverse as the lake is long. The south end's weather is notably dry, with Chelan averaging only 11.4 inches (29 cm) of rain per year, along with 21.8 inches (55 cm) of snow. Stehekin receives an average of 35.5 inches (90 cm) of rain per year, and 122.5 inches (311 cm) of snow. Other than precipitation trends, the climates are remarkably similar. Both locations average around 60 °F (16 °C) for a high, and 40 °F (4 °C) for a low throughout the course of the year.


Owing to the isolated nature of Lake Chelan, especially in its upper reaches, there is not a large population that resides along the shore. Presently, there are only two incorporated cities along the shores of Lake Chelan. Incorporated cities on the shores of Lake Chelan include:

In addition to these two cities, there are a number of other communities located on the lake. With approximately 75[18] residents, Stehekin is located at the far northern end of the lake and serves as a gateway to North Cascades National Park. At the mouth of the Railroad Creek sits Lucerne, a small community of private cabins served by commercial boats.[19] Lucerne is also the primary gateway to the community of Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center located 11 miles inland from the lake. With approximately 50 long-term residents, Holden boasts one of the few remaining public K-12 two-room schools in the contiguous United States.[20]



Fishing is a popular recreating activity on Lake Chelan. The following fish are or were native to the lake: Bull Trout, Westslope cutthroat trout, Largescale sucker, Longnose sucker, Bridgelip sucker, Northern pikeminnow, Peamouth, Redside shiner, Mountain whitefish, Pygmy whitefish.[21][22]

In addition to these native species, six species have been introduced to the lake, primarily for sport fishing purposes: Yellowstone cutthroat trout, Rainbow trout, Kokanee, Brook trout, Chinook salmon, Lake trout)[21][22]

State Records[edit]

There is currently one state record fish that was pulled from Lake Chelan. In 2013, a 35.63 pounds (16.16 kg) Lake Trout was caught, setting the state record.[23]

Protected Lands[edit]

At the north end of the lake, surrounding the town of Stehekin, is Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Surrounding much of the lake on either side is Wenatchee National Forest. Two state parks are located on the southern edge, not far from the city of Chelan. These state parks are Twenty-Five Mile Creek State Park and Lake Chelan State Park.[24]

In addition to the protected land located directly on the shores of Lake Chelan, Stehekin serves not only as a gateway to the Lake Chelan NRA, but also to the rest of the North Cascades National Park Complex, Stephen Mather Wilderness, and adjacent National Forest Wilderness Areas.[25] Approximately 87% of the Lake Chelan watershed is owned by either federal, state, or local entities, with the rest in private ownership.[11]

Notable Achievements[edit]

In 2011, Emily von Jentzen became the first person to swim the length of Lake Chelan, finishing in 36 hours.[26][27] She performed the feat to raise money for Katelyn Roker, a young girl battling stage-4 neuroblastoma.[27]

On July 11, 2014, Lake Chelan was crossed via standup paddleboard (SUP) from Stehekin to Chelan in 13 hours, 30 minutes by Matt Parker and Joe Walker. It was the first such crossing. They left the Stehekin River at 7:15 AM on July 11, 2014 and touched dry land at Campbell's Resort in Chelan, WA at 8:45 PM that same day. They traveled via 14' SUP boards.[28]



  1. ^ a b "TMDL Case Study: Lake Chelan, Washington". Environmental Protection Agency. January 1994. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  2. ^ a b Kendra, Will; Singleton, Lynn (January 1987). "Morphometry of Lake Chelan" (PDF). Washington State Department of Ecology. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  3. ^ "Native American Legends" (PDF). USDA Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Region. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 11, 2006. Retrieved 2007-06-26. 
  4. ^ The Way It Was, Yakima Legends; The Consortium of Johnson O'Malley Committees of Region IV, State of Washington, Virginia Beavert; 1974
  5. ^ a b c "Chelan Watershed Initial Assessment" (PDF). Washington Department of Ecology. May 1985. Retrieved 2015-01-13. 
  6. ^ a b Hillman, T.W.; Giorgi, A.E. (February 2000). "Historical Occurrences of Anadromous Salmonids in Lake Chelan, Washington" (PDF). Chelan Public Utilities District. BioAnalysts, Inc. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  7. ^ a b c d Coots, Randy (June 2006). "Lake Chelan Watershed DDT and PCB Total Maximum Daily Load: Water Quality Improvement Report" (PDF). Washington State Department of Ecology. Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  8. ^ a b c "Lake Chelan Wapato Basin Total Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load" (PDF). State of Washington Department of Ecology. November 2011. Retrieved 2015-01-18. 
  9. ^ "Chelan Watershed Initial Assessment" (PDF). Washington Department of Ecology. May 1985. Retrieved 2015-01-13. 
  10. ^ "Water Quality Improvement Project: Lake Chelan Area: Multi-Parameter". Department of Ecology - State of Washington. March 2013. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  11. ^ a b "Draft In-Leau Fee Program Prospectus and Compensation Planning Framework for Lower Lake Chelan" (PDF). The Watershed Company. June 2010. Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  12. ^ a b c Chamberlain, William; Singleton, Lynn; Jay, Joe (1985-02-20). "Lake Chelan Project Proposal" (PDF). Washington State Department of Ecology. Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  13. ^ a b "Discover Lake Chelan" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2015-01-14. 
  14. ^ Pelletier, Greg; Owes, Harper (January 1989). "Lake Chelan Water Quality Assessment" (PDF). Washington State Department of Ecology. Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  15. ^ a b "NowData – NOAA Online Weather Data". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved January 17, 2015. 
  16. ^ U.S. Census Bureau. "Chelan City, Washington". Retrieved 2015-01-13. 
  17. ^ U.S. Census Bureau. "Manson CDP, Washington". Retrieved 2015-01-13. 
  18. ^ Visit Stehekin. "Visit Stehekin, Washington". Retrieved 2015-01-13. 
  19. ^ "Shoreline Inventory" (PDF). Chelan County. 2012-04-23. Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b Nelson, Mark C. (2012-01-20). "What Happened to Bull Trout in Lake Chelan? An Examination of the Historical Evidence" (PDF). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  22. ^ a b Hillman, T.W.; Giorgi, A.E. (February 2000). "Historical Occurrences of Anadromous Salmonids in Lake Chelan, Washington" (PDF). Chelan Public Utilities District. BioAnalysts, Inc. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  23. ^ "Freshwater and Saltwater Records". Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  24. ^ "Lake Chelan Area State Parks Management Plan". Washington State Parks and Recreation Committee. January 2009. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  25. ^ "Stehekin". National Park Service. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  26. ^ Reynolds, Christopher (2012-05-20). "Seattle's Secret is Out: Lake Chelan, Washington". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  27. ^ a b Steigmeyer, Rick (2011-09-02). "50-mile swim covers length of Lake Chelan". The Wenatchee World. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 
  28. ^ Parker, Matt (2014-07-16). "Paddleboard Adventure of Lake Chelan". Go Lake Chelan. Retrieved 2015-01-17. 

External links[edit]