The Columbia River Gorge is notorious for its wind, and as my kayak crashed into the trough-end of yet another formidable whitecap, it occurred to me that I wasn’t quite certain my dry hatch was watertight or that I would be able to right my vessel should it capsize along with a thousand dollars worth of gear. Inveterate fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants travelers, my girlfriend Logan and I had borrowed two $300 Costco kayaks from my mother and sister and we were overwhelmingly underprepared for a ninety-mile paddle down the final damless expanse of the West’s mightiest river. We didn’t have a map and like idiots we were wearing jeans and tennis shoes that were already saturating under our ponchos. We did have an emergency whistle though, not that anyone would have heard it.
The purpose of the trip was simple enough. Born and raised in the port town of Longview, I had been traveling up and down the river by car, bus and motorboat my whole life, always in some gas-powered hurry, and like a neighbor you’ve only ever shared a few passing pleasantries with, I didn’t really know the Columbia that well. Sure, I’d hauled some fish from it and could name its most prominent landmarks, but overall it was a stranger and that was a shame. I finally wanted to experience this magnificent waterway that coursed through my backyard, and as intimately as possible – to earn its acquaintance through five days of paddling and camping on its islands and beaches. We would put in the river just below the Columbia’s final dam, traveling through the famous Gorge, the industrial section around Portland, along cliffs, farms, pulp mills, nature reserves, and finally exiting the river again in Longview.
While it was only now that I’d mustered the gumption to properly introduce myself to the Columbia, it was something I’d been keen to do for many years. I’m not exactly sure when I first dreamt of the trip, but as a young reader of Huckleberry Finn I suspect it was early. And perhaps that book had some bearing on my lack of preparation. Sensible planning and high adventure do historically have a strong inverse relationship.