Jon Gosch

Novelist, Journalist and Freelance Editor

Kayaking the Columbia

5 Days and 90 Miles Afloat the West's Mightiest River

 

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.

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The foggy cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge

After twenty minutes of battling the choppy water and upriver wind, I looked back at where we’d put in and was dismayed that Beacon Rock still looked so damn big. A hulking 848-foot monolith right next to the river, Beacon Rock was the remaining core of an ancient volcano and one of the area’s most distinguishing features. The monolith was named by Lewis and Clark when they camped nearby in 1805, and it was at Beacon Rock that their expedition first noticed how the ocean tides affected the river’s flow. Even there, over 130 miles from the Columbia’s mouth, an incoming tide could essentially neutralize the river’s flow creating an effect known as slackwater. Add a brisk afternoon wind and Logan and I were actually floating slightly upriver as we rested.

Rising high above Beacon Rock on both sides of the river was the soaring bulk of the Cascade Range. It was here that the Columbia River had eons ago carved its spectacular Gorge, the only natural passageway through the mountains for many hundreds of miles. On the Oregon side the tallest cliffs were enshrouded with shifting, tattered sheets of fog while farther down we watched waterfalls plummet like silvery braids. An army of evergreens held their ground on even the most unlikely of slopes and a few hawks patrolled the drizzling heights. Small chittering birds made elaborate, artful swoops across our bows. Overall the landscape had been little altered since Lewis and Clark came through two centuries ago and for once I didn’t have to envy the pristine world they had traveled through. We paddled on, digging hard for progress against the elements, learning to trust in buoyancy, our faces damp with mist, happy.

Eventually the fog shred itself apart and the sun brightened up the afternoon. When we were hungry we simply slid up onto the nearest empty beach, made sandwiches, boiled cups of instant coffee and paddled on again. Life could be so simple.

We began to pass a few fishermen in their small boats anchored against the current. Sometimes they would wave but more often they simply stared. To many of the politically conservative veterans of the river we were an unusual and perhaps suspicious sight – reckless adventurists who would need saving, or much worse, environmentalists. The Columbia River after all was not a place for kayakers, or so everyone seemed to think. In the 18 years I lived in Longview I cannot remember knowing or even hearing about a single person who had ever kayaked any significant distance of the river. The only reasonable thing a kayak was used for on the Columbia was to facilitate fishing and sometimes you could spot a few of them on the beach in the midst of a row of fishermen. Strictly utilitarian, the kayaks allowed anglers to paddle out and drop their sinkers beyond casting range.

It was also assumed that kayaking the Columbia was an incredibly dangerous proposition. Only after a great deal of cajoling did my mom and sister finally agree to let us borrow their kayaks. Although there were no dams to contend with after Bonneville, my mom and others seemed convinced that we would either drown, be struck by a cargo ship, or be struck by a cargo ship and then drown. How would we ever navigate through the hubbub of Vancouver and Portland unscathed? And wouldn’t all the rapids hurl us overboard where we would perish of hypothermia or again drown? It didn’t seem to matter that there weren’t any rapids anymore, nor that Logan and I were strong swimmers and would be wearing life jackets. To them the Columbia was a killer, something to be feared, and they were not exactly wrong to feel that way. Two boys I’d known growing up had drowned in its waters, and although we would not be replicating those circumstances, the river must be respected.

As we continued down the river we intermittently passed tall wooden pylons numbered for ship progress. Atop each of these markers, osprey pairs had made huge stick nests and guarded their squawking broods with unrelenting vigilance. Deeper into the ship channel stood a small rocky island inhabited by seagulls and splattered with guano and lichen. Past this the high shoulder of Cape Horn gained prominence and just as we neared it a BNSF train went rumbling through a tunnel dynamited from its bowels.

Seeing the railway so close to the river reminded me of the Columbia’s newest bitter controversy – coal train traffic. Coal has been transported along the river for many years, but proponents of the industry were trying to initiate a ten-fold increase in coal train traffic through the Pacific Northwest, much of it to be carried through the Gorge in open boxcars, literally within feet of a river that was already considered one of the most polluted in the nation. What especially aroused ire among local residents was that they would be bearing the brunt of the environmental and public safety risks for a dirty, planet-altering rock that would be dug from mines in Wyoming and Montana, consumed in Asia, and mostly enrich a few distant corporations. While the scheme would create some local port jobs, the average Columbia River denizen was in effect an unwilling middleman getting railroaded by the new-age coal barons. Resistance, however, has been strong, and four of the six port proposals have been rejected. Only two remain, but they are the biggest and baddest, and one of them is targeted at my hometown.

At one point I had considered using my paddle-trip down the Columbia as a vehicle to support and give voice to the anti-coal resistance, but as I was already battling one extractive and exploitative local industry, I decided to ease up on the rhetoric. Fighting the good fight is valiant, but it’s all in vain if you can’t just lean back and enjoy the ride once in a while.

As our first day turned to evening we paddled along Reed Island looking for our campground in the late, low sun. According to our research there was a state park on the west end of the island and we hoped all the campsites weren’t already taken. We stopped when we came to a sign lying on its side in the muddy bank. Behind it was a swampy jungle and no sign of amenities.

“This can’t be the place,” I said.

“It says state park on the sign,” Logan said.

I paddled two strokes closer and craned my neck sideways. So it did.

As unkempt as the campground appeared, it was even less hospitable upon inspection. When I took my first step onto the bank the mud nearly went up to my knee and it was quite an effort to retrieve my shoe. Up above, the campsites were hidden beneath thick vegetation that grew as tall as our shoulders while our picnic table was suffocating in a weedy embrace. Logan and I looked at each other and scratched our heads. We were already being feasted upon by bugs.

While Logan stomped out a landing strip for our tent, I unloaded the kayaks as I slowly sank into the stinking mire. When I returned, Logan was just putting the tarp down in a visible swarm of mosquitoes. She turned and faked a smile, her face already red and swollen in a dozen places like an aggressive rash of chickenpox. At least we had the place all to ourselves.

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Battling the choppy river

I woke to the sound of rain, didn’t dare face the dreariness yet, and fell back asleep. When I awoke again it was raining even harder. Logan stirred and we ate breakfast, drank coffee and read aloud a chapter of our book. It kept raining and we were content to ride it out in the tent until water began seeping up from underneath. The floor began to puddle, our sleeping bags grew damp. On this dank island we would have no luck. Our options were wet or wetter. And then the sun surprised us.

With eager haste we burst from our flooding shelter and set to pack everything as dryly as possible, no easy task with only two towels and limited time. We could actually see the next sheet of rain advancing. I pushed Logan off into the river as the next wave of drops began to splatter, recovered my legs from a foot of mud, and dislodged myself from shore.

As we resumed our downriver drift we passed a fisherman sleeping under the canopy of his boat, awaiting the tide or perhaps just evading his wife. We came along the twin towns of Washougal and Camas and watched the smoky belch of the pulp mills rising up to mix with the clouds. After Camas we came upon Government Island and followed the shipping channel to the north. The sky ahead was a nasty bruise of black and blue.

I heard the thunder and then saw the next lightning, shuddering involuntarily in a response not unlike a shell-shocked infantryman. The previous summer I had very nearly been struck by lightning while riding a motorcycle outside of Durango and since then I had been a little skittish around the phenomenon. I harkened back to my research on the subject, remembering that boating is among the most common activities during which people are struck, and that lightning generally favors the highest object in the area. On a kayak, the highest and most attractive object to a lightning bolt is your head.

I saw another lightning strike downriver and shouted for Logan to paddle hard for the woods of Government Island. We made the distance in half our usual time and it seemed to take twice as long. On the shore I found myself grabbing for our toilet paper and went looking for suitable privacy. I’m sure my afternoon coffee helped, but I think it was primarily the lightning that scared the shit out of me.

The rest of the afternoon was a torment of lightning frights and utter deluge. At one point we clambered onto a private dock hoping it might lead to some respite from the rain. The gate, however, was locked so Logan and I just stood there in our garish red and blue ponchos shaking our heads at this unfortunate gloom, the summer solstice less than a week away. At the end of the dock we noticed a blue heron enduring patiently. Humbled, we dropped back into our kayaks and kept on paddling.

In the end there was just no way we could camp in such a sodden fit of weather. When we arrived at a marina in east Vancouver we asked around for the harbormaster and hearing that he was gone for the day, we simply emptied our kayaks of valuables, flipped the boats upsidedown on the beach, and called for a taxi to deliver us to a Motel 6. That night we feasted at a greasy spoon diner like indiscriminate kings, stocked up on supplies, and enjoyed our cheap room as if it were a palace. Discomfort breeds appreciation. Even a day and a half will do.

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Cheerful amidst Vancouver’s industrial gloom

In the morning we were delighted to find our kayaks exactly as we had left them. It was still overcast, but we were warm and dry and as the weatherman was predicting increasingly blue skies we almost felt like we were starting the trip anew. Back on the river we glanced up at the 144-foot clearance of the Glenn Jackson Bridge and began to encounter the core of the Portland-Vancouver metropolis.

To the south, the Portland International Airport sprawled along the river and occasionally a jet would roar through the clouds. On the Washington side, the shore was rimmed with warehouses, factories, tugboats, cranes and the men and women who worked them. Here there was no illusion – the Columbia was an industrial river. We crossed under the I-5 freeway, under a train trestle, and then came along one of the river’s many large grain terminals and a long red and black cargo ship flying the flag of Singapore. A giant magnet operator was unloading a pile of scrap metal from the open bed of a semi-truck while nearby Tidewater barges awaited their freight. Paddling through this portion of the Columbia was a noisy affair. Something huge and inanimate was always booming or hissing or beeping or groaning in the modern, everyday, ten-thousand-ton bustle of commerce. From the seat of my kayak it all just looked like a bunch of big toys.

While the shoreline was full of industry and commotion, the river itself was surprisingly devoid of traffic. In fact, throughout our trip I was continually surprised by how few boats were about. In five days we passed exactly one big cargo ship in transit and perhaps a few dozen small fishing boats. The Columbia is not only big, but it’s mostly empty of people, and after passing the Willamette River and completing the river’s northward bend it felt like it was just about all ours.

West of us now was Sauvie Island. Larger than Manhattan with a population of barely 1,000 souls, the island is the Columbia’s largest, featuring productive farmland, a wildlife refuge and a clothing-optional beach. It also harbors at least one nice young buck I spotted standing behind some tall grass at the top of the riverbank, not fifteen yards from where I began paddling in place. For a minute I started to believe the buck was actually a decoy as its presence seemed too improbable and too unflinching. I was looking around for the candid camera or the giggling pranksters when the buck’s ear finally twitched.

As Logan and I hadn’t properly done our homework before the trip, we didn’t have a clue where we would be staying that night. A little further downriver was a place called Reeder Beach RV Park, but we had no idea whether they would allow us to stay the night, nor if we would want to. When we saw a row of motorhomes and trailers atop the riverbank we slid up onto the beach and spoke to a man playing fetch with his dog. He didn’t know whether tent campers were allowed but he encouraged us to query Mr. Reeder.

“The Reeder family has owned this land since before Oregon was a state,” he declared. “Personally, I’ve been living here in my trailer for 12 years. This place is a slice of heaven.”

Intrigued, we dragged our kayaks ashore and were immediately charmed by the property. The RVs were all hooked to electricity so there was none of the usual generator racket. Instead, the broad surrounding trees were singing with native birds while ducks and chickens roamed between the garden and the farming implements. In the center was a grand white house with innumerable windows that had been built in the 1880s and looked like it was transplanted from Georgia. Back near the road was a store/office and there we met Mrs. Reeder, a sweet old woman who informed us that unfortunately she didn’t think she could let us stay the night. We wore our dejection plainly and she told us to hang on and wait for her husband.

Mr. Reeder appeared shortly. He was tall and had the deeply relaxed manner telling of good country living. Logan and I explained that we had kayaked to his home from Beacon Rock and that we were hoping to spend the night. Mrs. Reeder tried to interject but he gently waved her off and led us out to a plush green lawn.

“You can pitch your tent here,” he said pointing to a space beneath another wide tree. I offered to pay him but he said, “That’s okay, maybe next time,” and strolled away.

That evening Logan and I cooked rice and beans and sausage atop the riverbank and watched the Columbia glisten in the drooping sun. A pair of osprey cried about something from their numbered pylon, one of the very few signs of human development in sight. Otherwise it was easy to see the river as the original Reeders had when they claimed their portion. As I ate my dinner I reflected on how it must feel to love a place so well for so long and then pass that on and on.

A slice of heaven, indeed.

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Mama osprey returning to her nest

Overall, traveling long distances by kayak is a deeply satisfying experience. Partly it’s due to the simplicity of it, being able to store all the various living essentials in such a small vessel and then transport them with nothing but your own locomotion. The river helps too, of course, but even without the current it is relatively painless compared to backpacking or bicycle touring. After three days of paddling, the only parts of my body that were actually sore were the bones in my hands – something that probably could have been remedied by a basic pair of gloves.

Mile after mile, time glides. Without a motor or heavy breathing, the subtlest sounds of the world are plainly audible. If you tire of the view, you can just spin yourself around and watch the vista recede in a seamless farewell. For once, you actually feel relaxed.

In the afternoon of our fourth day on the river we detoured from the Columbia and paddled into the Bachelor Island Slough which cuts through the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. In this lazy channel we would see an abundance of birds, spotting herons, harriers, starlings, hawks. We saw a Canadian goose with no less than a dozen nearly-mature goslings in tow. We watched a bald eagle rest atop a wooden post with a fish in its talons. An anxious osprey bombed me with a stick.

Best of all, we witnessed a battle royale between a bald eagle, an osprey and a crow. A couple of times the eagle and osprey interlocked and went tumbling down with their talons at the other’s breast. Once disengaged, they swooped back up and around for another pass. All the while the crow was in dogged pursuit, flapping upward in vertical zigzags like it was tacking the heavens. It was a preposterous height for a crow and once it was within range it began making its own strikes at the eagle who was shrieking at this tag-team persecution. Watching this, Logan told me about Benjamin Franklin’s unflattering appraisal of our nation’s most revered bird.

“He is a Bird of bad moral Character,” wrote Franklin. “He does not get his Living honestly… Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.”

At the end of the slough we came to Lake River and paddled that upstream into Ridgefield, a small but rapidly growing community where my father had grown up. Somehow this was my first ever visit to Ridgefield and Logan and I strolled through the pleasant, pastoral town, enjoying a late pub lunch served by a cheerful waitress wearing a shirt that read: Where the heck is Ridgefield?

Thus fortified, we paddled back into the Columbia, quickly crossing the river to have a look at the Warrior Rock Lighthouse which sits on the far northeastern tip of Sauvie Island. A modest structure, it is Oregon’s smallest lighthouse and one of only two in the state operating inland. From there we could see the mouth of the Lewis River, and directly behind it, the decapitated eminence of Mount St. Helens with a crest of snow.

After the mountain’s 1980 eruption, the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers pumped so many tons of logs and debris into the Columbia that cargo ship traffic was halted for several days until the river could be dredged. My dad had been fishing at the mouth of the Columbia when Mount St. Helens blew and he clearly heard the detonation from nearly 100 miles away. A police sergeant for Longview at the time, he reeled in his line and raced back along the river to be a part of the disaster relief. He would help chaperone Jimmy Carter’s security detail when the president came to tour the apocalyptic aftermath.

On the move again we passed along the attractive waterfront of Saint Helens, Oregon, county seat of Columbia County, and a fair-sized town of 12,000 people that nevertheless looked puny in comparison to the Columbia and its surrounding hills, a speck of civilization upon the riverscape. One of the best parts about paddling the Columbia is that it helps put certain things back into their proper perspective, reminding you above all that the world is very large and humans very small.

That night we tried to stay at another RV park on the Washington bank near Woodland. The manager of the park, however, said that they were not licensed for tent campers and he was insistent that he could not aid or abet such a flagrant abuse of county regulations. It was getting late and we offered the manager good money but he would not be persuaded. We asked where else we might pitch a tent and he offered a few vague and unattractive suggestions. It was not his problem. Where was our map, he wondered. I did not like this man.

Shortly before dark we came to a sandy beach and pulled alongside a young couple hanging out in the shallows with their little motorboat. We explained our predicament and the man told us that this beach was part of a county park, encouraged us to stay the night, deemed us hardcore, and then passed us each a craft beer. I liked him immensely. The couple soon bade us a farewell and as it was a gusty night we pitched our tent in the partial windbreak of a tree and ate a dinner of chicken noodle soup. Before bed I went and stood at the water’s edge, watching the slim curve of moon sway atop the black river, listening to it gurgle me a soft lullaby. I thanked the county for this good fortune.

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Beach vista of Longview and Rainier

On our last morning we emerged from the tent to find the place crowded with pickup trucks and empty trailers. Just down the beach was a crude boat ramp and we had managed to sleep through about twenty launches, the deep slumber of recuperation.

Back on the river we passed several fishermen standing along the shore. Two of them had kayaks and we were careful to avoid their lines. One man hollered, “Are you going all the way?” No, we replied. Only to Longview. The mouth of the Columbia would see us another year. Logan and I had already discussed plans to paddle the entire length of the river one day, beginning at its source in British Columbia and portaging around the dams. We were even considering buying a map.

In the afternoon the wind whipped up the water until it was altogether frosted with whitecaps. Our boats were tossed about like bath toys while Logan cheerfully sang a song from Pocahantas. Just around the riverbend. And shortly thereafter we did make the final big westward turn and were presented with a familiar view of Longview’s mills and the long cantilever bridge spanning the river. We paddled for the town of Rainier on the Oregon side and soon entered the marina. My dad was waiting in the parking lot and when he spotted us he waved and snapped pictures.

After all these years I finally felt like I knew the Columbia, and upon making its acquaintance, the river had graciously led me back home.

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