Story by Brooke Jackson // Photos by Brooke Jackson and Nicole Wasko
A defining geographical feature of Oregon is the Willamette River, which divides East and West Portland. Historically, the Willamette has shaped the history and development of Portland from the natural resources of Ross Island to forming a coastal sea port. For myself, a local kayak guide, the Willamette offers a great learning environment for new paddlers. Relative beginners can circumnavigate Ross Island and practice strokes in calm waters. For me, tracing the Willamette’s connection to the larger Columbia River issued the temptation to explore beyond the city limits. Hence, the plan to paddle from Portland to Astoria took shape.
My partner, Lindsey Atterbury, and I started our journey from the same docks which we depart for daily Ross Island kayak tours. Paddling north out of Portland, the city’s famous bridges comprise the best scenery. Large shipping ports and construction sites dominated the horizon lines, and motorboats and other water traffic buzzed with the rising sun. As we reached the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia, this rush hour scenario multiplied. Fishing vessels shuffled in massive, awkward pods at the mouth of streams and smaller rivers; shipping barges appeared in great numbers. Minding the shipping channel and doing our best to stay across river from it was crucial.
Our first campsite was Sand Island, just across the water from Saint Helens, Ore. It’s a small “refugee” island with somewhat established campsites, and made for a decent resting point at the end of our first day. We’d paddled 26 nautical miles so far. My photographer friend, Nicole Wasko, was kind enough to come meet us there and take some paddling photos of us to help remember the trip—and to show off the sweet boats that our bosses at Portland Kayak Company had lent us for the journey.
Fred Harsman is our friend, mentor and senior instructor at the kayak company. He had paddled this river route before and gave some beta. One piece of critical advice were currents and tide timelines. Fred emphasized the need to be on the water early off by mid-afternoon. The Columbia River Gorge is notoriously windy and things tend to pick up in the afternoons and evenings. The next day, we should've adhered to this advice. We put in a 12-hour paddling day against a relentless wind, paddling from Sand Island to Wallace Island. As the winds howled, our patience dwindled. The only reprieve was a small back channel that we paddled for maybe a mile. Lindsey found some small clams and had a refreshing seafood snack. After that, it was back to the whipping winds.
When we finally reached Wallace Island we were desperate for a campsite. We searched and searched and the wind pushed and pushed, always blowing harder. Finally, we found an abandoned cabin floating in the middle of a channel. Although locked for the season, we decided to sleep on the spider ridden deck as it provided shelter from the wind and the sun was already setting. (Disclaimer: We recognize this is not a legal camp spot but had no other apparent choice at the time.) We later learned there is an established campsite on the other side of the island—next time, we will plan to go there.
The third day of paddling was uneventfully. We must have sacrificed enough to the Columbia Weather Gods on day two because the winds were kind. In such smooth conditions, Lindsey and I were ripping through the water with minimal effort. We knew we were getting closer to the coast because the Columbia continued to widen and curious sea lions began to appear and watch from cautious distances. Knowing the last place to camp before a 9-mile stretch of sand bar islands was Jim Crowe Point, we decided stop there for the night and rest before our final day. Having reached the sandy shores of Jim Crowe by 1 p.m., we had the afternoon to recover. From swimming to reading in a hammock, it was a paradise cove. An abundance of wildlife graced the area; I even had my closest encounter with a curious fox.
The next morning, in a blood-red sunrise, Lindsey and I started our fourth and final day of paddling. Although the 9-mile distance was our shortest yet, the conditions that would be the challenge. Where the Columbia feeds into the Pacific Ocean is known as the Columbia Bar—one of the deadliest sections of water in North America. Navigating the Bar requires advanced skills, training and experience. We faced countless hidden sandbars, prone to tidal changes and boiling eddies. By the time we had reached Pier 39, both of us were thankful to get off the river, just as the tide switched to flood. We pulled our boats up onto the docks of the Pier, walked straight to Rogue (a favorite pub) and had a well deserved victory beer…or two. The Willamette-Columbia adventure was complete.
— Read the inside scoop on the Willamette Water Trail
— Explore the nation's largest urban freshwater wetland—Portland’s Smith and Bybee lakes