The Forgotten Columbia River

©istockphoto/John_BrueskeSit­ting on the bank of the Colum­bia Riv­er eat­ing lunch, I noticed a canoe round­ing the cor­ner. A few min­utes lat­er, a pad­dler on a SUP passed by. This was unusu­al. In my twen­ty years of kayak­ing the Colum­bia Gorge, I’ve encoun­tered less than ten oth­er pad­dlers. Total. In two decades.

The Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge is an out­doors mec­ca; Port­land, Hood Riv­er, and White Salmon are all out­door towns. Hik­ers cause traf­fic jams on pop­u­lar trails up the side creeks of the Colum­bia Gorge, like Eagle Creek or Horse­tail Falls. Kayak­ers trav­el from afar to run the white­wa­ter trib­u­taries of the White Salmon, Wind Riv­er, or Washou­gal. But with the excep­tion of wind­surfers and kite­board­ers near Hood Riv­er, one of our great­est recre­ation­al assets—the Colum­bia Riv­er itself—is often for­got­ten, hid­den in plain sight. Long before I‑84, it was our first super­high­way, and now we tend to cruise by it en route to oth­er des­ti­na­tions. Here are some ways to redis­cov­er the sec­ond-longest riv­er in North America.

Explore the Island Maze
Throw a kayak and canoe on your car and head to the maze-like, wildlife-filled islands of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Refuge, east of Asto­ria. This refuge, acces­si­ble only by boat, is a vast series of unin­hab­it­ed islands with lots of bird life and a large bald eagle pop­u­la­tion, espe­cial­ly in win­ter. But it is a maze; watch the tides and cur­rents, and keep track of where you are.

Climb the Walls
Bea­con Rock is a mas­sive, vis­i­ble land­mark through the Gorge. If you watch the walls of this extinct vol­canic core close­ly enough, you may spot a cou­ple of col­or­ful dots ascend­ing. If you’re a climber, you could be one of them. Keep in mind that climb­ing is closed dur­ing the nest­ing sea­son for Pere­grine Fal­cons, which live on the rock. There’s a trail to the top as well—that’s open year round.

©istockphoto/thinair28It’s Miller Time!
Miller Island is a rarely vis­it­ed island in the desert part of the Gorge, mid-riv­er near the mouth of the Deschutes Riv­er. Get­ting there will take some sort of boat—touring kayaks are the best-suit­ed craft since the area can be windy. Once there, the island (part of the Mt. Hood Nation­al For­est) begs for explo­ration. Scram­ble up to the top of mas­sive buttes through breaks in the cliffs for stun­ning views, and explore sand dunes. Pic­tographs dot the walls, vis­i­ble from both land and the riv­er in dif­fer­ent places. The island is a for­mer Native Amer­i­can vil­lage site, so no camp­ing is allowed. And a word of cau­tion: when the west wind real­ly blows, watch out on the crossing.

Surf The Bar
No, we’re not talk­ing about hav­ing anoth­er cou­ple of shots. The Colum­bia Riv­er Bar is one of the more fear­some riv­er entrances in the world, and big ships still require bar pilots who know the area to get them across. This dynam­ic area, where the sea and riv­er meet, is com­plex, but for skilled kayak­ers who like the surf zone, it offers a lot of fun. Waiki­ki Beach at Cape Dis­ap­point­ment on the Wash­ing­ton side of the riv­er, and just inside the South Jet­ty near War­ren­ton often offers good kayak surf­ing. Just make sure you’re on the flood rather than the ebb tide. It’s a com­plex envi­ron­ment, so go with some­one who knows the local conditions.

Ride The West Wind
One of the most under­rat­ed ways to sea kayak in the North­west is to ride the west wind. For skilled kayak­ers, there’s noth­ing bet­ter in sum­mer: warm air, warm water, and an end­less pro­ces­sion of waves to surf. Com­pared to coastal kayak­ing, it’s warmer, there’s no need to pound your way out through the surf zone to get anoth­er ride, and there are brew­pubs near every take out. Wind­surf apps will help you find the right strength wind for your skill—but be sure you know how to han­dle a kayak in wind first.

Fol­low William & Meriweather
The ulti­mate Colum­bia Jour­ney, of course, was done over 200 years ago by a bunch fur-clad east­ern­ers that were guid­ed by natives. A great mod­ern jour­ney is to repeat the last part of the west­ward voy­age of Lewis and Clark: start­ing at Bon­neville Dam, pad­dle the 140 miles to Fort Clat­sop near War­ren­ton, camp­ing along the way on the Colum­bia Riv­er Water Trail. Go in spring, when the riv­er flow helps whisk you along, and the sum­mer west winds haven’t ful­ly devel­oped yet.