Where the River is More like the Sea

According to one of my kayaking books, the Columbia River is often more like the ocean than a river….”the wind and open waters…best suited to the sea kayak...with strong winds, rains, and tidal currents often present. “

On a gloriously beautiful Sunday in May, Andy and I decide to venture baby kayak paddle steps into the mighty Columbia. With the giant river this close to Astoria, tidal currents caused the river to ebb and flow +/- 8 feet on this particular day. Entire islands within the Lewis and Clark Wildlife refuge off Aldrich Point simply disappear beneath the tide, while the entire area becomes a maze of backway sloughs and channels at low tide. From our launch point, we can see the current is swift and strong, the tide flowing in and east, the late morning sun on our shoulders. At first, I am overly warm in my immersion gear, but quickly become grateful for it once out in the current.

high tide among the islands of Aldrich Point

Over the course of the next four and a half hour paddle, we find no solid ground to land on. Although we skim marshy areas with the ghosts of submerged flower gardens shimmering beneath our boats, the islands never present any feasible landing areas during the high tide. We thought this was probable, but it was good to confirm it. This is exploration, this is the stuff you find out about during new adventures. We paddle down a slough, drifting among cat o’ nine tails and raft up, sharing sandwiches and chips. The afternoon is simply a delight, watching a myriad of bird species flit in an out of the refuge’s waters: pelicans, eagles, herons, and all the smaller species I can’t even hope to identify.

underwater flower delights

By our turnaround time, we’ve ventured far enough north that we enter the Columbia’s main channel. Now comes the fun part, the ”uphill both ways on a kayak” experience: technically, the tide is going out, and flowing with the direction of the river, west, towards the sea. We turn west and downriver but it’s like fighting the current times ten. Why? Oh yeah, that late afternoon wind that flows east has cropped up with a vengeance, moving in contrast to the current, easily kicking up four foot waves with whitecaps. No longer a leisure activity, our bodies are locked in the boats, hips, thighs, knees and feet engaged with the hull, our torsos pulling determined, powerful strokes against an equally determined river.  We are only humored by nature in these moments.

It’s a reminder as we fight our way around the island and back across the myriad of channels not to be too confident out here. Lessons come back to mind: watching the flow of the water, angling the boat against the waves correctly, how to let waves roll under the hull so as not to flip yourself, positioning the boat in such a way to cross a long channel so that you end up where you actually want to instead of 100 feet downriver.

By the time we make it back, we’re pretty beat but grinning ear to ear. And both of us almost fall out of the boats, our now sea-legs unaccustomed to the steady land when we manage to finally detangle ourselves from the kayaks and stand up.

On the way home, we discuss and reminisce- it was a really good day. Not necessarily because we had the most amazing adventure in the world, but rather that sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing your body and learning to another level, storing knowledge, filing information away that is part of the process of learning new activities.

We are sure to have many kayak fails, just as we have had numerous hiking/backpacking fails. Experiences that teach, that build upon one another. Today was not only fun but instructional with some humility learned about how small we are against those waves, against the nature of water.

No comments: