1990 – Exploring the Columbia/Snake Rivers

The Forgotten Rivers East of the Columbia Gorge – copyright Peter Marsh

Nearly 500 miles from the ocean and 730 feet above sea level, the Snake River emerges from the deepest canyon in North America and, within miles, its white waters become placid enough for boating. The rushing river that Lewis and Clark travelled in 1805 has been submerged by a series of great dams that have smoothed the path to the sea. Nonetheless, much of the grandeur they described can still be encountered. Even today, the journey to the Pacific Ocean remains an adventure and an exploration.

columbia snale mapI was about to discover for myself this great waterway that flows from the desert to the sea, dropping 400 feet in the first 140 miles. (Should I have needed any encouragement to depart, my car and trailer were already on their way back to Portland.) I felt relieved, however, to be finally underway after weeks of preparation—firmly committed to the return journey by water aboard my home-built, 20 foot, motor-sailer.

The wharves and cranes of Lewiston, Idaho disappeared astern like a mirage in the desert. Beyond well-watered lawns the hills were dry and bare; a hot wind was blowing. A few sailors were out for the afternoon but none was going further than a mile down stream. Within three miles the traffic following the river road climbed away from the south shore and was gone. I fixed my gaze ahead—down the remote valley that the Snake River has cut on its course west. Surrounded by 2,000 foot cliffs, I was alone with my thoughts.

Although it is a busy marine highway, the Snake/Columbia sustem is little known in the boating world and yachts are few and far between. The business of the river is commerce and pleasure boats are vastly outnumbered by the tugs and barges that move grain down to the docks on the lower Columbia. Most cruisers who take on the challenge and go the distance own larger boats so are on a round-trip from Portland. This demands at least two weeks of steady motoring (not to mention a degree of determination to pass through the eight locks in both directions.) For the trailer boatman with a willing driver, the one-way adventure requires only a week. Why so few take advantage of this adventure is a mystery!

On this first day no signs of progress marred the wild nature of the land. High, eroded bluffs alternated with steep, grassy valleys. It was 30 miles to Lower Granite Dam and a couple more to Boyer Park and Marina. The four dams have effectively eliminated all of the pioneer landings and the shore drops steeply down to the original river bottom up to 120 feet below. The Corps of Engineers have improved a few small landings in places where the terrain allowed.

With shadows lengthening I gratefully turned into Nisqually Joe’s Landing, having covered fifteen miles. An access road from Lewiston runs this far and a couple of fishermen were finishing their day. Soon they had hauled their skiffs out and were gone, leaving me to savor my first night on the water. I passed the evening in the echoing silence beneath dark overhangs and bluffs.

During the next day I was passed by a barge and several, very long trains. The valley remained uninhabited, however, and these passing signs of life only emphasised the isolation. I was travelling a scheduled route on a man-made lake, yet I experienced the beauty of the surrounding wilderness and the lure of the unknown around every bend. Ahead was another new experience, transiting the Lower Granite Dam. I watched the power-transmission lines appear on the skyline then march down the hill side, and knew the dam was coming up.

Since this was my first encounter with the Bonneville Power Administration I was taking excessive precautions. The course looked obvious on the chart but from my upstream point-of-view the lock was an indistinguishable part of the dam’s 1,000 yard width. I scanned the scene with binoculars for some time as the current increased. Finally the lock emerged from the background. Not having a radio onboard it was necessary for me to find the pull-cord that hangs from the end of the pilings to signal my arrival. There was no one in sight, but a voice came over the loud speaker telling me to wait.

I tied up and cooked breakfast while the lock filled. When the gates opened a half hour later I motored hesitantly inside. I passed bow and stern lines over one of the single, sliding bollards and sat on the rail with my feet ready to fend off. Apparently the lock keeper was satisfied with my readiness since the bollard—and the water level—began their slow descent.

I watched intently as the algae-covered walls loomed above and began to shut out the sun. Only an occasional push was needed to keep the boat clear. Thirty minutes later all 43 milliongallons had drained out and I sat at the bottom of a 100 foot trench.The giant gates opened, I motored out from the green, dank world into bright sun, the sound of my small outboard lost inside the massive chamber.

A powerful current whisked the boat away from the lock but was soon swallowed up in the vastness of Lake Bryan. A mile ahead Boyer Park was an oasis in the desert, a marina complete with sprinklers and lush lawns. I filled my water containers under the shade of tall cottonwood trees and plunged back into the canyon, keen to make more progress downriver.

The wind held from the east a little longer and carried me deeper into the canyonland. By sunset, black clouds filled the sky and I was anxiously looking for any kind of anchorage. I spent the night in the lee of a reed-covered bank with my anchor securely planted high and dry. The next morning the reeds were being swept by a strong breeze from the west and I made slow progress until the first road bridge over the Snake came into sight, indicating that the Central Ferry Marina was about to appear on the starboard bank.

The spacious, empty park was surrounded by hills turned gold by a long summer; cumulus clouds flew swiftlly over and windbreaks of poplar leaned in the gusts. Again I relaxed in the welcome shade, but now I was having my first doubts about the journey—I’d only covered 60 miles after three days. Two hours later a moderate five knot speed had brought me to the next dam, the Little Goose, where I felt more confident as I settled into my locking routine.

I descended 98ft. in solitary splendor and motored into thesunset. Beneath a high trestle bridge I found Lyon’s Ferry, the third park on the river with full camping facilities. Cold, wet weather sent me to bed early, too tired to avail myself of the nearby showers. Waking early, I was on my way before the sun rose with the noise of the engine echoing off the cliffs. I could see the corners of wheat fields reaching over the edges of the surrounding hills.

This is the fertile Palouse country whose grain is shipped down river via the silos and piers that dot the riverbanks. Flocks of ducks flew overhead and the occasional sound of a freight train broke the silence. The tracks on both sides of the river cross over many scenic coves limiting access to boats less than 20 foot in height.

After the third dam, Lower Monumental, the hills began to recede, meadows appeared on the benchlands, but there was still little sign of habitation. The last 100ft. drop, at Ice Harbor Dam, left a few miles of current before the Snake joined the broad waters of the Columbia. Several marinas cater to the nearby population of the tri-cities. The last stop is Sacajawea Park, on the point where the Snake and Columbia unite. This gives one the chance to think back on the Snake before pressing on to the broad Columbia. (Ironically, the mighty Columbia becomes un-navigable only a few miles upstream from here.)

Ahead lay the Wallula Gap and Horse Heaven Hills—place names from the era of covered wagons. Nearby is the site of the Whitman Massacre of 1856. Out on the flatlands of the Great Basin, I determined to do better than the prairie schooners of the pioneers and managed a “two dam day”-rolling off the miles to McNary Dam with the wind astern.

I continued into the dusk past the farm towns of Umatilla county, the lights of sawmills, trains and trucks illuminating the shore and the entrance to Boardman basin. The sun rose earlier over the plains, revealing Indian fishermen preparing for the day’s gill-netting. They tend nets that run out from the shore about 100 yards to a buoy. All the way to tidewater the river was crowded with their gear.

In a flat calm, it was a long day’s motoring down 70 mile Lake Umatilla, but I was satisfied to be reeling off the miles. Splashes of green brightened the riverbank on the Oregon side, where the river is pumped ashore for irrigation. At John Day Dam the drop is 113ft., one of the world’s largest, and the vertical- lift gate hung dripping over my head as I exited. On Lake Celilo the land began to rise above the plains again. In breaching the hills, the river had formed the great falls at Celilo where, since time immemorial, the native peoples had gathered around the salmon run.

To bypass these falls, the white men first built a portage railroad, then an eight mile canal, and finally, a century later, The Dalles Dam, which submerged everything behind it. The Indians who remain are confined to a narrow strip of land between the freeway and the lake, and subjected to strict fishing rules laid down by the federal government.

Further on, at Maryhill State Park,Wa., signs warn board- sailors of river traffic and gusts to 60 m.p.h.! The slip was busy at dusk and the pier only provided temporary moorage. A brief walk along the shore revealed a small, man-made basin practically invisible from the river. I cast off, slipped inside and enjoyed total security and a quiet night. With time to explore the area, I found a steam locomotive exhibited within the park and a historic river settlement nearby.

I slept soundly and felt reprieved when I found a calm morning— time to top up the fuel tanks and make the most of the lull. Each mile covered brought the Cascades and 11,000ft. Mount Hood higher in the sky. By afternoon I’d reached the Dalles Dam and the sagebrush vegetation was giving way to traces of green. That evening I was in the rainforest which covers the western and most scenic part of the gorge.

At The Dalles the first pioneers on the Oregon Trail took to rafts to carry their wagons down to the fertile Willamette Valley. Now the river is bright with the flashing sails of thousands of boardsailors. The gorge is known world-wide because of the prevailing wind of 20 knots and more out of the west. It will kick up a vicious chop that will bring even the most powerful craft to a complete halt. The only option is to take shelter until evening brings some lessening of wind strength.

Fortunately I had arrived during a calm and the boards lay scattered along the beach as I powered by. At the trace of a breeze the riders, in their luminescent suits, came to life,and I too hoisted sail as the breeze filled in. I began tacking again, my course giving me close-up views of the thickly-wooded shore and a changing panorama of the high bluffs. Hours passed, with the din of the freeway traffic lost in the sounds of sailing. The day’s goal came into sight at sunset. Through the fading light I recognised that the strings of lights ahead were illuminating the sternwheeler Columbia Gorge on its starlight cruise. I sailed by while the music played, and into the small marina at Cascade Locks.

Originally, the Cascades had been a total barrier to navigation, now only the tops of the highest rocks stand above water level. An early canal about 100 yards long had been dug to bypass the worst of the rapids. Fortunately the lake that rose behind Bonneville Dam had stopped just short of flooding the abandoned locks, preserving the site that had given the town its name.

Before the locks, steamboats were built on the mid-Columbia and spent their lives there. The final run to the scrapyards in Portland was a one-way trip down the 2.5 mile rapids, while the photographers of the day recorded the event. Fifty years ago the Bonneville Dam began the taming of the river, thirty eight years later the way to Lewiston was finally opened.

I went through the Bonneville Dam lock with two barges loaded with sawdust and emerged onto the free-flowing river. Native fishing rights end here and scores of sturgeon-fishing boats crowded the narrow channel, perilously anchored in the 7 knot current. The next stop was the 900ft. Beacon Rock, one of the many landmarks described by Lewis and Clark. After a short walk from the dock there is a fine trail to the summit, with handrails and steps cut into the rock.

After my solitary week I was returning to civilization: pleasure boats churned the river all the way to Portland, where jets circle low over the water before landing at the city’s airport. The new I-205 freeway bridge signals the start of the 6-mile stretch of water that holds practically all the yachting activity on the waterway. But once under the old I-5 bridge the Columbia settles back into the past, revealing history around every turn. All the way to the sea the river is dotted with the relics of canneries, sawmills, and old landings, built in a time when the salmon was king and everything moved by water.

Often only the pilings remain to mark towns long forgotten.Cathlamet, Washington, is the favored stopping point downriver. The historic town has changed little over the years and the life of the community still centers around the harbor. Beyond here the river opens up and the estuary takes on a saltwater character. Once again the westerly wind will do its best to make life miserable for the boatman but, with the aid of the tide, Astoria and journey’s end is just a day away.

About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in Cruising, Multihulls, NW boats and boaters and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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