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Dodging the Wind

Dodging the Wind

Winter is a chancy time to paddle on the Lower Columbia. When it is not raining and storming seriously, clear weather usually brings a substantial outflow wind, venting the high pressure inland toward the next offshore low. George and I hit a good weekend, with minimal outflow wind of 5-10 knots predicted and went for it from our favorite put-in on the Oregon side. The day was cold but brilliant, with sketchy fog across the way as we paddled the two-three easy miles across the river to the only legal campsite below Skamokawa, WA.

We like this spot, because it is adjacent to the shipping channel with its freighter and tug traffic, and for the open view to the south. On a clear night like Saturday’s, Orion shimmers, and the planets (four of em, I think) line up the planetary ecliptic for calming scrutiny while dozing before a massive driftwood fire. Oh, yeah, I forgot, there is also an impressive eddy line off the basalt point nearby to remind us that the River is boss. That upriver point also shelters the campsite from outflow winds, a feature that is a blessing and a subtle curse.

George is recently healed from successful heart surgery to correct a heart rhythm problem, and this venture was a bit of a test piece for him. We had proved earlier in the week via a long day trip that he had the stamina. This trip allowed him to vent his energy in hauling firewood, a test for the ticker if there ever was one!

Sunday dawned overcast but pleasant. Spuds and coffee got me going, while George attempted to founder on a monster grain bucket of granola. Claims it “… supports my digestion.” Yeah.

As we gathered our bits, we kept eying the River surface, watching the wind. The tide crept nearer our feet and the drift logs. A half hour before launch time, a small ship’s wake nearly washed George’s kayak off, and smothered the fire. Blessing and a curse.

At launch, the River was alive, with occasional white caps off the point, but with a quiet eddy line. Hitting the ship channel, we braced into the two-foot chop and danced across, some three miles ahead of the big container ship rounding the bend above us. Hey! This is a lot more than I expected! George agrees, and we shift our paddling plan. We are old bulls.

We had wanted to take a straight down-river route, shooting between two monster bulwarks of dredge spoil sand right down the channel, and then making a long open crossing to a sheltered takeout behind Tongue Point. The sand bulwarks, Miller Sands and Rice Island, are the last pieces of protection from an outflow wind before the wind hits the River mouth, some 15 miles away. But, looking downwind at Rice, we could see a sand plume flowing off it, a certain sign of heavy outflow wind, usually at least 20 knots or so.

We edged across the River and hit the high side of another dredge spoil mass (Jim Crow Sands), donned more warmth, hit the candy bar stash, and hooked a slight right toward one of the low islands two miles away. Hey! This is worse! I watched George fight the short-period stuff and swore it was calmer over where he was. He, likewise, felt I got the better deal. Decks constantly awash and spray slapping us upside the head, we finally hit the lee behind Marsh Island, one of a zillion pieces of federally-protected swamp and mud bank which are home to migrating waterfowl this time of year, including tundra swans.

More food, water, and jubilation at having dodged the wind, we contemplated an easy down-wind, down-tide shot along the OR shore, and shoved off. Hey! Where did this stuff come from? More wind from our left, and this time it’s over 20 knots, blowing the tops off the chop, now and then breaking on us, and with only a half mile of fetch to work with! George and I are really annoyed now, and he curses mightily. I’m getting tired, hoping the skirt does not pop, and humping my butt for more shelter.

Finally we ease in behind Svensen Island, tucked right against the OR bank and eat, rest, drink, and wish there was a place to pee. I am surprisingly beat. George is still strong.

Edging out from Svensen on the lower end, we hit the wind again, but this time it is on our sterns, and only ten knots. At last we get our peaceful paddle, ending four miles later at our takeout, a short drive east of home.

On the way home, we reflect on our decision to avoid the open River. The relatively sheltered waters we paddled tested us. We are both unsure we could have remained upright in the rougher conditions out in the open River, an uncertainty reinforced later that day when we find out the wind was closer to 30 knots at the River mouth, enough to seriously slow down upbound freighter traffic.

Winter paddling on the Columbia River: a lesson in dodging the wind.

Dave Kruger
Astoria, OR

Copyright 2001 by Dave Kruger.
May not be reproduced or redistributed without author’s permission.
Originally posted on Paddlewise mailing list on 1/8/2001. Republished here with permission.