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Chilly Paddle

Chilly Paddle

Intrepid George, garbed here for winter, is featured in many of these Notebook tales.

I was cold at the put-in, and so was George. Even with full-tilt immersion gear and a couple layers of fleece, I could not warm up after sliding into a cold Farmer John. This is fun?

Ice on the sand and frost in the puddles, goosed along by a 10-knot downriver breeze. Durn! This is the middle of February on the coast of Oregon — should be warming up. Hurry up, summer.

A mile or so down the way, with building tail current helping, my feet begin to tingle back to life, and the gloves (I *never* wear gloves!) under pogies keep the fingers toasty. George needs to adjust, so he pops out onto a duck shack’s float while I drift in the current, watching the scaups and buffleheads jink around. These duck shacks got a lot of use this winter, but they return to bed as the season is over.

Back in the water, we shoot past submerged piling and hit the outside of Horseshoe Island, to gunkhole its shore and admire the weeds. Geese “her-luk” away in the near distance, mating, no doubt. They will be nesting in the next few weeks, tieing up the riparian zone out here. A fat dozen swans go aloft, soon to split for the tundra.

Still chilly, but our drift speed matches that of the tail wind, and the wind chill effect drops to zero. George gabbles. I paddle. Rounding the lower end of Horseshoe, we spy the narrow opening in the next island (Marsh) and hit it, another couple hundred yards to an isolated shack with new siding and a float which I use for a pee break.

Inside one of the abandoned houses on Karlson. Pictures are from a different trip.

This shack locates long-gone Brownsport, a loose association of gill-netter outposts and float houses, which once sported a boardwalk connecting the dozen structures, and a string of lights powered by a communal generator. All gone but two. The owner of this one spied me launching a week ago and we had a nice exchange, reverieing in our shared appreciation of these muddy flats and scruffy weeded wetlands. Our shrine.

On down the narrow waterway, spooking ducks, to the pass between Karlson and Marsh, as George talks on. We hit the north side of Karlson and check out the breached dike, a relic of the acquisition by the USFWS of this piece of former cow pasture. A vet buddy used to treat cows out here on meagre ground. Old cars and fences and cattle chutes add character, but we are bound for the next island. Crossing the channel, we ferry against stronger current and slip into a small eddy leading to the middle of Russian Island, where we are *surrounded* by eagles! I’ve never seen so many in one place out here — seven or eight, none shy, half are immatures. One plays bank hopscotch with us. Doesn’t he know he’s a “wild” animal? Another sits placidly on a grounded stump, facing the wind and hoping for something dead to drift by as a skiff passes within thirty yards.

Home to seven elaborate duck shacks, Russian is isolated and exposed. All have new siding, some new generators, and one a pair of way-decked-out goose-hunters. We continue in the direction of the current, and I am now barely warm, as the goose hunters shoot around to our right and purposely go aground off McGregor Island to set up their dekes and dog.

Low tide is two hours off, the current is now strong and from our left, and the wind builds at our backs, pushing small following waves at our tails, making for a loosy-goosy feeling. We hit another small channel and hide behind the cat tails, seeking shelter. I get cold again, eat some lunch, put the gloves back on, don another hat, and laugh at George standing calf-deep in the 40-degree water.

Push off, stroke stroke stroke to Lois, another half a mile away, to ghost past another dozen and a half swans, all standing on the flats amid geese. They all go aloft, bapping the mud with their wings, looking like Strangelove B-52’s. More current, and we hit the channel separating Lois from the mainland. Lois and its companion Mott are dredge-spoil creations from the forties and fifties, generated to make deep-water moorage for a couple hundred Liberty ships mothballed here until the sixties. They are now blackberry and scotch broom tangles, good for the deer, raccoons, and nutria. Lois held an agro squatter who had to be removed forcibly after he built an “ark” from alders and began firing his rifle over the heads of boaters who came too close. Took several gendarmes to get him — wonder which street creature in Astoria he is now?

I’m re-entering civilization in my psyche while my body complains at the hips and shoulders, sliding through the trestle gap into our exit. Two plain-Jane gillnet boats come out the John Day backwater, dodging snags and us. Another three hundered yards and hull meets concrete. I roll out, staggering on tingly pins, and George follows. The truck awaits. We load up and shuttle back, wolfing down delayed lunch, partly to keep George’s mouth busy and partly to stifle the growl in my belly.

Twelve and half nautical miles in a little over three hours. Lotta scenery, lotta waterfowl and a dozen raptors. My feet warm up on the floor of the pickup. It gets better than this?

Dave Kruger
Astoria, OR

Copyright 2000 by Dave Kruger.
May not be reproduced or redistributed without author’s permission.
Originally posted on Paddlewise mailing list on 2/15/2000. Republished with permission.