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Terns and Riprap

Terns and Riprap

There’s really no good way to do it. You just shoulder the yak and hop from boulder to boulder until you reach the tide flat. Or, if you have a buddy, take turns hauling each other’s boat over the same terrain. Harrington Point, on the Washington side of the lower Columbia River, is shelved with riprap to support a shred of state highway, serving the deadend placenames Altoona and Pillar Rock. Long-gone salmon runs fed canneries in these riverside locales, now bedroom communities for nearby “bustling” Naselle and the bigger towns in Oregon, 40 minutes away.

The riprap is made necessary by freighter wakes and winter waves, neither in abundance this late April day as Lucien and Randy haul their monstrous decked canoe and gear to the mud and launch. I am slower, dutifully packing rescue gear, lunch, and other necessaries into the fore and aft parts of my small wooden kayak. By the time I have threaded through the swirls surrounding the pile dikes off Altoona, their craft is a toothpick across the half-mile-wide main river channel. We launched at the tail end of the ebb, and cormorants are feeding in the turbulence as I look both ways and scoot across the shipping channel. The VHF squawks of barges miles away, and power boats carrying returnees from the local “wine festival” have not yet begun to rip upstream past our spot.

Catching the others in the middle of their pee break, I land on “Miller Sands barrier island,” in time to relaunch and drift/paddle back across the shipping channel to the upper end of Rice Island. The thirty-foot tall sand ridge forming an arcuate “barrier” around Miller Sands and the humongous deposits of dredge spoils on Rice Island are ignored on NOAA charts — perhaps because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not like to acknowledge the huge expenditure of resources needed to keep the River slanting across the River, deviating from its long-ago historic course. These are not small structures. The first is 50 – 100 Yards wide and a mile long, the second is up to a short half-mile wide and a mile and a half long. They grow annually to maintain the channel depth, and have been here for over 20 years.

The lower end of Rice, which we visit twice at its midst in our clockwise circumnavigation, is the location of the largest Caspian Tern colony in North America, about 5000 plus birds. They were attracted here some fifteen years ago from their previous home (at the mouth of Willapa Bay) by abundant salmon and steelhead smolts. The colony nails between 6 million and 20 million smolts as they enter the lower River on their journey to the sea. Biologists are experimenting with ways to “move” the colony downriver to a place where the smolts are less stupid or at least more spread out, hoping the birds will eat something less vital to humans.

Rice Island is a desert, with a fringe of struggling cottonwoods and beach grass, home to a few dozen nesting geese. One pair has produced the season’s first goslings, a scrawny, tiny duo dwarfed by their fat parents, waddling furiously away from us as we paddle by. Lunch includes a tentative foray toward a hidden point which can overlook the the tern nesting zone, soon abandoned in deference to the smolt-eaters and their also-voracious cousins, the couple thousand double-breasted cormorants which also nest on the lower end of Rice.

Reaching the upper end of Rice, as the ebb turns to flood, we thread our way across, dodging cruisers booming upriver, to skirt the barrier sands of Miller Sands, landing briefly on the upper end. A half dozen eagles (just two of them mature), eye geese, goslings, and eggs for lunch, dinner, and dessert. We leave hurriedly, very out of place in this rich environment, to confront monster ships in the channel. One produces a shoreside surge I surf backwards, unwillingly, and we sidle up to the vague edge of the channel until the traffic subsides. The VHF is busy, with an upriver freighter passing a tug and barge combo as another oceangoing vessel heads downriver. Lucien, new to the water, gawks at their monstrous size, and wonders if the wake turbulence will sink the canoe. No, but it gives my yak a ride!

Altoona looks good, but the tide is now up IN the riprap, as we dance out of our craft and hop to rocks, extracting boats from the freighter surge and head home. On the chart, this looks like really BORING water … guess somebody forgot to tell the terns and gulls about that.


Dave Kruger
Astoria, OR


Copyright 1998 by Dave Kruger.
May not be reproduced or redistributed without author’s permission.
Originally posted on Paddlewise mailing list in April, 1998. Republished with permission.