Paddlers Embrace ‘River Time’ on the Willamette

• A summer paddle on Oregon’s Willamette River —good.

• A five-day paddle down Oregon’s largest signature river in the August sunshine—better.

• An annual paddling trip on the Willamette River with delicious catered meals, nightly musical entertainment, happy hour food and drinks, good friends, plenty of laughs and scenic camp sites—best.

This was our fourth year to participate in Paddle Oregon, an annual 107-mile reprieve from daily routines.  We started on the upper river in Harrisburg, a town halfway between the university towns of Eugene and Corvallis.  The launch site was at river mile 156, just 30 miles from the river’s beginning near Springfield where the Middle Fork and Coast Fork tributaries merge.

At 187 miles in length the Willamette is the 13th largest river in the United States, one of the few that flows north through the heart of Portland into the Columbia River, and the river that defines Oregon’s most fertile agricultural region as well as its population center with nearly 70 percent of residents living within 20 minutes of its banks.

As the Willamette River gets healthier and cleaner it draws even more people to its waters.  More than 200 paddlers came on this 12th trip, organized by Willamette Riverkeepers to encourage interest in the river’s history and support for its future.

The take-out in Newberg at river mile 50 is about 20 miles from Willamette Falls on the edge of Portland, long before the heavily industrialized harbor area that presents so many clean-up challenges.

Since we live near Portland, we opted for the “shuttle.”  We got up at 4 a.m. (THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT) to be at Newberg by 5:30 a.m.  Boats, dozens of boats, were loaded on trailers; bags and camping gear were loaded on a Ryder truck.

In past years, we’ve seen a wide variety of vessels, including stand-up paddle boards, a drift boat, inflatable kayaks, homemade boats, along with kayaks and canoes.  This year there were only kayaks and canoes, 166 in all.

The first day is always hectic.  It’s hurry up and wait. It was 7:30 a.m. before three buses filled with people and paddles rolled out..

Harrisburg was organized chaos. Boats covered every grassy area, people milled around with sunscreen and hats galore. At the check-in volunteers handed out t-shirts and lunch totes.  Of course, we all clustered around the food for the first catered breakfast and selected our goodies to pack for lunch.

Pods, groups of about 15 paddlers, met for introductions and safety talks. Lucky us, once again we were in the Pokey Pod.  Our leader kept a consistent, steady pace and a consistent, steady banter so the days were enjoyably long, fun and filled with laughter.

We were reacquainted with several people from previous trips and our sweep who was paddling this year in a tandem kayak with his 12-year-old granddaughter.

Aptly named for our departure and arrival timing, our pod didn’t get started on our 24 miles against a strong headwind until after 11 a.m.

Still, once we got going we easily settled into the rhythm of river time, that magical place where everyday stuff just drifts away and the present moment is all important.  The swift current pushed us as we worked the kinks out of our strokes.

We pulled into Crystal Lake Boat Ramp in Corvallis around 4 p.m.  Once we beached our boats on the grass, we went to find our bags, pitch our tents and relax.

Appetizers were plentiful, beer and wine were flowing for a fee and groups were gathering to talk about their day on the river.  Dinner was wild salmon and prime rib.

Dalton Catering has been providing the meals since the first Paddle Oregon.  The food is always fresh and filling.  I overheard one camper say that despite the miles and miles of paddling, she always gained weight on this trip.

The second day was the shortest at 12 miles.  We took it slow, stopped to swim and play in the clear water, and arrived at the park in Albany at our usual 4 p.m. time.

The third day we paddled from Albany to Independence, about 18 miles, with a side trip up the Luckiamute River, a tributary that starts in the Coast Range and flows northeast to join the Willamette about 10 miles north of Albany.  It was 90 degrees or so and it felt even hotter on the slow moving Luckiamute which was shielded from cross breezes by the thick foliage on both its banks.

That evening we camped at Rogue Brewery’s new hop fields near Independence.  Rogue leases 40 acres at this hop farm to grow Cascade aroma hops.  They also grow pumpkins for their fall pumpkin beer. In addition to a tasting room, Rogue offers farm tours.

We camped right near the hop fields amidst apple trees with falling fruit, wandering chickens that roosted in farmyard trees, and roosters that started crowing at 5 a.m., a perilous instinct.

The fourth day was our longest paddle and the one we most dreaded at 30 miles.  Although a minimum of paddling experience on moving water is required, most of us were run-of-the-mill recreational paddlers, not long distance churners.

Our leaders assured us that it was going to be a smooth trip on fast water and they were right.  It didn’t feel any harder than other days. The scenery and waters flowed quickly, and so did the jokes and laughter.

Every day we were on the lookout for blue and green heron, osprey, bald eagles, kingfishers, otter and fish.  One day an osprey swooped down a few feet in front of us, grabbed a fish, and flew it up to the chirping fledglings in the nearby next.  What an amazing sight.

That evening, our last, we camped at a spacious and grassy winery near the Wheatland Ferry called Arcane Cellars.  Although the grounds were some of the best, the take-out was the worst—muddy and uphill.

Fortunately, some strong, young guys were ready to help pull us and our kayaks out of the water and part way up the soggy hill.  Oh, and did I mention the stinging nettle that was lurking, waiting for us in the tall grasses where we beached our boats?

Dinner was later our last evening to allow everyone time to set up their tents and relax.  Traditionally, this meal is much anticipated and this year did not disappoint—Dungeness crab, all you could eat, and steak.

Our final day was a 22-mile paddle.  Maybe it was because the trip was coming to an end or because it was the hottest day or because the river widens and slows or because we encountered numerous motorboats and waterskiers . . . whatever the reasons, the last few miles were the hardest.

Once again, it was about 4 p.m. when we arrived in Newberg and carried our boats up the ramp one last time on Paddle Oregon 2012.

(This article was first published in Snowshoe Magazine.)

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