Coastal Journeys

Best of the West Coast: Columbia River (Essay Three)

Best of the West Coast: Join kayaker Jeff King as he continues his journey along sections the West Coast of the United States,

Best of the West Coast USA Journey: Imagining the Journey (One), West Coast Cape Flattery (Two), | Best of the West Coast, Columbia River (Three) | Best of the West Coast: La Push (Four) | Best of the West Coast: Paddling to Oregon (Five)

Columbia River

Like a dissonant pack of baying Basset hounds, the unruly colony of sea lions barked and roared their salutations as I approached the outermost tip of the southern jaw of the Columbia River. The north breeze carried a feedlot-meets-henhouse stench from the squirming lions. They were excited and nervous, and maybe a little bit aggressive. Suddenly, a dozen of them peeled off from their boulder perches and plunged seaward — toward me — amid a confusion of splash and spray. I thought to myself, “Here I am crossing the mouth of the continent’s fourth largest river and about five tons of unpredictable wildness is now swimming underwater right at me.” The scores of lions still up on the jetty raised a louder chorus of cheers as their buddies rapidly approached me. I reached up, pulled on my nose clip, and hunkered down ready to brace.

It is the second season of my quest to travel the west coast of the USA by kayak. My thinking on the project evolved since last year. I now call my journey the “Best of the West Coast” because, I have to admit, that I don’t have a keen interest in every mile of the coast, only the “best” parts. The roadless sections, the stretches with dramatic geography and landscapes, places where major or historic or beautiful rivers enter the sea, these are the places that draw me. I decided to skip some of the less interesting areas because, at age 65, I need to move along to what turns me on, and forget about the rest of it. For example, I omitted the coastlines of Long Beach and Ocean Shores, Washington along with Rockaway, Oregon. But I did paddle south down the gut of Willapa Bay, which is not officially the coast at all. There will be other coastal parts left out in Oregon and certainly some urban and crowded sections of the California coast will get the axe. Slightly inland waterways and bays worthy of attention will get added to the mix later on. Though it won’t be one blue line as I had originally imagined, it will be my Best of the West Coast Journey. Maybe I’ll come back in my 80s and fill in the boring spots. Maybe not.

Molly and I began this year’s fun in Manzanita, Oregon with an overnight stop to sort gear before heading up to Washington to resume the journey from La Push, where we left off last year. She was driving our old SUV with a pop-up trailer behind it that contains the four things we need to be comfortable; cook stove, lights, refrigeration and a dry bed. If you must know, the heater is a nice addition as well. I usually paddle about four to six hours on the days that Poseidon allows it. While I am at sea, Molly acts as shore logistician and shuttle driver extraordinaire. Though she finds little moments to knit, read or paint, she often moves the camper and then usually makes a final decision on where I will come to shore. Her voice crackling over my VHF radio near the end of an energetic day at sea is like a beacon in the night. She draws me safely to shore. On the days when the surf and sea conditions are too boisterous for solo travel, we hike, nap, cook, read, sightsee and plan.

On our first day of travel the wind, swell, tidal currents, weather forecast and shuttle logistics dictated that the Columbia River crossing be made from south to north. Though out of sequence with the 2017 legs of the Journey, the Columbia Bar, known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” was predicted to be a kitten that day. In keeping with our “outside the box” approach to the Journey, we adjusted our plans and explored Fort Stevens State Park on the coast south of the Columbia until we found a starting beach near the wreck of the Peter Iredale. As I stood on the dune looking out at the surf, the misty plume of a gray whale spout pierced the leaden sky. She lay beyond the breakers, about a quarter mile out. I watched her for several minutes. She did not move up or down the coast. She just lay there. Resting.


Sliding down to launch, west of Astoria in Fort Stevens State Park. I love plastic kayaks!

I dragged the kayak the last hundred yards down the dune and out into shallow water. I then closed the last zipper on my drysuit and gave my boat and safety gear one final, careful overview before I mounted the boat and got into Zen paddling mode: quiet, focused, one with my craft. On with the spray skirt and then out through the two-foot surf I went without incident. Once safely outside the breakers, I stopped to deckload my chart and water bottle, which are tucked inside the kayak during surf launches. While slightly distracted with my kayak housekeeping, I was startled into full alert by the unmistakable whoosh of the whale’s breath very near me. I spun the boat with a quick sweep stroke just in time to see her arch up and dive. Her smooth, wet, ebony skin with its Rorschach-like barnacle patterns slipped silently under the shiny surface. She was gone. Spellbound from such a magical welcome back to sea, I paddled with a touch of inspiration toward the south jetty, that stretched northwest and away, seeming to bend downward into the blurry distance.

The cacophony of the sea lions woke me from my reverie a few miles out. Following their raucous water entry, they submarined over and then surfaced all around me barking and lunging up into the air to have a look. They were like a frantic pack of four hundred pound puppies, with too much enthusiasm and no apparent concern for my safety. It took a few moments to realize that they did have a sense of social space, and it seemed that they just wanted to travel along with me. I was in essence now out walking the dogs, who serenaded me with their loud, guttural exhortations. I decided that it would be courteous, and perhaps lower my blood pressure a bit, to return their kindness and sing for them. I first tried a James Taylor song. But they seemed more pleased with the tune “Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers, sung with a screaming effect. You’ve got to suit your audience.

I cautiously approached the ragged end of the south jetty. Here I was finally exposed to the full northern Pacific Ocean, sporting a two-foot swell and light but rising winds. I was about three miles out from the beach back at the base of the jetty. The jetty itself was a meat grinder where I could not land. The next surf-landing beach was across the wide river, around the north jetty and then inshore a few miles — for a total distance of about six watery miles to my closest safe exit. The low swell rolled across an irregular boulder shelf created by years of persistent winter storms that had smashed the jetty’s engineering handiwork. I paused to assess the moving minefield. A slalom course opening through the rock debris came and went with each swell. When a bit larger swell reared up, I quickly clawed onto its shoulder and purposefully stroked over the boulders and out into edge of the expansive river. I rode the swells out into the confused river current, which was crisscrossed by ribbons of eddy lines, and punctuated with small groups of broad, short standing waves, some of which I surfed northward to get clear of the jetty. 

Once out into the deeper water, I stopped paddling and sat quietly just to isolate and understand the effects that the river and ocean were having on my boat. As much as possible, I wanted to cruise with these enormous and changing hydraulic forces, while strategically placing my strokes to safely cross the miles of the Columbia’s bar. “This is why I came,” I thought, as I bent to the effort and inhaled a gasp of deep, pure joy.

I reacted to the tactile forces of nature with strokes, leans and changes of direction almost without thought. I needed to stay clear of the trawlers, sport craft and monstrous commercial ships that were using the high slack tide to cross the bar. Since I was by far the smallest of the human-made floating craft, and I was paddling across the paths of everything else, I had to simultaneously monitor several other moving objects and be sure that none of those things would run over me. The largest ship operators could not see me, and the smaller craft were guided by folk who were in a hurry, with things other than yellow kayaks on their minds. So I took the safest approach — the one I use when riding my road bike in traffic — I assumed that nobody could see me.


At play on the freeway of the Columbia Bar.

About half way across the river, and nearly out of the shipping lane, I was still quite focused but comfortable enough with the task that my mind started to wander. I wondered what it looked like when the hundred-foot wall of water, caused by the breach of ancient Lake Bonneville up in Utah, plowed out of the lower river gorge and swept over my spot. I thought about the icebergs that were driven by a glacier out of the Purcell Trench in Idaho and then herded hundreds of miles over eastern Washington and Oregon and finally across this bar by the multiple, catastrophic releases of Lake Missoula only ten or fifteen thousand years ago. The lore of the local tribes describes these gigantic floods. Their ancestors, the early descendants of the Asian land bridge crossers, populated this coastline. I wondered what this place looked like when the sea level was five hundred feet lower, and how it would soon appear when sea level rises over the tops of the jetties. I envisioned the two-hundred-year succession of European mariners including, Drake, Quadra, Hecate, Cook, Meares and Vancouver who, from out to sea, either did not recognize this mightiest of western rivers, or were disappointed in their efforts to cross the bar over which I now paddled. I pictured the American merchant Captain Gray boldly sailing through the bar’s imposing breakers and the surprised reaction of the native people who he encountered when he entered the estuary that he named after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. Though Gray only went about thirty-five miles upstream, I mentally traced an upriver map that connected to nearly everywhere I have ever called home.

4View to the south with Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the foreground, the South Jetty and Oregon coast reaching into the distance. Beware: Large Moving Objects!

As I neared the north jetty I peered inland and saw the steep north shore of the river, where Lewis and Clark bivouacked for five soggy, freezing days in “Dismal Nitch” before crossing to the south shore to hastily erect Fort Clatsop as their winter quarters. Cape Disappointment dominated my view as I rounded the tip of the north jetty and drove into a subtly south-flowing current, which daunted my northward efforts for the next four miles. I was entertained by leaping silver salmon as I stroked toward the North Point Lighthouse. The Coho were running, and the ones in this gigantic eddy were evidently tuning up for re-entry into their home river. Though the tankers and trawlers didn’t get me on the bar, I wondered if a twelve-pound coho might smack me down now.

I cruised as close as I dared to North Cape, with its lighthouse and marvelous skirt of basalt cliffs, and as I rounded it north-trending Long Beach squared into view. Aptly named, it is a two-mile wide peninsula, about twenty miles long, that has built up over the ages from sediments carried off the continent by the Columbia River. Long Beach spit is mostly forested but dotted with clusters of real estate mixed with cranberry bogs and hobby farms. It forms a dike-like boundary between the Pacific Ocean and expansive Willapa Bay, lying to the east. Molly contacted me by radio just after I cleared the point. She had driven up from Fort Stevens and found a beach where she could get our vehicle near the ocean. Over the next hour we pinged back and forth on the radio as she guided me to her location. When I came in through the dumping small curlers I discovered that the waves along Long Beach seem to be three fourths sand and one-fourth water. My gear and I collected a fine silt coating with a drizzle of green sea slime during the surf landing. I completed my full-body grittiness by falling down in the sandy skim of water as I exited my boat. After five hours at sea, my legs needed time to remember their function, now that I was changing from a sea to a land mammal.

From Long Beach we drove north to resume exploring where we had left off in the summer of 2017. We arrived at Kalaloch Campground in the Olympic National Park and set up camp with the last hour of daylight. Rain was just starting and the forecast was for higher winds and surf to accompany the showers. Three or four days of land activities were on the menu. Over dinner we re-studied maps and notes on the area to help us decide what inland areas we wanted to visit. The Makah Museum, Hoh River, Queets River and the Quinault Lodge and Rainforest were the top four destinations. New places, people, stories, and memories all richly stretched out before us. We slept that night to the music of drumming raindrops and the thunder of rising surf. Though I was eager to get into the water at La Push, the sea was telling me to wait.


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Molly hunkered down at Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park.

Best of the West Coast USA Journey: Imagining the Journey (One), West Coast Cape Flattery (Two), | Best of the West Coast, Columbia River (Three) | Best of the West Coast: La Push (Four) | Best of the West Coast: Paddling to Oregon (Five)

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