Despite the minor-swamping we received, neither Andy Bike nor I gave a second thought to continuing on our journey, though after we loaded the canoe and began paddling away, Bike noted that for our next trip he was going to get some real dry bags. Little did he know that he might need them sooner than that.
Over the years I’ve learned that navigating anyplace where currents meet is always an interesting challenge. The raw power of moving water is never more clear than when two mighty powers meet. Turmoil for logs, fish, and small boats ensues at these junctions. The Columbia carries a huge volume of water which can move at a swift pace. Tides and wing dams (a series of often-submerged pilings along the shore, that funnel water to the main channel) serve to speed up the water, while wind, that often blows opposite the current, kicks up waves. Needless to say that the challenges of entering the fourth largest river in North America were not lost on me.
As we got closer to the Willamette River bar, swells from motor yachts were still present, though the Columbia itself seemed about as calm as I’d seen it. Earlier in the day I’d explained to Andy the locations of the channel markers, the dangers of getting pinned on a wing dam, and about the swirl of currents that can occur at such a location, so I assumed he was fully aware of what we were getting into.
When the channel marker appeared a few hundred feet ahead of us the canoe started to move between the marker and the shore, instead of around the marker through the channel. I use the words, “the canoe started to move that way,” but I guess it was really Andy moving the canoe, since he was in the stern. Whatever happened at that point, it felt as if some other force had taken control. I called out that I saw some turbulence ahead, but a glance over my shoulder into the channel showed a choppy, wavy soup of slop too. It was too late to turn back, though neither the inside passage, nor the channel looked particularly good. Subconsciously realizing that our canoe could get swamped at any moment, we paddled on silently. Within seconds we were making steady progress into the Columbia, but we were in the trough at the bottom of three foot waves. Images of surfboat videos where the rowers and boats were dramatically separated popped in my head. My experience riding waves on a surfboard told me when you reach a certain speed you want to stop paddling and let your momentum carry you down the wave, so I stopped paddling to contemplate the wisdom of this idea. My pause was greeted by an urgent, “KEEP PADDLING!” from the back of the boat, so I kept paddling.
I watched the nose dig into the waves a few times, but miraculously each time we rose up. Soon we had passed the bar and paddled enthusiastically in choppy water that I hadn’t seen before we started. We chatted excitedly about what had just happened as we charted a course to avoid container ships and barges until we could make it to the shallows of a nearby island.
We beached and wandered around the island. Soon we came to the same realization: we were in the wrong boat. It seemed foolish to go boat camping instead of being at home working on the right boat, which was 90% finished.
After a barbeque on the beach celebrating our survival, we headed back to port, getting home at dusk. We woke up early the next day and finished sewing sails.