Inspired by the memory of ideal conditions, I summoned the members of the Portland Sail & Oar League for a summer solstice messabout on the Columbia River.
“I’m itching to get out on the river and enjoy the longest day of the year with an overnighter on Row Bird. Perhaps you’d like to get away in your own boat too? Then let’s think about heading out together, apart. Maybe we’ll gather distantly around a fire as we watch the longest day of they year come to a close?” I e-mailed.
With the pandemic on, I didn’t expect a lot, but I hoped at least one person would join me (in their own boat) for at least an afternoon on the water. Then slowly, but surely, like seeds sprouting on a warm day, two guys said they’d come, followed by one more yes, and a strong tentative, making five sailors, five boats. For the first time in weeks, I had something to look forward to.
But as the days got closer, a shiver went through the fleet. One guy* had to change the litter in his hamster cage, another suddenly remembered his grandma’s birthday, a third couldn’t find his oars, and the fourth sailor simply decided that sailing under corona might be a bad idea. (*Stories have been changed to protect the guilty.)
Still buoyed by previous solstice fun and a need to escape my captivity, I vowed to go out alone and enjoy the longest day and the shortest night. There was no wind forecast and I didn’t have to coordinate with anyone else, so I decided to do an overnighter with an open itinerary. I would close the last section of free-flowing Columbia River between the ocean and Bonneville dam that I hadn’t yet sailed.
My son dropped me and Terrapin off about 30 miles up the Columbia Gorge from our house. I gazed at the towering hills, steep cliffs, and the 850 foot rock monolith, Beacon Rock, where an inlet from the Columbia was coursing with current. It looked more like a mountain stream than I was excited about, but I figured if I didn’t capsize, it would be a fast and fun ride. Before pushing Terrapin into the water, I peered over towards the main stem where the conditions were less certain. Still, I figured I’d find a way, so off I went.
The first thing that happened was that the wind started blowing upstream, creating little white caps. Then the current slowed down due to something I hadn’t fully anticipated- there was so much snowmelt that that river was above its normal banks. The forest on the edges of the river was completely underwater. Any other edge on the river was solid rock. That meant taking a stretch break ashore was almost impossible. After five miles of rowing, I found a basalt rock dome protruding from shore just big enough to creep out on and stand for a few minutes. Finding a campsite wasn’t looking promising.
I had no choice but to keep going. At the ten-mile mark, I came to Sand Island hoping to overnight. The island, usually tranquil, made mostly of heaps of sandy dredge spoils was either too steep to camp on or shockingly crowded. The few flatter areas were covered in beachgoers on blankets and boom-boom party boats, or worse: overweight male nudists. I got back in Terrapin.
I was still enjoying watching the cliffs of the Gorge fade in the distance, but my hope of spending the night seemed unlikely.
By the time I reached my last potential campsite, I had a headache from the consistent whine of jet skis, skidoos, and ski boats that buzzed around me. I scanned the edge of islands and shore, but was faced with thick reeds, clumps of willows- all partially submerged, awash in motorboat wakes. No camping here either.
I continued downriver, undecided about what to do. In frustration, called my son for a pick up at a boat ramp on the edge of town. I arrived just before dusk, in a haze of exhaust from the dozens of motor boats queuing up to leave the water.
Slipping around the crowd, I wheeled Terrapin up to the waiting car. I had indeed spent the longest day of the year entirely on the water and the shortest night in the most comfortable bed- my own.