River time

Posted by Ken Campbell November 23, 2011 0 Comment 768 views

There are those who will tell you that December 21st is the longest night of the year. They may be correct, technically and astronomically speaking, but there are many different ways of measuring time. I am convinced, for example, that the longest night of the year in 2011 was November 18th. I know this is true because I was there, wedged into the back of a Subaru on the banks of the Columbia River, with temperatures hovering around freezing and rain beating down, getting my sleep in 10-minute increments from just after sundown till morning light. Forty-three hours, by my calculation.
OK, maybe less. But not by much.

I drove down to the river the day before so that I could be on the water early in the morning. I was there to paddle around Tenasillahe Island, part of the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge, the island just downstream from Puget Island and immediately upstream from the larger, better-known, Lewis and Clark Wildlife Refuge. The islands in the Columbia are low-lying, wooded and sinuous, their outlines shaped by the relentless current of the mother river. Tenasillahe is near enough to the coast that tidal levels play a part in the movement of the water, but it is the current that matters the most, to kayakers especially.
I launched from a dock on the dilapidated Cathlamet waterfront. Wood-framed buildings leaning precipitously one way and another gave the area a feel of rank dissolution. No, perhaps that’s too strong a word; it was more an air of musty neglect that clung to the grassy shoreline in town. I liked it, quite frankly. There was no pretense there, no launch and parking fees, no pretending to be anything other than it was: a river town, warts and all.
I had originally planned on paddling down at Sand Island, just inside the mouth of the Columbia, but the high winds we’d been getting lately changed my mind. On this morning, the decision seemed to be the right one. There was scarcely a breath of wind and I paddled with the current along the Washington side, poking along the shores of the Hunting Islands, just west of Cathlamet.
I crossed the main channel over to Tenasillahe where the shipping lanes are the easiest to negotiate, but I still had to wait for an outbound freighter and a barge to pass before I could make my move. Shipping on the Columbia is non-stop and it is a good idea to pay attention.
The shoreline on Tenasillahe was composed of riprap, blackberry thickets and river-sand beaches, with more locations sprouting as the tide began to drop. I stopped a couple of times, just for a few minutes to stretch my legs, but mostly I wanted to keep going. This was one of those paddles where there is really more to see from the water than from land, and I was in something of a race with the tide anyway.

At one of the stops, I walked up off the beach to a spot just inside the treeline and saw a few of the white tailed deer that populate the refuge. They were walking along the perimeter road about a hundred yards upwind and they never even knew I was there. Their white tails bobbed like furry flags as they eventually bounded into the underbrush and disappeared from view.
There is a channel that cuts across the island, separating Tenasillahe from the islands of the Lewis and Clark Refuge and, according to a chart I had looked at before I started, the north side of the channel was fairly shallow. I wanted to get past this point while there was still enough water to float me, which I did without any difficulty. It didn’t seem to be as critical a spot as I had thought it would be.

Once through the channel (and past a gaggle of duck-hunters prowling the shallows), I started up the south side of the island, back upstream. Current was an issue, although staying along the shore and following the contours of the land made it less so. A pair of osprey circled in the air above me as I reached the eastern tip of the island and I stopped for a break on a sandy beach before making the crossing over to Puget Island and from there, back to Cathlamet.
In the time I’d been on the water, the day had gone from gray and cold to blue sky and sunlight. The clouds had lifted, revealing the snow that had fallen in the Willapa hills the night before and the day seemed less cold, less hard. Which was a welcome feeling, after the longest night of the year.

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