Sailing the Columbia River and Back Waters, From Astoria to Portland

Three days up the Columbia River

Cast off from Astoria, OR (river mile 15)

I have no need to dream about far off exotic ports that I may never see because first I’m going to explore my own back yard, so to speak. We arranged for our son to drive with us to the coast. The plan was to trailer the sailboat to Astoria and he would bring the trailer back empty, leaving the three of us to fend for ourselves and find our way upriver to our home moorage. The boat ramp at Astoria is convenient and well designed, but the pre-launch area is part gravel parking lot and part muddy field. We parked near another sailboat crew that was busy stepping their mast and rigging the boat. Because of the mud and gravel I decided we would get on off the boat as little as possible while getting ready, so I told my 10 year old to go play on the docks and try to stay away from the Sea Lions that had taken over one entire float. The Sea Lions are so big and crowded that the float is listing and partially submerged. These are some of the same critters that will soon swim the 130 or so miles up river to Bonneville Dam, where they will feast on returning Salmon that pool below the dam.

While rigging the boat, I can hear the group next to us taking instruction from their skipper. I hope I don’t sound like that. In a little over an hour were ready to back down the ramp and turn our boat loose. Launching goes off without a hitch, minutes later we are on our way, I turn and watch long enough to see our son turn the correct way towards home. He’s on his own and so are we. We quietly float past the Sea Lions; they ignore us as we motor out into the river. Not hint of wind as we point ourselves up stream. The river is smooth and flat; we are about ten miles from the ocean. Other than the rising tide you wouldn’t know we at the edge of the largest ocean in the world. The Columbia is about four miles wide at Astoria, with lots of sand bars, and mud flats. There are two navigation channels going up river, one is the main channel where the ships going to Portland must operate or run aground. The other is navigable by small boats and meanders behind grassy islands along the Oregon side. We are not oriented yet; we have our chart, but don’t know where we are, so I point us towards what looks like a likely channel with some sort of markers in the distance. We wave to the other sailboat as they go by heading for the main channel. I wonder if they think were lost. We travel about three of four miles and using the binoculars try to spot a number somewhere that we can locate on the chart. I still don’t know where we should be heading but I have been studying the shore and don’t think we are any where near where the channel goes. Just because the charts lists an Island and you can see an Island doesn’t mean your boat belongs next to an Island. I think the river is more like ten miles wide now, so it’s easy to get confused. I’m starting to wish we had not left the dock without a better plan than head east and see where you go. We finally are near enough to positively identify a marker and realize we are heading into a dead end. I change course and cut across an area that the chart shows as having only one foot of water at mean low low tide. Our depth sounder says about eight feet are under us, but I’m very nervous since our keel is down about six feet. Running aground isn’t the only worry, running into a deadhead or submerged piling is a very real possibility, and a good reason to go slow.

In short order as we get close to the Oregon shore we spot some markers that correspond to our chart and finally know where we are. The wind picks up a little and we are sailing, I kill the motor and enjoy the silence. I wouldn’t describe the view as spectacular but it is very interesting and not at all boring. Birds of course are everywhere, the ever-present Herons are around each corner standing perfectly still trying to look invisible, and when they take flight, they look positively prehistoric. You can’t sail the Columbia without seeing hundreds of Osprey and their nests, they seem to own every piling or navigation aid ever built. The squawking young ones are as big as their parents and demand to be fed non stop. We poke our bow into backwaters and coves that seem interesting, sometimes we spot deer but more often cows. It is surprising that we discover buildings out in this area that really is just a few feet above the water. Most are shacks left over from more prosperous times on the river, but some are quite substantial and have rotten old docks, a few are occupied. When we get close enough to see that someone may be living there, you suddenly feel like your trespassing and quickly turn away. The wind is very spotty, sometimes we are not moving at all. I think we have run aground and ask if anyone thinks we have stopped moving, Jaiden is sure we are still moving because he can see the current flowing around the boat. I have lined up on shore two trees and can tell we are stopped (stuck in the mud) I play the guessing game awhile longer and finally announce that someone will have to crank up the keel or we’ll be stuck all day. No one moves, Linda is reading, and Jaiden is out on the bow. I climb into the cabin and turn the winch handle one full turn then watch the trees, nothing, another full turn and were free, sailing again, one with the wind, charging against the current of the mighty Columbia river. Oops, someone needs to steer soon, or I’ll be cranking the keel up even more. We have been steering through these narrow waterways for several hours and thanks to occasional markers, we know exactly where we are. We have a GPS with us but using the chart seems more appropriate and enjoyable. I remember to crank the keel back down, it’s reassuring knowing we can change our draft from six feet to three feet when needed.

As the sun is heading west the wind picks up and we are sailing well. We clear the last of the islands and make for the main channel, I think the port of Cathlamet is just around the next corner and sure enough soon a forest of boat masts and a breakwater come into view.

Cathlamet, WA (river mile 40)

I hate to take the sails down, we really haven’t had very good sailing until the last hour and I don’t want to quit. Soon we are motoring into the moorage; there are quite a few people around, a few wave, and many kayakers. Just past the gas dock, I spot a section of open dock, and smartly glide into a space right behind the sailboat that followed us out of Astoria. We exchange niceties as if were old friends, they mention they’ve been there for hours, what a great sail. What happened to us? I tell them we went behind all the islands, had a great time, didn’t use the motor until we needed to drop sail and motor into the moorage. That reminds me, need to check the gas, and may have to fill up before we leave tomorrow. Our new friends said they were staying the next night at the Longview yacht club. I thought to myself, I didn’t know Longview had a marina or moorage, how can they have a club. Cathlamet has a great little moorage, and a busy place. We ran into an old acquaintance kayak camping. They offer camping, transient moorage or year around. The moorage is very much protected from ship traffic, there’s a boat ramp and fuel dock. It’s just a one block walk into town where there’s a couple restaurants and stores for shopping. We arrived early enough that we could tour town and get back to the boat to make dinner before dark. In the morning after a leisurely coffee and breakfast, we motored into a neat little channel behind an Island on the Washington side. There was lots of evidence of old logging operations where they handled log rafts. We smacked into something two feet below the surface and discovered a row or submerged pilings. After a short way the waterway shoaled all the way across and forced us to turn around, leaving the exploring to kayakers. Where we cleared into the main river is Puget Island, the Island is served by bridge from the Washington side and by ferryboat from the Oregon side. As we proceeded up river the ferry came across in front of us so we ducked into the slough the ferry came out of and waited for its return trip. I don’t know whom was more amusing the ferry passengers looking at us or us staring back at them. So far today we have made almost no progress up river and already killed three hours. No wind again, just like yesterday so we settle into a monotonous 4 mph sleep inducing grind. On the Washington side, we go by some beautiful high cliffs. I check my maps and find the names Eagle cliffs, Bunker Hill, Oak Point. In Oregon we see mostly lowland and sure enough pretty soon we come to another likely island waterway to explore. After checking the chart I determine that there’s enough depth all the way through and turn the bow towards Oregon once again. In minutes, the main river is history and we are again surrounded by nature. Somehow, 4mph seems like we are racing through, even being disrespectful using a noisy outboard motor. I cut the engine speed to just a fast idle and watch the shoreline slip by. Eventually we come to the proverbial fork in road and after checking the chart head into the left passage. It’s not very long before “bump”and we are hard aground, no warning at all. The depth went from fifteen feet to three feet in half a boat length. We free ourselves and move over about twenty feet and do it again, and again, and arrrrgain. About now, I see some people on shore over on the other channel. They are waving at us to use the other channel over by them. I am reluctant to heed their waves because my up to date current chart says to go this way if we ever expect to see the Columbia River again. We free ourselves one last time and motor towards our saviors. They are standing on their private dock a little amused. They inform us that the charts have been wrong for twenty five years, and all we need to do is keep to the right from here on and we will have plenty of depth all the way back to the main river. Ah local knowledge what would we do without it.

The wind comes up again and we aren’t moving slowly anymore. Without the motor running, I no longer feel disrespectful as we rip along almost in silence. Even though we are going up river we are sailing downwind, so we have the motion of the boat slicing through the water and we are moving with the wind so it is very calm with not much apparent wind on board. We are nearing Longview and the wind has picked up a lot. We are sailing on a broad reach most of the time and no longer sailing straight up the middle of the river. I’m choosing headings to keep the boat under control and comfortable, (not heeling toooo much) otherwise my crew may mutiny and never go sailing with me again. We fly by Rainer and Longview. Rainer has a nice newer guest dock we have spent the night at several times, and the town has a pizza place. I scan the shore at Longview. I still haven’t seen a moorage or marina or even a river to hide in, let alone a yacht club. All I see is a big mill of some sort. It is starting to get dark and my hopes of making it to St Helens are starting to fade with the daylight. I am really torn right now. Go on or turn back to Rainer? The wind is moving us faster than ever; but it’s getting dark even faster. If I push on and the wind dies, we’ll be in for a long motor ride. If we keep going and hit something at this speed, it could be a major problem. In the dark I wont be able to get near shore for fear of grounding and my distance perception is almost gone along with the light. Of course, my crew doesn’t know my thoughts, they just want to go in the cabin to get warm and find dinner. I push on; one factor trumps all others tonight. I’m having a great sail and don’t want it to end. When I gaze ahead trying to make out anything that doesn’t belong in the water, I see some industrial lights along shore.

Kalama, WA (river mile 75)
We are approaching Kalama. In about five miles I drop the sails and we motor into the moorage. The boat basin is behind a high dyke, completely protected from the wakes of passing ships.. I’m hoping Kalama has transient moorage. The office is closed so its up to us to find a place to tie up for the night. We have been here before to get fuel, but have never been beyond the entrance. I admire the many boats. Powerboats are mostly under cover, each slip like a personal garage. The sailboats all have tall masts so wont fit under cover, they are mostly at the end of docks where there are no roofs. Each parking place has it own light and power plug, close by are water spigots. The foot ramps leading to the docks have locking gates with security systems. Once you go out one of these doors and it slams behind you, getting back inside is impossible without going for a swim. We need to make sure not to get ourselves locked out. It’s dark but with the marina lights we have no problem making our way safely. I spot what I’ve been looking for, a sign with an arrow pointing to Guest Moorage. The guest spots are at the very end, about one hundred feet of open dock is designated for guests so we pull in at the very end trying to get as close to the foot ramp as possible. There is a large amount of floating debris in the water next to the dock, apparently the local wind and currents cause all this flotsam to collect here as a welcome mat for visitors. Some of the driftwood and logs are fifteen feet long and twelve inches in diameter. I momentarily put a foot on one as I tie up the boat, big mistake, I should know better. In a heartbeat, I could be in the water and trapped under this mess. We are all hungry and food has been a major topic of discussion, so we head up the ramp and are on our way to town. The guest dock is outside the security gate so we will be able to come and go as we please.

Downtown Kalama is essentially on the other side of the interstate, so all we need do is walk over the railroad mainline via a sky bridge walkway and then under the freeway via the road tunnel and then we pop out onto the main street, walk about one block to the local hot night spot with a sign advertising pizza. It must be Saturday night because on the other side of the door marked “NO MINORS” are many loud party-goers. We are mostly by ourselves in the family area. The walk back to the boat is windy and cold, sleep comes easy tonight. Breakfast and coffee in the sunshine, the wind is light. It looks like the beginning of a pleasant day. In the daylight we can see what a mess we’ve parked in, the flotsam covers the entire end of the basin and the guest docks, are being swallowed, one dock is completely useless. As we pull out, I need to be careful not to damage our propeller or rudder. Once clear of the marina we can see the city park with its tall totem poles, a sight we missed in the dark. Kalama is at river mile 75, after the better part of two days on the water I’m feeling at home, but I think my crew wants to be at home. I suggest we make for St Helens and have Ice cream at a little shop a short walk from the public dock. Miraculously spirits are lifted. Motor sailing now, between light winds and the quietly purring motor, the boat is making good speed. We are tacking back and forth trying to make best use of shifty winds. The occasional ship chases us from mid channel and keeps us alert. Not at all like the backwaters around islands where the biggest commotion is a juvenile Osprey demanding to be fed.

St Helens, OR (river mile 86)
Sand Island is directly offshore of St Helens and (almost) protects the community from passing ship wakes. The city has a strong boating commitment and maintains free public docks on both the mainland and Sand Island. During the summer, there is a free shuttle boat to the island, making it easy for a boater to tie up on the island and still go into town.
The passage between the mainland and Sand Island is narrow and has a strong current making docking on either side a full attention all crew on deck maneuver. On one visit, here we discovered the hard way, an old submerged piling right next to the dock. The docks are really nice, onshore is a small city park complete with gazebo and a small grassy amphitheater. Hot and cold showers in the bathrooms (everything is free) make St Helens one of my favorite cruising destinations. We tromp up the ramp heading for the Ice cream and Gelato shop. Not in any hurry to leave, we spend some time at the small park in front of city hall where they have a nice foot path depicting Lewis and Clarks exploration. This is a very worthwhile place to visit.

Back at the waters edge I sit in the gazebo to read while my crew discovers a river otter playing under the ramp float. A city employee shows up dressed in a spiffy uniform and quickly gathers what little litter there is and just as fast is gone. Eventually we gather at the boat and cast off, the main river is just a few minutes away. At this point boaters have a major choice of routes, the main river is shortest and fastest no doubt, but more picturesque, relaxing, and off the beaten path is Multnomah Channel. Sauvies Island on the Oregon side is about 15 miles long, and following Multnomah Channel around the island to the Willamette River and back to the Columbia is about 24 miles. On this trip, I have been wanting to explore a little slough on the Washington side so we stay on the Columbia. Soon we clear Warrior rock light on Sauvie Island and continue up river keeping a sharp watch for commercial traffic, and occasionally glancing at the depth sounder. Running aground is not a major problem and our swing keel is very forgiving, but its not any more seamanlike running into things in your boat than is being a good driver and hitting parked cars with rubber bumpers.

Sauvie Island has a notorious and popular nude beach and soon we cruise by, it’s hard to see well with the binoculars bouncing around from the waves. Back on the Washington side, I’m looking for the mouth of a slough that I find on my chart but have never explored. According to what I’ve read there is a houseboat community nestled behind a small island. I spot a small runabout coming from shore and change course to investigate; sure enough, a small opening presents itself. Sails down and motoring very slow we cautiously approach, I know from past experience that islands extend underwater for a long ways and we need to find a channel to safely enter. From hundreds of years of commercial use I expect the river to have rotten old pilings just about anywhere and everywhere. I ask Jaiden to watch closely from the bow. With one eye on the depth sounder, we bravely forge ahead. A thousand feet in we go by a boat ramp, which I assume, is where the runabout had come from. We are down to about six feet, so I crank up the keel a little and keep moving. We can see the houseboats now; it looks like about a dozen. Several have boats tied up, one is a large sailboat. and we come to a stop again. The gauge reads four feet, I am reluctant to lift the keel anymore, we are getting close to where the rudder might hit and not only do some damage but we could get stuck. I lift the keel another turn and reverse course, being sure to fully lower the keel when we clear the island and continue up the Columbia. I’m not giving up, that big sailboat had to come in during higher water and so could we, or next time we have the dinghy with us, we can anchor and dinghy the last mile. That will be another trip, another day. There’s not much to see on either side but low banks or sandy beaches, Sauvies Island sports the occasional million dollar estate but Washington has some too.

As we approach the Portland and Vancouver area boat traffic increases, plus there are ships anchored. I learned years ago to stay away from parked ships when I tangled my mast with a fishing line a crewman had over the side. Today security is a big issue, so we stay clear of ships. The Willamette River flows into the Columbia at the top of Sauvies Island and creates a standing wave right at the junction. Boaters tend to cut this corner close and sometimes are rewarded with a wall of water over their bow. We continue on past more anchored ships and soon are opposite Hayden Island, Home to Jantzen Beach shopping center and where interstate five crosses the Columbia River. Our moorage basin is carved out of Hayden Island and the entrance is on the Columbia side of the island so we stay in the main channel the rest of our trip. The last challenge we must overcome is the railroad bridge, at high water the draw span must swing open to allow our mast clearance. One trip I remember waiting two hours to pass through, we arrived in the daytime and finally cleared the span after dark. This day the water is low and our current boat blessed with a short stick (size does matter) slips underneath, thirty minutes later we are safely in our slip at Hayden Bay. Previously on our way to Astoria, we had left our car in the parking lot, so it was waiting for us to drive home. This was a great trip, I plan to do it again someday bringing my inflatable kayak or dinghy to explore the areas I missed.

Hayden Bay, Portland, OR (river mile 107)