NOTE: The Columbia River is a major river, with commercial traffic, rapid changes in flow and unpredictable weather. Boating the river may or may not be safe on any given day.
Exploring a river the size of the Columbia is a daunting prospect for any paddler, and a region famous for its wind seems an unlikely haven for a canoeist. Even the Lewis and Clark expedition, having rested up a bit in The Dalles after crossing the plains, the Rocky Mountains and navigating Celilo Falls, were stalled for a time at what is now known as Crates Point because they were unable to make any headway against the stormy October wind. Only by leaving early the next morning were they able to round the point and proceed downriver.
In summer, early morning is often the only time a paddler can launch with any hope of a quiet paddle and even then the wind may or may not be still.
Yet all that changes with the coming of November.
Historically, the Wishram Indians are reported by researchers as knowing our November as “The month of travelling by canoe.” Nestled between the winds of summer and the dangerous storms of spring are indeed some of the best months for the paddler.
The mirror-like surface of the river reflects hills turned green with the fall rains, shorebirds explore the shorelines and migratory waterfowl gather in large flocks. Bald eagles perch along the shore and patrol the river for fish.
The biggest challenge for the November paddler is the cold. Every explorer has his or her own preference when it comes to staying warm and dry on the water, but all are based on a single principle: Many layers will keep you warmer than one layer alone.
I’ve had icicles break off the canoe as portaged from car to river, admired islands covered in snow and split ice with the nose of my canoe — and have never been cold. When it gets really cold, I wear long underwear, sweats and a thin sweatshirt beneath my military surplus, oversized wool pants and shirt. Gloves, wool stocking hat and extra socks. A down coat over everything, a rain coat if I need one and a life jacket.
Capsizing in winter is a life-threatening event: Don’t launch if conditions aren’t perfect and stay close to shore. Once you are in the water, you have only minutes to get out.
I get pretty “puffed up” by the time I hit the water on a cold day, but I can stay as long as I like and suffer not at all.
I also carry extra dry clothes and a wool blanket or two in a tightly-sealed bucket for emergencies.
Cold, ice, snow and even rain add a sense of adventure to even a short paddle. Be aware that the nose of a canoe or kayak can easily break through thin ice, but running more than the nose onto thicker ice can unbalance your craft, risking a dangerous upset.
Once you master the art of staying warm, exploring the river can be a magical experience. Following are a number of launch points in The Dalles area:
The Dalles Marina
A boat ramp and sandy beach make a convenient launch, with access to islands upstream off Riverfront Park. The river between the islands and shore can be quite shallow, and areas of rock are marked with buoys. A surprising number of channels and inlets can be explored, including the mouth of three mile creek at Lone Pine. Access beyond The Dalles Bridge is restricted.
This pocket park along the Riverfront Trail is located in The Dalles Industrial Park. A short portage allows launching from a small sandy beach of the tiny, cup-shaped cove. Turning upstream, tall cliffs tower above the paddler. Downstream, the shore opens out at the mouth of Chenowith Creek.
If you aren’t ready for the river, or want to test your gear before venturing far, Taylor Lake is a good place to start. Access is via Taylor Lake Road located west of Chenowith Creek. The lake is small, bounded on the river side by the Riverfront Trail. Portage is possible from the parking area to the river as well, where a narrow, picturesque channel along the shore splits off a large island that is well worth exploring.
The Dalles Dam/Locks
A boat ramp on the Washington Shore at the upstream entrance to the locks allows access to “Lake Celilo,” the impoundment behind The Dalles Dam. Barge traffic comes very close to shore here. There are some startling discoveries to be made as you work your way upstream.
Across from the Union Street underpass in The Dalles is the old ferry access point in Dallesport. There are great views of The Dalles and Mount Hood here, especially as the sun sets.
The shore here is a mix of natural cliff and banks of riprap used to shore up the river banks for the railroad lines.
Use caution, as some areas have metal debris hidden just below the surface. Barges also pass quite close to shore here, creating signifcant wakes.