August 28, 2019 – This is going to be a long one so you might want to make yourself comfortable before reading. Last night I set my alarm for 4 am. I figured that would be enough time to get on the water by 6 am. It took much longer to make coffee than planned, but that really didn’t matter much because it took even longer for it to be light enough to move the kayak and gear around safely.
How do we forget ourselves? What is it that makes some of us forget that we do know how to do things, even quite well sometimes? BABS and I were all geared up for surf by 7:30. I was grateful that I wasn’t terrified or even afraid. The problem was that I wasn’t confident. I had forgotten my helmet and, although I specifically remembered packing it into an IKEA bag, I couldn’t find my rolling cap anywhere either. I decided to go for it anyway. I spent a long time studying the sets, finding the interval for the break in between them. I counted an almost 30-second break two times, but the first was after eight good big beautiful waves and the second came after only four or five.
I finally ventured into the surf zone at 8:25 during what I guessed would be one of those 30-second breaks. My body paddled through it like it knew exactly what it was doing. My mind was calm. I even caught myself smiling just a bit like this was fun. It was surreal. It looked like I had found the break between sets, until I saw two extra large waves starting to form at the outer edge of the surf zone. Not bad! I dug in and went right over both and then I was bobbing along in the predicted four foot swells. Now those were fun! There were also little two foot wind waves coming from almost the same direction as the swells – northwest.
As soon as I got out of the surf zone, I pointed the bow west southwest and paddled rigorously to be well clear of the area around the north jetty point as the incoming current was pushing me rapdly southeast into it. Even from my launch point two miles north I could see the waves crashing into the riprap of the north side of the jetty, and I could feel the water trying to move me to join them.
As I approached the area in line with the jetty, I was comfortably a couple hundred yards west of it and the swells and wind waves that had been consistently moving in the same direction began swirling. I was impressed that the jetty influenced eddies this far out. These were the waters of many of my dreams – swells coming in lifting me up high, then dropping me blind down in the trough, then spinning me – only in my dreams I was afraid. Today I was wide awake and smiling with joy, and not wanting it to end so quickly. It was so much fun. I am stunned by how much I have changed.
Once on the other side of the jetty, I saw the clipotis, or confused waters, just inside it stretching a couple hundred yards east and south, creating a sort of rectangular field of water in which to play. Much as I was tempted, alas I was over two hours behind schedule and needed to keep paddling south and resist the urge to make a left as soon as I got beyond the jetty. After I was beyond the clipotis and eddies I did turn left and pointed BABS’ bow toward the area just off the tip of Jetty A.
The water immediately calmed as I crossed the bar. I looked right and was lined up with the south jetty. I looked left and was lined up withe north jetty. I was crossing the Columbia River bar. A small trawler far off to the right made its way out across the bar. Here we were, two vessels crossing the bar in opposite directions, me coming in from the sea and the fishing boat going out to sea. It felt delightful.
Now was the time to put on some speed. My goal was to make it to Rice Island before the current turned and was pushing too much agains me, especially since the forecast 15 mph SW winds were now starting to materialize. And, even though I still had the current going in the same direction, the wind waves were already helping to push me forward. Once the current direction changed, it would become much more of a slog.
Just after entering the river I realized that, although I know this shoreline of the river well, this is the first time I have paddled almost all of this part of the river. I didn’t really need my nautical chart to navigate it. It was pretty cool to see the landmarks from a great distance off shore – Waikiki Beach, the fish cleaning station next to the Coast Guard station, etc. By the time I reached the outside of Sand Island (one of the two islands in Baker Bay built up from silt after the jetties were made), I realized I was hungry for breakfast and needed a break. Even though I knew it would cost me precious current-helping time, I made a surf landing onto Sand Island, ate breakfast, switched out my gear from surf kayak to river kayak, dug my sunglasses out, and headed back out onto the river.
As I approached the Astoria-Megler Bridge, I noticed hundreds of black pointy things sticking out around all of its concrete base columns. As I got closer I realized they were cormorants. A friend had told me they moved over to nest at the bridge after a couple of years of being shot at and killed on East Sand Island (the other island in Baker Bay), and here they were. Survival instinct at its best.
After crossing under the bridge the wind picked up even more and I could feel the current starting to turn around. I also started thinking about tomorrow’s weather forecast which included thunderstorms. If today’s forecast materialized so closely, then it is possible that tomorrow’s would too. That would mean that 1) I would be on Rice Island in rain without my tent (I only packed my sleeping bag and pad thinking it would be a quick sleepover on Rice), 2) I would be making the 25-30 minute crossing from Rice back to the north shore and perhaps be the tallest thing on the water during a thunderstorm, and 3) I was getting tired.
I looked at the shore and I was about a mile and a half from the beach at the Quarantine Station. Andrew and I had taken a couple of Road Scholar groups here for Lewis & Clark journal readings a few years ago when the Dismal Nitch Rest Area was closed. I knew it had a road from the beach up to the highway so I decided to head for it. I turned my phone on and called my uncle who was on his way home and asked him to come back and pick me up at the Quarantine Station. Being the nice guy he is, he agreed, although later he jokingly told me it was little fuzzball, Gaston, who turned the car around.
The tide was fully in and I took it slowly because I knew there were dozens of pilings just under the surface from the old station. I managed to dodge them all and landed on the sandy beach. I walked up to the road and looked across to see if there was any sign of someone around the station’s “pesthouse” or neighboring homes. There were no signs of people being home so I went back to the beach, unloaded BABS, carried the gear bags and kayak up to the road, and was bringing the last load up when the Saab pulled in. Talk about perfect timing! There were still no signs of life across the street so we loaded everything into/onto the Saab and headed for Cape D to see if they had an open campsite for the night.
As we were talking about where to launch the next morning, my uncle took out his phone and made a call to his friend, Nancy, the owner of the Quarantine Station. It turns out the nonprofit her family created for the station is the host entity of the Pacific Northwest Living Historians group, the organization that runs the Lewis & Clark-related events in which he participates. He told her about my journey and apologized for not being able to ask permission to take out at the station’s beach, and she offered for us to stay the night at the station and launch from the beach in the morning.
This makes me the first person in 81 years to cross over the bar into the Columbia River, land at the Quarantine Station, and stay in the Pesthouse before being cleared to cross over to Astoria. But seriously, I am grateful to Nancy and family for making this part of the journey so much more special, and to my uncle for being so well-connected and on top of things!
Speaking of connections… When I crossed the bar today I was greeted by a humpback whale. When I crossed through the surf and into the swells I was greeted by a harbor purpose, and another as I got closer to the bridge. All along the entire day’s paddle I had at least one harbor seal with me. Birds too numerous to list here. It was one of the most exceptional days of wildlife encounters I have had on this journey.
Today’s crossing was significant in more than one way. It was physical crossing that I succesfully made. It was a mental crossing from self-doubt to confidence. It was an emotional crossing from the grief I have felt at the looming end of this incredible journey to a sense of peace now that I have crossed back into my beloved Columbia River, heading home to loved ones so dear to me.