Columbia River Journey

by · December 22, 2009

Keith Prior dropped us a note to say he’d read with interest our Columbia 150 article in issue #61. Turns out Keith and his wife took a similar trip in their their 20′ Thunder Jet Luxor OB from their floating home (near the mouth of the Sandy River and just south of the east end of McGuier Island) to Astoria. They also stopped at Sand Island and spent a night in Cathlamet and cruised up the John Day and Clatskanie rivers. They covered just over 275 miles in three days with an average speed of about 12 miles per hour heading into the chop and 19 miles per hour with the wind behind them.

Keith was nice enough to forward his log notes below.—Eds

Fish camps off the grid


Columbia River Journey—Scouting the Lower Columbia River: July 20 – 22, 2009

Monday, July 20 – Big Eddy Marina, Gesham, OR to Cathlamet, WA

1.    Departed 8:35 am Gresham, OR (Big Eddy Marina) to Sand Island (off St. Helens, OR); 32.54 river miles; Arrive 12:30 pm; Stayed 1 hour on Sand Island.

We left Big Eddy Marina (Floating Home) and cruised at 22 mph (Ground Speed) on flat water. Few avoidances. Passed one outbound bulk carrier vessel fully loaded near where the Willamette River meets the Columbia River. This vessel passed us while we were at Sand Island.

Kermit at Sand Island

Stopped at Sand Island to explore facilities: good camping at north end of island. Wind out of the northwest picking up to about 10 – 15 mph. Great docks though exposed to wind and current.

2.     Sand Island to Clatskanie, OR: 41.87 river miles; Clatskanie, OR to Cathlamet, WA: 18.74 river miles; combined travel time: 1:30 pm to 4:45 pm.

We ate lunch of shrimp and cocktail sauce aboard while underway. Headed north by north-west downriver in 2’ swells with occasional 2.5’ swells. Proceeded at 6 to 8 mph; taking spray and occasional waves over the bow.

Sought smooth water west of Sandy Island (across from Kalama, WA) and east of Cottonwood Island. Able to cruise at 19 – 22 mph on 8” chop into the wind.

Between the north end of Cottonwood Island and Cape Horn reached speeds of up to 32 mph on flat water.

Headed off the shipping channel into the Clatskanie River and cruised at 5 – 8 mph up the Clatskanie River to just beyond Humps Restaurant. Had we gone about 100 yards more we would have been in a narrow channel  and faced with a low bridge restriction.

Grays Bay vastness

Turned around and headed downriver and proceeded south of Wallace Island and Puget island to the turnoff into Cathlamet, WA. Docked in marina and walked 4 blocks to Bradley House. OK meal at the Riverview Restaurant (no river view but you can probably see the restaurant from the river).

Walked a few blocks down to the Rat Trap Tap (now shuttered) on the town’s waterfront.
Cathlamet was once a charming small village that now finds itself out of the way. It  has a bridge and ferry connection to the Oregon side of the Columbia river. Now it is like many small towns and has several shuttered businesses. A few small shops, a few restaurants, and some services. The town is the county seat and has a charming small courthouse across the street from the Bradley House.

Puget Island has a number of interesting sloughs and bays to explore when the water is higher and the tide is in. As the river was low and the tide was out we passed these by noting them for future explorations.

3.    Fuel At Cathlamet: 14 gallons; Departed Cathlamet at 10:00 am; Cathlamet to upper John day River: 35.14 river miles. Upper John Day River to Astoria West Basin: 12.75 river miles; Arrived West Basin 3:45 pm; Fuel at Astoria: 9 gallons.

Tuesday morning we left the shelter of the marina and passed the northwest end of Puget Island and headed across the channel into waterway south of Tenasillahe Island. Cruising at 5 to 9 mph to Aldrich Point and turned north between Woody Island and Horseshoe Island to check out a fish camp cluster along the west range of Woody Island; about 12 separate floating houses secured by pilings and without connecting docks or walkways. No underground or underwater cable leading to the small cabins may require generators for light. Unknown sanitation system.

Proceeded west south-west at 22 mph along the Woody Island Channel to a point due north of the west end of Marsh Island where the channel went from 45 feet to less than 1 foot. Ran aground on a sandbar that is about 100 feet farther south than shown on the 1-year old chart in my GPS/Sounder. Raised engine and drifted off the bar. Headed back east-north-east to meet the safety of the shipping channel near Brookfield, WA.

Proceeded west south-west to Tongue Point and turned south to Fern Hill and John Day Point.

We entered the John Day river and cruised at between 5 and 8 mph upriver past the point where the GPS/Sounder showed any river; about 1.5 miles to a point where the depth was under 5 feet but the river was about 150’ wide. Returned to the Columbia river and rounded Tongue point to face westerly winds and swells of up to 3’. Slowed to 6 mph and cruised into the west basin municipal dock at Astoria by 3:45 pm. Gas and move to transient dock. Fee $12.

John Day River settlement

We rested up for a while and walked a distance of a few blocks to the Bridge Bistro and had quite a splendid dinner. We then walked along the tram/pedestrian path east toward the Maritime Museum (a real treat we had visited on previous trips).

Along the walkway we encountered a beautiful memorial to those whose lives were lost engaging in the commerce of the water and waterways: fisher-persons, crew, beachcombers, cannery workers, and so on. An obscure building is the Finnish America society and it is tucked in almost completely under the bridge crossing the Columbia.

Whist on our walk a Columbia River Pilot boat took a pilot to an up-river bound cargo vessel. The pilot climbed aboard up a ladder fixed to the hull while the pilot boat and freighter were within 100 yards of the docks of Astoria.

Off to bed and slumber: got a really peculiar cramp in the big toe of my left foot in the middle of the night: toe tried to reach for my knee. How odd.

4.    Departed Astoria at 8:30 am; Astoria to Rainier, OR: 53.2 river miles. Rainier, OR to St. Helens, OR via the east side of Cottonwood Island: 26.2 river miles; Fuel at St. Helens: 9 gallons; Stop at Island Cafe on Tomahawk Island for Dinner. Arrived at Big Eddy Marina by 8:00 pm: 126.5 river miles.

Up and on the water by 8:30 am Proceeded upriver at between 22 and 26 mph, staying in the shipping channel. The wind was behind us so the boat fairly sailed from crest to crest on 1’ waves. There was a bit of pounding but our shock-mounted seats served us very well.
Stopped at Rainier, WA for an early lunch and, after going back around east of Cottonwood Island, stopped at St. Helens for fuel.

Proceeded into Multnomah Channel to Coon Island—a mariner’s park— with lovely dock facilities. Continued along Multnomah channel to the lower Willamette River, sailed out into the Columbia River and north of Hayden/Tomahawk islands to the east end of the Columbia Channel. Stopped for an excellent dinner at the Island Cafe.

Sailed the final leg north of the Lemon, Government, McGuire Island chain to arrive home at Big Eddy Marina before nightfall.

Lessons Learned:

• Get where you are going between sunup and noon before the wind picks up and makes water travel tricky.

• Keep your plans flexible.

• Don’t trust to GPS for navigation: watch your sounder carefully.

• Plan your trip with the tides in mind during low water in the late summer months.

• Carry the best, longest range VHF you can get, especially between Longview and Astoria.

• There is a lot of empty space out there in the lowest reaches of the Columbia and it is empty for a reason: there are hazards out there (sand, deadheads, pilings, rocks and vast areas of no human habitation).

• Get fuel wherever it is available.

• Proceed as the way opens. ###


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