Discovering Wilderness While Kayaking on the Willamette River
As an avid hiker and backpacker, I’ve spent a lot of time on trails in the Northwest’s many mountain ranges. While I had crossed over the Willamette countless times on its bridges, the closest I had ever gotten to it was a bicycle ride on the Eastbank Esplanade’s floating walkways in downtown Portland. But that all changed when I signed up for a kayaking trip with Cascadia Expeditions.
A novice kayaker, I opted for the half-day tour, which travels downriver for a 10-mile stretch of one of the top river adventures in the country. And it’s not just me saying that. My relatively short paddle is part of a 97-mile segment of the Willamette that REI rated the #1 U.S. Thru-Paddles for its proximity to population centers while providing a true wilderness experience away from it all.
Our guide for the tour was Brett Gallagher, the founder of Cascadia Expeditions. Brett began his career as a fish biologist, but his love of adventure led him to become a guide who helps others benefit from outdoor experiences, including people who wouldn’t normally have them. In addition to its regular guided tours, Cascadia works with local non-profits to offer programs to disadvantaged and underserved communities.
Brett believes that outdoor adventures are a form of wilderness therapy, benefitting everyone who experiences them, and I agree completely. As someone who has spent the last ten years in Oregon being transformed by outdoor experiences, I was looking forward to what the river would show me.
For our river tour, we met at our journey’s end point, Crystal Lake’s boat ramp, and were driven by shuttle van to our starting point at Peoria County Park. To get started, Brett went over basic kayaking safety and how to communicate with the guide while on the water. After getting fitted with portable floatation devices (otherwise known as life jackets), we got on our kayaks to learn how to paddle.
Practicing our first paddle strokes was made easier by entering the water on a side channel. We then crossed the river’s eddy (a current created by the change in direction from the river’s main channel to the side channel) and entered the main channel. I soon felt the current gently move my kayak downriver at a leisurely pace. Brett showed us where to paddle to avoid obstacles in the river, which were mainly downed trees or branches. I paddled slowly, immersed in the surroundings as we glided past cottonwood trees and willows lining the sides of the river.
The farther we paddled, the more life we encountered. A few moments after we entered a side channel, a river otter crossed in front of us. Birds were abundant—ospreys, blue and green herons, cedar wax wings, killdeer and a bald eagle flew and perched in the trees above us. And although I didn’t see any fish, Brett assured us they were there, explaining that the river’s many side channels provide a natural habitat for them to reproduce. Actually being on the water instead of hiking above or beside it gave me a view into a world I don’t usually see.
Towards the end of our kayak tour, we rounded a corner on the river with a view of the highest point in Oregon’s Coast Range, Mary’s Peak, which offers outstanding views and wildflowers in early summer. But that’s a different journey for a different day. Going on this river journey with Cascadia Expeditions has given me the confidence to spend more time exploring waterways.
Brett suggested that, similar to backpacking, I could plan a multi-day experience that combines kayaking with wilderness camping on some of the river’s primitive, publicly owned islands. The Willamette River Water Trail is one of only 20 National Water Trails in the U.S., providing a combination of put-in locations and campsites along the river.
Kayaking the Willamette with Cascadia Expeditions showed me there is an opportunity to experience wilderness running right through the heart of many of Oregon’s communities on a waterway I had previously only thought of as something to cross on my way to somewhere else.