Stand on Portland’s Interstate 5 bridge on a sunny day, looking down at the Columbia River. You may notice something strange.
The breeze is perhaps 10 knots and steady, and scads of colorful boats and sails dot the water. Upstream, a particularly striking keelboat catches your eye, its generous genoa jib and mainsail completely filled with wind.
The crew is smiling and lounging about the cockpit, drinks in hand, enjoying the day. The bow is slicing through the water, the aft end leaving a fine wake. You stand on the bridge for a long time, watching. The people in that boat are finishing their drinks when it dawns on you. The keelboat has scarcely moved since you arrived.
This is no trick of the eye: the boat is barely moving. It’s stuck in the current, and unfortunately for denizens of the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area, this isn’t an uncommon experience. Welcome to the lower Columbia.
My pal Dick described sailing on this stretch of the river as “racing the buoy.” On a bad sailing day, he lamented, you’re lucky if you don’t get washed downstream. If you avoid this fate, your next challenge is trying to pass the upstream buoy. But on a good day you fly along, pushed by winds pouring out of the Columbia Gorge or surging up from the coast.
The frustrating thing about sailing the river is that you never know what conditions you’re going to get. And of course everyone has theory about why that is.
Madeleine, a former watershed coordinator who worked on the lower Columbia, shared all sorts of facts about the river with me, but noted astutely, “Lower down the river is more ocean, and farther up it’s more river.”
“It’s all about the tides,” claimed one fisherman I talked to at the mouth of the Columbia Gorge.
“At least until you get to Tenasillahe – after that it’s mostly flat water,” he said, referring to the island some 70 miles downstream.
“So you’re telling me the tides are causing all this current?” I asked.
It was hard to believe.
“Well, they sure help the current along,” he replied, a bit less confidently.
I’d hear this theme over and over as I tried to figure out exactly why the current appeared so variable, even within a few miles. Some days I’ve been out on the river and scarcely noticed the current; other times I’ve nearly been washed down to the sea.
Charlie, another small-boat sailor I know, seemed mildly exasperated by my inability to find a current-free segment of the river.
“I was out there the day after you, and it was just fine. There was hardly any current, and we were way up river.”
I suspected that the small outboard motor on Charlie’s transom might have played into his lack of awareness of the current.
Sue, a keelboat racer, described her strategy.
“Outsmarting the current is a mind game,” she said. “If you’re alone on the river, you work your way upstream, tacking and looking for current patterns. If someone else is out there sailing, you have to figure out where they might go and change your plans accordingly. Though sometimes you just throw out the anchor and wait out the tide.”
“But Sue,” I protested, “aren’t there other forces at work here?”
I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere with people who just had a gut feeling, so I turned to more rational minds.
“The tide adds speed to the current, but it won’t stop or reverse it,” explained Chris Hathaway, who is involved with the Columbia River Estuary Partnership’s Columbia River Water Trail.
“During the spring freshet, tide is irrelevant. But when the river is running at low to moderate levels, you have to pay attention to it,” Madeleine added.
All this made perfect sense to me, but I still couldn’t figure out why on the same day the current could be raging in one place and so much calmer just a few miles downstream.
My friend Kim, an aquatic biologist who frequently works on the river, had a matter-of-fact explanation for this phenomenon.
“There’s different depths and widths of the river. Where the water is constricted, it flows faster. Add in the water being released from the dam, and there’s your answer,” he told me.
As a science fan, I appreciate the technical know-how of people who study a complex system like the Columbia. Nevertheless, the more I sail here, the more I’m drawn to Sue’s take on the river: “When the snow melts, it backs up behind the dams, and some people, they just know when the dam is spilling water. For me, I just watch from shore and see which way the bubbles are flowing.”
The next time you’re crossing the Columbia on I-5, ease off on the gas and look down. You might see me and my little yawl fighting the current, blissfully unaware of what’s really going on, but smiling nonetheless.