The spring freshet returns to the Columbia

The general public may regard daffodils as the first sign of spring, but for boaters on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers near Portland, the spring freshet is the true signal that winter’s grip has loosened. Triggered by warmer weather and rains in the mountains, the rivers surge and swell, and we aquatic Portlanders know that spring has arrived.

For some, the freshet is a chance to dodge logs and race around, motors on full throttle. For these intrepid boaters, murky water and swift currents are challenges to be savored and enjoyed with abandon. Even some keelboat sailors brave the Columbia to battle currents up to three knots. And no matter the water conditions, there are always a few fisherman out in search of a salmon or steelhead. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, more than one hundred recreational fishing boats on the Columbia were observed during a recent weekly survey.

But for the sailors of the smallest boats, the wetlands and riparian zones that serve as floodwater “shock absorbers” become areas of keen interest. Here the water rises, but also slows down, allowing access to places not normally accessible, except by foot.

Last weekend, the picnic tables at Portland’s Sellwood Riverfront Park were a little closer to the water than normal. So close that you could have stepped out of your boat to use one, although the table would have functioned better as a footrest than an eating surface. Periodically, wakes from passing boats washed over their tops and into the wetland that is normally isolated from the Willamette river.

Ten miles to the north, the Columbia had inundated Smith and Bybee Wetlands to levels not seen in years. The graveled canoe launch, which normally winds through a forest of ash and cottonwood trees to the open water, petered out before it reached the inland side of the forest. For my son and I, in our shallow-draft rowing boats, the novelty of slaloming through the trees added an element of adventure to our outing. Once we got to the lake itself, we were greeted with a gentle breeze and no current whatsoever.

I rowed through brush and downed wood, searching for birds and other wildlife, finding mergansers, songbirds and plenty of evidence of beavers. Meanwhile, my son set up his sailing rig and plied the shallow waters, oblivious to nature’s spring magic.

No matter how we boaters enjoy the spring freshet, or even if we find its strong, coffee-colored currents annoying, its annual arrival lets us know that the best part of the boating year is on its way. Welcome, spring!

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One Response to The spring freshet returns to the Columbia

  1. Madeleine April 21, 2017 at 8:26 pm #

    It takes a small boat to really appreciate the change in the landscape. What fun to float over the blackberries and navigate what once were back channels by following the breaks in the trees. You begin to understand why the Columbia River ash wait so long to flower and leaf out in the seasonally submerged forests. It is a remarkable time to be on the river.

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