While this pertains to our area, specifically the playground/gym we know as the Willamette River, it pretty much applies anywhere a river or large body of water are being utilized.

I’ve entered the Willamette River on worse days than I’ve ever thought I would this winter. I think it has to do with my paddle addiction being worse than past years and also a growing group of winter condition paddlers who have joined me this year. We’ve gone out in inclement weather to say the least (there’s been more snow in Portland than ever on record this year) and we’ve gone out in what I would consider questionable flow rate levels. I’ve enjoyed pushing the limits and broadening what I’ve considered to be acceptable paddle conditions! There’s still things I want to remind everyone to also consider before entering the river this time of year: Know the flow, know the content, and mind the entry location.

Even on sunny winter days, check those conditions!

Even on sunny winter days, check those conditions!

Know the Flow

Once the Willamette River is flowing above 2ft/sec, you have a couple decisions to make. First, can I get back to my starting point if I paddle downriver in these conditions? At 2ft/sec, you will have noticeable, sustained resistance when paddling back up river. This is a very important consideration especially when entering up river like many of us do at Willamette Park or Sellwood Park. If you are a beginner, or a beginner to paddling in winter conditions, paddle over to the south tip of Ross Island from Willamette Park on a day with stronger current, then paddle back or try to get to Sellwood Park. You will know rather quickly how comfortable you’d be and if you have the strength for a Ross Island loop.

Know the Content

Poop factor is very real as Portland’s antiquated water systems were intentionally designed to overflow and release raw sewage during heavy rains. Check The Oregonian or Facebook paddle sites for updates as to the sewage content currently in the Willamette. Yes, this sounds like medieval black plague kind of technology, and yes, it’s rather embarrassing as a city to have a sewer system that does this by design, but there you have it. The city’s inner structure is aging and outdated, welcome to Portland. So yes, raw sewage is a risk factor that needs to be considered before deciding where to put in. If it’s a day or two after a particularly large span of rain, consider trekking to Vancouver Lake or Hagg Lake as an alternative to poop paddling.

Mind the Entry Location

Winter paddling is great with the right equipment and conditions!

Winter paddling is great with the right equipment and conditions!

If the flow rate suggests you’re going to get a bigger workout than anticipated, consider putting in downstream and head directly into the current for starters. This way, when your back is urging you to call it quits, you just turn around and take a leisurely paddle back to the starting point. There are quite a few paddlers starting at the OMSI dock just for this reason this winter season.

Have fun out there! It’s cold and wet but there’s a growing group of us with smiles on our faces beneath our floppy brimmed hats and face covers, please feel free to join in!

It’s glassy and gorgeous out there but also hitting treadmill style current beneath that seemingly unmoving surface. If you have time to head to Vancouver Lake today, that’d be a far better option if you’re not up for a current workout! 1.6 ft/sec is moving at a pretty good clip, so make sure your shoulders are up for it! Oh yeah, water temp is 42 fahrenheit, so don’t fall in!

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This is interesting (at least to me). The river is being so impacted by the tide rushing up from the ocean 60+ miles away, there is actually a 1 ‘ flow UPSTREAM. This can definitely mentally mess up a timed workout if you don’t know why you feel like you’re dragging a bus behind you!

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Finally, there’s a new Willamette River cam thanks to All Classical Portland. It even streams classical music while you check river conditions! It’s certainly a good enough view to see what’s happening near Ross Island so you’ll know how early you’ll have to feign a cough and go paddle. It’s on the menu bar to the left for your convenience.

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It’s true and I’m not ashamed. By the way, exostosis is a bony growth in your ear canal that eventually surrounds your ear drum until you go deaf. Yes, I have hearing loss so please don’t blame me ignoring you on my state of sobriety, I may not have actually heard you but for real. I know, it’s every man’s dream excuse!

Anyway, exostosis is usually caused by cool or cold water entering the ear canal, which the human body despises. In an effort to prevent water from entering the ear, the body creates bone around the outer ear canal in a vain effort to stop the inner ear from being drenched by the incoming tide. And then you go deaf.

So I went to Kauai with my family a couple weeks ago. There was a lot of water associated with our visit; much of it went into my ears. The same ears that have not enjoyed sea water entering them for the past 30 years while I’ve surfed the more frigid waters of the west coast. Wouldn’t you know it, my ears shut down. Well, they actually got infected by bacteria in the warm sea water that got trapped BEHIND the exostosis rather than just staying the hell out. Good job body, got any other great bony ideas???

So I went deaf in a matter of days. First it was deaf like I could kind of hear but everyone sounded like they were talking normally but in the next room. Then it sounded like everyone was talking in the next room but talking through cheese cloth in front of their mouths. Then my left ear just completely shut down and refused any incoming messages at all. This was in the course of a few odd and depressing days of vacation. So I bought some swimmers ear plugs and kept on playing; and going deaf.

Segue to last week, the first week I was home from paradise. My hearing wasn’t improving even though I was using the prescribed drops even more than prescribed as I really, really wanted to hear again, like 30% more than the doctor wanted me to hear based on the added frequency I was medicating my ears. Still, no go. By this past Saturday morning I was 100% deaf. I woke up and surprisingly couldn’t hear a single sound. Not my wife snoring (she doesn’t snore, strike that, she’s an angel when she sleeps), not the cats scratching the bed in early morning hunger protest, not the air conditioner, which is loud as shit. Nothing.

I got out of bed, slogged downstairs, made coffee, then got on YouTube and started watching American Sign Language tutorials. Yes, I was that deaf. I actually learned quite a few words in the past week and I’m going to continue on, I really actually enjoyed learning sign language, although I thankfully don’t need it personally, at least yet!

Little did I know my wife had come downstairs and was standing directly behind me. Here I was in my office chair learning how to say “What is your name?”, and she was genuinely concerned I had realized my hearing would never come back. I greeted her a good morning and she did her best to mask her concern because she knew I couldn’t hear a thing. I assured her I was only preparing for the worst and I was confident my hearing would return soon enough. She feigned confidence and then fetched us some more coffee. Other than my lack of hearing, the morning went fairly smooth after our cup of Joe.

I plodded about for awhile and then decided I was going to go paddleboarding with or without my hearing. I think I declared out loud my intentions and Beverly gave me the yeah-ok-stupid-man shrug, but she didn’t contest my desire to paddle. So I gathered my gear and headed to the river.

I didn’t yet realize that Saturday morning was the first morning I’d forgotten to inject my prescribed ear drops as I had been doing for the past 8 days, but there you have it, I absently went against my doctor’s orders. Freakin rebel activity, that’s what that is.

Aside from the lack of hearing, the paddle started like most of my paddles start. Upright and with a paddling motion. Things were going smoothly overall, no boats were mowing me down and I hadn’t hit a single person or vessel yet. It wasn’t for another twenty minutes or so before I noticed a sound. It was Kim Reuter paddling the other direction and wishing me a good morning. She sounded muffled and a little distant, although she was a little distant, but I expressly heard her greet me a good morning and ask if I could hear her, and I could! I paddled another ten minutes or so and then realized I was hearing the passing of two motor boats. I was hearing again! I heard birds and homeless boaters and their dogs, I heard traffic passing overhead on the Ross Island Bridge, it was coming back! By the time I got back to the dock it felt like my hearing was nearly back to normal. It felt like a miracle had occurred. I called Beverly on the phone and told her to say something, anything. I could sense the relief when I repeated back her words, which I believe were “I love you”. Yes, I was nearly in tears.

When I got home Beverly demanded to look in my ears, which she has been diligently examining for the past week. She surprisingly declared the white, infected capsules covering my ear drums had fractured in both ears, which was why my hearing was finally improving. It wasn’t the medication that was healing me, it was paddleboarding in fresh air. Paddling along at a moderate clip apparently allowed enough of a breeze into my ears (never mind the headwind!) to dry out the moisture from the infected masses and more or less kill it off. While I love modern western medicine, this time it didn’t do the trick. Paddleboarding in the summer breeze gave me back my ability to hear.

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I decided on an early evening paddle tonight upstream from Sellwood towards Milwaukee. There was a south breeze blowing when I was figuring out my route and I always like to go upwind first when I’m doing a loop of any kind. As soon as I passed under the Sellwood Bridge, a direct headwind greeted me. It wasn’t a hard wind by any stretch, just a reminder from nature I was there for a little exercise. Just past the two mile mark was Elk Rock Island with a little, lonely stretch of beach welcoming me for a short break. I understood why it was a lonely stretch as soon as I stepped off my board and into shin deep mud. Ugh. Not a big deal though, I just slogged through until the ground firmed and found a felled tree to sit on. I broke out my single beverage (I always have a single can of something for emergency purposes!), checked my phone to see if my wife had texted (she had), and checked Map My Fitness to check my speed. I managed to take two images with my phone (the one here) and then my phone crashed. It wouldn’t restart, it was just through, dead. I cursed for a few seconds, attempted to make it restart, which was pretty much just holding the power button and begging quietly to start, and then packed it back in my camelback when I realized it was going to win this round. Then I realized for the first time today, maybe the first time in a few weeks, it was quiet. I was alone, there were no boats blaring bad music powering by, I wasn’t even close enough to 99E to hear cars. It was just quiet.

I could swear my blood pressure dropped a few points just then when I couldn’t possibly intake any more information in my brain but the serene landscape in front of me. No ambient noises like cars and boats, no jets overhead, not even wildlife like crows cackling and whining. It was just peaceful, period. I took a few slow breaths to equalize my brain to the serenity of the landscape and quietly appreciated the instant for the beauty and the minimal input being demanded of my brain for a few minutes.

It’s moments like this I realize how we can overwhelm ourselves with constant input with media demands, social demands, email checks, texting, input, input, input! I felt so peaceful without my media device demanding my attention for a change, it felt wonderful. I won’t say I’m happy my phone crashed (it’s still hosed) but it sure felt right at that moment. Reminder to me and to you for future stress relief: Remember to shut down the media device now and then, sit down, and just relax.

 

4th of July Paddle

Where: Departing Willamette Park for a relaxing paddle around the No Wake side of Ross Island

Time: Departure time no later than 7:20pm

Level of Effort: Low – Low/Medium. It’s an easy paddle and we take it slow! Expect some possible knee paddling when we depart the fireworks area due to boat chop. We stay plenty far away from the boats though near the north side of the river (the boats all head south when it’s over).

What to expect: It’s going to be a cooler than expected evening so be prepared for a chill in the air after the sun sets. Bring a couple extra layers in a waterproof bag (wind breakers are ideal). We will leave as a group from Willamette Park, paddle en masse across the main channel, then take our sweet time paddling the northeast side of Ross Island. We’ll stop for happy hour on the north tip of the island, look out for stragglers, then depart again together and paddle nearer the north (the right side) riverbank where there are typically less boats.

Things to bring:

  • State law requires you have a PFD on your or your craft
  • State law also requires you have a light on your board. Can you improvise a light? You bet! LED flashlights in ziplock bags are not uncommon!
  • Leash. This is good because you don’t want your board floating away in the middle of 200 boats and we also use them to tether up together once we’re at the destination.
  • Extra rope, bungees, etc. for tethering purposes
  • Beverages and snacks. Bring what you want, we’re not judging you =) A flask of something warming? Mmmm…
  • Bug spray wouldn’t hurt. I don’t recall getting eaten last year but we’ll probably spray ourselves ahead of time just in case.
  • A sense of adventure.

The route:

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Ditching my journey for safety

Ditching my journey for safety

This morning I set out from Sellwood and headed upstream with the intention of upwinding my way to George Rogers Park. The round trip is nearly 9.5 miles, it’s a scenic stretch of river but with a couple narrow sections that speed the current up a bit. It’s a great workout too, especially when the south winds are blowing and you expend far more than 50% of your energy on the first half of the paddle just maintaining a decent pace. I knew rain was on the way but when I left it was a mildly cloudy sky with sun peaking through enough to warm the air. I was a little over 3 miles in when I could spot George Rogers Park in the final stretch of the river. What I saw behind it though was a little more concerning. Black clouds with the distinct, familiar vertical blur indicating a sheet of rain was not far off. Still, being wet on the river is kind of standard. What was not standard were the sudden flashes of light followed several seconds later by thunderous booms. I mentally timed the distance to lightning at 7 miles and realized by George Rogers trip just got cut short by a couple miles. I did an instant 180 and dug into that water like I was in the final sprint at a race. Not three minutes later the flash and boom was 5 seconds, followed by another flash and boom at 2 seconds. I hauled ass to the nearest dock, still a couple minutes away, bent over to grab my board when I heard a crack overhead and a thundering boom not even a second behind. And then the heavens opened up with a deluge of water. I left my board on the dock and quickly ducked beneath the wing of a sea plane. I honestly don’t know if that was a smart move or not, there just wasn’t anything else to duck under. If the plane wasn’t the highest point around, I was. I wish I had taken more shots while the storm blew past but I was on the phone with a very concerned wife asking how she can come get me. I was nowhere near an accessible road though so we both had to patiently wait it out and hope for the best. About 10 minutes later the first front had passed and the sun attempted to once again assure me life was good. I put in and paddled with the effort of a professional race in it’s final minutes and managed to average 5.7mph for the last two miles, not bad!

If you’re ever stuck in a similar situation, get out of the water immediately! Stay low and stay away from trees and other tall metal structures (like planes!). I guarantee while I was on the river today I was 6′ higher than any other object around, which is not a good place with lightning in the vicinity. I was in a bad place today as the storm hit when I was nowhere near a safe area to quickly exit, which has taught me to check and recheck weather forecasts before I commit to a multi-hour paddle.

The Gorge is long enough to create legitimate, pulsed swells similar to the ocean. Be prepared!

The Gorge is long enough to create legitimate, pulsed swells similar to the ocean. Be prepared! Photo: Russel Peart

Portland is heating up! Now if the rivers would do the same thing we’ll be in business! Conditions appear to be on the fun/casual side on Saturday and cooling quite a bit, but not unreasonably so, on Sunday with a high of 67 fahrenheit. The Willamette River is heating up a little and it looks like it will be upwards of 60-63 degrees by end of day Saturday. The Columbia River is far cooler in the lower-mid 50’s so if you’re headed that direction please consider a Farmer John/Jane 2mm to keep you safer. The Big Winds shuttle isn’t running until May 25 but Fanatic Team Rider Chris Anderson is organizing a downwinder this Sunday, contact him on Facebook, you’ll find him on Stand Up Hood River and Stand Up Portland group sites. I’d give you his phone number but then he’d probably change it and not give me the new number. Chris is a Washington resident and knows the Columbia River and local conditions inside and out. He is the master at determining entry and exit points and if you’ve never downwinded the Washington side of the Columbia, it’s well worth it. Depending on conditions, many downwind runs take you straight through Swell City, which has legit, surfable waves much of the time. It’s a ridiculously fun stretch of river especially because there also tends to be about 200 kite surfers and sailboarders also enjoying the waves. So be aware and have fun!

Where will I be this weekend? SUP surfing on the coast! A 5-8ft northwest swell could provide some fun waist high surf. Mild offshores start the early mornings but will give way to a straight north flow at about 10mph. Short Sands or Otter Rock might be fun destinations, or just deal with the wind direction and hope for a few barreling lefts!

Leashes and PFDs!!!

 

It’s going to be a great weekend to get on the water around PDX. Air temperatures are supposed to improve throughout the weekend but be prepared for chilly water. The water temp is currently 54(f) and there’s no conditions that would indicate a rise in temps for the near future. There are also some more extreme high and low tides directly affecting the Willamette River. Yesterday’s high tide caused enough slowdown up the Willamette to cause a temporary backflow that made the river appear completely stopped (this would also explain my excellent lap time yesterday!). Sunday also appears to be a good day to head to Hood River for some recreational paddling on the river with warming conditions and a pre-summer feel in the air. Have fun out there!