St. Helens to Beacon Rock
Beacon Rock, Washington, July 11, 2012
S/V Sequoia is at it again – but this time, it’s a relatively short cruise, up the Columbia River as far as Hood River or The Dalles – if we can get there! The challenge will be the water below the Bonneville Dam – running reportedly as much as 12 knots in the middle of the channel. We flat out can’t go 12 knots – our maximum is eight – so unless we find the back eddies, or unless the reports are all wrong, we may never make it to the dam. If we do make it, we hear they are having “nuclear days” in Hood River, with winds of 35 knots, 8 foot waves and hundreds of windsurfers and kiteboarders… Maybe more excitement there than we’ve ever seen out on an ocean!
We left our home marina in St. Helens yesterday morning. We thought we had all the time in the world – we only had to make it to the I-5 bridge before 2:30 pm, and how far could that be – a couple of hours, maybe? Well as it turned out, we dawdled, had a leisurely breakfast, a leisurely fuel-up and got underway at about 11:30. What we hadn’t counted on was a 2 knot adverse current. Craig computed our ETA at the I-5 bridge for 2:20 – 10 minutes to spare? But when he called the bridge tender, it turns out they want you there by 2:10 – they have to have the bridge back closed and traffic flowing by 2:30. So we poured on the coal, getting maximum revs out of the engine. There was a good wind from the stern, so we put out the genoa, which yielded perhaps an additional two tenths of a knot.
This is a section of river we’ve never seen – we’ve always been going downriver, out to the ocean and on to distant lands. Sauvie Island continues on and on, for mile after mile, mostly appearing completely wild. Isolated beaches, a few tent campers, and then gradually increasing amounts of civilization. The Washington side of the river isn’t much different. Once we made it to the confluence with the Willamette River, things became suddenly industrial on both sides. Lots of pilings, ships anchored, barges tied up, commercial ports, with pipes, silos, conveyor belts, towers, hoists and cranes. We contemplated our options if we arrived too late for the bridge to open: anchor overnight somewhere in this industrial area? Find a marina? Turn around and go down the Willamette? We finally decided we’d just hole up “somewhere” until rush hour was over – the bridge could be opened again after 6 pm.
We arrived first at the Burlington Northern railway bridge. Someone had told Craig that the bridgetender there was an old curmudgeon, but not so. He was very nice, opened the bridge right away, and waved down at us from his high perch. (In the photo at the left, you can see him, dressed in orange, halfway up the bridge structure.)
After we got through that bridge, Craig radioed ahead to the I-5 bridge (In the photo to the left, you can see the I-5 bridge in the distance.) The I-5 bridgetender thought there would just barely be enough time, so he said he’d open for us. It actually took 7 or 8 minutes for him to go through whatever preparation he had to do, so we waited while he blasted his horn, stopped traffic, and then slowly – very slowly – lifted the bridge. At some point he said, “Come ahead, Sequoia.” From his standpoint, no doubt he could see that we would fit under, but we certainly had to trust him for that. When we go under a bridge – no matter how high it is off the water – it always looks like the top of our mast will hit. But we made it. I looked at the clock after we passed the bridge: 2:24 p.m. I’m sure he had the traffic moving again by 2:30, but we certainly came close to not making it!
Craig and I talked a bit about the proposed new I-5 bridge. It’s astonishing that every other fixed bridge (or cable crossing) on the Columbia is at least 130 feet off the water. How is it that the design team thought they could design a fixed bridge of only 95 feet? What a colossal waste of resources to have gone through that several-year design phase and end up with a 95 foot design that they’ll just have to discard!
We motored on to Government Island, where there are a couple of big new docks for recreational boaters. We chose the west docks, where there must be room for 50 or 60 boats. We spent the night there with 2 other boats, although others came and went during the day. The two-knot current flows past the docks relentlessly, registering the speed on our knotmeter. One of the other boats had two lines out, “trolling” for steelhead in the current. Ashore there is a pit toilet and a lot of sand. In some directions there are “no trespassing” signs (reportedly it’s a wildlife refuge). In other directions there is sand and dry weeds that seem to go on forever, at least until you get to the swarms of mosquitoes. I had hoped to make it to the other side of the island, but no such luck. The island seems like a piece of wilderness in the middle of a city. Even the air traffic connected with nearby PDX doesn’t make much of an impression. Across the way, on the Washington side of the river, there are fancy houses cheek to jowl along the shore. In their backyards, a freight train runs about every three hours, blasting its horn as it goes. The fancy houses don’t seem very attractive if you’d have to put up with that noise pollution (and soon, if the coal producers have their way, long coal trains every day, headed to proposed terminals on the lower Columbia, sending their coal to Asia, and depositing a layer of coal dust all along the way…)
We left Government Island this morning, heading through steadily increasing current up to Beacon Rock on the Washington side of the river. We saw currents as much as 4.6 knots, although typically it was more like 2.5 knots. See photo left: our speed through the water was 8 knots, but speed over the ground was 3.4 knots.
The latter half of the day we passed the array of waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge – Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Multnomah Falls, and others too numerous to mention. (See photo of Multnomah Falls, right.) I think the Gorge is even more beautiful from the river than it is from either shore. This is true even though there is a heavy haze in the air (Vivian, the Ranger at the Beacon Rock State Park, says that the haze is coming from fires in Asia!)
On the Washington side of the river we saw volcanic formations that I’ve never noticed before – lava plugs or basalt columns; I’m not sure (see photo below). At one point there is a tunnel cut in behind those rock formations, and you can see both ends of the train, as it transits through the tunnel.
Beacon Rock is behind Pierce Island, and away from the main body of the river. Even so, we still have 1.5 knots of current flowing past us as we sit here tied to the dock. It’s a smaller dock than Government Island, but already, on a Wednesday, there are 5 boats here. Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll climb Beacon Rock, and see what other hikes we can find in the area. With tall cliffs all around, especially across the way on the Oregon side, it looks a bit like Yosemite. We’re also busy gathering intelligence from other boaters about what the conditions are like below the Bonneville dam, only 2 miles away. If all goes as planned, we’ll head up there early Saturday morning. Reportedly, the river flow decreases on weekends, when there is less demand for electricity. We hope that’s true! Here at Beacon Rock, they’ll be glad for us to vacate our space at the dock, because two Portland area yacht clubs have a rendezvous planned here this weekend.