River musings …

Saturday, September 17th

One Saturday in September, I slide my kayak into the waters of the Willamette River at  Harrisburg.  If you had a larger boat, you might want to find another launching spot because the river has created an extensive gravel bar between the cement boat ramp and the water.   The river doesn’t promise permanence despite all our efforts to arrest its exuberance.  After pushing into the river, I paddle with deep long strokes into the center of the river and pause to adjust my hat and look behind me at a procession of mostly canoes and a few kayaks. 

The Greenbelt Land Trust was coordinating a morning float trip down the Willamette River from Harrisburg to Irish Bend with 25 early morning river lovers.   I paddle hard down the river to get ahead of the column.  A canoe pulls up next to me with Gordon Grant.  Gordon is a hydrologist with the US Forest Service who studies the geology and dynamics of rivers and streams. He is why many of the paddlers woke at dawn, loaded their water craft on their vehicles, and headed to Harrisburg.  Gordon immediately paddles next to a 10 feet incised bank on the east side of the river and looks intently at the different layers of gravel, clay, silt and topsoil.  The river pushes his canoe away from bank so he motions for the paddlers to land their boats on a nearby gravel bar across the river. 

 Gordon gravitates to river banks.  He reads their histories through their composition and convolutions.  He is like my neighbor Dave who is an archeologist and loves freshly plowed fields because they pull artifacts and their stories to the surface.  The river paddlers gaze at the cut bank as Gordon points out the pre-Missoula flood layers (graveled) and then describes the above, darker layers that are remnants of the giant waves of water that rolled into the Willamette Basin after the repeated collapse of the ice damns containing Lake Missoula in Montana.  The Missoula floods created catastrophic waves greater than 100 feet that plowed into the mouth of the Willamette River and transformed the Willamette Valley into a series of enormous lakes.   Ellen Morris Bishop in her beautiful book “In Search of Ancient Oregon” describes how the fertile soils that farmers plow in the Willamette Valley contain Montana top soils and clays from the Washington Palouse;  ground that was scoured as the water swept through these regions and then deposited their remnants in the Willamette basin.  Gordon gestures at the thick layer of soil at the top of the bank and says that these deep rich soils are what made the lands in the Willamette Valley the “Eden” that early settlers described and make it worthwhile for farmers to clear riverbank cotton woods, ashes and alders to plant their crops along the very edge of the river. 

I return to my kayak and the river and paddle ahead of the group in part to get my bearings and also in part to enjoy the river by myself for a little while.  Dozens of Barn swallows with their deeply fork tails swoop low and silent above the river and my kayak hawking insects.  After skirting a snag near the shore, I watch a young bald eagle in mottled plumage rise off a nearby gravel bar. 

Gordon catches up and paddles over to the west bank peering through blackberry runners to examine a different history; low lying floodplains that interact with yearly late winter and spring floods.   We stop at another low bank and Gordon describes how the cold Cascade waters from the McKenzie River fill the Willamette in late spring and early summer as the snows melt.   Migrating salmon love cold waters.  The McKenzie is described as a “stronghold” for rapidly dwindling numbers of endangered upper Willamette spring Chinook.  “Stronghold” in my old Merriam dictionary is defined as a place of security.  The journey for adult Chinook to make it to this place of security is very long and includes much of the Willamette River.  Juvenile Chinook, reversing the path of their parents, find cold water refugia in the few remaining alcoves and sloughs along the Willamette mainstem.  

We are back in the river, now paddling into a slough that knifes into a cottonwood forest at Harkens Lake Landing.  It is very quiet even with a dozen watercraft.  The paddlers seem to instinctively know that this as a refugia, a  place to rest and talk in low whispers.  A belted kingfisher breaks the silence with its raspy rattling call as it flies to a nearby cottonwood.  A short distance downriver, we land on the long gravel bar at Irish Bend, pull our boats out of the water and sit for lunch.  The water trip is over.  Driving home after loading my kayak into the back of my truck, I think that we have indeed changed the river with all our boulders, bulldozers, chemicals  and clearings but a lot remains.  It is still a special place with much to offer today and tomorrow. 

 – Michael Pope, Executive Director