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Playing in the Narrows

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

May 7, 2023—The weathermen were calling for cloudy skies today, and though the morning started out a little overcast, there were breaks in the clouds. With no rain expected and little wind, today was a perfect day for going paddling. It was my first paddling trip of the season. Those who know me well would probably ask me why it took me so long to hit the water? Well, winter seemed to drag on into May this year. I didn’t find the cold weather very appealing for paddling, even though I own a dry suit.

A friend of mine asked me yesterday if I wanted to meet up with her and another friend to paddle the Willamette Narrows. I was game, so she told me to meet her at Willamette Park in West Linn, Oregon.

I arrived at the Willamette Park boat ramp early to offload my stuff. It’s still early in the season, so the parking lot and boat ramp weren’t busy—that will change in a couple of weeks, however, especially with the weather expected to warm into the 80s later this next week.

Getting my kayak onto the Overhaul rack on my Ford Ranger is easy. Getting it off is a little trickier. I need to use a stepstool because the rack sits so high. I have missed the bottom step before while unloading my kayak, so I am always a little nervous taking my boat down. Offloading today, however, went off without a misstep.

There were four of us when we set out heading upriver for the Willamette Narrows. The Narrows are approximately 1.2 miles from the boat ramp. To get to the Narrows, you paddle by some beautiful multi-million dollar homes on the westside of the Willamette River (pronounced “Wil-lam-ette,” not “Willa-met-tay” or “Will-a-met.” The river’s pronunciation always throws people from out of state and new Oregon transplants.

This late in spring, the river is usually flowing fast because of the spring snowmelt. However, because it has been snowing in the mountains until just recently—in fact the mountains are expected to get some more snow tonight—the current was swift but not as swift as I thought it would be. The current did make it tricky to get pictures of the group out paddling because I’d be drifting downstream while everyone in the group was paddling upstream.

The Willamette Narrows is a popular place to paddle because it’s very scenic. It’s comprised of several rocky islands you can paddle around. Some narrow slots of water separate some of the islands, making for fun passages. One of the islands has a nice, though short sandy beach where paddlers can stop to have lunch. When I used to lead tours of the Narrows, that beach was our lunch point. The beach wasn’t on our list of destinations today.

Exercise caution when paddling around the islands in the Narrows because there are rocks just barely below the surface. In fact, I wound up hitting one I didn’t see. The current had pushed me onto the rock. Just some more minor scratches in the gelcoat.

The group was interested in playing in the rapids flowing between the rocks. To get over to the rocks near the eastside of the river where the rapids are, we first had to traverse a fairly strong current, though nowhere near as strong or fast as the current I crossed between Spieden Island and the northern tip of San Juan Island, Washington, in the Salish Sea. We practiced pulling into eddies along the way. Those eddies also gave me calm water where I could photograph the group.

Paddlers will often spot bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons around the islands, though today all I managed to spot were some songbirds and a few crows.

As the morning wore on, the weather got sunnier and warmer. I’m sure glad I chose not to wear my fleece top layer under my dry suit. While the water was cold, it wasn’t uncomfortable when dipping my hand in the water. I wound up taking my paddling gloves off because the water wasn’t freezing, and the gloves just made it hard to take pictures.

We spent a couple of hours playing among the rocks before heading back to the boat ramp. The current worked in our favor on the way back, and we make it back to the ramp probably in half the time it took us to paddle up to the Narrows.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Willamette Narrows, I recommend checking out the Willamette River Water Trail website maintained by the Willamette Riverkeeper organization. That group has done remarkable work helping to improve the water quality and recreation opportunities on the river.

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