Outer East Portland’s Columbia Slough hosts Oregon’s largest one-day paddling event

Spend a day paddling on the “Columbia Sewer?” Read this article and see how we got a close-up look (and smell) of how Slough clean-up efforts have paid off ‚Ķ

Lynn Youngbarr, interim executive director of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, prodded us to take a “closer look” by going for a paddle on this unique inland waterway.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For decades, the Columbia Slough was the repository of raw sewage, rainwater runoff, and liquid industrial waste.

Thus, in years past, we’d covered the “Columbia Slough Regatta” from a distance‚Ķon land.

This year was different. At the July 30 event, interim executive director of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC) Lynn Youngbarr suggests we take a paddle to get “closer” to the story.

“We’re celebrating this fabulous resource for residents of Portland and the whole region,” Youngbarr began, coaxing us into going for a canoe ride. “This is one of the most diverse natural areas in the whole state. The slough’s ecosystem ‚Äì here along the Columbia River from the Sandy River to the Willamette ‚Äì has both heavy industry and residential areas. Since we’ve taken steps to clean the Slough up, there is also an abundance of wildlife here.”

These are a few of the 500 adults and kids getting ready to paddle the Slough in nearly 250 non-motorized watercraft during the Regatta.

Youngbarr says the purpose of the Regatta was to raise awareness of the Slough. “I was born and raised here. For all the times I’d driven on Sandy and Airport Way, it never occurred to me to see what was under the overpasses. When I started working with the Council, I learned what a fabulous resource this is to the region. I think people come here to explore this interesting natural setting, within the city of Portland.”

Some of the Columbia Slough is naturally-occurring. Louis and Clark reported camping along the slough. But, they couldn’t stay more than a night before moving inland. They reported that the din of the birds and animals kept them awake!

For decades, Youngbarr tells us, it has been greatly impacted by human endeavor. The Slough is important because it prevents the low-lying areas along the Columbia from flooding. “It is now a carefully managed waterway.”

Long-time nature advocate, and Wilkes Community Group resident, Alice Blatt shows paddlers where to go. If you’ve ever seen “Alice Springs” on the map ‚Äì yup, it’s named after her!

We edge closer to the dock, located in the “Big Four Corners” site, said to be the fourth largest natural area in Portland. Individuals in kayaks, and families in canoes, look like they’re having fun. At the dock, we’re introduced to Ry Thompson, Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, Slough Group. He’s offered to be our guide.

Ry Thompson, was our intrepid guide as we paddled through channels making up the northern part of the Slough.

Handing me a flotation device to strap on, Thompson says, “This is truly a special place. It’s a hidden gem in the city of Portland. It is accessible to families ‚Äì people of all ages.  And, this is a great place to experience nature in one’s own back yard.”

We climb into a canoe and push off from the dock. Within moments, we feel safe and confident, even with our camera. Our guide was doing the paddling, and we were snapping photos.

Even though there were dozens of craft on the Slough, it didn’t seem crowded as we explored this inland waterway.

Feeling more confident, we pick up the second paddle and start rowing. Guide Thompson doesn’t mind we’re helping out.

As our strokes synchronize, we pick up speed. “At this rate, we’ll be able to see quite a bit,” he says.

Using a parasol as a sail, Cherry Ann and Wayne Low use wind power for part of their journey on the Columbia Slough.

“The Slough has a long history of industry and farming,” says Thompson. “Things used to be pretty bad, but things have turned around dramatically. It is much cleaner.”

We had expected to have our olfactory senses assaulted with nasty odors. However, there is no bad smell, even though we are cruising inches above the water.

The family Hume–Rebecca, Sarah, Linda and Richmond–explore a side channel of the Columbia Slough during the Regatta.

Our guide continues, “We’ve planted over a million trees and shrubs to keep the water cool. And, as we continue to reduce pollutants that come into the Slough, the water quality gets better and better.” However, he advises against swimming in the water just yet.

After what seems like only a few moments, we realized we’ve been out nearly a half-hour. “Time to turn back,” Thompson advises. “But we have time to take a look at this side channel.” We both paddle, and slip swiftly along the waterway.

Rob Dolphin was first introduced to the Slough as part of his job. Now, he says he’s “fallen in love with it” as he paddles by us.

One of the many people we meet along the way is Rob Dolphin, an employee of the Owens Illinois Glass Company located on the Slough at Johnson Lake.

“Part of my work assignment,” Dolphin says, pulling up along side, “is to work with environmental issues having to do withour plant. But, I became fascinated with the Slough to the point where I love coming out here.”

CSWC board chair Chuck Harrison glides up, and talks with us about the Slough.

Soon, we’re able to hold another on-the-water interview. This time, it’s with Chuck Harrison, the chair of CSWC.

“I work for an employer that has properly along the Slough. They wanted to be aware of what was going on at the Council, and also, to be a good steward to the waterway. What started as a job function as grown into a love of the water.” After the third Regatta, Harrison tells us, “I decided to get my own kayak. Now, I come out often just to unwind. Isn’t it relaxing out here?”

The most important thing for people to know, Harrison says, is that “it’s not as bad as people remember it being. As you can see, it’s beautiful here. You’d never know you are in the city of Portland, except for the planes flying overhead.”

Too soon, it was time to return to the dock, as this couple was doing, so others could enjoy their own canoe ride in the Columbia Slough.

Looking at the time, we notice we are a little overdue getting the canoe back to the dock, so others can enjoy the Regatta. As we both paddle, our craft slips swiftly through the water; we soon glide up to the dock.

Want to explore the eastern of the Columbia Slough for yourself? The canoe launch we used is located at 16550 NE Airport Way, but there are others available.

For more information, go online to www.portlandonline.com/bes/index.cfm?c=dccac.

And, to learn more about the CSWC, see www.columbiaslough.org.

Here’s a secret: If you don’t own a canoe, you can borrow one from the Council! It’s another good reason to check out the CSWC, and check into your Columbia Slough.

¬© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News

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