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Photo: Adam Elliott

BY SUSAN HOLLINGSWORTH

On Saturday, July 27, river enthusiasts from across the Northwest gathered on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore., to transform their tiny paddle-powered crafts into powerful tools for protest. The Portland chapter of Rising Tide, a grassroots international network that works toward real climate change solutions through organized community efforts, hosted over 800 people for a non-violent direct action on the Columbia River called Summer Heat. The message was simple: End fossil fuel exports from the Columbia River Gorge.

To literally draw a line in the river, over 150 protesters took to the water in kayaks, rafts, SUPs, IKs and sailboats and other small craft to draw a symbolic blockade. For one day, paddlers used their boats for more than just recreation; the boats amplified a message in ways that single voices could never have done. Getting to that point, however, took weeks of preparation, countless partners, and a lot of support from the local paddling community.

First, the event needed boats. While the majority of participants brought their own boats, Rising Tide also worked with local paddling schools Alder Creek and eNRG Kayaking to arrange demo kayaks on site. The schools loaded up their massive trailers and arrived ready to get people out on the water.

Next, paddlers joined one of multiple safety briefings. Here, organizers painted a picture of the day’s action as well as reviewed basic safety information. Simultaneous educational presentations and workshops filled all of Vancouver Landing. The Raging Grannies, an activist choral group of senior citizens, sang about energy and the environment as others waved colorfully painted banners. Energy levels climbed as paddlers descended upon the dock to launch.

The calm water alongside the dock slowly filled with boats. Safety team leaders corralled the group into pods and released them one by one onto the Columbia. While the Columbia River below the I-5 bridge might appear flat, the current still charges downstream. In order to stage the perfect photo of both the paddlers and the hundreds of bridge protesters, boaters needed to maintain constant upstream motion. Yet, as the bridge and river filled, energy levels only increased. Once bridge protesters raised their banners, the paddlers flooded the center of the river, filling the Columbia’s immense girth with hundreds of colorful boats. Paddle blades raised into the air and chants echoed off bridge pillars.

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Photo: Adam Elliott

And just when it seemed that everyone had made it known that they opposed the potential of fossil fuel exports, three unknown protesters rappelled off the Interstate bridge, dropping a massive banner that read “Coal Oil Gas/None Shall Pass.” Cheers escalated as local law enforcement watercraft hovered closer to the bridge, though no on-site arrests were made.

The organized opposition to energy export terminals along the Columbia River is nothing new. (Check out the clip below from last fall’s paddling effort to protest Ambre Energy’s Morrow Pacific coal export proposal on the Columbia.) Direct-action groups like Rising Tide are beginning to recognize the powerful connection that paddlers have to clean water and clean air, and how organized efforts can broadcast a clear message to the general public. Don’t be surprised to see groups continue to harness this connection as environmental threats escalate, especially on the Oregon side of the Columbia as pressure builds toward fall decisions from the governor’s office regarding the coal export terminals.