Words by Rhonda Ostertag | Photos by George Ostertag
Interstate 5 may be the most common way to get to know Oregon's Willamette Valley, but it's not the only way. Canoeing down the mellow main stem of the Willamette River, a 185-mile designated national water trail, provides an entirely different view of the fertile valley from Eugene to Portland.
On its way north to the Columbia River, the Willamette gathering waters along the valley floor, coursing past rural fields, Douglas-fir forest, sloughs and cottonwood groves. The river knits together communities. Ferries traverse its breadth linking towns on its east and west banks. Ospreys, bald eagles, herons, mergansers and tail-slapping beavers grab paddlers’ attention. Deer steal double-takes of rowers before returning to leafy nibbles, and killdeers feign injury to distract landing parties from nests on the cobbles.
The Willamette generally presents trouble-free paddling, much of it suitable for novices, but paddlers need to be attentive, possess basic navigation and paddling skills, and be ready for changes in current. Some island approaches and diversions may require landing and portage. River speed and depth do change with season.
Multiple put-in and take-out sites allow for crafting trips from a few hours to a few days. Travel requires spotting a downstream vehicle or arranging for pick up. State and local parks, boating and fishing accesses, and designated camps serve paddlers. Carry the Willamette Water Trail Guide (www.willamettewatertrail.org) and/or the State Parks/Marine Board Willamette River Recreation Guide. Each identifies access points, amenities, river hazards and river mileages. The web page www.willamettewatertrail.org is continuously updated for the most immediate trip picture.
The Water Trail consists of three sections: Springfield to Albany (River mile 185 to 118), Albany to St. Paul/Newberg (mile 118 to 50) and Newberg to Portland (mile 50 to 0, the most boater-congested stretch). For beginners, plotting a trip anywhere between Albany and tiny San Salvador Park in St. Paul reduces river challenges and boater traffic, while providing ample approaches, great natural settings and town accesses. Although strainers and changes in current require attention, much of the paddle is Sunday-afternoon relaxing.
5 Tips for A Fun Trip
1. Campers should clear the overnight parking of their downstream vehicle with appropriate park staff or law enforcement.
2. Newer paddlers should keep to the main channel. Side sloughs expand discovery but can hold downfall hazards, shallow sections and narrow turnarounds.
3. Where guidebooks provide approximate float times, allow for sightseeing and riverside siestas.
4. Bring binoculars for wildlife viewing.
5. Agate, jasper and petrified wood eroded from the headwater mountainsides and transported downstream come to rest on the river bars and islands. Keep an eye out for these shiny treasures.
Trip Info: www.willamettewatertrail.org
Flow Info: waterdata.usgs.gov
- Alder Creek, Portland, 503-285-0464, www.aldercreek.com
- Peak Sports, Corvallis, 541-754-6444, www.peaksportscorvallis.com
- Oregon Paddle Sports, Eugene, 541-505-9020, http://www.oregonpaddlesports.com
- River Trail Shuttle, Eugene, 541-228-4084, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.rivertrailshuttle.com
Willamette Riverkeeper, 503-223-6418, www.willamette-riverkeeper.org. This nonprofit steward of the Willamette River is responsible for Water Trail development and information. It offers monthly educational paddle trips and encourages river involvement. Each year the group offers its signature Paddle Oregon, a multi-day river trip.
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Read about an annual five-day group paddle on the Willamette which camps at riverside vineyards and farms where local wine and beer is produced.