Mark Niemann-Ross • July 2010 and August 2011 • contact me here
(If you're looking for the Luckiamute Ghost Story, look here)
Every year, Janell and I take a trip together. In 2010, we were scaling back from international travel, and wanted to do a wilderness trip - backpacking or canoeing or some outdoor activity. We had about a week, and hadn't done any canoeing for a while, so this was a priority. Plus, I was a canoe guide at Widjiwagan in Northern Minnesota, so my canoe chops are pretty advanced.
I looked at taking the Powell Forest Canoe Route in Vancouver, BC, but realized that my passport was due for renewal and I probably would not make it over the border intact. I started to look around for local trips, and found the Willamette River Water Trail map put out by the Willamette Riverkeepers.
At first, travelling down the Willamette river didn't have much appeal. I live in Portland, and although the river is a delightful feature of the city, it is often occupied with motorboats, barges, and jet skis. I wouldn't swim in the river, much less drink it or want to paddle in it for an extended period of time. Portland is working on solving the sewage overflow issue, and water quality is on the mend, but ...
So I did some research. Turns out that the Willamette river has some excellent paddling areas that are free of any traffic. In fact, we found the upper stretches approached a true wilderness trip. It's convenient, so the cost (and carbon footprint) is low, and it provides a multitude of put-in and take-out points, so you can tailor your trip to the amount of time available. We could paddle for a week on a river - without the heavy logistics of transporting or renting boats over long distances.
We returned in 2011, starting further up the river. This journal is a combination of our trip notes from those two years. As much as necessary, I've noted the change from year to year.Why I may be different than you
I'm also letting you know that a canoe is not limited to the same cargo restraints as a kayak. As you'll note from the picture, I can bring big, klunky camping equipment such as coolers and duluth packs. In fact, I revel in the absurd, as you will see in later pictures. If you are in a kayak, you'll want to evaluate my equipment and menu with this in mind.Things you'll need
I bought a copy of both the upper and lower trail maps from River Keepers - but no longer recommend this guide. They are general maps - the river shifts, campgrounds get overgrown, and the riverbank shifts dramatically from year to year or season to season. For the most part, you can float willy-nilly down the river, picking out major landmarks - but if you're looking for anything specific, then you'll want to get a better set of topo maps.
Bless our public works department - they produce a handy little map of navigation hazards and historical points - free. Get a copy of the Willamette River Recreation Guide right here. Print it out, and there's a wealth of information in your hand. (But don't use it as a navigational map)
Be sure to check out the Willamette Kayak and Canoe Club. Among other helpful pages, they include a list of flow levels and whitewater ratings. Likewise, read up on any navigation hazards at the Oregon State Marine Board website.
I also bought a copy of The Willamette River Field Guide - an excellent historical resource for the river. If you really want to understand the route, the field guide is informative and provides a mile-by-mile narrative.
You'll also need an Aquatic Invasive Species Permit. They are seven dollars (or $12 for a two year permit) and can be transferred from one non-motorized boat to another. You'll need one permit per boat. And yes - you will be checked at some point, especially if you paddle through any part of the river that has a boat launch. The fine is $142.
Lifejackets are required, but you already have one for every paddler - right?
We also brought air mattresses. Not your old-style air mattresses, but these nifty Exped SynMat mattresses. They have a built-in pump, roll up smaller than a standard foam pad, and once inflated provide you with the ability to cope with just about any ground irregularity you might find. Head's up - there is a failure rate for these air mattresses - we've returned a couple. Buy it from somewhere (REI) that takes returns.
Those gravel campsites also limit your ability to drive stakes in the ground. Self-supporting tents will make your life easier - just don't let them blow away.About this journal
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River Mile 200
Note that Google Maps indicates that this park is upstream from where it actually is.
This stretch (Dexter to Jasper Recreation area) of the river is marked by a series of class II rapids. I'm told that the water level wasn't all that different, although WKCC indicates it was pretty high. It is truely class II - anyone with experience would be able to scout and shoot from the river - you may scrape bottom, and if you're not paying attention, you may get hung up. In our case, it was a mistake to put in here with two boys that had minimal kayak experience. We made it through ok - but I would have preferred to have spent a day paddling in some easier current to get our skills up to snuff.
River Mile 192
River Mile 185
This stretch is also a collection of class II rapids. They are not marked on the Riverkeepers map, but show up on topo maps. Most of them are simple scout-and-shoot - but don't get cocky! The Clearwater Boat Ramp is obvious, and the confluence of the Middle and Coast Fork are obvious. And yes - I did see a solitary nudist at Glassbar Landing - but walking along a distant bank. Don't plan on using naked buins as a landmark. There is a navigation hazard marked in this stretch, but be aware that this isn't the only one. There are a LOT of sweepers and strainers in this stretch - if you're not paying attention, you will get caught up in these. If you're paying attention, you shouldn't have any problems. Just be on the lookout.
River Mile 184
This one is a bit scary, and the Oregon Marine Board has issued a warning, a closure, and then declared it re-opened. The bridge has some heavy construction going on, and there are additional pilings to be navigated around. The approach and channels are clearly marked, but treat this one with respect. You'll start on the right side of the river, follow the river into a pool that requires a quick turn to the left, move to the middle to navigate the designated boat channel, then you'll need to move to the left to avoid the strainer field on the river right. You'll also share the river with a bunch of college kids in inner-tubes. I was told that you can go down this all the way on the right - but I sure didn't see it. Possibly a factor of the water level, and possibly a factor of the construction. Our kayaks made it through without much excitement, but navigating a canoe (fully loaded with camping gear and packs) requires some fancy handling to get things in place at the right time.
River Mile 183play water. My instinct was to get out and scout this thing, and I should have done so - I was mislead by trusting the college kids & inner tubes going through ahead of us. Because of the strainer fields on river right, we had to go far river left - which leads you into two sets of standing waves. The kayaks bounced through, but the canoe took on water. Thankfully, there is an eddy to the right, but if you don't have a solid low brace in the stern, don't take a loaded boat down these waves. Seriously. You'll be swimming.
Downriver of this are some more class II rapids, but nothing to be too concerned about. Of course, just when you're feeling confident is when you're most vulnerable. Did I mention - "Don't Get Cocky!"
River Mile 172
We had a bit of excitement at this campsite. Towards dusk, Mark hears voices upstream. Seems late for people to still be on the water. Just then, we see packs and flotsam floating downriver. Mark (assuming passive victim in lifejacket) grabs Will, they jacket-up and float the canoe, then paddle like crazy to retrieve the flotsam. Turns out to be a pack full of something heavy (beer or fishing gear), half a paddle, a bilge pump and two lifejackets. Turns out two of the locals had been fishing in a raft, but didn't pay attention, and ran into a sweeper. They were ok, and VERY appreciative that Mark and Will had retrieved everything except for one of the paddles. They called a friend, then hiked out along the powerline clearing where a friend was going to pick them up. Must have been a disagreeable trudge through the blackberries and backroads.
River Mile 161down below about Buena Vista Ferry Recreational Use.
Harrisburg is a great little town to start your trip. The boat ramp is adjacent to a beautiful park, and there is a parking lot designated for boat launch vehicles. There is a canoe-friendly launch area, although the gravel bar might snag you if you don't get over to the far bank in short order.
The river along this stretch is fast, but smooth. There were no strainers to speak of, although this may change from time to time.
River Mile 153
The actual landing looks more like a place the local kids come to party, rather than an attractive campsite. Amenities are a road, wire fence, and overflowing trash bin. Skip this campsite.
Just a little bit further downriver is Irish Bend. This stretch of the river has multiple gravel bars that would be good camping. It's difficult to know what is public and private, but many of them are on islands that have sprung up since the Willamette River Keeper guidebook was created.
River Mile 149
Do NOT go around the backchannel of Norwood Island. You'll float through some beautiful overhanging trees and through some flowing current - then discover the abandoned railroad trestle is completely blocked with flotsom. Now you need to panic, turn around, and paddle like a madman back up stream, around the sweepers and unreliable eddy's. If you don't have a really good stroke, you will be sucked down into the trestle which waits for you like the Sarlaac on Tatooine. You will die if you get caught in the trestle flotsam - I'm pretty sure that's true.
River Mile 148
River Mile 147
River Mile 143
We thought it would be fun to take the hide around the Snag Boat Bend refuge, as mentioned in the Willamette River Keeper guide. Granted, we'd have to walk down the road to get to the access point. But it is easy to confuse this with Buckskin Mary Landing (RM 145.8 and marked by a sign), just upriver. Our mistake was getting out on the eastern side of the refuge along the finger, rather than going up the tributary. This is visible in the Google map, and is probably visible in the topo's or aerial photos. Lesson learned - best to carry a good photo map if you're going to bushwhack.
Peoria Park (River mile 141.5) is difficult to see from the river. If you're going to try to get out at this point, you'll need a really good topo, and an excellent sense of direction. The landing is up a small inlet, disguised as one of many small inlets, impossible to tell apart.
River Mile 136
River Mile 134
This is a nice lunch spot with all the amenities. Blackberries, shade, a nice place to sit, innertubers floating by in droves.
River Mile 131
Of special note - Claire paddled stern all the way from last night's campground to Michael's Landing. Yea Claire!
Michael's landing provides access to Corvallis if you need to stock up on ice, beer, etc. There is a nice park, and grocery stores within walking distance - probably eight blocks. This could also function as a put-in or take-out spot - it appears that a lot of the local University students use this park for that purpose. Water can be found - but not at the parking area. You'll need to walk up to one of the stores on the main street.
River Mile 125
River Mile 122
We used this as a shuttle point for our September 2011 trip, and worked great. It's apparently not a well-used park, just outside of Albany, and rumored to be a gay meet-up point. Aaron and I had biffies and water while we waited for Janell and Will to retrieve our car - about two and 1/2 hours round trip.
River Mile 119
Watch the current and the bridge pilings. I was a bit surprised at how much current is actually coming down the river at this point, and if you're not paying attention, your boat is likely to take off without you. Worse, you may be just getting accustomed to being in your boat when you come up to the bridge. If you wrap yourself around a piling, you are going to have a really short and unpleasant trip.
Avoid using the floating dock that extends from the landing. Again, there is a lot of current. If you load on the upriver side, you're likely to see your boat get sucked under the dock. If you load on the downriver side, you'll experience some strong currents that may want to roll your boat upside-down.
We immediately began to see eagles and herons, and really felt like we were in a wilderness situation. You'll find that the shallow depth of the water restricts motorboats - once you go over a sandbar, you'll be in your own world.
River Mile 113
With our air mattresses, sleeping was no problem. And the rocks were fine to get around on. So it made an ideal campsite - much more pleasant than the buggy campsite down river. Oh - and if you like to swim after paddling, the rocky campsites offer much better swimming holes than the wooded sites. We only saw one other couple paddling by that evening, so complete privacy. I also suspect that most of the traffic goes by on the west side of the island - we were on the east side, so missed any activity that might have come by.
As pictured, we also carry a camp kitchen. This little wonder folds up to about the size of a loooong briefcase, and includes a small table and place to put the stove. We have one of those ancient two-burner Coleman that have been converted to propane, no need for a fancy backpacking stove when you're paddling a canoe!
Next morning, we arose to a beautiful sunrise, breakfast, and a delightful paddle.
River Mile 108
"There's a story about a woman and pottery - happened not too long ago, and not far from here," said old Mr. Smith, pulling on his pipe and watching the thunder clouds gather in the late afternoon sky. "Emma Sioux was crazy about pottery, so it was natural she was blown to bits by a potter, considering that's what shaped her life in every other way." (Read the rest of the story here...)
Our original plan for the 2010 trip was to put in at Luckiamute Landing. The River Keepers map seems to indicate road access and a landing, and so we drove back and forth along Buena Vista Road, looking for an obvious landing. Nothing to be found. We did find a trailhead with a gate, which is locked. The road leads to a campsite and a landing - but it would have been a substantial portage (1.7 miles) from the road to the river. Not recommended.here.
The Santiam River enters the Willamette at this point, and increases the amount of flow through the river. You'll notice the difference. No rapids, but there is a lot of volume. There were several cases where I underestimated the speed we were moving at, and had to accept going around the island on the side we were already headed for. Careful not to get wrapped around a rock!
Here are the pages from the guest book at Luckiamute Landing
River Mile 106
After you pass the ferry, try to stick to the right side of Wells Island. The left side has a lot current upwelling and snags that you'll want to be aware of. Nothing you can't handle - but just heads up.
River Mile 104
Just downriver from American Bottom is a DSL Island. The map says to watch the left channel, and it is likely that in low water, the left channel won't be open. It also says there is primitive camping, but this island looked pretty overgrown. Which would be ok, if you like grass and mosquitos.
River Mile 102
Calling this an access is laughable. We were looking for water, and tried to get up to the campsite - but this clay bank is almost vertical. If it was the slightest bit wet, it would be completely unclimable. Unless you are planning on a splash landing, don't use this as an entry point. It's more like a scenic overlook.
River Mile 99
This stretch has a lot of developed houses, roofing (bang - bang - bang) and motorboats. The transition from a near wilderness experience to a party barge is instantaneous. Folks on docks, lawn chairs, beer and rock guitars warming up in someone's garage.
Houses and irrigation pumps dot the river, and you can expect friends. We saw one possible campsite on the west side of the river at mile 98, but opted to camp on the gravel bar on the east side at mile 97 (July 16, 2010). We can hear music at what we thought was the park, but is actually a high-school hangout just down the river. There is also a house just across the river. Mowed lawn, etc, but far enough that you won't see any activity.
Things did quiet down, and we were enjoying the sunset and the evening breeze when a young couple approached, wearing swimsuits and carrying an inner-tube. They were asking directions to the bridge, which we believed was some distance down river. They had apparently been floating for some time, and were hoping to meet up with friends. Good thing - it was getting dark, and I didn't think they had waterproof flashlights. Off they went, back into the river, and apparently they did meet their friends just around the corner. Never a dull moment.
River Mile 96
THIS is where you want to get water. There is a beautiful amphitheater and park just alongside the landing. Great place for lunch, and a nice grocery store just across the park. This would be an excellent place to put in or take out, if you are looking for a drop at this point in the river.
River Mile 91
This stretch of the river is a delightful stretch of nearly wilderness - or at least, you can fool yourself into thinking it is. As is true about the entire river, aerial photos will show you the thin strip of trees between the river and farmland. This island is an exception, since it is apparently too narrow to farm.
The river guide mentions this would be a good place to camp or take a rest, which it might. Keep your water supply stocked, because there isn't potable water, other than what can be filtered out of the river. Plus - I've had moose and bear in a campsite, but I suspect some llamas are used to humans, and would be curious enough to wander in and see what's for dinner.
River Mile 89
There isn't much of note at this point, except this seems to be the boundary between a "wilderness" zone and water available to motorboats. We had been enjoying a really quiet trip from mile 96 up to this point, when suddenly water skiers and motorboats appeared. There is apparently a shallows at this point that prevents traffic upriver- we didn't notice it because of being in canoes and kayaks. But there is a major boat launch at mile 86, and the boats travel all the way upriver to this point.
There is a large sandbar/gravel area on the west side of the river that works reasonably well for a lunch spot - in a pinch, you could camp here, but it isn't marked as public land.
River Mile 86
This is the main landing for Salem motorboaters and waterskiiers. Located right across the river from Minto Brown Park. Expect a lot of traffic, and expect the traffic to increase until you get to mayhem central at the Salem Riverfront.
River Mile 84
So much for your wilderness adventure. Salem Riverfront Park is a major development in downtown Salem. Very popular at any time, expect a lot of boat traffic and a lot of horsepower. Also - expect that the river cops will be checking your Aquatic Invasive Species Permit and counting life jackets. Fines for those of you who didn't plan ahead!
We didn't get out of our boats, but there is a good chance you'll be able to stock up on water and groceries. You'll want to leave someone with the boats to prevent curious tourists from borrowing your gear.
The good news is that downriver of this park, there is a shallows that restricts motorboat traffic. Things will get progressively quieter as you move away from this area.
River Mile 81
I'm not convinced this park is actually here.
River Mile 80
Likewise, I'm not sure this park exists. We didn't see it from the river.
River Mile 79
This park is also a hang-out for the local youth of Keizer, as is the entire riverfront around the gravel pit. When I hiked back to take a look, I noticed what looked like bike paths - and then noticed two kids flying over the jumps and nearly landing on me. Heads up!this link.
As you go by this developed campsite, you'll have mild rapids to your left, and a series of developed campsites on the right. These are all private and developed by Jerry. These may be marked as private by now - when we were there, we saw no signs until we started to explore behind the campsites. If you approach on foot from the mainland, you'll see the signs. If you approach from the river, you might miss these signs.
River Mile 72
This is a busy ferry crossing - but there are no services, no water, no groceries. There were biffies. It is a great place to meet up with someone in an automobile. In fact, we arranged a mid-trip swap of personnel. But do be careful dealing with the ferry crossing - it has a lot of momentum and no ability to steer around you and your puny little boat.
Navigating downriver of the ferry involves a lot of current, and few recognizable landmarks. It would be helpful to have a topo map for this section, as the riverkeeper maps are short of detail. Although there isn't a lot to miss, you may find yourself somewhere you didn't expect.
River Mile 63
This is marked as "no access" and they aren't kidding. The bank is vertical. If you've had any rain, it will also be incredibly slippery - water on top of clay. Great if you like to coat yourself in mud, then slide into the river. Not so great if you are trying to go in an upward direction. Don't plan on using this as any sort of an access point, unless you are planning to have someone just throw stuff off the cliff for you to catch in your boat below. There is no shoreline. Not sure why this is called a landing - it's a muddy cliff.
River Mile 62
Staying on the right/north side of the island shields you from the majority of the traffic that will go by on the left/southern side of the island. The right channel isn't friendly to larger boats, and the entry to the channel is quick (and mildly obstructed) which filters out a certain number of boaters. There is an irrigation pump that comes down to the river from the mainland, as well as an access road. Not 100% private - but pretty darn close.
River Mile 59
Downriver from Five Island you'll see a large gravel bar on the river left, and then Candiani Bar. I doubt you'll see the entry to the back-stream channel around this island. If there was camping on this island, we didn't see it.
The river flattens out in this stretch, apparently due to Ash Island. Read up on the Newberg Pool - you'll be paddling in it. This also means that you'll see an increase in motorboat traffic. Which is understandable, seeing as how you are coming up on ...
River Mile 50
Welcome back to civilization. This is a major public landing. There are biffies, but don't think there is any water. It is busy. On the bluff overlooking the landing is something that looks like a briquette or cement factory. Downriver from this you will see lots of houseboats and riverfront cabins. Don't make the mistake we did - these aren't grocery stores. We pulled up to one houseboat, and traded a bottle of wine for some ice cream treats - but it wasn't a grocery stop.
River Mile 45
Champoeg State Park is a great facility. You'll find yourself in a grassy, fenced-off area next to a parking lot. Lots of picnic tables, bathrooms, and access to showers in the main camp (which you need to walk to). Cost is $5 - well worth it.
Somewhere around mile 42 you'll see a road leading down to the river. There were blackberry plants on the shoreline, and if you hike up to the top of the bluff, you'll find a small fresh produce store.
We had lunch at the Boones Ferry Boat Ramp (Mile 38.5). A smelly place. At this point in the river, it is slow going, no current, and the water traffic is getting larger.
River Mile 36
What turned this from a disaster to the nicest campsite of the trip (campsite on July 20, 2010) was a quick journey the up Molalla River. There is a lot of current flowing into the Willamette River, so the paddle will be challenging. You'll probably need to get out and walk, although there is enough water to float over rocks and sandbars. Bless these hazards - they are all unnavigable by standard motor-boats. At one point, you'll see the mysterious artwork on the south shore. Go far enough, and you'll find yourself on a beautiful gravel point. Be aware some of this is private property - although it's difficult to tell where, as it isn't posted. But it's quiet. It's clean. Great place to catch some sun. Swimming is great. It's bug free.
Don't be fooled - it isn't entirely private. There is a bridge somewhere further upriver, and some fishermen will walk down to the river, then walk along downriver. I'm not sure how they get out once they reach the Willamette.
Past the junction between the Molalla and Willamette River is the actual Molalla River State Park - not much more than a boat ramp.
River Mile 30
River Mile 28
A delightful park. Bathrooms, probably water. Downriver from here is the Willamette Falls. Don't go over them.