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Fun fact: Early explorers of the PNW sailed past the Columbia River because they thought the water was too rough to possibly be the mouth of a river.

Nov. 2, Day 41

In 1805, Lewis and Clark were approaching the Oregon coast, sticking to the north bank of the Columbia River despite their native guides’ admonitions that, really, the south bank was the place to be. This became clear to ol’ Meriwether and William when they hit a squall and had to hang out in a little cove, which theyIMG_8110IMG_8029 henceforth named Dismal Niche.

Dismal Niche now has a rest stop, which we learned when we hit a squall and had to hang out there. When it passed and the clouds cleared, Astoria lay on the other side of the river in a sudden beam of sunlight, of which we were quite resentful because we were cold and wet and kind of hungry. Then Rachael turned to me and said, “Let’s just get a motel for the night.”

So we did. It was just across the river, but it felt like it took a surprisingly long time. Maybe because our bodies had heard us talk about a motel and were shutting down in anticipation, maybe because of the distraction of the constant company of seal friends checking us out, maybe because of the large dark dorsal fin moving around us.

Fortunately, because we had to move all of our gear out of the boat, there was a motel right next to the marina. Smart planning on their part. Also fortunately, there was a pizza place that delivered in town.

After our chat with Dale McKinnon, we were pumped to try the Bar. But upon consulting our school visit schedule and the weather for the next day – 13 foot seas! – we had to scrap that plan. Jordan came down and drove us out to the official coast, we frolicked in the (very chilly) ocean for a while, and that was the end of the rowing adventure.IMG_7968

Not quite the end of Adventure: Columbia   River, though – over the next three days, we visited eleven classrooms in Portland, talking to students from third through eighth grade. In its own way, more tiring that rowing all day – I’m better at rowing for hours than talking – but a sweet and satisfying note on which to finish, because at the end of the day, it’s the students to whom we talk that matter most.

A Row by with Dale McKinnon, Rower extraordinaire

-1 The greening of the banks of the river, the moderate climate, and Google Maps told us we were nearing the Pacific. However, clouds, wind and rain had followed us out of Portland, and were creeping into team morale. We were reveling in some elusive early morning sun, when a car on the road paralleling the river slowed to watch our progress. Then it stopped. And started reversing. Leah and I started to get a tad weirded out, and I started thinking the passer-by had been offended by my lack of t-shirt and had stopped to chastise me for my scantily-clad sports-bra rowing attire.

“Where did you start?” our visitor hollered, getting out of her car and standing on the side of the road.
“The Canadian border!”
“Are you going to try the Bar?”
“You can do it if the weather is good. I’ve done it!”-2

Most people who see our boat react with surprise or disbelief at the water features it can handle, but this was no mere passer-by. We rowed over to meet Dale McKinnon, an open water rower from Bellingham who has rowed the Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Bellingham in 2004 and Ketchikan to Juneau in 2005. Dale loaded us down with her knowledge of open water rowing and details about the section of river we still had to row. She regaled us with stories of her rowing expeditions, and encouraged us to try crossing the bar.

We rowed on, uplifted by Dale’s excitement about our trip and meeting two female rowers. And she was even excited I was soaking up the sun, rowing in my “skivvies.”

Fun fact: The Bonneville Dam was part of FDR’s New Deal.

Oct. 27, Day 3512196119_10207923816436266_6497161540124990811_n

The moment has arrived! The time has come! Finally, so much effort has
paid off in sweet victory!

The motor – stupid, tiny thing – got us through the locks at the Bonneville Dam!

Not literally, mind you. We put it on the stern and then rowed into
the lock, cursing the increased drag of its useless prop. But still.
If it works for the lock operator, then it works for us.

And that was our last dam on the Columbia River.

Immediately out of the lock, a sea lion popped its head out of the
water. Wait, what? I thought we were still over a hundred miles from
the coast? Why is there a sea lion?

Apparently that’s a regular thing that happens; I was the only one who
was confused here. As Rachael, the local knowledge holder, say12239928_10207923816076257_7543078069865414943_ns, the
sea lions come upstream following the salmon as far as they can – to
the Bonneville Dam (they haven’t figured out how to lock through yet).
This annoys the fishermen, who want to be eating the salmon instead of
the sea lions, and also annoys the hatcheries, who put a lot of work
into creating the salmon and don’t want them to be gobbled up
immediately. But the Marine Mammal Protection Act sort of limits the
potential for solutions.

The tides are impacting us now – it’s exciting to see evidence of the
ocean now that we’re below the Bonneville, even if it does cause some
stressful nights as we worry about the boat’s safety. Don’t worry, it
hasn’t floated away from us, and we haven’t gotten any unwanted marine
mammal visitors flopping themselves onto it, either. Yet.

Questions sent to us from our first school – Evergreen School in Gifford, WA.

 Q: How does it feel to travel from Canada to the Pacific OLeah with Evergreen Schoolcean in a rowboat? Is it scary?
Leah: I mean, that’s a whole lot of miles and a whole lot of feelings to sum up in a brief answer. Is taking one rowing stroke after another after another very scary? Nah. But there are some scary moments.
Rachael: Recently, I’ve been feeling really small. It’s a really big, long river and in comparison, Leah, our boat, and I are all really tiny. Feeling tiny can be scary sometimes; for example, when there are big waves, or big ocean cargo ships!

 Q: How has the weather been?
R: Since we saw you at Evergreen (Day 3 of our trip!) we’ve had everything. Hot, sunny, windy, rainy…
L: Oh boy. At the moment? Very rainy. But that’s a recent thing. Most of it was desert-y and hot, which is not my favorite thing. I’m very happy to be out of the sun.

Q: What place would you like to go back and revisit when you have more time?
R: Northern Washington! Now that we’re in bigger cities, I miss being in places where it was just us, the boat, water, mountains, and trees!

L: The Gorge, for sure. The combination of water and mountains and evergreens and fog is my favorite scenery, and minus the whole wind thing (which is not really our favorite), I really loved rowing through there.

Q: How do you feel about rowing now?
R: Most of the rowing we did in college was short, fast sprints. My body is better at long, slow distance, so I like this kind of rowing better!!
L: Hi, my name is Leah Shamlian, and I always love rowing. My body might need a brief respite after this, but I’m looking forward to going back to racing.

 Q: Did you ever get your fishing licenses? If you did what kind of fish did you catch?
L: No we didn’t! Also, I’m super obnoxious about the fish that I eat and would drive Rachael insane looking up stats on local fish stocks, anyway.
R: Its true. I found freshwater mussels one day and she immediately got on her phone to see if they were safe to eat (‘No, Rachael they have too much heavy metals!’). 😢

Q: Did your rowboat ever get away from you when you slept at night?

L: Can I not answer this? The closer we get to the coast, the bigger the tides get, and I like being able to sleep at night without worrying about losing our boat.
R: To translate ‘Leah-speak’: Not yet (knock on wood…)! We always tie it up at night, so it doesn’t float away.

Fun fact: Hood River is the windsurfing capital of the world.

Oct. 26, Day 34IMG_7872

The weather did not entirely conspire against us, winds were not awful despite reputations (and indeed sometimes were favorable), we didn’t get stuck at any of the dams for longer than a couple hours – all this so we could get to Hood River and the Mallon household three days ahead of schedule. This gave us Thursday afternoon through Monday afternoon in a real house, with real beds and things. A pretty exciting prospect for us.

For those of you thinking about planning similar expeditions in the future, I highly recommend choosing a route that encompasses a party member’s family. Rachael got her parents; I got the family cat.

Another side benefit, for our purposes, is that we can use hometown connections to get school visits. We saw 75 fifth graders and 180 sixth graders before we got back on the water. And, let me tell you (well, really Rachael would be the voice of authority here, but I’m the one writing, so whatever) – apparently the pressure is on when presenting in the hometown. In a large and historic auditorium. With a reporter drifting around nearby somewhere.

When we did get back on the river, it was with a large bag full of Mt. Hood Organic Farm apples, a reporter taking pictures from the dock, a racing challenge from a windsurfer, and still that stupid motor strapped to our stern.

Fun fact: Since it was built, The Dalles Dam has generated more than 9.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.

Oct. 21, Day 29

The barge operator with whom we locked through the John Day Dam told us that, if the timing worked out, we could lock through The Dalles with them as well. We appreciated the offer, but their cruising speed was about twice ours, so we couldn’t take them up on it.IMG_7915

This left us with the question, then, of how to get through Lock and Dam #3. We hadn’t been seeing a huge number of westbound barges, and the fishermen were loath to give up an hour or two of their fishing time to help us out – one even told us that they “didn’t have the equipment to go through the locks.” (Hint: the only equipment you need is a couple of ropes, life jackets, and, depending on how closely you want to follow the rules, a motor.)

So what did we do? Well, friends, I hate to admit it, but we caved. We cheated. We bought a tiny 4-horsepower trolling motor and jerry-rigged it into the stern of the boat, which involved a machete-ed piece of wood and gorilla tape. And then we turned up at the locks with our dinky, but functional, little motor.

And it was too small.

But the dam workers were so nice about it. It was a safety concern because the lock only had one working valve, which they told us when they came down to chat in person, and they called up some park rangers who put a boat in the water for us and took us through. So we aren’t too mad at them for being the bearers of bad news.

And the end result of all this? We made it through The Dalles Dam, we get to carry an additional 50 lbs in the form of a useless motor for a little while, and we made it into the dam newsletter.

Fun fact: The John Day Dam has the tallest lock in the U.S.

Oct. 20, Day 28IMG_7852

Dam #1: check. Dam #2….

I think the John Day Dam is my favorite – we got to slip in with a barge, the lock operator and project manager had a super nice chat with us, and it looks the most like Mordor. The lower gate has these towers on either side that lift and lower the gate (think a giant and extremely dull guillotine instead of the double-door exit in McNary).

This time, when we called up the lock operator in advance to let them know what was going on, they already knew about us. Lock and dam personnel sound like a tight bunch; maybe that’s how they keep occupied when there aren’t any boats coming through? We’ve been wondering.

Anyway, the project manager was very interested in our trip and offered to help if he could. He also asked us what we thought the primary concern of the John Day Dam was.image1-1

Rachael and I looked at each other. Boat passage? Flood control? Power generation?

“Fish passage,” he said.

Well, we like to hear that. It’s been a good year for salmon in the Columbia River – and, although one good year doesn’t indicate a trend, it’s nice hearing from everyone who’s concerned about the fish.

Fun fact: The McNary Lock and Dam lifts and lowers boats an average of 75 feet.

Oct. 15, Day 23IMG_7837 IMG_7844

“We’ll be there in thirty minutes,” Rachael said into her phone. I twisted around and squinted at the dam, which looked deceptively close.

She hung up. “The lock operator says he can see us from his tower; he doesn’t think we can make it there in half an hour.”

The sun was setting behind the dam and the lockmaster said he’d let us through if we got there before dark. The deadline was important because (1) there weren’t really any places to camp on this side of the dam, and (2) we were somewhat limited in the times we could go through the locks due to our many-times-mentioned lack of motor. So. Challenge accepted, I thought, and we scooted off toward the dam.

An hour, a seventy-five-foot drop, and several new friends later, we sped out of the locks into the sunset. The marine deputy later told us he clocked us at 8 mph, about twice our usual cruising speed. The Umatilla marina campground had free heated showers. We were motivated.

Fun fact: Bighorn sheep rams compete for ewes in the fall by butting each other, hitting each other at up to 20 mph.

IMG_7741Rachael’s animal blog

Leah’s super nearsighted, the slob, so I spot animals first. “See those white dots on the hill on our starboard, by the cliff with the big columnar joints?”

She squints. “I think so?”

“Bighorn sheep butts.”

It’s a bad day if we don’t see a bald eagle, get into an argument with a hill (they tend to disagree with us), or, now that we’re below the Chief Joseph Dam, spot a salmon thrashing its way upstream.

“Charismatic megafauna” is a term used to refer to large animals, usually mammals, that people tend to find more rel IMG_7823atable and interesting. You (hopefully) wanted to read our blog about bears – but probably not if we wrote about bugs instead, even though salmon eat the bugs and bears eat the salmon.

For a while, we tried to keep an animal tally, but that quickly fell by the wayside as the species list grew: black bears, coyotes, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, raccoons, eagles, owls, cormorants, gulls, pelicans, coots, grebes, herons, salmon….

According to the science teacher at the Evergreen School in Gifford, WA, this is an unusually good year for wildlife spotting due to the heavy wildfire season driving them out of their typical habitat.

A couple of weeks ago, we regaled the students of Nespelum School with what we thought was a thrilling drama between a herd of bighorn sheep and two black bears that we watched unfold after we arrived at camp one night. The students didn’t quite appreciate the saga like Leah and I did (we might have watched and only spoke in whispers for an hour).

These are the only soap operas we get on the river – is the bear going to eat the sheep? Does it just not care? Is the sheep seriously standing right next to the bear and snacking on a bush? Somehow, I think we’re doing just fine without Netflix.


Fun fact: Plutonium is named after the dwarf planet Pluto.

IMG_7821 IMG_7808Day 21, Oct. 13

Rachael and I have been naming some of the days to keep thing s straight and give ourselves landmarks in the repeating landscape of rowing; so far we’ve had an apocalypse day, a bear night, a coyote night, a heat rash day….

Today could have multiple names: the 45-mile day, the fishermen-are-jerks day, the Hanford day.

Wait, 45 miles?! “Leah,” you’re probably thinking, “45 miles is a LOT.” If you’re one of the fishermen we encountered today, you might add to that, “Are you sure you know what you’re talking about? Where’s your motor?”

The Hanford Reach is a 51-mile stretch of free-flowing river below the Priest Rapids Dam – which means we had a beast of a current helping us. Plus about 11 hours in the boat, so it had more time than usual to help us, too. But we were somewhat slowed down by the fact that there were fishermen everywhere who were less than considerate about their wakes and steering. Not only that, but most of them didn’t even return our “mutual coolness” waves, which is unforgivable.

The current was fantastic, though, and we satisfied ourselves with the knowledge that all these guys were living by the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world.

There was one single nice guy, however – fishing in waders by an island. He asked us about rowing and we asked him how the fish were biting.

“One bit this morning, but then he got away. You know how it is – some days it’s peanuts, some days it’s shells.”

We knew indeed. All of us were having a bit of a shell day.