Not so strange tides: My kayak trip in Portland

There’s nothing quite like being able to step out your front door and hit the trail or set sail. A few weeks ago I had the chance to borrow a couple kayaks for the weekend (thanks sis!) and I spent an enjoyable afternoon paddling around Ross Island, just a short walk (and paddle) from home.


All set and safe for boating in 90’s neon red! As my  old life guarding buddies would say… “Don’t just pack it, wear your jacket!” And I do, no matter how embarrassing it is. 

We arrived at Willamette Park, Portland’s main boating hub, late in the afternoon to the chaos of boats of all shapes and sizes, launching and loading, and walked our kayaks down the dock to load up.

Although I grew up around water, sailing and swimming every summer, and actually spent eight years as a life guard, and hundreds of hours guarding the “open kayak” hour at the pool, I am a kayak newbie. So, climbing in from the dock and feeling that first wobble, then glancing over my shoulder at the speed boats buzzing by, setting off a storm of rolling white water at eye level between my boat and the island, I was a little nervous.


Looking back towards Willamette Park from Toe Island. Note to self: take photos of more than just one location if you’re going to blog about it…

Ross Island is in the middle of the Willamette River, just off shore of the eastern bank, in Portland between the Sellwood Bridge and downtown. Though it’s not far from the boat launch, I was worried that the paddle out to the island, crossing the Saturday afternoon boat traffic, would be a bit rough. To be honest, I thought my kayak would be swamped and I’d be left, ten feet from shore, slowly sinking while speed boats zoomed by.

But I only had a moment to hesitate before we are off and paddling, and just a few quick strokes later, we’ve reached the island, it was really that easy. A parade of paddlers float through in formation, curving around the point of the island heading back toward downtown, followed by several more groups. Kayaks long and short passed by until I’ve lost count, but there seemed to be hundreds of people out enjoying the water, slowly making their way around the tree-covered island.

Just before turning to round the point, I saw the man who unloaded his truck next to me at the park; he had already paddled out to the island on his stand-up paddleboard, clothes still appearing to be perfectly dry and he was now feet-up-reading on his back on the small spot of sand at the tip of the island, and I was jealous. I couldn’t believe I’d been living here for months and hadn’t yet ventured out here; this beat reading in the park any day.

We cross through the congestion of kayakers and other paddlers to the eastside of the island, against the flow of traffic and the waters become calm as we entered the Holgate Slough. To my left, the bushy trees strewn across the island blocked the view of the city and the rising river bank to the east formed a quiet space. The water was shallow and because the speed limit through the slough is low, the din of speed boats grew soft and distant. I still can’t believe that I’d let this sanctuary sit just outside my front door all summer without exploring it.


Looking down the eastern shore, into Holgate Slough.

About the time that I finally got the hang of paddling with sufficient force so as to actually move without, at the same time, drenching myself, we reached the middle of Ross Island. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I’d gotten lost somehow, in the middle of the river, because as the island rounds out to a point, I expected to look across the waters and see the familiar shores of Portland waiting there, but instead it’s a wild tumble of trees; I’m wasn’t looking across the river, but rather into the lagoon at the center of the island.  In this crescent of water encompassing the eastern shore, the machinery of Ross Island Sand and Gravel is scattered throughout the water. We paddled onward and in a few minutes reached the northern point of the island, where the Ross Island Bridge looms just ahead and the roar of boats tearing by grows louder again.

Rounding the north corner of Ross Island.

Rounding the north corner of Ross Island.

The skyline of Portland stretches behind the bridge and the grassy spaces and sandy shores of South Portland rise up to the west. It was the perfect place to enjoy lunch. Between gobbles of Subway and sips of IPA, we made plans to come out to the island again soon, with more company and plans to make a day of it. But shortly, our merry plan-making was interrupted by a couple of guys who have some interesting plans of their own.

Just taking some selfies with the cell phone when two boys in polos and plaid shorts come running up...

Just taking some selfies with the cell phone when two boys in polos and plaid shorts come running up…

We were sitting on our lifejackets on the gravelly shores of the island chatting when two men came running up. They informed us quickly that we couldn’t sit there because their friends were going to be taking engagement photos there in five minutes. We agreed to relocate our picnic to the other side of the point, while debating why in the world anyone would take their engagement photos there. Ross Island might be a nice “slice of paradise” in the middle of a bustling city, but that doesn’t mean it’s pretty. We discussed this oddity while scanning the trees and wondering which blackberry bush or shrub would be their background, but the answer comes quickly when the men come around the point and duck down behind the blackberries. We’d misunderstood or they’d miscommunicated because we weren’t about to watch an engagement photo shoot as I’d imagined, we were going to witness the proposal.

The couple arrived in a tandem (two-person) kayak and I did my best not to watch as they settled on shore and their friends angled for a better shot of the two from behind the bushes. Unable to resist the urge to gawk, I decide it was better if we headed out rather than give away the surprise of someone’s big moment by staring too much, so we loaded up our boats and head out again.


Celebrating my geese-harassment success

After racing through a flock of Canadian geese, something which I try to avoid doing on land (they can be a bit aggressive…) but which I couldn’t resist when armed with a paddle, we made our way to our last stop Toe Island, a little speck of land that we’d been admiring from the riverfront tables at Aquariva all spring.

Toe Island is just off the west shore of Ross Island and isn’t much longer than a football field and only a few dozen feet wide at points. A living, uprooted tree lies stretched out across the length of the shore. At the southern tip of the small island, a bleached trunk we saw appear early in the spring lays across the sand. The entire island can be seen from where we stand at the north end, so we only spent a few minutes exploring before paddling back to the boat launch.

At one end of Toe Island, you can see the other end is just a 30-second walk away.

At one end of Toe Island, you can see the other end is just a 30-second walk away.

Our kayak adventure ended with a slow trek back to the house, one end of each kayak in each hand for the two block walk. Passing the Fulton Pub, diners out front and on the patio stared, but I knew they weren’t surprised to see kayak-laden pedestrians walking through town, they were probably just a little bit jealous. Equally envious and satisfied that we were almost home, we leaned our kayaks against the fence next to the pubs and posted up at a table nearby to order a beer and some snacks. Sometime before we left a couple crossed the street nearby, toting a tandem kayak and a passerby yelled out “Congratulations!” Apparently their Ross Island kayak trip went pretty well too.


Whether you live in Portland or if you’re just passing through, make some time for a trip out to Ross Island for a whole new way to see the city. Nearby Portland Kayak Company and Alder Creek, offer guided tours, classes, and rentals of kayaks and SUP borads (Stand Up Paddling) while Gorge Performance, does SUP board rentals.  All three businesses are located within walking distance from the river. The Willamette Sailing Club, next to Willamette Park, also offers lessons for children and adults interested in learning about sailing, and trips to the shores of Ross Island are sometimes a part of the lessons.

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