LONGVIEW, Wash. — Standing on top of a sandy white bluff on an island surrounded by glittering blue waters and windsurfers soaring in the distance, it was easy to forget I was camped in the middle of the Columbia River.
As a longtime Puget Sound resident, I grew up thinking most Northwest beaches are covered in gray pebbles and stones. So when I moved to the Lower Columbia River area almost two years ago, I was struck by the beaches of sand — sand soft enough to sink your toes into.
The sand on Wallace Island, located nearly 15 miles downriver of Longview, was white enough to rival the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.
My partner Riley Shiery and I paddled out in our sea kayaks to Wallace Island for an overnight camping trip. The excursion offers breathtaking views and relative seclusion despite being close to Longview and just a 4.5-mile paddle from County Line Park, reported The Daily News (http://bit.ly/2cDuymi).
Despite the close distance, though, dodging freighters in the river’s shipping lanes and coping with the river’s powerful tides and currents makes it no beginner’s paddle. (To avoid shipping lanes, you could launch from the Beaver Boat Launch and paddle down the Clatskanie River, which empties into the Columbia on the south shore of Wallace Island. It’s about a 3-mile paddle to reach the primitive campsites on the west end of the island.)
Seeking a longer and more scenic route, Riley and I packed up our camping gear in dry bags with water and food and drove to County Line Park. We paid $10 for two days’ worth of parking for our overnight stay.
Paddling west, the noise of Ocean Beach Highway disappeared almost immediately behind foothills shrouded in evergreen trees. Seagulls cried overhead and elegant black cormorants dashed along the shoreline.
The relatively calm water reflected the slate gray clouds. An ebb flow and tailwind boosted our speed to about 6 mph. After two miles, we reached a fir-covered spit of land known as Cooper Point. It is labeled with a bright green sign with the number “71.” We paddled a bit more before crossing the river at the narrowest point near Cooper Island, so as to shorten our time in the shipping lane.
Our boats skirted the shore for another two miles until we passed an osprey nest piled atop a tall stand. The osprey stared down at me, as if judging my lackluster paddling as I struggled to keep my boat straight. About 30 yards west of the nest is a beach lined with cottonwood trees and driftwood where most boaters land. Camping on the island is free and legal, but it is primitive: no food or drinkable water.
However, Riley had scouted out a separate spot that offers more seclusion about a half-mile west. Unfortunately his spot required us to haul all of our two 17-foot kayaks up a steep, 50-foot sand bluff.
But the difficult climb paid off: The bluff opened to an expansive view of the river, a pack of wind surfers and another island ahead.
Behind us, the bluff gave way to fields of tall yellow grass and bunches of green Scotch broom rippling like waves in the wind. Green reed plants shot up from the sand, which dipped and rose in mini dune-like mounds.
By early evening, the clouds cleared to reveal blue skies, which faded into a peach and pink sunset. When night fell, the lights from the Wauna paper mill were too far away to mask the blanket of stars that make up the Milky Way.
In the morning, we were greeted again with powder blue skies that transformed the water from gray tones to shades of green, blue and aqua. A bald eagle squawked from his perch on a tree limb about a quarter of a mile away as we eat a breakfast of instant oatmeal. The sunlight caught flecks of sand that glittered like confetti sprinkled on the ground.
After a lazy morning, we climbed down the bluff to take a short walk on the beach and caught views of Mount St. Helens in the distance.
We left at about 5 p.m. Sunday as the tide changed in our favor. Unfortunately, the wind hadn’t waned, and the water was touched with whitecaps. Although I’ve paddled on and off recreationally for the last seven years, I was reminded of my weak kayaking skills as I struggled to keep my boat straight.
Without Riley, a more experienced kayaker to coach and assist me, I could have found myself in trouble. It was a not-too-subtle reminder to never underestimate the power of the river.
After we made our crossing, Cooper Point blocked most of the wind. Our kayaks glided through the water until we returned to County Link Park.
As we unloaded our boats, we met a German cyclist who had traveled from across the country and stopped to camp there before heading to Canada. And after our little getaway on the Columbia River, surrounding by sand and shining blue waters, I was reminded, once again, why someone from so far would want to visit our corner of the world.
Information from: The Daily News, http://www.tdn.com