If you wanted to design the perfect paddling town, here’s what you might do. Place it at the junction of two broad rivers, one threading all the way from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific, the other draining most of western Oregon. Pepper the rivers with islands. Then dig one of them into a dramatic cliff-lined gorge. Now build a mountain range with massive, glaciated stratovolcanos pumping out meltwater all summer long. Send some of those streams flowing into that gorge, where waterfalls plunge off the cliffs.
Summer is spectacular; expect afternoon northwest winds. Spring is less predictable and boasts massive wildflower blooms. Fall is a roll of the dice; winter is wet.
Re-use your water
Portlanders use water four times: first to ski on Mt. Hood, second as whitewater in the steep rivers, third in the Columbia and Willamette Rivers in sea kayaks, and then in the ocean for surfing and rock gardening.
Portland has 84 craft breweries, one per every 7,621 residents. Seek out Gigantic Brewing in southeast Portland and Breakside Brewing near the Columbia. There are 34 independent coffee roasteries if you’re moving slowly the next morning.
For variety, add another mountain range to the west, and lace it with more rivers. Add a rugged coast and fill it with dramatic cliffs, arches, sea caves and surf beaches. Scoop out some protected bays for easier paddling. For good measure, toss in some mountain lakes. Put all that within a two-hour drive of the city center. Now add the final ingredient—rain and moderate temperatures in the winter, and sunny, warm summers.
If you did all this, you’d create Portland, Oregon. Here the kayaking season is year-round and kayak routes are everywhere. In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Swartz describes how people can easily decide between three or four options, but struggle when confronted by a vast number of choices. Welcome to the dilemma Portland kayakers face every weekend.
If you have half a day
Plop your boat in the water in the heart of Portland for a spin around Ross Island, a five-mile loop around a forested island in the Willamette River with a bald eagle nest and a great blue heron rookery. You’ll share the water with rowing shells, canoes, outrigger race teams, standup paddleboards, and just about every type of human-powered craft you can imagine.
If you have a full day
Circumnavigate Bachelor Island on the Columbia River, a nine-mile loop through nearby Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. You’ll start in quiet sloughs with lots of waterfowl, herons and birds of prey. Then you’ll enter the wide Columbia. Dodge big ships as you cross to Warrior Rock lighthouse. To extend your paddle, explore the Lewis River, Sand Island or Scappoose Bay before re-crossing the Columbia and paddling back up the Lake River to Ridgefield.
If you have a weekend
Go coastal. If you have ocean skills and good conditions, paddle out the Salmon River mouth to Cascade Head. Explore the gorgeous headland’s sea caves, and look for whales and sea lions. On the way back, stop on the spit to sprawl on the sand. If the sea is big, paddle the protected wildlife-rich salt marsh. On day two, head north to Pacific City. If Poseidon is friendly, paddle to Cape Kiwanda and around Haystack Rock and add some surf play. Or explore protected Nestucca Bay.
If you have a week
Paddle the Lower Columbia River Water Trail, 144 miles from Bonneville Dam to the sea at Astoria. Pass through the massive cliffs of the Columbia Gorge, the metropolis of Portland, mazes of islands, and the lower river, with tidal influence and sea-like expanses. Camp on uninhabited islands. Trace the route of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery in 1805-06. Best in spring, when high flow whisks you along, and before summer’s upriver winds.
Despite its rainy image, portland gets less annual rainfall than New York and Houston. However, it does have many cloudy days with light precipitation, especially in winter. | Photo: Neil Schulman