Sunday, December 1, 2013

Salmon River to the Pacific

Salmon River to the Pacific

November 24, 2013

It turns out that it is possible to have a day that is too beautiful; too perfect; too seductive. A day that has a sun so bright and warm and an ocean so seemingly placid and inviting that it lures you right out into the world at large; lures you beyond your depth. This is a tale of such a day. So, join the Action Adventure Team as we explore the beautiful deadly wonder that is the Pacific Ocean..... IF YOU DARE.

View Salmon River and Surf Day in a larger map

I figure that introduction scared off all of the casual blog readers. Now you, my loyal and brave readers, can continue on in relative peace and quiet.

It REALLY was a beautiful day. The weather man was predicting sunny, 50, and 3-5 mph wind on the beach at the mouth of the Salmon River in Otis, Oregon. And wave height of 1-3 feet. That is nothing. That is much smaller than the waves we have practiced in during previous outings. This could be fun. I told my Partner that. I told her that I knew that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah was coming up this week and I knew we both had lots of house work and such to do..... but this River is a really great place to kayak and the weather was shaping up for a once in a year timing. If we went, she would not regret it.

So. 2 hour drive. Get up, pack the car, head out by 8:30 on the road to the coast.

OK, there are a lot of roads to the coast. You can drive down the Columbia River on route 30 to Astoria (slow and scenic. Lots of views of failed lumber towns). You can take route 26 to the coast near Seaside (fastest route through the mountains, except that everyone goes that way so it backs up on busy weekends). You can take route 8 down the Wilson river to Tillamook (very beautiful with great mountains and waterfalls). Or you can do route 18 to Otis (right past the Indian Casino). Since 18 parallels the Salmon river, that was the way for us today. We got to see the artsy section of wine country and the federal penitentiary. Down where the Salmon is turning into estuary there are a lot of fishing shack communities and such.

Because logging is good

My Partner desperately wants this car

We are headed to Knight County Park. This is a little boat ramp and parking area about a mile from the mouth of the Salmon. There are a number of Kayak Portland Meetup members paddling today. Half of us are heading down river to play in the surf at the mouth and the other half are heading up river to explore the estuary and enjoy the sunshine. My partner and I are going to try out the surf.


Sure, the surf. We have been practicing, after all, and the surf is supposed to be very low today. Should be fun. And we have picnic stuff and I brought my stick stove to cook some soup and tea. It will be fun. Our plan is to paddle to the beach at the mouth of the river, unburden our boats of the picnic stuff and such and then head out to test the surf. People are arriving in waves at the little landing, so you pretty much have to put your boat in the water and launch and get out of the way. We hear that one of the lead (i.e. best) kayak surfers has already headed to the beach, so we head that way also.

That last mile of the Salmon is a wonderful little area. To the south are river deposited sand dunes and low scrub woods. To the north (on our right) are sharply rising cliffs. These cliffs run west right past the mouth of the river and out a half mile into the ocean. Back along the river, where we are paddling, are a lot of very nice beach houses. They sit on the cliffs overlooking the river and point their big windows south across the dunes.

The river runs pretty straight from Knight Park toward the ocean. In the last 200 feet, it hits the cliffs and takes a strong turn left. Right at that turn is usually where you hit waves that are coming up the last part of the river from the ocean. The last time I was out here, when the tide changed, it was a little challenging (well, for 1 year ago me) to be in that part of the river, because of the swell and occasional small breaker riding up the channel. Not today. Today there is nothing at all riding up the river. The ocean doesn't exactly look like glass, but it looks pretty darn flat. Some small breakers that give some white water and then go back smooth again. More breakers off down the beach. Looks like the point that defines the little cove at the river mouth is protecting the entire area today. Cool. Let's get going. We beach in the soft sand at the mouth of the salmon and pop our hatches and drag our stuff up the beach to the little stack of picnic supplies left by other people. We are also leaving most of our solo person rescue gear. No reason to bring a paddle float or pump out in the ocean today. If one of us gets in trouble, the other one can empty their boat out. We practice that. And if you do flip over in the waves, you don't want a bunch of stuff on your deck or rolling around in your water tight compartments. So.
Time to go.


This is where the story should, by all rights, diverge into two seperate points of view. Because I found out later that I was thinking, “Oh, cool, Bill is out there in the ocean, we can go right out there and have some fun.” and my partner was thinking, “What in the hell is he doing? Does he see these waves? Does he think these will be easy to come back in through?”. The answer is: No, clearly, I was not thinking.

So out through the waves I paddled, my partner courageously (and against her better judgement) following. Action Adventure Team....... Ho !!


So, here is the story, going out through 3-5 foot waves isn't all that hard. Just point you bow pretty much right into the wave and paddle to get some speed and brace yourself right through it. The wave will break over you and you will get wet and cold, but your skirt will keep your boat from flooding and your dry suit will keep you from getting wet and freezing to death. So.... no big deal. Now coming back into short with 3-5 foot waves.......... well. We will get to that later.

For now, we were out through the breakers and into deep blue water and it is fraking gorgeous!! The sun is shining and warm, the ocean is lumpy enough to be a little exciting without feeling like we were all going to die, and there were..... things to explore. We were told there was a sea cave off on the cliffs to the north. Even as we watch, a couple of kayaks come floating out of a hole in the rock facing. Cool!!

A couple of Kayak Portland members paddled toward us. We swapped names and general experience levels (“I do this all the time” and “First time out in the ocean”). Okay. Now 4 people strong. We are a pod. We can go on an adventure. First, around the largish rocks sticking up in the middle of the cove.

Editor's note: My memory is a bit different.  The waves were 1-3 feet, more 1-2 with a few 3' breakers.    No big worry for paddling out, looked like fun (although, a 3' breaker is over my head when I'm sitting in my boat).  Once we were through the breakers and into the swells on the other side, I starting feeling uncomfortable.  Where was Bill?  Who's leading this adventure?  Jon and I usually paddle places where one of us has more experience than the other, but we were both on the ocean for the first time.  We met up with another two paddlers, and I thought "Oh good, here is D_ and her friend, they'll take the lead"  I asked D_ who her friend was, and she replied that she couldn't remember his name, she'd just met him.  T_ told us it was his first time on the ocean also!  My unease grew.

There are 3 of them. The parts sticking up above the ocean are about the size of Portland City Hall. They may be made of the same stone. We come toward them from the backside (the ocean side). We are in deep water so the swells, as they hit us, are very long and rolling and we don't notice this much. When the swells get to the rocks, they aren't exactly breaking on them, but the level of the ocean is rising 5 or 6 feet and there is a lot of swirling and sloshing going on around them rocks. Swirling and sloshing can be frightening in a kayak as the kayak would tend to swirl and slosh as well. Between the 2 northern most rocks is a large channel that....... hey........ the swell just passed and that channel isn't a channel. It is a bunch more rocks!!  If we had been over that when the water went down it would not have been fun for the kayak. Oh dear. But there is still some open water off to one side. So a smallish channel; with some swirl. One of our pod (“I do this all the time” girl) leads off through this maelstrom. My partner and I follow. I think you just have be aware of what the water is going to look like at both the top and bottom of the wave pattern. And steer for the most open and gentle water. My partner and I are a little concerned about this whole thing. But the first two made it..... so...….


I went through first. It doesn't pay to be too timid when you are paddling, you have more stability when you are moving. For one thing, when you are moving you can plant your paddle in the current and lean into it and it will push back on you. Can't do that so much when you are still. But you don't want to get going to fast, because then you can't stop when that damn rock rises out of the depths. So. A gingerly pace is set. The water and foam and bubbles swirl around us and we go through and clear the rocks with alacrity.

I have been waiting 50 years to use the work alacrity in a sentence. I learned the word originally as a consequence of the US Navy's habit of naming the ships in a squadron around a central theme. When I was 8 my Father was the Commanding Officer of a MSO (Mine Sweeper: Ocean) out of Norfolk. There were 4 ships in the squadron. His was the Direct (MSO 430). The other vessels were. Hmmm. My memory suddenly failed me. The internet also failed me. Drat. Direct, Dash, Alacrity, and something. Anyway..... Alacrity !!

Sorry, we were just barely surviving our trip around the big rocks. We did pause right about now to whip out the cameras and take some pictures.

Now we were off in front of the rocks. We could see the beach and the surf. We could see that the waves and such seemed to be picking up a little bit. The white along the beach was increasing. This is where my partner was thinking, “That is going to be harder to get back in than it was coming out”. I was thinking “Hey, I really want to go look into that sea cave” and “Is this too obvious a use of foreshadowing?”.

We paddled over to the base of the cliffs near the sea caves. These cliffs are formed by one of the many rocky spurs that forge their way out into the cold Pacific along the Oregon coast. This one is made of mostly light colored stone and runs pretty much straight up for 200 feet. Along the base are several cracks and such, one of which has developed into a substantial cave. Well, at least a substantial crease. This one was 15 to 20 feet wide (at the water) and arched up maybe 40 feet over our head. The sun was positioned such that it was streaming into the gaping opening and so lit the cave perhaps 60 feet into the side of the cliff. With this lighting you could also see how clear and blue the ocean was today. I could see a good 30 feet down in to the brightly lit blue beneath my Kayak.

“Cool,” I said. “Let's go in.”
“Is there enough room for 2?” my partner asked.
“Ok,” I said, still not hearing her trepedation, “I will go in and you can take my picture. That will be good blogging photographs”.

So she unlimbered the waterproof (which I had handed to her earlier) and took some shots. Her intention was to stay out of the damn cave, what with the swells rolling in and probably smashing unsuspecting kayakers on the cave ceiling. Then she decided, “But what if Jon goes back into the darkness where I can't see him and he flips over and hits his head, all that will come floating out is his Kayak.” so she followed me in.

Note:  I really don't like caves.  I mean, they are exciting in that "oh man, this is scary" kinda way, where you get to work on controlling your fear.  I also don't like being near stationary objects when the water is moving.   Pylons, rocks, things like that.  I don't want to be in a position where my boat is being pushed against something and I can't get free.  And the big swells moving in and out of that cave made me uncomfortable, so staying outside and taking pictures seemed like just the thing to do, until I realized he was going to move beyond my line of sight.  "Oh crap, better get moving so I can keep an eye on my Partner!"

Silly woman, I am wearing my Rock Climbing Helmet and and PFD!! I probably wouldn't be knocked unconcious and even if I was, my body would come floating out with the kayak. Ha ha ha, I am so droll. In reality there was swell, but really not much current in the cave. My kayak and body would have stayed inside until the falling tide.

But. She follows. I, on the other hand, had reached the limit of the sunlight and could see just far enough into the inky darkness to realize that I was at the last place where the cavern was wide enough to turn my 15.5 foot sea kayak around and thus egress. (well, I could egress backwards, but not with alacrity).

So I was doing my turn-in-place stroke. This is where you paddle backwards on the port, and then forward on the starboard (well, if you are doing a left turn). It was a little harder to do in here then out in the open because my space was limited, I kept bumping into the shear rock walls (well, shear and barnacled) and then there was this swell thing that kept me going up and down a few feet at a time. Anyway, I guess I thought I was more stabile than I actually was because at halfway through my turn, just when I was broadside to the incoming swell, I lost it and flipped over upside down.

Yes, I know. Bad timing. And believe me that I felt deeply embarrassed as I hung upside down in the freezing ocean, water shimmered light patterns playing on the barnacel encrusted cavern walls as they decided whether or not to crush the life out of me, and I thought, “Hmm. So. What is the right thing to be doing in a case like this?” My Partner is watching, so, clearly, panicking would not be appropriate to my stud-like manly persona. I decided to hang out in the cheery setting and call for a bow rescue.

You remember Bow Rescues, don't you? We have been practicing them. A bow rescue is for someone that is pretty good in a kayak and can feel safe upside down but doesn't yet know how to do a complete roll. I like to call it the maneuver for someone that has a solid half-roll. Oh, you also have to be able to hold your breath for awhile. I was taught this procedure by a nice young woman from Portland Kayak during an edging class. It was hot and I needed to cool off and she said “You need to learn to do a bow rescue”. She was right. And it only took like 10 minutes to teach me.

A bow rescue goes like this:
1) Person (soon to be) in need of rescue flips over.
2) Person in need of rescue doesn't panic and doesn't bail out of the boat. Instead, you grip the inside of the boat with your knees (to hold you in) and you put your head on your lap and reach your hands around the bottom of the boat (which is now above you) and slap 3 times on the bottom.
3) 3 times. Not 2 times. 2 times means you are going to bail out. 3 times. 4 times is right out.
4) Now you run your hands slowly up and down both sides of the boat. You are scanning. When you feel the rescue start to happen, you will be ready.
5) Your partner now has to do something. She (or perhaps the occasional he) as to come into your boat and nudge against you. Ideally this nudge would happen at about a 90 degree angle to your boat, but it really doesn't matter that much.
6) Your scanning hands will find the bow of your partners boat and then you use that to lever yourself and flip yourself back upright. Your boat will be un-flooded because the skirt you are wearing kept the water out.
7) Easy Peasy !!


Your partner was hanging back a ways because she wanted NOTHING TO DO WITH THAT FRAKING CAVE. In which case, when she sees you flip over, she is thinking. Oh no no no Jon. You didn't do that. You didn't flip over. Now when you bail how in the hell are we going to..... wait..... no.... no he isn't....... he isn't..... he is.... that bastard is calling bow rescue. Dammit dammit dammit. I am too far away. Paddle Paddle Paddle. Fraking Cave. Fraking Jon. Fraking..... oh going too fast, back paddle, and SHIT. I ran him over. I am to high on the bottom of his boat. His hands can't find me. Am I going to flip? No..... I have to back off some so he can find me.

Meanwhile. Deep under the surface of the water and upside down, Jon is just having a wonderful time. Cold though. I have my hands scanning. I can see pretty well. But I can't see my partner or the shadow of her boat. But I know she is going to be coming. Where is she? I am scanning but I don't feel anything. I think I feel a bump, but that could have been my boat hitting the cave wall. Usually I would be able to hear her boat hit mine (yes, we practice) but there is a LOT of noise underwater in that cave. So I can't hear her. I can't see her. I feel something and lunge for it. But I think it was just my paddle. Shit. Out of air. I try for a breath of air without bailing, you are supposed to be able to do that, but I didn't get any air and that just put me in a worse oxygen situation. So kicked my skirt off and tumbled upside down out of the boat.

I did manage to come to the surface without sputtering too much. And there was my partner. Looking very concerned.

“Are you OK?”
“I am OK. I am fine.”
I start to move toward the bow of her boat so she can empty my boat. It is gonna be a little crowded when she crosses the T, but she can do it. She is good.

“I don't think I can do this, Jon.”

Shit. “Sure you can. You can do it. You have plenty of room. I have your bow”

“We will hit the cave walls”

“I will fend. It isn't that bad. You can do it.”

And she could, you know. She grabbed the bow of my boat and pulled it upside down over the top of her boat and let the water run out of the boat. Then she flipped it over and pulled the boats together and braced my boat.

“How we gonna do this?” she asked.

“Just like we practiced,” I said. And I kicked my feet off behind me, pushed off the cave wall and came up over my stern. Just like we practiced. Well, except for the kicking off of the cave wall part. But I scooted right into my seat and latched up my skirt. Easy Peasy. Hey, I was even facing the right way for egress. And so I did. With Alacrity.

Note:  There really wasn't much room in the damn cave.  And the swells were moving us up and down a good 3 feet.  I REALLY didn't want us both in the water, and didn't want to be in the cave at all.  So to let go of my only defense against capsize (my paddle) to pull his boat over mine and dump it was not my happiest moment.  But he was right, it worked out just fine.  Jon was quickly back in his empty boat, and pointed out instead of in.  I, of course, was still pointed in, in my 17' boat.  Having just watched him capsize after attempting to turn around, I wasn't about to do that.  So I back paddled out the length of the cave.

Then I remembered that my poor partner has a 1.5 foot longer boat. And still had to turn around. So I stopped and waited for her.

Once back out in the sunshine and away from the sea tomb we caught our breath. I got yelled at a little bit and I spent some time telling her how wonderful she is.

Then we started looking at the beach. The waves seem to have gotten even higher than before. We watch one person making his way in and saw a wave come up behind him and roll him. Bill, the wave guy, came out through the surf and met us. He said he had been towing lots of people in. My partner didn't like this. She was worried about me. She got her tow rope out of her day hatch and put it on. We started in.

Our plan was to make our way in to just before the breakers and then hang out for a little while and wait for a relatively calm time. Then we would windmill for all we were worth and race the next set in to shore. Sounds pretty good, huh? Especially since we can spend a lot of time just waiting. Resting. Preparing ourselves. I was reminding myself what I was going to be doing once a wave caught up to me. My Partner wanted to know who was going to lead. “Neither of us is going to lead”, I replied, “I want you off to the side of me so we don't have to worry about running each other over”. At least I thought this sounded good.

So we bobbed in the water, maybe 50 feet beyond the breakers. Things didn't look that bad. I was thinking about making a break for it.

This is when my partner yelled, “FUCK”.

I turned toward here. It turns out that “FUCK” in this context means, “Really Big Wave Breaking Right Behind Us”. And, it also turns out, that when a Really Big Wave is Breaking Right Behind You, the last thing you want to do is turn and look at it. What you want to do is paddle like hell and get ready for it. My partner proceeded to do this. I did too, but perhaps a bit too late. The wave caught me and took me, it pushed my stern up high and my bow down low. Then it slewed me to the left. This is when I am supposed to lean hard left and low brace and ride the damn wave. Instead I tried to stay balanced and the damn wave rolled my sorry ass over in the white foam. I almost rolled all the way over. That would have been a coup. Instead.... I was upside down again. This time with no partner nearby and another big wave in the set sure to be coming. So for the second time in 30 minutes, I bailed out of my kayak into the cold ocean. This is getting tiresome.

Wow. That was a big wave. For the day. And I am really far out here. I can't touch bottom. Usually when we surf we can always touch bottom. Swimming in a dry suit and booties is just like swimming in clothing and shoes. That is, it isn't much like swimming at all. I hung on to my boat and my paddle and tried to keep my flooded boat pointed toward the shore. Every 20 seconds or so another wave would break over me. Then, there was my Partner. She had not only stayed upright but she had turned around and come back for me. She is SO COOL.

“What can I do?” she asked.

“Nothing I can think of,” I said, “I will just have to kick my way to shore. The waves should take me in eventually”.

Note:  That big breaker really caught us from behind, it was maybe 4'.  I didn't paddle at all but just braced and let it side surf me in for awhile until I could get off it, then circled back around to find Jon in the water.  He decided to stay with his boat and let the waves carry him into shore.  So we hung out for about 10 minutes, big breakers (2-4') coming in sets.  I'd get surfed a bit and circle back, but he wasn't getting any closer to shore.  And he'd been in the cold ocean water for about 10 minutes now, for the second time in the past hour.  I was starting to get worried.

“I will tow you,” she said.

Well. That just seemed to me like a good way for her to swamp too. But she sort of does her own thing, especcially when I am in no position to argue. She pulled the snap link end of her tow rope out and attached it to my bow safety line, and then she went on ahead and proceeded to tow me. But the snap just came right off of the line the first time she took up slack. Another wave broke over me and she had to circle around and come back.

“I can't attach it and stay upright at the same time,” she said. now I was really worried we'd both end up in the surf, and I was starting to get tired.

“Throw it to me, I will attach it”.

She threw the end. I fished it out of the water and worked my way forward and snapped the carbiner onto my hard attach link on the bow. It sure wasn't going to come off now.

Once again my partner started to tow me. We were making a little bit of leeway.  I looked back. FUCK, another big wave. I warned her, “FUCK, another big wave !!”


The wave broke over me and pushed me toward her, putting a bunch of slack in the tow line. Then the wave hit her and she took off. I didn't like this. When the slack is out of the line it is going to snatch her right out of her boat and into the water. TWANG. It snatched her. But not out of her boat. In fact, it snatched her out of the wave. She was towing again. Another Wave. Another Snatch. And Then. And then. I hit bottom with my feet.

“I am walking”, I yelled. “I am good. Let loose the tow.”

...walking?  we're still way out there, and the towing is going fine, and the waves are still breaking around us.  Actually it's easier to stay upright when I tow, because I get pulled right back over the top of the waves instead of having to surf them to keep my boat upright.  Jon calls a few more times, a few more waves, before I decide to set him free and head for the beach.  Then I can't figure out how to do it, and finally remember to just release my belt and leave the line and belt in the water attached to his boat.

She hit the quick release on her belt and it came off into the surf. I was still getting hit by waves, but I had my feet under me and was moving steadily toward shore. Even better, two of our friends from the club had walked out through the surf to meet us and they were now helping me with the boat. My partner was tired, she took her boat into the beach.

Where is all of the big surf? Gone for the photograph? 

I joined her there in another 10 minutes.

“OK,” I said. “That is 2 that I owe you”.

We pulled up on the beach and walked over to where the club had gathered to make lunch. The sun was warm, which was good as I was rather cold from my 30 some minutes in the breakers. I was a little wet also, a dry suit isn't perfect and mine leaks a bit at the neck. I was looking forward to lighting up my stove and making some soup and hot tea. Now where was my stove? Where was my bag of stuff? Where was my wallet and phone and car keys? Holy shit, someone had stolen all of my stuff !!



I walked back over to my boat and popped the stern hatch. There was the blue bag that I had forgotten to take out and leave on the beach, “cause you don't want a bunch of stuff in your boat when you get flipped in the surf”. Dammit. So all of my heavy valuable stuff was in my boat the entire time. Sure am glad my water tight compartments are watertight. But that could not have helped my stability. Not one bit. This just hasn't been my day, kayak upright wise.

...thus his new club nickname, Upside Down Jon.

I went back over to the gang and fessed up to my latest mistake. Then I started lunch. I went and gathered sticks for my stick stove. A stick stove is a little wood smoke stove. You can make one from an old paint can, or you can do what I did and buy one from Amazon for $50. Want to read my review?

Anyway, you put a bunch of finger size sticks in the can and they burn up real nice and you put your little kettle on top and you boil a liter of water. The little beach wind was great for the fire, it flared up real nice and quick. I like the idea of this stove as a hiking stove. It is a bit heavy, but you don't have to carry fuel and you can find an hours worth of sticks just about anywhere doing a 5 minute hunt. The trick is, you have to keep feeding sticks into the thing all of the time. Like one stick every 2 minutes or so. If you walk away for 10 minutes, the fire will be out. So, I laid there in the sand and boiled water for my Partner's Ramen Noodles.

Bill had dug a hole and added charcoal and some of the others were roasting hot dogs and such a little ways away. It turns out that grilling on the beach is great if you like sand in your dogs. We had to wait about 10 minutes, but it was pleasant enough in the sun. Sure felt a lot warmer than the 51 degrees the weather man had been talking about.

After our lunch I decided that I needed to try the waves one more time (this time in the shallows where I could rescue myself) but the surf had gone down so much that my partner and I just couldn't find a wave to side surf in. The good news is that I didn't get rolled again.

...into the water, again?  He wants to go back into the ocean and play in the surf?  My first thought is a memory of how hard I was trying to stay out of the water, to not get capsized, accompanied by some fear.  So I decided to get into the water first, which is how we learned to surf in our first lesson.  Get into the waves, get over the idea that you're not going to be in them, and just have fun dumping your boat.  And Jon is right, we struggled to find any waves to surf that second outing.  But I got over being worried about staying in my boat and had some fun in the now tiny waves.

Cool, Clear, Water.
Boats? We don't need no stinking boats!

Kayak Portland organizer Julie took these pictures of us. And they show some actual waves!!

And the sun was starting to sink down. It gets dark really early here in the Pacific Northwest in the winter. 4:00 and we were losing our light. Time to pack up and head back up river to the car. We still have car packing and a drive home to do.

But oh.... what a great adventure!!