Sunday, September 11, 2016

River Changes: Willamette River Summer 2016

River Changes

My Kayak Partner and I have done several floats down the Willamette now, but we have focused on this one section from Mission Park (Wheatland Ferry) to San Salvador Park (in St. Paul). We like it a lot because:

A) There is no public access between the 2 points, so river traffic is sparse.
B) On account of (A) there is little Human Noise coming from the surrounding environs.
C) Quite a few un-owned islands (that it is legal to camp on).
D) Lots of Agates !! (Oh My).
E) Close to Portland (our home).

I am sure there are lots of stretches like this further up river, and we intend to travel them some day, but for now this stretch close to home is great for a quick weekend overnight getaway. Which is what we are doing today.

Our plan is to launch around noon and do a casual rock hunt float down the river till we get to this one certain island that we have seen on previous explorations. Usually we get to this island around 2:00 or 3:00, and since it is 2-3 hours away from the take out, we never get to hunt for agates there when the sun is low in the sky. To us, this means that we have never really gotten a good chance to do adequate rock hunting on this island. The best rock hunting happens when the sun is bright and slanty. That lets the sun come down and shine through the agates and light them up for you. You walk away from the sun to the end of the rocks and then turn and hunt sunward. Sometimes you can see a really big guy just shining up there 30 feet away. Of course, other times that great find is right at your feet and the sun doesn’t quite hit it until you are right on top of it. Either way, the sun at an angle really changes the nature of the hunting.  So, how are we going to get good slanty sun on this island? We are going to camp on it. That will give us evening sun and morning sun!! We can hunt from both directions and have a nice camp out in between.

The first time that we did a camp out trip down this stretch it was Mother’s Day 2015. There had been a lot of rain over the winter, the river was still pretty high, the air was very hot (90) and the water was very cold (17). (Ok, I have no idea. But SHOCKINGLY COLD). We found this island (which I see from the map is called ‘Lambert Bar’) and searched for rocks up on it. The sun wasn’t very good for hunting, but I did find a good agate right on the beach. We hunted inland and there was good sized rock everywhere. But we didn’t find many agates. There also wasn’t much vegetation. Everything was scoured by the river and the thing really looked more like a rock Bar instead of an Island.

Well, on today we went around to the back side of the Bar where there is little grove of trees (Aspen? Alder?) and pulled in right where a nice 10 foot bluff hits the river. I think this is the more or less permanent (not washed away most winters) part of the island (mind you, the trees are younger than 20 years old). We found a place to put our tent and set it up to mark our spot and then we headed out to find the rocks. This was a bit harder than I thought it was going to be. There was a lot of vegetation. A lot of a short local grass, and lots of Himalayan Blackberry. It was an interesting place to find blackberry. Hard to make a living out on that island, I guess. Instead of the usual massive and impassible jumble of blackberry that you find in other places, this tended to be single plants coming up out of the rocks (or sand) and trying to spread out. I am sure that given a few years these plants would grow into that impenetration, but they aren’t going to get that much time. The river is going to rise up and have its way with those blackberries and everything else on that island. Because that island isn’t an island, it is a rock bar right at a turn in the river where two branches of the Willamette hit with massive flood force during the winter storms and scour that sucker clean. The water hits the rocks so hard that it aligns them. It pushes them and sculpts them until the very ground is an artwork of natural shapes, colors, and textures. I was telling my partner that I wish I could make a pattern like that in a feature in my back yard. She suggested that the neighbors might object to the amount of water flow I would have to direct at their yard. True that.

But that high flooding is in the winter. The river would be up 10 feet from its current level, the current would be massive and filled with trees and bushes and what not. And no matter how hard you looked. Now matter what equipment you brought to bear, you still wouldn’t see me out there. Cause I would be at home watching “Game of Thrones” reruns.

But right now, at High Summer? The air is hot, the water is chill and slow, and I am all over that puppy. Adventure is my middle name!!

It is a bit deceptive to have a “favorite” spot on the river. Things really change around from year to year. On Candiana Bar we had this nice huge log that was way up on the smooth rocky beach. We used it for a lunch spot and a trail marker. “Hey, meet us at the big log on Candiana Bar, we will have lunch”. It would have taken a HUGE bulldozer to move it. 3 feet in diameter. 40 feet long. a couple of tons. It is gone. Without a trace.

There was this rock bar down stream from Lambert Bar, the one that we beached on last year.
And we jumped into the swift river flow from the top of the bar, and went laughing downstream until we were swept back to the boats at the bottom. That bar is gone. There is a new and different bar about 100 feet upstream, but that other one is gone.

And this one other place where there are these big cliffs. Big silt cliffs, maybe 50 feet high, with Alders growing tall on the steep slopes. They collapsed. Still 50 foot cliffs there, but a big slide of dirt and Alders into the river. And that house up at the top is MUCH closer to the view than last year.

So.. Changes by year.

When you go out in the spring, the river is high, swift, and cold. Oh So Cold. This is the kind of cold that kills someone every year in Oregon. They go out to some swimming hole they have read about on the first 80 degree day of the spring and they jump off the cliff and go from the gorgeous 85 degree sunlight into the 40 degree water. And they just fracking die of shock. Really. Let me go find a recent one in the Oregonian for you. There.

In the Winter, in really high, swift water, you don’t go hunting Agates. The Agates and their associated rock bars are all underwater. Under deep cold swift moving water. The kind of water that scours away the sand, dirt and vegetable matter and stirs the hell out of the ancient stones. So when the spring comes, and the water recedes enough to expose the rocks, everything exposed is fresh, new and clean. New rocks pushed up from where they have hidden on the river bottom for thousands of years, and all of the old grass and bushes torn and and tossed aside.  A great time to go agate hunting, though the islands and rock bars a small.

Then, in summer, the water warms and the flow slows and the river exposes more of the islands and shores.  The early summer just seems like a time of more rock beds. You can go back to the same bar you searched a month ago and find 10 more feet of shoreline to peruse. But as the summer wears on, and the water warms more and recedes more, the exposed stone takes on a different appearance. The river now has a lot of green scum growing in it. The water receding is now exposing things very slowly. so slowly that the scum doesn’t wash off of the rocks before it dries out. This makes it very hard to see the agates you are search for. In some places, the scum is so thick that when it dries it is like a layer of cardboard has been placed over the rocks. (see the picture).

Scum Paper

Then, further away from shore, in the middle of your huge rock bar that you had search just last month, there are now plants. Grasses and small bushes have given way to head tall barriers. They don’t just block your view of the rocks, they block your way as you try to bushwhack into the interior of your favorite islands. And blackberry has taken root. Blackberry plants that are loners, looking like they have grown from a single cast aside seed, feet away from their brothers. This is what you think most plants would look like their first season. In the city, you don’t see things like this because all of the plants are on their 10th season and just slowly increase their domain by runners coming out from the Mother Mass. But here, the single plants can be seen. No mother mass because the inundation of the winter will reset the island to its pristine splendor come December.

Changes by Season.

So our island is about halfway down a long day agate hunt run of the river. On our previous excursions we have gotten here around high noon and have not had much luck with agates even though the rocks beds are extensive and beautiful and Agates just HAVE TO BE THERE.
It is the sunlight, of course. When you hunt at high sun, you don’t have the angle of the sunlight working for you. You can’t cast up sun looking for the wonderful orange glow of your much sought Carnelian as it glints in the loving, setting sun.

And so, we planned our trip such that we would camp on the island. No need to hurry down to the take out to get to our car before dark. We would have plenty of time.
Good thing, cause it is a big Rock Bar.

We got to the island around 3:00. Sunset is around 9:00. We would also be there in the morning. We got to work.

We pulled our boats out on the back side of the island. There is an area of relatively high land that hasn’t been washed away in a decade or so. There are some Alders and other brush and some places that even have enough dirt to set up a tent. We set up our little REI half dome in a clump of grass and head out through the thicket toward the open rock to hunt. I was a little concerned about our tent. I had neglected to tack it down or put anything heavy in it and the wind was blowing up a little. But the stones were calling. My partner and I trusted to fate.

The bar we are on runs pretty much east-west (the river is making a hard turn there, which is what makes the bar) so we headed to the east end of the island, near some huge logs that had been washed up, perhaps last winter. Then we hunted into the sun. It was slow going at first. It takes a while to get your agate eyes tuned up. But we were still pulling in a nice selection of medium and medium-large stones. Say the size of golf balls.  My partner really wanted to hunt the far upstream shoreline. We couldn’t find a way to get there without tracking through the river or through a rather scummy pond. But she was very determined and so lead us on a little bushwhacking adventure through the very dense vegetation that has established itself on the up-river edge of the bar. It isn’t too hard to push your way through the shrubs there.  We were in shorts and we did have to avoid the occasional blackberry.  We finally whacked our way back to the river bank at the very end of the bar. While standing there and congratulating ourselves on our jungle adventure (we do so enjoy each other), I saw it. Sitting there as pretty as you could ask in the only slightly slanting sun. All lit up and beautiful; the biggest agate either of us had ever found. Perhaps the biggest we have ever seen.  And we never would have found it if my partner hadn’t been feeling adventurous.

Out in the middle of the bar

The Big One (in my backyard, after I washed it up some)

We hunted around some more, but the day was making and I really wanted to get back to the campsite. We had dinner to cook and a fire to build and stuff like that. We didn’t really want to bushwhack back the way we had come. I mean, once we walked around the tip we were only like 100 feet from the tree’s where we knew our campsite to be. We could see the trees. We just couldn’t quite get there. We could have swum. Would only have been like a one minute float. But, dammit, we had these 20 pounds of rocks and just didn’t want to get all that wet.

There is an Agate in the Sunshine!!

So we took off back through the brush. The brush on this side of the island was much more jungle like. 10 feet high shrubbery with finger size sticks, all interwoven with some vine, probably morning glory (that tree killing bitch). There was also some long bladed grass growing low to the ground that really surprised us. The long flat blades of the grass would hit your shins… and like. stick. I mean, really stick. Such that when you pulled away it pulled some of your skin with it. We both ended up with these long skinny welts all over our legs. But our direction was true and the distance was small and soon enough we came out in the clearing on the hillock right next to our camp. And there was our tent. What??? our tent was upside down and 40 feet downwind from where I had put it. It had gotten tangled up in some blackberry. Good thing too. Or we would have been sleeping out under the stars with our tent downriver someplace laughing at us.

Tent is supposed to be here. But it is over there. In the Blackberry

The next morning, we were out as soon as the morning cloud cleared. We were hunting again. This time starting on the up river end of the rocks and hunting toward the NorthEast into the rising sun. Each time seeing the island and river in ….. a new light.

Changes by Day.

I guess this is why I enjoy going back to a place over and over again throughout the years. Hiking or Kayaking. Different weather, Different Seasons, Different Plants, Different Views. Different Flowers and Different rocks. The same place, but new and different with the changing times. An old friend, but a new discovery.


  1. Hi there, apologies if this is a double post - not sure if my original comment went through. We are fellow rock hunters but typically cruise different stretches of the Willamette (and Santiam!) and I came across your blog while looking for info on San Salvador Park. Would love to email chat with you about access/safety/etc. sometime, and maybe share some favorite spots? We have found some beauties out there, including something a paleontologist friend said was an agatized piece of an ancient horse leg bone! Anyway, please get in touch if you have some time to talk rocks. Thanks, Melissa

  2. Hey there. I think this is the first time we have seen your post. Be happy to give any advice or ideas we have.
    San Salvador is a strange place. I think it is an OK place to leave a car for a night, but the park itself has been kinda weird this summer. Not sure what happened, perhaps some people moved in and just stayed camping there. it is Much Much dirtier than it has been in the past. Lots of trash and human waste. Not sure if there is budget to clean it up. What we usually do is leave a car there, but just for the day, and then either do a one day paddle down from Wheatland Ferry or paddle up stream ( a hard half mile) to canadiana bar. In the former case, of course, you need two cars. In the later, you have to feel good about a couple of hard upstream ferry crossings.

  3. Thanks that is exactly what my questions were about. Seems like y'all use that spot a lot, but I have heard it can be . . . unsavory, and risky to leave a vehicle there overnight. That makes me a little sad - would rather spend extra time rock hunting than paddling the extra miles to the next take out. That said, better to take the extra time than come back to a smashed window. :-\

    That half mile upstream paddle sounds hard! We're lazy canoe-ists, so prefer the downstream float-n-fish, but it's good to hear it can be done.

    When you get a free day, check out the big gravel island about a half mile downstream from Jefferson on the Santiam. We typically make that a day trip (especially earlier in the summer when water levels are just dropping), though we have camped there also, and take out at the I-5 bridge rest stop. Not much time on the water, but lots of time can be had looking for rocks and fossils.

    Happy hunting and thanks again for the info!